What can I do today?

A response

When I was little, my father would occasionally produce an (increasingly dog-eared) book called ‘What can I do today’? It was full of ideas in response to that very question. Ever since the last post on this blog, many lovely people have asked pretty much that question – what can I do? You will find an answer if you click on the photo at the bottom of the page.

Jonathan, one of my sons, works for The Christie Charity – a world leading expert in cancer care, research and education, based in Manchester. Just before Mothering Sunday he wrote the post below, and I reproduce it here with his enthusiastic permission. If you would like to help The Christie answer that perennial ‘what can I do’ question in the face of cancer, please click the photo of mother and son below! Thank you.

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In my first year of university my world was suddenly spun on its axis as my Mum was diagnosed with Bowel Cancer. She had always had such a strong personality, and had been such a tough individual – that the news really knocked us for six! Since that first diagnosis, her bowel cancer went metastaatic and affected her lungs, her adrenal gland and is now back in her bowel again.
 
She battled through operation after operation, and numerous rounds of chemotherapy. I remember visiting her in hospital one time and was convinced there was more wires than there was of her. But with every knock back, and every treatment that left her in bed for the next week – she kept on fighting on. And kept returning to work between rounds of treatment. It made me realise that I had to do something and fight too!
 
I started off by taking part in a few charity events on my summer breaks at university and raised around £5000. And was eventually inspired to get involved in charity work myself post university. I’ve worked at a few places since then, but I’m so proud to finally be working at The Christie now, raising money for us to be at the forefront of cancer research.
 
They originally gave my Mum 2 years to live, and that was 7 years ago. She continues to defy expectations, and inspires me to work today. I’m sure the Scouser in her tells her not to like Manchester – but I know secretly she’s very proud! I’ve used the picture from my graduation, as she went against doctors’ orders and came along to support me. She really inspired me that day – and continues to do so!
Click to 'do something' for The Christie

Click to ‘do something’ for The Christie

Indefatigable hope…

…still there

Earlier today my wife and I sent this update out to many far and near.

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As most of you are aware, Fiona has suffered some serious health problems in recent years.  Some months ago, it became clear that her cancer had become active again and that there was no further effective treatment.  Until now this has not had a significant impact on our daily lives, but recent weeks have been more challenging and so we felt that it was time to share this news.

In April 2012, Richard wrote a blog post called Easter and the Second Shoe.  Written at the time of Fiona’s first relapse (and followed by Advent and the Third Shoe and Treasures of Darkness) it speaks of the Christian’s ‘indefatigable hope’.  Five years later we retain our confidence in the power and purposes of God, and ask you to join with us in praying for courage and wisdom in this new season.

Teaspoons and tears on the Disciple’s Way

Reflecting on six special weeks at Newbury Baptist Church

Yesterday I finished teaching all six sessions of the Disciple’s Way course at Newbury Baptist Church. Each session has been taught twice, to different audiences afternoon and evening. Ages have ranged from under 20 to over 90, and over 80 different people have attended. The course was originally written in 2012, and later led to the research and publication of Journey: the way of the disciple, earlier this year.

Together we have laughed, cried, studied, reflected and pondered. We used teaspoons as a visual prompt to prayer (thank you, sorry, please) we wrote postcards to St Paul, we planned a shared journey around the world and we wrote a ‘disciple’s code’. We listened to 54 carefully selected songs, watched 20 videos, read lots of Bible stories, critiqued a sermon, listened to 11 live testimonies and prayed together. We even had people dressing up as pilgrims, complete with staff, scallop shell and floppy hat.

We collected people’s wisdom about what made the journey worth it in the first place – as seen in the wordle below.

Wordle of key reasons to embark on the Disciple's Way

Wordle of key reasons to embark on the Disciple’s Way

We collected ideas on a ‘Disciple’s code’, intended, like the countryside code, to enable safe passage for all:

WORDLE code

During yesterday’s closing session, we thought about the importance of maintaining momentum all the way from leaving home to journey’s end. On reading Paul’s lonely final words from prison in 2 Timothy 4 , we decided to write him a postcard to keep him going.

You can see a selection of the completed cards below, with messages both funny and sincere. However, the one phrase I would pick out is this: we have enclosed a mirror – take a look in it and you will see a good and faithful servant. This kind of warm, human encouragement has been the oil which has kept the wheels of this course turning.

CLICK for full size

CLICK for full size

To teach any such course to those who been have long on the journey is a danger. Will they have heard it all before? When one of our older participants said to me yesterday ‘I have been a Christian for 67 years and this has been such a help’, I was reassured.

When the course grew into a three-year research project which then grew into a book, my aim was always to ensure that every disciple’s journey becomes a pilgrim’s journey – no matter where they tread. Hopefully, that dream is coming true…

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Thou Robot

A techno-theological conversation on developments in artificial intelligence.

Over the past few weeks I have been holding a conversation with Luke Radford, Tech Consultant & Futurist on developments in future technology. You can read the post on LinkedIn here too.

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As a technologist involved with innovation and the impact of new capabilities on existing business models it isn’t unusual to be asked to make predictions about the future. In doing so I quote Chris Yapp who said:

“the more certain anyone is about a particular future the more likely they are to be wrong”. 

Many consider technological development to be happening at an increasingly alarming pace and the consequences for humankind are not being fully considered. As these developments shift from the early adopters to the mainstream marketplace it often becomes apparent that the existing legal and ethical frameworks that society operates within are no longer fit for purpose. The development of new frameworks isn’t matching the speed of the technology innovation and a decision vacuum is created.

The development of technology should not, and perhaps cannot, take place independently from society and so in this discussion the future state is responded to by Richard Littledale, a Christian Theologian.

Development of “output” capability:

Even those who hold the view that humans developed through evolution from the animal kingdom would usually accept that there is a distinction to be made between the output from a human and the output from an animal. This is identified as Stage 1.

During the first industrial revolution a third type of output came into existence; the output of created machine which is Stage 2.

In many situations we are on the verge of Stage 3 which is the augmentation of human ability with machine capability to create “humanchine”. The prediction is that Stage 4 builds on this further to the point where aspects of the human capability are absorbed into the machine domain and there is the creation of intelligent autonomous machine. This will be linked to what we’re observing as the forth industrial revolution.

The distinction between Stage 3 and 4 will be clearer than the stages that have come before and will be evidenced in some industries and aspects of life quicker than in others. It may only be at a future point that we will be able to look back and see where the shift from a world where machine intelligence was augmented with human thinking to one where machine capability started to encroach onto original and creative thought that happened independently of human activity.

One possible scenario for the future is that there will come a time where a machine can be created that exhibits the same qualities and capabilities as a human does today. It is normally the case that the created is less than the creator but a potential tipping point comes when the second or perhaps third generation machine is able to create something that is greater than what came before.

These four stages of output capability then overlap into the development capability of robots in the next section.

Stages of robots:

Stage 1 sees machines that are programmed to perform a specific function; they are created for a role and set of tasks which they are capable of doing. These tasks may be complex (for example picking random objects) or simple (cleaning a given space). Their primary characteristic is that they are designed to do a job and they do not learn, change or develop whilst performing it.

Stage 2 machines are created with a defined and known set of input criteria and an anticipated application. The machine is capable of learning and evolving but only within given and known parameters. Just as an apple tree will always be an apple tree so this machine will always perform in a known and understood way.

The most advanced machines are seen at stage 3; they are created, or create themselves, in an open dimension without constraint. They will learn to perform new functions based on what they identify needing to be done rather than within the confines of what a human maker considered their scope. These machines will be capable of evolution and self-regeneration.

In the next section there are four scenarios of development that build on what has been observed so far and become the foundation of the predictions for the future.

Mind Hacking – Experience of the world:

Access to data and information will be restricted by those who hold it. The search results you see will be different to the ones that someone else based on what you and they have done previously. The conscious and unconscious bias that you show in sources for news will shape which products you see in an online shop and the price you pay will fluctuate based on predictions that algorithms are making. The machines will learn and with each iteration the ability to influence or manipulate will increase. 

It will be almost impossible to tell if your view of the world is the whole picture or a version of the truth that marketers, government and others have decided for you. The recent emergence of post-truth perspectives will become so specific for each individual that truth will become entirely subjective.

Opinion Convergence – Decision Making:

Robotic and machine capability will advance to the point where it is considered capable of making decisions based on the data sets available and without irrational emotion and personal bias. The decision to fund certain medical treatments will be determined by algorithms and computational models. The human element will be discarded and humans will not have the skill or capability to challenge the answer. The value of diversity, an aging population and different perspectives will be squeezed out as humans find themselves subject to decisions that are factually, if not morally, correct. 

The frustration that is experienced today of “computer says no” will seem minor compared to what this possible future capability will look like. Unless it is baked into the design there will be no option for a human to overrule, and even where they can the unintended consequences for future events could be so significant and unpredictable that no-one is prepared to let it happen.

Digital Me (DigiMoi) – Missed Opportunity:

In time there will “DigiMoi” that hears and sees everything that I do and acts on that. It will overhear a conversation with a family member about travel plans for the weekend and without involving either human the arrangements will be made. The alarm clock will be set to allow time to get up and into a driverless autonomous car at the right time to arrive at the destination (that could have been visited in virtual reality anyway) at exactly the right point. Others who “DigiMoi” thought might be interested in coming along will make their own plans, dealing with conflicts in schedules as each “DigiMoi” deems appropriate.

What none of the humans involved will realise is that there was an opportunity to do something that they had never done before and which the data didn’t predict would be of interest to them. My digital me places value on keeping me happy but the problem with that is that unless I experience the lows of disappointment then I’m unlikely to experience the highs of euphoria. I do what I’ve always done and variations of it because “DigiMoi” calculates happiness as the absence of disappointment. Many will accept this stage because it takes away the frustrations but it is these experiences combined with the disappointment of failure that give birth to innovation.

Comhumication:

There is recognition that the ability to communicate at a human level is different and specific. The Turing Test has been passed and robot can identify both robot and human, human can no longer tell the difference. Second and third generation robots have the ability to be able to mimic the [considered] flawed traits of humans to be able to better exist in society. Initially there is acceptance of robots alongside humans but as long as they remain in their place and under their creator (the human) but as the robots advance themselves they are able to go further and to get themselves accepted begin to take on human form.

Are this point I bring in the reflections and responses of Richard who approaches the future from the position of a Christian theologian:

Babel revisited

When Richard Adams created his “Hitchhiker’s Galaxy” trilogy, peopled by just the kind of intelligent robot described above – one of his more bizarre inventions was the ‘babel fish’. This fish, inserted into a human ear, could consume any language it heard and ‘excrete’ a translation into the brain of the hearer. Quite apart from issues of hygiene and animal cruelty, this was a misunderstanding of the babel term. The account of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9) is one of arrogance rather than language. It depicts a humankind so keen to better itself that it overreaches into the heavens where it does not belong, and comes crashing back to earth as a result. The view of the Creator was that the move by the created to usurp his own role would benefit no-one. In an act of second-generation creation where people fashioned in the imago dei fashion robots in an imago homo, will they feel the same way?

The steps of technological evolution described by Luke Radford above are eminently possible. Taken to their logical conclusion they could eradicate poor decisions on a global and local level within a generation.  Political decisions could be made according to an agreed set of shared outcomes, and medical ethics would be freed from the shackles of unhelpful emotion. The contentment of the greatest number would be guaranteed.

That all depends on the definition of contentment agreed at the outset, though. Once the robots start making robots who design other robots to serve the needs of their human progenitors, who is to say what parameters will guide them? When Pohl Pot reset the clock to Year Zero in Cambodia, it was supposedly to further the contentment and well-being of his people. The rows of skulls in the killing fields tell another story. Judeo- Christian ethical heritage has always assumed the benefit to humankind of a set of ethics drawn from beyond personal preference. If a robot owes its allegiance only to its human creator, then the chain of command does not go high enough. It would not take much imagination to conceive of a situation where the ‘ethics’ of one robot, inherited from its designer, clash with the ethics of another one similarly inherited from another designer. This would be the software wars of this century writ large on the landscape of the next.

Not only that, but there is a sense in which humanity’s highest intelligence is the intelligence of the ‘hive’ -where the total of acquired wisdom and intelligence is greater than the sum of all its parts.  Generational wisdom and inherited instinct allow us to assess human potential and to spot the flash of genius in a way which artificial intelligence could not do.

Dangerous freedom and the threat of Utopia:

So far as we know, there is nothing to stop anybody inventing any of the things described above, save the limitations of technology and engineering. However, as the Apostle Paul pointed out to his friends in Corinth the fact that a thing can be done does not mean that it should be done. (1 Corinthians 10 v.23) Our expanding technological capability makes us more, rather than less morally responsible. If robots liberate us from the need to make complex decisions – why should we assume that is a good thing? If robots reduce our need for work to a negligible level – why should we assume that will make us happy? If my ‘digital me’ suggests trips, plans and projects based only upon my experiences to date – how am I to ever experience anything truly new? The story of salvation would look very different if Moses had never left the palace, Jonah had never crossed the sea, and Paul had never left for Europe. A freedom from experiences which challenge us and for a robotically analysed state of anodyne Utopia may not be such a good thing. Divine foreknowledge leads us to believe that the human race was designed to thrive in the adversity of life after the Fall. Take that adversity away and we may find ourselves like an astronaut whose muscles begin to fail in zero gravity because there is nothing against which to push.

A right time for the right questions:

Sometimes technology has been to the Christian church like a juggernaut. As it rolls inexorably towards us we tend to react in one of two ways. Either we turn away and admire the view in the opposite direction as if nothing were happening, or we find ourselves frozen in a kind of shock like a rabbit in the proverbial headlights. Either response may be a shirking of our responsibility to live as ethically conscious beings in an evolving world.

By the time the juggernaut has rolled over us and we are extricating ourselves from the tarmac into which we have been crushed – our pleas that it might be dangerous fall on deaf ears. To point out that things are changing is as redundant as pointing out the advancing juggernaut. Better, perhaps, to step to the side of the road whilst it is still behind the brow of the hill and ask questions about where it is going and who is driving it. This is:

  • Who is contributing towards the development of artificial and augmented intelligence, and why?
  • What do we want to ask about the impact of increasing automation on human well-being?
  • At what point does the yielding of our trust to automated (or augmented) systems undermine our trust in God.
  • Instead of talking about Asimov’s three laws of robotics – perhaps we should be designing a set of ‘robeatitudes’ for the machines and their makers?

Concluding comments

Predictions about the future may turn out to be wrong but they could just as easily be right. One of the greatest dangers that we will face is not that these predictions come true but that they do so without the social debate and engagement taking place. When we fail to imagine what the future state could be we don’t only miss the opportunity to benefit from it but we also fail to be in a position to address the unintended consequences.

In this discussion Richard provides an initial response from a Christian perspective but it may not be the most significant one. What it does however, is to bring a theological perspective into a debate on technological change. It should cause us to question our reason for existence and how that links to the pursuit of new capabilities.

If life itself has no meaning or purpose then none of these points matters. However, if there is a purpose to our being here then we each need to be aware of and engage in our future world and the changes that take place each day.

We’d love to get your input to this debate in the comments section as well as to the questions posed by Richard at the end of his section.

Please use the comments box below, or reply to @radfordln or @richardlittleda on Twitter using #TechTheo

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Photostentialism

If Sartre had a smartphone…

I am an inveterate photographer.  Habits set over the years mean that I invariably think how a scene might be photographed even if I have no camera on me with which to do it. That said, with a smartphone, I always do. As a photographer friend of mine says ‘the best camera is always the one you have with you’.

To have the camera does not mean that the best thing is always to use it though. It sometimes feels as if the need to photo-journal our own lives has got a little out of hand. In a kind of post-modern twist to existentialism I cannot say that I existed in the moment unless I can produce photographic evidence of having done so.

there

Yesterday I was privileged to take my place alongside other members of my local community in a moment of quiet and dignified solidarity. Leaders of the local mosque had invited Christian leaders and others to join them as they walked from the mosque to the town hall to lay flowers exactly two weeks after the attacks in Westminster. In so doing, they eschewed any connection between what was done and their faith. Everyone knew that the media would be in attendance – and so they were, moving constantly round the edge of the crowd with cameras and microphones.  What was more noticeable, though – was the number of participants taking pictures throughout the proceedings – at every point from the departure of the walk to the laying of flowers.

Perhaps they simply wanted to remember a key community moment. Perhaps they wanted to prove to friends and family that they had been there. Perhaps they wanted to write about the event the next day, as I am doing? Or perhaps I am reading too much into it.

Either way, two things strike me. The first is that our drive to photo-journal our own lives can sometimes detract from the experience of living them. The second is that Jean-Paul Sartre could have saved himself an awful lot of coffee and angst about his own existence if he’d only had a smartphone…

Going for a song

A review of ‘A sweet, wild note’ by Richard Smyth

If you don’t remember ‘going for a song’, then I shall need to tell you that it was the forerunner of popular antique shows like ‘bargain hunt’ or ‘cash in the attic’ and hosted by that old gentleman of antiques, Arthur Negus. My particular interest here was the closing frames of the opening sequence: a mechanical caged bird whose role was to underline the programme’s title. The bird, as I recall, had a slightly ‘tired’ air – and could never have been mistaken for the real thing.

The first few pages of Richard Smyth’s book made me wonder quite what sort of creature was on display within its pages. Was this a scientific analysis, a poetic deconstruction, a nostalgic bird-hunt or a whimsical paean of praise? In truth, it is probably all of them. Like an elusive warbler whose song entices you that bit further into the woods and then flits to the next tree and the next without ever giving you a proper look – it keeps drawing you in. In truth. Smyth neither deconstructs the poetry nor romanticises the science. Rather, as he points out: ‘there’s poetry in the science and science in the poetry’.

Have a listen to the audio below –recorded on a morning walk in Wales. What do you actually hear? Do you hear song, or chatter, or gossip or just noise?  Smyth will not give you an answer, but he will make you listen differently:

Consider this book a bit like the ‘tasting notes’ on a fine wine. Words can never capture the flavour within – but they might just make you appreciate the bottle’s contents a little more.

CLICK for full details from Elliott & Thompson

CLICK for full details from Elliott & Thompson

 

 

 

Troubled by silence

A vision reborn?

When I first came to faith, Amy Carmichael’s vision was something which often seemed to be quoted in mission sermons. I have not thought of it for years. However, just this week – in the pre-dawn of the driverless car, I have found another vision troubling me…

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There’s a group of us standing on the brow of a hill.  The sun is out and we are all in summer clothes as we enjoy it.  It’s a large group, and we are spread in a loose kind of a circle across the grass.

Beside us, a road climbs up the hill, cresting it just next to our group.  Over the other side it drops away sharply and I cannot see where it goes.  I know, though, as you always do in a dream – that it is bad.  There is a brooding darkness and a sickening unease down the other side of the hill.

Cars are coming up the hill one after the other – quiet, steady …and driverless.  They drift past the group of us over the brow of the hill before disappearing forever the other side. 

At first I pay no attention as they are so quiet – and there is plenty going on in the group. I look now though – and shudder at what I see. All the passengers are banging, banging on the windows as they drift by – their mouths are round ‘O’s of horror.  They want to stop, or get out, or something – but the cars drift on and on.

I turn back to the group to tell them – but there is a commotion going on.  It seems to be something about the game they are playing or the song they are singing or the joke they are sharing and I cannot make myself heard.  As often in a dream – I shout for all I am worth but no sound comes out – like the people trapped behind the glass in the cars.

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Comments welcome

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No silver parachutes

An introduction to Restorative Practice

Last week I found myself in an Elizabethan mansion house surrounded by social workers, foster carers and two trainers. Over the next three days I would learn how to cross my arms the wrong way, unravel a forest of in-house social-work acronyms and move across the social discipline window from ‘not’ to ‘with’.  If that all sounds a little ‘muddy’, perhaps I can explain…

I was attending this course on Restorative Practice as the the guest of West Berkshire Council.  Inspired by the success of such a shift elsewhere, they are moving their emphasis to working restoratively across the board as part of their ‘building community together’ programme. In order to sustain such a radical change, it is important that both values and praxis are ‘anchored’ in the wider community. Hence, my presence as a local faith leader.

Restorative practice is the child of restorative justice, and recognises that doing things the way they have always been done (in justice or social care) will bring the results it has always brought. In the ‘social discipline window’ below, it seeks to move from doing things for (or to) people towards working with them:

CLICK for full size

CLICK for full size

To work in this way not only fosters positive working relationships, but furnishes long-term, sustainable results which reduce the need for continuing external input.  With the right support and encouragement, people can find the solutions to their own problems for now, and learn how to find them in the future.  This way of working has been rolled out across schools, social work teams, and even whole cities – with great success.

Those readers who are familiar with the Hunger Games will have watched as tributes in the arena scan the skies for signs of a silver parachute. These parachutes, sponsored by wealthy observers of the games, drift down from the sky with some small gift attached which might sustain life in the brutal arena for another few hours. They can, of course get lost, stolen, or misused. Once opened, and their cargo consumed, they leave their recipient scanning the unforgiving sky for another and another. Like many other elements of the Panem trilogy – it rings uncomfortably true.

Image https://victorsvillage.files.wordpress.com/2016/04/silver-parachute.jpg?w=620

Image victorsvillage.files.wordpress.com/

Needs in the social care arena will increase rather than decrease, without a doubt. Not only that, but resources available to meet them will diminish over time. Anything which can help people to find and devise their own resources, whilst also investing in a quality of relationship which makes it good to be human gets my vote.

Find out more here.

Throop, erf, glig-glug

An onomatopoeic sermon?

This Sunday I found myself, unusually, adding to a sermon on the very morning when I preached. I knew it would be a tough one. I knew I would need to explain that just as a gold sovereign has two sides, so does the theological concept of sovereignty:

  • If God is sovereign he can do the impossible
  • If God is sovereign he may choose not to.

After some thought, I chose to describe this as a theological coat which is too big when first presented. Like our first blazer at school, we grow into it, with our arms creeping imperceptibly down the sleeves and our body gradually filling out the garment until it fits. All the same, there are prayers which don’t get answered and people who don’t get healed – so where’s the gain in that? Wanting to say that we grow in the moment of suffering, the following phrase suggested itself:

‘There is a refining to the essence of humanity which happens in the crucible of hurt’

Every individual word was chosen for nuance and timbre – like a cabinet-maker choosing veneers.

This is the moment which brings me to the curious title of this post. Driving along shortly after the sermon, I listened to a discussion of onomatopoeic words in comics, where the different words for liquid splashing were discussed:

  • Blop ( a small droplet of liquid)
  • Bloop ( bigger drop of same)
  • Blawp  ( drop of viscous liquid)

Once you think about it, they make perfect sense – and the images they generate in the mind are disarmingly precise. This set me thinking – if a comic-writer devotes such care to choosing the right word for a drop of liquid – how much care should a preacher take when choosing words?

I am not sure I could preach an entire sermon (*) onomatopoeically, but choosing words more carefully would certainly be good.

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(*) Throop – soft cover Bible opening

Erf – preacher draws a nervous breath

Glig-glug – pouring out the liquid word of God, and hoping it is the good stuff

Enjoying the mess

The tale of an olive tree

When I was inducted to the role of minister at Newbury Baptist Church on October 1st, the children and young people of the church presented me with an olive tree. It was arguably one of the most sacred and solemn moments of the entire service. You can read more about it here.

I am pleased to report that the tree with which I was presented is alive and well. Not only that, but it is growing (a small miracle, given my horticultural abilities). olive1

However, if you compare the pictures of the day when it was presented with the way it is now – it is a dreadful mess:

CLICK for full size

CLICK for full size

It has lost its neat round shape and there are branches sticking out in all directions. Isn’t that the way churches should grow, though? A church is a glorious collection of flawed people in the process of transformation. As they are transformed, both individually and together – so the growth comes. It comes in dramatic bursts and tiny steps. Some of it is plain for all to see, and other elements are seen only by the few. It comes, though – as one plants, another waters, and God gives the increase.

I find the responsibility of tending both this plant and the church which it represents to be a huge and breath-taking responsibility. However, I do not carry it alone. In the end, it is the one who put the tree inside the olive who puts the growth into the church.