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August 22, 2015

Another Year Gone By

Today we celebrated Levi's second birthday.  I can't believe that almost two years ago (he actually turns two on Monday) we met Levi for the first time.  What a two years it has been.  In those two years, Levi has lived in two different states, Missouri and Texas, and three different apartments.  He has visited both Florida and Nebraska.  He spent 10 days with grandma and grandpa while mom and dad were in another hemisphere.  He has become fearless and daring in his gross motor skill challenges.  He has grown into an independent and sociable toddler (though the occasional snuggles from mom and dad are still appreciated). His expressions, idiosyncracies, and personality are really starting to develop.  He's grown so big that sometimes it's hard for dad to even recognize.  Oh, and he's become a big brother!  We're eagerly awaiting to see his little brother/sister in March!  So much has happened in the last two years, and even though Levi was not in the plans during seminary I couldn't imagine the last two years without him.  He has changed our lives so much for the better.  I love that little guy!

Thank you, Heavenly Father, for choosing us as Levi's parents.  Through him you have given us much joy and have given to us a reflection of the love you have for us.  We have learned great lessons in love, patience, humility, and sacrifice.  Thank you, dear Lord.  Amen.

August 9, 2015

Settling In

So, we've been back in St. Louis for nearly a month.  When we first arrived, we felt out of place, like we didn't belong.  As we made our way through campus during the first week or so we saw lots of strange faces.  Slowly familiarity started trickling back in as our friends began returning from vicarage.  Normalcy has crept back into our lives, finally starting to make this place feel like home.

I've already picked up two jobs and am waiting to sign another contract for campus work.  As of now I'm back in the campus store and in the cafeteria.  Those things have somewhat helped me settle back in.  I have already had one vicarage debrief meeting and have another coming up this week.  I also have a convention I am going to this week, free of cost thanks to a donor to the seminary.  Keeping active is what's keeping me sane until classes start and I step foot into my final year at the seminary.

I can't believe it's already here though... Less than a year and I'll be a pastor.  Guess it's time to get settled in and finish this thing out!

July 10, 2015

Almost Gone

Today is Friday, my last day off at Our Redeemer.  That is because my last office hours were yesterday.  Tomorrow, I will go in to finish packing up my office.  Right now I'm feeling a mixture of shock and sadness.  I really don't believe that by this time next week we'll already be settling in to our apartment in St. Louis, yet I know that it's true.

It hit me hard the other day when I had to correct myself from saying something that "we're" going to do was something that "you're" going to do.  I'm excited about some new possibilities that are coming to Our Redeemer, some new ministry avenues, and I am sad that I am going to miss them.  I have invested in this congregation, my time, effort, energy, and emotions, yet in two days this will no longer be my congregation anymore.

As harder as that makes it, I don't regret any of it.  Before I arrived, I promised myself that I would behave in such a way that I wasn't leaving, as if this wasn't a temporary assignment.  I did not want to close off myself from the people at Our Redeemer simply because I was going to be there a year.  Even in the last few weeks I have allowed myself to continue developing and deepening relationships with people here.

While this makes it hard to leave, there has been some relief.  For example, there are at least three families that will be coming to St. Louis while I am there, some using the 'excuse' of visiting family to justify coming and seeing is!  ;)  Some  already had plans to visit family and taking time out from their visit to see us.  It helps remind me that goodbyes are not always forever, even on this side of eternity.

I don't know what else to say.  This has truly been an amazing year.  I have been blessed so much by the Saints at Our Redeemer, and I will never forget this year.  They have definitely been a big part of my formation as a pastor/chaplain.  To God be the glory.  Amen.

June 29, 2015

Hitting Hard

While getting ready for work today I realized that two weeks from today we will be packing the last boxes in our place.  Two weeks from tomorrow we will be heading back to St. Louis.  While it will be great to see friends and family again, it does not override the deep sadness and heartache that I feel.

As I contemplated this fact this morning, I was reduced to tears.  To me, "home" is where my family is.  This past year Wichita Falls has become our home.  I have grown to love this city and it's people.  Over the past year Our Redeemer has become our "home" congregation.  I knew the risks of getting attached to people that I was going to be leaving in a year, but I threw caution to the wind and I don't regret it at all.  Even in these last few weeks I have gotten to know some of the people in this congregation in at a much deeper level that it is going to make it even harder to say goodbye.

No matter how painful it is going to be to leave, I do not regret making these people my family.  I do not regret making myself vulnerable to these great people at Our Redeemer because in doing so I have had an amazing experience this past year.  I have been filled with so much love and joy by their outpouring into my life.

It is going to be hard leaving them, but I also take comfort knowing that a goodbye in Christ is not a goodbye at all.  I know that they are and will always be my family.  That does not take away the grieving that will take place, but it does give me assurance for the future.

Dear Lord, as we prepare to leave this place which you have brought us, please be with us.  Comfort us as we continue to pack and clean.  Be with Our Redeemer and those who will miss us as well.  Give us all the comfort of your promise, knowing that we will one day see each other again.  Thank you, Lord.  Amen.

June 19, 2015

How did we get here?

Wow!  We blew past Kenya and conventions.  VBS is now over, and later today I head out to New Mexico with Pastor, two other adult leaders, and 13 Sr. and Jr. High youth.  Vicarage is quickly coming to an end.  After we return from New Mexico I will only have two more times preaching and once leading liturgy before we say goodbye.

So, how did we get here?  I can't help but feel like vicarage just started.  I can't help but feel like there is so much more to learn.  But in less than a month it's all over.  In less than a month we'll be back in St. Louis, bags unpacked, and waiting to start classes in September.

Again, 36 (credit) hours stand between me and my diploma.  36 hours stand between me and my graduation.  36 hours is all that is left between me being lost in this limbo of seminary, not a layman but not a pastor, and being fully called and ordained.

Time has flown.  So much has happened.  I'm not who I once was, but it all seems to have happened in a blink of the eye.  I don't know what the future holds, and as hard as it is going to be to say goodbye I am ready to start the next chapter in our lives.  I still have to ask though, how did we get here?

June 2, 2015

Reflections on Kenya from Timothy

Most of my life I had never felt any desire to go on a foreign mission trip.  On April 30th, 2013 that all changed.  That was the day that I found out that I was being placed at Our Redeemer Lutheran Church in Wichita Falls Texas.  That night I had my first conversation with Pastor Snyder, my vicarage supervisor to be.  It was during that conversation that Pastor Snyder told me that he wanted to send me on one of their biannual vision clinics to Kenya.  At first, I didn't know how to respond.

Call Day 2014, the same day I found out I was going to Kenya.  Just over a year before we left for Kenya.
Outwardly I responded with enthusiasm, but inside was a mixture of both excitement and fear.  If you knew me before my seminary years, you would know the great social anxiety I had.  Plop me down in a culture that is completely foreign and add a language barrier and it was a nightmare scenario in my head.  Mix that with my weak stomach for certain foods and decent gag reflex to some smells only increased my fear.  A few years ago the unknown beast of Kenya would have made my physically ill and paralyzed in fear.

Yet with two years of formation behind me, God had worked through a lot of my social anxiety.  In counseling for class and beyond, I worked through a lot of my insecurities with the help of Dr. Hartung.  Taking on leadership roles at work and in Student Association grew my confidence as I encountered and tackled new challenges.  Being constantly placed in different situations at school and in fieldwork helped me to feel more comfortable in new social settings.  During those two years God also chiseled away at my fear of the unknown.  Life at the seminary is one that is always in flux, one where you don't know where you will be a year from now much less when you graduate.  A new term with new classes and new professors every ten weeks didn't help with stability either.  I was getting used to like that always seemed to be in the dark.

All this helped lead to the crazy stirring in my heart when Pastor Snyder mentioned Kenya.  Despite everything I was still working through, I also had a crazy yearning to go and be among a foreign people and share with them God's Word.  God brought me through my social anxiety to the point where the physical side affects that used to prevent me from doing many things had given way.  After a deep breath to calm myself, I told to myself, "If someone is willing to send me to Kenya, then I am going to Kenya."

Bracelets worn by both the congregation and the team during the duration of our trip.  It reminded the congregation to pray for us, and reminded us that we were being prayed for. 
That was just over a year before my bags were packed and I was ready to go.  I arrived at work Thursday morning still not really believing that I was about to begin my long voyage to the other side of the world.  I had already said goodbye to Levi, giving him a big hug and a kiss but not really believing that I wasn't coming home for lunch latter that day.  Pastor and I just finished preparing the van and the footlockers when the rest of the team started arriving.  Before I knew it were were loaded and ready to go.

The Vision Team: Alison Beck, Cindy Carlton, Eddie Carlton, Vicar Roth, Marie Roth
Even on the drive to Dallas I couldn't believe that we were actually headed to Kenya.  It wasn't until we touched down in Nairobi roughly 24 hours later (though in Nairobi it was already late Friday night when we left Dallas early Thursday afternoon) that it hit me.  We were in Kenya.  In the airport we met up with Ray, our team leader, and Catherine, our contact person and support in Kenya.  We also met up with the other team that was running a vision clinic that week.  After the joys of getting through immigration and customs, we were finally on our way.

We spent the first two nights in Nairobi at the Little Daughters convent.  When we arrived Friday night, we placed the footlockers in storage and then went to bed.  That was my first experience ever sleeping under a mosquito net, though I saw fewer mosquito my whole time in Kenya that I do in a day in Texas with this rain.  Saturday morning we ate breakfast and headed out to Nairobi National Park to go on a safari.  It was a great day to go because all of the animals were out in force.  On our trip we saw rhinos, hippos, lions, giraffes, all kinds of antelopes, ostriches, all kinds of other birds, wild hogs, and even a baby crocodile.  After our safari we went to the Veranda to have a delicious lunch and do some shopping.  That is where we bought our first souvenirs: hand carved animals for Levi, a painting of giraffes created by a youth from a street ministry, and a soapstone box in the shape of Africa.  When we were done with lunch we went to the Nakumatt (Think Kenyan Walmart) to get supplies for the week, including lunches and candy for the children.

Little Daughters Convent in Karen, Kenya
and Nairobi National Park
The team and our driver at the Nairobi National Park.
Sunday we finally headed out to Nyahururu.  On the way we passed through the Great Rift Valley.  The view from the ridge is astonishing!  You can't help but feel extremely small as you gaze out upon God's wondrous creation.  The Great Rift Valley is vast and continues to grow by about 2cm every year.  It makes its way through Kenya where the tectonic plates below Africa slowly pull apart.  It also contains very fertile land due to the volcanic activity in the area.  As we were driving through the valley we saw trenches formed from dirt collapsing as the rock below moves apart.  It was a fascinating and beautiful place to drive through.
Sign posted at the look out point we stopped at.  The red dotted line is where the Great Rift Valley runs through Africa.
View of the Great Rift Valley from the look out point we stopped at.  In the left side you can see the road continue on with the street side stalls hanging over the edge.  The hill on the right side of the horizon is Mount Longonot, a dormant volcano lying just south of Lake Naivasha.  Look at the map below for reference.
The view from inside the valley is just as beautiful.  You are surrounded by mountains and dormant volcanoes.  As you drive down the street you pass troops of baboons and zeals of zebras.  Mostly the zebras were grazing, sometimes mixed with herds of cows and goats.  We were fortunate enough though to see a zeal of zebras running through the valley.  It was an amazing sight to see.

About and hour and a half into the drive, we stopped at the Lake Naivasha Resort to have lunch.  We had a little extra time so we were able to go on a boat ride on the lake.  While on the lake, we saw plenty of hippos both in and out of the water.  We saw several gigantic pelicans fishing for food.  We also rode over to the private island in the lake and saw giraffes, antelope, water buffalo and much more.  You could take a walking tour of the island because it had no predators, but it was very expensive.  We were content with gazing at the animals from the water.

Lake Naivasha Resort where we ate lunch.  Hell's Gate National Park is covered in ash from when Mount Longonot erupted in the early 1900's.
On the Lake.  From right to left: Catherine, Vicar Roth, Mike, Eddie.
Adult and baby giraffe on the island.
Mamma and baby hippo going back into the water.
We returned to the resort for lunch, and I had some of the most delicious honey glazed pork that I ever have.  It was also at the Lake Naivasha Resort that I was introduced to Pepper Sauce.  One of the locals that works for Lutheran Hour Ministries put a red sauce on his french fries instead of the ketchup that was sitting on the table.  I asked him what it was and decided to try it for myself.  After all, I LOVE spicy food.  However, I was not prepared for the power that this packed.  It was not the hottest pepper I have ever eaten, but it was up there.  The best part about it was the lack of "after-burn," where your mouth feels helplessly on fire after you have already enjoyed the taste of the food.  After we had finished lunch, we hit the road again with the next stop Nyahururu.

It only took two more hours to get to where we were staying in Nyahururu.  That makes it about three and a half hours from Nairobi.  It wasn't until we got to Nyahururu that we turned down our first dirt road.  As we departed from the paved path, we started winding around fields and fences.  We eventually started wondering just where we were going when we pulled up to an iron gate with ivy covered walls.  Catherine turned around from the front seat and said, "Do not ask me how I find these places."  We just laughed, but our laughter quickly turned into stunned silence as we passed through the gate into Catholic Tabor Hill.  Passing through the gate was like passing into another world as the rough dirt road became smooth gravel, and the clumpy fields turned into manicured lawns and gardens.  As it turns out, we were staying at a Catholic spiritual retreat center for the week.  Our team leader, Ray, said this was the nicest accommodations he had in all his 25 trips.  That night we had dinner and went to bed, eager to start our clinics the next day.
Catholic Tabor Hill is where we stayed every night, as well as ate breakfast and dinner.  Our first clinic was at the Baari Health Center where we served for three days.  Our second clinic was at the Ndaragwa Hospital where we served the remaining two days.
The registration building and chapel at Tabor Hill.
Our walk from the room to breakfast every morning.
Monday morning.  This was it.  It was finally here.  That morning we packed our bags, ate breakfast, and headed out.  Only Ray, Alison, and Mike had any idea what to expect.  For all of us newbies, we had no idea what was in store.  We piled into the van and headed down the dusty road to our first clinic at the Baari Health Center.  We knew we were right on top of the equator, but we were still excited when we realized that we would be passing it every day on our way to and from the clinic.  When we arrived that first day, I felt the same feelings of excitement and fear that I did a year before.  As we pulled up, there was already an extremely large group formed and waiting for our arrival.  Even our team leader, Ray, appeared to be quite nervous at the amount of people already there.  Especially since we had to still set up the clinic first.

Our team at the equator on the last day.
If you are unfamiliar with Vision for Kenya, I will explain how our clinics are set up and run.  When people arrive at the clinic they come to the registration table.  When they sign in they are given a card with their name, church information, and spots to put information about their vision, eyes, and prescription.  From the registration table they would go and sit in our waiting area.  From there they would go in a group from about eight to twelve people to "First Touch."  Here, a local pastor or evangelist would share with them the Gospel with the use of an Evangecube.  The Evangecube is a tool that takes you through the story of rebellion and sin, Christ's death and resurrection, salvation through Christ alone, and how we now live out our faith in Christ.

The Evangecube.  Tells the story of sin and salvation, and how Jesus has brought us from death to life everlasting.
After "First Touch," the people were sent to the eye charts.  Marie trained the local nurses on how to use the eye charts.  The nurses would test their vision and report it on their registration card.  Some people had really good vision and tested between 20/15 and 20/25, but there were many people who tested at 20/200 or even worse.  After they had their vision tested they would then go to wait in line for "Second Touch."  This is where we would sit down one on one (with or without an interpreter) and talk about the Gospel.  This is what the whole clinic is about.  Yes, we are there to give physical sight, but only as a means to also give spiritual sight.  We should start by asking them to read a coin, which coincidentally can help determine what issues they have with their eyes.  In essence, one side of the coin reads in Swahili, "Where will you go when you die?"  The other side is John 3:16.  Not only did it help us in determining issues with the eye, but it immediately lead to the discussion of the Gospel.
During Second Touch.  Here I am talking with a man who was part of the Jewish Synagogue across the street from the clinic.  It was a great experience as the synagogue consists of Messianic Jews, so they believe in Jesus but also believe that salvation is up to us.  My interpreter, a local pastor's wife, is watching and listening as this man knew English well.
While we were at a predominately Christian part of Kenya, there were still many people who believed that they had to earn their own salvation.  Talking to people one on one gave us the opportunity to ask them, "Why do you get to go to heaven?"  Many people answered that they would earn the right through their obedience to God and good works.  You could see the relief when you assured them that our confidence of salvation is in Christ alone.  The moment they realized that it is not what we do, but what He has done, is priceless.  Then, I would reminded them that we do good works because we are already saved and not the other way around.  When children came through, we would use beaded bracelets to tell them the story of creation, rebellion, redemption, and everlasting life.  It is truly life giving work to share the Word of God with people, for both the hearer AND the sharer.  I would love to go back and do this again!

After sharing with them God's Word we would ask them why they had come in to the clinic.  We would write down a few notes on their registration card and send them to the eye doctor.  Everyone was treated equally, regardless of their belief.  The doctors checked out their eyes and determined if they needed more medical interventions.  We sent a total of 31 people to go and have cataract surgery done.  We had a photographer with us throughout the week, and I was fortunate enough to be able to see a video he took of the people together after they came out of surgery.  They were all singing praises to God because they could finally see clearly once again!

After the doctor, people were sent to either the reading glasses station or the autorefractor, or even both.  If they only needed glasses to help them read, then the doctors would send them to that station and then they'd be on their way.  However, if they needed prescription glasses to see then they'd be sent to the autorefractor.  Our autorefractor is a handheld device that shoots a beam of light into the persons eye and reflects it back.  When the light returns to the machine it reads the shape of the lens and the eye and tells you their prescription.  This machine works very well in reading a prescription, so much so that when we were training I took home my own prescription and had new glasses made.  They were even better than my old prescription from a couple years ago.  The person running the autorefractor would then print out the prescription and attach it to the registration card and sent the person to the last station.
This is the autorefractor that we use to read the prescription for people's eyes.
The last station is where Marie spent most of her time.  This was the glasses building station.  The prescription would tell them what kind of lenses to use and at what angle to put them in to the frames to correct an astigmatism.  While people gained spiritual sight from Second Touch, this is where many would gain physical sight.  It was amazing to see people who had difficulties seeing put on the glasses.  The reactions were priceless.  The unfortunate thing is that the glasses aren't the most trendy, so it would be heartbreaking to see people come in and finally be able to see, only to put their glasses away and leave.  Marie decided the second day of clinic to put on a pair of these glasses so that the kids would be more willing to wear them.  She wore them faithfully throughout clinics and it really did seem to have an affect.

After three days at the Baari Health Clinic we moved to a place called Ndaragwa and set up there for two more days and did it all over again.  We would start sometime between 8:00 and 9:00 and typically finish sometime between 4:00 and 5:00.  In total, we talked to 2,494 people.  The most busy clinics usually average 1,000 people, so needless to say we were busy.  As exhausting as it all was, I would do it again.  It was a great experience and great to be with fellow brothers and sisters in Christ that I would never have the opportunity to meet otherwise.  It was great telling people that we will one day see each other again in heaven.  It was also great meeting peoples needs in this life and seeing what a difference it made.

It is amazing how something so simple, something that we take for granted, can change lives.  Vision for Kenya is powerful, not only because it shares the Gospel of Christ, but also because it does so in a way that people will remember the love of Christ in a permanent way.  There is one specific story that I want to share that comes from the eyeglasses table.  On our last day of clinics, we had a fifteen year old boy named Peter come into our clinic.  He could only see an inch or two directly in front of his eyes.  When he went to the autorefractor, our person could hardly believe the results, but he sent Peter on to have his glasses made.  The prescription required the most powerful lenses we had.  As our team built his glasses, Peter patiently waited on the bench, not really knowing what was going on around him because he could not see.  Once his glasses were built and cleaned he was called over to the table and one of our team placed his glasses on him.

I think the most striking thing about Peter was that he did not react in a way you would expect.  In fact, he did not react at all.  It was like it was too good to be true.  He didn't know how to respond.  I held out a paper about a foot and a half in front of him and asked, "Can you read what this says?"  He could.  Someone else asked, "Can you see the mountains in the distance?"  He could.  We celebrated for him and sent him on his way.  Alison, our unofficial team photographer, snapped a couple of pictures, and we sent him on his way.  That was that.  About an hour later though, one of the local Vision for Kenya people came in and told me and our team leader to come outside so we could take a picture with someone who came in and was overjoyed that he could now see.  It was Peter!  When he came over joy stretched across his face as he was soaking in the world around him for the first time through his eyes.  Reality set in and he was happy.  His mother also came over for a photo and was in tears because her son could now see.  I was so thankful that God could use us in such a way, and gave us the opportunity to see Peter once it finally struck him that he could see.
This is Peter wearing his glasses.
After our clinics we would head back to Tabor Hill and have a devotion and dinner.  This gave us a great opportunity to unwind and share in the goodness of God.  It also provided us the opportunity to be refreshed in God's Word and remind us why we were doing what we were doing.  That gave us the energy to keep on going.  If I ever had the opportunity, I would do it again.  I hope and pray that where ever I find myself in the future, I will have the opportunity to go and do God's work among the people of the world.

When our final day had come, we packed our things and started our way back to Nairobi.  With the clinic finally over, I was able to reflect on some things.  First, I found out that foreign missions are not as scary as I once thought they were.  Especially in Kenya.  The people there are usually so loving and compassionate.  They welcomed us with open arms, and we made many friends while in Kenya.  I also did not feel uncomfortable as I thought I would in a place that I was unfamiliar with and was so different than home.  In fact it wasn't until the end of the week that I realized that I NEVER felt out of place or like I didn't belong.  Neither did I experience any culture shock while I was there.

That being said, there were times that my heart was broken.  While we were in a pretty nice area, that does not mean that there was not any poverty.  One thing that I noticed was there was not much of a middle class.  Either you had a lot of money, or you had no money.  Most people had no money.  They were doing what they could to get by.  The place that this was the strongest was in the slums of Nairobi, where tin shack was squeezed in between tin shack.  Thousands of people living in such harsh poverty right in the middle of the city.  The slum is also massive, stretching as far as the eye can see.  We did not get to experience it first hand, but we drove by the slums on out way out to the airport.  The most heart breaking part was around the edge of the slums were nice, fancy, beautiful homes by US standards.  It is one of those things that is really hard to process, and I am still working on processing.  All during our trip and see things and think to myself, "How could we help?"  It doesn't take much, even just a pair of eye glasses.  I know we can't "solve poverty," but it has definitely started me to think about what those with abundance of wealth or knowledge can do to help those in need, and how I can be part of that.

Anyway, that is enough about my trip and the clinics for now.  This post took over two days to write and my mind is still recovering from jet lag.  If there are any other things, I will share them later.  If you have any question, feel free to ask and I will do my best to answer.  There will also be pictures to come later as well.  Until that time, Mungu Akubariki, God bless!

May 16, 2015

A Visit with a Friend

Today I went to see one of my friends that I hadn't seen in a long time.  It also happened to be the first time that I went to prision.  My friend, Craig, was incarcerated during my first year at the seminary.  It was great seeing him, but it was also quite a journey and experience.  

First, it took about seven to eight months for me to get approved from the first time I applied.  Second, once you're approved and you show up, the guards aren't very helpful.  I had no idea what to do, but the other visitors took me under their wing to help me out.  I was very thankful for that.

Being processed was pretty much like you'd expect.  I went through a medal detector (I wasn't allowed to bring ANYTHING in, other than some money for vending machines and my car keys) and had to fill out some paperwork.  Then, I was stamped with ink that could only be seen by black light.  After that, the group of visitors were ushered into a gateway with bars on either side.  Once we all showed our stamps to the guy in the guard station, the door opened and another guard led us to the visitor building.

The building was not how I expected it.  It was too long rows of chairs.  The best way to describe it would be to say it's like you are waiting in an air port for a plane.  Anyway, because it was minimum security it was very easy to forget you were in a prision.

It was great seeing Craig though.  It was good getting to talk to him.  Though the circumstances were not preferable, he was appreciative that this has happened.  It's amazing how it takes something major in your life for you to reevaluate things.

I myself have been there.  I know how it can be like to hit rock bottom.  When I've reflected, I have seen how mistakes I've made could have landed me in some really bad spots.  They were life changing moments for me.  I wouldn't be where I am today without them.

Craig has come to the same conclusions.  He knows he messed up.  He know he's made mistakes.  The difference is now he's labeled, and will forever have a stigma.  Even this, though, he has accepted.  He has accepted this all by the grace of God, and he knows that God is in control.

It's amazing to see someone's faith in God only be strengthened when they are faced with their own sinfulness and the mistakes they have made, and the consequences that come with it.  Please pray for Craig as he finishes out his sentence and tries to get back to normal life.  Thank you.