Wednesday, March 28, 2018



There are two ways of spreading light:

                                                                          be the candle

                                                                                                          or the mirror that reflects it.

 (Edith Wharton).

One Saturday, I joined my brother-in-law and nephew and headed for East Lansing, Michigan. The brilliant reds and yellows of fall glorified the crisp October day as we headed for Spartan Country. I looked forward to seeing Mark Harmon and his UCLA Bruins invade Spartan Stadium. Mark was a young man with an outstanding athletic career that came as no accident.

I was a high school freshman in 1941 when All-American Tom Harmon wore the magic 99 for the University Of Michigan maize and blue. Tom became the darling of college football, one of America’s premier players. He became a showpiece of success I never forgot. His collegiate thrill of a lifetime came when he received that coveted Heisman Trophy, given annually to the nation’s top collegiate football player.

Years later a matured and now married Tom Harmon made a new discovery. The former Wolverine eventually confessed his greatest delight in his Heisman was not when he received it, but more than a decade later as he sat at the dinner table with his wife and children.

“What is a Heisman Trophy?” a youthful Mark Harmon had asked his All-American dad. “Son, I guess the best way to tell you about a Heisman Trophy is to show you one,” the senior Harmon had responded. With that, the two of them got up from the dinner table and went into dad’s den, filled with an array of trophies. Lifting one of the trophies out of the case and handing it to Mark, the former Michigan star announced, “Son, this is a Heisman Trophy.”

What better way to motivate a boy than by letting him hold in his own hands the coveted trophy won by his very own dad! One such experience of seeing, touching, handling, and sharing, can unleash more motivated emotion than a whole library filled with heroic stories. For this reason, we look back to a rocky knoll outside the city gates of Jerusalem more than twenty centuries ago. There, a “carpenter’s son” died on a cross between two filching thieves.

Millions of people in every century have looked to this cross, seeing it as shining evidence that God loves mankind with an everlasting love. This conclusion, accepted widely across the centuries, agrees in substance that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself. The cross of Christ confirmed for many that Jesus lived and laughed with people, while he lifted humanity by loving mankind to the death, even his own death.

Our minds wander back across the centuries and gaze on this supreme witness of God’s great love--the cross from which Jesus uttered his seven last words. Momentarily, we turn from the plight of our planet in this twenty-first century, hoping to rediscover the wonder and power of those last words from that cross--conclusions we value because he spoke them while going through the crucible of dying. It was not a time for the trivial!

His words cut through the pulp found around the edges, piercing through to the core of life at its essence, its bottom-line best. Jesus was dying and his words highlight his victory. He uttered his words only after playing the game of life as no one else ever played. We find in them a truly invigorating life, one filled with meaningful intention, one expressing profound profitability, and one truly worth investigating.

The bottom line of successful living means more than winning an athletic trophy, or building a Fortune 500 company. It means investing in personal character and achieving a personal ethic that always offers something worth giving, even when you don’t have a dime in your pocket. It suggests living “success-fully” or being full of success. To best invest in success, one needs to find a truly successful person and learn from them all you can, and no one qualifies for that genius like Jesus on the cross.

Booker T. Washington claimed success is best measured by the obstacles one has overcome while trying to succeed, rather than by the position one has reached in life. Jesus’ disciples came to understand this better after they walked and talked with Jesus and found him renewed day after dog day. They observed him in their comfortable circle of intimacy and saw how he succeeded in times and places where other men crumbled from the pressure.

They noted how his walk and his talk integrated into a singleness of purpose. Moreover, they envied the peaceful contentment he experienced; he was wholesome to be around. He was a well-balanced teacher whose company everyone enjoyed. They sensed his transcendence, his extraordinary wholesomeness that added authority o his words. They felt his authentic power, especially after praying in the late night hours after an exhausting day.

These were common men, homegrown Jews, neither pagan nor gentile. Although quite ordinary, they were well instructed in the ways of God’s Covenant People, as were all young Jewish lads. They knew about the centuries of traditional orthodox religious teaching. They prayed three times daily. They knew the Jewish scriptures. They also knew about things like pride, idolatry, and disobedience, known barriers to personal discipline. And yes, they watched Jesus forge a disciplined prayer life that somehow resulted in the kind of personal power they knew they all needed.

“Lord, teach us to pray,” we find them responding (Luke 11:1).

When Jesus prayed, the disciples became aware of the frailty of their own faith. The pressures of roller coaster living brought them a continuing awareness of need for a transfusing of consistency. They needed more than second-hand information. As they watched Jesus live out of the overflow of an unseen spiritual abundance, they knew he also lived his life at a strenuous pace. Furthermore, they knew his perspective was very different from the tepid, bland, business as usual syndrome of everyone they knew.

Much of our self-help therapy today promises more than it delivers. Ultimately, it falls far short of what we really need to know about achieving life success-fully--like the birthday card sent to an elderly lady by her prankster friend. When it came in the mail, she looked at the intriguing cover with more than casual interest.

 “How to Live to be a Hundred,” the card promised. Opening it, she found this superbly innocent bit of innocuity on the inside pages - “Get to be ninety-nine and be very, very careful.” People continue their search, but much of our search is just that innocent, innocuous, even naive. Simply put, it too closely resembles the rejection slip I received once, in which a helpful magazine editor reminded me my introduction promised more than my article delivered.

In like manner, a group of Episcopalians gathered for an annual conference one January. While together, they carefully endorsed a prepared statement of “revelation, renewal, and reformation,” calling for a “return to biblical Christianity rather than the liberal American translation of Christianity.” They wanted their church to deliver an authentic Christian faith.

They took this action, as reported by the news at that time, because “without a born-again experience expressed in renewal; neither the Christian nor the parish can be effective in the world to minister.” Their declaration claimed “the Scriptural promises of supernatural resources are true, have been experienced by some, and are available to all God’s people in order to be more effective witnesses.”

The full statement became the first for American Episcopalians. Prepared for review by the Lambeth Conference, it was prepared in hopes of receiving an endorsement by English Anglicans. Here were spiritually thoughtful and sensitive people attempting to deliver a promised product, trying to recover the process of recycling lasting values. At least some of them understood that people who succeed in life prioritize attitudes and actions calculated to achieve one’s goal. Achieving one’s goal usually takes more than simply living carefully, and they were attempting to focus on the known strengths.

Their statements of faith visualized the kind of persons they wanted to become, the objective they hoped to achieve, and they were refusing to accept anything less. We must recover some of this process if we are to join that select company of pilgrims who most often achieve their goals. One such person was a very young priest who struggled with an interminable variety of spiritual disorders. Haunted by a nagging vision of a more authentic life than he knew he had, he appeared driven by something he did not even comprehend.

As a result, he spent endless hours with his Father Confessor, enumerating seemingly inexhaustible minutiae of self-defeating behaviors from which he sought to be freed. Staupitz, the young priest’s Father Superior, finally determined to send the youthful Martin Luther on a holy pilgrimage to Rome. “O Rome,” the young Luther allegedly exclaimed, “thrice holy from the blood of the martyrs, I greet thee.”

As Martin toured the city, he thoughtfully examined many of the relics considered by the church as holy. He repeated Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica with deep feeling. Again he wrestled with God, agonizing at the altar, where he took so much time that two Italian priests prodded him for taking too much time and making them wait much too long. Later, as Martin joined in with a guided tour, he saw his rude antagonists entering one of the numerous area brothels. Finally, he understood their hurry to recite their prayers so quickly when at St. Peter’s.

Because young Martin was on a pilgrimage for personal peace, he visited the well-known church of St. John the Lateran. There, he climbed the famous staircase of Pilate. Like the other tourists, Martin earnestly recalled a relative whom he could pray out of purgatory and he thought of his grandfather. Thus, he began at the bottom of the stairs, climbed slowly, and prayed purposefully. Arriving at the top, he reportedly paused and pondered, “I wonder if it is so.”

These experiences caused Luther to later lament his journey to the eternal city. “I went to Rome with onions,” he admitted, but concluded, “I returned with garlic.”

Whatever his thoughts and feelings were at the time, his investment was neither wasted nor lost. His inward and upward journey paid off in valuable dividends that made him a more expansive person with a more far-reaching ministry. Once he ventured beyond the external trappings of the church--the only one he knew--he began to discover the essential elements of a personal and biblical friendship with the Almighty himself

Like Jesus before him, Luther also learned to value the worth of a friend. We all need a friend to whom we can pour out the contents of our heart, chaff and grain together, and know that the gentlest of hands will sift the contents, keep what is worth keeping, and blow away the remains with a breath of gentle grace.

Our deepest need comes in discovering a personal posture that exceeds our human circumstances, one that lives by an authority higher than the assertions of self. Reality for the disciples of Jesus began when they realized he lived life better than anyone they knew. They were beginning to realize that Jesus needed to connect them to a resource greater than themselves, before they could achieve the quality of life they were seeking. 

The disciples were like automobiles needing gas for continuing the journey; they needed a place for refueling. They recognized that resource for refueling as the place of prayer, a place where we can all find our faith fortified.

My departed friend Bob Chambers described a gentleman traveling the Mississippi River. The traveler fell into conversation with the pilot of the river steamer and asked how long the man had been a river pilot. Thirty-five years, came the reply. “Then you probably know every rock and sandbank in the river” agreed the traveler. “No,” replied the pilot, concluding. “I don’t worry about that. There would be too many to look out for. All I need to know is where the deep water is to keep from running aground.”

Jesus understood his disciples’ desire and pointed them to a personal friendship with the Heavenly Father, with all of its potential for personal discipline and spiritual maturity. In prayer and friendship with the Heavenly Father, the disciples need not worry about every sandbank in life’s river. With the guiding of the Father, they would discover the consistency of the deeper channel revealing inner renewal and upward mobility.

Without the relationship of that personal prayer life, we find ourselves wading in the shallows, like the disciples - found wanting. Stressed and warped by the pace of life, they endured their experiences like any other rebellious son refusing to acknowledge dad’s presence and authority and that didn’t meet the need.

But, how honestly can we look at our motives? What is it we most want to achieve in life? Why? Are we interested in the facts, regardless of the feelings? Are we more concerned with having our prayers answered or in sharing his company? Do we feel compelled to share his company in prayer, or are we only interested in his blessings? When we look honestly at the answers we want and the excitement we anticipate, do we find anything more than a psychedelic reflection that majors on minors and clings more to sensation than substance? Failure to examine ourselves honestly risks insulating ourselves from real relationships and being as empty and void as the disciples were.

A Seminarian enrolled in a Homiletics class and found his fellow students preaching their sermons to each other.  As each member delivered his or her sermon, the other students critiqued the sermons by means of classroom discussion, evaluation sheets, and audiotapes. One wag addressed the teacher by writing on his evaluation sheet, “Well, sir, it seems to me that he had a sledgehammer introduction and a tack-hammer development.”

When the disciples noted the prayer life of Jesus, they saw their sledgehammer defects and their tack-hammer results. They knew Jesus’ strength came through his prayer time during those lonely night vigils. They saw him deposit his time, energy, and personal accountability in the Bank where God serves as the Chief Operating Officer. They stared in constant amazement as he wrote out timely checks for spiritual resources and drew out dividends of inner strength, personal peace, poise, and power.

Recalling this event later, Luke reminded us of the priority we must all maintain. He referred to what Jesus told the disciples, when he announced, “I am going to send you what my Father has promised, but stay. . .until you have been clothed with power from on high” (Luke 24:49, italics mine). Obediently, they prayed for ten days, waiting expectantly in the appointed place for what they knew not.

“When the day of Pentecost came,” Luke announced, “they were all together in one place (Acts 2:1, NASV). But, unless you believe in what you’re doing, don’t bother! Every pulpit phrase-packer who ever lived has dug sermonic diamonds from this mine. Luke tells us the church prayed ten days, preached one day, and won three thousand new members. We read the story and obey by praying one day, preaching ten days, and wondering why we don’t produce better results. Thus, we conclude that revivals no longer work in this culture.

Might this be a biblical revelation of our frightful lack of personal focus on spiritual priorities? Could it point to our obvious lack of faith in prayer as the means of logging on to the Internet of spiritual power and mature living? Catchy cliches and power-packed slogans may be adequate for marketing Madison Avenue glitz and glamour, but they fall far short of fortifying one’s faith when faced with a cross of doubt, disillusionment, despair, or death.

“God helps those who help themselves,” our behavior announces. Notice how well it really works in the practical nitty-gritty as we adopt our philosophical adages like cracker-barrel sages.  Where we once proposed programs, turned mimeograph cranks, pulled levers, and punched buttons, we now order prepared programs from the web page of our favorite church growth guru. We perform all the administrative mechanics of whatever it is we want, and we enter it all into our hi-tech computer system. Then, in one final flurry of feverish piety, we do the “sacred” thing we were supposed to do in the first place and call ourselves to prayer.

Nationally, we spend billions of dollars fighting unjust wars to prevent an undesired domino effect in world politics. We spend billions more putting people on the moon, so we can dominate aerospace as well as utilize it for national security purposes. We give little thought to developing a Peace Department, and we support a social-political mindset that feels putting God‘s Children on their own two feet right here on earth costs too much public money and focuses too much on religion and morality.

On the personal level, some of us look like the college football player that busted a signal one afternoon. Seeing it happen, the coach shouted, “Hit the track,” and the huge lineman grudgingly began lumbering around the track, all five-eleven, two-hundred-fifty-pounds.
“Coach, isn’t that enough?” cried the hulk plaintively after a lap around the stadium. “Keep going. . .” shouted the coach, calling the player by name, as he watched him out of the corner of his eye. When the plaintive look persisted on the second lap around, Coach yelled and added, “I‘m going to run thirty-five pounds off of you!”              

“But Coach,” cried the big lineman, now playing comedian, “you’re not going to do it all in one day, are you?”

The recycling of maturing reformation and personal renewal only proves effective when we plan and prepare ways to develop, strengthen, and maintain inner integrity, and when we refuse to allow anything else to get in the way. Because we eat instant meals for dinner and watch on-the-spot CNN news from foreign battlefields, we find it incomprehensible that we cannot eliminate unneeded pounds with an “eat everything diet” that requires no exercise. In like manner, we insist on running off all our accumulated repentances, our over-due reconciliations, and our flabby materials, in crash programs of maximum spiritual maturity.
A virus of false expectation hinders our spiritual health. It appears in the form of microscopic-sized germs that enter in by the ways we believe and behave. It is small enough that our physical bodies cannot filter it out, but it seems harmless enough that our thoughts, desires, feelings, and emotions all consider it benign. After all, doing your own thing and asserting yourself is something everybody does isn‘t it?

"Have what you want, and refuse to take “No!” for an answer. The result is we pursue self-gratification, instant everything and we expect no interference. We cannot tolerate discipline, and we simply do not understand Jesus, “who for the joy set before him endured the cross. . .” (Hebrews 12:2).

Yet, Luke concludes that although Jesus knew a cross awaited him in Jerusalem, he “Stedfastly,” or “resolutely set his face to go to Jerusalem” (Luke (9:51 KJV/NASV).

Choosing to serve rather than be served, Jesus refused to consider any option other than Jerusalem. He concentrated on vetoing existing injustices, preferring to lift others rather than gratify himself. Rather than seek personal pleasure and achievement, he put people and principles above power and prestige. He made himself vulnerable, rejecting the vanity of false pride and refusing to stand under the protective umbrella of pharisaic orthodoxy.

“If God is dead,” reasoned Dostoievski, the Russian philosopher, “then everything is permitted.”

“Very well now,” he asked, “since you’ve banished the high and holy One, driven him from heaven and earth, what do you propose to do for morals? Who will determine for man what is good and evil, and to whom will men be responsible?”

In answer to his own question, this wise and thoughtful man concluded what most of us arrive at in one way or another, sooner or later, “If there is no God, then we are God. We make the rules.”

Without God, there is only humanism. The very word “humanism” strikes terror to thoughtful hearts, for mankind finds itself wanting to be God while behaving most often like the Devil. Adolph Hitler blotted out the word God and filled in the blank with his own brand of humanism - Nazi Fascism, symbolized by the broken cross and ruled over by whatever The Fuehrer determined was absolute. Thus, Bonhoeffer died with a rope looped around his neck and six million Jews died in the Holocaust. Moreover, it was all perfectly justified and moralized. Without God, the strongest among us become God, and law, and life.

You see, Jesus fully understood the need for a prayer chapel where decisive souls can honestly pray, “O God, save us from the playthings of our own whims!”

With all of our twenty-first millennium earning, we still need more than artificial intelligence to discover that the best administration, psychology, therapy, religion, science, and all the best of human learning was not written in the present generation, or even the past century. Nor, will it be revealed tomorrow, or in the next millennium.

A Minister decided he would not accept another pastoral call without having a clear understanding that he was the leader. Now that sends up red flags; but let‘s take a closer look. “Are you inferring that you must be the church boss, and that you will dictate church policies and programs?” I ask.

“By no means,” he quickly affirms, explaining that “Years of experience have taught me that when a congregation is at its best, the result is more than simply a majority vote on the part of all concerned members. The church body,” he assures me, “must take the time and make the effort to come together in that common consensus we call unity and accept as the voice of God.”

When Luke described the Jerusalem church as being “all with one accord in one place,” he understood it meant more than a simple majority vote, or even a one-hundred percent majority. The real majority was the common experience that became a powerful agreement and magnetic influence in this deeply diverse group. Used by both Luke and Paul, homothumadon was Luke’s description of unanimity, like a harmonious refrain of pleasing music. Amid a multiplicity of national identities, races, genders, and varied ideologies, they were agreed as one that they were voicing the mind of Him who is the “true head” of the church. Like God’s unmerited grace, it expressed a consensus, an extrinsic unity from outside the group rather than intrinsic or from within. It came as a result of the grace of God, freely given to a very diverse group, but it suggests to me that prayerful people rather readily find themselves in a position to access life at a higher level of expanded achievement.

So, if we are right in assuming that people really do hunger and thirst for a united church in our divided world, why should we not further confess our own need for prioritizing that prayer connection which best connects us with heaven’s hotline. Prayerless people are most often short on spiritual power and long on husks of their own making          

A minister went to Washington to fill an engagement as guest speaker at a local church. While there, he met a man who introduced himself as Harry Dent.

“Hello, Harry Dent” responded the visitor.

“I’m J. Strom Thurmond’s executive assistant,” Mr. Dent informed the visiting preacher. “Have you ever eaten in the Senate Dining Room?”

“Why, I’ve never even been in the Senate Dining Room, much less eaten there” the preacher admitted.

“Would you like to eat there?” asked Dent.

“Oh, yes,” answered the other eagerly.

“We’ll eat there tomorrow,” promised Dent.

The next day, the Senior Pastor, the Music Minister, and the guest preacher all lunched together in the Senate Dining Room. Following dinner, they toured the Senate Office Building, including some restricted areas. The visitor got ahead of the little entourage at one point, and seeing a room where a group of people were going in he started to follow.

An oversized Guard stepped between the visitor and the door just then, as if to say “You tourist, where do you think you are going?” Momentarily, Harry Dent appeared and the Guard stepped aside.

The visitor smugly entered the room when the Guard stepped aside, but he admitted later, “After we got into the room, suddenly it struck me.”

He realized that everywhere he had been that day, he moved about on another man’s authority. “Every room I had entered,” he confessed, “every place I had been, I had been on another man’s credentials.”

The twelfth-century Bernard carefully noted the church’s lack of solid credentials. “The churches are without people,” he concluded, because “the people are without priests, the priests without the reverence due them, and Christians without Christ … ” A French Monastery further illustrated this by operating with the assistance of inmates who were professional robbers by vocation.

When the Protestant Reformation finally launched into full gear, it came about in part because Martin Luther charged his superiors with operating a commercial venture in the church. Luther saw them profiteering at the expense of the personal aspirations of the masses seeking some kind of security in an insecure age. Father Martin consequently refused to further allow Friar John Tetzel‘s selling of expensive indulgences to go unchallenged. Historian, William Estep, described one museum by itself containing enough indulgences for purchasers to escape 1,920,000 years of purgatory.

Encouraging people to purchase their way out of purgatory by begging, borrowing, or stealing their way into heaven, simply to make the church treasury rich and leadership powerful, is like the contemporary Diploma Mill selling bogus degrees to the naive and unsuspecting. Church leaders were dealing in eternal securities with insufficient very earthy credentials, concluded Luther. Like the visiting preacher they were trying to enter into places where they held no credentials.

But; if Jesus had simply proclaimed his gospel without trying to practice it, his enemies would never have laid a finger on him. It was the exercising of his faith and the valuing of God’s presence more than the Pharisees’ praise that ignited their anger. Moreover, when he harnessed his team of belief and behavior to his ministerial wagon and drove the professional profiteers from the Temple courtyard, the priestly authorities knew it was time for them to take action.

Recycling Heisman Trophy values comes only with the studied insight of a mind that refuses to conform to circumstantial pressures. Jesus knew obedience is the organ of spiritual knowledge, and he quickly separated himself from those who talk a bigger ballgame than they play. Not satisfied with saying one thing and doing another, he spent his life showing that we act out of our beliefs. He believed so strongly that his behavior resulted in a magnificent obsession, choosing to deliver the goods even if it killed him. Consequently, he went to the cross--like a lamb goes to the slaughterhouse.

“Sermons can be learned from textbooks,” concluded Nina Willis Walter, “but the real text comes when you put your precept into practice, (and) show the way by what you do.

Believing one way and behaving another is one of the great paradoxes about which we remain quite ambivalent. When popular futurist, Arthur Clark, announced to his audience in Dallas, Texas, “the end of the city is in sight,” they cheered him wildly. Following Clark’s appearance, Blair Justice reported on this strange paradox of people wanting cities but not wanting the problems of the city.

People want the advantages but not the problems, reported Justice, acknowledging what we all know--that cities have problems and plenty of them. “The air isn’t clean, the water is polluted in a number of cases, and there’s enough to gripe about to keep a chronic complainer going indefinitely.”

Justice further agreed that griping and complaining would not help the problem. Neither will non-involvement and clapping at the prospect of no more cities.

“What will help?” he asked, concluding, “First, commitment to work on the problems, and second, work itself.”

Our ambivalence toward our cities further illustrates our critical attitude toward harmonizing our beliefs and behaviors together and uniting them into a symphony of musical sound with real meaning.

When an elected official from a major urban complex reported a multi-million-dollar bond issue was passed by ten percent of the voters, he made this prediction. “At some time in the future when the county may have to raise taxes as a result of this bond issue, there will be all sorts of people setting up a hue and cry over too much spending. And these will be the very people who refused to go to the polls to make their voice heard when the issue was up for vote” (italics mine).

Someone defined success as having the courage to meet failure without being defeated. Whether the differences are political or the problems are personal, each offers some kind of possibility. Thus, Henry Ward Beecher informed his parishioners it isn’t wise for a man to pray for cream but live skim milk. Emerson went so far as to insist, “Do the thing and you’ll have the power. Do not the thing and you’ll not have the power.”

When Singapore fell in 1942, the Japanese captured Ethel and held her with four thousand other prisoners in a jail made for four hundred and fifty. She slept in a six and one-half by seven-foot cubicle. She ate spinach soup, unless she could catch a rat. Flies and filth became constant companions. Nonetheless, she found a possibility among her abysmal problems.

The prisoners asked the Commandant to allow an Easter service. Using her Red Cross band, Ethyl officially represented her group. Going through twelve interviews, she requested permission for early April. A five-minute worship would be allowed, and the prisoners began practicing faithfully. Meanwhile, rumors flew throughout the compound and the men set time quotas for each man to watch at his window.

When Easter morning finally came, the group filed into the courtyard humming softly accompanied by one guard--the only time he had no gun. While the sun was bursting over the dark prison wall, the prisoners sang as best they could, “Christ Arose.”

Once back inside, a guard stepped up, reached into his coat, pulled out a Malayan orchid, and put it in the hands of a woman, saying, “Christ did rise.” With that, he saluted and disappeared.

“I stood where he left me, eyes brimming with tears,” Ethel confided later, “knowing that we could never again feel forsaken in Changi jail. . .” adding, “No one will ever tell me that that tiny orchid was an ordinary flower.”

That single moment of hope rooted itself to a small piece of bark, blooming later, and budded throughout the remaining years of Ethyl’s incarceration. Passed from prisoner to prisoner, that “moment of hope” announced timely evidence of God’s beauty, proclaiming beauty in circumstances surrounded earlier by only humanity’s worst ugliness. 

When Astronaut Neil Armstrong stood on the moon; he announced to all of us back home, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” People, who find themselves confined by the small steps of humanism, find only one small step at Calvary.  

On the other hand, 
I know of myriads of people across the centuries that have discovered personally investing their lives in following Jesus Christ leads to achieving a giant step of improvement for themselves and a huge leap of hope for all of humanity

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