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Why Lent Matters to Me (+ a few resources)

Resources for Lent :: Sarah Bessey

I found myself wandering into the Anglican Church many years ago. I still have no idea why I did this. I was craving an encounter with the Spirit, but my grief had erected too great a wall between me and my tradition. I couldn’t seem to bring myself to go to the stadium-style church with light shows and happy-clappy choruses. I found myself craving a God who would meet me in lament and silence and darkness. When I spotted a tiny stone church downtown near my work shadowed with live oak tress, I felt drawn to it.

I randomly pulled in, and it happened to be an Ash Wednesday service. I sat in the back row to listen and I thought, I have no idea what is happening right now. It was confusing and weird to me but there in the liturgy of Ash Wednesday, as we prayed and read and worshipped through the admission of our sin, I released a breath I didn’t know I had been holding.

Finally. Finally someone was acknowledging the shadows, the grief, the repentance, the sometimes inescapable sorrow of our existence.

I found myself heading up the aisle with the congregation to have some guy in a robe draw a cross on my forehead out of ashes. Now I would say that I was compelled by the Spirit to receive the imposition of the ashes because when the priest touched my forehead and said the words, “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return,” it seemed as if the disconnected joint in my spirit between the solar and the lunar were popped back into its right place. We prayed through the Psalms, we listened to the challenges of the prophet Isaiah, we read the Gospels, we prayed and confessed our way corporately through a litany of repentance:

“Most holy and merciful Father: we confess to you and to one another and to the whole communion of saints in heaven and on earth, that we have sinned by our own fault in thought, word, and deed; by what we have done, and by what we have left undone.”

***

But make no mistake: I wasn’t longing for “more candles” or a cool new experience to chase.

I was craving Jesus. Desperately.

Not seven steps to a better life, not practical how-to stuff for the week ahead, not more sermons about “what women really want.” I certainly wasn’t longing for vestments and hierarchy, smells or bells: i was longing for Jesus. I wanted to be with people who loved him, too. I longed to remember him, to commune with him, to sit in his dust in the dark and in the light, and to learn, as Jesus offered in Matthew 11:28-30, how to live freely and lightly in the unforced rhythm of grace.

Jesus.

I simply wanted Jesus, and since I couldn’t seem to part the weeds of my own tradition to find his face (that, most assuredly, was because of my own baggage), I began to walk in the well-worn paths that the pilgrims before me had craved out. The Holy Spirit met me there, in a blend between my own past and the ancient heritage of my faith, helping me to find a way to the future, to my born-again-all-0ver-again self.

When I couldn’t find my way through the clutter of praise and worship, I found Jesus in the silence and in the liturgy. When I couldn’t go into a megachurch, I could sneak into a small chapel and light a candle. When I had no words to pray, the Book of Common Prayer gave me back the gift of prayer. When I couldn’t sing along with certainty, I could hold a hymn book and simply listen, let the voices of others carry me. When I was consumed with my own life, blinders on, the liturgy reoriented me to the real story – to redemption, justice, and confession and to worship and community. I learned to orient worship around Christ and the Spirit and the Father.

And just like the grief stained everything, the hope and the rebirth – my Jesus – brought that renewal and the new narrative of wholeness to my life.

(excerpted from my book “Out of Sorts: Making Peace with an Evolving Faith” pages 141 – 143)


 

If you’d like to observe Lent this year, I’ll point you to a few resources that I have appreciated over the years:

  • I’ve gotten to know the folks at Trinity Grace Church in Chelsea thanks to our mutual involvement in a gathering called Praxis (it’s for us happy-clappy charismatics who are also liturgical). A.J. Sherrill and his team have created a lovely and accessible Lenten devotional – for free download – so check it out here. It’s a great resource for any beginners to the practice as it will explain what Lent is and how it works as well as walk you through what to do.
  • A New Liturgy has a beautiful and powerful audio walk-through of the Examen with a musical score.
  • Phyllis Tickle’s full Divine Hours series has been my companion for praying the offices and observing the Church calendar for many years now. I cannot say enough good about it! But the full trilogy (Springtime, Autumn & Wintertime, Summertime) can be a bit overwhelming for beginners, so there’s also this pocket edition of the full set. However for Lent, I’d recommend this one that excerpts the prayers for Eastertide: Prayers for Lent through Easter from The Divine Hours. If you want a physical book in your hands, this is a great start.
  • This Lent, I’m planning on using the Anglican Prayer Beads that I bought at Westminster Abbey in London this past October. I’ve never practiced this discipline so this will be new to me and I’m using this resource.
  • And of course don’t feel that Lent is a solitary exercise. However you worship, I hope you can find a way to connect with the larger community of believers in some way during this season, too. Perhaps you could participate in any one of these practices as a small group of friends or as a faith community, too.

 

 

Continue Reading · faith, jesus, lent · 10

The Nightwatch

 

the nightwatch :: sarah bessey

Our last little baby doesn’t sleep. She is now nearly eleven months old and I am too old for this. She falls asleep easily, she is happy and content, she naps beautifully, she is ahead of the curve in her development in every way and she is apparently unable to sleep longer than two hours at a time. She simply wakes up constantly. And so I am awake every two hours at least, some nights it’s as often as every thirty minutes. For nearly a year of my life, I have not slept.

I have deployed every tool in my toolbox. After all, I am the mother of four: there are few things I haven’t tried and there are few dogmatic ideologies left intact. I have had everything from great sleepers to not-so-great sleepers. But this is a whole other category of sleeplessness, never before experienced by me. Since nothing has worked and she is happy and healthy – if alarmingly awake in the wee sma’s of the morning – there is nothing much left to do so we, well, we endure.

But that word doesn’t quite sum up what that time has become for me. I am trying to fix this, absolutely but I also have to accept that this is her right now and this is what it will be for however long it would be, so I have searched for grace here in this, too.

Because I cannot fix it. I am out of ideas. I have had to find a way to function in my life without much sleep. I feel okay most days: some days, I feel not-okay but even that is okay. I am not alone, I have support, we have found our ways to deal with this. It seems a small thing from the outside, even a rite of passage: “The baby won’t sleep” – we’ve all been there. And now it feels like this entire year has been one very long day broken up by naps.

I think that when we are faced with something we cannot fix or control – however small or however big – it can break us wide open and we discover who we were underneath the comfort trappings of answers or affluence or health or even sleep or whatever it is that we’ve lost. And then when the underneath of us is out in the fresh air, I think it’s an opportunity to heal it, to strengthen it, to make beautiful even the reckoning.

Some nights, I trudge through these rituals: the fuzzy “already?” waking up to her cry, the patting of her bum, the nursing in the rocking chair, the “will-she-go-back-to-sleep-or-won’t-she?” of pausing before rising to do either one, the tip-toeing out of a dark room, the gentle closing of a door only to hear her stir and rise and weep again while I softly bang my head against the door frame. I am no super mum by any stretch; there are plenty of nights when I am comatose and automatic, nights when I am frustrated.

But then here it is: hiding in plain sight, an altar. I’m standing sentry and holding vigil for her. It feels like I have become the answer because I have no answers and so I am free to simply show up both during the night for the baby and even as I am now during the day. It feels like a holy act to lift one crying and cold baby up out of her darkness and hold her to my body, to still the cries of at least one soul.

I cannot save the world, I know that by now. My idealism of my youth has become the pragmatism of my do-what-works stage of life. But I still believe that every small thing matters and that everything in our lives, everything we do can be a testimony to the goodness and freedom and welcome of our God. And so maybe I can’t save the world – it isn’t mine to save anyway – and maybe my life is smaller than the world tells me is acceptable, but this is my place, no one else has this spot. I’m powerless but I’m redeeming it: there are many nights I pray in these hours standing in the gap for every mother who isn’t safe and every child who isn’t being held.

Last night, I rocked Maggie back to sleep. I held her upright against me, her left ear pressed just below the hollow in my throat, the curve of her small head fitting just underneath my chin, her hands were tucked in, her legs wrapped around my soft stomach, and we rocked together. I rubbed her back with the palm of my right hand, my left arm wrapped underneath her little diapered bum, holding her close to me, I felt her breathing slow. And even in the difficulties, even in the exhaustion, even in knowing that I have to rise and shine for every one else in the house in just a few short hours and how my work has suffered, even knowing I can’t do this forever and knowing that I’ll finagle for a tandem nap while everyone is at school, even here in this moment, I admit it: I delight in her and in this rickety glider that creaks on the ease back motion. Look here: her hair is like dandelion fluff and it moves with my breath, isn’t she a miracle?

I am tired. I would be glad if she would sleep. If heaven is an actual place, I hope that it’s a dark quiet room with a big king bed and I hope no one bothers me for the first millennium while I sleep off motherhood.

And at the same time, I wouldn’t be anywhere else. I wouldn’t make her scream in her bed alone and I wouldn’t trade even the hard parts, the demanding parts, because this place of parenting as simultaneous power and powerlessness is my altar. It’s where I learned about prayer as breath and work and presence. This is where I learned the holy work of waiting in the darkness, that the Holy Spirit is bright and alive in this moment not some far off moment, that our God is a mother and a father who comes to us out of the darkness and the cold to lift us up over and over and over again until we finally surrender to rest.

Continue Reading · faith, parenting · 84

The Heron

the heron :: sarah bessey

I have been feeling creatively empty. It’s a combination of a few things that are real: the baby won’t sleep, I have four children and there aren’t enough hours in the day for everything to get done, I have obligations and duties and work and requirements demanding all of my attention and my time just like everyone else – trust me, I’m no special snowflake.

But it’s also the unreal, the unseen, the you-feel-it-but-can’t-say-it of times of creative quiet: I’m empty and I’m tired, I have nothing from which to pull the water out of the well, there isn’t a bucket or a scooper and even if I could find one, I suspicion that there isn’t much in the bottom of this old well right now. I hope it’s not death, I hope it’s gestation of winter sleep but whatever it is, I’m feeling the failure of it, the loneliness of it. I’m unable to write and this inability is both an indictment and a fear.

What if I never write again? What if this is it and my time of creativity is gone? What if I’ve lost my voice and my passion? What if I am being submerged and sucked under by a tidal wave of obligation and regular life? diapers and meals, breastfeeding and navigating preteen dramas, spreadsheets and budgets, phone calls and toilet scrubbing, and good gracious how are these laundry bins full again? how is that conducive with a life of the spirit and a baptized imagination and a hankering for goodness and the mind embodied in ways of, well, even art?

I have had to find a way to create, to be my whole self, in this space and in this time with the life I’ve chosen. Because I chose this. And I would choose it again. This is the life I love and I have to believe that there is enough abundance, enough room, for even this Canadian chubby mum of many to show up and try to articulate a bit of truth, that somehow my voice would matter not in spite of this season of my life but maybe even because of it.

So I tried to write an essay one morning, an essay about prayer. I love to pray, or at least, I think it’s prayer: it’s more like holding space for God in my mind and in my heart, an invitation and a clearing away, a shifting over in the booth and the “hello, this spot is for you, go ahead and sit down if you like” in my soul and always somehow the spot is taken and filled and we eat and we are together even without words often.

But the essay wouldn’t come and I started to think black thoughts about white male theologians with wives and housekeepers and grown-up children who only visit once a while and while I’m at it, I should probably start writing letters again and delete Facebook from my phone and what am I even doing with my life, trying to write about prayer from this place when I’m pretty sure there’s little kid pee on the toilet seat that still needs to be cleaned up?

But I kept trying and it kept being awful. Now that I’ve published two books and countless articles, I have some legitimacy to my scribbling hobby. People call me a writer and the big miracle is that the word doesn’t make me feel like an imposter anymore, I even say it out loud when people ask me what I do (“I’m a …writer….”) but it’s a hard kind of life to nail down. I think that’s what frustrated me: I made the time and the space and then it didn’t happen. I booked a babysitter to come here to my house for two days a week, six hours each of those days. She looks after my two littlest ones while the two big kids are at school and I’m supposed to “create” during that time.

I hear from big and good writers that they require regularity and discipline to write: I am the same way. I know when I write the best stuff (early in the morning) and I know what helps me to write my best stuff (time outside in the wilderness, a clean house, a plan for supper, quiet, solitude) and yet I am rarely in that sweet spot. When I do try to create the sweet spot, I sit here at the page and I think in great blank spaces of nothing happening.

I try to coin words that don’t exist and craft sentences to explain how it feels when I look at the curve of my daughter’s cheek while she nurses at my breast or how I learned to pray by doing laundry or how dignity is overrated and how the Holy Spirit feels like a bracing cold wind to me and how you only really learn that when you have nothing left or how I believe in a God who climbs down into the obscurity and calls us beloved but I keep coming up with nothing much. Or how it’s when you’re down to the essence of yourself that you realize even cynicism is for the well-rested and undesperate, and how God deals so gently with us, more gently than we can suspicion, and I feel like I could lay down on the floor and just rest in the love I feel so strongly while I’m here in this daily luminous life, and then I think I should just quit and tell everybody to go read Brennan Manning or Madeleine L’Engle because this is absolutely ridiculous.

So I went for a walk. The babysitter was here anyway, what the hell? I drove to one of my favourite walking paths, striding along the lake. It’s been cold but not too cold so there is a skin of ice on the surface, even a duck wouldn’t dare to test it. I stuffed my rough bare hands into my coat and tucked the grey hair at my temples behind my ears. I haven’t gotten my hair coloured lately and it shows, I haven’t slept and it shows, I’m tired and so I’m here to walk and hopefully find something akin to a deep breath. I won’t find it sitting in my basement staring at the computer screen, I know that by now.

I walked and here, look, God is still here because there are people and there is beauty if you know where to look. One of the reasons why I love this walking path is that it’s always boasted a fine collection of senior citizens. I have my favourite paths for solitude and wilderness out in the mountains nearby but sometimes a little city walking park is just the right thing. Plus I’ve gotten more wary in my old age, I prefer witnesses.

The sun was low in the sky already and the trees are asleep with winter cold. I breathed in and out, counting my breaths. I shifted over in the booth of my heart and thought, okay, here’s your spot, Jesus, wanna walk with me? There was only silence and loneliness there. So I stood at the edge of the little lake and watched the geese fly in, the clouds resting like a gauze scarf on the mountains rising darkly in the deep light.

I turned towards the reeds and there, standing still and staring right at me was a heron, a big blue heron. Slender and regal, its long legs were in the water among the reeds. I’ve always loved great blue herons, their blue grey wings are like twilight, their elegance among domesticity, their perseverance and cleverness. I remember hearing once long ago that herons were considered good luck: when the aboriginals would head out on a fishing expedition, the sighting of a heron meant they were headed into success because they embodied patience and wisdom.

I stood silently watching the great blue grey bird caught between mud and cold water and a darkening sky. They’re a regular sort of bird, ordinary and yet beautiful.

Just then an eagle caught my eye far above: there is a nest way up high above the pines at the other end of the lake and sometimes we can see it soaring. Eagles are pretty amazing to see in real life: they are stern and beautiful and awesome. Their white helmets, their golden beaks, their black feathers are striking. Their wing strength is economic and around me I can hear other people gasping as it dips lower to us. I watched the eagle glide higher and then disappear into a horizon I can’t imagine, living far above the rest of us. My gaze returned to the great blue heron still standing patiently in the reeds and I said, all right then.

I went back to my home, the babysitter went home, I loaded up my small ones to go pick up the big ones at school, we came home and I presided over recorder practice and we made tacos for supper, we read books and we watched Jeopardy! together. I nursed the baby in the old rocking chair, knowing full well I would be back there again in about three hours, I bathed small bodies and clipped fingernails, I checked reading folders and signed permission slips and packed lunches. My husband of fifteen years caught my eye from the corner of the couch and winked at me and I grinned. I poured a glass of ordinary red wine and I sat down at the computer again to try to find a few words to say how I find God in this daily place and in this work, how I only learned to pray when I began to pray with my hands and my attention on purpose and how most of prayer to me now is listening and abiding, how I believe it would be nice to have a lovely housekeeper and a clean house and to create amazing soaring art with all of the white space of an uncluttered life and glorious heights of transcendent spirituality, I guess, but I need the God who sits in the mud and in the cold wind, in the laundry pile and in the city park, who embodies grief and joy, wisdom and patience, loneliness as companionship, renewal with simplicity and a good deep breath, and who even now shows up in the unlikeliest and homeliest of lives too, as a sacrament of and blessing for the ordinary things.

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Continue Reading · faith, women, work, writing · 61

Being Brave Together

In the moments when we wonder why we bother, when we feel futile and small and ridiculous, when we feel misunderstood and mischaracterized, when we are paying a price, it’s in those moments that we learn the truth about being brave: it doesn’t always feel good.

If, as Aristotle supposedly posited, the only way to avoid criticism is to say nothing, do nothing, and be nothing, well, then that’s certainly an option. And sometimes a very alluring option. Be nothing, do nothing, say nothing, watch more television, buy more stuff.

Everyone likes to talk about being fearless, about owning your truth, about standing up and being counted. We sing songs in church about being brave, we blast music in the minivan and shake shake shake it off, we hang prints up in our homes about courage, we talk about brave people or follow them on social media until we somehow make ourselves believe that we ourselves are somehow brave.

I think we like to talk a lot about being brave because the actual doing of it is so freaking terrifying. And tiring. And ordinary.

It’s my belief that true fearlessness comes from living loved. When we find our worth and our value in Christ, then, as the Psalmist wrote, what can man do to us? I don’t think we can be a people-pleaser or an approval-addict AND be brave with our lives. Perhaps that’s why fearlessness or bravery starts with our identity first, it’s the deep well from which we draw living water, enough for today.

I believe that bravery is born in the quiet and ordinary moments long before it’s seen by anyone else. Sometimes it’s as simple and devastating as the moments no one else will ever see – the moments of daring to be honest with our own self, of laying down our excuses or justifications or disguises, of asking ourselves what we really want, of forgiveness, of honesty, of choosing the hard daily work of restoration, of staying resolutely alive when every one else is just numbing themselves against life. These are why our friends matter so deeply: they are witness to the sacred secrets. Not all secrets are terrifying things, some of them are beautiful and transformative.

But then come moments – those turning point moments, when you know it matters more than anyone else would know from the outside.

The “yes” you need to say,

the “no” you need to enforce,

the truth you need to speak,

the life you dare to imagine,

the risk you take,

the art you create,

the establishment you defy,

the danger you face,

the living out of what you profess.

Those moments are our turning points because when we look back on them, we say and then something changed.

That is true. Usually it’s us, we’re the ones who change. We take another tentative step out onto the water, a bit further away from the boat of our safety. And we do it alongside of each other, hand in hand, never alone.

I have learned the hard way that we usually can’t be brave on our own.

The ways we connect with each other might be quite typical – Sunday morning services or school pick-ups or bible studies at church or school or work or afternoon walks. Or more typical to our generation – Facebook, Twitter, blogs, podcasts, texting. Either way, we don’t feel quite so alone in our moments of choosing brave.

We feel seen, we feel heard, we feel prayer at our back and a sisterhood waiting up ahead of us on the path.

Together makes us braver.

I am surrounded by interesting and dangerous women. Sometimes this is wonderful, other times it’s exhausting, it is always challenging. Because they push me. They push me to think harder, to be more honest, to read more widely, to listen more broadly, to get my hands dirty, to stop compartmentalizing my life, to live more seamlessly. They make me examine my choices and my priorities. They question me, they pray for me. When I grow weary, they hold my arms up and growl “don’t you dare sit down.” These women have stretched my opinions, my theology, my mind, and my heart until I hardly know my own shape anymore.

The funny thing is that they do this just by getting on with it – no sermons, no programs, no big manifestos, just a company of women being brave in ordinary ways, each so different from the other.

They are being brave with their own lives and so, because I am alongside of them, I am learning to be brave, too.

Their lives are a cadence I want to carry:

others first,

pay attention,

open heart,

work well,

rest radically,

open doors,

live prophetically,

make room in your life to be inconvenienced,

challenge,

love well – 

be brave together.

I stumble so often, I get cranky and melodramatic and self-important.

March, they say.

Pick up your one small stone, they say, we’ve got a mountain to move.

It’s a risk. Don’t let anyone tell you differently. There is a price to pay, a cost to be counted. Reorienting your life around what you believe about God and what it means to be truly human and believing every small life or act of justice matters comes with a cost.

We are counting that cost. And it’s worth it. Every time. Even when we’re wrong, even when we screw up, even when we sink beneath the waves and find ourselves scrambling back to the boat, licking our wounds, being brave together is worth it.

It means we get to try again. Together.

brave together :: sarah bessey

edited from the archives

Continue Reading · faith, fearless, friends · 27

Someday

Someday :: Sarah Bessey

Someday I know I’ll be that lady in the grocery store, you know the one, the one who stops young mothers or fathers with toddlers in the little front seat cart seat with kids hanging off the end of the cart and the side of the cart with a baby strapped to their chests, the cart filled with bags of apples and two 4L of milk and three dozen eggs and cereal. I’ll stop these young people and I’ll say that their children are beautiful and then I’ll say things like enjoy it, it goes so fast.

Because it does. I know that even now. I know that because this nine-year-old who has grown almost as tall as me was so recently laying in my lap – wasn’t that just yesterday? – while I kissed the corners of her dimpled baby elbows and cried with disbelief at how much I loved her. I know that because I slept with a small baby boy up against my body for what felt like forever and now he’s almost the length of a twin bed with a sign posted on his door to “PLEASE KNOCK THERE IS A STAR WARS BOY IN HERE BEWARE.” I know that because I have a four-and-a-half-year-old who can’t stop won’t stop talking and dancing and running through life and yet in my head she is still the curly-haired baby of the family. And now the new little baby I gave birth to a second ago is crawling and walking around while hanging onto the furniture and babbling her first words on the brink of being a year old and wow blink blink blink they’re all such people.

It goes so fast. It’s true. And it goes slowly, too.

Those future-mothers-and-fathers will probably do what I do when I meet those ladies at the park and the grocery store and the bank, they will nod and smile through their exhaustion and say, yes, I know out of kindness and respect while something inside them is thinking but, lady, it’s also so tiring and kind of hard sometimes. 

I already feel a little far away from the things that once took over my whole life, I remember it as if it were a life I lived once upon a time but I’ve lost touch with that person – remember when I was pregnant with our third and I had two little babies under four and I wrote that first book? I say sometimes. That was nuts.

We had our first three tinies in four years and then four years after that we added one more baby to the mix right at the time when my writing began to reach more people and my husband’s career also became more demanding and we have never been so happy and so tired and so everything all at once. We both work and we keep this house and we are raising children to hopefully love God and to love people, and we all try to do a bit of good in the world right now, too.

Some nights, I get into bed and I think I have never been more tired and I will never be this tired ever again. I say things to my husband like I wish I could go back in time to smack my own self for every time I ever said that I was tired or busy before this time. He’s usually asleep already.

Other nights, I get into bed and say this is the best and I love every second of it and our tinies are amazing and gracious, I’m just so thankful. He’s usually asleep already.

Because this season of life is wonderful and it’s hard, too.

It is. I hope I remember that but I probably won’t so I thought I’d write it down for that someday.

This season of life with work and tinies and community is full and precious and wonderful and magical, absolutely. It’s exhausting and self-denying and relentless, too.

It’s so much laundry and big grocery bills and grimy handprints on the walls and wondering how in the world you’re going to pay for braces. It’s laughing until your face aches and feeling genuinely happy that your kids get the joke. It’s kissing every single birthmark on their skin and tickling their backs until they fade into sleep and then it’s also going to hide in the washroom because you just want two seconds without someone touching you. It’s running your hands through their hair at bedtime prayers and it’s also yelling at them all that everyone needs to stop yelling all the time. It’s loving what you do and yet feeling like you don’t have time to do it as well as you would like. It’s feeling powerful and alive and purposeful while also feeling like you can’t believe you have to sweep these floors AGAIN.

These are the days we’ll miss and these are the days that also feel like they won’t ever end. It can be both at the same time, I know that now. We get to hold the wonder and sleepiness, the boring and the magical at the same time, the work and the delight, the mundane repetition and the ferocious love altogether, it’s not one or the other.

I have never been so tired in my life. (There. Out loud. I said it.) I have also never been so happy or fulfilled. I have never juggled so much responsibility and learned so deeply what it means to be selfless. Such things are transformative if we allow them to be.

The Right Now is so beautiful, it makes me dizzy with gratitude and it also makes me want a nap.

So I hope someday that I will remember this complexity, too, when I get soppy over a cartful of someone else’s babies in the grocery store. I hope I’ll remember that when I say to that young mother that it goes so fast, that it’s true and also not true, it’s glorious and it’s difficult. And then I’ll tell her that I think she’s doing a great job, she’ll really see that someday.

 

Continue Reading · faith · 27