Timely Instruction

Spiritual progress involves learning discernment. Few matters lend themselves to flowchart clarity, or one-size-fits-all approaches. Discernment is the ability to ascertain what is needed in any given moment or situation. The nature of this spiritual wisdom is to know how to make the timely choice between two opposites, as whether to do or not do, to say or not say, and to act or not act. As the wiseman teaches us, there is time for everything (Ecclesiastes 3:1-8).

I want to explore today and next week the topic of when to instruct and correct, and when to refrain from doing so. First, we will look at why it is best, at certain times, to not attempt to point out and correct where others are wrong. Next week we will look at the effect our anxiety has on how and when we try to instruct others.

Many of us learned, in whatever churches we have been a part of, that we should always stand for the truth. This typically meant always and immediately correcting all errors in thinking and action. However, because such problems are easily seen in others but barely recognized in ourselves, in practice we may end up trying to straighten everyone else out about the truth. We tend to notice the specks of dust in their eyes and not the logs of wood hampering us. This inability to readily see our own faults should give us pause about being too eager to immediately set right everything that is amiss in others. Love for the truth involves speaking it in a timely way.

We also need to consider the reality that we can only handle so much at any one time. Let’s imagine that we are wrong in fifty matters of belief and action, which must be a laughably small number in God’s eyes! Could we handle being corrected in all fifty at once? Does God tell us everything that we are doing wrong in a single instance, or does the Spirit convict us of sin gradually, one thing after another? The process of recognizing and addressing our faults has been likened to the layers of an onion; once one is removed, another is revealed.

Perhaps we marvel or are even confused that ancient Israel tolerated, or even endorsed to some extent, practices such as polygamous marriages and slave owning. Moses’ laws may have regulated or forbid some of the worst aspects of these common ancient customs, but why did it not simply outlaw them entirely? Perhaps God knows that seeing our faults is a process and everything cannot be changed at once. In Jesus’ day neither polygamy nor slavery was being practiced among the Jews, but the change in Jewish culture had been slow. What was once regulated was later eradicated.

If God can be patient, persistent, and timely in his work with us, then we can learn to do the same with each other. What we come to recognize is that not everyone is ready for every correction, no matter how true, immediately. Please don’t overwhelm me with a long lost of all my sins that are apparent to you. Help me to see and address the most urgent problems, and we will get to the others later.

In my own attempt to be timely with correction I try to separate sins which are a failure to practice faith in God from sins which are a failure to have faith in God. For instance, someone may not be very forgiving. They hold grudges and are bitter. This is a failure to practice the teachings of Christ because his way calls for us to forgive others. Let’s say this same person centers his whole life on acquiring wealth. Unforgiveness is a failure to live out faith, but pursuing wealth opposes having faith in God. The latter problem must be addressed more urgently than the first. Until one is putting faith in God details of living out that faith are irrelevant. As this simple example suggests, we have to discern an order in which to correct wrong belief and practice.

Jesus taught using the phrase “he who has ears to hear, let him hear”. Though he was speaking to crowds who had come to listen and he had not cornered them at the town market while they were buying groceries, still he knew not even all who had come were ready to hear. Though he spoke generally to the crowds, he waited for those who would approach him individually, seeking further instruction. Only those who are seeking will appreciate instruction and correction. Unless someone is “coming toward us” they will not want to hear. Chasing after others to offer uninvited teaching is pointless.

There is a time to teach and correct, and a time to refrain. Wise discernment helps us know to withhold correction when others are not ready, to know which matter is more urgent when there are several to address, and to recognize when others are not “coming toward us”. Helpful teachers and mentors know the times to leave unaddressed certain misguided thoughts, beliefs, or actions they see in others.

A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver. Proverbs 25:11

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Praying for the World

We can easily think ourselves into a theological corner regarding prayer when we ask why we should pray for people or about situations when God already knows what is happening and what needs to be done. This dilemma is not from a lack of confidence in God, but because we believe God is very capable.

If God knows all that can be known, then whatever situation we might pray about, or person we might pray for, is known more thoroughly by God than by us. Praying cannot be informing God of a need. God knows what is needed more than we do. If we are not informing God, are we suggesting to God what good he could do, options which he has not considered? Surely, we cannot think up better ideas to tell God! Why, then, are we still asked to offer intercessory prayers?

And pray for us, too, that God may open a door for our message, so that we may proclaim the mystery of Christ, for which I am in chains. Colossians 4:3

Some respond to this dilemma by saying that we ought to pray in this manner simply because scripture says we should. Sure, we might pray obediently, but it sounds like they are saying “don’t ask why, just pray.” However, if possible, I think it is better if we can have some idea of why we are praying for things about which God is well-aware and concerning which God already knows the best course of action.

Others go a little further and say that for some reason known to God alone, he chooses only to act when his people pray. This view makes us the key to God’s work: God wants to do good, knows the good that needs to be done, but he will not do that good work until we pray. Such a way of thinking certainly makes us feel guilty if we do not pray, but I do not see that scripture teaches this idea. Though one might point to “you do not have because you do not ask God” (James 4:2) as indicating that our prayer kickstarts divine actions, James is discussing selfishness and wrong motives in prayer rather than mere prayerlessness. 

The basic problem which I have with the idea that God will only act when his people pray is that numerous scriptures contradict it. For instance, this passage from Isaiah:

Truth is nowhere to be found,
    and whoever shuns evil becomes a prey.
The Lord looked and was displeased
    that there was no justice.
He saw that there was no one,
    he was appalled that there was no one to intervene;
so his own arm achieved salvation for him,
    and his own righteousness sustained him. Isaiah 59:14-16 

God’s people are not doing anything, certainly not praying, and yet God acts on his own to do what is righteous. God did not act because his people prayed. In fact, the meaning of grace is that God always takes the initiative out of his own goodness rather than responding to our meeting some preconditions, prayerfulness or righteousness. God is not waiting for me to pray before he will do good. If God only does as much as we pray for, we are in trouble! We do not even know how we ought to pray (Romans 8:26). Is God limited to the poor imagination of his people or the degree of our faithfulness in prayer?

Interestingly, Isaiah continues in that same passage to describe how God clothes himself with a breastplate of righteousness and a helmet of salvation, which reminds us of Paul’s admonition to put on the armor of God. Of course, Paul ends that metaphor with the call to pray (Ephesians 6:18-19). This may be pointing us in a better way of thinking about intercessory and petitionary prayer. God is always acting, quite independent of us and our prayers, but through our prayers we are united to his work in the world. God is the first to arm himself and do what needs doing. We put on his armor and join him. We are working with God by prayer in what God is doing and will do whether we are praying or not! The fact that God is already at work does not mean our prayers are just for us and do nothing. Intercessions and petitions of all kinds unite our hearts to what we understand to be God’s good purposes. Prayer does not work, God works . . . and prayer is our participation in God’s work. Intercessory prayer is always love, and love is the most powerful force in the universe, because love is of God. 

Think of yourself as having been created with the capacity to increase the amount of love in the world. All love is ultimately from God, so our love is actually contributing real spiritual energy for good into the universe. By loving in prayer, in attitude, and in action, we add to this love through which God does his good will. Praying for each other and whole world makes a difference because every prayer, whether spoken or wordless, and every good work, which is prayer enacted, increases the amount of the love through which God is recreating all things. I do not know how God uses the love in my prayers, but I trust that he will.

I know that through your prayers and God’s provision of the Spirit of Jesus Christ what has happened to me will turn out for my deliverance. Philippians 1:19 [Emphasis aded]

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Prayer That Transforms

The spiritual change we have been discussing for the last two weeks involves how we interact with the whole world and everything in it. Unfortunately, the world God created gets in the way of our seeing God. All that should point us toward God, as icons of the divine presence, often act as idols which hide God from our view. When “the heavens declare the glory of God” (Psalm 19:1), we look through them to God. In those times the world is alive with the presence of God everywhere we turn.

Last week I suggested that idolatry is our universal starting point. Furthermore, only gradually and not suddenly, does creation begin showing us the Creator, as our propensity to idolize the world begins to diminish. Therefore, at any one time my perspective is somewhere between the creation being nothing but idols and being completely transparent so that God is evident everywhere. The question is not “how do we keep things from becoming idols?” Everything already is an idol for us. Instead, we need to ask “how do we begin to see the world as full of images of God?” My answer at the end of my first post was that this requires prayer and contemplation . . . which needs explanation.

If you think of prayer as primarily petitions and intercessions then you will hear me saying that we have to ask God for the ability to see him in everything. It may sound as if we must hope that God grants us this new perspective and that we must him beg for it. If this is the case, we are at the mercy of God, quite literally, until he miraculously grants to us a new way of seeing.

However, I am not speaking about prayer as petition, but as meditative reflection that, with practice, can shape and change us. Consider the Lord’s prayer.

Our Father, which art in Heaven,
Hallowed be thy Name.
Thy Kingdom come. Thy will be done,
on earth as it is in Heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our trespasses,
As we forgive those who trespass against us.
And lead us not into temptation;
But deliver us from evil.
For thine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory,
For ever and ever. Amen.

I really do not think this prayer is as much about petitioning God as it may first appear. The apparent petitionary aspects are actually what God has done, is doing, and will do, whether we pray or not. This does not mean that saying these words are empty gestures, but rather that these words were given to change us much more than for us to beseech God to do certain things.

Like the rain he sends on the just and the unjust (Matthew 5:45), daily bread is given to all. When our daily needs are met it is the work of God. The Creator is seen in our daily bread. We do not call the forgiveness of God into existence any more than the cross was due to our request (Romans 5:10). The eternal mercies of God which flow over all humanity, forgiving with amazing grace, are seen in the fact that we live at all. That sinful people live to see another day is constant evidence of mercy. We are praying ourselves into an awareness of that forgiveness and to hear God’s call to emulate it. Even in temptation, which is not from God, deliverance shows his presence. How can we pray these words and not start to see God in everything and everywhere?

This prayer is not for us to set in motion the works of God, but to challenge us to see how God is already at work and present. God is the Father above, and his reign is coming to earth — as it is in heaven. To repeat and reflect on, through regular prayer, that his is the reign (kingdom), the moving force (power), and the true significance (glory), absolutely throughout all time (forever), is to be drawn into seeing God everywhere. These are not words that form an argument to convince us as much as poetic language to train us in thinking differently.

Though all talk about God is insufficient because no words suffice in describing the inexpressible, we notice that poetry supersedes prose in speaking, although imperfectly, about God. This is because poetry tries to elicit an imagination beyond any words. In a similar way, our seeing must go beyond the creation itself to the unseeable, where our perceiving becomes poetic as well. Seeing beyond seeing.

Prayerful reflection, practiced over time, often because we are meditating on the prayers given to us in scripture, helps us to develop a way of recognizing the unseen. Petitionary and intercessory prayer, though important in their own right, will not help us see God in everything. Entering the timeless quiet where one seeks to hear rather than speak, where words, if there be any, are given to us rather than created from within ourselves, is where we are taught that in all things God is present.

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Where We Begin

After writing last week about how idolatry is essentially a failure to see beyond things themselves, that we fixate on created things, loving and valuing them without recognizing that they point us toward God, someone asked how to let things be meaningful without turning them into idols. I thought that this would make a good follow-up discussion but it will take two weeks to develop. First, I want to encourage us to think about the process of changing our perspectives, how we see things, and then we will consider how prayer and contemplation help us do this.

For all of us, the type of idolatry I described is inevitable. We can do little but start with the world so obviously right before us. Our attention is focused on creation before we see anything of the “hidden” God who made it. Only slowly do we start recognizing God in and though all that has been created. Our unavoidable idolatrous way of looking at things is really bad news if we believe that God is impatient with our sinfulness and ready to strike us down immediately for all errors. However, I would suggest that God expects and understands that we all begin in idolatry, although God lovingly reveals himself so that we need not stay there. God knows even better than we what a long journey stretches before us.

Even those of us raised as Christians begin in idolatry. We easily make idols of our churches, our doctrines, and even our faith. We first “see” and focus on our religion rather than God. Legalism is the Idolizing of morality and obedience instead of seeing how these are pathways to God. We can turn any of our spiritual practices and good works into idols, which means that they become ends in themselves. We see what appears to be our goodness rather than the goodness of God in us. We do not understand that everything is a grace, and that without Christ we can do nothing (John 15:5). All spiritual arrogance, from believing in the “rightness” of my church, the correctness of my faith, and my distain for “sinners” is a sign of spiritual idolatry, which is due to spiritual immaturity.

Our journey toward maturity necessitates unlearning our first impulse to make idols. To understand how we can leave idolatry, we also must stop thinking that there are only two options, two choices, that all is an either-or, and start to see the many degrees of spiritual progress. With regard to idols, things are not either idols or not idols, as much as both idols and images of God to us, to whatever degree we have grown in grace. While it is useful to describe the issue as perceiving things as either idols or bearing the image of God, in practice we do both more or less all the time. The question is how much we have moved from idolizing things to seeing God in and though all things. The change will not occur in one instant, but is far more gradual as we let go of our idol fixation.

Therefore, the question is not “is this an idol” but “how much is this an idol” and “how much do I focus on this instead of God?” My progress in seeing God in everything will occur over time, and even what seems like an enormous revelation may turn out later to be a small step. But all the small steps are important. If we remain in either-or thinking we are more likely to imagine that valuing created things makes them idols, and that we must reject them entirely in order to love God. This is a God-against-the-world perspective. Loving God by loving his creation is simply a broader application of the principle of loving God by loving our neighbor. It cannot be love God or one’s neighbor, but God in and through the neighbor.

Another example of this process is how we all make an idol of ourselves, not seeing God as coming to us in our own lives, but clinging to an image of ourselves as we imagine ourselves to be. Jesus’ call to die to ourselves is to let go of this idol we have created, the person we think we are. God will reveal himself, as he does in all creation, through our own created self. We love the self we created rather than the self God created. The process of dying to self is a long journey with many hills to climb. Any one who thinks he or she has fully died to self is unfortunately unaware of how much false self there is.

This is why, before moving on to how prayer and contemplation are the means of this transformation, we need to know how prevalent our idol making tendency is. We need to know that in everyday practice idolatry is a matter of degree, and that we move imperfectly and gradually toward seeing God in everything. Idols rarely disappear suddenly, but shrink to reveal more of God. Rejecting the created world, as some misguided believers try to do, will not make us love God more. Distancing ourselves from creation will not bring us closer to the Creator any more than hating the children will help us love the Father.

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Seeing God Everywhere

Idolatry in the ancient world involved worshipping images of stone, precious metal, or wood, which people believed represented their gods. This is the form of worship and practice that the Jewish prophets, like Isaiah, denounced and ridiculed (Isaiah 44:13-17).

Because such statue-centered worship is not prevalent in our context, the biblical injunctions against idol worship are today applied to a more subtle type of “worship” to which we are vulnerable. We are rightly warned that we can make an “idol” of money and wealth. We can give ourselves wholly to pursuing fame and fortune, as the saying goes. Pleasure, career, achievements, and virtually anything can functionally become an object of our devotion, to which we may offer ourselves as if to God. In this sense, we may readily engage in idolatry, though there is not a golden statue of Zeus in our home.

However, underlying both the ancient homage to statues and the contemporary adoration of personal status and possessions, is a mistaken view of the world. This flawed perspective gives rise to idolatry in all its forms, but to understand the problem we need to understand how the world should be viewed.

For since the creation of the world His (God’s) invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made. Romans 1:20

Since all creation is the loving work of God, everything inherently bears the imprint of God to some degree. The Creator can be seen in and through his creation, which means that our perspective ought to be looking not simply at but through all things to glimpse God. All creation testifies to its Creator, and therefore all things are a visible witness to an invisible God.

They exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed animals and crawling creatures . . . and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator . . . Romans 1:22-25

Idolatry stops looking through created things to see God, but looks to the things themselves as if that is where “glory” or significance is found. Paul’s use of “image” is the word “icon” in Greek. Everything should be an icon (image) of God through which the invisible God is seen in his visible handiwork. Idolatry makes very different images which are not windows to God but the perceptual end of our attention. Idols actually prevent us from seeing God.

Though everything is in some manner an image of God, Christ is the image (icon) of the invisible God in fullness (Colossians 1:15,19). We are all created in the image of God (Genesis 1:27). Our Christian way of looking at all things finds the presence of God everywhere. All creation is an icon (image) directing us to God, with Christ as the final and full expression of God.

Little children, guard yourselves from idols. 1 John 5:21

The way to heed John’s admonition is to develop the capacity, by grace, to see God in everything and everyone. We will not “idolize” anything if we come to see everything as pointing us to the unseen God. We will not look at, but through everything to God who is the Source of all. This requires prayer and contemplation.

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On Christian Hope

This is the homily I wrote for my mother’s memorial service which was held this past Tuesday.

At the Last Supper, when Jesus was gathered with his disciples, the evening before his death, he said,

Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. John 12:24

Many of Jesus’ profound spiritual insights, his understanding of his Father’s presence and work in the world, came from fairly simple observations. He observed lilies in a field, and birds flying above, trees and their fruit, and the cycles of planting and harvesting. He believed that the way in which the world had been created revealed a divine pattern that had been consistently woven into the very rudimentary aspects of nature. His confidence in his Father’s provision for daily needs came from God’s care for the plants and animals. Why should we not trust that our Father will care for us if he provides for sparrows?

Jesus’ statement about a grain of wheat needing to fall to the earth and die, so that it might in turn be fruitful, was what he told his disciples that night so they might believe in resurrection— that death does not have the last word. As he faced his own death, the simple truth that a seed must die in order to create a new plant, was his way of telling his disciples how to understand his own death, and to expect his resurrection.

Father Richard Rohr points out that we are surrounded in this world by resurrection. The pattern of resurrection has been built into the universe, from the rising and setting of the sun, to the passing of the seasons, in the cycles of death and new life in the plant and animal kingdoms, and in the rhythms of the planets and solar systems. All around us we see things come into being, grow old, die, but then a newness appears. Everything in its own way invites us to believe in a life beyond the one we now know.

Why should we think that the pattern of everything, as created by God, would not hold true for us as well? God is continually creating new life, and surrounds us with examples of resurrection, if like Jesus, we notice the seeds. They teach us to trust in a life to come.

When we have learned to see the natural world as Jesus did, we see his death and resurrection not as some strange and barely believable miracle, but a confirmation that God is doing one gracious work of bringing life to all things- we see it everywhere.

The beauty of our Christian faith, which is rooted in a grace-generated trust in the God of all wonder, goodness, love, mercy, and life, opens our eyes to embrace with joy and hope our lives as they have been given to us. In fact, God comes to us disguised as our own lives, showing up in everything and everywhere.

The way Jesus spoke of this truth was to say that God knows the number of hairs on our heads. In other words, God is closer to us than we are to ourselves. God knows us better than we know ourselves. As Paul says in Acts 17: 27-28, God is not far from each one of us because in him we live and move and exist.

The spiritual life involves learning that what seemed hard to find, perhaps far away, was actually near and easy to see— we just did not know how to trust it. We have to learn to see what is right before us, and actually discover God in whom we have always had our being.

Thus, our Christian hope is in the persistent love of God that pursues us throughout our lives, appearing constantly despite hurts, disappointments, and tragedy— to show us that love is far more prevalent than evil, and that God holds us close even in suffering. This love of God, testified to in scripture, and experienced in life, becomes our steadfast assurance and hope.

Today, even as we celebrate the life of Jeannette Newton, remembering what grace and goodness was given to her and that she shared with us, we do feel sadness. Death is not our friend. In fact, Paul calls death the last enemy which will be defeated. The cross represents our Christian hope, an ironic symbol because the instrument of Roman torture now shows that God, for our sakes, defeated death, triumphed over this enemy, and will raise us just as he raised Jesus from the grave. Now we may trust with joy Jesus’ statement that he is the resurrection and the life.

When we think about the life to come, what we call heaven, the best description seems to be what Paul says as he quotes the prophet Isaiah:

“What no eye has seen, nor ear heard,

    nor the heart of man imagined,

what God has prepared for those who love him.” 1 Corinthians 2:9, see Isaiah 64:4

All our descriptions of what it means to be in the presence of God, in heaven, fall short of the beauty of that blessed state. Imagine what would seem most marvelous to you— then delight in the realization that being united with God will be far better.

As someone reminded me this past week, one of the most comforting things about anyone has said to me, we will love each other better in the life to come than any of us can manage, even by grace, now. We will be more forgiving, accepting, and gracious with each other— for we will be in the very presence of true love, God himself, and we will be transformed to be as He is.

What matters in this life is not achievements, accomplishments, wealth, whether one was recognized or toiled in obscurity, whether one climbed some ladder of success or not. The only thing that matters, in the end, is who we loved and who loved us. The people who love us well in this life, are but drops from the ocean that is God, an endless source of love which overwhelms our hurts, disappointments, and the suffering that comes in this life. We have barely tasted true love, and the promise of growing eternally into that love is the hope that sustains us even in times of sadness.

Faith, hope, and love abide, Paul says, that is, they are eternal. All else of this world we will leave behind, and will not need. But our trust will remain, our hope will continue, and love will become all there is.

Our hope is not in what is, but in how even now we have hints of what will be. Our hope is Christ, for he is as we will be, whole, risen, radiant, and he welcomes each one of us when we pass from this life into the next.

May the grace of God be with us all. Amen.

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In Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. Romans 12:5

If Paul is correct that we are connected to one another like the parts of a single body, and that we truly belong to one another, then we cannot really know who we are outside this larger whole. The belonging here is not like players on a baseball team, employees of a company, or members of a club. They are all occasional participants in a group. Their identity is not wholly determined by their belonging to one another in those organizations. 

Paul’s body metaphor is different because his makes meaningful self-understanding impossible apart from recognition of one’s relationship to the whole. Until we are attached in some very practical way to a community of other believers, we cannot know ourselves as the body parts of Christ. A single piece of the body has no function or role apart from being incorporated with others into a living whole.

The nature of our own being and life is not discovered as an individual, alone, detached, and independent. Any such idea that I have of myself as separate must be false. I may have many thoughts about who I am, my purpose, and role, but that is all conjecture on my part until I discover who I was made to be within long-lasting and self-giving bonds of mutual dependence with others.

I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. John 15:5

The “you can do nothing” is not referring simply to actions that we need Jesus’ help to accomplish, but includes even knowing ourselves. Until we come to God as an incarnate human, Jesus, we cannot possibly know what it means to be human. Our relationship with Christ also includes and necessitates being in relationship with all others, because he is “All in all” (Colossians 3:11).

We discover who we are, to the degree we can know this, through long-term, committed interaction with others that strives toward oneness in Christ. We learn who are and have always been, our true identity which can only be revealed by God, together. We learn from each other in the process of deeply invested relationships. Superficial relationships and having long-term interactions only with those who are like ourselves, only certain parts of the body, will reinforce false ideas about who we are. 

Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would have no sin; but since you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.” John 9:41

Think for a moment about the connection Jesus says exists between self-knowledge and spiritual maturity. The leaders he is speaking with declare that they are not blind, which indicates they do not know themselves. Therefore, they remain in the immaturity of sin. If they knew themselves to be blind, and they are as we all are, then they would not be mired in what separates them from God. 

We cannot possibly grow to maturity without self-knowledge, and we cannot know ourselves except by discovering who we are as members one of another in the body of Christ. Unfortunately, we do not easily allow ourselves to “belong to one another” and would rather maintain the fiction of our autonomy. We barely allow ourselves to be closely connected to those who are very much like ourselves, much less to be in deep interdependence with those members of the body of Christ who are very different than ourselves. 

Great humility and faith are needed to maintain a commitment to one another through the difficulties that inevitably come. This, though, is the path to self-knowledge and spiritual maturity.

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