Drips and the Meaning of Life

chasing dry rot I love the sound of the rain drumming on the cabin roof as our sailboat gently rocks on the bay. The oil lamps cast a golden glow and the stereo quietly fills the cabin with music. It’s a great time to recline on the settee and read a good book or just meditate. That is until I began hearing the inevitable drip.

It’s so quiet I’m tempted to ignore it. Just focus on the rain or the music. Don’t listen to the drip … drip … drip. Try to think about something else. Concentrate on the book, the story, happy memories; anything but the drip … drip … drip. It’s not like the boat is going to sink. It isn’t a flood pouring in. No canon ball has pierced our hull. It’s not like we hit a rock and I’ve got to spring into action and man the pumps. It’s just a … drip … drip … drip. It won’t work. I’ve got to hunt it down, mop up the mess and put an end to it. There will be no peace until the drip is silenced.

There are some questions in life that are like that too. We can pretend they don’t exist. We can try to drown them out or ignore them but eventually we have to face them.

“Why am I here?” “Is there anything after this life?” “Is this all there is?” “Does any body care?” These questions don’t seem as urgent as say taking out the trash or getting new tires put on your car but eventually you’ll have to face them. We don’t have the “pig’s advantage.” (Mr. Pig doesn’t realize he is piggy today and bacon tomorrow.) As human beings we must ask these questions.

My Humanist friends dismiss the questions as “irrelevant.” “So what? It doesn’t matter,” but I say that it does. If life has a purpose then it follows that for me to get the most out of life, I should discover that purpose.

“But life doesn’t have a purpose John!” my friend might object.

“And how do you know that? The very fact that we can ask the question hints that there is an answer.”

“Then I decide what the purpose is. I give my life meaning!” he shouts.

“That’s noble in a John-Waynish-kind-of-way but it sounds more like you’ve put your fingers in your ears and are trying to avoid the hard work of finding the answers.”

The sun has come out and the drips have gone away but that doesn’t mean I can ignore them. It’s time to get out the calk and seal the leaks. Likewise isn’t it time to begin the quest and discover the purpose in life? But, of course, if you are a Christian, you’re already a pilgrim and well on your way to the grand discovery.

raising the sail

 

 

The Christmas Whale

It has been a long watch Christmas Eve on the passage from Ventura to San Diego. An hour before sunrise, a blood red, full moon slips below the horizon foretelling the storm that has been chasing us southward. Catalina is somewhere off the starboard bow and we barely move on a flat, windless sea.

I really should wake Jan for her watch. I am so tired I can barely sit upright behind the wheel. It is bitter cold and the wool blanket on my lap and the one wrapped tightly around my shoulders just makes my watch tolerable. I can’t bear to wake her, so another hour passes before Jan wakes me with a start, “John? Are you okay?”

I mumble something and bolt upright. The eastern sky is pale and overcast. “I’m fine honey. Merry Christmas,” I add.

“Merry Christmas John! Would you like some hot tea?”

“I’d love a cup.” Still the sails hang limp. The northern skies look menacing but the radio says we still have another day before the gale will arrive.

We were scheduled to leave Ventura on Monday but the starter had to be replaced and the myriad of tiny chores proved to be nearly insurmountable. Beautiful day followed beautiful day but we were still trapped at the marina. “Jamma” took her sewing machine home on Monday and our dear friends, Gordon and Glynna, stretched their vacation until Wednesday to help us prepare. The weather closed in on Thursday but we slipped the lines on Friday and roared across the channel past Anacapa Island with a rail in the water on only the jib and mizzen sails.

“According to sailing lore, voyages that start on Friday will surely end in disaster,” Terry the salty old diesel mechanic at the marina reminded us before we left. His words haunted me all through my first overnight passage as did the dictum repeated as the moon sank before dawn, “Red sky in the morning, sailors take warning.”

“Merry Christmas sailor,” she chimed handing me a steaming mug of tea. Catalina Island finally appeared in bold relief as the edge of the sun crept above the horizon. Birds began their search for breakfast and a playful pod of dolphins frolicked in the distance. My joints ached as I stood to stretch. Jan dutifully slipped behind the wheel and I wrapped the blankets around her. There really was no need to steer. There wasn’t a hint of wind but the slow, ocean swells continued to move us south.

Christmas at sea! The kids have all been raised and there weren’t any grandchildren to share the holiday with. It was just the two of us born along on our magical sailboat. Santa Teresa is a fine old classic wooden ketch. Sailboats are more than a mode of transportation. They speak to you and shelter you. She is full of life! The giant, plastic, powerboats – the yachts of fiberglass and chrome, electronics and egos – are objects of conspicuous consumption, but a wooden boat powered by wind and wave seems to define your place in the universe. It is almost a mystic experience. You learn your location from the stars. You change your location by cooperating with nature. Your hull sprang from the life of ancient trees instead of a chemistry set.

We sat, sipped our tea and meditated on the morning. Then I went below and re-emerged with our foot tall Christmas tree. I put my crudely wrapped package for Jan under the tree and she gave me a kiss producing a beautiful leather bound journal for me. Then we heard it. The sound of the sea as a thirty-foot whale, a Christmas whale, broke the surface and spouted beside our boat. He was only there for a moment before rolling down again, his giant fluke pointed towards the sky. Merry Christmas world! We hugged and laughed like children.

Elsewhere there are wars and rumors of war, chaos and calamity, pain and pollution but for two lone sailors born along in a beautiful wooden boat, life is good. Merry Christmas indeed!

 

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Night Passage

This is an old article I wrote many years ago as Jan and I began sailing. We made a multi-day passage from Ventura to San Diego and we still remember it as one of our favorite trips.

Jan

Against tradition, we started our voyage on a Friday. A salty old diesel mechanic at the marina foretold doom and tragedy for us but it looked like we finally had enough of break in the weather to run down from Ventura to San Diego. We went through the checklist one last time, topped off our tanks and said good-bye to our friends. Clearing the harbor buoy, we hoisted our jib and mizzen and soon beat to Anacapa Island with a rail in the water.

The sun began to set as we turned south at our first waypoint. Jan heated water for tea and made a pot of soup. I tried to lie down in the quarter berth when she took the first watch but mal de meer and excitement conspired against me. When I finally gave up and came back on deck the sky was dark but the moon was brilliant.

December is cold, even off the coast of southern California but we found a wool lap blanket and with another wool blanket wrapped around our shoulders, sitting idle at the wheel was tolerable. Our ensemble was accented with watch caps and gloves and we soon learned to appreciate our tall sea boots and wool socks. The old backpacker’s adage, “Dress loose and in layers” was apropos. A sweater over a wool shirt and long johns worn under a Gortex parka was perfect

As the night wore on I realized I should have fixed the light on the compass before we left. While it was a simple matter to steer by the stars it was a completely different affair when the clouds rolled in. We quickly used up a set of batteries in the GPS because we had to keep the backlight on almost constantly to help us find our way.

Five things were always by our sides through that first watch: a mug of cocoa kept warm in a stainless steel commuter cup, a bag of munchies (Jan preferred pistachios and I snacked on Cheetos), a wonderful pair of Fujinon 7 x 50 binoculars, a flashlight and our antique brass ship’s bell. We had a night vision scope but found the binoculars worked better. Night vision scopes are not binoculars and we really needed to check out distant navigation lights and enlarge shapes more than we needed to cut through the darkness. For a flashlight, we found a simple “mini-mag” light wouldn’t destroy our night vision when we checked the compass or searched for a dropped cookie. We had a huge spotlight handy for signaling or illuminating our sails but we never had to use it. The old bell was great for rousing help from below. The thick walls of our wooden boat absorbed sounds, including cries for help, but the bell never failed to call up another set of hands.

Later, Jan explained the night watch wasn’t at all what she expected. She thought she would be lonely and feel vulnerable all alone at the wheel during her watch. She was surprised to find that wasn’t the case. Instead, the ship was a snug cocoon wrapped in a blanket of stars. The sea was far more interesting than menacing. It was ever changing and almost hypnotic. The occasional sea life – a pod of playful dolphins or the exhale of a whale – broke the monotony. Far from boring, her first watch was enchanting. When I came back on deck, she was as tired as she would have been after a long horseback ride. She curled up content in her down bag and fell fast asleep.

The full moon set blood red an hour before dawn. We’d have to keep ahead of the storm that was chasing us to San Diego but Christmas morning found us passing Catalina just where we should have been. Jan made more cocoa and hot cereal while I set a tiny Christmas tree in the cockpit. We huddled together behind the wheel watching the new day dawn. That first night passage was the best Christmas present two sailors could have asked for!

 

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Will Your Anchor Hold?

N 32 24.7, W 117 14.5 Isla Coronado Sur

It was a troubling night. The wind had been howling all afternoon and the only anchorage recommended by the guidebook offered little (if any) protection. I put the anchor down in 30 feet of water and paid out 100 feet of chain and 50 feet of nylon line. The rode was bow tight but felt solid. There was no vibration in the line to suggest she was skipping across the bottom. We were a “biscuit toss” from the rocky shore which concerned me. If I let out more line to allow the anchor a firmer bite on the bottom, we would be in danger of swinging into the rocks if the wind shifted to the east. I guess life is full of compromises so after sorting things out on deck, refolding the sails and coiling all the lines again, I finally relaxed enough to take a nap.

It would take a while to sort out all of the sounds. Each of the shrouds made a different sound. The water rushing down the side of our wooden hull and the rudder rocking with the wheel made another. My ears would catch a sound, catalog it and then, satisfied, relax and move on to the next sound. Finally, when they were all sorted out I drifted off to my nap only to wake to the anchor alarm – we had drifted twenty-five feet south. It was to be expected. The faithful anchor was just digging herself in deeper, getting a firmer bite on the island as she dug herself deeper into the sandy bottom. Still, my mind wouldn’t rest so I had to spring out of bed and check for myself. We weren’t headed to the rocks and nothing was in danger of chaffing through. I wrapped some more protection around the anchor line where it rubbed the bowsprit just to be sure.

The winds were howling now: steady at 16 and gusting to 25 or higher. I climbed back into my bunk but my mind ran over the calculations again. 3:1 – three feet of anchor line for every foot of depth – is a good “lunch hook.” 5:1 – five feet of line for every foot of depth – is minimal according to the book. 7:1 – seven feet of line for every foot of depth is recommended. Let’s see, I thought trying to fall asleep. I put out 150 feet of anchor rode in 30 feet of water. That’s 5:1. It’s holding my best anchor, a CQR 35 pounder, with 100 feet of chain and 50 feet of nylon. Not bad, I thought as I drifted off again.

Then the anchor rudely woke me again. We had drifted another 25 feet. With the winds blowing us south, we were in little danger of swinging west into the rocks so I climbed on deck and let out another 30 feet of line making it 6:1. I drifted off to sleep again.

In the morning, the wind had died down to a whimper and as Jan made a great breakfast in our little galley, I thought about anchors. No one can sleep soundly if they are worried about their anchor holding. Is the same thing true on a day to day basis? What is your life anchored to? Do we trust our 401K will be there when we retire or, worse yet, Social Security? Do we trust in our good looks, intelligence, or luck?

For a Christian the ultimate anchor is trust in God. We believe God is real and He cares about us. In fact, we even believe he cares about you.

Armchair Explorers

As a boy, I loved maps. The walls of my bedroom were decorated with maps I had taken out of National Geographic. I would sit at my desk, staring at them and dream about faraway places. Even today, if you look under my bed, you will find roll after roll of nautical charts of remote coasts and faraway shores. I’ve spent many hours sailing, hiking and climbing in my dreams based on those beautiful paper charts but it didn’t take me long to discover, “A map is not the same as being there,” (Tim Hansel).

In 1968, at the age of 14, my Boy Scout Explorer Post set off to hike completely around one of North America’s largest mountains, Mount Rainier. The trip was over ninety miles long and skirted a dozen glaciers. We descended into deep virgin forests and crossed ice-encrusted mountain passes. It was ten days of some of the most difficult hiking I have ever encountered.

Before the trip I wore out two topographic maps by tracing out every step of the trail but nothing prepared me for the experience of lacing up my boots, hoisting my pack and putting one foot in front of the other. I came back a changed young man.

Of course an armchair explorer could ask, “Why should I suffer the cold, the blisters, and the hard work? I can read the map and imagine the wonders it represents.” A lot of Christians feel the same way. They read the Bible stories and everyone applauds the Christian lifestyle but how many actually lace up their boots and set out on the journey?

True Christians understand the map – the Bible aided by the compass of the Holy Spirit – is to show us the way through the experience of life. It sorts out the bewildering chaos of choices and keeps us on the true path. Unfortunately many people simply study the Bible for the sake of studying the Bible. Jesus told the Pharisees of his day, “You carefully study the Scriptures because you think they give you eternal life. They do in fact tell about me, but you refuse to come to me to have that life,” (John 5:39, 40 NCV). In other words, just knowing the Bible is like just posting a map on your wall. Knowing the Bible alone is not enough. You must know Jesus!

I am impressed with scholarship. It’s great to know the ancient languages and the nuances of Greek and Hebrew grammar. It is important to understand the historical context, archeology, literary types, textual criticism and all of the other tools of serious biblical scholarship, but unless that knowledge transforms my life into the image of Jesus Christ, I’ve mistaken the shadow for the substance.

Sailing Lessons: Big Things in Small Packages

A rudder is a very small part of a boat. It is tiny compared to the tall sails and amounts to only a fraction of the size of the keel but big things often come in small packages.

Jan and I were sailing in our first boat, a little 22 foot sloop, in the northern Sea of Cortez in Mexico. I had been up all night when Jan started her watch. There was hardly any wind and our destination was nearly twenty miles away. I settled into a bunk below and left Jan and her big straw hat at the tiller. When I woke four hours later, she was grinning from ear to ear. Wanda Sue was heeled far over and we were charging ahead like a racehorse. It was time to “reef the sails.” (Reefing makes the sails smaller so the wind can’t push the boat over on her side or even capsize her.)

I climbed up on top of the cabin and began to lower the mainsail. Suddenly Wanda Sue swerved out of control. It knocked me down and I glared at Jan. She looked back in surprise. The erratic maneuver wasn’t her fault. Jan hadn’t moved the tiller at all. The rudder had snapped leaving the boat out of control! (Later we discovered it was my fault. I repaired the rudder after I broke it backing down a trailer ramp. My first attempt at fiberglass repairs was a disaster and the strong waves and winds had snapped the rudder in two.)

Without a rudder and with a storm bearing down on us, we were in serious trouble. I was able to start up the little Johnson outboard motor and use it to steer us safely across the sea. We ended up in a little bay fifty miles from the nearest village. It took two days to patch together a new rudder from hatch boards, duct tape, lashings and a pair of aluminum oar handles.

The rudder may be a very small part of your boat but it does great things. James, the brother of Jesus, compared our tongues to the rudder of a boat:

2 We all stumble in many ways. If anyone is never at fault in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to keep his whole body in check.

3 When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal. 4 Or take ships as an example. Although they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot wants to go. 5 Likewise the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts, (James 3:2-5).

Many people might have given up on sailing after an experience like that but together Jan and I made it back to Puerto Penasco (“Rocky Point”). Since this was Jan’s first long trip, I was afraid it would be our last. (Not only did we lose the rudder, we lost two anchors and ended up hard aground in the middle of a giant mud flat at low tide!)  Jan didn’t let it curb her enthusiasm. As we limped back to Rocky Point, she looked at me with a big smile and declared, “We’ve got to get a bigger boat!”

 

Sailing Lessons: Rope

What is the greatest invention of all time? The most common answer is “The wheel,” but as important as wheels are, the great South American empires didn’t have them. No, I think the greatest invention was rope. I am fascinated by the stuff.

Did you know the great Viking long boats weren’t held together with nails? They lashed planks of their ships with rope. From suspension bridges to flag poles, rope is found everywhere and holds so many things together. It’s amazing!

I love rope and while Jan sat swinging in a rope hammock suspended from the mizzen boom of our boat reading a good book, she swayed in warm, tropical breezes. I was unraveling the end of a length of line and splicing it into an eye for a new dock line.

Have you ever really looked at a piece of rope? It is made up of long strands wrapped around each other and twisted into bundles. The bundles are in turn twisted around other bundles until they form the right dimension for the project you are working on. A splice simply twists fibers together into a new form that carefully maintains the strength of the line.

I stared at my fuzzy handiwork for a bit and thought about how a rope could represent the church. The strength of a congregation comes from the strength of her individual members, their lives entwined. Alone, a single strand or a single member is pretty weak. There is no way you could securely fasten a boat to a dock or raise a sail or anchor a ship with a single strand but with enough filaments, carefully wrapped around each other, no load is too heavy and no job is too great.

“Honey, I’m stuck in this hammock. Would you go below and pour me another drink?” she asked.

“Knot now,” I objected. “I’m all tied up.”

“Very puny. Now take off that Viking helmet and please get me something cold to drink!”

Whether you’re talking about the filaments of a rope or the members of a congregation, we really do need each other!

john_with_halyard

Sailing Lessons: Keels & Sails

During our recent sailing vacation, Jan and I tried to think of the different ways sailing illustrated the Christian life. Here are two more “sailing lessons” from our logbook.

Santa Teresa under sail in San Diego

I love getting in our dinghy and rowing away from our sailboat, Santa Teresa. I’m not trying to escape but to gain perspective. I love to look at her sitting at anchor. She has classic lines from her long, beautiful bowsprit to the sweet upturn of her transom. (The bowsprit is a twelve-foot spruce and mahogany laminated beam that sticks out of the bow of the boat to hold the foot of the foremost sail. Thanks to Paul Yarrington, George Riley and especially Tom Donnellan for rebuilding it last spring! The transom is the back of the boat.)

The surprising thing is what you don’t see. If you don’t count the masts that hold the sails up in the air, there is much more sailboat below the water than above! The seven-foot keel sticks down into the ocean and weighs over 9,000 pounds. It stretches from the bow to the stern and her purpose is to keep us sailing upright. When the winds howl and threaten to turn us upside down, the keel fights back and keeps us on course.

For a Christian, the Holy Spirit is the equivalent to a keel. Temptations and trials may threaten to turn us upside down but the Holy Spirit keeps us upright and on course. While the Spirit is quiet, lying there just below the surface, he gives stability to everything we do and helps us pass through every storm.

Back on board, we raise the anchor and hoist the sails. Just as the winds move us along, so the storms of life drive us but there is an interesting twist to this story. Have you watched the boats in the bay? The wind blows the same on all the boats but some sail left and some sail right. How can that be? The answer is the set of the sails.

Some people put their sails on a starboard tack and some choose a port tack but the wind is the same for everyone. Likewise, we all face challenges and trials. Some people are overwhelmed and some people thrive. What makes the difference? The set of your sails. What you choose to do with your trials will determine which way you will go. What you choose to do with Jesus will determine where you will spend eternity.

Jan popped up from the galley with a steaming bowl of soup, hot rolls with toasted cheese and a mug of coffee. “Are you preaching to my friends the dolphins again?” I shrugged sheepishly and we both broke out laughing.

Sailing Lessons: The Kayaker

It felt like the perfect anchorage. Jan slowly motored into the shallow cove and I stood in the bow “swinging the lead.” (The old sailors would cast a lead weight and line into the water to find out how deep it was. As they coiled up the line, they would count the coils. Since an average man’s arm span is about six feet wide, each coil of the line measured about six feet of depth: a fathom.). At six fathoms deep, I let go the anchor. The water was so clear I could see it dig into the sandy bottom. Jan slowly motored backwards while I played out the anchor chain. It was beautiful and soon we were relaxed on deck enjoying the last of our cheese and crackers, sausages and fruit. The songs of a thousand birds echoed in the cove and the sun slowly sank behind the island. Seals were barking and we went to bed early, sorry our voyage was coming to an end but also looking forward to long, hot showers and the comforts of home.

It was a dark night (the moon wouldn’t come up until after midnight) but the light of a thousand, thousand stars, gently lulled us to sleep. Then someone was shouting! Lights were shining into our windows. I sprang on deck and a sixty-foot American sport fisher with half a dozen men was trying to get our attention.

“We’re on our way south but we found a lost kayaker at sunset. He’s an American from Rosarito Beach and got washed out to sea. We’ve contacted the Coast Guard. Can you take him?” They motored along side and a dozen hands passed a kayak, paddle and 30-year old man across.

We took him below. Perry was very muscular, had a shaved head that glowed red with blisters from the sun, a goatee and wore a grey sweat suit one of the fishermen gave him. Jan gave Perry a couple of bottles of water and began making soup. He had rented a little kayak in Rosarito Beach, eleven miles away on the coast. Then he had decided to paddle out into the Pacific for a look. The wind and the waves caught him and he couldn’t get back to shore. For eleven hours he fought for his life without food or water or even a hat. Wearing just a red shirt and shorts, his thighs were fried and he despaired of life but as the sun was going down, the Americans found him. They found us and now he was safe.

Perry said he was suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder from his childhood and after talking, eating and drinking for a while, we bedded him down, and contacted the Coast Guard. Since he was in no immediate physical danger, they asked if we could bring him to San Diego with us in the morning.

Dawn was grey and overcast. As we motored back to the States I asked him, “You’ve had an amazing experience. What did you learn from it?”

“I’ve made some bad decisions in my life. Trouble always seems to find me.”

“It’s been my experience that we find what we go looking for. We all make mistakes Perry but the important thing is what we learn from them. You’ve been given a second chance at life. What are you going to do with it?”

Perry’s answer at least was honest. “John, I don’t believe in God. The Bible is just a bunch of myths written by a bunch of old guys. I’m going to buy a hybrid car and never go kayaking again.”

“That’s sad. God has given you a second chance at life. By all rights, you should have died last night. You have an opportunity to do it right this time. Why do you want to make the same mistakes you made before?”

“Can I smoke? One of the fishermen gave me a couple of cigarettes. I’ll hang real far over the back.”

He seemed very nervous as we pulled up to the police docks for our customs inspection. “Do you think they’ll do a background check? I have two outstanding warrants including one for assaulting a police officer in New Jersey…”

I shook my head and thought, Perry that is the least of your troubles. So what would you do if you had a second chance at life? You know you do. Our God is a God of Second chances. What are you doing with it?

Sailing Lessons: Changed in a Moment

It was time to start home but that was going to be a challenge. We had been blessed with strong winds blowing from the north to push us south on our journey but now we needed to sail north – against the prevailing winds – to get home to San Diego. On top of that, the cold California current runs north south and we would have to fight that too. It seemed like our best bet would be to use our tiny 35-horse power engine and scoot north during the night after the winds have died down.

Poor Jan was so excited she didn’t manage to get any sleep the night before at all so when I woke up at midnight, she was already awake. Ensenada had been a wonderful stopover. The people were so friendly and the food was delicious. A half-moon was just rising when we untied from the dock. The water in the harbor was mirror calm. The dimly lit green buoys were on our right and the red buoys on the left marked our channel out into the bay. Once there, we were greeted with large, slow swells that had traveled from distant shores. The boat began to corkscrew uncomfortably. We couldn’t see the approaching swells. Back and forth. Up and down. Side to side. It grew darker and darker. The motion was nauseating.

Dawn was welcome. It didn’t make much difference in the motion of the boat but at least we could see what we were up against. It was going to be a slow bash northward. At one point our speed dropped below three knots. “We’re walking to San Diego,” I complained. Jan was exhausted and I was green – very green. Soon I had the opportunity to enjoy the fine fare of Ensenada over again – and again.

We love sailing but not this part. I had to have a break from five hours at the helm and somehow Jan and I were able to trade positions behind the wheel on the bucking bronco without anyone going overboard. “I hate this,” Jan replied. I went below to check on the little diesel engine and try to find some relief. The way things were going, this was sure to be our last voyage!

Suddenly, I heard Jan laughing and squealing like a little girl. I popped up on deck just in time to see “Sally,” a 45-foot blue whale. (I knew she was at least 45 feet long because our little boat only measures 40 feet from stem to stern!) She was just a “biscuit toss” away and keeping pace with us. (Yes, she had to slow way down.) “I’ve named her ‘Sally,’” Jan announced triumphantly. Sally rolled up on her side and looked us over before crossing our bow and swimming down the other side. She seemed to shake her head as if in wonder. “What are these crazy people doing?” and then she sounded. Her massive fluke swung high into the air and she seemed to leave a hole in the ocean as she slipped beneath the waves. In one magic moment everything had changed. All of our troubles were forgotten and we were left with a sense of wonder and awe.

I can’t help but think it will be that way for Christians when we meet Jesus. All our troubles will soon be forgotten. Maranatha – Come Lord!