Making It, Getting Through, or Blooming

At some point in my Bible college career (earlier rather than later, I think), someone (I no longer remember who) gave me this advice:  “Never resign on Monday morning.”  What that long-forgotten person meant was that 1) Sunday can be discouraging for ministers and 2) Ministers should not act too quickly on that discouragement.  Most times, they shouldn’t act on it at all.

This advice was repeated and reinforced to me many times over the years, both by those ministers (almost always older than I) who simply said it to me verbatim and by those ministers (again, usually older than I) who didn’t follow it themselves, those ministers who let Sunday’s discouragement result in Monday’s premature resignation.  It was so common, I thought for sure I’d find some Internet meme about it.  I didn’t, but I did find this article from Thom Rainer which alludes to the idea:

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This came to mind this Monday morning.  I was driving (to an active shooter training session led by our local police department, of all things) and as I drove I was thinking about the discouragement I suffered during yesterday’s service.  That service was greatly discouraging for several reasons and, despite what I’ve been taught over the years and how well I was taught it, I was beginning to think of resignation.

As I thought about that, though, three phrases came to mind.

The first phrase was “making it”.  As I thought about resignation, I thought, “I’m just not going to make it in ministry.”  By make it there, I was referring to becoming what my home church would call “a big name pastor” or “a big man in the brotherhood”.  It is a celebrity minister, in other words.  We do live in an era of celebrity ministers.  I don’t know that we always did.  I don’t know that we always didn’t.  I don’t know when this thing of celebrity ministers came to be.  But I know it is now, and I know we’re living in that era now, and I know that most if not all of my fellow ministers believe that they need to/should be one.  I know that most if not all of my fellow ministers believe (whether they will state it directly or not) that they will be a failure if they don’t become one.  And I believe that as well.  I believe it subconsciously yet still actually.  I believe it should happen because I believe I have a message (a way of understanding The Faith) that should be heard by as many people as possible.  And I believe it should happen because I’ll be a failure if it doesn’t; that will be proof that I have chosen the wrong path in life.  And I’m beginning to believe it is not going to happen.  Unlike these people, I have developed the ability to see that I might not “make it”.

The second phrase was “getting through”.  As I sat there in my car, I thought, “If I can’t make it, maybe I can just get through it.”  That is, maybe I can just get through another twenty or so years of ministry, maybe I can survive long enough to build up a retirement and then get out.  That wasn’t the happiest thought I’d ever had.  I’ve always felt life had to have some purpose, some goal, some meaning.  “Getting through” seems to me to be the opposite of that.  “Getting through” seems to be a capitulation to the “fact” that it doesn’t have any of those things, or at least to the fact that those things are never going to be achieved.  “Getting through” is just “getting by”, “passing time”, a slow, sad death.  It’s like what The Beatles describe in “Eleanor Rigby”:

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So those were the first two phrases I hit on: one that seemed positive to me but also seemed unattainable, the other that seemed negative to me but also unavoidable.

But then another phrase came to me.  That phrase was “blossom where you’re planted”.  I first heard this phrase through a picture that the folks at the church I served while at college gave me when I moved off to start my first ministry.

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Or maybe it was “bloom”; I can’t remember and I’ve lost the picture.  Either one works.

And it seemed to me that this is more what the Lord is wanting from me, more what He hopes for me and from me.  I highly doubt “making it” is as good as it seems.  In fact, I highly doubt “making it” has any real place in the Kingdom and the life of faith.  It seems much more like a worldly idea to me, no matter what Christian skin we put on it.  I equally doubt “getting through” has any real place in the Kingdom and the life of faith.  While perhaps humbler, it is worldly in its own way.  No, the Lord/Kingdom/life of faith clearly want me to do something more like “blossom” or “bloom”.  They clearly want me to produce fruit or be fruitful.

Jesus talked about such fruitfulness at many times in His ministry, and Paul wrote about it often in the Epistles.  But perhaps the best reference to it comes from the Parable of the Sower (also called the Parable of the Soils).  There Jesus described three people types, all of whom reject or lose the Kingdom seed in some way.  Then He described a fourth people type, the type that not only accepts and keeps the Kingdom seed but multiplies it.  An interesting thing about that multiplication, though, is that it was never the same.  For some it was 30 times, for others 60, for others 100.

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There is no indication that the 100 times multipliers were any better or any more right than the 30 or 60 timers.  No greater or lesser favor seems to be shown to the multipliers here.  It is just the way it is.  Some did 100, but some did 30 and some did 60.  They all bloomed differently, but they bloomed where they were planted.  That’s what the Lord seems to be looking for.  Not the quantity of the blooming, but the simple act of it.

That’s an encouraging thought for me.  That’s something I can do.  It is something I am doing, even though I’m not making it and probably never will make it.  It is something I can do which makes getting through so much more than getting through.  It is something which keeps me from resigning on Mondays.

What I Saw – 2 Kings 4:15-28

My personal reading time gave me 2 Kings 1-5.  In those chapters, I found this passage 4:15-28).

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What I saw her was a woman who seemingly did not expect to receive goodness from God.  I can’t be sure that’s what is going on here (I’m always aware there might be elements in this historical stories that I miss which cause me to misinterpret), but that’s what it seemed like to me.  She somewhat rejected Elisha’s initial suggestion of receiving a son, and she references that rejection at the (temporary) death of her son.  It seemed to me like she didn’t expect God to give her anything good.

Whether or not that is the case for this woman, it is often the case for me.  For some reason, I don’t see God as “the giver of all good things”.  I don’t emotionally, that is.  Though I know the Scripture says this and I accept it intellectually, I struggle with it practically.

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This passage then reminded me to see God this way both intellectually and emotionally, to accept this truth practically, to believe that God will give good to me.  It reminded me to believe this not just when nothing is happening (as when Elisha first spoke to the woman) but when bad things are happening (as when her song died).  God is inviting me to not only know but trust that He is doing/will continue to do good to me, is giving/will continue to give good to me.

That’s what I saw in 2 Kings 4:15-28.

What I Saw – Luke 6:39-49

I met Tuesday morning with a group of pastors, as usual.  Our reading came from the Moravian Daily Text.  It was Luke 6:39-40.

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At first glance, this seems like a collection of disparate teachings.  The leader of our group suggested that this was a rabbinical style “string of pearls” teaching technique (apparently the rabbis wouldn’t teach for too long on one subject but would move from one to another to keep the people engaged).  Nonetheless, I saw a similar idea in most if not all of the teachings.  I saw several other ideas as well, which I recorded in my journal.

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The big thing I heard here is that most teachings have behind them the idea of a “good” or “fully trained” man.  This in turn lead to the question, “Am I good/fully trained?”  For me, this is a difficult question, one I’ve struggled with all my life.  I “feel” and/or believe the answer to be, “No.”  For that reason, I felt very challenged by these teachings.  I felt eliminated by them, in fact, as if they disqualify me or reveal my disqualification from the community of Christ.

As I continued to contemplate these things, I realized there is actually invitation here.  I think it comes when Jesus says “The student is above his teacher”.  With that, Jesus is eliminating all need for competition and comparison.  He is telling me that there is only so far I can go in this goodness/training, that I’m certainly not going to go further than or supersede Him (the teacher in question).  That being the case, I am free to pursue goodness and training without needing to wonder how much I and/or how much more I am than anybody else.  I took this to be an encouragement.  I saw, then, that Jesus was not eliminating me here (establishing that I am not good/fully trained) but encouraging me (asking me to pursue goodness/training).

One of the pastors in the group further suggested that this is not something we can do on our own, that goodness comes into us only from God.  I think this is suggested by the “foundation” idea Jesus ends the message on.  That foundation is obviously God/the teachings of God.  The man builds on it, puts some effort into setting himself upon it.  But that effort is only effective because God is there to begin with.

The main idea I took from this reading, then, is that God is an encourager, encouraging me to growth/training in His Kingdom.  The subsequent action I took from this reading was a need to ask God to make me good, to remove the evil stirred up in my heart/the plank in my eye/my blindness so that I can be good and fully trained as He is encouraging me to be.

And that’s what I saw in Luke 6:39-49.

Created Equal

I took my family to our local Six Flags amusement park last night.  I did so because A) we have a season pass and we need to get our money’s worth out of it and B) they were going to have a fireworks show.

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So we spent the afternoon there, having a good time together on the rides, enjoying the good weather.  When it came time for the fireworks, we discovered there was more to the show than just the visual part.  There was an audio part as well.  As the fireworks blasted across the sky, music blared out of the park’s outdoor speakers.  I can’t remember all the musical bits I heard, but I caught Ray Charles’ “America The Beautiful” and the Marine fight song and “God Bless America” (which I appreciated for obvious reasons).  There were some speeches mixed in there as well: Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech was one of them (and for those who accuse Christians of being racist or harboring racist tendencies, let me tell you that there were tears in my eyes as I stood there in the dark watching the fireworks surrounded by the many different nationalities and cultures we have in the Bay Area), and something from Ronald Reagan.

And then there was this:

That’s our Declaration of Independence.  I don’t think it was this version I heard (I’m pretty sure it wasn’t, but I couldn’t find the one I heard and I really like Max McLean, so there you go).  And I love that Declaration of Independence.  For me, it is second in truth only to the Bible.  Besides God’s word, there is nothing as logical, factual, wise, and profitable for guidance than this Declaration.

That is particular true of this line:

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One thing I know about this line is that there are some variations.  One version of the Declaration read inalienable.  I think you can still find some people quoting it that way.  Another, more important thing I know about this line, though, is that it is not only “self-evidently true”, as Thomas Jefferson (or perhaps Benjamin Franklin, who may have suggested this phrase in place of “sacred and undeniable”) says it is, but it is also quite theistic.  It presupposes not only a God but a creator God.  It states not only that all men are equal but that this equality stems from God.

And I think that is the important thing for us to see here.  Not just that all men (re: all people) are equal, nor that all men are endowed with the basic rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, but that all men are so equal and endowed because they are created by and thus indelibly connected to a creator God.  Indeed, the truth of equality and the further truth of rights can only be due to such a connection to a creator God.  It cannot come from an evolutionary understanding of the origin of man.  Equality and rights cannot be derived from a materialistic view of the universe (a view of the universe which eliminates the spiritual, which accepts the existence only of the material).  There is no equality in evolution, no basis for equality in materialism.  In fact, is evolution/materialism is true, if this is the correct origin and understand of man and the universe, then all men are certainly not equal.  What, after all, is the basis of evolution?  Survival of the fittest.  And what is survival of the fittest?  Superiority.  One organism being superior to another.  Greater than.  Better.

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Now maybe you’d like to limit this superiority to merely physical attributes, not personal ones.  I can understand why you might want to do that.  To begin to look at some individuals as superior to another is going to result in one way or another to “social Darwinism” (a phrase I first heard from my best friend in high school; he spit it out as if it were the most detestable thing he had ever heard of, taking me completely by surprise) and all the “evils” which follow in its way.  Nonetheless, I’m not sure what basis you have for limiting the concept in this way.  I’m sure none of us like social Darwinism (I’ve never personally met anyone who does, though I know there are people who promote related ideas).  But I’ve never had any non-theist explain why none of us dislike it so much, why it is wrong.  Looking at the “facts” of a materialistic/evolutionary understanding of origin and existence, I can’t imagine what basis they have for disliking it or resisting it.  I can’t imagine what basis they have for continuing to hold to this idea of equality which so obviously does not fit the mechanism of evolution.  I’m glad they do.  Really glad.  I just don’t understand why or even how.

As for me, though, I know the why and the how.  It is because of God who made us and put equal value on all of us.  I not only know that, but I love that.  I love equality.  I plan on celebrating it along with all the other wonderful aspects of the American value system tomorrow (and, yes, America has committed a lot of sins and has a lot of flaws, but its value system is indeed worth celebrating).  I’m sure you will as well.  As you do, though, understand why you are celebrating it (that’s why both practically and philosophically).  Understand that this equality can in no way come from “nature red in tooth and claw” but can only come and self-evidently does come from a Creator.

God’s Limitations

But, “Why?” isn’t going to go away completely, is it?  We are, again, irrevocably human and are going to keep asking this question whether it is the most pertinent or not.

And in my experience, one of the reasons we do this is because we believe God can stop or change anything He wants to.  We believe God can do this because we believe God can do anything, that there is nothing God can’t do.  Since there is nothing God can’t do, so God can (we thing) stop or change anything He wants to stop or change.  He can prevent all the bad things that happen to us and thus at least indirectly if not directly responsible for everything that happens to us.

I believe this is how we think.  I know it is how I think and I imagine that it might be how you think, so I believe this is how at least some of us think and thus the reason many of us continue to ask the question, “Why?”

And what we don’t realize is that this is completely wrong.

The fact of the matter is that God cannot do anything.  The fact of the matter is that there are things God can’t do.  Masie Sparks identified this fact in a little book called 101 Things God Can’t Do.  I read this book when I was fresh out of Bible college.  I found out this week it is has been updated to 151 Things God Can’t Do.

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And strange though it sounds, the premise of this book is true.  There are things the almighty, omnipotent God can’t do.

There are things He can’t do if He is to achieve His goal, that is.  There are things He can’t do if He is going to bring His art to its grand conclusion.  I think of God as an artist; I style myself as an artist (an author; I write or at least try to write novels and stories) and I accordingly think of God as an artist as well.  I think of Him operating as an artist.  I think of the universe He made an not only His art project but His unfinished art project, His work in progress.

And one thing I know about art is that it has limitations.  Art is about choices, and once certain choices are made, they by default eliminate other choices.  Say an artist decides he’s going to make a sculpture, going to sculpt a figure from clay or stone.  That’s great.  Notice what he has immediately done, though.  He has immediately eliminated the possibility of his art being in color. He has also eliminated the possibility of his art moving.  He has opened the possibility of his art having three-dimensions and being touchable, but he has eliminated the other things.

Say he decides to paint.  Now he gets color, but he loses three dimensions.

Say he decides to make a movie.  Now he gets color and motion and sound, but again loses three dimensions as well as touch.

Say he decides to write.  Now he loses touch and sound and color and image altogether, but gains the ability to directly communicate thought.

And on and on it goes.  Once an artist makes one decision, he limits himself from the ability to make other decisions.  And you find that not just in art but in other fields as well.  You find the same phenomena in engineering, by the way; once you decide to make a diesel truck you lose the ability to run it in the Indy 500.

We find these same limitations in God’s artwork, God’s engineering, God’s creation.  Once He chose to make us a certain way, He was naturally limited from doing certain things.  He can’t make a square circle (to use a childish example) because in the medium He chose things have definite shapes.  Maybe He could do that in a different medium, but He can’t do that in this medium.  He also can’t “break the fourth wall”.  If He does that, the work is ruined.  Nobody likes to see the artists in his work.  We wouldn’t like it if Van Gogh painted his thumbs into one of his paintings.  We hate it when we see a boom mike in a movie shot.

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It is the same with God.  There are things He can but can’t do, things He has the ability to do but is kept from doing by the nature of His art.  He talks about this Himself in one of Jesus’ well-known parables:

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“I can’t destroy the tares,” God says here.  “I could, but I’d destroy the wheat in the process.  So I could but I can’t.”

For some of us, this is a disappointment.  For others, it is an argument against God’s existence or goodness:

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Come on, guys.  There are way to many variables here.

The reality, though, is that this is just the nature of art (or engineering or any other creative feat).  And the best thing for us to do is to understand and accept that.  The best thing for us to do is submit to the artist in the knowledge and faith that He is making something wonderful.

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What I Saw – Luke 5:1-11

Luke 15:1-11 was the New Testament reading from the Moravian Daily Text for Jun 26, 2018.  I read this passage with a small group of pastors that Tuesday morning.

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I saw several wonderful truths during the reading of this passage.  The first is that Jesus sees potential and we don’t.  I saw this when one of my fellow pastors read verse 2 from a different translation than mine.  That translation had the word but in it.

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That little word suggested to me that there was potential here, potential that was not being realized.  Jesus could see this potential, but the fishermen/future disciples could not.  That idea carries into the miraculous catch of fish.  All Peter saw was a barren lake (or a lake that was at least barren for him at the current time).  Jesus saw something else and told Peter to cast in his nets.  Peter did, and there was a catch, fruit, harvest, life.

There were a couple other ideas I saw here.  I wrote them down in my journal.

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I doubt you can read my chicken-scratch handwriting, so here’s what it says:

  • Do we have eyes to see the potential?
  • Can we submit to Jesus’ authority in a place where we are experts? (This is what Peter did, and as we go forward with Kingdom work, I imagine it is what we will have to do as well; we will have to trust Jesus when He tells us to do something counter intuitive)
  • Can we accept the grace Jesus is offering sinful men? (This is another idea I got from this text.  Peter asks Jesus to leave him, understanding that he is sinful and thus not worthy of what Jesus is offering.  Jesus, however, graciously refuses, holding on to Peter despite Peter’s admitted and no doubt very real sinfulness).
  • Do we have a spirit that will attempt what seems hopeless?

All of these were challenging but inspirational.  They indicate that God is asking me to do a hard thing (which Kingdom work no doubt is) but that He is empowering me to do this hard thing and that I am accepted/allowed to do this hard thing and can do this hard thing by faith.

The leader of our group then asked us to summarize “the covenant word” we heard in this passage (covenant refers to our relationship with God; a covenant word is usually about God Himself; it is a fact or truth rather than a command).  We listed these:

  • God is a forgiver.
  • God holds on to us.
  • God has more for us.

And that is what I heard on June 26th, 2018.

How vs Why

It seems I’ve been hearing the question, “Why?” a lot lately.  Bad things have been happening to people, and they have been asking me why those bad things have been happening to them.

And I understand that question.  I understand the tendency to ask that question.  I have asked it myself.  I still ask it myself.  Often.

Lately, though, I’ve come to understand something about this question, something that makes me in turn question it.  That something is somewhat summed up in the words of The Architect from The Matrix Reloaded:

Like Neo, we are irrevocably human, and thus irrelevant questions are going to be (or at least seem) pertinent to us, more pertinent than they actually are.  The irrelevancy of these questions is going to be far less obvious than it actually is.

And in many ways, the question, “Why?” is irrelevant.  A simple analogy will reveal this.  Say you have a knife wound in your shoulder; you have literally been stabbed in the back.  You might wonder why that happened.  Was it an accident?  Was it intentional?  Did a friend mistake you for someone else and strike you in error?  Or did a friend purposefully turn on you and try to take you down?  Pertinent questions, to be sure.  But not as pressing as the fact that you now have a knife sticking out of your back that needs to be removed, that you now have blood flow that needs to be stopped and a puncture that needs to be stitched.  The “how” in that situation (the removal of the knife, the stopping of the blood, the stitching of the puncture, the saving of your life and healing of your body) is obviously far more pertinent than the why.  Less emotionally pressing, maybe, but far more pertinent.

I believe it is the same in the life of faith.  How, that is, how we react to bad things, how we survive them, how we heal from them, how we overcome them, is far more pertinent to the life of faith than why they happened.  Perhaps no book of the Bible reveals this more than Job.  The first two chapters of Job give us a behind-the-scenes look at what was happening to that man; we know why bad things happened to Job perhaps better than we know why bad things happened to anybody else.  Yet when God finally appears to speak with Job about the matter, He does not give that why to Job.  He does not tell Job why these bad things happened to him, even though He and we know that why very well.  Instead, He just gives Job a lecture on how great He is, a lecture which is probably intended to teach Job to trust in Him.  Job (who as far as we know never discovered the why of the bad thing that happened to him) indeed learned the lesson of trust from that lecture, responding to it in this way:

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I wasn’t as accepting of that lesson at my first couple readings of Job.  I felt rather cheated by than answer in fact.  I thought it was a “no-answer”.  I wanted a better answer than that.  What I’ve realized in the decades since those first couple readings is that this answer is the best answer.  It is the only answer we’re likely to understand.  It is also the only answer we’re likely to accept.

Understanding is one thing.  I know we all think we’re very smart, but the fact of the matter is that we aren’t.  We aren’t able to order the universe as God has, to maintain all the parts that have to work together for life to continue.  We don’t even know what all the parts are.  Even if we did, we wouldn’t be able to conceive of them all in a working way.  And even if we did that, we wouldn’t appreciate them all.  We see a quick example of this every time we watch a science fiction/space-faring movie.  If I understand the universe correctly, most of space is full of radiation that will kill humans quite quickly.  I’ve never seen a space-faring show cover this aspect of space-faring, though, never seen one explain how the characters are faring through and sometimes living in lethal space.  I’ve rarely seen one explain how they have earth-like gravity on their spaceships, either.  The creators of these movies and shows routine miss facts like that.  They are apparently oblivious to them, or, if they aren’t oblivious to them, they can’t figure out who to tell an engaging story around them.  If we can’t do that, which is comparatively simple, how are we going to understand the far more complex matter of why bad things happen?  Even if God told us directly, we wouldn’t get.

We also wouldn’t accept it.  Understanding is one thing.  Acceptance is quite another.  And I don’t think we would accept most whys.  I don’t think we would accept most explanations of why bad things happened, even if they came from God Himself.  Imagine if God had told Job, “Hey Job, you’re about to go through several traumatic events in order to prove that people will love me even when they aren’t blessed.  In the process, you’ll become an icon of faithfulness that will inspire millennia after millennia.”  When you put it like that (which is an accurate way to put it), you can clearly seen that goodness came out of Job’s tremendous suffering.  Great and tremendous goodness, in fact.  Would Job have seen it that way, though?  I wonder.  He might have, but he might also have said, “God, are you sure there isn’t another way?”  I know one guy who said such a thing: singer Chris Isaak.  I saw Chris Isaak on The Today Show (I think) around 2001 (again, I think).  During his time there, Katie Couric (yet again, I think) mentioned that he had suffered during his lifetime.  He said he had indeed suffered.  She then said something to the affect of, “But it made you such a great songwriter.”  To this, Isaak replied, “Yeah, but sometimes I wish I was a mediocre artist and had a swinging life.”  I can’t document that exchange (I have been trying for years, but it was the pre-YouTube era and if it exists out there I can’t find it).  Nonetheless, I heard him say it.  I understand the choice he thinks about there, and I imagine most of us would think about that choice or even make that choice ourselves.  If God said to us, “This suffering will produces this good”, we would most likely answer, “Can’t we suffer less and have less good?”

That being the case, we just aren’t able to handle the answers to the question of why, and God, knowing that, doesn’t try to give that answer to us all that often.  And now that I’ve been dealing with that question via the lives of various people for a couple weeks, I’ve come to the conclusion that we would be better off if we just didn’t ask.  I have come to the conclusion that we would be better off trusting God no matter what we experience.  I have come to the conclusion that we will do far better if we focus on the pragmatic question of how or even what (i.e., “How does God want me to respond to this?  What does God want me to do here?”) rather than the philosophical question of why.  I have come to the conclusion that the best response to this situations is that we find from Habakkuk who, when struggling with the question of why himself, eventually came to this answer:

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