If It Happened to Him …

Photo: flickr.com - Asaf Braverman
Photo: flickr.com – Asaf Braverman

Quick: What’s the first thing that comes to your mind when I say “Balaam”?

Talking donkey?

Greedy?

Sold out God’s people?

This is generally how we remember him. But we sometimes forget that Balaam was actually a prophet of God. Yes, a real prophet! In fact, he was so accustomed to talking to the Almighty that he confidently expected Him to show up when petitioned (see Numbers 22:8).

True, we don’t actually know much about Balaam before his “little” slip-up. But consider other Old Testament prophets, like Isaiah, Daniel, and Hosea, who we do know better. These were clearly devoted men, courageous men of integrity, and men zealous for God’s honor. So don’t you think Balaam was once such a man too?

What happened to change him?

In his second letter, Peter discusses the case of some false teachers who “have wandered off the right road and followed the footsteps of Balaam” (2 Peter 2:15, NLT). Notice two things. First, they were once on the right road! Second, the word “wander,” which reminds us that we usually fall into sin’s greedy clutches gradually, perhaps without even realizing where we’re going.

But how, exactly, does one meander away from the right road? In verse 14, Peter very helpfully lays out the course that led to these people’s downfall:

  1. They accommodated sin: “They commit adultery with their eyes.” These men didn’t commit outright adultery, but they allowed themselves some questionable thoughts. They gave sin a little place in their minds—just an attic at first, mind you. But it has a way of stretching out and making itself comfortable. That’s why Paul urges us to “set your minds on things above” (Colossians 3:2, NKJV)—don’t give sin so much as a doormat to call its own.
  2.  They nurtured sin: “Their desire for sin is never satisfied.” This is an active seeking after evil—the ESV says they’re “insatiable for sin,” and the NIV says, “they never stop sinning.” Like skilled gardeners, these men watered and fertilized and sang to their corrupt desires. They encouraged sin’s growth rather than claiming the freedom from sin that God offers when we accept His strength and apply His promises (2 Peter 1:4; 2 Corinthians 7:1; Romans 12:2).
  3. They shared sin: “They lure unstable people into sin.” Just like misery, sin loves company. We think it validates our opinion when others agree with us. It also makes our nagging consciences harder to hear.
  4. Sin trained them: “They are well trained in greed.” Notice the grammatical shift here. “Are well trained” is no longer an active verb; instead, it has switched to passive voice. In other words, the person is not acting, but being acted upon. Sin is taking over. Getting comfortable. Ordering take-out.
  5. Sin claimed them: “They live under God’s curse.” Sin is “the transgression of the law” (1 John 3:4), and disobedience of any natural law has unpleasant consequences. However, even at this stage, we don’t have to remain sin’s slaves! “Christ came that we might be justified by faith” (Galatians 3:24, NIV).

Simply by virtue of our status as inhabitants of Planet Earth, every single one of us can fall into this vortex of destruction. If Balaam, prophet of God, was vulnerable, we normal folk are too. Every time we cast a flirtatious glance at our pet sin, every time we ask it for a little dance around the room, every time we agree to “just a little longer,” we are giving it more power over us.

But sin does reward our interest—with the gift of spiritual cataracts. Darkness gradually settles over us, so slowly that we don’t realize we’re going blind. Eventually we can’t even see things that are clear to an ass; an angel sent directly from God Himself won’t impress us.

Yet we have a choice. We can say “Enough!”

Then Christ will “set [us] free from sin,” purchasing our liberty with His very blood. “The benefit you reap leads to holiness, and the result is eternal life” (Romans 6:22, NIV).

What an amazing transaction! Who would even dream up such a trade?

Only a heart of extravagant love.

Can You Hear Me Now?

Photo: Flickr - Jonathan Powell
Photo: Flickr – Jonathan Powell

Every Christian I’ve ever known, no matter how sincere, devoted, or experienced, has had times when they feel as though their connection with God has gotten a bit staticky. Often they relate these periods with a great deal of frustration.

But what might this dark time feel from God’s perspective? I love this passage from one of my all-time favorite devotionals:

There is a day coming when you will say, “I have waited in vain for the Lord.” You will wait for Me to speak, and you will hear only the whistling of the wind. But I tell you now, I am never silent, you are deaf. I am always speaking; but I do not find your ear attuned to listen.

You will sit alone in a desolate place and grieve in your loneliness; but it will not be that I have left you, but that you have become insensitive to My presence. Yes, if you ignore My personal nearness and fellowship and if you do not return My overtures, your perceptions will become dull; you will not be able to discern Me even though I am near at hand — even though My love for you is still as strong as before …

It is the intention of My heart to fellowship with you closely. I am turned away by your unresponsiveness; by your preoccupation with things and with people; by your thoughtlessness and indifference.

Photo: Flickr - Niclas Lindh
Photo: Flickr – Niclas Lindh

Some have lost Me by the sin of rebellion; but I warn you that you may lose Me by the subtle way of simple inattention. Confess your coldness, and draw near to Me; and I will make My personal presence real to you again. I will hold you close to My heart, and you will hear My voice. (Come Away My Beloved, Frances J. Roberts, pp 188-189)

So when our prayers seem to be answered only by the whistling wind, perhaps the best thing we can do is look around to see what’s drowning out God’s voice.

Because He’s still speaking.

Choosing Praise

Photo: flickr/ csaveanu
Photo: flickr/ csaveanu

Imagine this: You’re the head elder in a church that’s really on fire—growing, praising God, sharing the Word. One day some folks from a sister church move to the community and join your congregation. They fit right in. They’re strong in the faith and don’t mind working—just the sort of members every pastor loves.

Except …

You begin to notice little whispering groups forming in the lobby between services—groups that suddenly go silent when someone else approaches. It turns out that your new members have brought something with them: “new truth.”

New truth has taken many forms through the ages. When Martin Luther rediscovered salvation by faith, it was considered “new truth.” For that matter, when Jesus said, “Love your enemies,” His listeners considered it “new truth.” Yet others have claimed the same appellation for odd little quirks like “Real Christian men don’t have long hair,” “Real Christians don’t eat meat,” or even “Drums are of the Devil.”

So what do you do? These new members have Bible passages to back up their claim, and you don’t want to ignore it if it’s truly of God. But it’s just not clear that it is.

Finally, your pastor calls an elder’s meeting. But even after discussing the problem thoroughly, the answer isn’t clear. Eventually the group decides to send delegates, including you, to church headquarters to decide the issue.

Your group packs up and heads out. It’s a long road trip that will entail several days travel, but you’ve arranged to stay with some church brethren along the way.

Here’s the question: What do you talk about with those brethren?  

This may sound like a silly question, but think about it for a minute. You’re sitting down to dinner in your host’s home—perhaps a man you’ve known forever, a man you’ve probably even done some outreach with. You’re tired from the long, difficult trip. (Oh, did I forget to mention? Cars haven’t been invented yet—you have to walk the whole way.) Your blisters are wondering if the trip was even necessary, and you’re probably wishing the guy who started the controversy back home had just kept his big mouth shut.

Then this old friend hands you a warm bowl of lamb stew and says, “So, Paul, I hear you’re at Antioch these days. What’s going on up there? Anything interesting happening?

How do you respond? Do you take the opportunity to unburden to your friend? Maybe to drum up some support for your side of the controversy?

I think most of us would. We might say something like, “Oh, man—everything was going really great until some believers from Judea showed up. They’ve got this bug in their ear about circumcision, and now the whole church is riled up.”

Wouldn’t that be the natural thing to do?

But it’s not what Paul did. He never even mentioned the controversy that sent him trudging off to Jerusalem in the first place. He and his group only exposed that to the council of elders in Jerusalem (Acts 15:4). But as they traveled, they spent their time “describing the conversion of the Gentiles; and they caused great joy to all the brethren” (Acts 15:3, NKJV).

Instead of seeding doubt and dissension on their way to Jerusalem, Paul and his fellow travelers left a trail of joy. They chose the course Paul later recommended to other believers: “Rejoice in the Lord always” (Philippians 4:4).

Now, some people seem to have a natural bent toward perennial cheerfulness, but I don’t think Paul was in that category. Philippians 4:11 tells us that he had to learn to be content in all situations. Maybe this was even part of the struggle he describes in Romans 7.

And that’s good news for those of us who don’t praise God as much as we should, as often we’d like, or to everyone we meet. If Paul learned to rejoice in everything everywhere, we can too.

“Every day I will bless You.

And I will praise Your name forever and ever” (Psalm 145:2)

Washer Woes

cat & washer - flickr - Louis FargheonMy dryer gave up the ghost last week. What’s more, the washer wasn’t so much running as painfully limping along. My husband, a wonderful Mr. Fix-It who had already repaired both machines on several occasions, decided, “It’s time to get new ones.”

Now I’ve heard that there are people in this world who enjoy shopping for appliances. I’m not one of them. So when a friend reminded me that her barely-used washer and dryer were still in storage in our shed, and when she offered to let us use them, I gladly accepted. Anything to avoid a trip to Home Depot!

My husband dutifully hooked up the pair, and I gathered my laundry to try them out. There were no instruction manuals and no online information, but they seemed pretty self-explanatory. Plus I found a helpful note from my friend that said simply, “Don’t put anything on top of the machines.”

That injunction proved to be problematic. These machines were taller and bigger than the old ones, and I could no longer simply reach over them to get my laundry potions from the cupboard. Setting the bottles on top of the machines seemed the obvious solution.

Consulting Mr. Fix-It, I explained my dilemma and asked about the note. “Will something nasty happen if I set things on top of the machines?”

“No,” he said. “It’s probably just to avoid scratching the paint.”

Whereupon I came up with one of my famous “better ideas.” Carefully covering the machines with a towel, I arranged my bottles atop that. Paint protected; bottles accessible. Problem solved!

A little later, I heard a gigantic crash in the laundry room. I ran in to find the bottles of detergent on the floor, including half a bottle of bleach that had spilled all over everything. (Thankfully, I didn’t happen to have any colored clothes on the floor. So, although I had quite a mess to clean up, I didn’t ruin anything.)

When my friend heard what had happened, she politely mentioned her note. “Yeah, I saw that,” I said. “But I put a towel down so I wouldn’t scratch the paint.”

“But that’s not why you’re not supposed to put stuff on top,” she objected. “These machines are very sensitive to balance. They don’t work properly if they have stuff sitting on top. That’s why the bottles were thrown off.”

Oh.

Because I thought I knew the reason for the rule, I felt comfortable in devising a compromise. What I didn’t know was that the inconvenient rule was actually founded on physics. And neither my ignorance nor my ingenious compromise could protect me from the natural consequences of clashing with physics.

The same is true of violating moral or spiritual laws. We may think we understand the reasons for these laws. And, because we believe we have those reasons figured out, we may feel free to violate them. “They don’t apply to our culture,” we say.

We don’t realize that we’re really very much like the cat who crawls into a dryer, seeing only a quiet place to take a nap. Like that kitty, we’re too limited in our perspective to understand our danger. But all of our rationalizations will not protect us from the natural consequences of violating God’s laws, whether physical laws like challenging gravity, health laws like avoiding harmful substances, or moral laws like maintaining sexual purity.

Our ignorance doesn’t annul the laws of life anymore than it voids the laws of physics. Just as tobacco kills even its most faithful supporters, sin turns on even its most unwitting followers. But we don’t have to fall into these traps—God’s warned us of the danger in His laws. We just need to listen.

“There is a way that seems right to a man,

but its end is the way of death” (Proverbs 14: 12, NKJV).

God’s Job Interview

Flickr.com - MindFieldGroup
Flickr.com – MindFieldGroup

I don’t know about you, but I’m not particularly good at interviews. Yet they seem to be a part of life, whether for college entrance, grad school, or job applications. For me, probably the toughest question is one everyone seems to ask: Why do you want to come/work here?

Unless you’re being interviewed for your first choice, answering that question can be tricky. You can’t very well say, “Well, I don’t really want to come here, but I do want to go somewhere, so I’m applying here in case no one else will take me.” Most interviewers just don’t seem to appreciate being your last choice.

But Jesus’ standard is even higher; look at His method of interviewing Peter in John 21. At this point, Jesus had already commissioned the disciples (John 20:19-23). But maybe Peter didn’t think it included him—maybe he still felt unworthy after denying Jesus in His hour of need. Whatever the reason, Peter resorted to his old occupation, fishing, and six other disciples went along with him.

Jesus shows up after these fishermen have had a frustrating and fruitless night. Peter was probably tired and aggravated—not in the best of conditions for a job interview. Then Jesus asked him only one question: “Do you love me?” Or, as the NIV translates it, “Do you truly love me?” The entire job interview rested on the answer to this question.

Of course, Jesus was in the habit of doing things differently. He was constantly surprising people with His interpretation of Scripture, with the company He kept, and even with the trainees He chose. But this has to be the strangest job interview ever. If Jesus could boil His job requirements down to one question, why is this the question He would choose to ask?

The reason is simple. God doesn’t need our work at all. He could do everything Himself. That’s what “omnipotent” means. Yet He knows that, like Him, we are happiest when we’re working, creating, and helping. So He entrusts us with part of His work so we can share in His joy. However, we can only do His work joyfully if we have the right underlying motivation: love for Him.

So when our work starts to grate on us—when we’re tired or tired-of (dirty dishes, grumpy people, demanding bosses …)—perhaps it’s time for us to return to that beach where Jesus interviewed Peter and remember why we’re doing the job at all.

Because in God’s eyes, the importance of our job is not based on what we do, but on why we do it. We may do exalted work like brain surgery or rocket science, yet be lowly in God’s eyes because we’re motivated by status. We may even do “pious” work like feeding the hungry or visiting the sick, yet accomplish nothing worthwhile for God—or even harm His work—because we’re motivated by pride, by how others see us.

On the other hand, God may well celebrate the toilet cleaned with a smile or the sidewalk shoveled in secret because the job, though humble, was done out of gratitude to a loving God—who Himself serves even the ungrateful (Matthew 5:45).

 “If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit;

apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5, NIV).

Contented Worldliness: A Sneaky Foe

After attending a production of “C. W. Lewis on Stage” this week, my husband and I both came away impressed by one particular phrase: “contented worldliness.” It comes from Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters, in which Screwtape, an experienced demon, is coaching his nephew on the finer points of tempting humans. In this passage, Screwtape discusses the problem of war:

And how disastrous for us is the continual remembrance of death which war enforces. One of our best weapons, contented worldliness, is rendered useless.  (p. 27 of the 1982 paperback edition)

Now it’s true that contentment is generally a good thing. The Bible urges us to embrace it (Philippians 4:11-12; 1 Timothy 6:6; Hebrews 13:5).But we’re also warned:

Be careful that you do not forget the Lord your God, failing to observe his commands, his laws and his decrees that I am giving you this day. Otherwise, when you eat and are satisfied, when you build fine houses and settle down, and when your herds and flocks grow large and your silver and gold increase and all you have is multiplied, then your heart will become proud and you will forget the Lord your God (Deuteronomy 8:11-14, NIV).

In other words, when our worldly existence is free of obvious threat, a subtler enemy lurks at our door. His name is Contented Worldliness.

photo by Mark Owens - Flickr.com
photo by Mark Owens – Flickr.com

Picture a father who has just come home from a long trip. Of course, he comes bearing gifts because he thought of his kids often during his absence. But what he really wants is the reunion with his family. He wants them to smother him in joyous hugs and kisses while exclaiming, “We missed you, Daddy!”

Contented Worldliness turns us into children who grab the gift from our father’s hands, tear off the wrapping and packaging, and race away to play with our new toys.

Where does that leave God? At the door, standing in a pile of trash and yearning for a hug.

Hosea sums up Contented Worldliness this way: “When they were satisfied, they became proud; then they forgot me” (Hosea 13:6, NIV). And Scripture provides us with many examples of this foe’s handiwork. David’s faith was strong when he had to fight giants and evade murderers; but he fell (hard!) when his position and reputation were secure. We see this pattern repeated in the lives of Solomon, Asa, Hezekiah, and others.

So how do we fight this threat? That same passage in Deuteronomy gives us the solution: “Be careful that you do not forget the Lord your God, failing to observe his commands, his laws and his decrees that I am giving you this day” (verse 11). But I also like the way Screwtape puts it:

Remember, always, that He really likes the little vermin, and sets an absurd value on the distinctness of every one of them. When He talks of their losing their selves, He means only abandoning the clamour of self-will; once they have done that, He really gives them back all their personality, and boasts (I am afraid, sincerely) that when they are wholly His they will be more themselves than ever. (The Screwtape Letters, p. 59)

For my part, I find there’s no better way of “abandoning the clamour of self-will” than to spend time daily (at least) with the Daddy who “sets such an absurd value” on me.

What about you—how do you battle Contented Worldliness?

Warning: Biohazard

A nasty virus like smallpox or ebola is never “safe,” even when it’s contained in a laboratory. A contained biohazard is safer, but it is never safe.

biohazard - flickr - plsasterousNo matter how many times a lab technician sees a sign like this one, she can never, ever grow lax in her protocols for suiting up, handling, and disposing of the biohazards she sees every day. Even if she spends her entire life working in this lab, she must not lose respect for the danger. Her life depends on it.

As Christians, perhaps we should adopt a similar mindset regarding sin. Like that lab technician, we spend our entire lives around danger. Yet we can’t afford to get comfortable with sin.

Instead, we should respect it for the dangerous animal it is. We shouldn’t take it out of its box and play with it, foolishly believing that we’ve got it adequately caged, declawed, and under control. Sin is always dangerous.

Moses understood this. “He chose to be mistreated along with the people of God rather than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin. He regarded disgrace for the sake of Christ as of greater value than the treasures of Egypt, because he was looking ahead to his reward” (Hebrews 11:25, 26, NIV).

Like Moses—and like that lab technician—we must always respect the danger of sin. Christ paid a huge price to rescue us from it.

Welcome!

shoes & mat - Pixabay - nuzreeWelcome to my new website! Like all remodeling jobs, it took longer than expected, but I think all the buttons and links are working now. So kick your shoes off, have a look around, and make yourself at home.

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What’s Wrong with Resolutions?

There’s something magical about the idea of making New Year’s resolutions, of envisioning ourselves healthier, holier, and more productive by the time another year rolls around. But statistics tell us that our usual methods of making resolutions aren’t terribly effective in actually getting things done.

©iStock.com/Zastavkin
©iStock.com/Zastavkin

For me, a resolution is too much like a promise to myself. Once I break that promise, it’s broken for the whole year. The result is that I end up feeling like a failure. Maybe you can relate to this problem.

A priority, on the other hand, is more like a GPS device that keeps me focused on my chosen destination. When I get off course (which I usually do), it provides me with the orientation I need to get my journey back on course.

 

Enter: The Priority Reset

After a couple of frustrating attempts at New Year’s resolutions, I began a different kind of New Year’s ritual, one I call a Priority Reset. This amounts to prayerfully reviewing my course over the previous year and writing down a new list of priorities for the year to come. For several years, this was the whole process. I kept the new list under the glass on my desktop, where I could review it frequently to remind myself of my intended destination.

For me, this worked really well. When confronted with the choice of taking a run or studying gross anatomy (which is quite aptly named, I assure you), all I had to do was glance as my desktop to remember that “Health” outranked “Grades.”

Somewhere along the way, I learned that writing down specific goals was important too. My first attempts at this weren’t very helpful, and I soon realized that I had too many goals. Again, consulting with my list of priorities helped me determine which goals were most important during that particular phase of my life.

My yearly Priority Reset continued to evolve over several years as I evaluated different ways of staying on course. This is the final version, including an example of how I use it, as a PDF or a Word document. If you find it helpful, you’re welcome to use it as is, or to revise it to fit your own needs.

 

Using the Priority Reset

General: This is only one page long so I can refer to often and easily. I like to keep mine in my journal, which I open nearly every day. Sometimes I keep other copies in places I frequent (e.g., under the glass on my desk at work).

The human mind and body are finite. We cannot concentrate on an infinite number of priorities or work toward an infinite number of goals during any given period. For most people, setting a total of 6 to 10 goals is best for maximum effectiveness—fewer won’t sufficiently challenge you; more spreads your energies too thin.

Remember this principle at the end of the year, too. If you’ve done this right, you won’t actually reach every single goal (if you do, you probably didn’t challenge yourself sufficiently).

Done! - ©iStock.com/ gpointstudio
Done! – ©iStock.com/ gpointstudio

However, you will also find that you managed to do things you’d only dreamed about doing before. Merely writing goals down has been shown to be a simple but powerful tool.

Realize that everything about the Priority Reset represents an ideal. People don’t set goals to do things they’ve already accomplished or to form habits they’ve already mastered. The point here is to grow. If my every action were to bless others (as in the example), or if I lived every moment with the attitude of a servant, then I wouldn’t need to remind myself of these ideals by writing them down. To become more than we are, we must choose goals that are attainable but that stretch us a bit.

This process is best done with God’s help. (Isn’t everything?) Don’t set your course for an entire year without prayer.

Mission & Motto: If the Priority Reset is like a GPS, then the Mission and Motto are your overall destination and method of travel (attitude).

Priorities: All of your priorities should move you toward your Mission. Rank them in order of importance, and don’t forget the basics. For example, almost every other priority, even that of serving others, will be affected negatively if you are unhealthy, so this priority must be very high on anyone’s list.

Goals:  Every Priority should have at least one Goal; these are like the routes you follow to reach your chosen destination. The little caution signs are areas that tend to detour or distract you from your goal. You may not always know what these areas are at the beginning of your journey, but try to identify them so you can formulate an action plan that takes them into account.

You may already be familiar with the idea of setting SMART goals. The acronym stands for elements that help you set goals you can actually realize.

Specific – e.g., “Lose 10 pounds” vs. “Lose weight”

Measurable – e.g. “Miss no more than 10 days of work this year” vs. “Be more reliable”

Attainable – i.e., realistic; e.g., “Live 500 years” is not humanly possible

Results-focused – e.g., “Run a marathon” (outcome) vs. “Run 30 minutes/day” (process)

Time-bound – e.g., “Run a marathon by Christmas” vs. “Run a marathon someday”

Plan: Design specific actions that will help you move toward your Goals. Be sure to target the areas you identified as problems. If you find that the plan you set forth doesn’t work—maybe it proves unsuccessful in moving you toward your goal, or maybe you just can’t keep up with it—modify it.

 

Good Luck!

I hope you find this New Year’s tradition helpful. What other New Year’s rituals do you find useful?

Has Your Year Mattered?

 ©iStock.com/ Nobilior
©iStock.com/ Nobilior

I’ve sat through bunches of lectures. I’ll bet you have too.  But how many do you actually remember? If you’re like me, you won’t need all ten fingers to do the math.

In my case, I can really only remember one lecture. But that message affected my perspective so drastically that it changed the way I approached life.

That talk wasn’t delivered by a famous preacher, a powerful politician, or even a professor with lots of letters after his name. It was delivered by Mrs. Laurene Jenkins, a dormitory dean, during a half-hour worship service.

So what was this life-altering topic? “The Urgent Versus the Important.”

You see, I’ve always related to Martha, the hard-working sister that held Mary and Lazarus’s home together. Like her, I enjoy being busy. I relish the sense of accomplishment and the satisfaction of being helpful.

As a consequence, I can so relate to Jesus’ gentle rebuke to this industrious woman. “Martha, Martha,” he said, “you are worried and upset about many things. Only one thing is important” (Luke 10:41, 42, NCV).

Martha had become so focused on the many urgent tasks required to provide for her guests’ needs that she lost sight of the only task that was truly important: knowing God.

What about us?

The end of the year is a great time to reflect, reviewing what we did, what we didn’t do, and what we wish we’d done differently. Did we spend our time and energy on important things—things that will matter in 10, 20, or 50 years? Or did we fritter away the year, buzzing around from one urgent task to the next, hardly looking up to see where the fickle trail of urgency was leading us?

I’ve never been one for making New Year’s resolutions. But after that talk in college, I started doing something I call a “Priority Reset” every January 1st. It’s my way of evaluating my course—of looking up to see where I’m going—and of applying any needed course corrections to make sure that I’m using the life God gives me on things that matter. It’s been a truly useful practice for me.

Through the years, I’ve had a number of people ask me about this process, and I’m happy to share it with them. If you’re interested, I’ll share it with you next week. However, it’s more effective if you’ve had a chance to prayerfully reflect on the previous year.

So how was your 2014?

What did you accomplish that you feel good about?

What do you wish you’d accomplished that you didn’t get around to?

Do you feel like you’re generally heading in the right direction? If so, what did you do to support this movement? If not, what direction do you feel you should be heading in?

* * * * *

P.S.  You may have noticed that this isn’t the new website I promised. That’s turned into a bit more of a challenge than I expected. But stay tuned—I’m still working on it!