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Wednesday, October 15, 2014

FRIEND, GO UP HIGHER: Pride and Humility

(Luke 14:1-11, Ephesians 4:1-6)

My wife and I don’t get to fly very often, and when we do we book as far ahead as possible - in the hope of getting decent seats. Of course economy class is much of a muchness wherever you sit. But on a long, cramped flight just a couple of inches extra legroom, or an aisle seat, or being able to sit together makes all the difference.

We’ve had our reservation messed around once or twice, but we’ve never had the experience of someone I know: getting to his seat only to find it occupied by somebody else – and that someone was very reluctant to move. If that had happened to me I don’t know how I’d have reacted. But my friend didn’t hesitate: he doggedly ploughed his way up the aisle against the tide of struggling humanity to speak to the cabin staff.

And of course, once he’d done that, the issue was speedily dealt with. A large and slightly intimidating flight attendant bore down on the culprit and said, “Excuse me, there seems to be some confusion over seating. May I see your ticket, please.” And the interloper was on his way in seconds.

I’d like you to try and imagine it’s you in the wrong seat. Imagine the impatient flight attendant standing over you. Picture your fellow passengers craning their necks to see what’s going on as you gather your bits and pieces together, grinning as you get your bag and coat down from the overhead locker and shuffle your way back to your allotted seat. Humiliation.

Jesus painted a similar word picture for the ambitious socialites at a banquet he attended. He saw them jostling for position at what we’d call the top table, and he gave them a very shrewd piece of advice: If you really want to impress, don’t make a beeline for the top. Sit somewhere lower down the pecking order. Then, when the final seating is sorted out, rather than being evicted from somebody else’s place, everyone will see you promoted.

Good social advice, but is there anything else to it? After all, it’s not particularly punchy as parables go. In fact, if the Gospel writer hadn’t said ‘he told them this parable’, then I wonder how many of us would have noticed that it was one! On the other hand, there is a twist at the end – just enough of a twist to make clear that this is about more than just etiquette: ”For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted”.

And yet, even that seems a rather commonplace thought, doesn’t it? A thought that’s expressed more punchily elsewhere in Scripture. “Pride comes before a fall” or “Blessed are the meek”. It’s such a familiar idea that we could easily miss just how pointed and punishing Jesus’ words are in this particular setting. And in order to see that, we need to go back to the beginning of the episode.

The story starts when Jesus goes to dinner with a senior religious leader on the Sabbath. He knows they’re watching for things they can pick him up on, and no doubt he’s looking for a chance to make a statement about his priorities. As it happens, there’s a man there with a distressing medical condition. Jesus knows how rigid his fellow-guests are about working on the Sabbath. So he asks an outright question. It’s effectively, “OK, what should I do here guys: follow the rules or do good for somebody.”

The sad thing is, when he puts it like that, he meets a stony silence. In their hearts, they almost certainly know what’s right. But no one will risk being the first to say it in front of their peers. So Jesus goes ahead and heals the patient. And can’t you just see them exchanging smug glances. “Hah!” they’re thinking. “We can tell he’s no holy man.”

So Jesus begins to reason with them. “Come on,” he says. “There has to be a limit. Suppose you saw a child fall down a well on the Sabbath, would you leave her there to die for the sake of your rules.” The answer is obvious, of course. But they can see that this is the thin end of the wedge, so again they stay silent.

And that’s the point at which Jesus draws attention to their jostling for the best seats. But it’s not the jostling itself he focuses on, so much as the pride and self-importance that drive it. Remember, he’s still tackling the misguided leaders who put rules before people. And here is what Jesus is saying to them:

You are so proud of your ancient traditions that you’re neglecting the amazing things God is doing right in front of your eyes. A time will come when the things of which you’ve been so proud will be revealed as worthless, and you will be humiliated.  In contrast, those who have humbly embraced what God is doing will be seen as the really important ones – the true heirs of God’s promises.

I wonder if Jesus sees a similar inversion of his priorities in the disagreements shaking the church apart today – the splits over worship styles, gender, sexuality and so on. He certainly valued the law and his people’s traditions, but not when they got in the way of healing and justice. And he demands that our first allegiance should be to him in person. He won’t accept second place to our religious or ethical traditions. He won’t be coopted by either traditionalists or reformers.

His words challenge us to think deeply about whom we are hurting, whom we are oppressing, whom we are excluding, and what it’s doing to our relationship with God, when we put our causes and traditions before him and before other people. And whatever we see as our justification for doing so, whether it’s Scripture or Church tradition or the guidance of the Holy Spirit, or an exalted view of human rights, we can expect to look back on our words and actions with shame when we see at last what our Lord and Saviour is really like.


The Apostle Paul cuts to the heart of the message in our reading from Ephesians, when he calls us to live in a manner worthy of our calling. Be humble and gentle, he wrote; be patient. Live in unity and peace. Because there is one body and one Spirit, one hope for all of us; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

WHY "DOUBTING" THOMAS IS SUCH A GREAT ROLE MODEL


(John 20:24-29)

These aren’t easy times to be a Christian. Of course, they’re hardly the worst of times, in this country at least. Unlike earlier generations of British Christians, we don’t face the risk of being imprisoned, tortured, even burned at the stake for our faith. Nonetheless, even in this relatively safe country, we do face risks. Plenty of people have paid the price for their Christian faith in the workplace, their social lives, even their family relationships.

The pressure on Christians comes from two angles: firstly from outside. It seems that one of the few things that unites the secular establishment with some of the diverse micro-communities that make up modern Britain is their shared antipathy to Christianity.

But for most Christians in our culture, the most disturbing attacks on our faith are those that come from the inside: the doubts, the questions, the uncertainties; the cumulative effect of pronouncements by scientists, philosophers, theologians, historians (sometimes even those within the church); attacks that are not always content with questioning the existence of a supreme being, and all too often challenge the intelligence or moral fibre of those who continue to believe.

What makes matters infinitely worse is the tendency of some churches to treat honest questions and doubts as a sign of weakness – something you should be embarrassed about, keep to yourself, or at best keep on a one-to-one basis with a trusted spiritual adviser. And the upshot? Large numbers of people are left with a burden of guilt, each asking themselves why everybody else seems to have so much more faith. I spent many years in an environment like that.

Good reason, then, to give thanks for the Apostle Thomas – an important figure in the early church to whom popular history has been rather unkind. Calling somebody a ‘doubting Thomas’ has come to have quite negative connotations – overtones that Thomas himself does not deserve. For few if any of us will ever be called to follow directly in the footsteps of Peter, or Paul, or John, or Stephen. But we could all do worse than follow the example of Thomas.

And the first thing we learn about Thomas from this story is that he thinks in a surprisingly modern way. Remember, he wasn’t around when the risen Jesus first showed himself to the astonished disciples. And when he hears accounts of the resurrection, he reacts in a very modern way. Coming back from the dead simply isn’t consistent with his world-view. It’s easier for him to believe that the other disciples are deluded or perhaps even lying than to rethink his understanding of the universe so drastically. And just as scientific modernism has conditioned us to do, he demands first hand experience as the price of belief.

The second thing we learn about Thomas is his courage and honesty. He doesn’t go along with the crowd. It would have been so easy to cover up his doubts for the sake of solidarity or for fear of rejection. But his integrity is such that he’d rather be disrespected, even ostracised, than live a lie. We’re not told if the others do in fact hold this against him, but it doesn’t matter. The important thing is that when Jesus appears again, he gives Thomas the evidence he’s demanded.

And the third and most important thing we learn about Thomas is his obedience and willingness to change when confronted by the truth. There’s strong historical evidence that he spread the Gospel as far eastwards as India, where a community of people known as St. Thomas Christians still survives to this day. There are differing accounts of his death, but the most plausible versions have him being martyred around the year 72AD – a faithful disciple to the end.

However, a question may be going through some people’s minds. Was Jesus happy with Thomas’ demand for evidence? Or when the Lord says, “Because you’ve seen me you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed,” is it some kind of rebuke?

The commentaries I’ve consulted are pretty much unanimous. There’s no criticism of Thomas here. In fact he’s no weaker than his colleagues, all of whom owe their belief to an earlier encounter with the risen Jesus. And it seems that for serious students of Greek, which I’m not, the emphasis is clearly positive: Something that we could paraphrase as ”Now you’ve seen me you’ve become believers, and that’s great in itself, so think how much more blessed all the future generations will be when they believe without the physical evidence you’ve had.”

God certainly wants us to be assured in our faith; that’s why he sends the Holy Spirit. And for all I know, there may be people here who are hardly ever troubled with doubts and questions. But for the rest of us, as long as we’re sensitive in our choice of words, we can be open about our struggles without undermining the faith of others. In fact in my experience, honesty is the first step in receiving assurance; it will often help others be open about questions they are already struggling with, and that can be an important step forward.

Secondly, when we get a fresh insight into the truth as Thomas did, it’s up to us to respond as he did. We must be prepared to change our minds and our life goals. Of course we’re not going to see Jesus in the flesh – at least, not until we get to Heaven – and the kind of evidence we can expect to receive in this life will be persuasive rather than conclusive. All the same, God is amazingly generous in showing us his love and power, and it’s impossible to explain away the evidence that accumulates year after year in the life of even the most cautious believer.

And here’s the crunch. If we have the right to be honest about our doubts, we equally have a duty to be forthright about our certainties. Whatever lingering questions we may have, when the cumulative evidence stacks up to the point where we are convinced of some great Christian truth, we mustn’t let the doubts of others reduce us to silence. The response of Thomas to overwhelming evidence was “My Lord and my God”, and his obedience to the risen Lord drove him eastwards into adventures that the written records only hint at.

Jesus response to him was “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe”. His response to us might well be, “Blessed are you who now believe – go out and make disciples.

PRESENT SUFFERING AND FUTURE GLORY


ROMANS 8: 18-23, 35-39

One of the most rewarding aspects of teaching RE and philosophy was educating children about the Holocaust – the dark period in recent European history in which some ten million people (more than half of them Jewish) were systematically eliminated.

It was what my students gained during these lessons, rather than the grim subject matter, that made it such a rewarding experience for me and for them. They were regularly torn between horror and anger, but what invariably triumphed was an uplifting sense of the goodness and courage and endurance of which ordinary people are capable under the most terrible circumstances.

The point is that we focused not so much on the processes and statistics of genocide – that would indeed have been horrific – but rather on the quiet heroism of so many people caught up in the horror. Anne Frank, Oskar Schindler, Maximilian Kolbe… all these stories filled my students with awe and admiration.

But the most powerful resource, and the one that always affected them most deeply, was “The Hiding Place” – a movie based on the autobiography of Corrie ten Boom. It offered little of what would normally appeal to teenagers in a movie – it’s a rather dated production with few action sequences, little explicit violence and no special effects. But the story and the leading characters gripped everyone regardless of academic ability or disciplinary record.

As the story opens, Corrie is working alongside her father and her sister Betsie in the family business – a watch and clock repair shop in the Dutch city of Haarlem.

When the Nazis invade the Netherlands and start rounding up the Jews for deportation, the family’s Christian faith leads them to work with the Resistance, using their home and their many contacts around the city to smuggle Jewish fugitives out of danger.

Of course the Ten Booms know from the outset that it will only be a matter of time before they are caught, and that in all likelihood they will die at the hands of the Nazis. And indeed they are quickly betrayed, and those who survive the raid on their home are taken off to concentration camps. By the end, every member of the family apart from Corrie herself has paid the ultimate price.

But the amazing thing about this story is that even young people come away from it challenged and uplifted. Because while it does have harrowing moments, it’s a story not of defeat but of victory; not of despair but of dynamic, life-transforming hope even when things seem hopeless. And the key to the film, the recurring message that comes through time and time again, is the passage from Romans that we have heard read to us this morning.

These exact verses are part of the Bible reading to which the family is listening at the time of their arrest. As a squad of soldiers pulls up outside their home, the camera cuts to the family gathered around the dining table with their heads bowed. The elderly father, Caspar ten Boom, begins to read aloud: “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.”

He continues, all unaware of what is happening out in the street, and it is just as the front door is smashed in that he reads the famous words of comfort from later in the chapter: “In all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Corrie and her sister Betsie need to keep this magnificent thought with them as we see them in Ravensbruck concentration camp: intimidated, frozen, starved, beaten, and in Betsie’s case worked to death from exhaustion and illness. But the miracle is that the more they suffer, the more in Christ they are convinced that there must be a higher purpose and a good end to their suffering. And their hope rubs off onto others, expanding the borders of the Kingdom of Heaven, as coincidence after apparent coincidence reinforces the evidence that God is at work even in the hellish confines of a Nazi concentration camp.

There are at least three levels on which these awesome words in Romans were given meaning in the story of the Ten Boom family:

·      Firstly, it was this knowledge of the unconquerable love of God in Christ Jesus that challenged them to risk their lives for others, and should likewise challenge each one of us to show his love to others in our homes and workplaces.

·      Secondly, they took to heart the luminous promise that opened the reading this morning: that our sufferings in this present existence are not worth comparing with the glory that we can look forward to. This confidence endured through all that they suffered, and gave them a sense of peace and a purposeful attitude that transformed the experience of those around them.

·      And thirdly, this self-same acceptance of suffering and loss as an inevitable part of our present existence enabled Corrie to look back on her ordeal without bitterness. Over the rest of her long life she travelled the world, visiting over 60 countries, preaching a message of hope, trust, and (incredibly) forgiveness.

As we kneel together at the altar rail on this “Sea” Sunday, focusing our minds on Christ’s body broken for us, and his blood spilled for us, it’s fitting to hope that may we be given the strength to endure the storms and billows of life in this suffering world. But may we, like the Ten Boom family, also be inspired to help others and freely forgive as God has forgiven us.

And finally, if anyone finds these words an encouragement, then God grant that we may tell others. Our stories of the power of the living Jesus to change lives have extraordinary power to draw people towards a saving faith of their own. It was Betsie’s dying words that inspired Corrie to take up her ministry of peace and reconciliation after the War: “We must tell people what we have learned here. We must tell them that there is no pit so deep that He is not deeper still.” And the final whisper: “They will listen to us…because we were here."    

Sunday, June 22, 2014

JESUS' BAPTISM AND THE HOLY TRINITY

SERMON FOR A BAPTISMAL SERVICE ON THE 1st SUNDAY AFTER TRINITY
(Matthew 3: 1-2, 4-6, 13-17)

This ought to have been a difficult sermon to write. Our theme for today - the Holy Trinity – is a notoriously challenging subject to preach on. And this is a baptism service – a time of celebration in which people don’t expect s lot of dry theory but a lively message with some practical bearing on their lives. Fortunately, the Bible contains a story tailor-made for an event like this. It’s the story of Jesus’ own baptism, which was read to us earlier.

My starter question is this, and I’ll give you a couple of moments to think about it before I carry on: How many characters are involved in the story?.....

Let’s go through the possibilities in order of appearance:

  1.  First, there’s John the Baptist – a hermit who lived out by the river Jordan – someone to whom the confused people of the day were coming in droves to feel the touch of the sacred and to find peace.
  2. Secondly, there’s Jesus – a carpenter from Nazareth, struggling perhaps with his own destiny, but soon to build up a following of his own.
  3. Thirdly, there’s something referred to as the Spirit of God – a mysterious presence sensed floating down from Heaven and settling on Jesus almost like a dove.
  4. Then, finally, there is God as people traditionally imagine him, a disembodied voice from heaven, proudly declaring Jesus to be his Son.


Four main characters. Four players, in a story that records the first Christian baptism…or so it would appear. But, I want to put a different interpretation to you. I want to suggest that in substance there are only really two players in the story: firstly John the Baptist, and secondly God. That the main point of the story is not the first baptism, but the first revelation to humanity of God as three distinct Persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

It would take a much later generation of Christians to develop the doctrine of the Holy Trinity as we know it today. But even as the very first generation of Christians wrote the Gospels, they were understanding God in a new and radical way, in a total break with the past: not as a distant, solitary, unknowable ruler, but as a complex interplay of personalities seeking to draw humanity itself into their loving circle of fellowship. 

It’s impossible to overstate how novel and politically dangerous this vision was. According to the Jewish religion in which Jesus grew up, God is One in every sense of the word: solitary, unique, inaccessible, and dangerously holy. Again and again in the OT, God is depicted as so holy that just to glimpse him results in instant death. Such was their fear of this awesome  being, they did what you would do if you found an exposed live wire in your house. They insulated themselves against it, representing his presence on earth with a tiny, secluded shrine, surrounded with stone walls and guarded by an all-powerful priesthood.

Then Jesus appeared, and he was like nobody the people had ever met before. And as they felt his love and power moving in their lives, they had an extraordinary realization. Meeting Jesus was indistinguishable from meeting God. The divine presence that had been hidden away for so long was out in the open, accessible to everybody, welcoming rather than threatening.

Then when Jesus finally left them, they experienced the most remarkable thing of all: they felt the Spirit of God come down on all of them at once – in much the same way as it had descended on Jesus as he stood in the river for baptism. It was like being set on fire by a supernatural force. And amazingly, they found that they no longer needed the physical presence of Jesus any more than they had needed the Temple when he was with them. In the power of this Holy Spirit, in order to find God, all they had to do was look into themselves or across at one another.

This discovery was dynamite in the first century – it turned the world upside down. And it’s dynamite for us today. It tells us that Jesus is unlike any other mystic or religious leader in history. The truth we in the Church celebrate and safeguard is this: the God of Eternity has personally come to dwell with and within the human race. It started with the person of Jesus, who came to earth and left us with the perfect example of how to live lives pleasing to God. But as we’ve seen, that was only beginning. When we turn from our past lives to follow Jesus, when we submit to the waters of baptism, the same Holy Spirit of God that descended on Jesus comes down to take up residence in each one of us.

Heaven knows we’re not worthy of him. Heaven knows the church has been going through tough times. It consists, after all, of weak, fallible human beings who rarely if ever live up to Jesus’ teaching and example. But here is the crunch: If you want to see God, look around you. Look one or two of your fellow worshippers in the eye…God’s presence is as real as if the person sitting next to you was Jesus himself.

[Names of baptismal candidates]: In baptism you are uniting yourself not just with a lot of beautiful old buildings, not just with a group of well-meaning but flawed people, not just with a social cult built on old hymns and rituals. You are uniting yourself with the historical Jesus of Nazareth, and with the Spirit he left behind when he returned to heaven. In short, you yourselves in baptism are becoming vessels for God’s transforming presence on earth. We hope that over time you’ll join with us in exploring what that means for the way we live our lives, but above all we hope you’ll enjoy being part of this enlarged Christian family.

Let’s bow our heads in prayer…

Friday, April 18, 2014

PALM SUNDAY? SO WHAT?

Matthew 21:1-13
21 As they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage on the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go to the village ahead of you, and at once you will find a donkey tied there, with her colt by her. Untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, say that the Lord needs them, and he will send them right away.”
This took place to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet: “Say to Daughter Zion,
    ‘See, your king comes to you,
gentle and riding on a donkey,
 and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.’”
The disciples went and did as Jesus had instructed them. They brought the donkey and the colt and placed their cloaks on them for Jesus to sit on. A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, while others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and those that followed shouted, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” “Hosanna in the highest heaven!”
10 When Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred and asked, “Who is this?” 11 The crowds answered, “This is Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth in Galilee.”
12 Jesus entered the temple courts and drove out all who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves. 13 “It is written,” he said to them, “‘My house will be called a house of prayer,’[e] but you are making it ‘a den of robbers.’”


What I'm about to say is a sad reflection on the churches I attended earlier in my Christian life. But I have to confess that I reached my fifties - even completing my training as a Lay Minister - without having more than a vague idea of what Palm Sunday is really  about.

I knew the Bible story, of course: Jesus entering Jerusalem riding on a donkey, the crowds scattering palm fronds along the road and shouting 'Hosanna'. And I knew that by coming Jerusalem he was effectively sealing his own fate. But I never had a chance to think about what those events really meant for Jesus, for the Church, and for me.

Part of the problem was that the churches I went to wanted to safeguard a very supernatural view of OT prophecy. When we read a prophecy like Zechariah’s…

Shout, O daughter of Jerusalem: behold, your King comes unto you: he is just, and having salvation; lowly, and riding upon a donkey…

...we wanted to be swept off our feet by its accuracy as a prediction of the future. We were closed to the idea that Jesus might have been savvy enough to read the OT for himself and deliberately model his actions on them – and in the process we closed our ears to the message Jesus wanted people to hear.
  
Prophecy is certainly God-breathed, but its relationship to Jesus' earthly ministry was nonetheless bi-directional in nature. In other words, the Old Testament prophets were inspired to reveal something of how God's plan would unfold. But when Jesus came he understood the old writings in a unique way, and he modelled his teaching and actions on them. And what becomes clear when we look at Jesus’ words and actions is the astonishing clarity, and  the penetrating wit and intelligence, with which he communicated his agenda—by drawing on the stories and symbols and imagery in which his Hebrew listeners had been immersed since birth.

And what is startlingly clear from the story of the 'triumphal entry' to Jerusalem is that Jesus was setting up a crisis in the lives of all who saw and heard him – especially the self-styled men in authority.

First, everyone would have recognised the message wrapped up in the donkey procession: Jesus was declaring himself as a scriptural king, entering to take possession of the city that was his by right. It was a brilliant, subversive statement about the illegitimacy of the political and religious elite who governed the holy city.

But then, what was his first action after the triumphal entry? No one could fail to grasp the point of his physical and verbal assault on the corrupt Temple establishment. The overturning of the tables is an integral part of the Palm Sunday story. It’s almost always left out of our seasonal pattern of readings. But to separate the two halves of the story is to miss the meaning of the whole narrative.

Jesus is presenting the leaders and people with a stark two-way choice: Accept me or kill me. And in that ultra-sensitive political environment, we can be sure there was no third alternative. In short, he was challenging the political and religious establishment head-on. And as I’m sure he expected, the authorities clung to their rarefied, privileged status. They inevitably took what seemed the easy way out and sought his death.

In so doing, they sidelined themselves from God’s plan for humanity. But unwittingly, they also aided and abetted Jesus’ master plan. For in the years following his death, we see the Temple itself – the supreme pre-Christian symbol of God’s presence in the world – become an irrelevance. The vessel for God’s presence on earth is no longer to be seen as a building of wood, metal and stone, but a living body: initially Jesus’ own, then after Pentecost the entire spirit-filled people of Christ.
  
Stepping forward two thousand years to the present day, Jesus presents the world with the same two-way choice.  In five days’ time, on Good Friday, we mournfully reflect on the consequence for Jesus: his agonising death on the Cross. Then, two days later, we celebrate the victory and vindication of those who made and who continue to make the right choice – accepting Jesus as king and joining him in his exaltation to eternal life. 

And the deep message of Palm Sunday is a challenge to accept him as king. For let us make no mistake, the choice confronting the world now is as stark as that which faced the people of Jesus’ own time. Now, as then, he comes to us as our rightful king, and no less a king for all that he presents himself in humility. And the choice is the same: to accept him as king, or to be accessories in his unjust suffering and death.

This year, as every year, we’re likely to see new faces in church over Easter. For some of those new faces, this will be a one-off event; others may start to come regularly. And all will receive a warm welcome. But let us not forget what is going on in the lives of these visitors. They are being brought to a place in their lives where the road ahead of them divides. There is no third way ahead: they are faced with a choice of accepting the rule of Christ or rejecting him.

Of course, everyone travels at their own pace, and some who walk away from Jesus this year may embrace him next year or next decade. But let us think solemnly of the crisis of identity that looms over everyone of those visitors. And let us commit ourselves to two goals:

1.          To reaffirm our own acceptance of Christ as Lord and King.



2.          To live up to his teaching, so that no one hovering on the brink of turning to Christ may be put off at the last minute by our un-Christ-like behaviour.