30 December 2017

Power Failure

David said longingly, "O that someone would give me water to drink from the well of Bethlehem that is by the gate!"
~2 Samuel 23:15

This passage reminded me of "Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?" The quote attributed to Henry the II of England in reference to Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury, in 1170 CE.

Imagine my surprise when I read to the end of the Mission Clare entry for Friday's daily office and found that December 29th is the day of commemoration for Thomas Becket.

I find it interesting that both David and Henry II call out wishfully for something difficult, impossible, or unwise and a select few of their followers take it upon themselves to act upon that wish.

It further reminds me of a quote attributed to Henry Kissinger,

Power is the ultimate aphrodisiac."
~NYT 1973
I think it is more than that. I think power can induce a state of euphoria and a feeling of being invincible, not only in the wielders of power, but in their circle of sycophants.

I saw the movie "Becket" (1964) when I was a young teen. I only retain two impressions of the film. One was the murder of Becket and the other was the idea that Henry II had wanted the death of Becket but was only able to hint about his desires due to his own sense of the constraints on his power.

In the Old Testament reading I see a warning of how the euphoric nature of being near to power could be abused, but how David tries to check such abuse in his response to the warrior's self-appointed quest.

Then the three warriors broke through the camp of the Philistines, drew water from the well of Bethlehem that was by the gate, and brought it to David. But he would not drink of it; he poured it out to the Lord, for he said, "The Lord forbid that I should do this. Can I drink the blood of the men who went at the risk of their lives?" Therefore he would not drink it. The three warriors did these things.
~2 Samuel 23:16-17

The warriors risked their lives to bring David the longed-for water and instead of drinking it himself he gives it as a sacrifice to God. To drink it himself would be to encourage other 'warriors' and people around him to take his every wish as a command in the future. This would force him to watch every word he spoke and would constrain him from asking for advice in the future. If every wish or question was turned into action by followers all would descend into chaos. At the same time by making the water a gift to the Lord, David acknowledged the sacrifice and risk the warriors had made.

Power wielded by humans is fraught with the the possibility for abuse both by the person in power and by people near to them who want to benefit from that power. In everything from money to sex, from power for its own sake, to a desire to control power and relationships to power can spiral out of control if those who would curry favor take action whose only purpose is to please those in power.

It is short-term thinking at it's worst and does not allow leaders to be fallible humans. Any time one person holds power over others, we need both sides to be accountable for their actions.

Those in power need to set a watch on themselves and be careful what they ask for and what favors they accept.

Those near to power need to be able to say 'no' to requests by those in power and society as a whole needs to be able to back them in their right to say no to people who are on the path to being corrupted by power

In our own society now we are finally seeing the damage the powerful can do. We have seen vulnerable populations abused by powerful (mostly) men. This abuse, while frequently sexual in nature, always had at it's heart power and control over others.

We will never know how many promising lives and careers were cut short by powerful abusers and their caretakers. How many people were damaged by contact with power that was out of control.

It is never just the one powerful person that does the damage. It is the people around them who feel they can't say 'no', is is the people who wish to be that powerful who find ways to say 'yes' to enable the abuse, and it is the person who doesn't believe 'their friend' could ever do this because 'their friend' never did it in front of them. All of these people conspire to silence victims and perpetuate the cycle of abuse and some of those people are us.

It is tempting when in proximity to power to become wrapped up in it, to see that power as the only way to achieve one's ends and to accept the idea that to have access to that power one must curry favor.

There will always be people who are willing to exploit this tunnel vision to gain power and control over others. The only way to stop it is to call it out when we see it-- especially when we see it manifesting in ourselves.

"My friend would never do that." "The organization will fail without him." "He is the only one who can get this done." "That person is a genius so we have to put up with them."

These are are warning signs that we are getting too close to power for our own good and too wrapped in in there being only one way forward (that includes sweeping abuse under the rug).

Power can corrupt absolutely but it can also corrupt slowly. Prayer and ritual can be a bulwark against the slow poison of power. The ritual of confession and communion can pull us back from the temptations of power if used mindfully. We can measure our own changes against the unchanging nature of God.

As one of Martin Luther's hymns goes:

A mighty fortress is our God,
a bulwark never failing;
our helper he, amid the flood
of mortal ills prevailing.

Power and the abuse of it by both the powerful and those who would curry favor, is certainly a human failing. May God be our bulwark against it and may forever see our own true weakness and guard against it with God's grace.

16 December 2017

Roots of Faith

Friday's daily office readings are tough, with a great deal of woe and punishment in them. However in the gospel reading there is one sentence that resonates with me.

...and you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’
~Matthew 23:30

It is an easy thing look back at moments in history and say 'I would never have done that.' I would never have: owned people as slaves, driven indigenous people from their land, paid unfair wages, watched as neighbors were loaded in to trains to death camps, bought land and possessions dirt cheap from people forced to sell because the government decided they were the enemy based on fear rather than evidence.

However, people did do that. Not just one person, entire generations have taken advantage of their neighbors in crisis. It is easy to look back on the horrors of history and presume that we would be one of the few who stood up for their neighbors, the few who were injured or killed trying to stop the tide of evil choices washing over them. However, I suspect it is difficult, in that moment, to see where one can take action.

When we are enmeshed in day-to-day survival how much energy or intention do we have to step back and see where things are going wrong?

This section of the Gospel of Matthew ends with:

For I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’
~Matthew 23:39

This, then is the call to action in this reading. There is still hope that God will come among us if we make room in our lives for those who come from the Lord.

However, I think sometimes 'those who come from the Lord' needs to be us. We need to spend time in prayer finding our way forward in the world as followers of Jesus and then we need to take action in God's name.

Time in prayer can help us pull back from everyday world and help keep us from being swept into the cultural currents without thinking.

Time spent acting in the world can remind us of our power to resist that current. It is hard work and when we are tired, then it is time to return to prayer to find a way forward once more.

This may sound like prayer is a passive thing, but to me prayer is internal action and can be done in many ways from kneeling in church to walking in the woods, from reading books to cycling through the daily office. Whatever helps the individual tune into God (and not just their own thoughts) can be a form of prayer. Prayer is an action that changes the pray'er and helps prepare them to take action in the world.

If we are truly going to be the kind of people that resist going with the flow of evil deeds, if we are going to be the people that history will see as the ones willing to stand up for the weak and suffer the consequences or that action, then we need to be a people who take time out from our daily life to put down roots in our faith so the water can't sweep us away easily.


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This essay was originally published on 15 Dec 2017 at Speaking to the Soul: Roots of Faith

02 December 2017

The Suffering that is Life

When I read the New Testament for this Friday before Advent, this verse jumped out at me:

For it is better to suffer for doing good, if suffering should be God's will, than to suffer for doing evil.
~1 Peter 3:17

I was stirred by the idea that there is quite a lot of suffering to go around, enough that I can choose to suffer for doing good, or for doing evil, but either way there was suffering to be had.

There has been a lot of suffering in my life lately. Most of it is what I would think of as neutral suffering: health issues of my own and those close to me, politically based fear and worry, and embedded social unfairness, and economic uncertainty. None of this is suffering I chose. None of it reflects active decisions of mine to embrace good or evil. It is just there, suffering and anxiety hanging about in the background and occasionally pushing through to take over.

When thinking about making a choice to suffer for good or evil, it boils down to whether or not I take an active or a passive role in my own life. If I accept suffering as my lot and take no action, that can easily become a passive acceptance of evil.

The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.
~Edmund Burke

My own personal suffering can either lock me in a stasis of never-ending self-absorption or help me be more compassionate and to understand better the struggles of others.

My social and political suffering can either tempt me into accepting that nothing I can do is 'enough' — that I should just give up on the outside world or it can inspire me to be the drop of water that wears away the stone of injustice.

Jesus's example comes to me in the moments when I want to turn away from the world in hopes that my suffering will be lessened if I just give in. Jesus kept going in his ministry. He suffered from his own fear and doubt, he saw how his ministry on earth would end in pain and death. He even put up with foolish disciples who inflicted their doubts and fear, envy and anger, desire for status and power on Jesus as shown in the Gospel reading for Friday (Matthew 20:17-28)

I think that an on-going choice to confront suffering, to call it out and say that not all suffering is inevitable some is a product of our social structures is what is meant when 1 Peter talks about it being better to suffer for doing good.

Life has a lot of pain and suffering it in; however, life does not have to be all suffering. Suffering that is done for good can be transmuted from passive acceptance to active resistance of evil. It can be come something greater. It can be a living sacrifice to God, it can be our communion with the suffering of Christ on the Cross.

Suffering will always be thrust upon humans, the very nature of the universe means that entropy will eventually have it's way with us. However there is other suffering, suffering created by humans for humans and that we can do something about.

The prayer for the First Sunday in Advent calls us to action:

Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which your Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the living and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

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All bible quotes are from either the NRSV or RSV text at Bible Gateway.

The Collect for the First Sunday in Advent is from the Book of Common Prayer, page 211.

24 October 2017

Shameless Self-Promotion

I have started a side-business where I finish craft projects for people who don't have either the time or skill (or both) to do it themselves.

The site is at Craft Project Rescue.

If you know of any one who has an unfinished craft project that they keep meaning to finish or wish someone would help them with, please send them my way.

21 October 2017

Perplexed

The daily office for Friday includes Matthew 11:1-6 most of which is a pretty straight-forward message from Jesus to John about the work Jesus is doing. This is in response to John asking: “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

The part that I find perplexing is verse 6 where Jesus says: And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me. I understand, based on other New Testament stories that there were plenty of people taking offense at Jesus and his ministry. However, in the context of John's question-- is Jesus the one-- it seems an odd response.

I spent some time poking around on the Internet to see if there was more context to this verse and found several commentaries that mentioned that the word translated as offense (σκανδαλιζεσθαι), is more akin to hitting against or stumbling over a thing.

When I put the Greek word in Google translate for fun it gave me you're scandalizing as the suggested translation.* That translation intrigued me. Would that make the verse: And blessed is anyone who you're scandalizing.?

It is the 'Blessed is...takes no offense' structure of the verse that perplexes me. I am blessed if I take no offense in what Jesus says and does?

Thinking about it that way combined with the 'stumbling block' concept from other translations, gets me to the idea that if I do believe in who Jesus is and what Jesus does as a part of his ministry, then I am embracing Jesus and not finding him offensive or a block to my own faith.

In my experience, the phrase: don't be offended can be used as a way to shut down conversation about a topic or as a watered-down phrase that tells people how they should feel in a given situation. It doesn't seem to have the power or meaning that the verse seems to imply is there.

Or it could be me, sometimes I have to take the long way around to understand an idea.

In this case, if I believe in Jesus there is no offense to be taken, no block to stumble over, and no scandal created.

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*Note to actual scholars, I know it's not best practice to put words from ancient Greek texts into modern translation software but it gave me a different way to think about the root word without being a Greek or Biblical Scholar myself.

If any Bible or Greek scholars wish to comment on this and give me more information about the concepts and context of this verse, I would love to learn more.

All bible quotes are from either the NRSV or RSV text at Bible Gateway.

07 October 2017

Intentional Imperfection

I've written before about the importance of imperfection. Lately I've been thinking about it more and more.

Tonight I was watching a video on how to knit a fair-isle sweater by a woman who has been knitting longer than she could read, her mothers and grandmothers all knitted. It was how they earned money for the household, and how they could barter for goods, and how they kept their families warm.

By the time she made the video she was a grandmother herself and had returned to knitting for her own pleasure and to pass the knowledge on.

As the video progresses and she gets to one of the fiddly finishing bits, she offers these words of encouragement if your work is less than perfect:

My golden rule is will the man on galloping horse notice.

To me this was a reminder that even the most skilled among us don't require perfection at every stitch in their work.

I believe their is a paradox in the level of mastery that someone can attain in a skill. That paradox is that it is not the people who require perfection of themselves that become masters, it is the people who realize when and how rarely perfection actually matters.

If anything, the desire for perfection can prevent mastering a topic or a skill because people who give up after making a mistake or because their work is not perfect don't hang in there long enough to get more skilled.

Also, humans only have so much time in a day. To get better at something we have to spend time doing it. To even maintain a skill we have to keep putting time into it.

I know at times I can be hesitant to do something because I can't do it up to a standard that I think is important, mostly because I'm afraid of being judged and found wanting. However, my experience has been that when I step up and act (or knit, or sing, or suggest a political action) people around from friends to strangers on the Internet respond positively.

We were not created to be perfect beings, yet part of us seems to yearn to be perfect.

Again and again, my own experience is that there is no perfection this side of heaven (if there is a heaven & I don't actually count on that).

Waiting to do something until my skills are perfect or the moment is perfect or until I have found the perfect words, results in me missing opportunities to be active and present in this world.

And since I'm a little shaky on the existence of any other world after this one, I'd better not waste my limited time waiting around for something that can never come.

Just yesterday I was participating in a webinar with a yoga teacher and the phrase the came up over-and-over again was:

Something is always better than nothing.

One woman shared that her yoga practice when she was suffering from severe fatigue was to visualize herself doing the poses and to move one hand to link her visualization to her living body.

Another shared how she had slowly built up from using a chair to do yoga poses to being able to do the full pose.

Both of these women would have no yoga practice at all if they hadn't started where they were with what they had and not waited to be perfect to begin.

This is true of everything in life from flossing to comforting someone in grief and distress. There is no one right way to act, there is no one right way to be, there is no one right way to learn but failing to act while waiting for the perfect moment is always, to me, a sign of fear.

When fear disguises itself as a desire for perfection, I need to remember the grace that my faith gives me.

I see in the New Testament that none of Jesus's followers were perfect. None of them had a sense of the 'right time' for an action. They sometimes made terrible choices, they frequently didn't understand what was going on around them.

Still Jesus choose to be with them. From disciples to tax collectors, from the anointing woman to the hemorrhaging woman to the woman at the well all had something to learn and something to teach and Jesus opened himself up to everyone of them (sometimes with a little prodding). The thing they all had in common was in taking action either by responding to Jesus's call or by approaching Jesus on their own and asking for what they needed.

Jesus, incarnate, welcomed all of the imperfect, foolish people who came to him and encourage them to act more, not less. He might have gotten frustrated with them at times, but he carried on and loved them to the cross and beyond.

For me Jesus becoming incarnated in the world as a person is God's reminder that we were made in an image of God and that God joined us in that imperfection to spur us on as the prophet Micha said:

He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?
~Micah 6:8

Can a man on a galloping horse see the imperfections in your work, your skill, your words, or your love?

If not, your work is good enough. Go out and do what you are called to do, imperfections and all.

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All bible quotes are from either the NRSV or RSV text at Bible Gateway.

23 September 2017

Logged Hypocrisy

A little over a week ago, Senator Ted Cruz's twitter account 'liked' a porn video. There were many reactions to the 'like' and subsequent denial on the part of the Senator that he was the one active on the account at the time.

The part of the story I found most interesting were claims that the reason this should be a big deal were not because 'porn is bad' but because Senator Cruz has been an outspoken critic of everything from gay marriage, the right of consenting adults to use sex toys, and generally acting as if he should have control over the sex lives of adults.

So he was being called out not because 'a staffer accidentally liked' a porn video on twitter, but because for years he had a log in his eye about human sexuality and how and when the state should have control over adult sexual expression.

For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye?
~Matthew 7:2-4

One of the interpretations I used to put on this quote from Matthew was that when I have a log in my eye, I can't even pretend to see the speck in another person's eye. That is fine as far as it goes.

However, with Senator Cruz's story as an example I think that the log is more than just something that blinds me and makes it difficult to take action on another behalf. I don't see the log in my eye because, I only see it as a speck (or even the entire log) in the eye of the person I am looking at.

I project my log on to them.

When I do that, it is difficult to realize that it is my log that I am seeing. Every effort I make to pull it out fails because I am reaching beyond my own eye and waving my hands around uselessly (or worse, accidentally hitting bystanders).

Once I finally realize that all the splinters I am seeing are really my log it becomes easier (but not necessarily less painful) to pull it out and put it in it's place.

And like many mountains made of molehills, logs can turn into tiny splinters when they are removed and looked at in perspective.

All of this takes work and self-awareness and sometimes I need help figuring out that what I keep seeing is my own log. However, even with that help, I'm the only one who can remove the log and see more clearly from that point on.

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All bible quotes are from either the NRSV or RSV text at Bible Gateway.


This essay was originally published in September 2017 at The Episcopal Cafe: Speaking to the Soul

08 September 2017

Now and Next

The first half of daily office gospel reading for Friday is one of a type of passage that I struggle with. To me, It implies that planning for the future is somehow wrong.

This is an issue I have struggled with since the first time I read the bible through when I was a teenager. Since I can remember, I've always been a planner and organizer (of space and time), so it is difficult for me to see any downside to planning ahead.

That said, there are definite downsides to getting locked in to a vision of how life will go.

When I was in high school, my imagined future included a spouse and at least one child (frequently a girl to be given my middle name) beyond that and vague ideas of having a 'job' my imagination did not take me.

My life has been so much wilder and richer than that imagined future. The only constant between my teen imaginings and reality is that I do have both a spouse and a, now, adult child, both of whom I delight in.

I wonder if the warnings about living too much in the future are in part warnings against getting locked in to one idea of what the future 'should' bring and thus missing opportunities in the 'now'.

One of my own weaknesses, and a flip-side of being a planner, is a tendency to get grouchy if a plan is changed without my input. That grouchiness does not add anything to my own experience or to those around me. It can drain the fun and spontaneity out of a gathering.

There are times when sticking to a plan is helpful and necessary and there are times when flexibility and the ability to 'go with the flow' are necessary. I'm just not very good at the flexibility half of the equation.

So, I take this passage as a reminder that my plans are not sacred. They are not holy writ (as much as I might like them to be treated that way), they are an idea of a future that has not come yet and if my plans don't come to fruition, is it really a good idea to stay locked into them?

Even if I have a plan, massive events like wildfires, hurricanes, and earthquakes are all larger than I am and can sweep both me and my plans away.

Rather that invest energy in 'how it should have been' this passage encourages me to use that energy to adapt to what is actually happening around me and to embrace events and people that are more than anything I could ever imagine.

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All bible quotes are from either the NRSV or RSV text at Bible Gateway.


This essay was originally published at the Episcopal Cafe in September 2017.

26 August 2017

The Ones Who Stay

The Old Testament lesson for Friday's daily office is a bit of a ramble for it is the middle of a series of stories of uprisings against David.

In the midst of the passage we are introduced to Barzillai, an 80-year-old man.

Barzillai was a very aged man, eighty years old. He had provided the king with food while he stayed at Mahanaim, for he was a very wealthy man. The king said to Barzillai, “Come over with me, and I will provide for you in Jerusalem at my side.” But Barzillai said to the king, “How many years have I still to live, that I should go up with the king to Jerusalem? Today I am eighty years old; can I discern what is pleasant and what is not? Can your servant taste what he eats or what he drinks? Can I still listen to the voice of singing men and singing women? Why then should your servant be an added burden to my lord the king? Your servant will go a little way over the Jordan with the king. Why should the king recompense me with such a reward? Please let your servant return, so that I may die in my own town, near the graves of my father and my mother.
~2 Samuel 32-37

I was struck by the idea that we can reach a point in our life that accepting the hospitality of another, even that of a king, is a burden rather than a blessing. Barzillai ends up sending Chimham in his place and David promises: "Chimham shall go over with me, and I will do for him whatever seems good to you; and all that you desire of me I will do for you."

At this point in the story, David is on his way to reclaim his throne after being ousted by his son Absalom. Absalom has been killed and his followers defeated.

The passage from the reading is part of a sequence of David repaying follows or redressing wrongs that came out of his flight from Jerusalem. He is trying to reward Barzillai. However, given the unsettled nature of the narrative at this point in the story, it is not surprising that Barzillai might want to stay home rather than go tramping about with a king in David precarious position.

Even setting aside the multiple reasons Barzillai might have for not joining the king at his side, I think there is a time in everyone's life where the need for hearth and home overrides the need for adventure.

Many times the stories of the bible call out for people to leave home and find a new place in the world. In the old testament alone the major patriarchs all end up leaving home, frequently at the direct urging of God or God's angels.

This is the rare story where someone articulates the value of staying home, not only because he professes that he will be a burden on the king, but because he sees his own end is coming and he wants to die at home "...near the graves of my father and my mother."

David offers what he sees as a reward to a faithful supporter, but to Barzillai the gift would be too costly. For once in his life, David listens and does not insist on having his own way.

Barzillai is old but not helpless. He has resources and is willing to use them to support the king and help him return to the throne. Barzillai still has the power to take action.

Sometimes it is easy to assume that because someone is a stay-at-home or because they can't do as much as they used to, that somehow they are completely useless.

I combat that feeling in my own life. My various weird medical issues make it difficult to engage with people, even people in my own household. Even when I 'get stuff done' the limitations I face can leave me feeling both useless and hopeless.

So this story helps me. It puts in perspective the idea that anyone is 'old and useless'. Just because Barzillai wanted to stay home did not mean he was accepting a passive role or that he was waiting around to die.

If Barzillai had not been home to welcome David and his followers and to help feed and shelter them, then David might not have been able to support his forces and win back his kingdom.

By staying home, and using his limited energy strategically, Barzillai paved the way for David's victory. We don't all have to be adventures, sometimes the adventurers come right to our door and need the help of those who stay.

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All bible quotes are from either the NRSV or RSV text at Bible Gateway.

This essay was originally published at the Episcopal Cafe in August 2017.

10 August 2017

Enough

Immediately the father of the child cried out, “I believe; help my unbelief!”
~Mark 9:24

The above quote is from the gospel reading for Friday's daily office. It struck me because it seems to contradict itself.

'I believe,' the father says. That seems pretty comprehensive.

'...help my unbelief!' the father says in his next breath.

It is as if in the very moment he said 'I believe' he realized that he didn't, really. However, the line just before the father's statement is: Jesus said to him, 'If you are able!—All things can be done for the one who believes.'

In this moment, the son is having a seizure and the father is watching in anguish.

Like the hemorrhaging woman from two weeks ago, this child has been suffering for a long time with this illness.

Like Jairus, this father has been watching his child suffer, only able to watch and try to keep his child from additional injury.

He has told Jesus that the boy has fallen into flames and into water in the past.

Even in this moment of great duress, the father is honest. He wants Jesus to save his son. He wants to believe, but he can't quite get there on his own.

He asks Jesus to help his 'unbelief' and while nothing else is said of faith or belief, Jesus does drive out the possessing spirit and heal the child.

I suspect my own faith is much closer to this father's than to the hemorrhaging woman. She was rock solid in her belief that just touching Jesus would heal her. Given the number of times in the Gospels that faith effects a change (following Jesus, being healed, walking on water) it is tempting to think that Jesus only responds to those of 'true faith'.

However, in this story we see someone who understands that faith is necessary while in the midst of doubt that he could ever have such faith. I think the key to this story is that the father asks for help, not only in healing his child, but in finding his own faith and that Jesus accepts that and goes on with the healing.

The father's offering of a desire for faith was enough.

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All bible quotes are from either the NRSV or RSV text at Bible Gateway.

This essay was originally published at the Episcopal Cafe in July 2017.