Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Inhabiting Compassion

When you think of Jesus, would you describe him as a compassionate fellow? What about God? Do you believe in a compassionate God?

As best I can tell, there are eight verses in the four gospelaccounts that describe Jesus as compassionate or having pity (same Greek word), and two of them are repeats:

  • Compassion on the Sheperdless Crowd (Matt. 9:36)
  • Feeding of the 5,000 (Matt. 14:14 & Mark 6:34)
  • Feeding of the 4,000 (Matt. 15:32 & Mark 8:2)
  • Healing of Two Blind Men (Matt. 20:34)
  • Cleansing of a Leper (Mark 1:41)
  • Raising of a Widow’s Son (Luke 7:13)

 That’s six different occasions when the gospel writers record for us that Jesus was moved with pity or acted out of compassion, and two of those moments were precursors for the feeding miracles. I think it’s interesting that both Matthew and Mark set the stage for two different but parallel feeding stories by mention Jesus’ emotional state. Perhaps there’s something in the background there about a Jewish mother feeding her upset son large quantities of matzo.

The Greek word for “have compassion on” (in the case of Sunday’s gospel lesson it’s “ἐσπλαγχνίσθη”) and its various forms literally mean “disturbed in one’s guts.” It shares the same root as the word “spleen” because people believed that emotion came from one’s bowels. That seems odd to us, but we still say things like “my heart yearns for you” even though the organ responsible for pumping blood through the body, of course, has nothing to do with love. I don’t think it surprises anyone to hear that Jesus was “moved with pity” at someone’s plight or “had compassion on” a person or a crowd. What should surprise us, however, is that through the incarnation the impassable (click on the word for a definition) God found a way to be compassionate.

The word “compassion” in its Latin roots means “to suffer with.” Suffer, in that sense, has to do with feeling something or to be affected by something—not just to endure the pain and trial of a situation. If I suffer with you, it means I am touched by your circumstance. I cry when you cry. I rejoice when you rejoice. That’s something we would say of a friend. It’s even something we would say of Jesus. But—at least until the middle of the last century—it’s not something we ordinarily would say of God.

God does not suffer. (Feel free to disagree with me on that—many, many theologians do—but that has been the orthodox belief for 2,000 years.) Jesus, of course, does suffer. God is not compassionate. God is loving. In fact, God is love. But God doesn’t look down on creation and shed a tear when we are going through a tough time. Like a radio whose dial has broken off and thus always plays the same station, God is always related to the created order through love. It never stops. It never changes. And that love might seem like empathetic, sympathetic, compassionate co-suffering, but it’s not. But with Jesus all of that is different. Jesus is compassionate. He does weep at the grave of his friend Lazarus. He does look out on the crowd and feel moved in his bowels at their shepherdless state. And that’s a remarkable thing.

Whether or not you believe that God is compassionate, at least stop for a moment and consider how amazing it is that the incarnate Son of God is moved with pity for us and for the whole human race. God shows his love for us in human form so that God’s love might inhabit our own miserable state of affairs. The power of the incarnation, therefore, is even more clearly expressed by the unfathomable mystery that the almighty, unchanging, completely-other God is found in human likeness—suffering and all.

Yesterday, Steve Pankey wrote about compassion and questioned whether compassion might transcend politics. In the best moments, it can, and it does. But, too often, even compassion fails to break through. He didn’t ask it, but I will—why do we care so much more about Gaza than Syria? What is the disconnect between our broken-heartedness at Columbine or Sandy Hook and our nation’s gun policy?

What does it mean for us to believe in a God who sent his son to the world in human form in order that God himself might take on the very brokenness of humanity so that our brokenness might be transformed into wholeness? What does it mean for us to believe that the answer we seek is found in a God who inhabits our suffering? What does it mean for us to believe that the messy, emotional state of compassion is at the core of our faith? Through Christ we discover that God is not aloof but is love. Then why is the world so short on compassion?

Monday, July 28, 2014

Learning to Read Miracles

In yesterday's gospel lesson, we rounded out three weeks of parables yesterday, and now we move to three weeks of miracles. Some of us might celebrate that transition—no more picking apart enigmatic sayings of Jesus and attempting to apply two-thousand-year-old wisdom to contemporary life. But I think the miracles are even tougher to understand than the parables.

Parables are supposed to be picked apart. I’ve only heard one person tell me he interpreted parables by reading them as literal truth—an interesting hermeneutical approach that is worth considering another time. For the most part, people read parables as hyperbolic or allegorical or exemplary teachings of Jesus. When we read the parable of the mustard seed, no one goes out and plants mustard seeds, expecting the kingdom to grow out of the ground. But people read miracles as if the whole point of the story is the thing that happened. But that’s not good enough.

Miracles need to be picked apart just as much as parables do—probably even more. We get trapped by the “feat of wonder” and forget that there’s a deeper, more important teaching hidden in the text. Yes, part of the point is to show us that Jesus is able to do amazing things, but that’s only the beginning. “What else?” the preacher is supposed to ask or else she ends up preaching a dull sermon.

Take this week’s parable for instance: the feeding of the five thousand. As you can see, the narrative is brief. Jesus goes off by himself, but he is pursued by the crowd. When he comes ashore, he has compassion on them, cures their sick, and, when the day is done, urges the disciples to feed the multitude. They raise the natural question: where will we get enough food? Jesus asks how much they have, and then he multiplies five loaves and two fish into enough to feed everyone with twelve baskets left over.

What’s the point of the miracles? That Jesus can take five loaves and two fish and feed five thousand? Or, to take it a tiny, still-too-small step further, that Jesus is able to provide abundantly? Yes, sure, but what else? There is a tension between physical needs and spiritual needs—what have the people really come to Jesus for? There is a tension between wilderness and civilization—where will the people be taken care of? There is a tension between the disciples’ materialistic focus and Jesus’ spiritual insight—who will give them what they need? There is a Eucharistic prefigurement with the taking, blessing, breaking, and distributing. There is a ridiculous amount of leftovers—so much so that any priest or altar guild would blush at the wastefulness of twelve baskets full—that points to something more than abundance. The danger isn’t in over-interpreting this miracle. The danger is in leaving the miracle unmined for its multiple meanings.

I’ll suggest that in order to get to the heart of any miracle story we have to suspend our belief in its literal truth long enough to glimpse its real meaning. That does not mean that we cannot and should not cling to a literal reading of any of Jesus’ miracles! I believe in the literally, visually verifiably empty tomb, and that leads me to believe in the physical historicity of just about every miracle story in the gospel. But the literal truth is only the beginning. Try putting it on a shelf for a few hours. Pretend that the story was an exaggerated metaphor that developed within the Christian community to point to a bigger truth about Jesus. What does the story say to us then? What is the evangelist trying to get across? What happens to Jesus when we stop thinking of him as just a miracle worker? Then, after you’ve read and reread the text and gathered all you can from it, bring the historicity back to the story and see what happens. Let the miracle mean more than the miraculous. Let it teach you something else about Jesus and the Christian faith.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Reaching Inward to Reach the SBNRs

All week long, I’ve been writing about the phenomenon that is the growth of the “spiritual but not religious” sector of our society. These SBNRs are thoughtful, intentional, positive people who want nothing to do with religion. As I wrote on Monday, sometimes that’s because they see no need for church, but other times it’s because the church has hurt them in some way. On Tuesday, I looked at the differences between spirituality and religion, and on Wednesday I pointed out that religion without spirituality is just a bunch of rules—no wonder SBNRs are staying away from church! Today, I want to look at what the church can do to reach out to SBNRs.

For starters, let’s acknowledge that, for the most part, SBNRs aren’t missing religion in their lives. People who identify as SBNR aren’t hoping that an evangelist will stop by and tell them about Jesus. They don’t wake up on Sunday morning wondering where all the churches are in their hometown and wishing they had somewhere to call their church home. They have either left the church on purpose or stayed away because everything they’ve heard about church turns them off. Because of that, churches can’t suddenly start a program or ministry that will attract SBNRs. Instead, the church has to change the way it does religion.

How does a church measure success? Some churches, like the Episcopal Church, use average Sunday attendance. Some use financial figures like budgets and stewardship results. Some use numbers of souls saved or people who come to an altar call. But all of those measures are based on religion and not spirituality. They are expressions of assimilation. They require commitment to a congregational identity rather than the mission of our faith. What would it mean to measure success in terms of meals served to the homeless? How could a congregation quantify peace attained in a centering prayer session? Is it possible to measure the peace in which we participate as Christians rather than the number of people who show up to our programs?

At a more basic level, that means letting go of the attitude that we need to get SBNRs into church. We don’t. The growth of the SBNRs will not mean the death of the church. Perhaps, in time, God willing, the church will learn from this phenomenon and change its identity to become more faithful and genuine and less legalistic and doctrinal. But we don’t have to start by stemming the tide of the SBNR movement. It isn’t something to be afraid of. It’s something to learn from.

What does it mean to be faithful? How can we live out our call to be disciples of Christ? It isn’t by memorizing the catechism or learning the difference between Nestorian and Chalcedonian Christology. And it isn’t by squeezing a bunch of new converts into our churches. And it isn’t by doubling our budgets or building new family life centers. Being faithful is a practice. It’s spirituality. It’s saying our prayers and studying the bible. It’s asking questions and inviting others to ask their questions, too. As an institutional church, we need to become more spiritual and less religious—not just for the SBNRs’ sake but for our sake, too.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Bonus Post: Sunday's 6 Parables

Alright, can we just accept that Jesus is saying to much this one Sunday for any one sermon? In the readings selected from Matthew 13, Jesus gives us six different statements about the kingdom. We call them "parables" because Matthew himself calls them "parables," but you could argue that none of them is more than a simile. Still, here's what we have.

The parables about the mustard seed and the leaven seem to suggest that the kingdom starts small and then grows beyond measure. Sounds easy enough. I could preach on that.

The parables about the field and the pearl seem to suggest that the kingdom is of incomparable value, requiring total dedication from us. Sounds ok. Again, there's a sermon to be preached there.

The parable about the net and the catch of fish is basically a restatement of the parable of the wheat and weeds from last Sunday, and it seems to suggest that God alone sorts out the good and the bad when it comes to the kingdom. I could preach on that, too, but didn't we just hear that sermon?

Lastly, Jesus says that the scribes in the kingdom are like a master who brings out both old a new treasure, which (after a lot of study and reading of secondary sources) seems to suggest that the kingdom of God is about both old dispensations and new revelations--the traditional Jewish understandings and the new spin that Jesus puts on them. I could preach on that--and probably will--but why all the other stuff?

How does one preach a sermon on the growth of a kingdom of incomparable value that is populated by those whom God alone chooses, all of which is revealed in old a new understandings? Easy enough? Hope you have a late tee time on Sunday.

RBNSs: Why Religious But Not Spiritual Is Killing the Church

This is a mini-series on the growing number of individuals who identify as “spiritual but not religious” (SBNRs). On Monday, I tried to stress that SBNRs come from different backgrounds and can’t be lumped together as a homogeneous group. Then, on Tuesday, I tried to distinguish between spirituality and religion, suggesting that religion usually contains a component of spirituality and that being SBNR is about holding on to the practice without the framework and rules. Today, I’d like to take that last point—the rules of religion—a little further and discuss one group that I feel is driving people away from the church: RBNSs.

What is an RBNS? Do you remember that scene in The Princess Bride in which Wesley remarked to Princess Buttercup, “ROUSs? I don’t believe they exist,” right before the rodent of unusual size jumped out and attacked him? If not, you can watch the beginning of the clip below.

Alas, RBNSs aren’t mythical beasts of the Fire Swamp. They live in your church and my church. They are the religious but not spiritual people that suck the joy out of institutional religion. Remember, spirituality is the practice of our faith. It’s how religion becomes real. It’s the exercise of the tenets to which we ascribe. Do you believe that God loves the world without reservation? Then you should love the world in the same way. If you don’t—if you spend your religious life insulated from the world, certain that those on the outside aren’t recipients of the same undeserved love that you have received—then you’re an RBNS. If you care more about the rules of the faith than the practice of the faith, you’re an RBNS. And, if you’re an RBNS, it’s time to cut bait or fish—to get busy living or get busy dying—so that the church can live out its calling as the bride of Christ.

Recently on Facebook, a quote from Stephen Corbert has been posted and reposted. It’s a perfect example of what happens when spirituality is taken out of religion.

Who are the RBNSs? They are preachers who spend more time “getting it right” than living out their faith. They are the parishioners who show up on Sunday morning not to be transformed by the experience of corporate worship but to take their appointed place in the congregation of the who’s who in the community. They are the lay leaders and vestries who worry about whether the local newspaper will discover that a yoga group has been meeting downstairs after hours. They are the angry people who call demanding that the labyrinth (a.k.a. “portal to hell”) be removed from the church grounds and an exorcism be completed in the place where it once laid. They are the ones who hold the posters and picket signs silently screaming their cause at anyone who drives by. In other words, they are the people who give religion a bad name. They are the ones who drive the well-intentioned faithful who hate controversy away from the church. And they are the ones who make sure that no new seekers will darken the door.

But how do we become RBNSs? We stop praying every day. We stop reading the bible every day. We stop letting God surprise us with new insights into what his will for the world really is. We start lambasting things that are new simply because they are new. We start judging things based on whether they are familiar to us and to our tradition. We start worshipping the God of our political, social, and cultural persuasion instead of searching for the unknowable, unchangeable God of all time and space.

In our cultural landscape, the RBNSs have the microphones and the attention of the media. The television cameras don’t spotlight the quiet faithfulness of most Christians because daily prayer and daily study aren’t exciting. Instead, the people who give religion a voice are the rigid hardliners, whose faith isn’t a daily discipline but a voter guide. The same is true in other religious traditions. When the world thinks of Islam, what do they picture? When the world thinks of Mormonism, what comes to mind? All over the world, the RBNSs are squeezing the love and joy out of religion, and it’s time to put that love and joy back in.

Spirituality is our greatest asset. We need to put the spiritual back in religious. We need to show the world that being a person of religious faith isn’t all that different from being an SBNR. Tomorrow, I’ll finish the series with a look at how the church should reach out to SBNRs.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

SBNRs: When Is Spiritual Not Religious?

Yesterday, I wrote about the origins of SBNRs, suggesting that not all “spiritual but not religious” individuals come from similar backgrounds. Some just aren’t interested in religion, but others are actively staying away because the institutional church has hurt them in some way. Later in the week, I’ll look at how the church should approach SBNRs. Today, however, I’m interested in the difference between spirituality and religion.

Sitting in her office, the priest looks at the man who has come to see her and says, “Tell me about your faith.” He shifts awkwardly in his seat and replies, “Well, um, I don’t come to church very often—but you already know that, don’t you? But even though I don’t come, I’m very spiritual. I pray every day, and I try to be a good person.” As the conversation continues, the priest tries to assure the man that she isn’t worried about how often he comes to church and that, instead, she’s focused on helping him find the spiritual resources he needs to make it through the personal crisis he’s come to see her about. But, since they are in her office, meeting on her turf, it’s hard to separate the perceived expectations of the institutional church from the individual encounter. In other words, it’s hard for members of the clergy to talk about spirituality without sounding like they are talking about religion.

What is spirituality, anyway? In the context of SBNRs, it’s defined as something other than religion. It could be a practice or a philosophy or an attitude that guides an individual through life, but it is most definitely not a religion. Yet, for a priest like me, spirituality is an essential component of religion. For me, spirituality is the outward expression of a personally held belief. It is the physical manifestation of a way of approaching life. If one believes that peace should be valued, that person might spend time every day sitting in silence and seeking that peace.

For me, Christianity is my religion. More specifically, I’m Anglican, which, as an American, means I’m an Episcopalian. We can talk about what I believe, but that’s another series altogether. Instead, let’s talk about my spirituality. Corporate worship is important to me, and I exercise my faith by gathering with other Christians on a weekly basis (or more often for the über-faithful). Communion is central to my experience of faith, and, usually when we gather to worship together, we share a representative meal of bread and wine that allows us to physically engage multiple aspects of what we believe about Jesus’ death and resurrection and his call to gather in his name. I also exercise my faith through daily study and meditation. I sit alone every morning and read a prescribed set of scripture lessons. Usually, I use a combination of standardized prayers (e.g., the Lord’s Prayer and the Collect for the Day) and my own personal prayers. I sit in silence for a while, reminding myself of God’s presence. I write in a journal, searching for God’s work in my life. And I exercise—physical exercise. As I run or walk or ride a bike, I explore God’s presence in the world around me, and I manipulate my body in ways that internalize the blessedness that is my physical life. There are lots of other practices, too, like giving away at least 10% of my income and spending time with close friends. But that’s how I do it. That’s my spirituality.

So what does it mean to have a spirituality but not a religion? The authors that Mark Oppenheimer cites in his NYT article “Examining the growth of the ‘Spiritual but Not Religious’” suggest that it means a wide range of things. The Rev. Lillian Daniel, in her book When ‘Spiritual But Not Religious’ Is Not Enough (Jericho, 2013), wrote, “On airplanes, I dread the conversation with the person who finds out I am a minister and wants to use the flight time to explain to me that he is ‘spiritual but not religious…’ In the article, she said of such people, “[They] always find God in the sunsets and in walks on the beach.” Her attitude seems a bit cynical, but I can appreciate it. Nature—its beauty—is often a focus for the SBNR.

Courtney Bender, who teaches at Columbia, went looking for SBNRs and discovered that there are many manifestations of their spiritual practices. In an interview, she said that they “participated in everything from mystical discussion groups to drumming circles to yoga classes.” Where these groups come from is part of Bender’s focus. Although SBNRs reject a need to belong to a group that stretches back into the past, they seek shared expressions of spirituality that honor the present. She names alternative medicine (shiatsu massage and acupuncture) and the arts (painting and dance) as examples of movements that draw SBNRs.

But when does a shared set of values expressed communally become a religion? If you and I and thirty other people believe that the goal of life is to experience beauty, and we believe that such beauty can be attained by painting and then discussing our paintings, have we not started a new religion? What’s the difference? Well, religions have rules—at least most of them do. Who is in and who is out is defined somehow. As Mitch Hedberg said, “I order the club sandwich all the time, but I’m not even a member.” Anyone who likes sandwiches made with three pieces of bread and cut into triangles can join. But, as he went on to say, if you like alfalfa sprouts, “you’re not in the f***ing club!” In other words, as soon as a spirituality becomes defined, it loses its appeal to the SBNR.

Several years ago, I was doing some premarital counseling, and the groom-to-be balked when I asked him to sign the canonically required document that the couple believes about marriage what the Episcopal Church believes about marriage. “I can’t sign that,” he said. “I’m an atheist.” (Hmmm, I wondered to myself, our four sessions just became six.) I asked a colleague about it—how do I get him to sign the document? Should I even marry them? He said, “Just tell him he’s an Episcopalian but doesn’t know it yet.” Good point. Sometimes the reason people aren’t religious is because they haven’t found the right religion yet.

So what’s your reason for being? What’s the goal or telos of your life? Do you love nature and think that the purpose of life is to be found outdoors? Maybe you should be a Wiccan (But do remember that Rowan Williams was made a druid before he became Archbishop of Canterbury.) Do you think that this life is about being a good person and that you will be rewarded if you follow the Golden Rule? The Baha’i faith or Zoroastrianism might have appeal. Enjoy sitting in silence? Find peace when you meditate? Why not bite the bullet and become Buddhist? Think life is best when you go with the flow? Taoism may be for you. Still not happy? Take a look at this chart and see what you can find.

For me, all of those religions and all of those spiritualities are expressions of the same (false) truth: you get out of life what you put into it. My religion and my spirituality are based on the opposite premise: that you are rewarded with something that you do not and cannot ever deserve. Christianity, it its various forms and denominations, is about believing and living your life around the principle that God loves you regardless of who you are or what you do. Christian spirituality is the reiteration of this fact. There are no deities to appease. There are no steps to complete. Everything is about remembering that you are loved undeservedly. That could involve yoga. It might mean meditation. You could incorporate nature and charity and peace and a whole lot more into it. But what makes Christianity distinct is that thing we call grace. In some ways, at its furthest point, it’s religion without rules. Maybe all Christians are really SBNRs without knowing it—or at least they should be.

Tomorrow, I’ll look at what happens when people become RBNSs—religious but not spiritual—and why RBNSs are likely what’s pushing people to become SBNRs.

Monday, July 21, 2014

SBNRs: Where Do They Come From?

Usually, this blog focuses on the lessons appointed for the upcoming Sunday according to the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL). Sometimes, I will write about the readings from the Daily Office. Occasionally, I will break away from that lectionary-based focus and discuss issues that affect the Episcopal Church or the place of religion in popular culture. For this week, I am going to leave all of that behind and write about the phenomenon known as “spiritual but not religious,” a categorization that is often expressed by the acronym SBNR.

Yesterday, for our Sunday school discussion class, I chose an article from the New York Times that addresses this issue (19 July 2014. “Examining the Growth of the‘Spiritual but Not Religious.’” Mark Oppenheimer). If you didn’t see the article last week, it’s well worth a read. In it, Oppenheimer cites four authors who have recently written about the rise of SBNRs and what that rise means for organized religion. After reading that piece and discussing it with a table full of super-faithful Episcopalians (those who actually come to Sunday school in the middle of July), I have enough thoughts floating around in my mind to spend a week blogging about it.

No, I am not a sociologist, but I do spend a lot of my time talking with people about spirituality and religion. No, I do not have a meaningful ministry that is effectively bridging the gap between organized religion and those who have shunned traditional expressions of faith, but, as a 34-year-old guy who dreamed of being a chemist before answering a call to be a priest, I’m not totally unfamiliar with the arguments against maintaining crusty old churches like ours. Still, admittedly I am not an expert, so I hope that this series will solicit as many contributions from others as it will serve to put my own thoughts into type.

For this first post on the topic, I would like to explore the origins of the SBNRs and, hopefully, demonstrate that not all SBNRs are the same. In fact, I believe that my culture and context is dominated by a breed of SBNR that would be largely unfamiliar to a clergyperson in a different part of the country. So, first, where do SBNRs come from? What makes a person “spiritual but not religious?”

Let me introduce you to Andy. Andy is an engineer who works in Huntsville for an aerospace contractor. He is not from Alabama. He grew up in Brooklyn, the son of lapsed Irish-Catholic parents. After completing his college degree in the northeast, he went on to do graduate studies, where he met his wife, who is also an engineer. They have two young children. Andy’s wife is from Tennessee, where she grew up attending an Episcopal church. Although they come to church occasionally, usually Andy stays at home. To him, going to church is about going through the motions, and he gets no spiritual fulfillment from attending. He is happy for his family to pursue their faith, but he would rather spend Sunday morning at home as a family—the one time during the week when they can have a relaxed breakfast, go for a bike ride, or play in the backyard.

Rebecca, on the other hand, stays away from church not because it fails to appeal to her but because church itself is a source of deep pain in her life. Hers is a small town, where everyone knows everyone and invitations to church are not uncommon. Her friends in her yoga class keep asking her to join them on Sunday morning, but she shrugs them off. She doesn’t quite know how to tell them that church is part of what broke up her marriage. She was raised in a conservative Christian denomination, and she married her high school sweetheart, whom she had grown up with at church. But, as the years went by, her husband’s drinking became a problem for their family. He could never admit it to their teetotalling church, so she suffered in silence. Finally, when she approached their minister with her problem, she was told that the bible required that she “honor her vows” and “tough it out.” She left her husband and the church, and she is scared to come back.

Spiritual but not religious can come from anywhere. Maybe someone grew up in a home that valued individual inquiry but never engaged organized religion. Maybe someone was raised in an ultra-religious household and wants to leave his or her past behind. More likely, SBNRs come from somewhere in between the “never-had-it” and the “anti-upbringing” poles of childhood. It’s worth noting, however, that not all SBNRs are the same. Some aren’t scared of Jesus; they’re just scared of organized religion and the damage done in its name. Others worry that by putting a label on their inquiry they risk ostracism by their peers as a “Jesus-freak.” How we include SBNRs in our work, therefore, requires sophistication.

SBNRs in Decatur, Alabama, are different from those on Long Island or in Seattle. Although I feel certain that there are isolated exceptions, being from Alabama means being from a religious household. Some are more religious than others, but it’s hard to grow up in the south without growing up in some sort of relationship with the church. We might leave it when we grow up. We might even run from it and never turn back. But, for the most part, we don’t happen to be SBNR. For us, SBNR represents a departure from something. For the secular humanist from the northeast, SBNR might be the opposite—a sign of spiritual growth.

Tomorrow, I’ll look at the difference between spirituality and religion. What does an SBNR want out of life? How is that different from what a traditional, mainstream religious adherent seeks?
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