teaching a perfectionist to pray.

Leave it to a perfectionist to mess something up like prayer.  I’m convinced that perfectionism isn’t just a personality characteristic, it’s a barrier to freedom.

In my eternal struggle to cross every ‘t’ and dot every ‘i’, I was recently reminded that prayer isn’t about that.  More about that reminder in a second…

Muslim prayer beads

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My theological definition of prayer:

The nature of prayer, it’s very essence, is communication with God.  It is the means by which we turn the attention of our mind, body and spirit toward heaven.  The purpose of prayer is to connect the created with the Creator.  Every time we pray, we submit ourselves to something greater, far above any one of us.  Prayer to an unseen God is itself an act of faith. 

It’s hard for perfectionists to pray.  Just like every other aspect of our lives that must be aligned perfectly with some unknown, unseen, impossible expectation, so too do our prayers need to line up.

What I needed to be reminded of:

Not having the exact words to pray will never negate the effectiveness or hope that is wrapped up in the words themselves as it is the heart of these words that pleases God.

Prayers don’t have to be formulaic either for informal/spontaneous or for formal/liturgical contexts.  Some of the prayers that I could cognitively articulate (or muster) from the depths of my grief were simply the words “Oh God, oh God, oh God…”  Some of the prayers that spilled from own my lips in a corporate setting even surprised me as I couldn’t seem to think what I was saying and yet it ministered to those listening.

Prescribing formulas in prayer (as well as in theology) tend to be more for us, the people praying, as opposed to God who transcends our formulas.  There are books, journals, sermons extending well into church history examining the nature and purpose of prayer but at the end of the day, I’m learning that God just wants to hear from us.

So how can a perfectionist like myself learn to pray? 

  1. First, in remembering that I can’t impress God with fancy words, I’m free to just be myself.  Even in my quiet moments where I have an audience of one, I have to quiet myself.  The noise of the day and the busyness of life often slowly and steadily creep into the corners of my mind.  The need to impress God, along with everyone else in my perfectionist life, will continue to be a hindrance to my sense of peace.
  2. Secondly, I have to resist the temptation of relying on my own mental lexicon of synonyms to explain the same idea over and over.  In fact, if I was to repeat anything over and over it would be His praises.
  3. Finally, I have to let the Spirit speak those inarticulate, unutterable words to, through and from me.  I believe the Spirit knows the difference when our prayers begin with “Our Father who art in Heaven…” and when our prayers are more or less vomited from the gut.  I believe the Spirit comforted the Jews of Auschwitz as they breathed their last prayers just as he comforts the parents of Trayvon Martin today.

Faithful prayer takes a variety of shapes and sounds.  It can be directed toward God in praise, for ourselves in petition, for others in intercession or for our enemies in imprecation.

Prayer is far more cathartic than I’ve realized.  This is why even secular counselors and therapists will recommend prayer as a means of healing.  Wiccans pray, Muslims pray, Hindu’s pray, and even atheists will pray when the situation warrants it.

A perfectionist like myself will pray best when I lay down my pretenses and self-expectations to simply dwell in the height, depth and love of the Creator’s attention toward me, His creation.

My reminder to pray:

So what was my reminder?  It was listening to the prayers of a child.  Simple, heartfelt and poignant, their prayer was this:

“God, thank you for my friends and my mommy and daddy and my bed and let Pastor Jonathan be nice.”

Yep.  That was the reminder I needed.

So what are your thoughts on prayer, perfectionism or both?  Continue the conversation in the comments below or find me on Twitter and Facebook and let me know there.

 

Wikipedia: Facebook is a social networking service and website launched in February 2004, operated and privately owned by Facebook Inc., Facebook has more than 845 million active users.

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why true leaders are powerless: a reflection on the cross.

It was my first magazine interview.  And by magazine I mean ‘denominational publication’ and by interview I mean a Q & A sheet.  In fact, they really just wanted to fill the last page with something, so I was picked for “Meet The New Guy”.  One of the questions asked was for a favorite quote.  I really wanted to sound smart and well-read, especially since I was new to the position…

So one Google quote search later, I picked a Henri Nouwen gem you might have heard.  It is from In The Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership.  In it he says, “It seems easier to be God than to love God, easier to control people than to love people, easier to own life than to love life.”  I read that and thought, ‘I’m definitely going to look good quoting this guy.’

Then life happened.

Five years later, two different jobs later, ‘coming out of retirement‘ later, I met Henri Nouwen again.  It was amazing how insightful he had become in that time.

the temptation of power…

I was just asked recently by one of my seminary professors, “How have you seen leadership give in to the temptation of power?”  He wanted us to answer it after reading Nouwen’s leadership text.  Some of my classmates chose to identify prominent pastors and other failures of Christian leadership.

This stung a little as all I had to do was look at my own story.  While I know this is a Christian professor teaching Christian content, I do want to call attention to the fact that all leadership is tempted toward power because all leadership is human.

I can easily point to historical figures like Pontius Pilate, Adolf Hitler and Richard Nixon who yielded to power.  To point out the failures of bishops and pastors isn’t wrong but it doesn’t get at the root of the matter.  I’m tempted to power and control not based on my position but based on my humanity.

It just so happens that when a leader has an audience and they give in to the temptation of power it’s broadcast for all to see.  The temptation to manipulate power can take any shape and form and I would dare say that we look no further than our own hearts to find it.

According to Henri Nouwen, the temptation for a Christian is to consider power as an apt instrument for the proclamation of the Gospel.  In fact, he would even say it’s the greatest temptation of all.  What Nouwen is driving at is that we are all guilty when we choose power as a means of control.  Based on this definition, many of our most successful leaders have given into the temptation of power and been praised for it.

I’m one of those leaders.

Five years after first proclaiming that “it’s easier to be God than to love God, easier to control people than to love people, easier to own life than to love life”, I still find myself wanting to be God, control people and own life.

powerless is good…

This same seminary professor immediately followed up with another question, “How is the cross a symbol of power and powerlessness?”

I knew what he was driving at even though I’m sometimes tempted to think of the cross as neither a power-full or power-less symbol but rather a commodity to my faith.  Or worse, a commodity to my religion.

The truth is, I believe in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  I believe the cross is the centerpiece of history.

I do believe the cross is a power-full symbol of power in that it represents the sovereignty and providence of God.  It is because of the cross that I am free from sin and brought into right standing before and with God.

Nouwen again writes, “Much Christian leadership is exercised by people who do not know how to develop healthy, intimate relationships and have opted for power and control instead.”

It’s when I look at the cross as a symbol of powerlessness that I find shelter from the temptation to manipulate others with power.

In fact, I see the cross is more than a symbol of powerlessness, it is an instrument of powerlessness.  It was an instrument of torture and death.  There are only a few sadistic machinations from human history that match the depravity of death by cross.  The cross means to kill us.

One doesn’t climb onto a cross and hang for a little while, hurting until they are brought down.  Once you have been hung on a cross, you don’t come down until you are dead.  If I or anyone could come down from the cross before death then I would have defeated its power.

It’s only when I am powerless to come down from the cross that I have discovered its nature and purpose.  Essentially, Christ gave up his power to come down.  He chose it.  A common criminal couldn’t make that choice…you and I couldn’t make that choice but the Son of God could.

For a brief moment, He gave up His access to the powers of the universe so that at our hands He could die.

why true leadership is powerless…

We are commanded to take up that instrument and let the due diligence of its weight work on us.  If I could add an additional point to Nouwen’s, it would be this, “It’s easier to like the cross, than to die on it.”

Knowing, being and doing aren’t always hand in hand.  To lead, as Nouwen points out, is to be led.  It is to offer ourselves up.  It is to trade our dreams of power for something beyond ourselves.

Five years later, Nouwen still says it best: “What makes the temptation of power so seemingly irresistible?  Maybe it is that power offers an easy substitute for the hard task of love.  It seems easier to be God than to love God, easier to control people than to love people, easier to own life than to love life.”

when did porn cost so much?

The Epidemic of Pornography

Back In The Day
I remember in the 9th grade, I could buy a magazine or a video for a few dollars from a kid at school who may have taken it from his dad.  Getting my hands on something pornographic wasn’t difficult at all.

It could have been on trading cards or something else gimmicky.  I even remember a pen, that when held upside down revealed a nude women inside it.  This cheap trinket was probably sold at a highway truck stop for kicks and eventually sojourned into the hands of eager adolescent boys who giggled and laughed at it.

It was peddled with cigarettes and marijuana.  It was stuffed in lockers and book bags, gleefully peeking out at anyone who dared look.

“Over time, the porn peddlers grew up…”

Then along came the internet – the discount retailer of pornography.  Every aisle has something different and something cheaper.  Like perusing the store and finding the most obscure items, the internet offers variety at a price everyone can afford: cheap.  Monthly subscriptions took the place of magazines and videos.

Over time, the porn peddlers grew up.  They graduated with business and marketing degrees to build an empire and pricing structure that everyone can afford: free.  Mark Zuckerberg may have transformed social media but it’s pornographers who pushed the boundaries of what the internet was even capable of in the first place.

The New Normal
Pornography is available in the living rooms, offices, bedrooms of anyone with an internet connection.  Locker room talk for adolescent boys turns into “no-talk” for adult men.  The stigma associated with pornography consumption is often masked with pubescent humor: seen Superbad?  It’s always easier to laugh away our shame than to confront its sources.

Porn consumption is not just limited to men either.  An increasing number of women are turning to porn to see their fantasies acted out, to avoid intimacy in a relationship, and simply to aid masturbation.  Imagery is increasingly replacing literature to enhance a women’s libido.

“The average age of first porn exposure is 11…”

Psychologists argue whether pornography should be diagnosed as “addicting” but the behaviors are remarkably similar.  With the same physiological effects of a cocaine high, WebMD offers this information:

“One of the key features of addiction…is the development of a tolerance to the addictive substance.  In the way that drug addicts need increasingly larger doses to get high…addicts need to see more and more extreme material to feel the same level of excitement they first experienced.

Jonathan Stone wrote an amazing post on the addictive nature of porn.  Here is just a sample of some of the statistics he gathered:

  • 90% of youth ages 8-16 have viewed porn online.
  • 63% of youth ages 14-16 say they can easily access porn on their mobile phone.
  • The largest single group viewing porn is ages 12-17.
  • The average age that children are exposed to porn is 11 years old.
  • Porn is often not sought when discovered the first time.
  • Porn gives children (and adults) unrealistic ideas about sex.

The True Cost of Porn
Please don’t mistake this post as a rant for the moral majority or ammunition for retaking the White House.  This issue transcends the cultural milieu of conservative versus liberal and speaks to the heart of humanity.

Pornography costs more than money to use.  It’s accessibility and legality offer it marketability that drug dealers could only ever dream of.  So how do we pay for our porn addictions?

Here are just a few ways:

  1. The illusion of control – Porn typically culminates in masturbation.  This is often less about feeling good and more about attempting to control our own lives.  It’s an escape mechanism.  It’s a way to deal with stress by employing fantasies that aren’t based in reality.  Had a bad day?  Things aren’t working out at the office or at home?  Relieve some of that pressure by indulging in pornography.  You deserve it, right?  Wrong – coping with the stresses of life outside of your identity in Christ can just as easily lead to a computer screen as it can to the bottom of a bottle.
  2. The objectification of people – My pastor recently helped our community to frame pornography as more than just a physiological issue but also as a social justice issue with the help of Chris Hedges’ Empire of Illusion.  By saying that pornography is OK, we are actively ceding to the commodification of women, men and children.  The human body is now something to be consumed rather than celebrated.  How can we teach our children that pornography is wrong?  By defining and respecting others as more than just a body but as a whole person.
  3. Our relationships – Husbands, do you want to teach your children the intrinsic value of your wife as a person and mate?  Then love her unconditionally and lavishly in front of them.  Porn used to just cost a few dollars or time away from other activities.  It now costs marriages and relationships.  Nobody likes to be compared to an unrealistic image or have to live up to an unrealistic expectation but that’s what pornography represents.  Even the cheap romance novels that capture the imaginations of so many women inculcate a notion of sex that real men can’t emulate.  Sure, porn is monetarily free…but it’s going to cost a lot more than time or money.

Where To Go From Here
I don’t write this post as a distant journalist watching the war from his hotel room.  I write this post from the trenches of my shame and my victories, with mortar shells landing all around.  Sometimes it feels like I’m gaining ground and sometimes it feels like the enemy is pushing me back.

I trust that my life is hidden in Christ and my righteousness is secure in the Cross but there is still a target on me.  I still get stressed.  I still want to cope with the ups and downs of life with my most basest of impulses.  I still want to hide my sin and shame behind the façade of religious perfection.

“You are more than the sum of your battle wounds…”

The only potential difference is that I have a family who loves me through their understanding of the Cross.  I have a band of brothers who hold my arms up when I want to quit.  I have a faith and hope that I am more than the sum of my battle wounds.  I believe the same for you.

Here are some weapons for the war:

visible families in the (in)visible kingdom.

WHO CAME FIRST?
Before there were kingdoms or empires, before governments or sovereigns, states and tribes there were families.  No matter the meta-narrative (or grand story of the universe) you ascribe to, you have a mother and a father.

(in)visible kingdom, families, devotions, Renovatus Church

Thankfully, our science hasn’t quite ‘progressed’ to the imagination of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World where children are “created, ‘decanted’ and raised in hatcheries.”

If you are reading this, take heart, for you weren’t born in a hatchery.  Memories of family past might be isolated to pain but it’s a human pain because you are human and have a family.

The idea of family instigates a whole host of emotions, ranging from nostalgic to ambivalent to bitter.  That fact alone testifies to the sheer power and influence of our families.

Although it’s tempting to do so, I’m not writing to reignite the Moral Majority’s argument for defining a family.  That definition is far more contextually and culturally defined than most Southern Evangelical’s are willing to admit.

I am writing to affirm one truth: that the family unit is the seed-bed and proving ground for our understanding of life itself.  The story starts with family.

Yeah…it’s that big of a deal.

So who came first?  The family did.  The Trinity itself testifies to a familial pattern: Father, Son & Holy Spirit.  Argue with that.

SO WHAT IS THE (IN)VISIBLE KINGDOM?
Renovatus Church recently started a new series based on Paul’s letter to the Colossians.  This new series is called (in)Visible Kingdom.

Paul wrote to a group of Christians who were living in an empire where Caesar was exalted to godhood.  They lived in a tension where faith in Caesar was as justified as faith in Christ.

We live in a similar culture where faith in state, government and even church are tempting replacements for our faith in Christ.  Welfare, social security and gym memberships are our society’s new sacraments or means of grace.

Our families live in a tension between the visible kingdoms of this world and the invisible kingdom of the world to come.  That invisible kingdom is sometimes hard to see while in the 9-5 rat-race, the toy section of Wal-Mart, listening to the top 40 Billboard hits, studying divorce rates, affected by the epidemic of pornography, etc.

We need an alternative to what’s visible…

HOW DO WE MOVE FROM VISIBLE TO (IN)VISIBLE?
Paul’s task wasn’t to remove the families of Colossae from the Roman Empire.  There was no Branch Davidian or Kool-Aid to drink.  There was no scarlet letters and no Christian Broadcasting Network.

Instead, Paul set out to help the Colossians re-imagine alternative ways of being/doing “family”.   He did this in three basic ways:

  1. He sought to move them from faith in Caesar to faith in Christ.  Tell your children “For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him.
  2. He sought to move them from a religion about Jesus to a relationship with Jesus.  Remind your family, “human commands and teachings…have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value…”
  3. He sought to bind the family in love: “clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.

Moving from visible to (in)visible isn’t easy.  The chips are stacked against you.  Hollow and deceptive philosophies wait to take you captive.  Caesar’s still around.

To help you over the next few weeks, devotions will be available to the families of Renovatus.  These devotions will help families dive deeper into Paul’s letter to the Colossians.

Lean into these devotions, lean onto each other and trust in the sovereignty of Christ.  The visible pain of family past will soon be transformed into the (in)visible witness of God’s faithfulness.

why ‘Girl With the Dragon Tattoo’ is hurting woman: a response.

The following is a response I wrote to Karen Swallow Prior’s piece titled “Why ‘Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” Is Hurting Woman“.  It is not an exhaustive review of the books (which I have read) or the American version of the movie (which I have not seen).  Please read her original article to gain context in my post.  If you respond to this post, please do so respectfully and please distinguish between commenting on the books or movies (either Swedish or American versions). 

Karen,

After reading your article I’m confused.  In the same sentence you disclaim “This isn’t a film review and…I offer analysis based only on the film.”  From that, I can’t really discern what you’re driving at so I’ll try to figure it in this response.

Character study has rightly informed the way we see ourselves for as long as characters have been created.  It’s part of the beauty of literature, film and all media.  In your case, being introduced to a character through a Facebook status is a rather recent phenomenon however.  Facebook and Twitter have afforded us the privilege to form quick uninformed opinions about things for which we previously were forced to seriously chew on and investigate.  This is true in your owns words, “My immediate reaction, though I knew nothing at that point about the book or the character, was ‘uh oh'”.

My main critique of your article isn’t whether Lisbeth Salander should or shouldn’t be regarded as a heroine.  For the rest of the world that doesn’t read first-world evangelical posts like these, Lisbeth Salander is and will be regarded as a hero for better or for worse and in some cases should be.  While your (and mine) hero, the one “placed upon…a mere plank and crossbeam” is the greatest character study of all, his story has yet to be discovered by many a victim of sexual injustice and Salander will have to suffice for standing up against said injustice.

Don’t take me wrong, I’m not nihilistic or cynical enough to say if Stieg Larsson is all you’ve got, that’s all you’ll get.  However, I’m realistic enough to know that my definition of sexual injustice or my fight against gender prejudice can’t be informed by someone’s facebook status, clothing line or even David Fincher‘s Hollwood star-crossed vision of Larsson’s book.

You say that Lisbeth Salander is hurting women yet you don’t provide any statistical or even anecdotal evidence of such.  Your credibility to make such claims stems from “watch[ing] [a] friend undergo self-injury, sexual victimization, sexual deviancy, drug addiction, institutionalization, and the occasional come-to-Jesus moment”?   I hate to break it to you but I have those friends too.  They are guys, fully masculine and fully devoted to a spiritual struggle that extends well past the publication of a swedish mystery novel.

Going back to my initial confusion at what you were driving at with this article…are you trying to rescue women from stereotypical chains that Hollywood places on them?  If so, I would contend that you are using this platform to perpetuate chains that are placed on men as well.  You write, “She has the smarts and independence men increasingly expect in a post-feminist world, makes a great work partner, stitches up a bullet hole with vodka and dental floss, rides a motorcycle, initiates sex (and does girls, too), makes breakfast the morning after, brings herself to orgasm while her partner lies back and thinks about work—all the while staying (largely) emotionally unattached. She’s essentially a breasted boy.”

So…that means all boys are just great work partners, stitch bullet holes with vodka and dental floss, ride motorcycles and initiate sex?  All boys bring ourselves to orgasm while staying emotionally unattached?  Karen, are you married, do you have a boyfriend or have a son?  Do you assign these stereotypical cliche’s to them as well?  Hopefully, the other men who are reading this post and sincerely following Christ the best way they know how won’t be offended by the same unjust prejudices that you herein propagate.  I’ll clue you in…not all men get off on these movies, their imagery and feel the need to beat their chest when movies like these are made.

I get it.  You went and watched a movie that has some seriously disturbing themes and you had an emotional response.  Did you apply the same Facebook-litmus test to last years sordid tale of female sexual deviancy, Black Swan?  Darn it, Hollywood why do you continue to define my view of all women as sexually repressed, catty, snobby, closet-ballerinas, jealous with low self-esteem.  Geez, those male directors and their need to compensate.

Well, hats off to the Stiegster for accomplishing his goals: awareness of sexual deviancy, injustice and *gasp* swedish culture.  It’s too bad he’s not around to chat with Darren Arrenovsky or the execs at MGM and Columbia.  All we have of Larsson are three books from which to derive a character that should and will be studied, admired and hated.  The joy of film is that it can be watched but the lasting beauty of literature is that it can be read, again and again.  From the pages of books we continue to peel back the “layers of our own facade”.  I’m so glad the Lord reveals our facade’s in more than one Book.

With Respect,
Jonathan Simmons

confessions of a formerly-retired children’s pastor.

I came out of retirement this year.  Jonathan Stone helped to remind me of that, although I would argue that ‘retirement’ is a bit of a misnomer in that I did have intentions of returning to ‘work’.  That work, in the words of Frederick Buechner, is to “tell the truth of the Gospel, as tragedy, comedy and fairy tale.”

Telling that truth as a professional requires (or should require) degrees of pathos, ethos and logos and in our tradition, a piece of paper.  When the Gospel unfolded in my life as tragedy more than comedy or fairy tale, I surrendered that piece of paper and various pieces of myself in the process.

That was over two and a half years ago now.  My battles with cynicism volleyed my thoughts between returning to ministry as a professional and remaining hidden in the bulwarks of history.  Shame can do that to a man.  At the behest of wise counsel I stuck my big toe in the waters of ministry and rapidly found myself again swimming in the deep end.

Enter Jonathan #3.  Good grief, this literal giant of a man saw fit to make his church a home for my redemption as a man and a minister.  Renovatus, a church for people under renovation, is aptly titled via Latin, meaning “renovation, renewal, change“.  Jonathan Martin, of anyone I know, believes that the Gospel is told best through the tapestry of our lives be it tragic, comedic or ridiculous.

That being said, I must provide the caveat that returning to ministry (or any vocation) depends greatly upon the context of where one lands.  I publicly confess that Renovatus has largely restored my faith in an organized, evangelical, pentecostal community.  Thus, my learned lessons/confessions have a bent that are different from Jonathan’s Stone’s confessions or anyone else who might be reading this.

Alright Stone, so what have I learned since “coming out of retirement”?  I’ll pick three things than can be summarized in a blog post:

  1. My ministry, the summary power, manifestation and credibility thereof is directly correlated to how I treat and relate to my wife.  While I believe this to be true to all married ministers, in my case it’s especially important.  My betrayal of her trust was the capstone of my dis-integration.  If I am to be a whole, integrated “teller of the truth” then my soul is to be naked before her.  This has affected the time I spend at the office, the time I spend answering e-mails and making phone calls.  It’s affected how I spend my time off.  It’s also affected the integration of my ministry.  We don’t just meet with parents, we meet with couples.  Our volunteers are no longer commodities, a means to an end.  They are the end themselves. 
  2. I’ve started listening to the flock.  I had a mentor, Herschell Baker, who helped me understand that the voice of God can be discerned by the laity as much as the clergy.  Stone, you alluded to this when you said “I have come to realize that the things that build me up and feed me in church have very little to do with church service programming and sermon content.”  I used to drive to mega-churches and meet with their staff, go to their conferences and soak up their methods.  I’ve since learned that those churches (for better or for worse) are largely a mix of big personalities, large coffers and right-place/right-timeI’m not as interested as I once was in forcing “big-church” programming on people, especially those in exodus from “Egypt”.  Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t an ideological discourse against the big churches of Charlotte.  I love their excellence.  I’ve simply become more interested in the voices right here vs. over there.  Bonus: It’s made me a tad more bearable to be around too.
  3. If I can plant any seed in a child, I want it to be a love for scripture.  Children learn best in play and they also learn best from a narrative.  The bible provides a context for children to read their own story into and from.  While “retired”, I spent my time working for Target, a corporation very good at what it does.  They are helping to define the next generation of children as mini-consumers.  Disney does a great job with this too.  If I see my job as anything now, it’s not to compete with the YMCA or Disney.  It’s to help families value liturgy, sacraments, worship and the beauty of scripture.  I want to affect a generation of children in a “new way to be human”.  If I can somehow hide any attempt at my legacy behind the story of reconciliation, then I’ve done well.

I completely resonate with Jonathan Stone’s confessions pre-, mid-, and post-retirement.  Going into and out of retirement under my terms, however, has me reflecting more introspectively than his questions originally warranted.  I know he’ll indulge me though.

Finally, Beuchner also said that if the truth is worth telling, it is worth making a fool of yourself to tell.  It is with the same hand that God uses to chastise his beloved sons and daughters, that he uses to usher them sweetly into his lap and embrace.  As you read these words, know that this fool is currently resting with bruised hips in the lap of his Lord.