Mockery

I’m spending the week in Ocean Park, Maine, where I preached on Sunday and am leading a morning discussion this week. As the name indicates, Ocean Park is right on the ocean, and I’m blessed to have the opportunity to enjoy some of the most beautiful beach we have on the East Coast.  There’s something about the place where the vast and fluid ocean meets, caresses, rhythmically slaps against the solid and steady earth that speaks to my spirit.  Especially in the early morning dawn.  I wanted to share with you a video I made of dawn over the beach at Ocean Park, so you can hear the sound of the waves and the birds, and through the whole scene, to hear God speaking.  But the file was too large to incorporate into this blog, and I don’t know another way to do it.  So I’m sharing this picture and asking you to use your imagination.

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It truly is peaceful and beautiful.  Just like God.

I felt the beauty of God’s creation like that most poignantly when I was in Ghana, high on a cliff looking out on the Atlantic, thousands of miles from here, from the other direction.  The view was wondrously beautiful. I was in a large castle-like building.  In the massive building was a torture chamber where slaves were chained, beaten, held in brutal captivity, then sent out in ships from the door in that place, which the slaves knew as “the door of no return.”

Can you imagine so much heart wrenching, evil horror taking place amid such beauty, the beauty that God created  for us out of God’s great love? I couldn’t help but cry at the thought of the agony my ancestors went through at the hands of horribly brutal people, many who claimed to believe in the God of creation.

I felt that same paradox here in Ocean Park Maine, as I was trying to deal with my broken heart over the injustice of the decision that set free as “innocent” the man who shot Trayvon Martin.  It still hurts.  And it was all done under the rubric of the legal system, which is designed by humans to implement justice. What a mockery. What a mockery of the God of justice.

I think those jurors, if they were being honest, would have come to a different conclusion without the 29 pages of jury instructions and the convoluted efforts of the defense to make what seems right into something much more complicated.  Without the complications of the law, they would have seen Trayvon as an innocent, unarmed young person, going on his way, minding his own business.  They would have seen Zimmerman as the aggressor, armed with a dangerous weapon, the one who disobeyed police orders not to follow. They would have recognized that if Zimmerman had not followed Trayvon, Trayvon would be alive.  They would have had enough common sense to understand that if Zimmerman had not gotten out of his vehicle and come up from behind close enough to Trayvon to make Trayvon feel threatened, there would have been no altercation.  The jury would have seen that Trayvon is dead, slaughtered at the hands of a man who went against the authorities, whether or not it was was Zimmerman’s initial intention to kill him, and whether or not Zimmerman may have feared for his own life. I thought they would at least have had the common sense to conclude that Zimmeran did in fact initiate the acts that resulted in him killing an innocent and unarmed man–manslaughter.

They were confused, at best. And I’m sure, as are most folks in this world who know anything about how this nation works, that if Trayvon had been white and Zimmerman black, Zimmerman would have been arrested immediately and thrown under the jail.  Isn’t that what happened in the case of the black woman in Florida who was sentenced to prison after trying to use the same law to justify her shooting into the air and not killing anybody? The jury had to be confused, unless they were bribed, because the decision doesn’t make any sense.  And I can’t rule bribery out, either, because there was money behind Zimmerman that I can’t figure out. Maybe some of you know more about the money that financed this man’s defense than I do.

My heart was crying when I talked to God at dawn that beautiful morning, looking out over the Atlantic Ocean. Crying over the injustice of it all.  Crying over such horror committed amid such beauty.  Crying over such evil that exists in the hearts of people, who wrap the evil up and try to hide it with good words like justice, law and order, patriotism, and yes, even sometimes Christianity.  I felt like I could see all the way across to Ghana, and realized that the horror has not really ended for us.

God’s justice will not be mocked.

As a Black woman, the result of this fiasco of a trial has taken me across a tipping point. This is the fourth slap in my face. The first slap I felt was from the efforts of state officials in Ohio, Florida, Pennsylvania, Virginia,Texas and others to wrench away the votes of mostly Black and Hispanic people during the last two Presidential elections. Ouch!  The second was the Supreme Court’s gutting of the Voting Rights Act, which has refueled those efforts to take away our votes. Ouch! The third is the continued effort by white people to do away with affirmative action, claiming that they, the ones with all of the power on their side, are being discriminated against by laws that were designed to help ameliorate the hundreds of years of slavery, oppression, and injustice that our people have faced and still face. Ouch! Four slaps ought to wake us up.  (I wish Clarence Thomas could feel these slaps. I’m convinced that he’s numbed by his own sense of self-accomplishment.  Maybe he doesn’t realize that it is his numbness (antagonism?) to his people that made him the right choice to be maneuvered into place by those who want that numbness in high places–or maybe he does realize that, I don’t know.)

So instead of hearing peace in the gentle, rhythmic slapping of the waves on the shore this week, I heard a call to action.  I heard God proclaiming that God will not be mocked, that God’s justice should flow down like a river and God’s righteousness should be like a mighty stream. Justice should not be tripped up by pages and pages of jury instructions or political shenanigans that try to make right seem wrong and wrong seem right.

It’s time to wake up and get busy.  It’s time to unite and stand up and fight back.  It’s time to renew our commitment to and membership in the NAACP.  It’s time to again march on Washington, this time united with people of all colors and faiths who know true justice when they see it.  It’s time to organize and participate in organizations that will speak, with the power of the people behind them, to those in  powerful positions. It’s time to change laws and lawmaking, time to shore up the voting rights act, time to reclaim the need for Affirmative Action more than ever.   Are you with me?

 

 

Why are so many people poor?

Why are so many people poor?  That’s really the question that Andy Kessler has no clue about.  He’s an Op-Ed writer for the Wall Street Journal who recently wrote that people are poor because there are so many people helping them.  Here’s a quote from his article, posted by Scott Keyes on the ThinkProgress website.

My 16-year-old son volunteers with an organization that feeds the homeless and fills kits with personal-hygiene supplies for them. It’s a worthwhile project, and I tell him so—but he doesn’t like it when our conversation on the way to his minimum-wage job turns to why these homeless folks aren’t also working. Perhaps, I suggest, because someone is feeding, clothing and, in effect, bathing them? […]

Given the massive wealth created in the U.S. economy over the past 30-plus years, it’s understandable that the mantra of the guilty generation is sustainability and recycling. But obsessing over carbon footprints and LEED certifications and free-range strawberries and charging for plastic bags will not help the world nearly as much as good old-fashioned economic growth. Gen-G will wise up to the reality that the way to improve lives is to get to work. If Woodstockers figured this out, so will they—as soon as they get over their guilt.

I was going to insert a direct link to the Wall Street Journal article, but, of course, you have to pay to get their news online. I didn’t want to pay, so I’m relying on the veracity of  the article’s interpretation by ThinkProgress. I chose to enter this discourse because I’d like to share some thoughts on why God created a world in which so many people are poor.

First, my response to Mr. Kessler’s article. I said in my April 12 post “In my opinion, it is nothing less than cruel–nothing less than cruel--to provide supportive services to those who are poor without also attempting to deal with the social systems that put and keep them in poverty.”  So in one sense, Kessler and I agree that helping the poor helps to keep the poor in place, but I never said that helping them was what causes them to be poor, or that we shouldn’t help them at all.  What I said was that we need to do much, much more than simply provide individual handouts and free food.

Kessler implies that creating jobs will send people to work, and voila!–no more poor people. Left unsaid is the understanding that those who create the jobs will also make lots more money. I think it is horribly naive, incredibly stupid or something worse to think that creating more jobs will make the poor go away. That’s the only solution the job makers can seem to come up with, I guess because creating jobs is what they do.

There’s nothing wrong with creating jobs.  Yes, we need plenty more living wage jobs for a healthy economy. But some people simply cannot work.  What are we to do with them, Mr. Kessler?  Ignore them? What are we to do with the those with mentally incapacities, mental illnesses, and those who are physically unable to work?  Blame them for not getting hired? Let them die on the streets?

Creating jobs is one way to help some poor people.  But if you really think that’s the only way to help poor people, then it is likely that you will also think that once the jobs are created it’s okay to blame those who don’t get jobs for not working, and wash your hands of them. How many times do we have to wreck our country with trickle down economics, giving free rides to the rich so that they can get richer and richer off the backs of the poor, before we get it? Every time we’ve tried that, the poverty rates have gone up, not down.  And the rich keep getting richer.

Those of us who believe in God must wrestle to understand why our world has so many people who need help in order to survive.  These are the poor that Jesus said we we will always have with us.  Some of them are poor because the strong have made this a difficult place for the weak to survive.  But some are poor because they don’t have the necessary physical or mental capacity to survive on their own. Maybe God uses poor people to offer opportunities for the rest of the world to become wiser and more loving. Maybe how we treat “the least” really is a measure of who we are as a society to God.

Aren’t we wiser people because we’ve had to struggle with how to cure so many different kinds of illnesses?  Isn’t the love in our hearts stirred up when we reach out to help people who experience great trauma and heartbreak? Aren’t we a better, more caring people because we created a system to help people who have physical handicaps? Wouldn’t we all be better off if we could figure out how to cure mental illnesses, or at least better accommodate people with mental illnesses?  How wise and loving would we become if we could together reach out in all kinds of ways to help children born into broken and poor families?  Wouldn’t we feel good about ourselves, as a society, if we could pull together enough wisdom and pour out enough love to eliminate the continued impoverishment of those who are born poor?

We would be a better people, and we would feel better about ourselves as a people, if we simply helped people who need our help in as many ways as we can help them, even if that means we don’t get to keep so much for ourselves. Aren’t the real heroes and sheroes in our world those who’ve been willing to sacrifice some of their own privilege, comfort, peace, and even their own lives, so that others might survive?  Isn’t that what Jesus’ example teaches us?

Maybe that’s what God had in mind. Maybe God has given us poor people so that we might all become better people. Or not.

 

Seeing Hope in the Voting Rights Act Setback

This week I was going to turn to a message of hope. I was going to let you know about some of the hopeful things I’ve seen recently on the school-to-prison-drug war pipeline issue.  I was going to share about recently meeting a few elderly people who were marching in boycott outside of a local Wells Fargo bank, because Wells Fargo is a major financier ($100 million of stock) of GEO group, one of the private prison owners in North Carolina, where many D.C. Prisoners and immigration detainees are sent. Check out the website: www.wellsfargoboycott.com. I was going to share about a the recent debut of a new film produced by the South Jersey Theater Ensemble, titled “Don’t Throw Me Away” (in which my husband Bill plays  a role).  It’s about the trend in New Jersey, just like in so many other states, to spend more on prisons and less on supporting our kids in schools.  (More information about this great little film, later). I was going to let you know that the American Baptist denomination invited Michelle Alexander, the author of  The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, a book sharing the concern for the mass incarceration of our children, to be a speaker at their biennial gathering, so this concern could be shared with thousands of American Baptists.

I was going to share a recent article by Ariana Huffington in the Huffington Post that highlights a new film “How to Make Money Selling Drugs,” which castigates the War on Drugs. Here’s a tidbit to encourage you to read the article, which also highlights the history of the Huffington Post challenging the war on drugs: “That’s why it’s so important that we all lend our voices to a conversation that can reach Washington and finally overwhelm the entrenched forces that keep this disastrous war — a war not on drugs but on our people — going year after devastating year.”

That quote captures what I was ready to focus on, the need to organize so that we can move from conversation to action in order to make this thing right. From these and other initiatives that I’ve shared with you (See my March 14 Post: A Must See, the March 21 post:  A Stellar Model for Action, websites like The Sentencing Project and books like Michelle Alexander’s, mentioned above), I believe that God is sending prophetic voices to speak truth that needs to be heard in powerful places, and I think that the time is ripe to make change happen.

But I now have to step back.

All of us who seek justice for our children have been pushed back 40 years, to the time when our government enacted one of the most important pieces of legislation to help our people live free, survive and try to thrive in this land where our ancestors were brought as slaves.  The Supreme Court of the United States knocked down Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, the section that required states (and some counties) with a history of voting rights violations, mostly in the south, to get approval from the Federal government before they made any changes to how elections were run.  This provision is what gave substance to our demand for civil rights, and it worked well.  But the Supremes decided that the states in the South no longer had a problem with race and voting, and sent the Voting Rights Act back to Congress to rework the provision to adjust to modern times. Click here for a good article about what the Supreme Court did with the Voting Rights Act.

The failure is also in the Congress, which had been warned in an earlier opinion that continuing to rely on 40-year old data to justify the monitoring of those states was not going to last forever.  But can we expect any more from this Congress?  Can we expect them to do what would be the right thing, to evaluate the purposes behind all of the recent gerrymandering and restrictive voting laws that states are enacting in order to restructure Section 5 to make it work for the time we live in now? That doesn’t seem to be likely, at all.

You see, we need to have people in Congress and in the our state legislative bodies who will represent our views on things like the War on Drugs.  If those who create the voting rules work it out so that we no longer have a representative voice, the only thing left for us to do is to go back to the streets, boycott, March on Washington, etc.  Which is what worked 40 years ago.  (I guess that’s why so many of us really empathized with the recent Occupy Movement.) So now we face a more basic problem–we must protect our ability to  attack problems in the political arena. Now we have to step back and focus on what’s most important.  Makes you wanna holler!  Makes me wanna cry. But we have to do it.

And there is always hope.  God sometimes sends us into difficult situations to move us into the new vision that God has for us.  Just this morning I found an article by Christine Pelosi entitled “We Have No Civil Rights without Voting Rights,” which makes the connection between the importance of the Voting Rights Act, the filibuster by Texas Senator Wendy Davis and the LGBT win on DOMA.  The more people understand the importance of what has happened with the Voting Rights Act, the sooner we’ll be able to make sure that this crucial law is rejuvenated, so that states like Ohio and Pennsylvania, which were not under the provision of the Act, as well as states like Texas and of course, Florida, don’t get away with recent restrictive voting laws designed to keep their favored party–and policies– in control. We must push Congress to do what is right.

As I once heard a preacher say, “A setback is just a setup for a comeback.” With hope, all things are possible. And with faith and hard work we can make this happen, just like we elected President Obama for a 2nd term.

 

 

Inviting Culture Shock

Up until a few years ago I served as Pastor of Irving Park Baptist Church, a small mostly White and aging multicultural congregation on the north side of Chicago.  I love that church.  The people are wonderfully open to trying new things and embracing change.  To be honest, not everybody liked change.  But enough of them were willing to try new things to make change happen– like calling me, an African American woman, as their pastor, and inviting a highly gifted pony-tailed guitarist to serve as their music director.

There is one change this church went through that will always keep them close to my heart.  As with most changes, it was difficult for them at first.  But this effort truly changed the church, I believe for the better. It all had to do with a children’s home down the street from the church.  It’s a home for children who’ve been removed from their families for safety reasons.  Some of these children may eventually return to their families, some are adopted, and some stay at the home until they reach 18 and come out of the foster care system.

The thing about these kids is that most of them are Black.  Irving Park is a predominantly White neighborhood that has recently gentrified and is now also predominantly well to do. Some of the members of Irving Park Baptist say that they can’t afford to live in the neighborhood anymore.  The kids at the home clearly stand out there, and are known to some in the neighborhood as “those” kids from the home, without any further identification other than their skin color.

At my instigation, the church reached out to the home to invite the kids to participate in activities we planned for the neighborhood, like vacation bible school, Martin Luther King Day celebrations and outdoor family fun festivities.  The home didn’t respond for a couple of years, until I finally made contact with one of the counselors who came over to the church to talk with me about the kids. She thought that the kids might be difficult for the church to handle, that they were rough and some had “issues.”

And while she told me this, I knew she was challenging me, and the church, to make sure the church would be a safe place to bring these kids, who she loved deeply.  She wanted to make sure they didn’t get hurt.  Like other foster kids, the one thing most of them wanted above all else was to be able to go home to a safe and secure place, to have a loving and healthy family.  The last thing they needed was to be treated like outsiders, like much of the rest of the neighborhood treated them.

So we planned to bring the kids over for a Saturday Fun Fest, just for them.  Several of the women of the church had taught Sunday School for years, some of them had been teachers, many had worked with kids in various capacities, and a couple of them had worked with handicapped children. So they got ready, planning arts and crafts projects and songs to sing, food to eat and a time of bible study.

When the kids arrived about 1/2 hour late, accompanied by their counselors (always), we were shocked.  We had planned for children who we thought would be mostly grade schoolers.  These kids were mostly junior high and high schoolers, and much more mature than we expected.  These kids were not like the children the women were accustomed to working with.  They were from a different culture, a different place, a place that these women did not know.

It was truly culture shock.  One young woman who had planned the arts and crafts said she was surprised that most of the kids were bigger than she was.  So we adapted. I don’t remember how, but we did. We talked together after the experience, and the church wanted to continue to have the monthly Saturday sessions for these kids.

That was a key point in my relationship with the church.  They wanted to try.  They were willing to stretch themselves because they knew that these kids needed more love in their lives, and they wanted to help make that happen.

A group of us worked hard together to make sure that the activities were more age-appropriate.  We planned every minute out with things for them to do.  For a few months it felt like hard work, until we began to get to know the kids better.  After a while, we figured out that they were happy just to come, to be there with us, to “chillax” (for those of you who don’t get that, it means to both chill and relax) away from the home.  We found it more fulfilling to sometimes just to talk with the kids, to listen to their stories, to get to know them as kids, just kids.

And sometimes it didn’t go as planned.  Sometimes one of the the kids would get in trouble with the counselors and that made us all uncomfortable.  Sometimes they didn’t show up, or were late, or we got our signals crossed about something.  But the church kept on inviting them, and they kept on coming.

Over the years, the relationship deepened, and the kids responded to the church in some very positive ways..  More on this next week….

Where We Come In

It seems to me that reports about horrible atrocities committed by humans against humans in our country have been peculiarly abundant over the past few months.  Now don’t get me wrong, I don’t mean the U.S. is not a great place to live compared to many other countries, especially those places where brutal war and corruption are commonplace.  One of the good things to know is that atrocities still make the news here, which means they are not common. So in a round about way these reports help us know that we are pretty well off.

The three recent big ones–the horrible shooting of 20 children and 6 adults in Newtown Connecticut in December, the bombings at the Boston Marathon in April killing 6 people and injuring 264, and the discovery of three young girls held in brutal captivity for over 10 years–are enough to make anyone with a heart shudder and cry. Add to that the numerous other smaller crimes, such as the police officer who was brutally shot down when he walked up to a car that he had pulled over, and the 5 year old who accidentally shot his two year old sister with a “kiddie” gun given to him by his parents. I’m not sure which I consider the most egregious, making a “kiddie” gun or loading it and giving it to a 5 year old …. both are horrific to me.

Doesn’t all this just make you just want to holler! While hollering does help relieve our frustration and anger, it doesn’t do much to help the situation.

One of the things that really touched me was when one of the teachers in Newtown told the children that they had to hide because there was a bad guy out there and they had to wait until the good guys came. She knew the good guys were coming, it was just a matter of time.  She knew that whoever was shooting would not be allowed to continue it without someone stepping up to stop the madness.

That’s the good thing about our country–we will not let the madness continue. And the good guys will come.  Like those policemen who rescued so many of the children in Newtown, like those folks in the Boston bombings who ran to help the injured instead of running away to save themselves, and like Charles Ramsey, who responded to calls of help and broke through the door, ending a decade of abuse for three young women.  The good guys will come.

Most of us who are followers of Christ, no matter what form that following may take, consider ourselves to be the good guys. (I’d like to say all of us, but I can’t be sure of that!)  It doesn’t matter whether we’re Roman Catholics or Non-denominational, whether we’re Episcopal or Pentecostals, whether we’re Baptist or simply believers who are “spiritual but not religious.”  We all consider ourselves to be the good guys.  And if we are, we must wrestle with where we are to come in.  What do we do as the “good guys” to make ourselves known? When do we don our “white hats” (a metaphor I don’t like, but it makes the point), and take actions to deal with such troubling situations?

I know some of us will always help out with a hand out, some will serve as mentors and helpers and others will be kind to anyone who is in trouble. But is this kind of help enough?  When we find ourselves faced with atrocities like the ones we’re seeing too much of lately, we need to ask the harder, deeper questions to determine what in our society might be contributing to the situation.  We need to address the structural causes, such as the need for more research and funding to support mental health; dealing honestly and intentionally with the negative image of our nation and our nation’s predominant faith, Christianity, that is held in the minds of so many people in other countries, especially “third world” nations; and deciding whether our country’s founders intended to protect the “right” of people to keep and carry the kind of  semi-automatic weapons that cause such mass destruction. These are the bigger issues, the foundational issues we need to address if we are to make this country even better than it already is.

Our job as Christians is to try to see the world around us through God’s eyes.  When we do, we will always look for the underlying causes of evil in this world, we will always seek more justice and righteousness and we will always be led by love and grace. And we will  act–we will come in–to deal with the situation.  If we really are the good guys….

 

 

 

Where Deep Calls to Deep

I just finished reading Maya Angelou’s beautiful and thought-provoking poem “A Brave and Startling Truth.”  It touched me deeply. She read it on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the founding of the United Nations in San Francisco, June 26, 1995,  I am sad to say that I had not read it before…. I found it the other day quite by accident.  I was researching a bit on a concept for a sermon, and searched  the phrase “where we come in,” just to see if there were others who had used this as a title in anything– something I do sometimes just to find out what’s out there.  This phrase is not in her poem at all, but it is closely enough related to the phrase repeated in her poem, “when we come to it,” that Google picked it up.

Her poem took me somewhere deep, a place to which I love to go but don’t seem to get to often enough.  It’s the place I seek when I turn my thoughts to sermon writing; a place that if I haven’t got there, I don’t feel prepared to speak.  It’s the place I hope to help others find when I speak and write.

I remember the first time I found that place, deep within, long before I ever felt the call to ministry. I wrote a couple of notes to myself then because I wanted to remember how I felt. I’ve kept these notes for more than 35 years:

I feel like beautiful feelings

Like writing love music

Conducting a symphony orchestra

Painting a sunset

Singing a sweet sad song

Like crying

Like hugging

Like loving

Like caressing a loved ones’ cheek with mine

Like sharing a warm feeling

Like smiling from deep within.

When it comes it makes me want to

Make earrings out of something

Make poetry out of thoughts

Put some of me down on paper.

 I’m sharing this with you now (although I have second thoughts about the “make earrings” part!)  because this place, deep within, is the place where I believe our inward spirituality connects to God.  Psalm 42:7 describes the feeling:  “Deep calls to deep in the roar of your waterfalls; all your waves and breakers have swept over me.” Howard Thurman, the great spiritual leader and former Dean of Howard University’s Rankin Chapel, described a moment in his ordination when he felt “the heavens opened and the spirit descended like a dove.” Then he wrote:  “Ever since, when it seems that I am deserted by the voice that called me forth, I know that if I can find my way back to that moment, the clouds will lift and the path before me will once again be clear and beckoning.”  With Head and Heart, p. 58.

We all need to find that deep place within where God’s creative love breaks in on us and refreshes our souls. To me, when I’m not there, I’m just skimming on the surface of life, distracted by the many things around me that always seem to need my attention. We need to escape periodically from our everyday-life-management stuff so that we can tend to our spiritual lives, our inner beings, the deep place in which we find our true selves and hear God’s desires.

Getting there requires space for quiet and peace, personal time not distracted by other needs.  Getting there requires prayer and personal meditation. Some may need direction from spiritual leaders or teachers. Some can get there with a favorite bible verse or song. We all need to get there, whatever it may take, because that is where our direction can be found– not in the things of this world, but in the secret places of our hearts, where deep calls to deep. In that place we are refurbished. That’s where we share the joy of love with the One who created us out of love and for love, and we receive direction on how we are to share that love in the time that has been given to us.

Maya Angelou’s beautiful poem struck me so deeply because she lifts up the great paradox of humanity–our ability to evoke such great harm and so many awful disasters in this world, yet at the same time our ability to share such great, selfless and healing love. In this age of information when we are bombarded by the news of atrocities like those three young girls who were kidnapped and held in brutal captivity for a decade, the lethal bombing in Boston or the children being mowed down in Newtown Connecticut, we need to be reminded that there is also great love being shared.   We need to be reminded of the power of people like Mother Teresa, Hellen Keller, Mahatma Ghandi, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther KIng, Jr.,  and the millions of heroes and sheroes who constantly pour out God’s love for others through their kind actions.

When we come to that “brave and startling” truth that we have the power to fashion this world to be a better place, my prayer is that we will choose love as our creative blueprint. The kind of love that we need in order to fashion the world into a place where God’s kingdom will be seen here, as it is in heaven, is found in that place in our souls where “deep calls to deep.” If you’ve ever been there, you will feel the need to go back. If you’ve never been there, you should work on finding the way.