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DONKEYS AND ELEPHANTS, OH MY!    Mark 12:13-17      

I’m really glad that you’re here today.  We are on week two of a series that we’re calling “Brave in the New World.”  A number of months ago we did a church survey, and one of the questions we asked on that survey was “What are some of the things you’d like to see more teaching on?”  Turns out, you guys like hard subjects and we made a series out of a lot of those answers, so over the next few weeks, we’re wrestling with a number of difficult subjects.  We’re calling the series “Brave in the New World,” because in case you haven’t noticed, the world is changing.  How many of you would agree?  The world is changing at a pretty rapid pace, and if you’re a follower of Jesus….   First of all, if you’re not, we’re really glad that you’re here today, because you get sort of the window-shopping view of how the church wrestles with difficult issues, so I’m glad you’re here.  But if you are a follower of Christ, my guess is you’re wondering how in the world do I live out my faith, in the public sphere, in a world that’s changing so quickly?  That’s the question we’re going to be wrestling with over the next few weeks.  Essentially, if it’s off limits at Thanksgiving dinner, we’re going to talk about it over the next few weeks.  If you say to your friends and family, “We don’t talk about that here, because we all want to remain friends,” it’s coming up.  I sort of jokingly said that maybe after this series we’ll do a teaching series on church unity, because we’re going to need it.

Last week we said that the church of the future will be a creative minority that has influence without power.  Essentially, the way forward is the way back.  The early church had almost NO power politically or socially, but over a few hundred years, developed great experience.  We opened up Acts 4 and we saw the way that the church had influence, in the way that it proclaimed Jesus and that its message was very, very clear.  In the way that it embraced the fact that there was going to be opposition and they didn’t expect a red carpet to be rolled out.  In the way that they prioritized being people who had been with Jesus; we said, last week, that the world needs more people present in it who have been present with Jesus.

Today, we’re going to lay over that paradigm that we set forth last week, everybody’s favorite issue.  The issue of politics.  I have three goals today:  One, to show you that Jesus wasn’t adverse to talking politics.  Number two, my goal is to be an equal opportunity offender.  I hope everyone of you walks out of these doors and goes, “I don’t know if I like that Paulson guy.”  My goal, if I’m successful, will have you walking out of here going, “I’m not exactly sure where Paulson stands politically.”  Those are, all three, my goals.

The question is:  What is/are politics?  Politics is literally the science of government.  It’s the way that we organize our collective life together.  The word politics comes from the Greek word “polis,”  which is where we get our word city or community.  Politics is the way that we decide through laws and policies that we are going to operate as a collective group of people.  If you’re part of a city, you’re a part of politics.  If you’re part of a community, you’re a part of politics.  Politics is sort of one of these necessary evils, in a sense.  We need politics, we need government, because without government the lowest of the low, the oppressed, the weak, get absolutely run over and taken advantage of.  Politics are there to protect the people that are the most vulnerable.  Because we are fallen people, we need politics, we need government.  But look up at me for a second.  Because we are fallen people, politics and governments are messy.  Anyone want to say Amen to that?

If I were to try to summarize our current political landscape—and I don’t have enough time this morning to trace for you how we got to this place, only to state it at least as a perceived reality on my part; you can agree or disagree—my one word would be…divided.  I would follow that up, maybe as a close second to volatile.  It feels like a volcano that’s just sort of bubbling and every once in a while it erupts.  It erupts over presidential elections.  It erupts over gun laws, over gay marriage, over economic policy, over immigration, over race relations and race riots.  We are a divided people.

In some ways, the world always has been.  If you have your Bible, open with me to Mark 12.  Let me set a little bit of context while you’re finding Mark 12.  Jesus has been asked a question about his authority and now he’s going to be asked a question about his politics.  Explicitly stated in this text is the reason that people are asking this question; they want to trap Jesus.  Politics was a contentious subject 2000 years ago.  Not a whole lot has changed, has it?  They’re turning up the dial.  Jesus is marching towards his crucifixion and, subsequently, his resurrection.  People want to pin Jesus, to have a reason to kill him, so here’s what they do:  And they sent to him some of the Pharisees and some of the Herodians, to trap him in his talk. {They wanted to get him to say something that would infuriate one of these groups.}  And they came and said to him, “Teacher, we know that you are true and do not care about anyone’s opinion. For you are not swayed by appearances, but truly teach the way of God.  Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not? Should we pay them, or should we not?” 

I read that in a condescending manner, because, as you’ll find out, they ask it in a condescending manner.  Here’s what they want to do:  Two groups of people that, previous to Jesus—Jesus united them around hatred to Him, weren’t really friends.  You had the Herodians.  There perspective was: If we can get the right person on the throne, if we can get someone from the Herodian line to step back into power in Judea, then Israel will flourish.  We just need the right person on the throne and then everything’s going to be okay.  These people had zero trouble paying taxes.  It was in their benefit; let’s get the right person elected.  On the other hand, you had the Pharisees.  The Pharisees were more “religiously pure,” maybe.  They felt like no, no, no, no, no, it’s not getting a Herodian elected, it’s having the Messiah come.  The Messiah will rule.  The Messiah will reign.  If He comes, then everything will be okay.  The Pharisees resented, with every fiber of their being, the fact that they had to pay these taxes.

So you see the position Jesus is in.  He’s in a no-win situation.  They ask the question because they want to force Jesus to compromise, either politically—by siding with the Pharisees, or theologically—by siding with the Herodians.  Here’s the problem with trying to pin Jesus into a corner.  He’s brilliant, that’s the problem.  Here’s how he responds:  But, knowing their hypocrisy, he said to them, “Why put me to the test?  Bring me a denarius and let me look at it.”  And they brought one.  And he said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” They said to him, “Caesar’s.”  

It was a silver coin, probably around 18 cents in value.  On one side of it, it had a picture of Caesar and it had the inscription Tiberius Caesar, son of the Divine Augustus.  It was a declaration: Caesar is the son of god.  If you would flip the coin to the other side you would see a picture of a woman who was the personification of the Roman Empire, Roma.  It was a picture of worship of Caesar and worship of Rome.  Not surprisingly, there were a number of people in Israel of the pharisaical party, zealots, who had an issue with paying this head tax.  In fact, there was a man named Judas the Galilean who previously led a revolt that got shot down over this tax.  It was a contentious issue, to say the least.

When Jesus held that coin, he wasn’t just holding money, he was holding a way.  He was holding a picture of the way that the world works, where if you have power, you get to oppress the people you don’t like.  If you own the sword, then you get to make the rules.  The Pharisees thought, “If we could just get Jesus’s picture on that coin, if we could just get Jesus elected, if we could just get the Messiah in office, well, then we will be okay.”  That was their hope.

Which makes Jesus’s response all the more interesting.  Here’s what he says:  Jesus said to them, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”  And they marveled at him.    They were like Jesus, that wasn’t one of the options.  We wanted you to either side with the Pharisees, the theological conservatives, or the Herodians, those liberals.  We wanted you to pick a side.  We wanted you to tell us where you stand.  Jesus is like, I’m way smarter than you and you will not pigeon-hole me in these false dichotomies of choosing from binary options—Option A and Option B.  He goes, I’ll see you Option C, D, E, and F, thank you very much.

Jesus doesn’t call his disciples to opt out of government.  He doesn’t call his disciples to opt out of politics.  If you’re part of a public community, you’re distinctly a part of politics.  He also doesn’t call them to think that people in positions of power have the ability to replace God.  Do you see what he’s doing?  He’s choosing a  brilliant third way.  Yeah, government has power, but its power is limited.  Followers of Christ are called to live IN the kingdom while being a part of the empire.  Deciding to live in Jesus’s kingdom does not mean that we are just taken out of the empire, or the state.  As Paul would write to the church at Rome, in Romans 13:1 — Let every person be subject to the governing authorities.  For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.   In 1 Timothy 2, Paul would write to Timothy, living in Ephesus at the time, and said Timothy, I command you, have men everywhere, have people everywhere, to pray for their governing authorities, pray for their leaders.  I checked and I can’t find any Bible that has a footnote at the bottom that says: The ones you agree with.  It just says: Pray for them.  If it’s Nero, pray for him.  If it’s Domitian, pray for him.  If it’s Obama, pray for him.  If it’s Trump, pray for him.  Pray for them….period.  Because you’re not taken out of the empire when you become a follower of Jesus.  You’re placed in the kingdom and you have to learn this dance of living with your feet in two different worlds.

Which I think some of our forefathers got.  We have this principle in the U.S. called “the separation of church and state.”  There’s a lot of misunderstanding about that idea.  Most people think it’s a part of the Constitution.  It wasn’t a part of the Constitution.  It was actually written by Thomas Jefferson in 1802, when he wrote to the Danbury Baptist Association and said there shall be a wall of separation between the church and the state.  There’s a clause in the Constitution that’s similar, but it’s not in the Constitution.  When most people think about the separation between church and state, they think the church will never have anything to say to the state.  That the two shall be completely separate and never connect.  I just want to tell you that was not the original intent of the separation of church and state.  The separation of church and state was intended to free the church from being controlled and supported and oppressed by the state.  We are one of the first countries in the history of the world that would not be directly, officially affiliated with any ONE religious institution.  Essentially, the U.S. is founded on this ground that said every religion has the same ability and the unique ability to create a following.  Look up at me for a moment.  As a follower of Jesus, I love this.  I love this, because I am convinced that the most fertile ground for Christianity to flourish is religious pluralism, where the best ideas generally win.  Because I am convinced, with every fiber of my being, that Jesus’s ideas are best.

I applaud that.  I’m for that.  But there’s some implications for that also.  See, as followers of Jesus our goal should be a nation where we are free to be Christians.  That’s our goal, like judiciously, in policy, in government….that’s our goal: To be a nation where, as followers of Jesus, we are free to follow Jesus.  But that also means that we must advocate for people to be free to be Jews, and Muslims, and Buddhists, and Mormons, and Humanists, and Atheists.  If we are going to be for “religious freedom,” we have to be for ALL religious freedom.  Separation of church and state said we’re not going to judge you based on theology, we’re going to judge you based on action.  To that I say Yes and Amen.

Maybe you’re asking, “Alright, Paulson, what does that look like?”  Roll give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and give to God what is God’s into 2019.  Well, let me just start by saying let’s not make it overly simplistic.  Our two favorite options, Jesus takes away.  He takes away the ability to just say, “I’m just going to check out and separate.”  There’s a group of people called the Essenes.  If you went and saw the Dead Sea Scrolls when they were at the Museum of Nature and Science—-I hope you saw them, they were awesome—those were written by the Essenes.  They were part of developing the Qumran community which was near the Dead Sea, hence the name.  They were people who said to Rome, “The heck with you! We’re going to form our own little religious community away from everybody else, and we’re going to do our own thing in holiness and purity, because holiness is defined by what we don’t do.”  Jesus says, “Give to Caesar.”   You also have the Zealots, who were like, we’re going to overthrow the Caesar.  We’re going to get our guy in office and then everything’s going to be good.  To them Jesus says, “Give to God.”

Jesus disagrees with both the way of power AND the way of separation.  Here’s what he invites us to.  He invites us to be people who are engaged politically, but who speak prophetically.  This is the dance of kingdom and empire, of Jesus and state, that we live with our feet firmly planted in and on both.  Prophetically—Don’t think forth-telling.  Think of speaking truth to people in positions of power.  That’s the prophetic voice that the church needs to, in my opinion, regain.  What does it look like to live life through the lens of the kingdom, through the values of the kingdom, through the ethics of the kingdom?  When I start to do that, what starts to emerge is that there are massive flaws in both parties.  Republicans and Democrats.

This is so important, you guys, that the church regains its voice to speak prophetically, because the world needs us to play that role.  Think of what happens when we don’t.  You have the church in Germany during the Holocaust.  The German-Lutheran church that’s so in bed with the empire that they have no voice to speak out against the atrocities that are going on.  So one person recounts being in church and the church was right up against the railroad track.  During the Holocaust, those railroad tracks were used to transport Jews to concentration camps.  As those cars were packed full of human beings like they were cattle, they would go past the church and they would scream.  Here’s how this person recounts this, “We knew the time the train was coming, and when we heard the whistle blow, we began singing hymns.  By the time the train came past our church, we were singing at the top of our voices.  If we heard the screams, we sang more loudly and soon we heard them no more.  Although years have passed, I can still hear the train whistle in my sleep.  God forgive me, forgive all of us who called ourselves Christians and yet did nothing to intervene.”  That’s what happens when the church gets in bed with one political party.  We lose our voice.

So what does it look like to have a voice?  I think it looks like two things.  One, I think support your party (whichever it is).  I’m so glad I get to pastor a church that has both Republicans and Democrats in it, because both parties are broad enough and flawed enough to include followers of Jesus.  Support your party, but see its blind spots.  We can’t be so party focused that we have no ability to be able to see where our party is off.  Let’s reject the idea that this is overly simplistic.  The Bible talks about a lot of issues that are now political issues.  As a starting place:  It talks about the rights of the unborn and the value of human life.  It talks about care for the foreigner, the fatherless, and the widow.  The Bible talks about environmentalism, about foreign policy, about war and peace, about race and equality, and violence, and justice.  About economic policy and poverty.  About gun control—not explicitly about gun control, but weaponry as such—as self-defense or restraint.  It talks about education.  It talks about sexuality, and we now talk about gay-marriage and individual rights.

I show you that list to maybe help you wrestle with the fact that both Republicans and Democrats cherry-pick.  We cherry-pick which events, which policies, which things we want to focus on and which things we don’t.  Maintaining our prophetic voice, friends, requires that we recognize that neither party fully embraces the ethic of the kingdom.  Neither party.  And that’s okay.  That does not mean that you should opt out or that you shouldn’t support at all, but it does mean that you should distinguish between what you think is wise and what you think is biblical.  The Scriptures don’t give us a political system to execute, they give us principles to implement.

So, since I’m already in the deep end and I’m treading water and nobody’s throwing me any sort of life vest, let’s talk about one of the most contentious of all the issues.  Abortion.  It’s one that gets talked about a lot during political seasons.  I think it’s a good case study for us, because I am convinced that the Scriptures were way, way, WAY ahead of their time when they talked about the value of human life.  When you hear people in our day and our time talk about equality, and you hear people in our day and our time talk about human rights and human values and human dignity—lean in for a moment—you have to know that they are advocating for the way of Jesus and for Judeo-Christian values.  That’s where we get those…period.  We live in a culture and a day and a time where we want the kingdom, we want those things, but we don’t want the King.

Abortion.  Scriptures are really clear about the value of human life.   (Exodus 21:22-23)  When men strive together and hit a pregnant woman, {Quick timeout.  Can we agree that it’s pretty crazy that this was happening enough that they had to make a law out of it?}  so that her children come out, but there is no harm, the one who hit her shall surely be fined, as the woman’s husband shall impose on him, and he shall pay as the judges determine.  But if there is harm, {If the child she’s carrying dies…} then you shall pay life for life.   In the Scriptures and the law of Moses, they’re saying no, that baby in the womb is a valuable, viable human life.  Because of that, I have to be against abortion.  But I’ve never been pregnant.  I’ve never been single and pregnant, with my back up against the wall, feeling like I had no options.  I’ve never been there.  I’ve walked with a number of young women who have and it’s soul turmoil.  I think the reality, friends, of abortion—abortion isn’t going anywhere, you know that right?  I think the church needs to be wise in the way that we engage the platform.  What if our platform became….we are, as a church, distinctly for the holistic, physical, emotional, and spiritual health of ALL women?  What if, as Jim Wallis wrote, we start to engage that issue but also some other issues?  He says this:  “Instead of imposing rigid pro-choice and pro-life political litmus tests, why not work together on teen pregnancy, adoption reform, and real alternatives for women backed into dangerous and lonely corners?”  If you’re a woman here today and you’ve had an abortion, I want you to know—everybody look up at me—if that’s you, God loves you, God is for you, the church is for you.  Even as a community of faith, next fall, we’re going to launch a post-abortive support group so that you can walk with other people that have been down that road that’s really, really difficult.  I want you to know that we absolutely love you and we’re glad that you’re here.

As a church, what would it look like for us to have our theology of the right to life and value of life bleed into our politics both for the unborn and the born?  What would it look like if our right life theology influenced the way we thought about abortion and adoption?  What would it look like if that theology influenced the way that we thought about children in the womb and kids in cages?  What would it look like for that theology to bleed over into the way that we view the death penalty, race relations, drone bombings, education, and immigration?  Friends, I think this is where both side of the aisle only have half the picture and the world, whether it knows it or not, yearns for a better third way.

Yeah, let’s see the blind spots, but also, let’s be people who have an opinion, but refuse to demonize the opposition.  The way that you respond to people who disagree with you is a part of the message you deliver.  The way that you respond to people you don’t like, the way that you respond to people that you think are wrong, is a part of your message.  If you’re here going, yeah, well, Paulson, no real change happens that way.  If you’re too nice, you never get a voice.  Tell that to Nelson Mandela.  Tell that to Ghandi.  Tell that to the early church.  Tell that to Desmond Tutu.  Heck, if you’re brave enough, tell it to Jesus.  I believe that we have to become people who refuse to allow the way people treat us to determine the way that we respond to them.  If you are a follower of Jesus here today, you have given the right up to live under the “eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” way of living.  If you’re a follower of Jesus, you are commanded to love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. (Matthew 5:44-46)  That’s part of your calling, that’s part of your DNA as a child of God.  We respond in love ALWAYS, that’s who we are as followers of the way of Jesus. What if we agreed that what’s best for people is what’s best?  We could disagree on how that happens, the best policies to make that happen, but what if we said, “Our common ground is the common good?”  We’re going to stand there as firmly as we can and what’s best for people is ultimately what’s best.  Really, politics is about people.

Jesus said to them, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”  And they marveled at him.  (Mark 12:17)    They were dumbfounded.  We didn’t see the third way coming.  This little verse begs a ton of questions, doesn’t it?  Mainly, what’s Caesar’s?  Coins are Caesar’s.  The taxes are Caesar’s.  Respect is Caesar’s.  Good citizenship is Caesar’s.  You know what isn’t Caesar’s?  Worship.  Anytime we combine worship with Caesar it’s called nationalism.  The Scriptures are really, really hard on people who worship their country.  It never ends well for the country or for them.  Nationalism is sin, and I think there are probably some followers of Jesus that need to repent of it.  Patriotism—being proud of your country, while seeing its blind spots, being a supporter of your country—is not .  It can be a really, really good thing.

So you give those things to Caesar—taxes, respect, prayer.  You pray for your Caesar.  You give him all those things, but what do you give to God?  Lean in.  You pray FOR Caesar, but you pray TO God.  Here’s the distinction:  Nobody’s going to pray to Caesar or Obama or Trump, we’re not going to do that.  But, we may put our hope in them.  If this person gets elected, then everything is going to be perfect.  No, that’s praying TO.  Let’s pray FOR.  And let’s recognize that we are called to be involved in the empire, but, friends, do not miss, do not miss, please, do not miss….you’re called to be involved in the empire, but you are called to give your allegiance to Jesus, to the kingdom.   So support political reform, but don’t lose sight of spiritual revival.  Don’t let your political affiliation with either party cause you to miss the revolution that Jesus has launched.  Because one of the other things you give to Caesar is a hard time when you think he’s wrong.  Don’t just sit on your hands.

It’s interesting, Jesus asks for a coin, a denarius.  I thought about that this week.  Why does Jesus ask for a coin?  Well, because he doesn’t have one.  It’s intended to be a little bit funny.  You have somebody whose face and name is on a coin and then you have someone who’s coinless, and they’re going head-to-head about who’s the real king.  They have two different ways in front of them.  They have two different ways of operating.  They have two different ways of being.  They’re squaring off.  In Jesus’s day, Caesar technically owned every single coin that had his depiction on it.  They were rightfully his.  That’s why Jesus said, “Whose picture is on it?”  Caesar’s.  It’s his!

The question is:  Whose picture is God on?  Well, yours.  And yours.  And yours.  And yours.  His image is on ALL of us.  As it says in Genesis 1:27 — So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them.  So yeah, yeah, yeah, pay your taxes to Caesar, but give your life to Jesus.  That’s his point.  Pay your taxes to Caesar, but give your life to Jesus.  There will be times when the values of the kingdom conflict with the ethics of the empire; regardless of which side you’re on, choose the kingdom, if you’re a follower of Jesus.

Yes, there are two different ways of influence, as Jesus holds this coin.  Two kingdoms presented.  Jesus is subtly saying that he’s the king that doesn’t have a coin.  He’s the coinless king.  And yet, he owns the cattle on a thousand hills.  He’s the king that doesn’t have the power, and yet his glory permeates the entire earth.  He’s coming to bring about a revolution, but not a revolution that overthrows. A revolution from the inside out changes things.  Come on, come on.  He’s the king who is not elected because he wins an election, he’s the king because of his crucifixion.  I think probably the reason we struggle is because we actually want him to be the opposite.

When you choose kingdom, you’re freed to move beyond party loyalty to become solution oriented.  What if the church’s main platform was we don’t really care about party politics all that much, we care about people?  What’s best for people is what’s best.  That means you have to engage.  That means you have to think.  That means you have to read, and you don’t just vote along party lines.  What if you started to say no, no, no, what’s best for people is what’s best, and we want to be people who distinctly, and in a very real way, do good in our world.  Here’s the thing, this just in, this may surprise you:  If you do that, you’re going to be called wishy-washy.  You may be called heretical.  You’re not going to be everybody’s favorite person.  Man, I think it’s just such a better way that instead of choosing sides, chase a solution.  Because the thing that matters most is not the image of Caesar, it’s not a donkey and it’s not an elephant.  The thing that matters most is people.  People matter most to God.

Which is why, as Dan mentioned, we’re starting a partnership with the Department of Human Services.  Their social workers are going to real homes in our neighborhood, right here, and seeing needs.  They then email our church and say, hey, here’s the need down the street from you.  Is there anybody at South Fellowship Church that want to meet that need?  You sign up and give your email.  If you have the ability and the time and the resources to meet that need, you just simply send a response back and say, I can meet that need.  You get to go to that house and meet that need.  That’s stinkin’ awesome!!  That’s great!  Because they aren’t the enemy.  If you want to sign up for that, you can do that in the lobby right after the service.

Maybe this week your practice is just to pray for your leaders.  Pray for your local leaders; figure out what their names are and their roles are.  Pray for your national leaders.  Pray for world leaders.  You’re commanded to pray for your leaders, not the ones you like and support, but all of them.

I’ll close with this.  The nation of Israel had just walked through the desert forty years.  Moses has died and Joshua has taken over.  They’ve crossed over the Jordan River into the land that was promised to them and their first act over in that new land is an act of worship.  They celebrate the Passover for the first time in those forty years, and they reinstitute the ritual of circumcision, so all the men are circumcised.  And there’s an angel of the Lord’s army that starts to approach Joshua, and here’s the way the story goes:  When Joshua was by Jericho, he lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, a man was standing before him with his drawn sword in his hand.  And Joshua went to him and said to him, “Are you for us, or for our adversaries?”  {Are you a conservative or are you a liberal?  Are you a Republican or are you a Democrat?  Are you a Donkey or are you an Elephant?}  And he said, “No; but I am the commander of the army of the Lord.  Now I have come.”  (Joshua 5:13-14a)  Friends, the question is not whether or not God is on YOUR side, the question is whether or not YOU are on His side.  Let’s be people who plant our feet firmly in the kingdom and the empire, and let’s be people who live in the way of Jesus.

Maybe there’s no better picture of that than getting to celebrate the Lord’s Table today.  Where we come with all our political affiliations, but we recognize that above every single one of those affiliations there’s allegiance to the Kingdom and the King.  So we come as Republicans and we come as Democrats and we come as Americans and Mexicans.  We come as white and black and everything in between, but we come under one banner and that banner is that Jesus Christ is Lord.  There’s one Body.  There’s one Blood.  There’s one Table and it is His.  In all the ways that we’re different, those things are minuscule compared to the thing that we share, and that’s the declaration that the Kingdom has come and that we are His.  As you get ready to come this morning, would you prepare your heart?  Would you remind yourself of Whose you are and of who you are?  The table is open to all who are followers of Jesus, regardless of how you vote.

Jesus, this morning, we want to remember that you’ve given us this gift to live in this world, as it is, but also to live in your kingdom.  We want our feet to be firmly planted in both.  So, God, give us wisdom.  Teach us what it looks like to live in your way, with your heart.  It’s in the name of Jesus we pray.  Amen.