Concerning Life as It Is Supposed to Be

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The Great Motivation

Often discussions of what a church should be and do and look like are informed by references to the last few verses of Matthew’s gospel, a portion known as the “Great Commission.”

And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18-20)

This comes to us as a command to engage the non-Christian world with the truth of Him in whom all authority resides. It focuses the attention of disciples, to whom the commission is given, to reproduce themselves, to make more disciples. And it is so succinct that it is often extracted and made the priority for the church, with evangelism as its core. It easily resolves to a motivational slogan such as “His last command our first concern.”

Oddly, though, using these verses as motivation is apparently a modern innovation.

Anglican scholar Michael Green, in his book Evangelism in the Early Church, points out the (to our ears) oddity that these words of Jesus, influential though they were in other ways, were not invoked as a motivation for Christian outreach.

“In point of fact, it is quoted very little in the writings of the second century.” (239)

This was a time when the task of evangelism and of making disciples was fraught with serious difficulty.

“Wherever they went, Christians were opposed as anti-social, atheistic, and depraved. Their message proclaimed a crucified criminal, and nothing could have been less calculated than that to win them converts…. To Jew and Gentile alike Christians were offensive, on account both of the doctrines and the behaviour credited to them. All this they had to live down if they were going to win anybody at all for Jesus Christ.” (29)

If not Jesus’ ‘last command’ then what drove them to persevere against such odds? Green suggests it was rather love and gratitude. It was grace, not law, that moved them.

“They did it [evangelism] because of the overwhelming experience of the love of God which they had received through Jesus Christ.” (236)

People inevitably pursue, and point others to, what they love. The “Great Commission” is a great summary statement of the direction Jesus expects his church to move. What motivates the church to respond is never the command itself but the love of the one who issued it

It is the heart that is freed that is freed to follow, and to proclaim, the Liberator.

Long my imprisoned spirit lay
fast bound in sin and nature’s night;
thine eye diffused a quick’ning ray;
I woke, the dungeon flamed with light:
my chains fell off, my heart was free:
I rose, went forth, and followed thee.
Amazing love! How can it be
that thou, my God, shouldst die for me? (Charles Wesley)

When the church is misdirected or moribund what is needed are not more sermons detailing our Lord’s final command. Better would be more outlining and revealing his amazing love.

Community for the Self-absorbed Millennial

My post on community generated a couple of offline queries both of which, for different reasons, were referring to the idea that the church is failing to reach Millennials, that supposedly self-absorbed and entitled generation that Gen-Xers have unleashed on the world under the benevolent and clueless gaze of Boomers like me.

And yes, I think too much is made of those supposed generational distinctions, but that is for another day. I’ve a different fish needing to be fried this morning.

When my correspondents mentioned Millennials leaving the church I went to the articles on which those concerns were based. I have a suspicion that arises whenever alarmist statistics are being tossed about in Christian circles. Somewhere in this will be the hand of Barna the Christian statistical guru. And my suspicions were confirmed.

Why I suspect this and why it is a concern I expressed now nearly 6 years ago. I encourage you to click through to that post and read it (although it is long).

The point of that post is that Barna’s work has credible critics which should cause us to hesitate in referencing him. Particularly concerning is his tendency to use data to fan into flame worries on which, coincidentally, he has written a book. When Barna’s sky is falling other more careful analysts see a rather sunny, or at most a partly cloudy, day. Baylor University’s Institute for Studies of Religion offers a calmer, more nuanced take on the data, normed over many more years and consequently more carefully nuanced.

Believe who you will. But I hope you share my concern that Christians especially should be anxious to speak the truth. We should be as cautious with what we say following “Statistics say…” as we are (or should be) when our sentence begins “The Bible says…”.

What does this have to do with community? Those who like to divide the world into Millennials vs. Gen-Xers vs. Boomers say that it is the Millennials who are longing for community and that in this the church is failing them. Whether this analysis is accurate or not I’ll leave for those more skilled in demographic research. I rather think, statistical research aside, that the demographic slice most looking for and longing for community are those humans created in the image of the Triune God. I think the church should seek to serve these people.

Fragile Community

One of the women helping us develop a new web site for our church (jokingly, I think) suggested this for a ‘tagline’:

Trust us; you’re not too weird to fit in here.

There is a sense in which this works, or should work. Churches should be welcome places for those weary of trying to fit in a world that does not easily tolerate difference. No one should be too weird to fit in.

Our actual tagline is the far more sophisticated ‘Building Gospel Community.’ We believe that the church should be a community living out the truths of God’s kingdom in such a clear way that a world longing for shalom will be attracted to that kingdom and its King. Apparently we are not alone in this aspiration. Christine Pohl in her book Living into Community identified this as a trend.

For the past twenty-five years, scholars…have emphasized the importance of the church as a ‘contrast’ or alternative community, and have argued that Christians can challenge the beliefs and practices of the larger society by the beauty of their shared life. (8)

This, we are convinced, will have a far more long lasting and profound impact upon a struggling world than the failed attempt to shape culture by political power and verbal dominance. In a book tour for her book Absence of Mind, novelist Marilynne Robinson captures the hope for such intentional community:

Christianity should be itself. Christians acting like Christians would be the most effective possible evidence for the truth of what they profess.

A gospel community, a community where Christians, even weird ones, are being Christians, is what we are after, and what we think the world needs. The problem is that we may not be sure what such a community looks like. We know what ‘church’ looks like, but not such a clear-visioned intentional community. What will such community look like?

Should the church emulate monastic communities by sharing space and goods and vocation? Or should we rather aspire to be a community set apart by language, custom, and dress, like the Amish? Do we know? Are we saying, like Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously said regarding pornography, “I know it when I see it”? Will we know community when we see it?

Conservative Jewish scholar Yuval Levin argues in his book The Fractured Republic that strong communities of faith are vital for the promotion of human flourishing in an age that feels gravely fragmented. He defines genuine community as

…a concrete, tangible grouping…that gives you a role, a place, and a set of relationships and responsibilities to other particular human beings. (181)

This is a useful starting place. Many others could be posited. But Levin reminds us why we need to ground our conceptions of community in reality. If community involves human beings, it will be hard. Christine Pohl pointedly observes that

The winsome and life-giving character of Christian community is often accompanied by profound difficulties arising from disagreements and betrayals…. The testimony of our shared life is crucial, but it is also fragile. (8, 9)

Community is crucial, but it is fragile. Community is critical, but people will hurt other people in the pursuit of it. That can’t be helped, but the pursuit of it cannot be abandoned. If we are aware of the difficulty, failure will not surprise us, and imperfection will not dissuade us. Community is fragile. Most beautiful things are.

So Goes the Church

Issues that matter seem to be landing as profusely and as suddenly as the frogs in Paul Thomas Anderson’s remarkable film Magnolia.  As a Christian pastor, I want to speak intelligently and helpfully to the issues, for they do matter. But I do not want my responses to be based on uncertain information or misinformation. I want my responses to be reflective and careful. And I plead that I don’t often have time to pull that all together before another frog has dropped and the world is off in another direction.

One of my pastoral heroes, the late John Stott, alluded to two errors pastors confront when addressing controversy.

Our task as preachers, then, is neither to avoid all areas of controversy, nor to supply slick answers to complex questions in order to save people the bother of thinking.

Complexity demands nuance, and nuance time, and under the protest of time I am silent. It may be rather that I am gutless. I need to take his words to heart.

Instead, it is our responsibility to teach them with clarity and conviction the plain truths of Scripture, in order to help them develop a Christian mind, and to encourage them to think with it about the great problems of the day, and so to grow into maturity in Christ. (Between Two Worlds, page 173)

The recent debate regarding immigration and refugee resettlement was stirred by the president’s executive order barring (temporarily?) immigration from certain countries (an act widely seen as one designed to close our borders to Muslim immigrants). When such issues surface, pastors are often told by good people what to preach. I resist such direction. Whether I do so out of wisdom or laziness I’ll let others determine. This time novelist Stephen King offered to choose my text for me.

I didn’t comply and so probably need to give up trying to get his autograph. (However, if Mr. King or anyone else is still interested he can listen to my sermon on that text from June of 2015. It may be still relevant to this situation.)

Others have been directing our attention to the book of Leviticus and its language of care for the stranger. As gratifying as that might be, I’m guessing that some of those doing so are not quite so fond of what it seems to say about homosexual sex or the viability of human life in the womb.

There are those telling me what to preach and those who want to make sure that what I preach does not impact the church’s tax exempt status. The president this week announced his intention to free churches and pastors to endorse political candidates.

On the one hand, I’m all for this. The government should have no more say over what I say from the pulpit than Stephen King, and if churches curb their message to gain tax relief, they have already voluntarily compromised that freedom.

I don’t endorse candidates from the pulpit, but the government’s preferences on that matter have nothing to do with that decision. It is utterly foolish to hitch the church’s wagon to a political horse. When the horse goes down, it takes the wagon with it. (It’s intriguing in this regard to watch Trump supporter, Eric Metaxas, twist and turn as he uncritically defends Donald Trump’s first two weeks in office.  But he must. It’s what one must do, individually, or as a church, when we have declared someone besides Jesus to be ‘our’ man.)

“Evangelical” Christianity used to be honorable. But what it once was has now been dishonored by wittingly or unwittingly allowing itself to be defined politically. In the process its vital message of the kingship of Christ and the supremacy of his gospel has been obscured if not lost. There is more wisdom in Stephen King counseling me to preach on a biblical definition of neighbors than there is in a church celebrating the ‘right’ to endorse a candidate. One can only bring good, the other only disaster.

So when some want to hear a sermon on the “Good Samaritan” or when others find biblical support for compassion in the remote outposts of Leviticus, they reveal good instincts. That instinct says that the biblical authors who form the framework of Christian faith and practice are those to whom we are to listen first in framing a response the the issues of the day. We are, as Stott reminds us, to “develop a Christian mind” and then “to think with it.” This we should do, but only after having first removed our nationalistic “America first” lens.

As Christians, Christ and his kingdom must always be first.

With Deliberate Malice

I’m not far enough into Moby-Dick to speak with any authority to its meaning. Nor am I sufficiently advanced in wisdom to untangle the spaghetti-like complexity that is human sin, divine providence, and demonic havoc. Nevertheless, Melville’s Ishmael at one point defends the notion that a sperm whale would, under certain conditions, act with malice.

Again, it is very often observed that, if the sperm whale, once struck, is allowed time to rally, he then acts, not so often with blind rage, as with wilful, deliberate designs of destruction to his pursuers.

As a pastor, I hear about and often witness great acts of harm done by people in the name of the church. The authority and trust given to Christians in general and Christian leaders in particular are often mishandled and grave damage is done. I understand why many fear if not hate the church and the god in whose name men and women in the church often act. And Christians and Christianity come under particular scrutiny for acts of betrayal and abuse and control as these run counter to the ideals for which we should stand. The more passionately we embrace the ideals, the more clearly we see what the church should be, the harder it is to accept the aberrations, and the darker we will paint her when she fails.

And fail she does. She fails because people fail. She fails because she confuses her purpose. She fails for all kinds of reasons. Among these, I am persuaded, is the ‘wilful, deliberate designs of destruction’ of the one who is the enemy of God and of his people. We cannot bow out of responsibility by saying ‘the devil made him/her/me do it’ but we cannot ignore the deliberate malice with which he who stands against all things good will lash out at that which is closest to God’s heart.

With all I know, with all I’ve seen, and with all I’ve experienced, I can’t look at the church with anything but the deepest affection. I know that is hard for many, for those who have been wounded at the very deepest places. I understand. And so to counter those feelings of harm I want any church of which I am a part to be as genuine, and as safe, as possible.

Yes, it is not the church we are to trust, but God. And yes, it is not the church with whom we are in union, but Jesus. And yet the church, as broken and as failing as she will, through acts of goodness, often obscured, be that which will strike the blows that will stir the blind rage and deliberate malice of the enemy. This should surprise us not the least and should only incite us to aim with other saints eager to strike such blows. These blows can only be struck, however, by acts of integrity and genuineness and compassion and sacrifice. Let him rage against that.

Skipping Scripture

I’m skipping church this morning.

Well, not precisely. I’m skipping MY church. I’m skipping the church where my heart is. I’m skipping worshipping with the community I have come to love and appreciate.

I’m skipping because people tell me I must. That I need to be on vacation. That I need to take a break. And so, I, with my family, will worship with others today, in a place where I can be relatively anonymous, which is somewhat contrary, in my mind, to what church is supposed to be.

Because of that, I have a bit more time on my hands – time I rarely have on a Sunday morning. It is the Lord’s day, and so to turn my thoughts in His direction I casually picked up Kathleen Norris’ book Amazing Grace, one which I’ve been working through occasionally over the past few months. Her perspective, different as it is from my own, is often stimulating. (Previous comments here and here and here.)

It only took a few paragraphs (pages 189-190, if you are following along at home) for me to be impacted. She notes the irony that in Protestant churches, especially those of the more evangelical type, worship consists of so little reading of Scripture. In the history of protestant churches men and women died to secure the right to have the Scriptures in the language of the people, died to have access to the Bible. In evangelical churches, we speak of the centrality of Scripture and call ourselves Bible-believing and toss the Reformation slogan Sola Scriptura around like a talisman. But one would be hard pressed to prove that the Bible means anything to us judging from the amount that is read in worship.

Our contemporary services of worship don’t allow for the tedious and drawn out reading of Scripture. We sing about Jesus, but do not listen to his words or the prophets who spoke about him. We read the text given for the sermon, but little more. If the pastor does not preach on the prophet Isaiah, which I’ve not done for many years, a congregation will never hear its promises and warnings and rhythms and tone.

But they can read it at home, no? Perhaps. But that cannot be taken for granted. And what they read, they often do not understand. The Bible was never meant to be a private book. It belongs to the church and needs to be read in the church. I’m saddened and somewhat embarrassed by this lack in my own congregation. It takes time, it may seem tedious, it may seem opaque. But is it not worth it if in so doing we build a growing rootedness in the book from which we learn of life?

My own, admittedly private, reading of Scripture earlier this morning came from, ironically (or providentially!), Psalm 119. I was struck with this verse:

How sweet are your words to my taste,
sweeter than honey to my mouth! (Psalm 119:103)

I wondered how one comes to view God’s word with such longing. Perhaps God is pointing me in at least one direction toward an answer.


There is the story of the baseball umpire who would not stay in place, but wandered all over the field during a game. Before his superiors could correct this behavior, he was struck by a line drive, knocked out cold, and removed from the field on a stretcher. And that marked the Fall of the Roamin’ Umpire.

I’m not an umpire, but I’ve been roamin’ widely through the holiday period. I’m not yet ‘fallen’ but I’ve had to grow silent until such time as a normal rhythm returns.

In the meantime, over the weekend a few posts crossed in front of me capturing two of my passions, movies and the church, which I felt merit passing on.

The first comes from Scot McNight, responding to the all too common “I love Jesus; I have no room for the church” sentiment. He suggests that those espousing such ideas need to hear Bonhoeffer reminding us

that we must, must, must surrender our ideals of the church and learn to live with its brokenness and the brokenness of all those connected to it. The fundamental problem is that the person who thinks this way thinks more highly of himself or herself than of others, sets himself or herself apart, and acts if he or she is superior. There is a communion table at the front of the church for a reason — because that’s what brings us together, not our competence in Christian living.

Well put.

Also concerning the church, or at least Christian culture, is the helpful attempt by Mike Osborne of University Presbyterian Church to correct the strange vocabulary of contemporary Christians.

I continue to believe that one of the strangest things about us Christians is our specialized vocabulary. Surely it accounts for at least some of the disconnect between us and our non-believing neighbors.

He takes on a number of phrases, some of which may be your favorites. Curious what you think.

And finally, on a different note, there is this well written review of the movie Her. I found the trailer for this movie creepy, and its premise disturbing. But the review leads me to want to see it. The reviewer, Lauren Wilford, says the central question the movie confronts is not the technological question, but rather, “What is it like to share your life with someone?”

What unfolds as we realize this is a poignant exploration of the questions that come in the middle of any thoughtful relationship. How do you grow without growing apart? Which differences between people are workable, and which are too fundamental to ignore? How do you reveal yourself to someone without scaring that person? And how do you offer grace in the midst of a love you’re losing, a love you’ve lost?

These seem to be the kinds of questions that are good to talk about.

And, as a side piece of the movie, Scarlett Johansson is making quite an impression as a star in a movie in which you never see her. As the reviewer notes:

Yes, my favorite Scarlett Johansson performance occurs in a film where you never see her body. The implication is not lost on me.

This one will have to go on my list.

Hipster dis-Cred

I’m confused, not hip.

I’m confused on the one hand because some, but not all, of the things I read about so-called ‘hipster’ Christianity ring true for me.

What makes a church a “hipster church”? Does it have a one-word name that is either a Greek word or something evocative of creation? Does the pastor frequently use words like kingdom, authenticity, and justice, and drop names like N. T. Wright in sermons? Does the church advertise a gluten-free option for Communion? If the answer is yes to all of those questions, chances are that it’s a hipster church. (Brett McCracken, “Hipster Faith”, Christianity Today, September, 2010)

I answer yes to some of these questions, but not all. Somewhere a few years ago, I took an online ‘hipster quiz’, an unhip thing to do, and scored 78/120. Not sure what that makes me.

I wear sandals, so suspicions are quickly raised. But I wear them because 30 years ago I met a very square and un-hip Scottish pastor who wore sandals and they looked (and are) comfortable. Sandals are hip, but so are the oft mentioned ‘skinny jeans’, and whatever those are I’m sure I’m not going to wear them. Goatees are hip, but they make one look sinister.

The Coen’s are interesting and often brilliant, but they have their lapses. (That’s hip to say!) Wes Anderson is beyond mystifying. (Not hip.) I love liturgy and literary fiction. Mumford and Sons is on my play list and I believe the kingdom certainly includes elements of social justice. (All fit the hip profile.) But I can’t cuss very well, much less in a sermon, I don’t like beer, and, as a Twitter post commented yesterday, intinction works better for cookies and milk than for bread and wine. (Not very hip). And a ‘gluten free option’? Simply sounds loving rather than ‘hip’.

I thought about this the other day when I decided to retire another element of possible hipster cred. After having completed the massive bio of Winston Churchill (The Last Lion) I moved on to read the popular fiction of David Balducci. Terribly unhip. Perhaps that stirred the hipster demon in me, for after finishing Balducci I had this uncontrollable urge to read Flannery O’Connor. Flan and I started out well, but the more she spoke the harder it became for me to grasp what she was saying. It dawned on me that I was reading her because I thought I was supposed to. Cool pastors read and quote NT Wright AND Flannery O’Connor, I guess. But not this one. Not now, anyway.

I certainly hope I’m not trying to be hip by claiming to be unhip. It can become all very mystifying.

I’d finish by quoting a pop music lyric (a hip thing to do) but the lyrics I’m most familiar with are over 40 years old. Not hip.

Oh heck (a hip pastor would have phrased that more strongly), I’m going to do it anyway:

But it’s all right now, I learned my lesson well.
You see, you can’t please everyone, so you got to please yourself.
(Rick Nelson, “Garden Party”, 1972)

How Good and Pleasant It Is

Last night I and several other ministers from the Oviedo area met in the chapel of Reformed Theological Seminary for a time of prayer. For an hour we prayed for unity and revival among the churches, for our civic leaders local and beyond, for the cities we inhabit and care for, and for the particular issues of justice and racial tension sparked by the beginning of the trial of George Zimmerman, charged in the murder of 17-year old Trayvon Martin.

We prayed not to make any kind of social statement and we prayed not to create a public relations event. We prayed because we wanted to pray. We prayed because we have become friends who share a common concern for the issues that this trial in particular highlights. We prayed because we are encouraged to see God work among us despite our differences.

Gathered in that room were men and women who bear clear external differences. Some of us were white. Some of us were black. Most of us were men. One was a woman. Press in the right places and you will find some clear internal differences among us as well – theologically, politically, culturally.

But those differences did not matter, and I found the time, for whatever other value it might bear, to be a wonderfully encouraging time. Somehow praying with others clearly different than I who had no other motivation for meeting than to pray made me believe in prayer more than I might on other occasions. I don’t know if that is theologically defensible or not. Jesus tells us that by the love we have for one another people will know that we are his disciples. Is it possible that by the unity we seek with others, despite our differences, that we ourselves will better know Him as God?

What was critical, I think, to the value of our prayer time last night was that prayer arose out of genuine relationships. These others were people whom I’ve come to know and to love over the past three years. I know them by name. And so though a crisis situation brings us to our knees together, we gather together not as colleagues, but as friends, and more than friends, as fellow pilgrims. Perhaps such a gathering suggests greater power because it reveals to us what heaven will be like.

It is in such unity that “the LORD has commanded the blessing, life forevermore.” (Psalm 133:3)

Center Church and the Pastoral Call

I was blessed recently to have been invited to participate with a small group of fellow-pastors in a two month reading and discussion of Timothy Keller’s textbook on church ministry, Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City. It was a blessed time, not so much for the book itself, as these things often go, but for the privilege of hanging out with men aiming to do ministry well.Center Church mini

I had some reflections on the book to share at our last meeting, but, sadly, I got called away and was not able to be a part of that final discussion. So, I post those thoughts here as an open letter which may, perhaps, be helpful to more than just that temporary ‘band of brothers’ now dispersed. I hope I am correct.



I’ve enjoyed the sessions we have spent over the past few months reading and discussing Keller’s book. I am honored to have been invited to participate, feeling quite often as the ant among the giants. I’ve been blessed.

As we conclude I wanted to make a simple observation and plea: that as helpful as Tim Keller has been to all of us and as insightful and comprehensive as Center Church is, if it is read alone in isolation, it can be harmful in its effect. That is, Tim Keller should never be read without a healthy balance of Eugene Peterson (or others who, like him, champion the pastoral call).

Having finished Center Church, some, as I do, may feel overwhelmed. The complexity of leading a church with wisdom and vision in our current age may be within reach for some, but it is overwhelming to ordinary pastors like myself. One can be moved by reading this to reconsider many of our practices, to implement significant redirection, and possibly to even move to the city. But one also might be moved to quit, to give up ministry altogether, crushed by the sheer weight of all the pieces to be held together to stay centered.

It is because of these tendencies that I believe Peterson needs to be kept close as a healthy counterweight and antidote.

Those of us who have read Peterson’s The Contemplative Pastor know that he takes a cautious if not disdainful view of the idea of ‘running’ a church. He acknowledges that the institution needs to be managed – that a certain amount of ‘running’ a church is inevitable and necessary. But if running a church overwhelms the primary pastoral callings then something monumental has been sacrificed. It is easy to allow that to happen.

There is no one doing a better job of helping pastors think through the maze that “running” a church is than Tim Keller. Someone must lead, decisions must be made, the institution must be governed. And yet, is that the primary pastoral call? Peterson challenges that notion with a relentless drum beat calling pastors to pastoral ministry, to the time consuming realities of prayer, of preaching, of listening, of community building.

As a pastor I live with a very real tension. I want to grow a church and I want to use all the tools at my disposal for doing so, even though, truth be told, the motive for this is a volatile mixture of concern for the glory of God and the health of my own resume. At the same time I’m tugged by the compulsion to sit with people, to hear their stories, to be with them when they are suffering, and to challenge them when they are wandering.

Five SmoothWe need to hear Keller’s challenge to lead the church well, but not without Peterson’s balancing caution that “nothing in pastoral work is more liable to Pelagian tendencies than the work of giving leadership to the community of faith” (Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work, page 211). (I think, by the way, that Keller would probably agree.)

I understand that there are those (though, thankfully, not among us) who believe that the idea of ‘shepherd’ is a harmful metaphor for thinking about pastoral ministry. I’m puzzled by that – as I see myself as primarily a shepherd. Peter Wagner once distinguished between pastors who are shepherds and those who are ranchers. I’ll never be a rancher; Peterson never aspired to be so. He resolved to never pastor a church in which he could not know the name of every member.

I’m of that school, and so either by gifting (or lack thereof!) or calling or conviction or the humbling hand of God, I’ve come to the reality that I will always pastor relatively small churches, and those churches will, more likely than not, NOT be in the city. And I want to say, on behalf of the vast majority of pastors for whom this will be true, that this is not only okay, but that it is GOOD.

Keller should be read, but NEVER without Peterson, or someone like him. Not by those who feel that being a good shepherd is still the primary call of pastoral ministry.

Thanks for the time,


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