Ancient Conclusions for New Year’s Resolutions

It’s the week after Christmas, which means this is the week in which we are all supposed to be reflecting meaningfully on the past year and preparing our new year’s resolutions for the year ahead, right? Cue wisdom, profundity and insight.

New Years ResolutionsSo far, this is what my list looks like:

  • reduce sugar intake
  • exercise more
  • sleep more
  • pray more
  • spend less time on my ipad

This is hardly the stuff of Yoda-like wisdom. The list seems so paltry that it hardly seems worth making any “resolutions” about it. If I rack my brain, I can make the list a little more quantifiable:

  • complete the children’s annual photo books from the last two, three, four years
  • read more classic works of literature
  • switch off screens by 10pm

What is unnerving to me is that my list of resolutions, half-hearted as they may be, looks strikingly similar to last year’s one. And the year before that too. There is nothing new under the sun, the wise King said in Ecclesiastes. Nothing new indeed.

A little time in Ecclesiastes is refreshing, though, for a week such as this. At a time of year when we roll out all sorts of ambitions and plans of things we wish to do, to be and to accomplish; the teacher of Ecclesiastes reminds us (as a veteran in life-changing plans and projects himself), that these things are destined to be fleeting unless we find our motivation and comfort in knowing God and being known by him.

“Meaningless” is the word most commonly associated with Ecclesiastes, but perhaps a better translation of the Hebrew word “hebel” is “fleeting” or “short-lived”. Whatever it is that the Teacher had planned: gardening, a dating strategy, managing his money, or accomplishing (other, great, fill-in-the-blank awesome) projects – his conclusion in the end was that they were all hebel: fleeting, transitory, here today but gone tomorrow.

What made the difference between those endeavors being baloney or blessed, says the teacher, was whether you did them mindful of God: knowing Him, revering Him, thanking Him, and enjoying good things as gifts from his hand. And so, as I look at the year ahead and consider my options, these (slightly abridged) words from Ecclesiastes are echoing in my thoughts:

“Remember your Creator in the days of your Resolution-making, before the busy days come and the to-do lists are forgotten… The end of the matter is this, after all has been heard: Fear God and keep his commandments – for this is everything God requires of us.” (Ecclesiastes 12:1, 13)

Whatever 2014 brings, let it not be meaningless.

Help, I’m asking the question I’m not supposed to ask.

20131129-104201.jpg“Dear Bronwyn,
I’ve been in the church long enough to know I’m not supposed to be asking this question. I feel a HUGE amount of guilt about it, but I have to ask: “Why?” Life is ridiculously hard sometimes. Why doesn’t God save us and bring us home to him? Why doesn’t he just get us out of here? He can do it. He is able. He already knows the end of the story (who will come to him or not) – so why doesn’t he just make it happen? I know I shouldn’t be asking this question, but my soul is crying out for an answer, and every pastor I hear speak on this seems to be giving a cop out answer. I’m not asking why bad things happen – I know we live in a fallen world. I am asking why we have to live here in the first place when it’s so awful. My non-believing friends ask me this question and I think “hmm, good point” and give them the cookie cutter answer I know I’m supposed to say. But I’m sad, and confused. Maybe I’m just weak.
– Signed, Judge Me or Judge Me Not.”

Dear JMoJMN,

I cannot judge you, and I cannot answer your question either. Why God allows suffering at all, and why He allows it to continue, are questions which fall into the “I don’t know” category. With tears and sadness, I’m sorry to say I don’t know either, and say that cop out answers make me angry too. We cannot explain the purposes and mysteries of God, and while He has given us some clues as to why suffering sometimes happens (due to sin, discipline, disobedience, or even because he has some glorious purpose to work out, like when he let Lazarus die so he could raise him again) – the fact is He almost never tells us which of those reasons (if any) applies to our particular situation.

I don’t know why He allows it, and I don’t know why He hasn’t come yet – but as with so many things in my faith, I find myself faced with a choice when I feel like despairing. I have to choose to cling to the little I do know, or to walk into the great and painful void of things I don’t know.

When I’m hurting and praying for things to resolve, these are some of the verses I cling to:

“The Lord is near to the broken hearted” (Psalm 34:18)

“But as for me, I will trust in you.” (Psalm 55:23b)

“Your promises have been thoroughly tested, therefore your servant loves them.” (Psalm 119:142)

“Jesus wept.” (John 11:35)

“and God Himself will be among them, and He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and He will wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away.” (Revelation 21:3-4)

But I hear you: in the midst of clinging to those promises, sometimes my heart breaks that the pain still continues for now. However, I don’t believe you are a “bad Christian” for asking these questions. Indeed, the first century believers repeatedly prayed “Maranatha! COME Lord Jesus, (1 Corinthians 16:22)” a prayer for speedy deliverance if ever there was one. To beg God to make it end quickly, and to despair over the brokenness of the world is not a sign of being a bad or faithless Christian – it seems to me to be a deeply biblical response.

But it’s hard. It’s oh-so-hard. I find myself coming back to two stories in the gospels again and again when I find myself bewildered by the lack of answers. The first is in John 6, when Jesus had been doing some hard teaching. His disciples challenged him: “This is a difficult statement; who can understand it?” (verse 61). In response to his answer, “many of His disciples withdrew and were not walking with Him anymore.” (v66). John tells us that Jesus then asked the twelve: “You do not want to go away also do you?” Simon Peter answered him: “Lord to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have believed and have come to know that you are the Holy One of God.” (John 6:67-69)

The second account is in Mark, where Jesus comes down from the Mountain to find the disciples floundering after failing to heal a boy possessed by an evil spirit. The father of the boy asked Jesus for help, saying “If you can do anything, take pity on us and help us!” Jesus replies, “IF you can? All things are possible to him who believes.” And immediately, the boy’s father cried out “I do believe! Help me in my unbelief!” (Mark 9:22-24)

I come back to these passages often. I find myself bewildered and hurting and wondering if I can accept the answers I’m hearing, or if God can do anything about it and have pity and help us. My words are the disciples’ words, the boy’s father’s words. And I hear Jesus’ gentle answer to me: “IF I can do anything? Are you also going to walk away because this is hard?”

In those moments, I have to reply with those first believers: “I do believe, but HELP me in my unbelief. And besides which, where else shall I go? You have the words of eternal life.” I cannot even begin to tell you how often I’ve come back to these two stories. I don’t know the answers, but I know enough to know I have no better option than to lean into him when I’m hurting.

It’s okay to not know. We are called to be witnesses to what we know, not what we don’t. Over the years, one of my favorite hymns has become the Celtic classic “I cannot tell” (to the wondrous Londonberry tune – lyrics and music video below), which makes this point most beautifully: there are so many things we don’t know and understand. So many things that hurt and confuse and overwhelm us, mysteries beyond us. There are things we “cannot tell”. But then there are the things we do know, and it is those we cling to and sing of and in which we place our hope.

I’m praying for you, friend. Armed with an “I don’t know” for the mysteries, we cling to that which we know. We DO believe, may He help us in our unbelief, and comfort us as we wait.

I cannot tell why He whom angels worship,
Should set His love upon the sons of men,
Or why, as Shepherd, He should seek the wanderers,
To bring them back, they know not how or when.
But this I know, that He was born of Mary
When Bethlehem’s manger was His only home,
And that He lived at Nazareth and labored,
And so the Savior, Savior of the world is come.

I cannot tell how silently He suffered,
As with His peace He graced this place of tears,
Or how His heart upon the cross was broken,
The crown of pain to three and thirty years.
But this I know, He heals the brokenhearted,
And stays our sin, and calms our lurking fear,
And lifts the burden from the heavy laden,
For yet the Savior, Savior of the world is here.

I cannot tell how He will win the nations,
How He will claim His earthly heritage,
How satisfy the needs and aspirations
Of East and West, of sinner and of sage.
But this I know, all flesh shall see His glory,
And He shall reap the harvest He has sown,
And some glad day His sun shall shine in splendor
When He the Savior, Savior of the world is known.

I cannot tell how all the lands shall worship,
When, at His bidding, every storm is stilled,
Or who can say how great the jubilation
When all the hearts of men with love are filled.
But this I know, the skies will thrill with rapture,
And myriad, myriad human voices sing,
And earth to Heaven, and Heaven to earth, will answer:
At last the Savior, Savior of the world is King!

Photo credit: scripturelady.com

The Sophomore Doldrums

ImageMy favorite subject at school was Geography. I was fascinated by the earths’ processes: how continents morph and wrinkle and give birth to mountains, how a trickle of water can cut rock if you give it enough time, how hurricanes twist into being, how winds blow.

In our study on winds, we learned about the doldrums (or Intertropical Convergence Zones), those areas on the ocean along the equator where air rises and is carried away to the north and south, leaving the surface of the ocean strangely calm and windless. In the halycon days of maritime exploration, sailors dreaded the doldrums, as Coleridge memorable describes in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner:

All in a hot and copper sky,

The bloody Sun, at noon,

‘Right up above the mast did stand,

No bigger than the Moon.

Day after day, day after day,

We stuck, no breath no motion;

As idle as a painted ship

Upon a painted ocean.

When I think about being a sophomore, the image that comes to mind is of the doldrums. Sometimes one can feel a little stuck. Like sailors doing their day to day chores, there may be lots of action but you’re not getting anywhere fast.                                                                                    

I think there are many stages in life where we experience a sophomore a doldrum-y kind of effect. There are seasons when we are in a “freshman” phase: we are new, and all the attention is on us to welcome us, initiate and integrate us. The focus is all on the NEW. The freshman frenzy happens at college, it happens when you start a new job, when you move to a community, when you get married, when you join a new church. It happens after big changes: a new relationship, a death in the family, getting your drivers license. There’s a lot of energy thrown in the direction of people in a NEW phase, in many stages of life.

 But then after that new phase, there can often be a period of something like the doldrums – a “sophomore life experience”, where you’re not new anymore and the attention has died down. People know who you are, but sometimes we don’t feel fully KNOWN yet. You belong, but you sometimes don’t fully feel comfortable yet either.

 People who are grieving the loss of a loved one sometimes say that the worst part is not just after it happens. Just after the death, the love and the support and the “how are you’s” roll in. But it’s in the weeks after that, once the funerals are over, that sometimes you find yourself alone and still trying to figure out how life is supposed to move forward now. The sophomore season of grief is tough. If we experience our sense of belonging by identity-in-relationship, then re-thinking one’s identity after the loss of a significant relationship takes time and much stillness.

There can be sophomore seasons in the workplace. The worst part of the job is sometimes not starting up in a new place: it can be exciting to be in the flurry of training and meeting people. But there’s a different set of challenges once the training is done and you’re now considered “fully on the job”, but then one day you discover you still don’t know where they keep the paper clips and you feel a little awkward in asking.

There are sophomore seasons in college. With one full year of university under one’s belt, you’ve done welcome week, conquered that great social experiment called the dorms, figured out the classes and the maps and the bus schedules.But the sophomore year bring some understated new challenges. How do you find your place when very few of the events are geared “for you”, and yet not many are in leadership? Especially when, there are still a lot of firsts to figure out: the first time you’re living in a home by yourself and having to make meals. The first time figuring out a household budget. Top ramen, anyone?

I have found myself in the just-past-new doldrums a couple of times. I’ve been a sophomore in college, in grad school, in marriage, in friendships. I’ve moved continents and churches and houses. And I’m beginning to see a pattern about how I experience the process of belonging to a community.

I’m learning that, most often,  the FACT of belonging precedes the FEELINGS of belonging.

In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul addresses a group of bickering believers who were all jostling for the most prominent places in their community. In response to their division, he gives them a robust teaching example: just like there is one body made up of many different (and yet all necessary) body parts, so too believers in Christ are one body, made up of many different (and yet all necessary) members.

So all those bickering believers? They were all part of ONE body (v12), and as such – they belong to each other (v14). No-one could say “I don’t belong”, or “I don’t need you”, or “you don’t need me” to each other (v15-20). The FACT of the matter was that each of those believers belonged and was needed, whether they felt it or not.

Sometimes, the feeling of belonging lags a long time behind the fact of belonging. Sometimes it’s weeks. In the case of me at high school, it was two decades.  Once I got married I was married (fact), even though some days I didn’t feel any different. And technically once I turned 21 I belonged to that tribe called “adult”, even though in my late 30s I still sometimes feel as though I’m playing make-believe house.

For believers, the fact of belonging arises from the fact that if we have confessed Christ as Lord, we have the Spirit – and the Spirit unites us to be one body.

FACT.

It’s important to know that the feelings of belonging don’t always correspond to the fact of our belonging,  because sometimes in the doldrums we second guess our place if “we’re not feeling it”.  Our tendency then is to withdraw and wait until we feel we belong more fully, to focus inward, to refrain from giving of ourselves until we “feel more comfortable”. We withdraw. We wait for invitations. We navel-gaze.

 But instead of withdrawing and focusing inward, I think that when faced with the sophomore doldrums, we need to do just the opposite: we need to focus outward. For the FACT of belonging in Christ also means  we are FITTED to belong.

Every piece is needed in a puzzle if there aren’t to be gaping holes.

Every body part is valuable in our well-being (a lesson I painfully learned when I dropped a trampoline on my big toe earlier this year.)

We all have a unique combination of Spirit-given gifts, abilities and services which we alone can bring.

Sometimes those gifts might be “conventional”: musical or teaching or administrative gifts. But then I think too of my friend G’s gift for listening, and how that heals my soul. And I think of my friend B’s gift of laughing graciously when I complain, and how that helps me find perspective. And I think of J’s gift of shopping (true fact!), and how she brought this post-partum mama-who-had-nothing-to-wear TEN pairs of jeans to try on in my own home and then returned the ones that didn’t fit for me. I think of S’s gift of rough-housing with my kids and teaching them to play. I think of A’s tremendous gift of finding helpful treasures at garage sales.

Gifts come in such an assortment of colors and packages, and God means for each of us to use those gifts where we are at: even in the sophomore doldrums. Gifts are not to be stored up for the future, they are NOW gifts. The Spirit equips us in our CURRENT situation, with our CURRENT skill level to do his CURRENT work.

The “sophomore seasons” of life are perhaps less recognized seasons: they’re quieter, less disturbed. But perhaps those quiet, understated seasons actually have greater honor (v24), perhaps because of new opportunities for relational richness. When you’re in the doldrums, you have time. Going nowhere fast means you can go deep with those around you.  

Those around us might be slightly different to who we expected to be there. The “body” includes people of different cultures and different generations, people with whom we didn’t expect to connect. But we can’t have the midset among any group of believers that “I don’t belong here”, or “they don’t need me”. We need the elderly. We need the teenagers. We need the mentally ill. We need the singles. We need the widows. We need the young parents with their squirming, screaming toddlers. We belong to each other. We need each other.

The sophomore doldrums needs to call forth resolve in us: even if we don’t feel we belong, the fact is we do belong if we are Christ’s- and we are uniquely fitted for service even in those quiet and unrecognized seasons of life.

Serve as one who belongs, and I believe the feelings of belonging will follow: as we love and serve those around us, our feelings of attachment grow stronger, and before we know it – we’ll find the doldrums have passed and in fact, there is a light breeze blowing as our new course is charted.

This post is an adaptation of a talk for a most awesome group of Sophomores at College Life. It is also (conveniently for me!), Day 26 of 31 Days of Belonging. Click here for a list of other posts in this series.

 

The grass is greener where you water it (with badly drawn illustrations)

One of the first blogs I decided to follow was Proverbsway: a blog devoted entirely to encouraging quotes. On that day, she had posted a piece entitled “The grass is greener where you water it“, and nearly four months later I still have those words rolling around in my head.

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The quote from Neil Barringham is a wonderful play on the cliche that the grass is always greener on the other side. I have always imagined it applying to the discontent that we suffer from when we live in the “when I am richer, older, wiser, younger, have more friends, have a different job, get that contract, get that recognition…. THEN I will be happy” fantasy. Withholding joy and making excuses for our discontentment, we set our eyes on a mythical future of verdant green.

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Recently, though, I am realizing that it is also possible to suffer from greener-grass-syndrome looking backwards. Perhaps circumstances mean you are in a new town, when you were perfectly happy where you were. Perhaps it means you’ve lost a job or a loved one, and your memory of your happiness then brings a concurrent sadness that you will never be as happy again. Perhaps it is something smaller – but yet there’s still that nagging feeling that you wish things could be the way they WERE. You were so much happier then.

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I’ve recently been convicted that I’m standing on a very brown patch of figurative grass at the moment. It’s a silly thing, really. Our health insurance changed and we had to bid our beloved pediatrician goodbye and move to a new one. We’ve seen the new doctor twice and she was awfully nice – but throughout the meetings I found myself swallowing emotional bile: I REFUSED to like her. I was DETERMINED to be miserable about leaving our old doctor behind. Nothing and no-one could replace Dr O. No-one. Just let her TRY. I would NOT email her. I would NOT sign up for the online health network. I would stoically suffer through our patient visits, and keep a record of every time we had to wait, every time we were asked the same question twice.

Of course, like a hypocrite, I was hoping my kids would enthusiastically embrace the change – but they took their cue from their determinedly-morose mama and left the doctor whining too. Their misery threw mine into sharp relief, and I felt like I’d caught a glimpse of myself scowling passing by a mirror. All that staring wistfully back into the past had left me scowling at the present, and God showed me how ugly it was.

Yes, the grass behind us was truly green, but it is behind us. Right now, I’m standing on grass that is dying from neglect.

The grass is greener where you water it.

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I realized we have no chance at building a good new relationship with our new doctor unless I’m willing to water the ground I find myself on. I have to relax, think well of her, encourage her. I have to sign up for the online patient relationship. I need to INVEST in the situation we are in now – for the health of my kids and the health of my soul. I need to overcome my complaint and water my grass with gratitude: thank you that we have a kind doctor (drip), thank you that we have health care (drop), thank you that none of us was ill during the transition (drip).

It’s a slow process, but I think I see the first signs of growth: little blades of green emerging under my feet.

Don’t forget to water, friends. Don’t forget to water.

7 post-it-sized tips I learned at seminary

I had the wonderful privilege of spending three years studying theology at George Whitefield College, tucked away at the tip of Africa. The college is situated right on the beach front. Seriously- this was the view from the the library:

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I learned rich and wonderful things in those three years, but some of the things that have stayed with me most clearly were not things from textbooks, but off-the-cuff comments from teachers who had walked with God far longer than I had. I made mental post-it notes, and they are still as luminous in my mind now as they were years ago.

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Christ, or Messiah, means ‘anointed one’, and priests and kings were anointed. Substituting “King Jesus” for “Christ Jesus” in my reading drew my attention to the fact that Christ was not Jesus’ last name, but in fact his title: one of great honor and esteem. Doc Newby was right: making that switch breathed new life into reading the New Testament.

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Almost all the “you” words in the New Testament are plural you’s rather than singular you’s. The Southern “all y’all” expresses it beautifully: the epistles are written to believers corporately, not believers alone. This does not diminish my personal responsibility at all, though. If anything, it heightens it: we pray together, believe together, suffer together, raise the armor of God together. All y’all.

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Therefore, take note in bibles where the paragraphs are divided up with headings. If the paragraph begins with “therefore”, you might have to pick up a bit earlier to understand the context.

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This was a watershed one for me: not all “ifs” are the same. Some are zero conditional, meaning that the IF statement is always tied to the THEN one (if you stand in the rain, then you will get wet). Others have more risk involved: the IF statement is necessary, but not sufficient, to bring about the THEN one (if you study for an exam, then you will pass).

This made the world of difference in studying Romans 8: “if you are led by the spirit of God, you are children of God.” I had always read that as a conditional if and been afraid that I wasn’t spirit-led enough to be considered God’s child. It was a glory-hallelujah moment to realize that this was a zero-conditional if: “if you are led by the Spirit of God (and you ARE!), then you are also always and forever His child”. Woo hoo!

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Yes, there is joy and peace and hope in Christ. But true believers still mourn and lament. Just look at the Psalms.

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What sense this made of so much of the Old Testament prophets! So many chapters were about God explaining and interpreting their current predicaments in light of their covenantal behavior (forth-telling), and had nothing to do with the future. So helpful in understanding what the prophets were doing! Poor old Jeremiah….

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This one, from our principal David Seccombe, had me thinking for weeks. Jesus’ words were so often hard to understand: cryptic, in parables, couched in Hebrew idiom. Dr Seccombe’s firm words reminded me that if I called Jesus “king”, I dare not skip over his words because they were hard. As his follower and servant, it was my responsibility to keep on seeking understanding.

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Amidst the hours of serious bible study, I treasured this advice. Sometimes, we read to study and understand and wrestle with the truth. But sometimes, we read to make our hearts happy.

Both are good. Both are needed.

And the post-it’s helped me with both. Hope they help you too 🙂

A shoot and a stump

This morning I decided to forgo exercising at the gym, and instead turn my attention to my horridly overgrown garden. As it turned out, I got a full upper-body workout. I also got a workout for my soul when I came across this, hiding under the leaves of the too-big-for-its-britches fan palm:

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I don’t know that I have ever seen a shoot come straight out of a stump before. But there it was, hiding in the shade of my garden: an object lesson for my quiet-time-avoiding-self.

Immediately this verse came to mind:

Isaiah 11:1 – A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse;

from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.

2The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him—

the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding,

the Spirit of counsel and of might,

the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the Lord

3and he will delight in the fear of the Lord.

The Jews must have been feeling stumped 2000 years ago. God had made all these lavish promises about how the Son of David, the son of Jesse, would come and rule with an eternal, glorious Kingdom. But there they were under Roman rule, with no promising royalty having been born for several hundred years. No little Prince George standing third in line for the exalted throne. In contrast, David’s line seemed to have suffered a similar fate to the tree in my front garden: felled. stumped.

But tucked away in a sleepy town in Galilee, Luke 3 tells us, Jesus was born. In the most humble and surprising of circumstances, there came Jesus, the son of David, the son of Jesse, the son of Abraham, the son of Adam, the son of God (Luke 3).

Out of the stump will come a shoot. Right in the middle of what seemed to be the dead-end will come a new beginning.

I wandered through the garden and wondered: where else have I felt “stumped” by situations and relationships? Or felt that dreams or hopes had been felled?

Perhaps God will yet give life: He excels at producing fruitful shoots from abandoned stumps.

Click here for other posts you might like:  Corny reflections or God-thoughts while weeding…..

Garden-variety God-thoughts: overkill

My two best times for thinking are in the shower, and when I’m gardening. Some say their very best thinking happens while they run, but this is a hypothesis I am never going to test. So I shower, and I garden, and while I garden, I think. My soil time is soul time, good for reflecting on how things grow, and on dealing with sins as weeds.

Last week, however, I realized that sometimes I can take weeding a little too far.

Two months ago I planted an entire bed of sweet onions. One by one, I had laid them in neat little rows. I was so thrilled when they sprouted strong green tops. Surely this was a sign of deep growth happening beneath the soil.

Inevitably, the weeds grew too. Little creeper weeds began to grow and cover the area between each onion, creating an intricate lattice work of not-onions. There were a lot of them, and I began to panic about how my baby onions would fare.

In a rush one afternoon, I judged that my trusty scuffle hoe with its 3″ wide edge could safely and easily maneuver between the 4″ spaced rows. So scuffle, scuffle, scuffle I went.

Hoe hoe hoe. Weeds gone.

And within two days, most of my onions gone too. Not so Ho Ho Ho.

They were too young, too tender, too vulnerable for my vigor. They needed hand-weeding. They needed just a bit more time.

The onions made me think of one student in particular I mentored some years ago. She had a young, fledgling faith and it was exciting to see her grow. But there were things in her life which, if left for too long, would cause her damage: bad habits, bad relationships, less-than-wise choices.

However, instead of helping her deal with those gently, pulling sinful “weeds” out one by one, I went in with a spiritual scuffle hoe: full of advice on how to overhaul her life from top to bottom. Immediately.

Weeds gone. For a short while.

But within two months, she was gone too.

Let’s not deal with people with a scuffle hoe.

“Dear brothers and sisters, if another believer is overcome by some sin, you who are godly should gently and humbly help that person back onto the right path. And be careful not to fall into the same temptation yourself.” – Galatians 6:1

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