Sunday, August 25, 2013

Going where you're not wanted

My public high school was founded in 1964 as a progressive experiment, but when I came along in 1978, a backlash was beginning.   The start of my freshman year was pushed back a few days, because of a teacher’s strike, and that kind of set the tone for the fall.  We had a new principal, who’d come in from out of state with a Ph.D., a hard-nosed reputation, and two hand–picked vice-principals.  I remember being troubled at the year-opening class assembly when one of those vice-principals made a joke about executing troublemakers by firing squad—nobody laughed.  But if I thought the new administrators were scary and mean, my two older brothers, who had enjoyed the rights and privileges of the old regime, decided they were evil.
All their abundance of adolescent rebellion and self-righteousness found a focus, and they gave themselves without restraint to a kind of insurrection against the principal.  I admired my big brothers like everybody does, and there was something a little thrilling about having a ringside seat, but while they were working on their obscene underground papers and satirical comic strips, and serving their suspensions, I was quietly enjoying Latin, Geometry, and Biology, and the novelty of being academically-challenged for the first time in my life.
It all kind of came to a head one winter afternoon, as I was walking down the main corridor, and as I approached the school office, I became aware of a commotion.  There was a buzz of excited conversation among the students that passed by, and the hallway ahead was half-blocked by students and adults standing in a knot.  When I came to the center of the hubbub there were my brothers and three or four of their friends holding a “sit-in” outside the principal’s office.   Some student council types and a couple of teachers were remonstrating with them to be reasonable and get up of the floor.  One of the vice-principals was hovering darkly nearby, and I could see the other inside the office, no doubt conferring with the principal. 
When the demonstrators saw me their faces brightened.  “Hey Dan—” one of them said amiably, as if he were inviting me to go get an ice-cream, “—we’re protesting.  You should join us.”  I turned red, muttered something, and hurried away.  But I’ve never forgotten the emotions of that moment.  I was afraid, of the disapproval of my brothers and their friends, but also of the wrath of the school authorities and the disdain of the student body at large.  I was ashamed, for being cowardly and disloyal, but also for being called out in public as a potential participant in the demonstration.  And on top of it all, I was embarrassed and angry and tired of all the drama.  It was the moment when I realized that I’d lost faith in the revolution. 
This week, as you may already know, is the 50th anniversary of a climactic moment in another kind of protest movement, the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.  Our nation will commemorate this event as a proud moment of our common history, but at the time many people, including many Christians, felt about it and about the whole Civil Rights movement the way that I felt about that sit-in outside the principal’s office—frightened, ashamed, embarrassed and angry.  It was a movement that sprang, not out of the hedonistic youth culture of the 1970s, but out of the culture of the black churches in the Deep South.  Its leaders were men and women steeped, not in the lyrics of Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin, but in the words of the Bible.  They were leaders who knew by heart the word that had been revealed to the Hebrew prophets, and who saw that Word as a power in the world that is greater than any political system, or ideology of racial discrimination, because it is the Word of God and because it is true.
The word of God to the prophets was a word that sent them to places they weren’t wanted, to say things people didn’t want to hear.  It is the kind of word that sits in the corridor outside the principal’s office, or at the segregated lunch counter at Woolworth’s.  It is the kind of word that goes to Washington, D.C. and stands on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and says that Lincoln’s work is not finished, and demands the equality and freedom that are still denied.   We should be careful not to be romantic about protest movements, as if protest alone is enough to transform injustice.  But as Christians we also cannot dismiss protest out of hand, simply because we don’t like what the protesters are saying, or because they are in places where we think they shouldn’t be. 
A story like today’s gospel lesson from Luke of Jesus defying the synagogue leaders and healing on the Sabbath, has traditionally been read as an episode of religious conflict; Jesus heals the woman who is bent double on the Sabbath in order to strike a blow for a religion of grace and compassion against the cold-hearted and legalistic religion of the Jews.  Many contemporary scholars will say that this account must be the invention of a later time, because Jesus was a Jew, and because the Jewish rabbis never interpreted their laws about the Sabbath so rigidly as that.  Instead of an authentic story about Jesus, they say, this must be anti-Jewish polemic from a Christian community that had separated itself from the synagogue.
 But what if what if this healing is not a protest against Sabbath laws, or against the synagogue itself, but against its leaders?  Those leaders are fine having Jesus there as long as he limits himself to talking about religion.  But when he shows what religion is actually for, they are not so fine. When he demonstrates the power of the living God to lift the burden of oppression from a suffering human being, so she can stand up to her full height for the first time in 18 years, suddenly Jesus is contesting control of their space.  It’s a space where the people are supposed to come for consolation in their sorrows, and the solace that helps them get through another week.  But now Jesus is there showing the people that what God really wants to do is act, to set them free.  
The communities that call themselves Christian can also be like that synagogue, spaces whose leaders kindly encourage the people to bend, without complaint, under the weight of social control.   But the collect that we prayed at the beginning of this service asked that we might show all peoples not the power of the state, or the power of the market, or the power of the church, but the power of God.  And that usually involves conflict. 
It takes resolve, and courage, but it also requires discernment.  Today’s collect also says that what will enable us to show God’s power is when we ourselves are gathered together in unity by the Holy Spirit.  When the 2003 and 2006 General Conventions said that LGBT people belong in every part of our church, even on our bishop’s thrones and walking down our aisles to have their covenants blessed before our altars, St. John’s, Petaluma left the Episcopal Church in protest.  But a few people began their own protest against that protest, but not for the sake of protest.  They resolved to continue St. John’s Episcopal because they discerned that in overcoming traditional prejudices against LGBT persons the Episcopal Church was acting to show the power of God among all peoples, for the glory of God.  And it was doing it in a spirit of unity.
God’s spirit of unity doesn’t always look like unity at first, because it is not the same as unanimity.  The Episcopal Church took prophetic action even as it recognized there were many who disagreed.  But it did so in the hope that, if could just stay together, we could get through the pain of the conflict, and a time would come when we would look back and know that God had been stirring us up for the sake of a greater unity.  And now it does feel like we are moving in that direction.  Which is a blessing, but we need to remember that we would never have gotten here without LGBT individuals and organizations in the church that went where they were not wanted, and said what they weren’t supposed to.  And when we look around the world and ask where among the peoples the power of God still needs to show forth, we should keep in mind that the answer to that question might be coming from the person we wish would go away, the one who keeps saying the things we don’t want to hear. 

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Signs of the time

Last week we welcomed a visitor at our Wednesday noon service, a young woman with numerous piercings, and dyed red streaks in her dark hair.  Her right forearm was in a cast, but you could see the outer edge of the tattoo underneath it.  She remained behind in the church after the service was over, and when the others had gone, we had a chat.  She told me she was visiting friends from out of town, and had walked by St. John’s earlier that morning and seen the service time listed on our sign.  “I haven’t been to the Eucharist since…” she said, trailing off at the end of the sentence as if she couldn’t remember.  I asked if she was an Episcopalian and she said she was, and in fact her a priest.
“My dad and I get along fine,” she said, in answer to a question I hadn’t asked, “but I’m kind of allergic to parishes.”  “There are lots of great parishes around,”  she added hastily, and then she told me that she worked as the chaplain to the High School grades at a private Episcopal school.  “Schools are a like whole different world,” she said, “but parishes…” and again she left me to understand what she meant by what she didn’t say. 
This conversation is a pretty good illustration of the generation gap in the Episcopal Church.   With each decade that passes, the number of young Americans who want to be a part of our congregations gets smaller.  Our Wednesday visitor, who is faithful enough to the tradition of her father to work a spiritual guide to youth under the auspices of an Episcopal school, is also “allergic to parishes.”  She desires the Eucharist enough to come to church, but she chooses a tiny mid-week service in a town far from home, where there is no danger of belonging, or even being recognized.  And I know hers is no isolated case—I hear from many of you about your children and grandchildren who have a strong hunger for religious experience, and desire to lead moral and purposeful lives, but who do not look for guidance in these things at church.
This generation gap seems to threaten the very survival of our churches, but before we start panicking, or blaming ourselves, or our children, or trying desperate measures of one kind or another to lure younger people to our door, we might want to remember that this kind of division has been around from the beginning.  If the words of the Gospel of Luke that we heard this morning are to be believed, Jesus’ intended something like this.  “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth?” he asks.  “No, but rather division!”  But he is not talking about war between nations, or power struggles between parties, or even a contest between religions for the allegiance of souls.  He is talking about division at the most personal intimate level, within households, within families.  And the relationships that he specifically names as zones of conflict are inter-generational ones: father and son, mother and daughter, mother-in-law and daughter-in-law.
If the division that Jesus brings to the earth hits home in the family, and the faultline is between generations, than the thing that is at stake must be tradition.  His teaching questions the assumption that the values and customs and world-views handed down from the past necessarily ought to determine the future.  Tradition must no longer be an infallible guide of the right thing to do, but has become a sphere of negotiation and conflict, where freedom and inspiration have something to say, and what matters is reading the signs of the time.     And if this is, in fact, at least some of what this passage is saying, it would be consistent with the general picture of Jesus that we find in the gospels--a man who continually disrupts people’s  expectations of what a religious teacher is supposed to be like; one who’s bitterest enemies are the guardians of tradition.
But we have to be careful not to project our modern biases onto this picture, and conclude that Jesus is against tradition, which is always bad, and in favor of innovation, which is always good. We need to realize that Jesus opposes tradition with tradition, the self-critical tradition of the prophets that runs through the Hebrew scriptures right alongside the self-justifying traditions of Israel’s special and exclusive chosenness.   The counter-tradition of the prophets is a voice of division, continually calling the people, and especially their rulers, to change.  The prophets imagine new meanings for traditional language, turning images of prosperity and contentment, such as Israel as the fertile vineyard of God, into accusations of hypocrisy and judgments of doom.   They speak on for a God who identifies with the weak and the marginal, who cries out with them for justice, and suffers agony in the betrayal that is their oppression.  Jesus is the embodiment of this tradition. It is this God he reveals in person on the cross.
It’s worth noting that when Jesus talks about the household divided two against three and three against two, he doesn’t take sides.  He doesn’t back the father against the son, or the daughter against the mother, or the mother-in-law against the daughter-in-law.  Jesus did not come to settle our family quarrels.  But he does seem to want us to have them.  Every generation has to work out for itself what from the past has outlived its usefulness, and what is worthy of preserving because it stills holds true.  There are ways to shirk this responsibility.  We can fall into fundamentalism, rejecting everything new as a threat to the perfect order established in tradition.  Or we can capitulate to the cult of the new, valuing only what feels fresh and exciting and trending upward now.  
Or we can follow Jesus into the place of division, where we have the kind of conversations that are hardest to have.  They are hard because they demand that we be really honest about what we believe and what we value and what we want, not just in terms of superficial things like taste and fashion and opinion, but about the deep things that really matter, things like faith and work, and life and death, and suffering, and love.   These conversations are also hard because they show us the limits of our individuality.  The generations that came before us wrestled with the same doubts and questions and difficulties that we do.  And it will be up to the generations that come after us to make what they can of our world, because we are leaving it behind.   Negotiating these things inevitably involves conflict, and a certain amount of heartbreak, because no two people and no two generations will see the world exactly the same, even when they are members of the same family.
In the three years that I’ve been at St. John’s, the biggest fights we’ve had have been about designing a new logo for our church.  In the course of these conflicts we’ve learned how hard it really is to interpret the signs of the time.  What kind of picture can we draw to represent our commitment to the continuity of historic tradition, and at the same time our hope for growth and renewal in the spirit of what God is doing now?  This has been our challenge, and at times we’ve found ourselves on opposing sides of the divide of continuity and change.  And if there have been moments when our disagreements have gotten pretty hot, that shouldn’t surprise us.  Jesus said he came to earth to start a fire.   
It is a fire that burns away the traditions that we cling to for their own sake, simply because they are our traditions and we are afraid to let them go.  It is a fire that consumes our delusions of inventing a future that is all ours, and not a continuation of a shared past.  This present moment on the earth belongs to all of us, the dying and the being born, and everyone between.  And yet somehow we must choose our future together.  This means being humble in the face of the mystery of our oneness and our diversity.  But it also means not shying away from the conversations that show us the signs of the time on the other sides of our divides.  This requires a mind as pure and labile and vital as fire, a heart seared with suffering and radiant with love.   It’s not easy work.  It’s never fun to have our family squabbles, but this is the work of the Church, to continually, attentively, faithfully seek the mind of Christ, that is never exactly new, and never gets old.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

A dream partly come true

The first time I ever set eyes on Petaluma I was farming down in Marin County.  Part of my work was to make a trip every month or two up to Harmony Farm Supply, outside Sebastopol, where I’d buy fertilizers and irrigation parts and tools.  And on one of these trips I was nearing Novato when the traffic report on the radio said that a tanker truck had tipped over on 101 just south of Petaluma, and the freeway was closed in both directions.  Any sensible person would have turned around and gone home, but instead, I headed west, out into the country, to try my luck on the back roads.  I didn’t have a map, just a good sense of direction, and somehow, by a long and roundabout way, I found myself at the junction of Gravenstein Highway and Stony Point Road, a place that I recognized. 
In the process I got a nice tour of the countryside to the south and west of here, and my first glimpse of downtown Petaluma.  It was a time in my life, my mid-twenties, when I was thinking a lot about my future, and the uncertain prospects for society-at-large.  And I thought the best thing I could do, for myself and for the world, was to be a farmer.   I liked to dream about finding a place somewhere to settle down with some friends and family, and get back to the land.  And I remember thinking on that particular day that I was glad to know about Petaluma, that this was a place I’d like to come back to sometime, that it might even be the right place to stake my claim.
So here I am, only somewhere along the line I went off on a different kind of journey, so I’m not a farmer living and working on my agrarian commune out on Chileno Valley Road.   I’m an Episcopal priest, living in a tract house in a subdivision near Casa Grande High School.  It’s funny how nothing happens the way we expect, even when our dreams partly come true.  And how, when we get to where we thought we are going, we find it’s not the place we thought we’d find.  
These experiences, the expectation that turns up the unexpected, and the  journey to a destination you don’t really know, appear in the scripture readings this morning as images of the life of faith.  Jesus tells his disciples to be always on the alert, always ready for action, because the thing you’re waiting for is going to come when you least expect it.  And the author of the letter to the Hebrews holds up the example of Abraham, who wandered off in search of a land he’d never seen, following a promise to a place he’d never really call his own.
Both of these examples are about receiving a gift from God.  It is a gift that is gratuitous, that depends solely on God’s will to give, but it also depends on human faith; it is our willingness to receive the gift that makes all the difference.  It is the gift that makes faith possible, and it is the faith that makes the gift real.  For Abraham the gift is the promise of a homeland, and of descendants “as many as the stars of heaven and the grains of sand on the seashore,” but its his faith that sets his feet on the road.  
The faith that Jesus commends to his disciples is also founded on God’s gift—“Do not be afraid, little flock,” he says, “for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”  But this kingdom is not a place on the earth, it’s not a homeland you can journey to.  It’s a kingdom that comes upon us, that catches us by surprise.  Jesus’ teaching career begins with his appearance, as if from nowhere, announcing that “the Kingdom of God has come near.”  His parables point to the unexpected signs of the kingdom in everyday happenings and ordinary things.   And today we hear the surprising news that this kingdom is given to us, and that having it, we have nothing to fear.  God’s good pleasure to give us the kingdom is the promise of a treasure more worthwhile than the things we thought were valuable, an invisible treasure nothing on earth can take away.  
These words rang true for the disciples of Jesus because he said them.  And that was perhaps the most surprising thing of all.  All their lives they had heard about the power and the goodness of God.  All their lives they had heard about the Spirit of God that anointed the prophets, putting words of truth in their mouths and power to heal in their hands.  All their lives they had heard how God had promised a homeland to his people, a place where they could dwell in safety and plenty, where he himself would be their shepherd and their righteous king.   
And they may have believed in the old stories; they may have hoped and prayed fervently for such things to be revealed in their own day.  But they probably didn’t expect that they actually would.  They didn’t expect that they would have first-hand experience of the presence of God and the power of the Spirit.  They didn’t expect to be called irresistibly away from their homes and their former occupations to be sent wandering through the towns and the villages on a mission to heal and forgive.  They didn’t expect to find that when they did, they did not go hungry, but their needs were all supplied.  The disciples of Jesus didn’t expect to see lives transformed, the broken fragments of society made whole, or to see and to know, in a land seething with violence and oppression, the peace and justice of the Kingdom of God.  And they certainly didn’t expect that all this could flow from one person, a person like them, a carpenter from Nazareth in Galilee. 
When I had my dream of a little place in the country, it was, at the most basic level, a dream of peace.  It was a dream of building a private little homeland, where I could be safe.  Surrounded by people I know and trust, and supplying my own needs, I could live in minimal dependence on the world of stock market bubbles and nuclear meltdowns, Mexican drug gangs and government surveillance.  But instead I ended up here, with all of you, squarely planted in the middle of that world.   I ended up giving my life, not to building myself a separate little homeland of safety and peace, but to our shared project of showing the turbulent world the kingdom that God is building there. 
My job here may look at times like it’s about building up our institution, so it’s stable and secure.  But my real work is to take risks, to encourage us all to take the risks, of receiving the gift of God that is Jesus Christ.  It’s a gift that we receive on behalf of the whole world, and that is a risky proposition, because it’s a gift the world isn’t sure it wants to have.  We’re not so sure we want it ourselves, when hear things like, “sell your possessions, and give alms.”   This is not the charter for our Rummage Sale, but words that put us at risk, the risk of admitting that all we can really count on is our relationships, and no one is a stranger in the kingdom.  
The world remains deeply ambivalent about such words, unsure whether Jesus is the master of the house or a thief come to break in and steal the things we prize.  That is why it is mostly content to leave him where it saw him last, hanging on the cross.  But we persist in praying for the kingdom that is still to come.  We insist on acting as if Jesus has a future.  And that means staying awake, of being alert and on the lookout for the unexpected.  It means remaining hopeful, not just of finding our own private homeland of safety and peace, but of meeting a person, the truly human being.  He may come at midnight, or just before dawn, like the master of the house returning from a wedding feast, or like a thief coming to break in, but either way, the point is to be ready, because we won’t want to miss him when he comes.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Rich toward God

In the last few months my wife Meg has been working about three days a week in her psychotherapy career.  She put it on hold when our daughter was born, and just about the time that she got it going again down in Monterey, we moved here to Petaluma.  But now it’s going again, which has been a good thing for her and our family, but has also involved some stretches and strains.  And one result that is both a blessing and a challenge is that for the first time in eleven years of marriage we have some disposable income.  In our capitalist-consumer culture this is the Holy Grail, the very thing our whole lives are supposed to be directed toward getting.  But when you’ve been accustomed for year to spend everything you earn on basic necessities, the sudden surplus can be a little overwhelming. 
First of all there is what economists call pent-up consumer demand.  A couple of weeks ago I did the unthinkable—I bought a six-pack of brand-new white athletic socks and I went home and took all of the shapeless, grayish, threadbare things that used to be white socks out of my drawer and put them in the rag bag.  We’re fantasizing about a gas grill for the back yard, or one of those thin TVs that hangs on the wall to replace the old  cathode-ray tube that squats in its coffin in the living room.  But then there’s that forty-year old furnace in the hall closet, and the crumbling brick walkway leading up to the house and the peeling exterior trim and the breathtaking possibility that instead of spending the next year’s worth of my days off scraping and washing and priming and painting we could just hire someone to do the job.  We’ve already increased our giving to charities we’ve guiltily denied or short-changed over the years.  And finally there is the voice of prudence reminding of us of all the reasons why we need to save—to pay the higher taxes we will now be privileged enjoy, to build up a cash reserve for unforeseen emergencies, to provide for our daughter’s college education, and our own not-so-terribly distant old age.
So figuring out how to prioritize all these different wants and needs is nerve-wracking, and when you start to divide the extra income all those different ways, it isn’t very much, and that little voice starts to whisper in the back of your mind that says, “if only it was a little more.”  Now, I’m not complaining—I’m well aware that there are millions of people in our country and billions more around the world who would give their eye teeth to have my money problems.  But the frustrating aspects of the situation do help me to remember the point that Jesus makes in the Gospel of Luke when he says to some brothers who are quarreling over their inheritance, "Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one's life does not consist in the abundance of possessions."
And he goes on to tell a story, a parable about a rich man, a landowner who had what every one of us who’s ever bought a lottery ticket thought we wanted, what every subsistence farmer in Palestine has always thought would be the answer to his fondest prayer.  He had a surplus, so much grain and other goods that he had to tear down his barns and build bigger ones to hold it all.  And the best thing, the man thought, about all that wealth was that now he could purchase his soul.  He could get it out of debt, out of hock to anxiety, and uncertainty about the future, and the endless toil be secure.  He could just kick back and relax and enjoy his life, because finally it was his alone. 
But here is where God comes into the story, and, as in all the parables of Jesus, God flips the script.  Because God tells the rich man that his life is the one thing that he can never own.    And the goods that he thinks will buy him his soul come at the cost of it.  They don’t give him his life, they consume it, until his goods are all that remains, an inheritance for his children to quarrel over.  “So it is,” says Jesus, “with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”
It is hard for us, as it was for people in Jesus’ time, to hear this story as good news.  That is because we only hear the negative message it contains.  But there is a positive message in the story as well, as in all the teachings of Jesus about material wealth, which can sound so stern and cold and unlovely to our ears.   And the positive message is that there is an alternative to the anxious and never-ending struggle to get so much stuff that we can finally be in firm possession of our lives.  There is a way to live that understands that we are already rich, even if we have nothing in this world but the clothes on our backs.  It is possible to see the world, not as an economy of competition for limited goods and scarce commodities, but as an abundant economy of unlimited and multiplying gifts.  There is a way to pursue fulfillment and joy and peace by flipping the script, and learning to be “rich toward God.”
Last Wednesday, July 31st, was the anniversary of a meeting that took place in 1856 in a parlor at the Washington Hotel near the corner of Main and Washington in a booming little settlement on the Petaluma River.  At that meeting a small group of pioneers met with Bishop William Kip of California and decided to establish St. John’s Church.  It’s worth remembering that at the beginning St. John’s was nothing, nothing but a name, and those people and their bishop, and the Book of Common Prayer.  And our founders may have had their dreams of building something substantial and lasting, but I don’t think they foresaw what their little project would become, any more than they foresaw the unbelievable prosperity that timber, and ranching, and the river would bring to their town.   But they did have the sense to know that whatever they did here would be worthless if they weren’t rich toward God.
One hundred and fifty years later, their children would have a quarrel over their legacy.  But I like to think that what was really at stake in that fight was not the property of the parish, or the name St. John’s, or the rightful inheritance of the Anglican tradition.  The real issue in question was the nature of the church—is it our exclusive possession?  Is it the right of any person, or one generation, to decide who belongs to it, and who does not, and to do with it as they will?  Or is the church a gift that we hold in trust for others we don’t even know, something that simply passes through our hands, on its way to a destination that we cannot imagine, that is hidden with Christ in God?
Last Thursday, August 1st was also an anniversary, the 3rd anniversary of my coming here to be the Priest-in-Charge.  And a lot of our time and energy in these past three years has been consumed with trying to get a handle on our inheritance—assessing the deferred maintenance needs of the property, making repairs and improvements, raising money to make the repairs, setting up financial systems, and endowment policies, and facility-use policies and the administrative and governance structures to do all these things in an efficient and transparent and accountable way.  And I admit there have been times when I’ve wished for the simplicity of nothing but people and bishop and the Book of Common Prayer.
And there also the times when I’m alone in this place and I walk around and I wonder who our neighbors are and what they might say if they knew there was this incredible asset just sitting here, holding all of its potential like a hidden treasure, and that it is here for them.  Here for them to use to create community, to celebrate life, to offer thanksgiving, and mourn the dead; here for them to use to enjoy beauty, and practice kindness, and share truth, and love wisdom, and study peace.  I think about them and I wonder what I can say or do that will let them know that this is their place to come and be rich, rich toward God.    

About Me

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Petaluma, California, United States
I am a priest in the Episcopal Church, and have been (among other things) an organic farmer and gardener, and a Zen monk. I have a lifelong interest in social and spiritual renewal on the basis of contemplative discipline, creative nonviolence, and ecological practice. In recent years my work has focused intensely on the responsibility of pastoral ministry in the humanistic, evangelical, and catholic branch of Christianity known as Anglicanism. I'm married with a daughter, and have three brothers and two parents.