The Pastoral Work of Prayer-Directing: Song of Songs [Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work by Eugene Peterson, part 2]

As I continue my journey of re-learning and recovering what it means to be a pastor, I am blogging my way through Eugene Peterson’s Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work. In this book, Peterson seeks to recover a sense of pastoral practice and integrity based on the Megilloth, the five scrolls connected with five key Jewish festivals:

  • Song of Songs at Passover
  • Ruth at Pentecost
  • Lamentations on the Ninth of Ab
  • Ecclesiastes at Tabernacles
  • Esther at Purim

The first of the Megilloth that Peterson explores as a resource for pastoral ministry in Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work is Song of Songs. While it might seem like a strange place to begin, but Peterson points out that “much of pastoral work has to do with nurturing intimacy, that is, developing relationships in which love is successfully expressed and received — shared” (24). The is spiritual in the broadest sense, encompassing both our “vertical relationship” with God and our “horizontal relationships” with other people. Peterson discusses the connection between our intimacy nurtured through relationships with others, including our sexuality, and our intimacy nurtured through relationship with God through prayer. This intimacy and longing for relationship is sacred and, in many ways, defines what it means to be human. Pastoral work engages with this tender intimate area, both in its earthiness and its divinity. As Peterson writes:

We live in a whole world of creation and redemption in which all the relationships which stretch along a continuum of sexual identity and spiritual capacity are involved in our daily growth and discipleship. Pastoral work refuses to specialize in earthly or heavenly, human or divine. The pastor is given a catholic cosmos to work in , not a sectarian back-forty. (26)

Peterson goes on to reflect on how salvation recreates and redeems our lives and relationships. The Exodus event is pivotal to our understanding of salvation and the Passover celebration of the Exodus rehearses God’s saving work again and again. While Song of Songs, with all its romantic imagery, may seem like a strange book to read at the Passover meal, Peterson argues for its appropriateness in the midst of “nurturing devotional intimacies and relational wholeness — the personal, immediate, experiential aspects of the gospel in the context of salvation” (31). The pastor ministers at the crossroads of the human and divine, the everyday and the transcendent, as we try to help everyone—including ourselves—stay alert to the wonders of God’s salvation.

The pastor’s task is to gather people together every Sunday, center each week in a response to the risen Lord, and nurture a participation in the resurrection life in Christ that works as well on any Wednesday afternoon at 5 o’clock as on Easter at sunrise. (32)

Building from Karl Barth’s commentary on Genesis 2, Peterson traces themes through the prophets before portraying Song of Songs as an extended commentary on Genesis 2 in light of the saving work of God in the Exodus. Creation and covenant come together in relationship with God and the other as depicted in Song of Songs. While some of the greatest interpreters of Song of Songs, such as Bernard of Clairvaux, seem to read it only figurally, Peterson encourages us to see what is going on through their eyes:

The ancients may not have known what the book was made of [liturgical fragments, wedding songs, and love songs], but they know what it was — an exposition of love in a creation in which all love in one way or another is an aspect of salvation. (39)

It is because of this that we can read the unabashedly erotic language of the Song of Songs simultaneously as both an expression of the goodness of human love and beauty within God’s creation and as a reflection upon the spiritual intimacy of love with God.

The erotic must be read in the theological context. The ancients did not read the Song devotionally because they were embarrassed by its sexuality, but because they understood sexuality in sacramental ways. Human love took its color from divine love. (42)

Pivotal here is concept of covenant, which grounds love and intimacy within a framework of committed relationship. Just as covenant roots sexual intimacy in ongoing human relationship, so, too, does covenant ground spiritual intimacy of human life in relationship to God. “Covenant, in effect, means that humanity cannot understand life apart from a defined and revealed relationship with God” (44).

Building upon his exploration of intimacy, relationship, salvation, love, and covenant, Peterson then walks through aspects of Song of Songs to show how it relates to pastoral work. Here are some highlights:

Pastoral work is a concentration on names. After the Bible, the church roll is the most important book in the pastor’s study. We work in communities that are composed of names. The pastor (like Adam in the garden) gives names — presents a person by name at the baptismal font, invokes the name of God at the table, proclaims the name of God from the pulpit, and combines those names in every pastoral conversation and prayer. (48)

Intimacy is not easily achieved….Pastoral work acknowledges the difficulty and the pain of the quest and shares it….It is the pastor’s task, rather, to be companion to persons who are in the midst of difficulty, to acknowledge the difficulty and thereby give it significance, and to converse and pray with them through the time so that the loneliness is lightened, somewhat, and hope is maintained, somehow. (49-51).

Every person in every parish is involved in the desires and the difficulties of intimacy….Which is why prayer is the chief pastoral work in relation to a person’s desires and difficulties with intimacy….Prayer is thus the language, par excellence, of the covenant. (54-55)

Pastoral work is a ministry for taking seriously the details that differentiate us from each other and from God, and then praising them, for “in separateness only does love learn definition.” By listening to attentively to a persons’ dreams, desires, and longings, and by sharing passionately a persons’ struggles, painful frustrations, and difficulties significance is given to them. (60)

The single most significant phrase that a pastor can speak (either aloud or sub voce) is “I will pray for you.” (61)

In closing, Peterson connects the delightful praise of the Song of Songs with pastoral prayer lifted up in connection with the eucharist. Just as the two lovers of the Song experience joy and delight in one another, we experience joy and delight in God at the eucharistic meal that extends into our life together. And so, the pastor offers prayer in joy, gratitude, and reconciliation, not just for the abstractions of salvation and community, but for the real people we minister to, counsel with, visit in their homes and hospital beds.

Prayer is the pastoral work that is most suited for recognizing the compelling quality of God’s invitations and promises, and perpetuating it in others. (71)

[This is the second in a series of posts on Eugene Peterson’s Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work. You can read all the posts here.]

Recovering Pastoral Practice [Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work by Eugene Peterson, part 1]

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I first stumbled into the work of Eugene Peterson in the 1990s through his translation work with The Message. It was not too much later, however, that a pastor and mentor introduced me to his writing on pastoral ministry, sometimes referred to as Eugene Peterson’s Pastoral Library.

About three years ago, I re-read and steadily worked my way through one of the treasures of that library, Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integrity. Doing that helped to ground me in a time of instability in my sense of what it meant to be a pastor. Through Working the Angles, Peterson became an invaluable conversation partner in re-learning what it means to be a pastor.

As I continue that journey, I want to do something similar with the first of those books, published in 1980, is Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work. I want to blog my way through this work to recover a sense of pastoral practice and integrity. I do not mean integrity merely in the moral sense, but integrity in the sense of how something holds together. I am increasingly convinced that the very integrity of pastoral ministry, from calling to character, from practice to disciplines, is at stake in North America, if not elsewhere. We are in a crisis and need a renewal of pastoral integrity. So, here goes…


In the introduction to Five Smooth Stones, Peterson describes what we are about as pastors:

Pastoral work is that aspect of Christian ministry which specializes in the ordinary. It is the pragmatic application of religion in the present. (1)

While such work should be rooted in the biblical sources, Peterson points out the tendency in his day (which is no less present in our own) to turn toward the latest fads or social theories as the basis for pastoral ministry. However, this impulse is not helpful, and Peterson claims:

“When I look for help in developing my pastoral craft and nurturing my pastoral vocation, the one century that has the least to commend it is the twentieth.” (2)

Having found the “counsel of my contemporaries” tried and wanting, Peterson outlines his deep desire—one which I resonate with—and the goal of this book: “I want a biblical base for the whole of pastoral ministry, and not just for its preaching and teaching” (5).

Peterson then walks through four aspects in the work of the pastor that he will explore in the coming chapters.  First, there is the tension between the timeless word and will of God and the local and personal place in which ministry is done. This happens best “not by acquiring new  knowledge but by assimilating old wisdom, not by reading the latest books but by digesting the old ones” (10).

Second, there exists “the distinction between biblical foundation and pastoral superstructure” (11). Here Peterson tells us “each generation of pastors, and to a certain extent each pastor, has to build his or her own superstructure of pastoral work. But we don’t, and we must not, lay out our own foundations” (11).

Third, Peterson grounds all pastoral work within the action of worship. “Pastoral work has no identity in and of itself. It is a derivative work, and worship is that from which it is derived” (18).

Fourth, pastoral work is not about abstraction, but about “the local, the specific, and the personal” (20). Like a hiker on the trail,

It is the pastor’s task to work along such trails using a style of speech and a mode of action that is local, specific, and personal so that each person met is addressed as an object of the love of God, which is not merely universal but particular in its universality. (21)

It is within the second distinction that Peterson introduces the framework for Five Smooth Stones, which will follow the Megilloth, the five scrolls connected with five key Jewish festivals:

  • Song of Songs at Passover
  • Ruth at Pentecost
  • Lamentations on the Ninth of Ab
  • Ecclesiastes at Tabernacles
  • Esther at Purim

Seeing this connection of biblical sources with the community at worship, Peterson seeks to retrieve them for reintegration within the work of the pastor. He writes:

Each of the Megilloth, set by Judaism in an act of worship, deals with an aspect of pastoral work: learning how to love and pray in the context of salvation (Song of Songs); developing an identity as a person of faith in the context of God’s covenant (Ruth); dealing with suffering in the context of redemptive judgment (Lamentations); unmasking religious illusion and pious fraud in the context of providential blessing (Ecclesiastes); and becoming a celebrative community of faith in the environment of the world’s hostility (Esther). (17)

Peterson readily admits that “not everything a pastor does fits into the five areas, but a remarkable amount of it does, giving promise that the Megilloth may be highly serviceable for pastoral use” (17).

[This is the first in a series of posts reflecting on Eugene Peterson’s Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work. You can read all the posts here.]

The Weekend Wanderer: 4 April 2020

The Weekend Wanderer” is a weekly curated selection of news, stories, resources, and media on the intersection of faith and culture for you to explore through your weekend. Wander through these links however you like and in any order you like.


Washington D.C.'s National Cathedral Webcasts Sunday Mass Due To Coronavirus“Christianity Offers No Answers About the Coronavirus. It’s Not Supposed To” – NT Wright’s essay in Time speaks to how lacking most answers are right now and how important it is to recover one of the most biblical responses to a situation like the COVID-19 pandemic. “Rationalists (including Christian rationalists) want explanations; Romantics (including Christian romantics) want to be given a sigh of relief. But perhaps what we need more than either is to recover the biblical tradition of lament. Lament is what happens when people ask, ‘Why?’ and don’t get an answer. It’s where we get to when we move beyond our self-centered worry about our sins and failings and look more broadly at the suffering of the world.”


116514“Arab Christians Have Lost Easter Before. Here’s What They Learned” – Our church has good friends around the globe, many of whom are in the Middle East: Jordan, Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and more. The instability of the region during many years caused disruption of worship services and fellowship that have parallels to our present moment with the COVID-19 pandemic. This article from Christianity Today reflects largely on the Coptic and Maronite Christian realities and what we might be able to learn from it.


Anti-Asian Racism“Statement on Anti-Asian Racism in the Time of COVID-19” – My wife, Kelly, and I were talking with a dear friend from Asia who related to us some of the ways prejudice against Asians is rising in our country, including recent anti-Chinese graffiti at the UW-Madison campus. In talking with another friend living in the Middle East, I heard about similar things happening there. As Christians, we must unequivocally stand against this sort of thing. I was glad to hear the Asian-American Christian Collaborative drafted this “Statement on Anti-Asian Racism in the Time of COVID-19.”


Screen Shot 2020-04-03 at 11.12.55 AM“Pregnant in a Pandemic: Coping and Hoping” – Betsy Childs Howard: “A month ago, my mind was filled with the normal concerns of a first-time mom anticipating birth. What did I need to buy for the baby? What should I take to the hospital, and how would I get there? Who would be available from our family to help me after the birth, and when should they arrive? Then we all became aware of COVID-19, and I realized the remaining weeks of my pregnancy would be far from normal.”


ap_20089618290522_custom-4f7db72fa3acfc7d781ba78ee98ab2da873fd7a9-s1500-c85“States Consider Whether Religious Services Qualify As ‘Essential'” – After the arrest of controversial evangelist and pastor Rodney Howard-Browne for resisting state guidelines for public health during this pandemic, states around the country continue to debate whether to consider religious services as “essential” or not. South Korea has wrestled with this as one cult group became the source of a major outbreak and the government is considering legal action against those who defy public health guidelines . Regardless of the governmental orders, the joint statement by the NAE and Christianity Today (which I posted here last week) offers some guidance on how to think about whether to cancel or not cancel services. That being said, in the midst of a clear global health emergency, we have to wrestle with what it means to love God with all of who we are while also loving our neighbor. I would like to suggest that foolishness in regards to public health is neither honoring to God nor loving to our neighbor. If we’re honest this is less about cancelling than about retooling in a time of crisis so as to love God and love our neighbors well.


richc“Rich Christians in an Age of Coronavirus”Matt Soerens of World Relief takes Ron Sider’s old book title, Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger, and applies it to the current moment and the expected stimulus Americans will receive from the government. In a time when so many needs loom large, Soerens asks, how then should we live, as rich Christians in an age of coronavirus? What would happen if we offered our portion of the stimulus to help those in need?


Stone Churches Ethiopia“Dreams of Stone: Searching for paradise in Ethiopia’s rock churches” – This is not your typical look at churches as Ishion Hutchinson, a Rastafarian from Jamaica, experiences the ancient Christian tradition in Ethiopia. Sometimes it’s good to see your own tradition through different eyes. “As we neared Biete Medhane Alem, a service was underway; the sounds of Geez, the ancient Ethiopic liturgical language, resonated through the mighty stone pillars that greeted me before the structure itself—an auditory monument, the presence of numinous poetry, an intimation of the enormous space before me, undulating and wide….as I turned a corner, I saw the praying people. Robed splendidly, mostly in white shawls, the supplicants shuttled through the rock passages.”


Old-Vintage-Books“Why Pastors Should Be Good Readers” – Here is Philip Ryken, President of Wheaton College and former Senior Pastor of Tenth Presbyterian in Philadelphia, speaking to the reading life of pastors. While studying with Phil’s father, Leland Ryken, at Wheaton College, I made the life-changing decision to become an English major instead of a Bible major as an undergrad. Of course, after college I went on to receive the MDiv degree with all the Bible and theology classes necessary. However, I am so glad I made that decision in my earlier studies.


 

Music: Fernando Ortega, “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded,” from Hymns and Meditations

[I do not necessarily agree with all the views expressed within the articles linked from this page, but I have read them myself in order to help me think more deeply and broadly.]

The Weekend Wanderer: 28 December 2019

The Weekend Wanderer” is a weekly curated selection of news, stories, resources, and media on the intersection of faith and culture for you to explore through your weekend. Wander through these links however you like and in any order you like.

FYI, I’m taking a one-week break from compiling “The Weekend Wanderer,” so don’t expect a post at the beginning of January. Happy New Year, everyone, and thank you to all those who enjoy reading this weekly compilation that I share.

 

27McCaulley-articleLarge“The Bloody Fourth Day of Christmas”Esau McCaulley, assistant professor of New Testament at Wheaton College, brings into focus one of the most shocking elements of the nativity narratives. In Matthew 2, the magi visit Jesus, first encountering King Herod, who asks them to return and tell him where this miracle baby is born. However, they are warned in a dream not to return to Herod, who then proceeds to slaughter all the children under the age of two in the vicinity. In the midst of this, somehow, Scripture assures us that hope breaks through, and McCaulley helps us see that in his New York Times editorial.

 

Donald Trump & Jerry Falwell“Nearly 180 Evangelical Leaders, including Billy Graham’s Granddaughter, Condemn Anti-Trump Editorial in Letter to Christianity Today – Last weekend, I began “The Weekend Wanderer” by featuring the editorial from Mark Galli of Christianity Today calling for the removal of President Trump. That editorial became top news on various news sites around the nation. What quickly followed was a widely diverse response, both positive and negative, from around evangelicalism, including a letter of opposition sent to CT by various evangelical leaders, including Franklin Graham, and an invitation from the Red Letter Christian group to support the impeachment efforts.  Timothy Dalrymple, President of Christianity Today, wrote a response to all of this, “The Flag in the Whirlwind: An Update from CT’s President.” What is clear from this dialogue is that evangelicalism is not unified in its politics, something that has been evident to many for several years. What is less clear, and something that has been debated throughout recent years, is what “evangelical” really means, and whether the term is helpful any longer.

 

114394“The Pastor’s Study Is Not a Bunker” – Not too long ago, I wrote an article about pastoral ministry that began with a reference to Gregory the Great (read “The Disturbing Temptations of Pastoring in Obscurity”). Gregory is a fantastic example for ministry, particularly for those of us trying to live as pastors in the midst of confusing and busy times. I appreciated reading this article by John P. Burgess, Jerry Andrews, and Joseph Small, drawn from their recent book, A Pastoral Rule for Today: Reviving an Ancient Practice, which I’m partway through reading. For any pastors out there, I’d appreciate hearing your thoughts on this one.

 

Representation of Magnum Chaos (before the Creation took place): wood marquetry by Giovan Francesco Capoferri after Lorenzo Lotto (1480-1556) - 16th century - Church of Santa Maria Maggiore, Bergamo“Idle components: An argument against Richard Dawkins” – “Richard Dawkins’s new book Outgrowing God: A Beginner’s Guide is relentlessly confrontational. While discussing it with me, a colleague suggested that the rhetorical tone is itself worthy of note. Dawkins is in effect making a declaration: ‘I understand all this highfalutin science; simple-minded religious believers don’t. Authority therefore resides in me. Here, for instance, is an objective account of embryology which can be contrasted with a religious view – presumably that it’s all a great miracle’. In dialectical terms, Dawkins presses his ‘antithesis’ so hard that the unwary reader may accept the erroneous ‘thesis’ (namely that believers swallow a lot of bilge) from which we must apparently recoil.”

 

Screen Shot 2019-12-24 at 6.48.19 AM“We are not divine. But we are loved. That is enough.” – Kate Bowler at The Washington Post: “We are not divine. When we confuse hope for power, we transform tragedy into failure. Most wishes — even good wishes — will not come true. Bodies age. Love slips out of our hands….This Christmas, God will be born among us, despite our best efforts. So, for those growing tired of waiting for heaven, may the season give us room to say: God is here. We are loved. It is enough.”

 

Screen Shot 2019-12-27 at 4.42.06 PM“Inside the Ghent Altarpiece” – I first encountered the Ghent Altarpiece when I was a student in college in Art Survey. I would not say that I was widely exposed to visual art at that time, but I could already see the wonders of this piece of artwork by Jan and Hubert van Eyck. Someone recently shared with me that you can walk through this piece online and I immediately found myself transported by the vivid beauty of every part of this marvelous piece of worship artwork, which I have never seen in person. This is probably the next best thing.

 

Music: Chabros Music, “Hope to the Nations”

[I do not necessarily agree with all the views expressed within the articles linked from this page, but I have read them myself in order to make me think more deeply.]

The Weekend Wanderer: 12 October 2019

The Weekend Wanderer” is a weekly curated selection of news, stories, resources, and media on the intersection of faith and culture for you to explore through your weekend. Wander through these links however you like and in any order you like.

Kurds Syria Trump“Christian Leaders Say Turkish Invasion Of Syria Raises Risk Of ‘Genocide'” – Some of my good friends and partners in ministry are from Syria. Walking with them through the challenges of having to flee their war-torn homeland has helped me see and hear international news even more differently than I did before. With the happenings in our politics, it is sometimes hard to remember that there are real people on the ground in Syria, and that many of them are our Christian brothers and sisters. There has already been a subtle excavation of Christian presence from the Middle East and we need to pay attention. This is more than a foreign policy issue for followers of Jesus.

 

Amman city view, in Jordan“Jordanian Evangelicals Push for Official Recognition” – As we begin our annual MissionsFest at Eastbrook Church, we’re privileged to have one of our long-time partners in ministry from Jordan, Rev. Yousef Hashweh, join us to preach during our first weekend. The church in Jordan is strong, but shrinking because of economic and political challenges. Their voice has been valued by King Abdullah, but they struggle at time to maintain that voice in the changing tides of culture. I was interested to read on Thursday about this latest move in Jordan for evangelical churches representing five denominations (Baptists, Assemblies of God, Evangelical Free, Nazarene, and Christian & Missionary Alliance) to come together to form a new Jordanian Evangelical Council.

 

J D Greear“SBC President: We Failed to Heed Victims’ Voices” – Perhaps one of the most notable issues in the North American church has been attention given to sexual abuse claims within the Southern Baptist Convention, which is the largest Protestant denomination in the USA.  There are cases of coverups and deaf ears, leaving a dark history of regrettably unChristian behavior within the SBC.  In the midst of such darkness, I do think it is important to at least recognize that the current SBC President, J. D. Greear, appears to be trying to deal with this directly, even as there is still much work to be done.

 

92300“‘I’m a Pastor IRL'” – I may be dating myself, but I still remember when Facebook hit the scene in the midst of my years of working as a College Pastor. I wasn’t sure what to make of it, but adopted it right away first as a means of communicating with students and later attempted to utilize it as a platform for ministry. It was during that same time that I began my blog here. All of these were experiments for me in utilizing new technologies as avenues for ministry to people. Some of it worked, while other parts didn’t work as well. I haven’t been on Facebook for several years now, but that’s another story. Here’s Glenn Packiam, associate senior pastor of New Life Church in Colorado Springs, reflecting on some pretty significant questions. “Is there a way for us as pastors to bear God’s image in online interactions, to be a kind of icon of Christ? Let me suggest three areas to consider: identity and self (who are we?), presence and place (where are we?), and authority and power (what are we capable of?). These questions will guide us even as specific apps and devices change in the years ahead.”

 

DiklalaorEve“Israeli Photographer Brings Female Biblical Figures to Life with Magnificent Images” – “The bible has for centuries been a source of inspiration and influence for art in all its forms. The canonical collection of texts sacred to Abrahamic religions has indeed inspired some of the world’s greatest known works of art. Israeli photographer Dikla Laor has worked for six years to bring the stories of female biblical figures to life through the camera lens, embarking on a unique project to imagine these characters’ appearances, dress, and demeanor against breathtaking backdrops. Her “Biblical Women Series” includes the “first woman,” Eve, the Jewish matriarchs – Sarah, Rivka (Rebecca), Leah and Rachel – Lot’s wife, the Queen of Sheba, the prophetess Deborah, and Jezebel, among over 40 such photographs.”

 

52.large“Pluralism, Difference, and the Dynamics of Trust” – Do you ever read the news and wonder if there is any way out of the cultural divides and distrust? I do. On my more hopeful days, I believe that there are ways toward living out Christ’s kingdom in the midst of a pluralistic society that could restore hope, joy, truth, and love in peoples’ lives and the broader society. In my less hopeful days, I try not to get cynical. Underlying significant portions of this is the need for restoration of public trust. I enjoyed reading this 2017 dialogue between John Inazu, Professor of Law and Religion at Washington University, and James K. A. Smith when he was still editor at Comment. Inazu’s Confident Pluralism is on my “to read” list, and this interview encouraged me to get to it sometime soon.

 

92385“Supreme Court Cases Challenge LGBT Rights-Religious Liberty Balancing Act” – Speaking of difference and the dynamics of trust, the Supreme Court has been giving attention to the most significant case at the nexus of sexual rights and religious liberty since the 2015 ruling in favor of same-sex marriage. “The United States Supreme Court was debating the meaning of the word sex on Tuesday when Chief Justice John Roberts brought up religion. He called it ‘that other concern’—religious liberty. Roberts asked: How can the government protect the rights of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender employees in the workplace and the rights of religious groups to employ people who agree on issues of sexuality, sexual orientation, and gender identity?”

 

N T Wright“Discerning the Dawn: History, Eschatology and New Creation” – Anytime N. T. Wright is publishes a new book, I take interest. Wright is an amazing scholar of the New Testament and Christian history. When I heard about his forthcoming book, History and Eschatology: Jesus and the Promise of Natural Theology, it caught my attention because of the interesting combination of ideas. I wondered what it was about, and then I discovered that this book is drawn from Wright’s eight Gifford lectures in 2018, which are available online for viewing. If you have more time than I do, you may enjoy watching all of them.

 

Music: Brian Eno with Daniel Lanois and Roger Eno, “An Ending (Ascent),” from Apollo – Atmospheres & Soundtracks.

[I do not necessarily agree with all the views expressed within the articles linked from this page, but I have read them myself in order to make me think more deeply.]