Laughter is Good Medicine!

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    I have probably laughed more in the past few days than I do in any given week. And, in case you are not sure…that is a LOT- I laugh pretty often! My older son was home for Thanksgiving. He was able to come home Tuesday evening, work from home on Wednesday and then have Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday off.

    That, for my family, is a HUGE gift! He is 27 years old and has, therefore, been “out of the house” for several years. And for many of those years, he has had very little time off, even at Thanksgiving. It has not been unusual that he comes home Wednesday night, celebrates Thanksgiving with us on Thursday and then has to leave Thursday evening because he has to work on Friday. So we GREATLY enjoyed the extra time!

    The truth of the matter is that we didn’t really do all that much that was so special. Wednesday afternoon, we did a decent amount of food prep for Thursday. Thursday, we finished the cooking…and did a lot of eating! Friday, my two sons, who are 12 years apart and REALLY enjoy being with each other, went to the movies. Saturday, we decorated the house for Christmas. And yesterday…we did church. No big shakes. And yet…it WAS big shakes! We talked. We laughed. We remembered. We ate together. We worshipped together. We just simply enjoyed each other’s company. And it was…GREAT!

    I know people…we ALL know people…who don’t seem to even LIKE their kids. It seems that the less time they can spend with them, the better. And I, for one, simply don’t have a gear to understand that. Not even a little bit. I LOVE my sons. But I also LIKE them. They are great fun to be around. And the only thing better than spending some time with them is spending MORE time with them! And it makes my heart sing when other people tell me they like my kids.

    The best thing we can do for our children and grandchildren (No, I don’t have any of those yet. But many of YOU do!) is to help them be decent, caring, loving, contributing members of society whom others actually enjoy being around. Isn’t that what WE want to be? Isn’t that what we want for our families? Imagine what the world would be like if we made that our goal!

    Thanks for stopping by- I pray you have a blessed day! Please make sure and come back again tomorrow, and stick with Jesus!

The Greatest Gift of All: The Opportunity

The Greatest Gift of All The Opportunity

    There is a comedian, Jon Reep, who says that you can say anything you want about anyone…as long as you follow it up with, “Bless your heart!” You know- “You are dumber than a bag of hammers…bless your heart!”

    Last Sunday afternoon, my wife and I drove from our home in northwestern Illinois to the St. Louis, MO area in anticipation of two days of medical tests and doctor’s visits to see how I am doing- 1½ years after having a golf ball-sized tumor removed from my head. Monday went swimmingly- a “perfect” (my blood work) and an “amazing” (my recovery from facial paralysis) from the oncologist and another “amazing” (again, the face) and a “normal” (how my inner ear looks) from the otolaryngologist- the ear, nose and throat doctor. It went swimmingly, that is, until about 3:30PM. That was when I got a call from my neurosurgeon’s office. I was due for a CT scan and an MRI Tuesday morning, followed by a visit with him to get the results of those tests- definitive proof as to whether or not the tumor is still gone. They called to tell me that my insurance company hadn’t yet approved the tests I was due to have in about 18 hours…bless their hearts! And at about 8:30 Tuesday morning, as we sat in the drive-thru at Hardee’s waiting for our coffee, I got the call- the tests were NOT going to happen! After a year wait and a 3½ hour…the tests were NOT going to happen! Not gonna lie- it was disappointing.

    BUT, in the midst of the frustration and disappointment, we got…The Opportunity. Monday evening, we found out that two of my mom’s 3 surviving sisters were in town and going to Steak n Shake for dinner. So we got to see them- we hadn’t seen them in a long time. Then, Tuesday, after our plans were…squashed…we spent the morning visiting my mom’s one surviving brother and his wife, whom we hadn’t seen for a long time. After lunch with my brother, we spent the afternoon visiting with a couple we have known…forever and haven’t seen in a LONG time. On the way home, I turned to my wife and I said, “Well, that was NOT the day I had planned. But apparently it WAS the day God had planned!” In the midst of uncertainty and difficulty, I was given…an opportunity. Sometimes, the best outcomes grow out of the most unlikely sources.

    Today is the first Sunday in Advent- the season leading up to Christmas. The word “Advent” comes from the Latin word “Adventus” and it literally means “coming” or “arrival.” So during the 4 weeks leading up to Christmas, we focus on the coming and then the arrival of Jesus- Emmanuel- God with us- The Greatest Gift of All. This year, we will walk the journey Mary and Joseph walked as they traveled to Bethlehem and drew closer and closer to the arrival of a baby in a manger Who would literally split time in half…and change the world.

    If you remember, Mary was visited by an angel who told her that not only was she pregnant- she was carrying God’s Son. And Joseph, who was about to quietly divorce Mary for being pregnant, was ALSO visited by an angel, who told him that everything would be OK. And then…we fast forward to the singular event that sets this whole “last act” in motion. Sometimes, the best outcomes grow out of the most unlikely sources.

    Luke 2:1-5 In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. It was the first time a list was made of the people while Quirinius was governor of Syria. And everyone went to his own town to register. So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child.

    A woman lost her purse in the bustle of Christmas shopping. It was found by an honest little boy who returned to her. She looked in her wallet and then said, “That’s funny. When I lost my purse, there was a $20 bill in it. Now there are twenty $1 bills.” The boy nodded and replied, “That’s right, lady. The last time I found a woman’s purse, she didn’t have any change for a reward!”

    So, let’s spend a few moments on the “back story” to this pilgrimage to Bethlehem. You’ve got two major players mentioned in this passage- King Herod the Great and Quirinius. Let’s see who they are and how they fit in.

    In 63 BC, the Roman general Pompey sacked Jerusalem- the famed and fabled city was now under complete Roman rule. By the time the 1st century BC was drawing closer to the end, the Romans had placed the area under the control of King Herod the Great. It’s important to understand that, as powerful as Herod was, he was still what’s known as a client king- a puppet of the Roman Empire. He was, fully and clearly, under Roman rule and was therefore completely subject to orders from Rome…including the ordering of a census. So Herod the Great could be relied on by Rome to serve their interests. Sometimes, the best outcomes grow out of the most unlikely sources.

    That’s Herod the Great. Then we have Quirinius. In some translations, Luke 2:2, which is the information about Quirinius, is in parentheses and is presented as not being important at all. Who was he? Quirinius was the governor of Roman Syria, appointed to that position because he had distinguished himself well as a soldier in Roman-held North Africa. Then, in 12 BC, he was made Consul of Judea and was sent there to, among other things, to carry out a census for tax purposes.

    Census-taking was quite common in the Ancient Near Eastern world- they seem to have taken place every fourteen years. The date of this specific taxation recounted by Luke could well have been in 5BC, which is one of the reasons that many scholars think that Jesus was actually born a few years before the spot where we see the split between BC and AD. This census was carried out using the Jewish method- each going to their own city- rather than the Roman method. This would have been to try and placate the locals who were under Roman rule- to help maintain order.

    In these 5 short verses, Luke established some very important points.

1. He helps us understand the political situation of the time and place- why Jesus’ birth took place in Bethlehem.

2. He let’s us know for sure that Bethlehem was the town of David- supporting Jesus’ claim of being the Messiah. And

3. he establishes the humble circumstances of Jesus’ birth.

    So this is a story about a couple being forced to travel for three days, WHILE the woman is “great with child”, in order to satisfy the whims of a powerful empire and their despotic local ruler. A simple Galilean peasant travels to Bethlehem at the decree of the Roman emperor. Easy, peasy, one, two, threesy.

   At least, that’s the “lower story” explanation for this event. But regardless of what Rome and/or King Herod think, there is SO much more to this tale. Actually, it is the fulfillment of the divine King’s plan. The “upper story” is that God orchestrated the entire event specifically to enter the world and be a more direct presence in the lives of His people. This was NOT simply an historical event that can be verified and explained. This is…an opportunity. This is an opportunity for all the right elements, in both Heaven and earth, to come together for this one, singular, miraculous event. This is an opportunity for God to break into time and space and…change everything. This is an opportunity for the infinite and the finite to collide and be melded together in a way that can, thankfully, never be undone. Sometimes, the best outcomes grow out of the most unlikely sources.

    So, it’s clear that Luke, our Gospel writer of the day, wants to establish both the historical and chronological anchors of Jesus’ birth. There are definitely some “nuts and bolts” here. But it is also clear that he offers a much deeper understanding of the events that simply that. This is the “stage setting” for the greatest story ever told. This is the beginning of the singular moment that will literally split time in half. This is…The Opportunity.

    John Wesley is the founder of United Methodism. He had a theoretical structure for for reflecting on and understanding his faith that has become known as The Wesleyan Quadrilateral. Obviously, the “quad” in the word “quadrilateral” points to there being four parts…and there are. They are Scripture, Tradition, Reason and Experience.  But I had a seminary professor who talked about this structure as, instead of a 4-legged table, a 3-legged stool. The idea is that the legs of the stool are Tradition, Reason and Experience- equal parts, all supports the whole. But the SEAT of the stool, capping the whole structure off and serving as the “glue” that binds the whole thing together, is Scripture.

    So in that model, we are to let Tradition, Reason and Experience equally inform us on how to understand something. Tradition- what does history have to say that informs me? Reason- what makes logical, reasonable sense to me? And Experience- what do the things that I have actually done tell me? And we are supposed to weigh all of those against, or sift them through, Scripture- what does God’s Word tell me?

     When I apply Wesley’s “3-legged stool” to today’s topic, I come to a specific conclusion. When I intentionally consider Tradition, Reason and Experience and then filter those three through Scripture, I am convinced that God is squarely in The Opportunity business. God provides opportunities to us…on a regular basis. Of that I have no doubt. The question is what we DO with those opportunities.

    Think about the opportunities that God provides. He provides people with the opportunity to do all kinds of things. There are those opportunities that are physical- opportunities to walk away from addictions, to improve our physical health. There are those opportunities that are relational- opportunities to mend previously broken relationships, to build new, healthy relationships. There are those opportunities that are spiritual- opportunities to grow in your relationship with God, to step out in faith and get more involved in ministries that reach farther and deeper…helping connect more and more people to Jesus Christ.

    Again, today’s passage reminds us that God is very much in The Opportunity business. And I am absolutely convinced that He is offering us an opportunity that isn’t offered  very often…or at least not accepted very often. We have been given the opportunity to do things here at this church that most United Methodist churches only dream of. For example, we are, as of early November, absolutely current with our bills- even our obligations to the conference are current. And if you have been a United Methodist for very long at all, you are QUITE familiar with having a special “March to the Manger” offering in December just to try and pay off “conference claims” before the end of the year. I remember years in the ministry where I was on vacation the week between Christmas and New Year’s, visiting family in southern Illinois, holding my breath, waiting for the email that would tell me whether or not we got enough money on the last Sunday of the year to get out of the red. This year, as long as the offerings in December continue as they have, we will end the year in the black without having to ask for extra money. If that doesn’t seem like much to you, let me assure you…it is!

    And that’s just a symptom of what’s going on around here. More than 50% of all the United Methodist Churches will end this year with not one new member. We will end the year with somewhere around 25 new members. More than 50% of all United Methodist Churches will have not one baptism this year, while the average, nation-wide is under 3 baptisms/year. We will end the year with 8 baptisms. The average United Methodist Church will average 88 people/week in worship attendance this year. We will close the year right at a weekly average of 250. The average United Methodist Church will end this year with an average of 10 people…10 people,,,in some form of Christian Education each week. We will end the year with an average of 125/week. Sometimes, the best outcomes grow out of the most unlikely sources.

    God is moving in powerful ways here. I pray that you can feel it, sense it, see it. I sure can. And I, for one, am in NO hurry to see it end. I don’t know about you, but it simply doesn’t get much better than seeing more and more people being reached for Jesus Christ. If we were doing all of this simply to pad our numbers or be able to brag to other churches…we would be absolutely missing the point. But…we aren’t. We are fully committed to connecting people to Jesus Christ. That is the yardstick by which we measure everything we do here.

    My wife and I were given The Opportunity on Tuesday…one we didn’t see coming. Mary and Joseph were given The Opportunity…one they didn’t see coming. We have been given…The Opportunity…one we didn’t see coming. But now that we are in the middle of it, it is clear. And as we move through this Christmas season to the end of the year and into a new year, I for one can hardly wait to see what God has in store for us in 2016! Sometimes, the best outcomes grow out of the most unlikely sources.

The Advent of…Advent

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Tomorrow is a special day in the church year. Tomorrow is the first day of…Advent. “Advent” comes from the Latin word “adventus”, which means “arrival”. Advent is the period of waiting that starts on the 4th Sunday before Christmas and ends on Christmas Day. It is the time that we set aside to prepare for the arrival of a baby in a manger Who came to save the world…and to save us.

So, if Advent means arrival, what arrival are YOU waiting for this Christmas? We all know the “right” answer…but is it the HONEST answer? You know what I mean. We are well aware that the answer to the question should be, “Of course we’re waiting for Jesus, Pastor!” But are you…REALLY?

Think about it- what are the things you look forward to at Christmas? Well, we look forward to hearing the great music. We look forward to all of the beautiful decorations. We look forward to the parties. We look forward to the school programs. We look forward to the shopping. We look forward to the good food. We look forward to decorating the tree. We look forward to family. We look forward to presents- the list goes on…and on…and on!

If you are a normal, red-blooded American with a special fondness for Christmas, you agreed with several points in that list. (Shoot- I didn’t agree with ALL of it…and I wrote it!) But did you notice something? There is NO mention, in that ENTIRE list, of the real reason we celebrate this holiday. The name of Jesus didn’t appear even ONCE! And yet, if we’re honest, my list could be seen as a relatively all-inclusive list…on the surface.

It’s so easy to lose track of Christmas. It’s so easy to get so caught up in the stress and the strain of the season that, by the time December 15th comes, all we can do is pray that it will all be over soon. And what a SHAME that reality is!

What will you focus on this Advent season? DON’T ignore or forget the music and decorations, the parties and the presents. Just put them in perspective. Focus on the fact that God chose…CHOSE…to put on our skin, come down among us and breathe our air…walk our sod. And let me tell you, my friend, it simply doesn’t get any better than that!

Thanks for stopping by- I pray you have a blessed day! Please make sure and come back again tomorrow, and stick with Jesus!

Black Friday? Not on Your Nellie!

 

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It’s here. After all the hoopla. After all the build-up. It’s finally here. BLACK FRIDAY. (Cue the music) “Dum, dum, dum, duuuum!” Yes, Black Friday- the day when everybody and their dog goes out shopping. Oh. Joy!

Do you know where Black Friday gets its name? It began in Philadelphia…the city of Brotherly Love. It actually started being called Black Friday as a way to describe the heavy, congested foot and vehicle traffic that was prevalent on the day after Thanksgiving. Then, around 1975, the name started spreading beyond Philadelphia. In a case of revisionist history, the “new” explanation for the name is that retailers traditionally operate at a financial loss (“in the red”) from January through November, with “Black Friday” signaling the point at which they start turning a profit- operating “in the black”. (The truth is that for some retailers, it’s a fairly true assessment. But for others (I’m lookin’ at YOU, Walmart!), they are “in the black” WAY before Thanksgiving!

One of the funniest memes (Google it) I have seen this season shows a woman pushing a FULL shopping cart while the caption reads, “Black Friday: because only in America, people trample others for sales exactly one day after being thankful for what they already have.” Funny! Funny…but painfully sad at the same time!

Don’t misunderstand- we buy Christmas gifts. We LOVE to find just the right thing for people we love. I get MUCH more joy out of giving that I do receiving at this point in my life. But our society has gotten more than a little out of hand about the whole thing. According to the results of one poll I read, the average American will spend $801 this year on Christmas gifts. $801! I don’t know about you, but I simply don’t have $801 EXTRA to spend on gifts. So I fall back on the title of the Mike Slaughter book- Christmas is NOT Your Birthday.

Think about that for a moment- Christmas is NOT your birthday. Your birthday is an important day. Every year, for a day, the focus is on…YOU! And that’s a great thing! So we should put the focus on the birthday boy or girl, right? Then who should receive the focus on December 25th? “Aawww SNAP, Pastor…” Christmas is about a baby in a manger who came to split time in half, to change the world, to change us. Let’s focus on THAT this Christmas!

As for Black Friday, have at it…if that is your cup of tea. As for me, you will find me NOWHERE near a store today! I can’t tell the different between that and the worst idea I’ve ever heard!

Thanks for stopping by- I pray you have a blessed day! Please make sure and come back again tomorrow, and stick with Jesus!

 

A New…and Thankful…Health Update

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    I have a lot to be thankful for this year! I JUST got back (late Tuesday evening) from my “one year checkup”. In case this is new to you, let me (briefly) back the truck up- on May 28, 2013, I found out I had a golf ball-sized tumor just above my right ear. A biopsy (which included taking my right ear OFF, digging around behind it and then sewing it back on) revealed a NON-cancerous tumor that we extremely rare. (I appear the be the 19th recorded case EVER of this tumor in this location!) Even though the tumor was non-cancerous, it was very destructive. Over the course of a few months, I completely lost the hearing in my right ear.

    Over the next nearly 11 months, I had a roller coaster of treatments in an attempt to shrink the tumor. They didn’t work. They DID take a massive toll on ME..but they didn’t work! Then, I lost control of the facial muscles on the right side. And so, on April 17th, 2014, the day before my 53rd birthday, I had the tumor removed in a 10+ hour surgery. Three days later, Easter Sunday, I walked out of the hospital and went home. 6 weeks later, I was back at work full-time!

    After the initial follow-up, I had a 2nd follow-up at the 6-month mark. All was well- no sign of the tumor. So they bumped me out to a year for the next visit. That visit took place the beginning of this week. My wife and I drove to the St. Louis, MO area Sunday afternoon. Monday morning, we drove to Barnes Hospital near downtown St. Louis. My first stop was the lab at the Siteman Cancer Center for a blood draw. Then, it was down the hall to the oncologist’s office.

    He said my blood work was, and I quote, “Perfect”! He then did a physical exam, asking me questions the whole time. He noticed some small things relating to my ability to move (or not move) those right-side facial muscles that most people never notice. He then said that my recovery from the facial paralysis was, and again I quote, “Amazing”! He ended with, “See you in a year!”

    From there, it was on to the otolaryngologist’s office. (That’s a fancy name for “the ear, nose and throat doctor”!) He too was amazed at how far I’d come in the recovery from the facial paralysis. He checked my right ear, which was pretty badly damaged internally by the tumor, and said it looked, and for the 3rd time I quote, “surprisingly normal”. The inner ear had been crushed by the tumor. But now, it is back in the shape it once was. The hearing is still gone…and it always will be. The bones that are essential to hearing are gone- destroyed by the tumor. He also ended the visit with, “See you in a year.” That ended Day 1.

    Late that afternoon, I got a call from my neurosurgeon’s office. I had a CT scan and an MRI scheduled for Tuesday, followed by a visit with him the talk about the results of those tests. HOWEVER…the insurance company hadn’t yet approved the tests! So we woke up Tuesday morning not knowing if the tests were on or off. And then the call came- nope..not gonna happen! It looks like I will have the tests done near where I live in the next couple of weeks and have the results sent to my doctor.

    I’m not going to lie- I was a little disappointed to not have the tests done so that I could find out for sure whether or not the tumor is still gone. BUT…I had no control over what happened and so it didn’t make sense for me to throw a fit. Instead, we visited relatives that we hadn’t seen for a long time. It was not the day I had planned…but apparently it WAS the day God planned!

    The two doctors I saw were ecstatic over how I was doing. The blood tests were perfect. So…I’m going to claim that! I feel good. The doctors are happy. All is well! Am I still going to have the other tests done? You bet! Will it be more conclusive proof that I’m doing well. Absolutely! But I’m sticking with…no tumor! God is good, all the time!

    Thanks for stopping by- I pray you have a blessed day! Please make sure and come back again tomorrow, and stick with Jesus!

Turkey Day!

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My older son is home…for FIVE days! My younger son is out of school…for FOUR days! My wife is here. It simply doesn’t get much better than that! (I WOULD like to see my extended family, but that gets harder and harder as we get geographically farther away from each other and kids keep getting married and having kids!)

Tomorrow, we will have a quiet Thanksgiving. The turkey will cook in one of the ovens over at the church- one of the perks of living next door! (There IS a down-side as well, but there are CERTAINLY some perks!) The dressing will be in our oven. The sweet potatoes and regular potatoes (Hey! We like potatoes…OK?!) will be in separate pots on the stove, waiting to be mashed. The fresh green beans will be in yet another pot on the stove. The Jello-pretzel salad will be in the fridge. The sweet Hawaiian rolls will be waiting to be heated up. Dinner will be awesome.

My immediate family- which consists of my wife, her parents, our two sons, the two dogs and me- will spend the day…hanging out. We have no big plans, other than some cooking and some eating. And frankly, I am more than OK with that!

What am I thankful for this Thanksgiving? I’m thankful that I get to spend time with my family. I’m thankful to serve such an awesome church. I’m thankful for a God Who loves me…regardless. And this year especially, I’m thankful for another day to be upright, breathing and about His business. This has been a whirlwind couple of years since I found out about the tumor in my head. I’m not going to lie- I wish I never had it. BUT…that…THING…in my head made me SO much more appreciative of…life.

This holiday season, don’t waste a moment. Don’t take your days for granted. Don’t leave things undone. Don’t leave relationships unmended. Why? Because none of us are guaranteed tomorrow. So make the most of today. As that great theologian from Kung Fu Panda, Master Oogway, says; “Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, but today is a gift. That is why it is called the “present.” Happy Thanksgiving!

Thanks for stopping by- I pray you have a blessed day! Please make sure and come back again tomorrow, and stick with Jesus!

Unity Vs. Uniformity

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Remember Junior High? Everybody wanted to be like “the cool kids”…and I was NOT one of the cool kids! We all wanted to wear the right clothes, have the right hair style, say the right things. We wanted to be…alike! The funny thing about that it that even people who want to be different than the mainstream folk end up looking JUST LIKE the people they run with. I once heard someone ask a guy who was wearing all black with eye liner and spikes and chains everywhere, “Why do you dress like that?” The response? “I want to be different.” The irony? They were surrounded by about a dozen people who all looked JUST like them!

I have twice  taught a Bible Study on the New Testament book of Romans. (An aside- that is one TOUGH book to get through! Some of the folks in the class said, “We enjoyed that…but could we pick an easier book for the next study?!”) Late in the book, the Apostle Paul talks about unity. I challenged the class to consider what exactly “unity” means. We kicked around several possible definitions, and the ensuing discussion led to exactly the point I was hoping to get to- the difference between unity and uniformity.
Uniformity is being just like everybody else. Uniformity is wearing the same things, doing the same things, saying the same things, thinking the same things, believing the same things! Uniformity is one small goose step away from the kind of mentality that got Nazi German in so much trouble. Uniformity takes away individuality and replaces it with mindless adherence to rules and norms. Whether we are talking about faith or just…life…uniformity is something that I just can’t stomach.
Unity, on the other hand, is a whole different ballgame. Unity has NOTHING to do with lock-step adherence to a convoluted group of rules. Instead, it has everything to do with being an individual AND a part of something larger than yourself. It means having a kinship and a symbiosis with a group of people while still being able to hang on to who you are as an individual. Unity is a body of unique individuals united in a common cause.
Unity over and against uniformity is one thing I appreciate about the United Methodist Church. I have to look no further than myself to see it at work. I am about to go to Annual Conference, where all the clergy and representatives of the laity gather together once a year to both worship together and have the Church’s “business meeting”. When I attend the clergy session, there will be young clergy and old clergy, male clergy and female clergy, clergy of all colors, races and nationalities, urban clergy, suburban clergy and rural clergy. And in the midst of them will be…ME…a shaved-headed, earring-wearing, rock-drumming United Methodist minister…and I am accepted and welcomed into that gathering. We are NOT uniform, in an way, shape or form…but we have great unity in our goal to make disciples for Jesus Christ.
I encourage you to always seek unity with the people around you…while holding tightly to your uniqueness. Reject uniformity…but covet unity! Thanks for stopping by- I pray you have a blessed day! Please make sure and come back tomorrow, and stick with Jesus!