Wednesday, February 20, 2013

So you have this empty board...the icon journey continues

So you have a white empty board sitting in front of you.

You've sat and gazed and prayed and now it is time to start.

You take a pattern that has a line drawing of the icon image. I am lucky because Suzanne Schleck, my awesome teacher, gave us the pattern for our icon. You lightly tape the pattern to the board Ithat's the blue tape at the bottom)  to keep it from slipping, slide a piece of graphite paper underneath the pattern and then you trace over the lines of the pattern so that the image transfers to your icon board.

This pattern is like your map. It doesn't show every detail that will come but it gives you the basic direction to go.

The next thing you do is draw the borders. I don't have a photograph of this step (though you'll be ale to see it in some later photographs but you measure 1/8 inch from the outside edge and then, with this particular icon there is also a interior board that frames the image. You draw both these borders with pencil.

I like this image of the borders; they offer boundaries, a certain stability of containment.
The only part I do well is drawing the borders with a pencil. I can do this well because I can use a straight edge ruler. When it comes to painting these lines (and even within the lines), well....that is a bit of a different story.

I just tell myself that the more I do this, the better I will get, the steadier my hand will become as a painter. I hope this is true, but for now I am going to believe it. Peggy, another student in the class, told me that one her teachers told her that you need to paint at least 5 icons before you can call yourself an iconographer. This is my third and even though I intend to keep painting I am not sure I will be comfortable calling myself an iconographer after just two more. But I have seen improvements in each of the icons I have painted.

So now the drawing has been transferred to the icon board and the borders have been drawn. Next comes the halos. I remember the first time I got to use a compass in school. I thought they were the coolest of tools. It almost made me like geometry class. Almost.

The compasses used for icons are a few steps above those I used when I was in school. If I were an engineer or had drafting experience this would be a piece of cake. I am afraid my liberal arts education did not give me compass comfortable skills. These are PROFESSIONAL compasses. It's true. It says so right on the package. (I don't think you can buy these from Staples--that's my notepad beneath the compass; but you can order them through Dick Blick).

On each figure that needs a halo--each of the three Marys in this icon--there is a small x on the forehead. This is the helpful hint x. Put the point of your compass in the x, adjust the compass and draw the halo. With this icon you have to be sure that all three halos will fit, that they don't go zooming off the top or sides of the board. You also have to do Mary the Mother of God first. She gets center stage. Mary of Bethany and Mary Magdalene will have halos but theirs must slip politely behind the Virgin.

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Now for a brief sidebar...

When our daughter was a little girl we lived in Virginia, outside of Charlottesville. Our daughter loved the Christmas Carol Silent Night. One day she told me how happy she was to be in that carol. I didn't understand.

"What do you mean, honey? How exactly are you in Silent Night?"

"Because, Mommy, we sing " Round yon Virginians, mother and child..."

I decided to leave it at that for the time being. Better to sing along with the Virginians than try to explain what virgin means to a 4 year old.

End of sidebar. Back to the icon.

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After you have drawn the halos (in pencil...always in pencil), you are then ready to etch the drawing.
You put aside the map (the drawing) and you take an etching tool (which is like a little mini ice pick)
and you start etching into the gesso following your pencil lines. You etch every line EXCEPT the halos. You have used the drawing--your map--and now you are going to mark the way, inscribe your icon into the gesso. It really is like setting off on a journey.

If you look closely at this photo you can see that the lines have now been etched into the gesso.

Even though the icons I have painted are all done with egg tempera (which I love love love) you then use some acrylic paint (you get to pick between Burnt Sienna and Barn Red--don't you love paint color names??!!) and you paint the interior of the halos (I'll tell you in a minute why) and the sides of your icon. You paint the sides because it is fast and easy and inexpensive to use the acrylic (though you could use egg tempera on the side and some people do) but I also think the acrylic might stand up a little better to all the handling and work you are going to do in the course of painting the icon.

The challenge for me is that little 1/8 inch border on the top. I am great at painting the sides but when it comes to that little border, my lines are...well, let's just say it is one of my imperfections--I cannot paint a really straight line. My teacher Suzanne makes my mouth drop open when she so gracefully paints a line--now SHE can paint a straight line (and she doesn't even hyperventilate!).

I will get better. And even if I don't get better, I will still keep painting icons because I so love this process. As I said from the beginning, it is as much about prayer--or more so--than it is about painting. Just as I have to accept other parts of me that don't meet a perfection standard, there are many parts of icon painting that help me remember that God does not ask us to be perfect. God just asks us to be faithful.

So on to halos. Here is Mary Magdalene with her Barn Red halo.

So why do we paint the halo in acrylic? That's because it has to be a non-porous surface to accept the hide glue sizing that will then accept the gold leaf which will transform the barn red halo shape into---ta-da! A beautiful golden halo. Here are all three Marys with their halos.

After the acrylic paint is completely dry you go to a separate room (because it is not necessarily healthy to breathe in the fumes from the sizing we put on for the halos). So we do it out of the main studio. The sizing is sticky. I mean really ooey-gooey gluey. Think painting with thick molasses or honey. Oh, if only it smelled that sweet! The sizing goes on. Now did I dream it or is the sizing made from rabbit skin? Then you wait. The sizing has to dry so that it is just barely barely barely tacky before the gold leaf can be applied.

The gold leaf is very well-named. First of all it really is gold. Secondly it is called "leaf" because it is thin like a leaf--like a really really don't-breathe-heavily-or-it-will-blow-away leaf. I also comes in small sheets--rahter like little leaves. I am sorry I didn't take a photo of the leaf itself (it comes on little pieces of paper) because it really is beautiful. There is a reason we humans love gold and treasure it, because quite simply, it's beautiful.

Anyway, you gently transfer the gold leaf onto the just barely tacky sizing and it becomes a halo. You gently, using a soft brush, remove all the gold leaf that did not stick and what remains are halos. There is a lot of different decorative work you can do on the halos, but this time I decided to just leave mine plain.

So one more photo for this post. I'll continue the process in future posts but this photo should tempt you to come back. Here are the three Marys with their beautiful gold halos and the first layer of "chaos" as my teacher Suzanne referred to it--the roshkrish.

What? You mean roshkrish isn't part of your daily vocabulary? How about sankir? Check the next post for more about these words.

But wait? You are thinking this is the ugliest thing you have ever seen? That nothing this chaotic could be transformed into a beautiful icon? That's part of the theological beauty of icons--the transformation. Rather like the beauty of our own transformation from chaos.

So keep checking my blog for the next step in the journey of painting an icon.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Choose carefully....

One of the lovely things about this icon retreat is that from the moment you arrive you realize it is about so much more than just painting an icon. When you walk into the studio (which in it's other life is St. John's Chapel at Kanuga) there are two long, long rows of tables, all covered in craft brown paper. At each spot there is a package, wrapped in white paper.

This is your icon board. All wrapped up. Just like a gift.

The truth is, it really is a gift.

The first step (other than setting up your light and your jars for water,your brushes and your little white plastic paint palette (the experienced iconographers in the room have graduated to their own ceramic palette) is to unwrap your board.

Icon boards are not inexpensive. They have to be wood that has been carefully cut and dried so that the board will not warp. The boards we use also have the gesso already applied.and are sanded as smooth as marble. You can do this yourself but it takes a lot of work (a whole lot of work) and we don't have the time to do that in a one week retreat.

Each person unwraps their board. Some do it slowly and prayerfully. Others open theirs excitedly, as if  it is Christmas morning. The papers are off and we each realize we are starting with an identical empty space.

Here is my white board sitting on my white towel. The shadow on the board is my hands holding my iPhone to take the photo.

The boards are unwrapped and then we spend time in prayer and meditation, looking at this completely white and empty board. Our clean slate. Everything seems possible. Anything seems possible. The board is completely empty. What happens in this space is between each person and God.

In this season of Lent, I find I am profoundly aware of the need for space, for emptiness, for room. My days are too often too full, too busy. I am not alone--everyone I know seems overly busy these days.

This empty white icon board says, "Slow down. Make some space. Choose carefully what will fill your days, your life."

We sit and gaze and pray.

Choose carefully.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Iconography Workshop February 2013


There won't be a sermon post this week as I am at Kanuga for Suzanne Schleck's iconography class--THE GOSPEL IN LINE AND COLOR. This is the third class I have taken with Suzanne. I wrote my first icon at this Kanuga workshop inFebruary 2012 and then went to Richmond, Virginia to St. Stephen's Episcopal Church in August 2012 for another class--also taught by Suzanne.

The creative aspect of these classes is certainly one of the gifts I receive, but the other gifts are those of silence and prayer. Suzanne sets a quiet, contemplative tone for the workshops and I find myself drawn into a space of prayer and closeness with God. The work of iconography does not come easily for me and I find that it requires my full focus--allowing me to push away the "things left undone" list and be present in the moment with God. I need that right now--partially because it is Lent and partially because my life has been very busy recently.

I am one of five final candidates for Bishop of Southwestern Virginia (the election is March 9th) and this discernment process has been rich and full and continues to fill me with hope for the Church. But all this has been added to an already rich and full life as a parish priest. These days here at Kanuga are true gift-- to be able to step away from (or perhaps step more closely toward) pondering what God is stirring up in my life. I am not here this week to achieve; I am here this week to be.

There was a wonderful meditation by Joe Chambers on the CREDO Lenten website this week. Part of his reflection is this:

What lies in the open space between you and the moment of decision? Is it faith? Is it hopeful anticipation? Self-doubt? Pessimism and angst?

A bishop candidate was once asked how he made it through the process unscathed; his reply was that nothing really mattered at all--except for the fact that he was deeply loved by God. That was all he needed, all he needed to know.

Will you put your whole trust in God's grace and love?

Perhaps that is the true gift of taking time away, especially during a very busy time: to create an open space so one might consciously remember how deeply we are loved by God and to have our hearts open fully to God's grace. 

As the Benedictines say, Always we begin again...

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PS--I am grateful to the Rev. Jane Smith for supplying at St. John's this weekend. She is truly beloved by that congregation and she has helped me in more ways than one can ask or imagine. Her generosity makes it possible for me to be here. Thank you, Jane, and thank you to all clergy who do supply work! 

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Sermon for Ash Wednesday

Kindness, Simplicity and Reconciliation

Jesus says, 
"For where your treasure is, 
there your heart will be also" (Matthew 6:21).

Ash Wednesday
begins our journey into Lent.

Lent invites us to travel with the question:
where is my heart these days? 

Where are we placing our treasures?
The treasures of our time, 
our resources,
our health,
our energies,
our very lives?

Are the steps of our journey
drawing us closer to God
or building walls
to keep God from coming too close,
to keep us from becoming 
whom God created us to be?

Too often we think of Lent
as a time of harshness.
The ultimate finger-wagging,
“You are SO bad!” 
That is not the intention of this season.

Lent is a wandering in the desert sort of time
but it does not have to be miserable.
Lent can be a time
when we learn to sit with our discomfort and dis-ease and fears,
instead of running or hiding 
or feeling ashamed.

This holy season of Lent
I have three words for you:


Let me say those three words again.
Because I need to hear them.


Almost all our music tonight is from the Taizé community.
The Taizé Community
is an ecumenical monastic order founded in 1940,
located in the town of Taizé in Burgundy, France.

There are more than 100 religious brothers who live there year round.
They are from both Protestant and Catholic traditions--
imagine that! And they get along.
 They are from over 30 different countries throughout  the world.
Imagine that! And they get along.
A diverse community.
A diverse community that lives and works and worships together.

The community has also become 
a very important site of Christian pilgrimage,
especially for young people.

Every year over 100,000 young people--
from all over the world--
make pilgrimages to Taizé--
for prayer, Bible study, communal work--
and yes, singing. 

The words of these short songs from Taizé
are sung over and over many times,
prayerfully repeated
until they become like breathing,
helping us to attentively listen to God.

The pilgrims who travel to Taizé
are encouraged 
to return to their ordinary, every day lives
and to live 
in the spirit they have discovered at Taizé--
the spirit of kindness, 
simplicity and reconciliation.

What is God saying to you this Lent 
about kindness?
Is there someone you have treated unkindly?
Are there times when you treat yourself unkindly?
How might that change?

What is God doing in your life these days?
Do you have space and time for God 
and for those you love
or is every nook and cranny
stuffed too full?
Are you being suffocated by your possessions?
What needs simplifying?

Whom do you need to forgive?
Where in your own life do you need forgiveness?
What is broken
that needs to be made whole?
What might you claim anew
if you forgive yourself?

Metanoia--the word which we usually translate as “repent”--
is better translated to mean to turn around,
to go a different way.

I saw on a sign outside a church one time
that said: 
Use your GPS--God Positioning System.
That is a good description for Lent.
Sometimes we need a repositioning.

The landscape of Lent calls us to watch and wait
and to pray
and to pay attention to where God is leading us,
guiding us out of the wilderness.

Where is the path that leads
to kinder, simpler, and more merciful lives?

Lent is not about being or becoming perfect.
Lent is about listening for God
and understanding that God
is always listening for us.


How will God unfold these three 
for you
during this holy season of Lent?

Jesus says, 
"For where your treasure is, 
there your heart will be also".

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Sermon for Year C Last Epiphany


We began this season of Epiphany with a group of magi
following a brilliant light in the sky.
We end this season with the overwhelmingly bright light
on the top of a mountain.
We know it as the Transfiguration.

The light has come down from heaven
and is here with us on earth.
Peter and James and John
don’t really understand it completely
but they know that their lives will never be the same.

I think it is so interesting that a story of healing
follows immediately after this revelatory experience.
The brilliance of Jesus' divinity
paired with humanity being tossed to the ground by demons.

I found this wonderful text from the Kabbalah,
which says:

First we receive the light.
Then we impart the light.
Then we repair the world.

That's today's gospel in a nutshell.

There is something else about today’s gospel story.
Jesus did not go up on the mountain alone.
He took others with him.
He called and they followed.

Jesus did not go up to the mountain top alone.
He took Peter and James and John
and there Jesus was with Moses and Elijah.

The Transfiguration was not a private event.

The magi--
even though we don’t know from scripture
if there were really exactly three--
there may have been more or less.
We only say three because we sing the hymn WE THREE KINGS
and because there were three gifts--
gold, frankincense and myrrh--
but regardless of the exact numbers,
we know from scripture and tradition
that these wise ones from the east
did not travel alone.
They went out together.
They gathered to behold the light of the world together.

The mission statement that your vestry has worked on
so diligently this past year
begins, “Gathering joyfully...”
Gathering joyfully.

St. John’s really is about joy.
St. John’s cannot exist without gathering together.
A church is not a building,
A church is a community of faith,
St. John’s is the people gathering joyfully to worship God
and then going out into the world with gladness
to serve in Christ’s name.

I don’t know if it has been on your mind and heart
but it has certainly been on mine.
We are about to enter the season of Lent.
After Lent comes Easter.
After Easter comes my three month sabbatical. election as Bishop.

I have been pretty relaxed about all this--
my mantra has alternated between
(to use the oft-spoken words of Bishop Bob Johnson)
“God is good. All the time”
and the biblical phrase that keeps popping up
as I make my way through the Bible challenge,
“Here I am, Lord.”
Here I am, Lord.

It has just hit me lately
that sabbatical or bishop,
it means that I won’t be here with you.
I know God will work good for me and for you
regardless of what happens
but ....
it is an in-between time for all of us.

The hope I find in all of this for St. John’s
is the “gathering joyfully” piece.
You will keep doing that.
No matter what.

It is important that you keep showing up
every Saturday, every Sunday
(well, you don’t have to show up for both worship services,
pick one--
but pick one and come!
Come faithfully.
Whether I am in the pulpit
or one of the outstanding and diverse priests
who will be here to preach and to celebrate while I am away,
my hope is that you will keep gathering joyfully.

Remember the movie Meet the Parents?
Robert de Niro plays a cantankerous father-in-law-to-be
who is not wild about the his future son-in-law.
He doesn’t trust him.
De Niro is always making this motion--

he points to his eyes with two fingers
and then he points at his son in law with one finger--
a non-verbal “I’m watching you.”

Well, I am not installing video surveillance cameras here at St. John’s
so I can check up on you while I am on sabbatical!

But in a much larger sense,
a much kinder and more loving sense
than Robert De Niro--
we are watching each other.

We watch out for each other on this journey.
We gather joyfully to celebrate the light that blesses us
and we gather also
to help one another find the light
when the world seems dark.

Studies show that when the rector is on sabbatical
the tendency is for the congregation to sleep in
and attendance goes way low.

I am saying to you--DON’T EVEN THINK ABOUT IT!
Not for the sake of numbers.
We have never been about numbers.

We are about loving God and loving one another
and you have to show up
so you can remember that.

If everything is just hunky-dory in your life,
then show up and be present with those
who could use a little of your light
shining upon them.

If you don’t need others right now,
there may be others who need you right now.

How vital it is to let each other know,
“I’m watching you.”

Right after college, several years before we married,
my husband worked in England,
travelled around Europe
and eventually found himself traveling in India.

He went on trains and he hitchhiked.
He said he was always amazed when a car
would pull up
and it was jam packed full with people.
But they stopped and welcomed him in--
sure, we’ve got 12 people already packed in a car
that comfortably seats 4,
but climb in!
There was always room for one more.
No one was left standing by the side of the road
if they could possibly squeeze you in.

That is one of the things I love about St. John’s.
You make room for one more,
whoever that one more might be.
Yes, our pews are not jam-packed full
but I am not talking about physical space.
I am talking about heart-space.

Just as Jesus told Peter
that he did not need to build three dwellings--
for Moses, Elijah and Jesus--
it was not about physical buildings.

Jesus is saying,
“Peter, what we need
is room in your heart.
Your heart is where I long to dwell.”

That is why St. John’s is not a small church.
Your hearts are so big.
Your lives are so full of light.
Gathering joyfully keeps our hearts open.
I just finished reading a marvelous novel
by William Kuhn.
The title is Mrs. Queen Takes the Train.

The Queen (and yes, it is a fictional modern day Queen Elizabeth),
goes on a quite jolly adventure.
Along the way she has learned to master e-mail
and is now even learning to tweet.

Kuhn writes about the Queen sending her first tweet:

“She decided to keep it simple.
‘Namaste’ she wrote,
recalling her yoga instructor’s words
at the end of the practice.

[Yes, the Queen takes yoga in this novel]

‘Let the light within me
salute the light that is within you.
Namaste.’ “

How important it is to keep gathering joyfully
to let our little lights shine

Whether we are together or apart

I’ll be watching you.
Because I know you’ll be watching me.

And I know that God watches after all of us.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Sermon for Year C Epiphany 4


Some of you may remember a documentary film from a few years back
It focused on global warming and climate change.
The movie was controversial when it came out in 2006.
Some said it was should have been titled “An EXAGGERATED Truth,”
that the facts were distorted, overblown.

Six years later, as we look back,
we see that the facts were not exaggerated.
We are living into that inconvenient truth now
and experiencing radical climate changes throughout the world.

The truth is often inconvenient.
Sometimes we prefer to remain ignorant.
Sometimes the truth just seems impossible to us--
remember Mary’s words at the annunciation--”How can this be?”

And then sometimes the truth makes us afraid or angry.
Really, really angry.
We don’t want something to be true--
”How dare you say that?”

There is an inconvenient truth erupting in Luke’s gospel today.
It’s not about climate change.
It’s about the words that Jesus is speaking in the synagogue in Nazareth.

At the beginning of this gospel passage,
everyone seems to be a member of the “We Love Jesus” fan club.
But by the end of the gospel passage,
they are ready to toss their homeboy off a cliff!
What happened in just a few verses?
What is going on here?

Jesus is telling them that God will be gracious to everyone.
That God is not sending the Messiah just for the people of Israel.
The references to the Elijah and Elisha stories
are situations where God saved Gentiles, not Israelites.

What Jesus is saying is that God’s saving help 
will not necessarily start with them or be only for them--
that the Israelites to not have the exclusive inside track to God.
God belongs to everyone.

Is there no home court advantage?
Nope, says Jesus.

Now Jesus is NOT telling them that God does not care about the Jewish people.
There is no indication that the Israelites are or will be excluded 
from God’s help, God’s love.
Indeed, in the Elijah and Elisha stories
God does heal and redeem the Israelites as well as the Gentiles.
Only the Israelites were not first in line.

The point is not exclusion.
The point is 
God always has the freedom 
to act in unexpected ways
and to work through unexpected people.

We don’t get to write God’s story,
Jesus tells them.

And sometimes,
we don’t like that.
The people in the synagogue in Nazareth that day
certainly did not like what they were hearing.
And the people flew into a rage.

Luke’s gospel is setting the stage for what is to come.
Jesus will continue to speak the truth
and Jesus will continue to make people angry.
Jesus will continue to exclude no one in his ministry
and Jesus will continue to infuriate those in positions 
of power and privilege.

Do you understand their anger?
I mean, how dare he?
How dare he say these things
but even more so,
how dare he do his miracles in Capernaum
and Cana and other places
and then come home to Nazareth 
and offer nothing?

How about a miracle?
How about a sign?
How about we toss you over this cliff, son of Joseph?

Anger and violence are often our behavior
when we don’t want to hear the truth,
especially the truth we already know is absolutely true.

We see a lot of anger and violence in the world around us today.
If we are honest,
we sometimes see it in ourselves as well.
We want things to go our way--
and if they don’t, 
well, it’s somebody else’s fault.
We blame. We criticize. We judge. We pout. We explode.
We seek revenge.
We don’t push people off cliffs anymore--
at least not on a regular basis--
instead we pull out a handgun or a semi-automatic rifle.

We have to shed this way of resolving problems.
It may not be the way you or I personally solve problems
but more and more it is where Americans are turning to violence
when they get angry or fearful,
when the truth is inconvenient.
Or when mental illness overcomes reason and compassion.

We are followers of Christ,
not followers of the Terminator.

I wasn’t sure if I should be upset or proud
when I recently read that the Episcopal Church is on the “enemy” list
of the National Rifle Association lobby.

The Episcopal Church is labeled as anti-gun.
That is not really the truth--
the truth is the Episcopal Church is anti-gun violence.

This week our Presiding Bishop Katherine Jefferts Schori
 sent out this message:

The United States has witnessed far too many public shootings 
in recent months and years. 
Far too many lives have been cut short or maimed 
by both random and targeted acts of gun violence.

The school shooting in Newtown was horrific, 
yet since that day several times as many young people 
have died by gunshot.

It is abundantly clear that Americans are ready to grapple 
with the complexities of gun violence. 

She is right.
We are weary of these repeated acts of violence.
We are going to have to face this inconvenient truth
and gun violence is going to have to be addressed.
We are going to have to face the inconvenient truth
that Christianity cannot be confined to the walls of a church building.

Our Great Commission is to go into all the world 
and spread the gospel.
Into all the world.
This is not just about missionaries going to faraway places
it is about speaking up and speaking out 
in our own communities. 
Speaking up about loving one another.

You may be thinking,
well, I am not going to throw someone over a cliff 
or shoot someone
and what can I do?
I’m just one person. I’m nobody.

We can do just what Jesus did 
in the synagogue that day.
We can speak the truth in love.
Even when the truth is inconvenient.
Perhaps especially when the truth is inconvenient.

On Monday, February 4th,
the National Council of Churches
is asking people of all denominations
to call or email or tweet their federal legislators
and ask that gun violence be addressed.
Be addressed.
Talked about.
Wrestled with.
But not swept under the rug.
Not ignored.
Not pushed aside because powerful lobbyists 
abel Christians as the “enemy.”

Love is not the enemy.
Compassion is not the enemy.

Wanting those who represent us in government
to have a civil and thoughtful and courageous non-partisan conversation
about gun violence--
is not the enemy.

Episcopalians and Lutherans and Methodists and Jews 
and Catholics and Congregationalists
are not the enemy.

Perhaps we feel we do not need to speak out
because this is church and that is government.
We need to remember that Jesus never made that distinction.
Our American separation of church and state
means that the government cannot legislate the church’s behavior.
It does not mean 
we cannot speak out as Christians.

Perhaps we feel we do not need to speak out
because we have not personally experienced gun violence.

That’s what people in the safe little community
of Newtown, Connecticut thought.
That’s what people whose children were students
at Virginia Tech University thought.
That’s what a man in Candler thought
when he and son 
were having what the father thought was just a no big deal argument.

As people of God,
as followers of a Christ who spoke the inconvenient truth often--
we need to speak out--
not just for ourselves,
but for all God’s children.
Our voices need to be heard.
Inconvenient truths need to be spoken.

Or we 
may be the next ones 
thrown off the cliff.