Sunday, November 30, 2008

Advent Conspiracy

Today is the first Sunday of Advent, and a friend posted this video on her Facebook page. It helped me think more about why Buy Nothing Day seems a good thing, but not enough. At any rate, I wanted to share it with you as well. And continue to ponder. Advent is good for that.

Checkers and other pastimes

This morning, in my email obituary update, along with the architect of the Sydney operahouse and a former leader of India, the NY Times carried an obituary for Richard L. Fortman, a warehouse foreman in Springfield, IL. His claim to fame, however, was that he was a world champion checkers player.

It's an intriguing obituary for many reasons, one of which is that it explains how one plays the game of checkers. And it's true, I suppose, that a lot of people nowadays wouldn't know what checkers is and have probably never played it.

The whole obituary is a study in analog. Fortman's specialty was playing checkers by mail, sending his moves back to opponents by postcard. But "In recent years the computer has made checkers by mail a bygone art. Mr. Fortman adapted, and to the end of his life, his daughter said, he spent hours each day playing, and winning, games online."

Intriguing for me, too, to think what will be the archaic claims to fame from my generation: experts in Grand Theft Auto, perhaps.

In a very touching finish, the obituary ends, "Last month members of the checkers world suspected that Mr. Fortman’s health was declining after he failed, highly uncharacteristically, to submit his return moves in time." It's that there is a checkers world and that one could be noticed in it that I love.

Reading this obituary was in itself a reflective act that evoked the past for me in incredibly vivid and specific forms. It made me want to slow down. And, in a triumph for both the writer and the deceased, it made me want to play checkers.

Friday, November 28, 2008

I bought something today

Today is, so I've heard, "Buy Nothing Day." I have no objection to this, but then I'm not a shopper at any time, much less on the biggest shopping day of the year. In a way, it's easy for me to support Buy Nothing Day, like it's easy for me to participate in Turn Off Your Television campaigns, or embargoes of shrimp. That's the easy part. The hard part is thinking it through and making it a consistent and comprehensive part of one's life -- the "it" here being any sort of value.

Buying, by itself, is not a value; consumerism is a value, as is abstemiousness. And what drives the buying? What beliefs lie behind our behavior? Which I think is a weakness in some of these programs. To be fair, it's a problem with Lent, too. We give up chocolate, but why? Simply from an overarching sense that Chocolate is BAD?

I'm sure the hope behind all of these fasts is to get us to think beyond the day or season and to change our behaviors. Not just to buy nothing today, but to recognize how much we buy and ask ourselves whether we need to do that or not.

I bought a newspaper today and so I cannot say that I participated in Buy Nothing Day fully, at least not in practice. But I do think that I felt the spirit of the thing as I recognized my purchase and asked myself questions about it. I didn't buy nothing, but for today at least I didn't buy mindlessly.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

A Thanksgiving Prayer

One of my very favorite prayers from the Book of Common Prayer (p. 836, if you want to look it up yourself). Happy Thanksgiving!

A General Thanksgiving

Accept, O Lord, our thanks and praise for all that you have done for us. We thank you for the splendor of the whole creation, for the beauty of this world, for the wonder of life, and for the mystery of love.

We thank you for the blessing of family and friends, and for the loving care which surrounds us on every side.

We thank you for setting us at tasks which demand our best efforts, and for leading us to accomplishments which satisfy and delight us.

We thank you also for those disappointments and failures that lead us to acknowledge our dependence on you alone.

Above all, we thank you for your Son Jesus Christ; for the truth of his Word and the example of his life; for his steadfast obedience, by which he overcame temptation; for his dying, through which he overcame death; and for his rising to life again, in which we are raised to the life of your kingdom.

Grant us the gift of your Spirit, that we may know him and make him known; and through him, at all times and in all places, may give thanks to you in all things. Amen.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008


 One of the things I didn't realize about my apartment until very recently is that it doesn't have heat. Well, it doesn't have heat per se. What it has is a gas fireplace, pictured here. It requires me to get on the floor, brandishing both a lighter and a large screwdriver which, when applied jointly and in the proper order, creates a satisfying POOF of bluish flame.

Luckily my place is very small and California, even in winter, is very warm, but I have a new appreciation for all the tricks of the heat trade: hot showers, hot beverages...and I'm doing more baking than is technically healthy. And once again I appreciate how much I take for granted---heat, water, light--that I assume should be instantly available to me.

I'm embarrassed to report how long it took me to realize there WAS no heat in my place. That's how warm it is here. There's a thermostat on the wall and I would fiddle with it and think, "My goodness, I'm cold!" but think that my natural cold-bloodedness was keeping me from appreciating the 68 degrees I was sure filled the house. After all, it was colder outside. Truly, it took me a day or so to actually believe rather than suspect that the thermostat made no difference whatsoever. Which says something, I think, about the triumph of belief over experience. Or about how slow I am.

I am coming to believe that one of the themes of the Bible is telling the truth--what's really happening, not what ought to be happening in theory. A while back, I heard an interview with Karen Armstrong (author of A History of God, among other things), who talked about her time in a convent. In the interview, she describes her convent experience as a kind of brain damage, deflecting her brain, as she says, “From its healthy bias of seeing things as they are.” That's what I'm trying to say about the Bible, is that there's a constant struggle within the Bible between the voices of people who see things as they think they ought to be and the voices of people who are trying to see things as they are. It seems to me that's a lot of what the prophets were about, with their denouncing of those who say Peace! Peace! where there is no peace. And I think that's what Jesus is about, too, with his denunciation of those who keep the law but don't understand it.

One of the reasons I changed my mind about homosexuality is that I moved from a theory-based understanding to an experiential one -- what I hope is that healthy bias of seeing things as they are. I started meeting openly gay people in college. The people I met, many of whom became my friends, weren't strange, twisted, angry or evil. They weren't willful or perverse. They did not fit the theoretical mold. I suppose I could have spent a lot of energy continuing to believe something that didn't match my experience, or worked to make my experience conform to my expectations, but I have to say, it's a lot warmer just to admit that thermostat don't work and get the heat some other way.
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Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Economics and other complexities

So the meeting at church last Wednesday that I mentioned in the entry just below was actually a presentation I made for the Armchair Travelers series at St. John's, talking about my time in Uganda. I had serious technical difficulties with Picasa scrambling my photos so that under a picture of a rhinoceros would be a caption about a "great interfaith burial site" from Pere Lachaise cemetery in France. I ended up going through a random selection of photos from the My Photos file of My Documents, which ended up working better than I thought.

But I found myself saying a refrain over and over as I talked about what I learned in Uganda. I think the main lesson I brought home from that three-month sojourn was "It's not that simple." There are no silver bullets. Microlending? Some people are entrepreneurs and some simply are not. Malaria? Nets are good, but they aren't a panacea. Foreign aid of all sort: does it do more harm than good? Does it create dependency and an aid-based economy? My relations with locals: complicated.

If I learned nothing else from my time there it's that I know very, very little.

I'm also surprised to find how hard-nosed I've become economically. I got a message recently from a friend there in Kampala, asking again about whether I could find a source to sell the paper beads they make there. The damn beads! I have come to hate the pity purchase, which is what it feels like. So damn patronizing. If people actually want the beads, that's one thing. If there's an actual market for it, fine. But to make worthless goods and sell them to people who don't want them...well, I've become whatever kind of economist it is who says, "Let the market decide without support."

I'm still struggling with this: how do you help without ennervating? How do you support without propping up? How can you be generous without being patronizing? It's something I'm going to be working on for a long time.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Black Lips and other bands: continuing my education

For my birthday, my sister made me this CD of punk music, thus furthering my education considerably. It came in a bright yellow envelope that said in large letters "CD TREAT GET READY". I wasn't ready, but I have to admit I really enjoyed it. I got into my car after going to a meeting at church on Wednesday and it was very satisfying to have some violent guitar chords greet me. I was driving on the highway, looking (I think) my usual demure self while inside the car I was listening to songs with names such as "Puker Corpse" by the band Eat Skull.

The thing that's really sad is that these are probably hugely popular and well-known bands and I am completely ignorant. I just looked up "Black Lips" on Google and found their Wikipedia article. They've been featured in Rolling Stone, Spin and the NY Times, for Pete's sake.

They even have a blog. I loved this particular entry from June 3 (they don't have a lot of entries so it's not like a plowed through piles of text to get to it):

After our show with the Raconteurs in New York I decided to go to see my friend DJ. My friend happens to be homo sexual, and he was DJing at a gay bar. After a drink or two I decided to go outside and have a cigarette. After a couple of puffs I felt a strange sensation on my leg, then I heard somebody scream "faggot". I looked down and my legs and shoes were covered in egg goo, and there were a dozen or so more hanging in the air above my head. I have been called a faggot many times, but I think this was my first official "hate crime" little did those dudes know that they didn't even get a gay man. I dig chicks.

Don't you love it?

At any rate, realizing that there are huge numbers of people in the world who know ALL ABOUT the Black Lips and other contemporary punk bands, and that these people will think this lacuna in my knowledge practically inexplicable, I offer this little quiz knowing that some of you will laugh.

Below are the names of the bands on the CD my sister sent me and the names of some bands I just made up. Can you tell which is which? Answers are in the comments.

Black Lips
The Gories
Eat Skull
Swell Maps
Black Flag
Tooker and the Blow Torches
The Hospitals
Bad Dog
Cut the Mustard
Sic Alps
Times New Viking
The Monks
The Slips

I have to admit, I think one of the fun things in life is thinking up the names of rock bands. Don't you?

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Saturday update!

My goodness, the better part of a week has gone by! Whew! So seeing as it's too late to fill you in on things as I was thinking about them, you're going to get a portmanteau blog with your saints, news, and obituaries all rolled into one.

First, today is the feast day of C.S. Lewis, of Narnia fame. I think the thing that I love most about C.S. Lewis' writings, as dated and imperialist as they can most certainly be, is that he was willing to have Christian thinking take form in popular writing styles. I actually like his science fiction trilogy a great deal, though the last book terrified me the first time I read it in high school. My parents were out and I turned on all the lights in the house.

But the point being, I think too many people think spiritual writing needs to sound Spiritual, by which I mean hoity-toity. As if it were better and more Spiritual if it's incomprehensible. And unfortunately, it seems you can fool a lot of people into thinking that if it sounds Spiritual then it probably is. C.S. Lewis did the opposite, overtly writing spiritual texts in a straightforward manner. Which has its own limitations, but at least has the advantage of being entertaining.

In the news this week, I was flabbergasted that there would be any doubt or delay about closing Camp Curry in Yosemite after a rockfall there on October 8. "An Associated Press examination of records found that rockfalls in and around 600-cabin Curry Village have been happening more frequently in the past several years, with two people killed and about two dozen injured since 1996." Part of the camp has been closed, but there's been debate about whether to keep it closed or not.

Here's my favorite quote: "'It's not inaction on our part over the past 10 years,' said Scott Gediman, the park's public affairs officer. 'It's just us saying we're going to do the scientific studies and make decisions based upon that.'"

Talk about bad use of science! And, boy howdy, does that P.A. officer make Yosemite sound like jerks.

Yesterday afternoon, the National Park Service decided to permanently close 1/3 of the cabins in Camp Curry. Excellent lead (lede) in the Chronicle: "Visitors to Yosemite will be less likely to be crushed under a cascade of giant boulders tumbling down from the cliff above Curry Village but may have more difficulty finding lodging under a decision announced Friday by the National Park Service." I'd say not getting crushed under a cascade of boulders is a huge upside.

Among the many wonderful obits of interesting people this week, this opener caught my eye: "Bette S. Garber, the Cartier-Bresson of big-rig trucking, died on Nov. 13 in Philadelphia."

Among the small but lively fraternity of photojournalists who specialize in documenting trucks and truckers, Ms. Garber was considered the foremost in the country.

Did you know there was a small but lively fraternity of photojournalists who specialize in documenting trucks and truckers? I didn't. You really have to read the whole thing. It's delightful.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Reading update

I'm pleased to report that I'm getting a lot more reading done now that the election is over. I seem to have quite a bit more time in general, which makes me wonder what-all I was doing with all that time.

At the moment, I'm reading a terrific book by Michael Lewis called "The Blind Side," which is a good football season read, and I'm not even a football fan. It's a fantastic story of a kid becoming a college football player, but it's not really about that. It's about a miraculous life, actually, and I'm tempted to say God's redeeming work, but you can say wonderful coincidence if that's more your cup of tea. And I also now know what a left tackle does, which makes me feel like a more well-rounded person. At any rate, I highly recommend it.

This picture is of the kid in question, and of the family that adopted him. It's a wonderful story.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Changing my mind

So I have revised my thinking since this post when I claimed that protesting the passage of Prop 8 was not going to change anyone's mind. Today was a national day of protest, and the thing that was really fabulous about it is that the protests were everywhere. It wasn't just us left coast weirdos. It was, I think, a chance for people all over the country to "come out of the closet" -- as supportive of gays and lesbians whether or not they are gay themselves.

This picture is from a protest in Grand Forks,ND. North Dakota!

All day Andrew Sullivan has been publishing "The View from your Protest" from all over the U.S.--a great range of sizes and events, but from all parts of the U.S. Here's his post from the Grand Forks protest:

A reader writes:

Here in Grand Forks, ND, about 75 protesters gathered in from of the City Hall and then marched to the Town Square. The turnout was thrilling, but more encouraging were the passersby. College-aged men in pickup trucks pumping fists and flashing peace signs. Women reaching over from passenger seats and honking their husbands' horns. Elderly folks smiling and waving. Not a single person yelled anything out of a car window. Come to think of it, I only saw one middle finger the whole day!

I'm a politically active 25 year-old law student, and I really do think--at least it feels like--this is our generation's Stonewall.

When Stonewalls are happening in North Dakota, it's more than Stonewall. It's the Awakening. The Mormon campaign to void our civil marriages woke us up. Thanks, LDS! Sometimes, you have to see the bigotry in front of you before you realize you have to overcome it.

Kudos to the people who whipped up the support and the activities that allowed these peaceful protests to emerge all over the nation. That being said, I do think the action needs to continue, that a day of protest is only the beginning. And I look forward to seeing where we go from here.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Florence Wald

Florence Wald "died on Saturday at her home in Branford, Conn. She was 91." I hope she died peacefully, seeing as she was the founder of the hospice movement in this country.

I hope she died peacefully in any event, and the likelihood that she did is greater because of her own work. She started a hospice in Connecticut in 1974, the first one in the U.S. and a program and process that is now common: "There are now more than 3,000 hospice programs in the United States, serving about 900,000 patients a year."

I really loved this section from the obituary:
She was troubled by a medical ethic that insisted on procedure after procedure.

“In those days, terminally ill patients went through hell, and the family was never involved,” she said. “No one accepted that life cannot go on ad infinitum.”

And now we do, or at least are more likely to accept the finitude of our lives. Not only did she make dying easier, I think she made life better. And not only did she change how we are able to die, she changed the way the medical establishment approached death as well. I think that's an incredible accomplishment.

Expect something else to become commonplace: hospice in prisons.
In recent years, Mrs. Wald had concentrated on extending the hospice care model to dying prison inmates.

“People on the outside don’t understand this world at all,” Mrs. Wald told The New York Times in 1998. “Most people in prison have had a rough time in life and haven’t had any kind of education in how to take care of their health.”

And, she added, “There is the shame factor, the feeling that dying in prison is the ultimate failure.”

Part of Mrs. Wald’s solution was to train inmate volunteers to care for the dying. Besides comforting the terminally ill, she said, the program would save taxpayers’ money and “have rehabilitative qualities for these volunteers.”

More than 150 inmate volunteers in Connecticut prisons have since been trained, and the model is now being molded for residents of veterans’ homes in the state.

Here's a person who could imagine good things into existence. May we all be so fortunate, and how fortunate we are for the work she did.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Even I am not that desperate for baked goods.

This is a shop across the street from the dog food store. The juxtaposition...not so much.
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Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Charles Simeon

Today being a Wednesday, I was curious to see who was up to be remembered in the calendar of Lesser Feasts and Fasts and was pleased to see it was someone I did not know at all: Charles Simeon. Interesting fellow and one I doubt I would have the courage or perseverance to emulate.

In the late 1700's, just after finishing his training at Cambridge, Simeon was appointed the "curate-in-charge" at Trinity Church, Cambridge. Oooh, much unpleasantness ensued: parishioners refused to come and locked the doors of their pews so visitors didn't have any place to sit. When Simeon rented chairs at his own expense, the churchwardens threw them out. Students hurled bricks through the windows.

What I'm still not sure about is exactly what Simeon did to merit such opprobrium. It's especially odd, since he ended up staying at Trinity for over 50 years "gradually winning over his parishioners and making a great impact that reached well beyond Cambridge." At his death, over half the university came to pay their respects.

Simeon, in other avenues, founded the Church Missionary Society in England, and the University and College Christian Fellowship, also known as the Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship in the United States and Canada, and the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students elsewhere. He established a trust, later known as the Simeon Trust, to purchase the "livings" or "advowsons"—the right to appoint the priest-in-charge—of various parishes. And, if that weren't enough, "His magnum opus is his twenty-one volume Horae Homiletica— a collection of expanded, sermon outlines from all sixty-six books of the Bible."

Sounds like a good, hardworking guy. So what exactly did he do that got people so riled? Maybe nothing. And maybe that's a good lesson: just because people are throwing bricks through your window doesn't mean you're doing anything wrong.

This seems to me an excellent example of turning the other cheek. For a long time I've thought that turning the other cheek in no way means backing down. It means staying in place, neither apologizing not attacking. God knows I don't think I'm called to do what Charles Simeon did, but apparently Charles Simeon was, and God bless him for it.

Butch and George

The Chronicle (online at least) has been rife with stories of animals returning home, always a beautiful thing.

The first was yesterday, the story of Butch, a 150-year-old tortoise who had been in the family since 1943(!) and had disappeared six weeks ago, who suddenly reappeared back home.

The second, in today's paper, is of George, a cat missing for 13 years! He was microchipped and the animal control people who pulled him from the mobile home in which he had been living returned him to his owners.

These are small stories, but lovely ones with details such as the three dogs licking Butch's shell and George's owner who "found myself making small bargains with a God I've never believed in and want whatever is best (for) him."

There's something about the lost being found that's so powerful. The unexpectedness of it; the timing of it; the not having known what had happened being suddenly erased. And even though I have nothing to do with these families, I found myself being relieved and happy for them, so glad that these small living things had come home.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Obituaries, canine edition

Headline: "World's ugliest dog dies after battle with cancer." Read it here.

"The St. Petersburg Times in Florida reports that Gus, a Chinese crested dog, had cancer. He was 9. Gus was rescued from a bad home and went on to win the annual World's Ugliest Dog contest at the Sonoma-Marin Fair in northern California" earlier this year.

Blessings, Gus.

Thoughts on the passage of Prop 8 and where to go from here

The image here should actually be, "Keep trying," but I thought this was pretty good.

Of course I was disappointed by the ratification of Proposition 8. But I have to say that I'm very disturbed and disappointed by the reaction to its passage, as understandable as it is. BECAUSE I think the protests, the marches, the things that are getting the press and publicity are not going to be effective in reversing the decision! And that's the key point, isn't it? Reversing the decision?

In my opinion, there's been reaction without organization and people taking shots at easy targets in easy ways, taking advantage of the understandable anger and hurt, but in ways that I feel won't actually make a difference. In fact, they may actually be detrimental. Why waste people's energies this way?

Instead, why not take some time to grieve, to admit people need to grieve, but also focus energy on changing people's minds. And I don't think that's going to be done by having a protest march in the Castro, for God's sake.

Why not set up stations where gay and lesbian couples can write stories of why they got married, or gay and lesbian singles can write about why getting married is important to them, take their photos, and set up a website that can be floating around for the next couple of years until the issue is re-introduced on the ballot?

Why not get a bus tour of gay and lesbian families who can travel to the inland empire and counties that voted for the proposition so people can meet each other and see that no one is being evil? Have a van go to a mall and say hello to people each and every weekend.

Part of the reason prop 8 passed, I think, was because for many folks, gay and lesbian people are strange and scary. So what did no on 8 supporters do in response? Make gay and lesbian people even more scary through images of protests on the street, blocked traffic, et cetera.

It seems to me that the goal of no on 8 supporters should be to help everyone see that gay and lesbian people are normal, friendly, kind, and just plain ordinary. It shouldn't be impossible. Because it also happens to be true.

Friday, November 7, 2008

P.P.S. on race

From Patrick Moberg.

P.S. on race relations

Great article in the NY Times today on practical steps for spreading tolerance.

Anti-racism training

I've been thinking about race relations the past day or so, inspired in part by Larry Wilmore's report on the Daily Show. In the last minute, Larry Wilmore, formerly "Senior Black Correspondent" and now "Senior Executive Commander-in-Chief Correspondent who happens to be Black," says the thing he is most looking forward to is Black Liberal Guilt. He then goes on to say that he wants to volunteer in underprivileged minority neighborhoods and what proud people Hispanics are, "And their kids! Man, do they ever have beautiful children!"

Jon Stewart points out this might be condescending and Wilmore is thrilled to have gotten it right on the first try. As Wilmore says, "It takes a while to know how to blithely praise people whose suffering I don't really understand."

I think I got more anti-racism training in that minute than in the full day of anti-racism training I got from the Diocese. That was one day out of two. I missed the second day, in part because I needed to write a sermon, but also I have to confess because I didn't think I could take any more. And part of it was this icky, condescending liberal guilt that Wilmore nailed in his sketch.

There was valuable stuff in the training, primarily about white privilege which illustrates the (often) invisible advantages white people have gained due to our race. Invisible to us, I should add. But the way it was presented was through a video with all white actors, with a stern, grandmotherly woman lecturing young white folks eager to do good in an underprivileged neighborhood, exactly as Wilmore pointed out. In a refrain, the grandmother would rock in her rocking chair, look over her glasses and intone, "That's white privilege." And so after understanding privilege, then the white kids could go and help out in the black neighborhood, feeling especially guilty.

I came home from that day frustrated because it seemed to me that people actually affected by racism might be better qualified to talk about it, and what's more already had! I came home and watched an Eddie Murphy sketch that illustrated white privilege beautifully, as well as briefly and with laughter. What about Dave Chapelle? Chris Rock? Margaret Cho? So many voices who have made the points that needed making over the years, and we watched a tedious video made entirely by caucasians? What's that about? It's almost as if we thought we knew best. Nooo.... that would be...white privilege.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Election day thoughts

So. I voted. I bet you did too. My polling place was busy but not crowded and I was voter number 26 for my precinct when I voted at 7:20 a.m. I had to ask for a second ballot because I had marked proposition 3 when I thought I was voting on prop 2, so I was glad I checked my answers. It flummoxed one of the poll workers, an older man with a very piratey black eye patch, when I went back and only wanted ONE of the pages of the ballots. "I give them out in pairs," he said. Another poll worker let him know that I could just get the page I needed, thus preventing me from voting for president twice.

Throughout the day, I kept checking stories on polling places at Andrew Sullivan's blog. He was posting stories from readers who reported on the events at polling places all over the U.S., many of which made me cry: the 50-year-old African American man voting for the first time, the father letting his child push the button for president.

There was a polling place here at the parish where I'm working and as I left for the day, a woman was exiting the polls with her daughter, maybe six, who asked, "Can everyone vote?" And it seems like most everyone who could, did. There's democracy for you.

It was a lovely day.

God bless America.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

The best All Saints day hymn ever

And official hymn of tea drinkers everywhere, the classic, "I sing a song of the saints of God." Note the third verse.

I sing a song of the saints of God,
patient and brave and true,
who toiled and fought and lived and died
for the Lord they loved and knew.
And one was a doctor and one was a queen
and one was a shepherdess on the green:
they were all of them saints of God -- and I mean,
God helping, to be one too.

They loved their Lord so dear, so dear,
and his love made them strong;
and they followed the right, for Jesus' sake,
the whole of their good lives long.
And one was a soldier, and one was a priest,
and one was slain by a fierce wild beast:
and there's not any reason-- no, not the least,
why I shouldn't be one too.

They lived not only in ages past,
there are hundreds of thousands still,
the world is bright with the joyous saints
who love to do Jesus' will.
You can meet them in school, or in lanes, or at sea,
in church, or in trains, or in shops, or at tea,
for the saints of God are just folk like me,
and I mean to be one too.