Invocation for Whitchurch-Stouffville Prayer Breakfast

On May 15 I was honoured to pray the opening prayer, “Giving Thanks” for the Whitchurch-Stouffville Prayer Breakfast. Here is the text:

Blessed are you Creator and Redeemer of all

You have promised to accompany your people
As we gather to pray, to worship, 
To greet one another in Christian love and fellowship
To share in good food
And to learn more about Your Love
For those we have imprisoned.
 
We acknowledge and remember 
That our feet are on traditional Ojibway land 
And remember the disproportionate number of our Indigenous people
who are serving sentences in our prisons.
 
We ask your forgiveness
For those times we have imprisoned
Our neighbours and those far from us
With our greed, prejudice, lack of concern for the earth
And our craving for safety, isolation and security
Which all rest in our lack of trust in You.
Every time we have neglected the least of us,
Whom You love the most,
We add another link to their chains.
 
Forgive us, Mother and Father of us all,
In your love and compassion
As You unlock the gates of our hearts
Fill us with Your passion
To speak and hear words of prophecy
To resist violence
To share all that we have
To love the unlovable
To live in solidarity with all who struggle
To add our voices to those of the oppressed
And to be agents of your transforming love
In the lives of people and the governing systems of this world.
 
We bring before You this morning
The concerns of those who weigh heavy on our hearts
Of those who are sick, grieving and living in despair.
We entrust them to your care
And open our hands and hearts
To bear your healing grace
 
As followers of Your way
We have promised to bear your light in our community
To be the voice of the poor, oppressed, vulnerable and struggling
And to bring good news to the discouraged.
Grant us courage and wisdom to take the risk of faith
Entering into the dark and unknown places
Trusting in your Gospel.
 
As we feast this morning
We pray for those who do not have food
And children who are going to school without breaking their fast.
Every time we break bread together,
Remind us of those who work many times as hard
To put bread on their own tables.
We bless and thank You
Vine and Vinekeeper,
For the bounty of your Earth.
And for the food which we enjoy.
We thank you for the work of farmers and factory workers
Whose toil produced the fruit on our plates. 
For the animals who lived to nurture our bodies
For the cooks, servers and cleaners
Who have prepared this meal and this place
Make us ever grateful and humble.
 
We bless and thank You
Great dance of the Trinity
For the fellowship we enjoy here
The opportunity to build bridges across faiths
To celebrate differences
And the growing diversity of our community.
Your beauty is known 
In the listening, speaking, wrestling 
Laughter, comraderie and sisterhood
Around these tables.
Stretch us in our understanding
That we might share a greater piece
In the Body of Christ.
 
As we celebrate our shared desire
For peace and redemption
We ask your loving-kindness on all of us
On Stacey as she prepares to share her words
On all who have organized this event
And the staff of Station Creek
Who have shared their hospitality.
 
In the name of God, 
Source of All Being
Eternal Word and
Holy Spirit.
 
Amen.
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9 signs you’re not ready to hire a youth minister

not readyI believe in youth ministry. In the same way we are called to minister to senior citizens as they make the transitions of old age and help those living in poverty find ways to live with dignity and help young families with the challenges of modern parenthood, the Church has an opportunity to serve young people as communities of elders, parents, singles and professionals who can usher young people through the transitions in their lives.

For many churches, the pivotal accomplishment of youth ministry is hiring a youth minister: An individual with the skills, faith, experience and, most importantly, “gifts with young people”. Unfortunately, for many, hiring the youth minister becomes the end, not the beginning of an exciting ministry.

I work with and support many fantastic youth ministers serving God faithfully and, through a lot of hard work and prayerful support from their parishes, are doing some great, creative ministry with young people. I have also sat with too many others who have felt caught in a “bait and switch”. They were excited to accept an opportunity to serve in youth ministry, expecting a community that would support them, only to find that they were expected to create a youth ministry from scratch with no financial, prayer or volunteer support. Not only that, but after a year when they have done some important foundation building but there is no increase in the “bums and pews”, the rumours are now starting that, in next year’s budget, their position will be cut.

You can expect a follow up post about when to know you are ready to hire a youth minister but, more urgently, many churches need to consider the possibility they are not ready. The good news is that none of these are final. These are not signs that you will never be ready to hire a youth minister, but things to start working on within your community before you start writing up that job description.

1. There is no long-term congregational development plan or, worse, hiring a youth minister is your long term plan

If you get nothing else out of this post, read this: youth ministry does not happen on its own. A common solution is, “if we just get more young people, then we will grow.” Any sentence that starts with “If we just…” is oversimplifying and simply isn’t going to work.

Youth ministry is too vulnerable and unpredictable in its early stages to pin an entire community’s hopes on. The pressure of being your only congregational development strategy will stifle any possibilities out of fear that it will not work. A healthy youth ministry exists as part of a longer plan which includes faith development of the whole congregation, stewardship and reaching out to the wider community.

2. The lead cleric has said, “I am not gifted with young people”.

Speaking as a priest, I know I am not fully competent in many areas of running a church. None of us are. Hiring a youth minister does not replace the vocation of every cleric to care for every member of the congregation, “…old and young, rich and poor.” A good youth minister can support leaders in building relationships with young people, as long as they are willing to learn and grow. In the meantime, seek opportunities to learn more about relating to young people. I don’t mean learn how to use the latest technology; I mean learning how to listen to and support them through their transitions and challenges of adolescence.

3. You have calculated the salary based on minimum wage

You may not be hiring an ordained person, but you are hiring a minister; a professional with training, experience and qualifications. Whether or not you have a payscale system, there are many guidelines you can use. Consult with other churches in your area. Start with the average income in your parish, then consider the education level and experience you expect. And do not forget to budget enough in the long term for raises in cost-of living and merit based on increased experience.

4. You have enough funding for salary (more than minimum wage, even) but not program

We can talk about relationships being the foundation of youth ministry all day. I can also talk about the dangers of relying too much on program (in short, without relationships they do not nurture lifelong faith in Christ) but every youth ministry needs a program budget. Mark DeVries of Youth Ministry Architects suggests, between salary and programming, you should budget $1,000 per student. The lower the income of the families in your parish, you want to invest more per student to cover the costs of outings, retreats and supplies.

Another part of programming is continuing education for your youth minister. Make sure time and money is available for her/him to attend conferences, network with other youth ministers and keep up with the latest research.

5. Parishioners and lay leadership express no interest in getting to know your young people

Let’s be honest. Teenagers can be intimidating. They insist on dressing in their own style, they stick their heads into devices we don’t understand and, according to what we see on TV, know way more about sex and drugs than we ever will (this is not true, by the way, but it feels that way). Wouldn’t it be easier to hire someone who already understands all this to deal with them?

Well, maybe easier, but not effective. The Christian faith has survived for over 2,000 years because it is lived out in community. Jesus was always drawing his disciples into relationship with those who made them uncomfortable. As isolated as they sometimes appear, teenagers need community. They need mentors. They need nurturers. They need to be invited to help with dinners and taught how to use the 40 year old coffee urns. They need to know they are loved.

Do you have a prayer team? Ask them to start praying for your young people daily. Try a secret grandparent where older volunteers are paired up with a teenager to pray for them and write them letters. If you start to build relationships across generations, you may even find you don’t need a youth minister at all!

6. You do not take Screening in Faith or your safe church programs seriously

I am getting dangerously close to blaming and shaming churches who are trying to find ways to get around these requirements. I would go so far as not recommending such a church to a family looking for a church to call home.

Every time you try to cut a corner with insurance or screening, you are putting everyone at risk–your youth, your volunteers, your staff and your new youth minister. Youth ministers are not contractors. They are staff. Youth ministry is a community responsibility. Do not look for ways to not have to deal with your insurance broker or police background checks. Don’t think of it as going through the motions. Imagine your church as a place committed to keeping people safe. And don’t make your youth minister solely responsible for the safety of your most vulnerable people. Make it a community responsibility.

7. You expect young people to fit seamlessly into your way of doing things

I remember serving on a parish council as a young person. When I would ask a question or make a suggestion, I was often told, “We already dealt with that months/years ago.” It was suggested I refer to the minutes from years before I was even capable of sitting on a parish council. The other line I heard a lot was, “Are YOU going to do it?” In other words, we’ll let you screw it up so we don’t need to take any responsibility for it’s failure. It seemed no one thought I had anything new to add to that conversation, or maybe what I am suggesting could be worth the risk.

Youth are not the church of tomorrow, they are part of your church…today. The Holy Spirit is speaking through them. Rather than building a church where our older folks are comfortable to hand down to our young people, Christian community means everyone has a voice and an opportunity to serve God with the gifts we have at this moment.

Don’t hire a youth minister if you are not interested in hearing what young people want to create with you in your church.

8. You think your worship is just fine and doesn’t need to change

By hiring a youth minister I can only assume you want to open up your worship to a whole new demographic. You don’t need to immediately invest in guitars, drums and screens. But have you considered what it is like to come to your service for the first time for someone who has never been to church? How easily can a young person understand why you worship God the way you do? You may be surprised to find young people have few complaints about your service except that they are not really a part of it. Can they hear their language and concerns at all in the liturgy? Do you expect them to come just because it is Sunday morning? If so, hold off on hiring a youth minister until you have listened to your young people’s perceptions of your worship service and your leadership is ready to take them seriously.

9. You have not consulted with wider church youth ministry structures

Most churches that are part of a denomination will have some staff or wider network of youth ministry. There is a wealth of resources for your parish at this level. I can’t count how many times I have heard regional youth ministry staff say, “If only they had called me sooner, I could have helped them avoid this.” With only a few exceptions, I’d be willing to bet your denominational authorities who take calls about money and buildings all day would be happy to share some ideas about how to build a ministry with young people.

Don’t be discouraged

If you have reached this point and are beginning to think you have to go back to the drawing board, don’t be discouraged. Just like a new building, a youth ministry needs a solid foundation. Dealing with these issues before you start on that job description will give your youth ministry a much better chance to grow.

Finally, consult, consult, consult.

Talk to your neighbouring churches. Talk to your denominational structure. Most importantly, talk to your young people! And if you are ready for the possibility that they already have all of this figured out, they are just waiting to be asked, then you are even closer to being ready to hire a youth minister.

 

All this hopey changey stuff: How did Conversation 2014 work?

It has been a blast over the past 6 months or so being part of the planning team of Conversation 2014: Clergy under 40 talk to God and each other. Being the first of it’s kind in the Anglican Church of Canada, and including many of our most recent ordinands, it was clear this was going to look different from our typical clergy conferences.

And that’s what I was excited about. Ask anyone and they will tell you I have never been to a conference I didn’t like. I am, though, starting to get a little bored with the processes-flipcharts, post-its, knee groups, speakers all starting to look and sound the same, knowing that someone somewhere was expecting something out of me but not always knowing what it was.

In 2011 I attended my first unconference, UNCO, at Stony Point Retreat Centre in NY. We used a model called open space (you can read more about it here) which meant I was given no agenda before I arrived, no list of workshop topics, no biographies of speakers with professional photos; just church leaders meeting in a space to have some conversations. I also attended in 2013 and then started using open space technology in some settings here in Canada.

Conversations 2014 came along and it seemed we all wanted the same thing, “We’re going to be working together for a long time (God willing!)–so let’s get to know each other”. Simply providing a schedule of conversations and leaving the content up to the group is what we came up with.

Even though I am a huge fan of this model, it always comes with anxiety. What do we report back? How do we make sure we cover everything? If I was asked how we made the decision to this route, I would say, “We decided to trust…no, not trust the process! We decided to trust one another.”

So, how did it work? It began with The Wall, both virtual and physical. A few weeks before the conference we used our facebook group and the event page to start sharing possible discussion topics. It ranged from social media in the parish to clergy families to land and buildings to the relevance of mid-week masses. All these topics were added to a physical wall–butcher paper on the wall of Fulford Hall. As we arrived we added to the wall.

The Wall
This is the core of our conversations, The Wall or, in open space terminology, the bulletin board. Did we miss anything?

On Tuesday afternoon, we started to fill in the schedule. Out of everything on the wall, we scheduled several conversations. Unlike a typical distilling process where you look for themes and try to include everything in broad conversations, we honoured each topic’s right to have it’s own conversation and were limited only by meeting space, and thanks to the generousity of the Diocese of Montreal, even that was almost limitless. Some topics were easily shared with others, but many stood alone. Some conversations had over 20 participants, some only 3 or 4. “36 people worked out an entire conference agenda in an hour and a quarter?” Well, with a frame, but yes, yes we did!

The sked 1.0
There was a cleaner version of this. On our last day, we reviewed the schedule and added conversations that needed follow-up.

Most of the content of Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday consisted of these small groups with a few plenary check-ins to explore emerging themes. By Thursday, the last conference day, some ideas for further work started to emerge. Some were conversations that may continue in our own dioceses, among other young clergy, or in our parishes. Some were actual projects that a few will work on together.

For example, I participated in many conversations, not just during the scheduled small groups but at meal times and in the evenings, about clergy and mental health. I talk a really good game about mental health and boundaries, but I also cave to pressure from a wider church that says, “You have more than anyone before you, so stop complaining”. But what if it is still inadequate to deal with the stress this vocation has on our mental health? What about the stigma that keeps clergy from talking about our own mental illness within our college for fear of repurcussion? Why do we continue to increase benefits for eyecare, prescriptions and dental care but our psychotherapy benefit remains at $300 a year in a profession where it is recommended we be in a regular therapeutic relationship, no matter how mentally healthy we are? I want to have this conversation with the wider church. This would never have emerged for me without the freedom of uncovering content with this incredible group of people.

There is much more to come out of this conference. I’ll reblog what I can, and, eventually, these posts from participants will appear in one place. Stay tuned. In the meantime, if want to have a conversation, here’s a wall to get it started

Don’t decline your vote. Just…don’t.

ImageWhat an insult to those who travel hundreds of miles and face violence to vote when their only choice is who is the least corrupt. What an abuse of privilege.

Get out and vote. Read the platforms. No party will give you exactly what you want, but if you don’t vote then the whole agenda is only directed by those on the extremes. 

Don’t baulk at the possibility of returning to the polling station in a few months time. It’s how a divided province works out its differences.

So vote.

How about looking at the platforms of the lesser known parties? Give them a boost, at least to give them a pat on the back to say, “Good for you for not just sitting back and waiting for the big 3 to come up with a platform that suits you.”

In fact, take a note from those lesser known parties. If the current parties are truly not presenting the best platform to help the people of Ontario, then get involved. Either join a party and become a voting member where you can affect change from within, or boost a smaller party, or join with others and start your own political group.

Or, how about asking someone who can’t vote, a landed immigrant for example, or a politically engaged teenager, who they would vote for and give them your vote.

So that’s your choice, as far as I am concerned. Vote or run for office. There is no decline.

From A Pilgrim in Narnia: Truth Claims ≠ Violence

The past several months have been…distracting…and so my work on non-violence in the church has been stalled. I am looking forward to posting soon, but, in the meantime, here is a post by my cuz, Brenton Dickieson, on absolute truth and violence, although this post would object to that particular phrasing, I expect.

I take this one step further and add this: it is an absolute truth that we are all capable of violence, and if we do not resist the violence in ourselves, then we will seek a way to commit it, and truth claims can become a justification, but are not the cause of violence. We are.

A Pilgrim in Narnia

Truth be told, I am a false positive extrovert. At least at parties. Even when I know the people and place pretty well, I have great anxiety at breaking into conversation circles. But this was a faculty event, a room full of smart people with interesting stories. I took up courage in both hand and slid into a group.

I was immediately pointed out as the “religion” guy. Someone was working on a public health project, and was missing the religion element. I thought it was pretty bright of her to target faith perspective as a step in the process. As we were talking about how people live as religious people in the world today, another one of the profs piped in:

“There’s really no such thing as truth,” she said.

“That there is a truth claim,” I responded. She took the beat that I didn’t miss and thought about…

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In Sympathy: or why the bear and the fox are mistaken

As a priest and pastor, having worked in clinical and institutional settings as well as parishes, I was taught the “skills of empathy”; connection, vulnerability, silence, accompanying, not always providing answers. I am also a victim of my empathy, receiving so many emotional signals from those around me and internalizing them so quickly that I can easily leave situations overwhelmed, sad, frustrated or confused. I have to work hard to manage these feelings in order to come out of some encounters in tact. When I do, it is a sacred, powerful connection. When I don’t, it’s a holy mess!

In the past few years, I have read many pieces on empathy, and especially how it differs from sympathy. Empathy has become the only true, appropriate response to another’s tragedy. Sympathy has become the catch all word for all the awful things people say. It has become synonymous with trite and detached. There are helpful ways and even more unhelpful ways to support people in pain. Empathy is often used to describe the helpful ways and sympathy the unhelpful ways. These labels are inaccurate and unfortunate.

A small video has been going around featuring a bear, a fox and an antelope. The fox is in despair and ends up symbolically in the bottom of a hole. The bear resists the temptation to fix the situation, or force the fox out of the hole and stays there, taking on the same grey cloud that is above the fox’s head.

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The antelope pokes through the hole, asking, “Would you like a sandwich?” The message is the bear is showing empathy, which encourages connection, and the antelope is showing sympathy, which creates disconnection.
Except the the antelope is actually being more helpful than we think.
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The root of both empathy and sympathy is pathos or feeling. They are different. Sympathy is translated “with feeling” and empathy, “in feeling”. Sympathy depicts two separate beings experiencing something similar and feeling a sense of union in that feeling. We often talk about sharing political or religious sympathies with someone or a group. It is also our primary response to a disaster which is outside of our experience like a typhoon or horrendous death of a young person. I can not go to the seaside of the Phillipines and experience the immense loss of home, livelihood, family and friends after Typhoon Hayan, but I can sympathize, reaching into my own minimal understanding of loss and do what I can to support them.
Empathy is a sharing of feelings. For some, it is an actual experience of feeling the feelings of another. More often, it is an act of imagination, allowing yourself to imagine losing who or what is most dear to you, not just for a second, but staying in that pain and grief so that your friend is not alone in his pain and grief.
The thing about empathy is, it is crippling. It means taking on pain that is not your own, on top of your own pain. It is a huge sacrifice and powerful. But it is not sustainable.
I grew up in a rural community. Our small town had 1,000 people. My stepfather attended most wakes that occurred in the 100 yr old family funeral home. He, like most people in our community, went to every wake, one every 1-2 weeks. If he went to every wake and empathized with every mourner he had gone to visit, he would have come home a whimpering mess. That is a lot of grief. What brought him to the funeral home, and what our neighbours appreciated, was his sympathy, that he took the time to go,  share some memories, and make a small donation to their charity of choice. And then there are all the people who made food and dropped it off at homes of mourners. It is almost an apology for not being able to empathize, “I can not possibly enter into your pain, but I can make a casserole that you can put in your freezer so that, when you feel ready to eat something, it will be there.” That’s sympathy; an acceptance of one person’s pain into a whole community.
Back to the bear, the fox and the antelope. The antelope does say and do some really unhelpful things. Her responses like, “At least you know you can have more children” are not sympathetic, they are insensitive and detached. They are the words of a person who does not recognize another’s pain, but is desperate to dismiss negativity, be the hero and problem solver. Her responses are more about her own ego than about the poor fox. At the same time, when the fox is ready to crawl out of that hole, the antelope will be there to help her over the edge, and there will even be sandwiches waiting.
Empathy is a brutally profound experience. It is also rare, and so the word needs to be reserved for those experiences and actions that are truly a walking in another’s shoes. Empathy requires a keen balance between your feelings and theirs, knowing which is which. It tears you up, it comes home with you, lingers in your dreams and distracts you from daily tasks. A regular practice of empathy requires careful self-examination, often with professional support.
ImageSympathy says,”I feel awful about what you are going through, and I can’t stop thinking about you.”
Sympathy says, “I can’t sit with you, but I can make sandwiches.”
Sympathy knows there is time and a place to be with people in pain, and that not every one needs to be in the room.
Sympathy recognizes that sometimes people need to be left alone.
Sympathy is humble, knowing that one can not possibly empathize with every situation.
Sympathy says, “Even if I don’t know your pain, I know you need support, and I will be here when you are ready to tell me what you need.”
When we express our sympathy, we aren’t saying, “Your pain is insignificant.” I mean, really, who of us actually thinks that? When we express sympathy we are saying, “This is not much, but it is what I can offer, and it is yours if you need it.” It is what motivates a group of people to raise money for clean water for a community of people they have never met. It is what lets a boss say, “take a few more days” to a grieving employee.
Sympathy is what most of us practice; it is kindness and generousity, and it is a good and holy thing.

The Rules We Live By; Hero stories

One beautiful June day I sat under a tree in upstate New York with Hugh Hollowell, pastor and director of Love Wins Ministries. I could tell you how Hugh very quickly hit my list of my favourite people almost 3 years ago, but that would only make him blush.

When I started having conversations about non-violence and the church, people said, “You have to talk to Hugh. He’s a Mennonite.” I thought that was kind of like saying, “Oh, you want to learn how to snowshoe? You should talk to Dawn. She’s a Canadian.” Hugh’s response to my invitation was, “I would LUUV to talk to you about non-violence. But I need coffee.”

Hugh became a Mennonite later in life and so has a beautiful perspective on living as a pacifist as well as struggling with the default to violence we all have. For example, imagine you were awakened by a noise in your house, and it becomes immediately obvious someone has broken in. The hero mentality of our society would say grab the baseball bat you keep by the side of your bed (don’t we all?) or, especially in the United States, grab the handgun in your night stand, go down the stairs and, threaten the intruders in hopes they will leave. Of course, there is no guarantee an intruder will submit to your threat and leave quietly. Another solution is to call the police and wait for them to respond, assuming they arrive in time to prevent any injury.

The Mennonites Hugh has come to know that were born Mennonite don’t think that way, because, from the time they were raised, violence was not an option or, if it was, it is far down the list. The first response might be to leave the baseball bat with the sports equipment where it belongs, go down the stairs, quietly make your presence known and ask, “Hey, why are you taking my stuff?” or, if one sees “stuff” as not belonging to anyone, “Do you need some of this stuff?” If Hugh’s friends were to write a list of possible responses, the baseball bat wouldn’t appear on the list or, if it did, it would be far down.

The problem is in the stories we choose to tell. We tell the stories of the hero on the subway who, upon seeing a young man rip a woman’s purse off her arm, takes him down in the aisle. We don’t tell the story of the woman who, when approached by the young man says, “Listen. There are things in this bag that are very important to me. Some things I need like my calendar and my credit cards, but also pictures of my children, and the prescription I just got from my doctor that I need filled. But I’m sure you need money for something important to you, so why don’t I give you $30 from my wallet and we’ll both go our separate ways?”

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Vigilantism is on the rise in the United States, particularly in economically poorer cities like Detroit. One article quotes a citizen, “We got to have a little Old West up here in Detroit…”. Between 2011 and 2012, the number of “Justifiable homicides” in Detroit increased by 79% from 19 to 34. We are becoming a more defensive, violent society, quicker on the draw than ever before.

Think of the stories we love to hear at the water cooler or at a party? Don’t you just love the stories of how someone got bad service at a restaurant and told the arrogant waiter off? It’s coming from the same place. It’s more satisfying to tell the waiter off than to think about our possible unreasonable expectations, or imagining what pressure the waiter is under aside from our instant meal and drink needs.

Deeply ingrained in each of us is a set of rules that justify our violent defaults and guarantees we all have an equal chance to be on top. But that is impossible. And…what if there is no top, only where you are at any given point in life?

Here are some of the rules:

  • If you work hard you will climb the ladder. If you work hard and do not make it up the ladder, you have to fight your way up.
  • You can achieve whatever you set your mind to. Any obstacles are in the form of people who want to push you down, so fight back.
  • Your ideals and values are worth fighting for, as are your possessions, the things you have rightfully earned.
  • If it will make you happy, then you deserve it.
  • If you are happy, then others around you will be happy, too.
  • God wants you to be happy.

I’ve shared a lot of these rules with discouraged friends and children in my life, but they are hugely problematic. They assume you are at the centre, and that your success is your only moral concern. They are based on the lie that if we all seek our individual success then the world will be a more peaceful place. And yet, so much of the rhetoric around these rules is fighting for what is right, being our success and happiness.

When I reflect on resisting violence in my own life, it is often resisting these rules as they creep into my daily life and work.

I’m tempted to start writing new rules. That might come later. Right now I need to sit with these for a while, articulate them more fully, Recognize other rules.

What other rules do we live by that enforces “might is right”?