When God Uses a “Wasted” Opportunity

God’s ways are NOT our ways. And often, we can become discouraged by things that have happened in our past or things that seem like obstacles in the present. But our vision is limited by both time and space. We can’t see things from the outside looking in, and we can’t see things unfolding before they happen. Instead, we use our imagination, which can give us a vision that is wildly out of perspective.

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Take the case of Jonah (see Jonah 1-4). Jonah was given a clear mission from God– go to the great city of Nineveh and give them a message of judgment. Jonah could not “see” the outcome, but he could imagine a lot of things that made him run in the opposite direction! Nineveh was the capital city of his arch-enemies. The Assyrian armies had swept through Jonah’s land, and had very likely killed several of his family members. They were notoriously violent and Jonah must have presumed that there would be great danger involved in traveling into Nineveh, let alone proclaiming a message of certain doom!

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Jonah didn’t just ignore God’s command– he went as far as he could in the opposite direction. He wasted the opportunity to see what God had planned, choosing instead to run away. He boarded a ship for Tarshish. He probably thought that God would have to use someone else, or that He would bring judgment upon Nineveh without any warning. At least he, Jonah, would be safe. But God’s ways were not Jonah’s ways. God brought a fierce storm that threatened to sink the ship. The sailors were terrified, but Jonah felt the weight of his guilt. He told the sailors to throw him into the sea, and God would save them from the storm. Though the sailors probably felt they were sending Jonah to his doom, they obeyed. And they were amazed as the storm disappeared! Nothing about Jonah’s words or actions caused these sailors to see God’s glory, but see it, they did. And they worshipped

Jonah missed the opportunity to see how God worked “around” him to amaze the sailors– instead, he got another lesson in how God’s ways were not Jonah’s ways. Jonah may have expected to drown, but God sent a big fish to swallow him, instead. Jonah spent three days inside the fish, being saved from the icy waters of the sea, and transported back to land, where the obedient fish “spit” him out onto the shore.

God did not find someone else to send the message. God did not change His plans. God simply changed Jonah’s situation and gave him a second chance. This time, Jonah obeyed. And God performed another miracle. Instead of killing Jonah or ignoring his warning message from the Lord, the Ninevites believed. And they repented– from the King down to the lowest citizen. God relented and showed mercy in the face of such repentance. Jonah had the opportunity to see God’s mercy and wisdom.

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But Jonah wasted this opportunity, as well. Instead of seeing the gracious hand of God at work to change the hearts of his enemies, Jonah only saw that God had not acted with vengeance and harsh judgment. (Later, when the Ninevites returned to their old ways of life, God DID send destruction, but Jonah missed that, too.) In fact, Jonah was angry with God, and threw a temper tantrum as the Ninevites celebrated God’s kindness and mercy. Jonah was a prophet– he very likely had a long career doing God’s work. He probably had many successes, but the Biblical account we have of him tells only of his failure. In spite of that, we can see in the story of Jonah how God can use even failure to bring salvation and redemption to the lost. God’s ways are not our ways!

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Today, I want to be encouraged by Jonah’s story. So often, I get bogged down in the mistakes of my past–missed opportunities and failures, things left unsaid, or actions that can’t be undone. It is important that we acknowledge our sins and mistakes; that we do what we can to make amends, and that we repent. But we must also acknowledge God’s power to make all things work together for good (Romans 8:28) and remember that “He who began a good work in you will be faithful to complete it.” (Philippians 1:6) Know too, that God knows the plans He has for you (Jeremiah 29:11) even though you and I cannot see the end of the story. God’s ways are not our ways (Isaiah 55:8); they are higher and Holier. His wisdom and power are infinite, and His plans are ultimately for our Good.

“Wasted” opportunities need not lead to years of guilt and self-torture. Instead, they should be learning experiences that lead us to greater faith, quicker obedience, and greater joy!

“I Would Prefer Not To..”

Years ago, our high school class read a classic short story by the American author, Herman Melville. Bartleby the Scrivener tells the story of an unusual clerk– one who begins as a good worker, efficient and conscientious, but ends up dying in prison, hopeless, ruined, and broken. His tragic downward spiral begins one day when the lawyer for whom he works asks him to examine a short document. This is a commonplace request, much like asking a writer to proofread her final draft before submitting it to the editor. However, Bartleby responds by saying “I would prefer not to.” The startled lawyer decides not to force the issue, and gives the task to someone else.

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Bartleby’s refusal to do what is expected of him escalates until he no longer does ANY work. He refuses to work, refuses to leave the office, and refuses to eat. He isn’t angry or violent, but he remains defiant until the very end.

So it is with us when we are living in sin and rebellion against God. It may start out small– some little habit or attitude. We know it is wrong, but instead of obeying God’s word, we calmly say, “I would prefer not to…” not to tell the truth, not to turn away from porn, not to help my neighbor, not to agree with God about my behavior.

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8 The Lord is merciful and gracious,
    slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
He will not always chide,
    nor will he keep his anger forever.
10 He does not deal with us according to our sins,
    nor repay us according to our iniquities.
11 For as high as the heavens are above the earth,
    so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him;
12 as far as the east is from the west,
    so far does he remove our transgressions from us.

Psalm 103:6-12 (ESV)

God is patient. He is gracious and kind. He does not treat us as our offenses deserve. He gives us the chance to repent. He offers forgiveness. But every time we say to God, “I would prefer not to,” we get a little more like Bartleby– isolating ourselves, wasting our potential to be all that God created us to be, growing more defiant and more rebellious, until we waste away into a prison of our own making, and, finally, death.

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One of the things that makes Melville’s story so disturbing is that the narrator keeps trying to explain away Bartleby’s defiance–perhaps he is having trouble with his eyesight and doesn’t want to admit it; perhaps he was traumatized at a previous job; maybe there is a reason for his passive aggression. But in all of his attempts to understand, the narrator cannot save Bartleby from prison and death.

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Understanding sin cannot change us. Excusing sin does nothing to stop its consequences (see Romans 6:23). No one killed Bartleby, yet he died because he “would prefer not to” do the things he needed to do to live. His small act of defiance, which starts out singular and almost heroic (after all, who wouldn’t like to tell the boss, “I would prefer not to,” every once in awhile?), sounds innocuous. Such a little thing to refuse. Surely God would not punish us for so small a thing…until one small thing leads to another…and another; a bigger rebellion; a numbing complacency; loss of perspective; a heart of stone; isolation; starvation; imprisonment; death.

What am I refusing to do for God today? What am I refusing to give up? Refusing to admit? Refusing to listen to? Am I excusing myself? Do I tell myself I am not in rebellion because I have been polite in my refusal to obey? Do I comfort myself that my rebellion is really just a matter of “preference,” and will not be consequential? That God’s Holiness is less important than my comfort or convenience?

Many people coast through life in the belief that God is SO merciful and SO loving that He can’t also be Holy and Just– that His commands are really suggestions; that His wrath is mythical; that our own wisdom is sufficient for living a “good” life and pleasing Him. But God isn’t concerned about whether we live a “good” life– He wants us to have an abundant life– filled with joy and peace, love and relationship, both now and forevermore. In fact, He would “prefer not to” punish us. He is not “willing” (i.e. desirous) that any should perish (2 Peter 3:9), but that everyone would some to repentance. That doesn’t mean that He won’t punish those who refuse to obey Him, or those who refuse to turn from their rebellion and trust Him; only that He will continue to give us the opportunity to recognize our need for forgiveness.

10 If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. 11 These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.12 “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. 13 Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. 14 You are my friends if you do what I command you. 15 No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you.

John 15:10-15 ESV– taken from biblegateway.com

God has made it possible for us to be more than servants. We don’t have to respond to God as Bartleby responded to his boss– though God has the ultimate authority to demand our loyalty and obedience. Through Jesus, we are sons and daughters and friends! When God gives us commands, like “Love one another,” they are still commands. But His heart is that we should trust that all of His commands are righteous, life-giving, and in our eternal best interest. But some of us are still saying, “I would prefer not to.”

Fixing the Snarls

A few years ago, I got really ambitious and decided I would take up crocheting. My grandmother taught me the basics many years ago, and I thought I would be able to pick it back up and make delightful scarves and mittens and maybe even afghans… Except, when I started a scarf, I ended up with a nice start attached to a horribly snarled up ball of yarn. No problem. I would simply work at the snarl until it melted away, and continue with my scarf. Except it didn’t melt away. I was able to “move” the snarl a foot or so down from where it was, but I couldn’t work it all the way out.

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I struggled with that snarl far longer than I should have, and eventually gave up the project and moved on to making candles (another story for another time). But I learned a painful lesson. I would love to say that I prayed about the snarl and God unraveled it for me, but that didn’t happen. I prayed– yes; but God allowed me to continue in my stubbornness and self-confidence to do battle with a few yards of green yarn for days, when I could have been doing more productive things.

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I have a great need to try to “fix” things– I think most of us do at some level. We live in a broken world, and we know that there are things that are “snarled” all around us–relationships, situations, circumstances–that need fixing. And God has given us opportunities to do good works that can make the world around us better. But it is not our job to “fix” the brokenness in the world. Only God can really “fix” it–even though He may give us work to do along the way.

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And that brings me back to prayer. No, God didn’t “fix” the snarl in my yarn. And He didn’t “fix” my stubborn attitude or my willingness to finish the project another way or ask for help from someone else. God isn’t interested in making our lives (or our projects) easier for us by removing our problems. And God isn’t impressed by our stubborn efforts to “fix” the situations in our lives. God’s ways are not our ways (see Isaiah 55:8-9; and check out https://blackaby.org/gods-ways-are-not-our-ways/.

So many times, we think of prayer as a last resort, as a crutch to fall back on when our efforts seem to be failing, or when we think a situation is “too big” for us to handle on our own. Even in the things of Christ, we tend to plan first, and pray later. Prayer becomes our Plan B. But what if, in the grand scale, prayer was always our Plan A? What if we started the morning, not looking at our planners and calendars, but listening for God’s direction? Even if it meant scrapping our own plans and leaving the “snarls” to God? What if, as our churches planned for programming and outreach, we resolved to do nothing until we had prayed for a month about our goals for the coming year? What if our churches had more people coming to prayer meetings than coming to Family Game Nights or Teen Overnight Parties? In my own life, what if I spent less time writing in my prayer journal than asking God to inhabit my prayers?

In the book of 1 Samuel, King Saul undertook a mission for God– God had chosen him to be King over all Israel, and to lead the nation against the wicked peoples in their midst. Saul led his warriors in battle, and even had success, but God rejected Saul because of his disobedience. Saul wanted victory to confirm his status as a warrior and a king. He listened to God’s instructions– superficially. He even insisted that he had followed God’s instructions– after all, he defeated the enemy! But he didn’t do it God’s way or for God’s glory. God gave him victory in many battles, but Saul was impatient, imprudent, and impudent. Saul ended his reign in shameful defeat because he wanted to “fix the snarls”– his way.

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I’m not saying that my prayer journal is wrong, or that churches shouldn’t do programming– not at all. But it is something to think about, before the next yarn snarl comes along… Am I busy trying to “fix” a situation that I can’t (or shouldn’t) fix, when I should be watching for God’s next assignment? Am I trying to win a battle to prove myself worthy, or am I letting God set the terms and take the Glory that is rightfully His? Am I busy asking God to unsnarl yarn, when He wants to move mountains?

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Why Do You Love Me?

One of my very favorite bedtime stories when I was growing up was about a little bear cub. ( “Why do you love me?” by Mabel Watts) He and his mother were on a walk, and the little bear kept watching other little bears. Some were getting in trouble–running away to play in the brier patch, or climbing trees to get honey–and meeting up with bees! Little bear knew that sometimes he was like that. Other bear cubs were kind and helpful. He knew that sometimes he was like those bears. At one point, the cub was confused and asked his mother, “WHY do you love ME?” After all, he realized that he was helpless and accident-prone. Without his mother, he would be lost, hungry, and in danger. Yet his mother was always there when he needed her– even when he said he didn’t! His mother’s answer provided solid assurance– “Because you’re MY little bear!” The story book is almost impossible to find now. It is long out of print, and has been crowded out by newer books with similar titles. But for 50 years, I have cherished this story of unconditional love, because it echoes the Biblical story of God’s love for each of us.

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We find many reasons to question God’s love. We find ourselves in trouble, and we are afraid to ask for help or forgiveness. After all, we have done nothing to earn it. We don’t deserve it. Even our good behavior cannot save us from our own limitations. And our bad decisions can hurt others in ways we cannot “fix.” We may have walked away from God or sneered at His care of us. We may be lost and hopeless without God’s intervention on our behalf. Why would He help? Why should He look kindly toward us?

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But God’s answer is the same as that Mother Bear–You are MINE! I Love you with an everlasting love!

Even when we wander and try to do things we shouldn’t or can’t, God is near, and ready to help. He wants us to walk with Him and follow Him; He wants us to turn to Him in our need. Why? Because we belong together; we belong to HIM. And when we see others behaving badly–even when their actions hurt us–God still loves them, too. He created each one of us to walk with Him, trust Him, learn from Him, and experience His loving care.

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In fact, as children of God, we should be showing the same kind of unconditional love to others. That does not mean that we condone wicked or dangerous behaviors. But we should love in such a way that people may even question it– “Why do you love me?” Instead of sharing our anger, or our own self-righteousness, what if we shared compassion and held to the truth without arrogance or disdain? What a great opportunity to share the reassurance and hope we know in Our Father’s great love!

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The Whale and the Worm

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God keeps calling my attention to the book of Jonah. It’s not a very lengthy or in-depth book. It has only four chapters, and it tells a single story of the prophet Jonah and his mission to preach to the people of the Assyrian capital of Nineveh. But it is filled with lessons about prayer, obedience, gratitude, repentance, and Grace. https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Jonah%201&version=NIV And we learn four important things about God: He sends, He saves, He sustains, and He suspends.

  • FIrst: God sends. The book of Jonah reminds me of reading Ernest Hemingway. It is compact, terse, and to the point. The very first verse reads, “The word of the Lord came to Jonah, son of Amittai.” There is no other intro, no back story, no conversation between Jonah and God… Yet there IS a back story: elsewhere in the Bible, Jonah is mentioned as a prophet of God. Jonah wasn’t an unlikely choice to take a prophecy to Nineveh. He wasn’t new to the whole “prophet” gig– he wasn’t a farmer or a fisherman or a young shepherd boy. He was an experienced seer and prophet.
    I mention this because God sends who HE wants to send. He didn’t have to give this message to Jonah. And when Jonah ran away, God didn’t have to chase him down and give him a second chance. There were other prophets who might have delivered the message without any fuss or drama. There were priests, soldiers, merchants, and shepherds who could have done the job (and likely done a better job!) The book of Jonah reminds us that God’s purposes are often multi-faceted. God’s purpose in sending Jonah wasn’t just about the Ninevites– He wanted to work in and around and through Jonah to reveal His character. He also sent the big fish (the Bible never says it was actually a whale), and later a gourd vine and a worm– all to minister to Jonah. They all appear in the story, but only to Jonah, not to any of the others!
    God will send us–or He will send people (or big fish) TO us. He will send people and things to bless us; and to test our patience! But God sends us what is meant for our good and His glory.
  • God saves: Each chapter contains an example of God’s salvation– In chapter one, God not only saves Jonah from drowning by sending the big fish; He also saves everyone else on the ship. An entire crew of hardened seamen are stunned by God’s power and grace. In chapter two, God rescues Jonah from the fish’s belly, and gives him another opportunity to fulfill his mission. In chapter three, God sees and hears the pleas of the Ninevites–He withholds His judgment and showers the city with amazing Grace. In the final chapter, Jonah wants to die (twice!), yet God provides comfort, compassion, and correction in response. At the end of this book, in spite of storms and raging seas, prophecies of doom and destruction, dangerous journeys, scorching sun, and disobedience, rebellion, and evil– NO ONE DIES!
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  • God Sustains: God could have rescued Jonah without the “whale.” He could have calmed the storm. He could have caused Jonah to walk on water. He could have created a path of dry land for Jonah to walk on… But God caused Jonah to be in the belly of the fish for three days– a circumstance that Jesus used to foretell His own death and resurrection. God sustained Jonah even in the midst of his bitterness, anger, depression, and rebellion. He gave Jonah a miraculous rescue– one Jonah could have shared with the Ninevites to illustrate God’s Mercy. I find it curious that the King of Nineveh invites everyone to fast and pray, saying “Who knows..” Jonah KNEW! He was a living example of God’s Grace and Power. He could have shared this wonderful news with the people of Nineveh, yet he chose to share only the message of God’s wrath. Jonah had the biggest “fish story” in history, and he chose to keep it a secret! In spite of this, God sustained Jonah’s life– against Jonah’s own wishes! How has God sustained us in moments of crisis, doubt, and infidelity?
  • God Suspends: What does that mean? Well, in this book, it means several things. God suspends His judgment against the city of Nineveh–in later Bible books, we see that the people of Nineveh and Assyria return to their evil ways. They do not turn completely from their worship of idols and their detestable practices. Within a couple of generations, they experience the total destruction that Jonah predicted. God is Gracious and Merciful; He is also Righteous and Just. Jonah’s mistake was to despise God’s Mercy toward his enemies; the Ninevites’ mistake was to forget God’s Holiness. But God also suspends Jonah’s life– three times Jonah expresses a passive desire to die: he asks to be thrown into the sea (he does not know or expect that God will rescue him); he asks to die after the Ninevites are spared; and he asks to die when the worm destroys the gourd vine. But Jonah’s desire to die goes unfulfilled. God’s purpose is not that Jonah should die, but that Jonah should learn to LIVE and love: love his life; love his God (better); and love his former enemies. Sadly, we never find if Jonah ever learned his lesson. The author of Jonah leaves us “suspended” as well.
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Our God sends “whales” to rescue us from our rebellious wandering, and “worms” to take away those comforts that keep us from seeing our real needs. He saves us, even though we don’t deserve a second (or third or thirtieth) chance. He sustains us, even in times of failure. And He suspends us, withholding His wrath and giving us loving compassion and correction.
Jonah is not a very lovable character– and that is a great comfort to me in times when I am faced with my own failures and missed opportunities. The people of Nineveh were despicable! They deserved justice and judgment. But God loved Jonah; and He loved the people of Nineveh. And He loves us– more than we deserve; more than we can imagine. He loves the unlovable. He loves the despicable. He loves those who cannot love themselves, and those we are convinced we cannot love.

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May we learn a lesson today from the “whale” and the “worm”– we can trust God for Mercy and for Justice. We can trust Him to save and sustain us; to send us and suspend us. And we can rest in His love and care–whether we find ourselves in a raging sea or caught in the scorching heat, or sent on a mission that tests our heart and soul to its limit.

Making God Look Good

A few years ago, I worked for a boss who told our staff that our number one job was to “make her look good”. This came as a shock to all of us. It was nowhere in our employee manual, this idea that her status was more important than our work ethic, or our customer service, or our ability to work together as a team. What I’m sure she meant to convey was that everything we did reflected on her, and, by extension, all of us, our library, and our community. It should have been our priority to work, look, speak, and interact with patrons in a way that brought honor and respect to everyone in the building–not just her–so that she could concentrate on making an already great library even better. But that’s not the way it was expressed or understood. And the results were unfortunate.

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It WAS our job to respect her leadership, and do our best work, allowing her to guide the direction of the library’s growth and service. I’m ashamed to say that I did not do this– I fought her leadership, complained about the way she treated staff and patrons, criticized her ideas and her management style, and finally quit my job there.

I start with this story as a contrast to the story of Daniel, as we’ve been following it the past couple of weeks. Daniel’s job was to make his bosses–kings and emperors who had conquered his nation, exiled and enslaved him, and destroyed his home and culture–“look good.” He was an adviser to kings who were powerful, ruthless, vicious, and often petty, vindictive, and even edging on madness. He did not have the freedom to “quit” or to harbor pride or criticism.

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Daniel’s ability to work under such circumstances sprang from his conviction that his number ONE priority was not to make his bosses look good, or to be the best administrator or adviser he could be. His number one priority was to seek and to serve Almighty God. All the rest would fall into place if only Daniel would keep the right priorities.

The truth is, we cannot make someone else “look good”. We can try– we can sing someone else’s praises, brag about them, work hard to gain their approval, promote them and honor them, even worship them. And, in a superficial way, these things can make the other person appear important, wise, popular, or even “good.” But it can’t make someone else BE good, or important, or wise. And, often, our efforts are not really about making the other person look good. Our efforts are about making ourselves look good in another person’s eyes

Throughout his life, Daniel made God look good. He made kings, from Nebuchadnezzar to Darius, acknowledge God’s power, His authority, His grace and mercy, and His goodness. But at the same time, Daniel could not “make” God look good– unless God was (and IS) all the things Daniel said He was. Daniel’s job was never to “make” God look good. His job was to point away from himself, and “let” God be God–awesome, mighty, loving, eternal, and Holy. In return, Daniel was used in amazing–even death-defying– ways that continue to astonish and teach us today.

My attitude toward my boss didn’t make her look good– or bad. It didn’t make me look good, either. It just made me look spiteful, arrogant, and uncooperative. Worse, it made my walk with Christ look bad. I wasn’t pointing people toward Him; I was pointing to the negative (and being negative) about a situation that was so much smaller than the God I serve. What a missed opportunity to demonstrate, as Daniel did, what obedience and faith look like. What a missed opportunity to make God look good!

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Today, as we pray to this same awesome, mighty, loving, eternal and Holy God, let us not waste time trying to “make God look good.” No amount of fancy rhetoric, holy elbow grease, finger-pointing, or pious posturing can make God better than He already is. Instead, let us come before Him humbly and with a contrite heart, ready to obey, honor, and worship Him with our whole being as Daniel did. Not in pride or arrogance, sounding like an advertisement for a new “super” product or exercise routine, or like an expert on spiritual living, but in awe that the God of Jacob, the God of Daniel, the God of the universe(!) wants to extend grace even to the least of us. God sees us in our troubles– exiled and oppressed, alone and in danger, surrounded by rivals, enemies, madmen, and beasts. God will provide; He will defend; He will bring justice; He will never leave us.

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