Music ornament, Haven, KS

More than just a Christmas carol

I love Christmas music. True, I prefer to avoid a steady diet of it until after Thanksgiving, but even in the time outside the brackets of Thanksgiving and Christmas Day, sometimes I just have to stop and marvel at the lyrics. Have you ever truly stopped to think about the words in Christmas songs? No, I’m not talking about “Jingle Bells” or “Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer.” I mean the classic Christmas carols, the ones that even secular shopping locations play this time of year.

I got to thinking about music after yesterday’s post. I don’t think music plays as big a role in any other part of American culture as it does during the Christmas season. I mean, we don’t really have Easter songs. We sort of do, but in my experience many Easter-themed songs are still sung during other parts of the year. Likewise with Thanksgiving or with New Year’s or with any other popular holiday. The only season that has its own music is Christmas.

But that didn’t start with modern culture. Singing has always been a part of celebrating Christmas.

Music ornament, Haven, KS

Music ornament, Haven, KS

Today’s verses are Luke 2:8-14.

That night there were shepherds staying in the fields nearby, guarding their flocks of sheep. Suddenly, an angel of the Lord appeared among them, and the radiance of the Lord’s glory surrounded them. They were terrified, but the angel reassured them. “Don’t be afraid!” he said. “I bring you good news that will bring great joy to all people. The Savior—yes, the Messiah, the Lord—has been born today in Bethlehem, the city of David! And you will recognize him by this sign: You will find a baby wrapped snugly in strips of cloth, lying in a manger.” Suddenly, the angel was joined by a vast host of others—the armies of heaven—praising God and saying, “Glory to God in highest heaven, and peace on earth to those with whom God is pleased.”

Luke 2 is probably one of the most well-known chapters of the Bible, at least among Christians. It’s the story of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem. This passage today is only a small part of it, where a group of shepherds got to hear the first news of it. Can you imagine being in their shoes (er…sandals)? Remember, this was before special effects on television. This was before television. They’d never seen anything like it.

And, just being honest here, even with all our vast knowledge about the world and everything in it (yes, I’m being sarcastic), if a sky full of angels appeared to you and started singing at the top of their lungs, I’m pretty positive you’d wet yourself. I would.

Music is an integral part of the Christmas story, so I think it’s altogether fitting that our entire godless culture still stops and sings “Silent Night.” No matter how far away we’ve fallen, we still get misty eyed at “O Holy Night” or “Away in a Manger.” Some parts of the United States are trying to ban religious Christmas songs, but I’m not sure how successful they’ll be.

Every time I hear “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” I cry. Why? It’s the theme of my heart. The song is about crying out to God, asking for the Savior to come and save us, to bring light to our dark world, to bring life to the lifeless. And it’s what our world needs. It’s what I need, not just today or during the Christmas season but every moment of my life.

So the next time you hear a Christmas carol on the radio or on the street, stop for a moment and just listen. Really listen to the lyrics of “What Child Is This?” or “Angels We Have Heard On High.” Listen and think about them and let them sink into your heart and remind you what Christmas is about. What’s ironic is that so many of those songs were penned so long ago, but they’re still relevant, still wonderful, still a blessing to so many people.

Don’t be silent this Christmas. Sing out, even if you can’t sing. Remember that a joyful noise doesn’t have to be beautiful; a joyful noise is beautiful to God whether it’s off-key or not. Let the songs of the season make a difference in how you experience Christmas.

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Sheep grazing in pastures along Hadrian's Wall, Northern England

Living life like a sheep

My brother and I raised 4-H market lambs for two years, and during that process, I learned a lot about sheep. And I learned why the Bible compares people to them. Sheep are pretty stupid, even though they think they’re awfully smart. They fall prey to the herd mentality. They will gorge themselves if allowed. They always think they know where they’re going, and they’re very, very stubborn about changing their minds.

Sound like anyone you know? I think every person needs to have experience raising sheep, especially if you’re a Christ-follower. It will open your eyes.

Sheep grazing in pastures along Hadrian's Wall, Northern England

Sheep grazing in pastures along Hadrian’s Wall, Northern England

Today’s verses are John 10:11-18.

“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd sacrifices his life for the sheep. A hired hand will run when he sees a wolf coming. He will abandon the sheep because they don’t belong to him and he isn’t their shepherd. And so the wolf attacks them and scatters the flock. The hired hand runs away because he’s working only for the money and doesn’t really care about the sheep.

“I am the good shepherd; I know my own sheep, and they know me, just as my Father knows me and I know the Father. So I sacrifice my life for the sheep. I have other sheep, too, that are not in this sheepfold. I must bring them also. They will listen to my voice, and there will be one flock with one shepherd.

“The Father loves me because I sacrifice my life so I may take it back again. No one can take my life from me. I sacrifice it voluntarily. For I have the authority to lay it down when I want to and also to take it up again. For this is what my Father has commanded.”

I never had opportunity to sacrifice my life for any of my sheep. I can’t say that I would have, honestly, because their purpose was to go to market. They existed in my life for experience and education and hopefully a decent premium at auction that would jumpstart my puny savings account. In that context, my sheep weren’t worth my life.

But shepherding in Jesus’ day was different than it is today. Around here, my neighbors “shepherd” with four-wheelers and a lot of shouting. In Jesus’ time, shepherds led their sheep. Sheep were their livelihood, and you didn’t need to raise sheep for the experience of it. It was a full-time occupation. So if anything ever threatened the sheep, it was worth it to the shepherd to intervene. Why? Because they were his sheep. They were his life.

To a sheep, a shepherd is everything: guide, provider, protector, friend. The shepherd is the one who knows where the best grazing is. The shepherd is the one who knows the safe paths to travel. The shepherd is the one who leads. The shepherd is the one who makes the plan. It’s up to the sheep to follow. The sheep don’t have to do anything else. They just have to keep up, and even if they can’t keep up, the shepherd won’t leave them behind.

Thinking about our relationship with Jesus in that context leaves me speechless. I am very much like a sheep in my life. I really think I know what’s best for me. I think I know where I can find the best prospects for my life, and I am certain I know how to handle the opportunities that come at me without help. I convince myself I know when I push myself too hard, and I’m incredibly too stubborn about everything, especially the things I don’t actually know.

Jesus is patient with me anyway. He gently corrects, carefully guides, consistently provides, and always protects me no matter where I go and no matter how often I bite off more than I can actually chew.

A shepherd who’s in it for the money can always find another opportunity for cash if the sheep are in danger. There’s no need to risk life and limb. But the shepherd who’s in it for the sheep will do crazy things to keep them safe, and that’s what Jesus did for us. No one compelled Him to sacrifice His life for us. Yes, God the Father sent Him, but Jesus didn’t have to do what He did.

So what does all this mean for our lives today? It means a lot, honestly. It means that we don’t really know best, even though we think we do. It means God has a plan, and it means our job is to follow and not worry about things we can’t control. Yes, do your best. Use your gifts to their fullest extent. But Jesus wouldn’t lead you down a path without a reason. Just like a good shepherd wouldn’t lead his sheep to an area without good grazing.

Maybe your life hasn’t turned out the way you expected. That’s okay. God still has a plan, Jesus is still the Shepherd, and you’re still the sheep. The roles haven’t changed, even if your location has. So rest. Find some nice grass to munch on. Live. Enjoy the view. And take it easy until Jesus calls you again. Then follow. If He’s willing to lay His life down for you, He’s not going to lead you wrong.

Jesus on a billboard - Hays, KS

Who is Jesus?

The Christian community thinks they have a pretty good idea of who Jesus is. We must. We put up posters of Him all over churches. We post images of Him all over Facebook. We even paint billboards of Him by the side of the road so weary travelers will see and experience a life transformation by the compassion in His eyes.

I don’t intend to offend anyone. I don’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings. And, sure, creepy billboards of a long-haired guy crawling around in a wheat field might appeal to someone. But how does that tell me who Jesus is?

Jesus on a billboard - Colby, KS

Jesus on a billboard – Colby, KS

Today’s verse is John 14:6.

Jesus told him, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one can come to the Father except through me.”

When I think about who Jesus is, this is usually the first verse that always comes to mind. This or John 11:25 where Christ is speaking to Martha at Lazarus’ grave, telling her that He is the resurrection and the life.

But have you ever tried to introduce someone so amazing you can’t express it in words? How do you introduce someone who Is?

It’s not something we can understand. The concept of being forever. I mean, we talk about eternal life and living for eternity, and that’s something we try to wrap our heads around. But what about the concept of always existing? Because God has always been. He is. He was. He will be. Jesus is the same.

When God introduced Himself to Moses in the burning bush (Exodus 3:14-15), Moses asked Him for His name. And this is what God told him:

God replied to Moses, “I Am Who I Am. Say this to the people of Israel: I Am has sent me to you.” God also said to Moses, “Say this to the people of Israel: Yahweh, the God of your ancestors—the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob—has sent me to you. This is my eternal name, my name to remember for all generations.

God is. Jesus is.

Neither of them used to be. They are. And even though they will be tomorrow, they still are today. The same as they were yesterday. The same God who spoke to Moses from a bush that was on fire but didn’t burn is the same God who put on flesh and came to earth and sacrificed Himself for us. That same God is the God who lives in those who believe in Him today.

I was talking with a friend earlier this week about the kind of life that Jesus lived when He walked Earth. It’s overwhelming to think about. Because Jesus is God. He was God then. He’s God now. So even as a Man walking around on Earth, He was God. He knew everything God knows. And that means, He knew every sin everyone around Him had ever committed and ever would commit. And He loved them anyway.

He knew why He was there. He was there to die for us. That was His entire purpose of coming to Earth. He came to seek and save those who are lost (Luke 19:10). And if it had been me, I don’t think I could have been gracious. I think I would have rubbed it in. I would have wanted to let people know — to make sure they understood the sacrifice I was going to have to make for them. But He didn’t do that. He loved people. He gave to people. He helped people. And He hung out with people who were broken, the dregs of society. The only people He showed no compassion to were the religious crowd who thought they were good enough on their own. Christ didn’t even waste His time with them.

So what does that mean for us?

To me, it means I need to take Him seriously. And it irritates me that the Christian culture is trying to represent Him in ways that are irrelevant. I guess I can appreciate a billboard with a Jesus-like figure painted on it. I guess I can recognize the need for black billboards with white letters claiming to be statements from God. I guess I can accept signs by the road that ask you if you’re ready to meet God when you die. Whatever. But those things wouldn’t mean anything to me if I didn’t already know Him.

I met Jesus when I was seven years old, and like any friendship, it’s grown over the years as I’ve learned who He is. But I can guarantee I didn’t come to know Him because I saw a billboard about Him. I came to know Him because people in my life introduced me to Him.

So, Christians, I think it’s time we stopped investing in creepy roadside billboards and got out into the community to meet people face to face. God is a face-to-face kind of person. He works through individuals. He always has, whether it was appearing to Abraham or Moses or Joshua or Gideon in the Old Testament or talking to the Samaritan Woman or to Zacchaeus or to Nicodemus.

And if you’re ever driving through Colby, KS, you need to seriously stop and look at this billboard. Because it is the creepiest thing you’ll ever see in your life. Just FYI.

Wheat almost ready - Safe Haven Farm, Haven, KS

Who needs a paycheck?

I’ve been praying for my neighbors because we are hovering on the edge of one of the most amazing harvests I can ever remember. The wheat has never looked so beautiful. The photo for today comes from a week or so ago, and since then most of the fields around my home have turned almost completely golden. There’s no sight like it on earth.

Now if we can just hold on for a few more weeks with no major storms, no major floods, Kansas could have a very good year. And about time too. It’s been a while since we’ve had a good harvest in these parts.

I think farming and writing are very similar in some ways, especially when it comes to harvests. Because in both professions you can pour your heart and soul into what you do and never see a positive financial return. You can farm and farm until you’ve planted acres and acres of every crop, and (at least in Kansas) one bad storm can wipe it out. It has nothing to do with your dedication; it’s just life.

Writing’s the same in some cases. I realized the other day that I’ve been writing for almost 20 years, and I have yet to see an actual return on any of it. Granted, I only started letting some of that writing out into the public eye in the last five years. But still. If you run the numbers, you can get discouraged pretty quickly. And then you stumble into a verse like today’s?

Wheat almost ready - Safe Haven Farm, Haven, KS

Wheat almost ready – Safe Haven Farm, Haven, KS

Today’s verse is Luke 6:38.

“Give, and you will receive. Your gift will return to you in full—pressed down, shaken together to make room for more, running over, and poured into your lap. The amount you give will determine the amount you get back.”

How does that work? I can honestly tell you that I’ve worked my fingers to the bone writing since I was a child. My dream since childhood was to be a published author. And I haven’t cut corners. At all. I’ve never expected a free ride, and I’ve dedicated every free moment to it. Even my vacations have been an opportunity to pursue writing.

So according to this rule, the rule of sowing and reaping, I should get back what I invest. And I should get back more of it. This is a law of nature that God created when He made the world. Newton figured it out too; for every action there is a reaction. Cause and effect.

So where does Jesus get off telling me this today?

Farmers plant fields and harvest crops, unless you live in Kansas. Then, generally, you plant crops and harvest dust. Much like writers write books and harvest disappointment when no one wants to buy their work. Am I wrong?

I’m only being partially facetious.

I would be right, yes, if Jesus were only talking about financial returns. I can’t really speak to farmers because I don’t farm (unless you count weeds), but when it comes to writing there is something more satisfying than being paid for your work. And that is when your work touches someone else.

No, I haven’t published a novel yet. But you’re reading this blog post, aren’t you?

No, I haven’t received a financial return on anything I’ve written, but I didn’t really start writing to get rich and famous. I started writing and telling stories because it was an outlet where I could share what God has done in my life. And so much more important to me is communicating that truth to other people, whether it’s in blog posts or articles or short stories or novels. And maybe I haven’t written anything that’s made money. And maybe I never will. But if you count up the people I’ve been able to share my story with through words, that vastly outweighs a paycheck of any kind.

I’ve invested 20 years of my life in writing, in learning how to tell stories, in sharing what God has taught me through words. And I can tell you, the returns I’ve seen, while not financial, are greater than what I originally invested. I’ve given my life to writing, and I’ve watched God take that and make it into something bigger than what I could have imagined, not only being a blessing to people but encouraging others to start sharing their story too. And that’s worth more to me than almost anything.

So whatever you’re doing in your life today, remember that the whole principle of sowing and reaping applies. It really does. It just may not pay off in the way you’re expecting. If what you’re doing in your life honors God, you will see a return. That’s a promise. So don’t give up.

Who needs a paycheck anyway, right? … Like I said. Partially facetious. =)

Backstage at a puppet show

Backstage

I like drama. Not in life. Not between friends. But on stage. I like to listen and watch stories play out live. Stories are great to read, but watching them told through talented actors with beautiful sets is just as much fun. But there is a part of drama that doesn’t get much spotlight — because it’s not meant to. Beyond the actors, beyond the directors, beyond the writers, the crew of the backstage is essential to a great production.

If the backstage doesn’t function, the piece doesn’t work. The backstage is the well-oiled machine that keeps a show running. Yes, your actors can be phenomenal. And your director can be visionary. And your writing can win awards. But if your backstage isn’t organized enough to bring all the pieces together, nothing will work.

Backstage at a puppet show

Juan, Andres and Jay backstage at a puppet show - Peten, Guatemala

Today’s verses are Matthew 6:2-4.

When you give to someone in need, don’t do as the hypocrites do—blowing trumpets in the synagogues and streets to call attention to their acts of charity! I tell you the truth, they have received all the reward they will ever get. But when you give to someone in need, don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing. Give your gifts in private, and your Father, who sees everything, will reward you.

When I read today’s verses, I thought of the backstage.

No one ever talks about the backstage. No one ever talks about the people in the trenches on movie sets. The stage managers, the prop masters, the grunts who do the difficult work usually fade into obscurity. They are the ones listed in the end of the credits in small type that few pay attention to. They are the ones who make the movie or the play happen, and no one will ever see them. If someone ever sees them, especially during the movie or the play, that means they’re not doing their job.

Backstage is invisible. Like shadows. You’re never supposed to see them. Backstage is designed to help the actors and the directors and the writers shine, while they receive little to no credit at all. And the irony is that I don’t think they mind.

Maybe this is a bad example. But I think Christians are supposed to live like they work backstage at a theatrical production. That’s what this statement from Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount says to me.

People who help others in order to draw attention to their good works are hypocrites. That’s what the religious people of Jesus’ day did. They wanted to make sure everyone knew that they were sacrificing to help people around them. But what Jesus is saying here is that when you help someone, you shouldn’t make a big deal out of it. You should keep it private. You should keep it between you and God.

I love what Jesus said that those who call attention to their good deeds have received all the reward they will get. When we help others just to show off how compassionate we are, all we do is demonstrate that we crave attention and adulation and praise from our peers. And, yes, you may be helping others. But if you only help others to obtain the credit for it? Those good works don’t mean anything.

But if you help someone in secret–if you help someone quietly, without fanfare and without expecting praise–that’s different. That says you care more about the person you’re helping than what you can get out of helping them. And that kind of humility is something that God will bless.

Granted, we are supposed to give God credit for everything. We’re supposed to be ready with an answer if anyone asks us why we live the way we live. So don’t be a backstage Christian when it comes to explaining your faith. That’s not what I’m talking about.

When it comes to helping others, stay in the shadows. Don’t desire adulation or credit, and don’t seek after the spotlight. God knows what’s going on in your heart, and He will make sure you receive the reward you deserve for your actions, either in this life or the life to come.

Stick to the backstage. You can get all the action you can stand without having to make a fool of yourself in front of millions of people. Sounds like a good trade off to me.

Don’t be a zombie.

Has anyone else noticed the surge of literature and media about zombies? I don’t mind it, although the literary nerd in me balks at the modification of Jane Austen’s classics into zombie apocalypse novels (I actually understand they’re pretty good).

It’s interesting to me because that is the prevailing thought or comprehension of what it is to be brought back to life after you die. You turn into a zombie. Some mindless, groaning, decomposing monster that lumbers around eating people.

Sounds great.

But resurrection in Scripture has a much different look and feel. One of the most famous chapters in Scripture is John 11 where a good friend of Christ’s, Lazarus, dies and Jesus goes to raise him from the dead. Today’s verse is John 11:25.

25 Jesus told her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Anyone who believes in me will live, even after dying.

People have called it one of the most profound verses in Scripture. And why not? This simple statement is deep. Jesus said this to Martha after her brother Lazarus died … shortly before Jesus would raise him to life again.

And I’ve heard it many many times. You can’t be in any church’s drama team when Easter comes around and not know this verse. I’ve been involved in three passion plays and a passion play divided into four parts, and this verse was in all of them.

It’s one of those famous statements of Jesus’ that is used over and over and over again until everyone has heard it and everyone recognizes it — but no one knows what it means.

What does it mean?

And maybe that’s the problem. Maybe it means too much to sum up simply. That’s what makes it so profound.

I mean, first of all, it was heretical at the time. Shoot, it’s heretical now, even in some “Christian” circles to believe something like this: that your sole source of salvation from sin is through Christ alone.

It means that all you need is Christ.

It means that once you accept Christ, death has no power over you anymore. Because even if you die, you’ll still live.

It means you actually have to die before you can live, literally and figuratively. How’s that for blowing your brain cells on an early Wednesday morning?

It means so much. There are so many truths packed into a simple two sentences, it’s unreal. But that is how Jesus speaks. Nothing He says is extraneous.

And even though I’ve read this verse and heard this verse and know this verse, this morning, something stood out to me that I knew but hadn’t really thought about before.

Why do you think Christ makes a distinction between being the resurrection and the life?

He calls Himself the Resurrection. Then, He calls Himself the Life.

Why doesn’t He just call Himself the Life? Why doesn’t He just call Himself the Resurrection? Because a part of me had always thought they were the same. But they’re not if you think about it.

Resurrection is restoration. It’s a return to living, a revitalization of someone who had been dead.

Life is life. Life is the everyday challenges and pursuits we face. Life is what we live. Life is a process.

Resurrection is something extraordinary. Life is mundane. But Christ identifies Himself as both separately.

What does that mean? Because Jesus doesn’t waste words. If He wanted people to know that He was just the Resurrection, that’s all He would have called Himself. Likewise with Life. But He didn’t do that. He’s both. And it was important enough to identify both individually.

And that tells me that He is the only source of our Resurrection — our return to living from our sentence of death. He is also the only source of our Life – the purpose we have for living.

That’s huge. Because not only does He love us enough to grant us new life in resurrection, freeing us from the bondage that sin and corruption and death has in our lives, He loves us enough to give us Life too.

Because it’s one thing to return to life. It’s another thing to live, truly live.

What do you think it was like for Lazarus? Or for the other people Christ brought back to life? It’s my personal opinion that they didn’t remember heaven. Because if they had remembered heaven, they would have had no interest in living in this world. Personally, I feel that’s why Christ cried at Lazarus’s tomb before He raised him from the dead. He didn’t want to have to bring Lazarus back to this cold, broken world, but it was something that had to happen to demonstrate to people who Jesus was and is. But what was life like for Lazarus after he came back? Because he had to live, but how did he live?

I know Christians who have trusted Christ. That’s the resurrection. Accepting Him and His gift of salvation brings us back to life. But many times it stops there. And people who have been raised from the dead keep living for things that are temporary.

But that’s not why Christ offers to bring us back to life. He wants to bring us to life so that we can really live, and that means living for things that will last forever. Loving God. Loving people. Living in a way that impacts eternity.

You can’t really live if you’re focused on things that will fade away once the world ends.

Going back to the zombie illustration: all a zombie is really is someone who’s been brought back to life. And if you call “life” lumbering around mostly decomposed, groaning and eating people … then, zombies really live.

Resurrection isn’t enough to live. Resurrection brings you back to life. But living is up to you. Living is a choice. And who you live for will determine the quality and the purpose of your life.

October 21?

If you have never read the Book of Hebrews, you should. It’s an awesome book, full of all sorts of mind-bending truths. Maybe you’ve read Hebrews 11, the Faith Hall of Fame, as some have called it. But the rest of the book is just as amazing.

What I love about Hebrews is how it juxtaposes the differences between the two covenants, the Old Covenant and the New Covenant. The Old Testament and the New Testament. Faith before Christ and faith after Christ.

If the Old Testament seems strange, full of people who sacrifice bulls and goats and lambs . . . well. It is strange. People who followed God in the Old Testament were a peculiar people. People who follow Christ now and in the New Testament were also a little odd, but they didn’t walk around slaughtering animals in sacrifice.

In the Old Testament, people sacrificed animals as offerings for sin as an indication that they had faith God would save them. In the New Testment, people announced their faith in Christ as the Messiah as an indication that they believed God would save them. The avenues to salvation were different, but people were still saved by faith, no matter which era they lived in. And that still holds true today.

Which brings us to the verse for today, Hebrews 9:28.

28 so also Christ died once for all time as a sacrifice to take away the sins of many people. He will come again, not to deal with our sins, but to bring salvation to all who are eagerly waiting for him.

Christ died once. He came to Earth, lived as a human, lived a perfect life, and was killed brutally to pay for our sins. And not just the sin of one person. The sins of many people.

Many people who lived during Christ’s time on earth mistook His purpose for coming in the first place. They thought He had come to deliver them from their captivity to Rome. But Christ came to deliver them from their captivity to sin. The first time Christ came to Earth, His plan was to put the finishing touches on His incredible salvation plan. But the next time He comes, He’s not coming for sin; He’s coming for us.

Christ has already dealt with our sin. When we put our faith in Him, He forgets it, He marks it out, He casts it to the bottom of the ocean, as far away as East is from the West. If you are a follower of Christ, your sin is done, at least as far as your record goes. We’ll still sin, but Christ no longer counts it against us.

When He comes the second time, He’s coming to take us home.

And I think the end of Hebrews 9:28 is probably the understatement of the year:

“to bring salvation to all who are eagerly waiting for him.”

I don’t know about you, but I’m so ready to blow this popsicle stand. I want to go home. I want to meet Jesus face to face. I want to live the kind of life He created me to live. I want to be reunited with my friends and my family who are already there. And I want to meet the heroes of faith who left behind so many amazing stories. I’m tired of being dragged down by sin and discouragement and the black, bleak weariness that suffuses this life.

I’m not just eagerly waiting. I’m chomping at the bit.

That being said, though, the other half of my heart is glad that He hasn’t come back yet. There are still so many people who don’t believe. And I hope they will realize soon that time is running out . . . . although, you can be very sure that it won’t run out on October 21.