Fellowship of Saints and Sinners

Fellowship of Saints and Sinners

Resurrection at Wendy’s

“Thank you for resurrecting me,” she stammered, a crooked smile breaking out across her face.  “Merry Christmas.”

A moment of lucidity.  Then she was back in her own world, her eyes beholding some distant shoreline, her mutterings only understandable to some imaginary friend, and her expressions those of one sometimes confused, sometimes afflicted.

She had wandered into the Wendy’s where my family was grabbing a quick bite to eat after a day of driving.  Then she had sat down at a table next to us.  Something- probably some faint consciousness of hunger- had drawn her there, but now she was in her own, little world again, maybe only dimly and occasionally aware of the fact that she had wandered into a fast food restaurant and was now sitting at an empty table by herself.


“Susie” was her name.  I asked her if she’d like a meal.  “No, thank you,” in another rare moment of clarity before lapsing again into another unreachable dimension of space and time. And then within moments she was back again.  “Okay, you can buy me a  burger and a coke,” she said.

I had. And then this strange, lovely gesture of gratitude.  Which was itself a kind of proclamation: “Thank you for resurrecting me.”

And what if the meaning of Jesus Christ’s resurrection is just this?  That we can in the power of the Holy Spirit help to “resurrect” one another?  And what if resurrection could really be this simple?  A burger and a drink for a homeless person.  A meal for someone who for all other intensive purposes has largely ceased to exist in reality and for whom the reminder of her bodily needs is a kind of “rebirth” of sorts. A deliverance from invisibility in an invisible world, and a grounding in the here and now of what is real, so that she is reborn to existence.


For skeptics of Christ’s resurrection, the seventeenth-century mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal put it this way:  “What reason do atheists have to say that one cannot rise from the dead?  Which is more difficult, to be born or rise again?  That what has never been should be, or that what has been should be again?  Is it more difficult to come into existence than to return to it?  Habit makes the one seem easy to us; lack of habit makes the other impossible:  a vulgar way of judging!”

Pascal is right when he notes that “returning to existence” is not habitual to us.  We don’t have to be talking exclusively here about resurrection after physical death, either.  Resurrection of the kind to which Susie refers is also not a common sighting for most of us.


But the beauty of Christ’s resurrection is that it  invites us into the unending newness of life for ourselves and one another- a new way of being that finds embodiment in the physical here and now of reality, not some other ethereal dimension that is the product of our imagination.  Like the resurrected Jesus, who on the road to Emmaus appears to his disciples in the simple act of breaking bread, we, too, can point others in the direction of being born again when we invite them to see God’s in-breaking new life in the simplest, most bodily of functions.  When this kind of thing happens, it displays a kind of spill-over effect- serendipitous new life for Susie, yes- but for me also, and hopefully for you.  And if this kind of eschatological moment can happen at a Wendy’s in a strip mall in St. Augustine, Florida, it can happen anywhere and everywhere…to anybody.





Make Love Not War: A Christmas Story

Pastor Rosa sits in class with some of the children she has rescued.

I promised you a Christmas story.  This one is a Christmas story in several unique ways.  It’s a story about God’s grace not as a distant ideal but as an embodied, tangible, very personal encounter. And it’s a story about how God makes God’s home with those who are most aware of their need.  This magical thing, when it happens, has the power to stop violence in its tracks. The ceaseless striving for more in the world around us?  The warring in our own hearts? For at least a moment they find rest.  For at least a little while they are obliged to stop their violence and pay homage to the God who has been born in their midst.  This story is about just this sort of miracle.  It is about how God met one ordinary woman in the place of her deepest need, and transformed her own, very personal war into a love that saves.


Meet Pastor Rosa.  Rosa had a son.  One day, Rosa’s son, a bus driver, was shot to death by a couple of inner-city teenagers.  Albert T. Mills became yet another casualty of the war on our streets, a young life full of promise prematurely snuffed out by one meaningless, random and irreversible act of violence.  His killers?  They were young lives, too, the only difference being that their only teacher and mother and father had been the dead-end reality of drugs and gang violence in a blighted inner-city neighborhood.

Pastor Rosa in her inconsolable pain and grief had a choice.  Her Christian faith had taught her to forgive. But what did forgiveness look like in her circumstances?

She decided to minister God’s love to children who came from the very same neighborhoods as her son’s killers.  That resolve led her to found in honor of her son the Albert T. Mills Enrichment Center, a holistic, pre-school environment for the poorest children from Atlanta’s inner-city homes.  For thirteen years now, Pastor Rosa has sacrificed even a salary in order to find and rescue these most vulnerable of children, providing for their most basic needs, equipping them with an education and investing in their spiritual development.


Recently, a friend of mine learned that many of the children at the center are without even coats or blankets- in apartments that are often without heat.  She and her friends managed to marshal a large donation of jackets and blankets, so that each and every child received their very own coat.  Since that time, God’s provision has made itself known in a string of similar “loaves and fishes” moments: “On Thanksgiving, a group of women decided to do Thanksgiving baskets for all the families.  On Monday, they had 42 baskets. Our goal was one for each of the student’s families and the staff – or about 60 baskets. So we were 20 short. On Tuesday, additional folks started coming up with baskets and turkeys and volunteers and the long and the short of it is that they ended up with 74 baskets! Plus some extra turkeys on top of that.  Truly a loaves and fishes moment,” my friend wrote in a recent e-mail.


I would have to agree.  And this, I suspect, is the very sort of thing Christmas is about. The tangible abundance of God’s provision in our neediest places.  The nearness of a Love that really can empower us to make love not war.

You can catch Pastor Rosa’s whole story, told in her own words, here- and it’s really moving, I would add:  YouTube Preview Image

To learn about how you might get involved in the work of the Center, either by financially giving or volunteering, contact Pastor Rosa at

Merry Christmas!



Does It Get Any More Kitsch Than This?

I had wondered a few days back whether there can be anything more kitsch at Christmas time than those loud-colored, ceramic nativity scenes, one of which graces our coffee table and has become my two-year-old daughter’s play toy of choice these days.  Apparently, it does get more kitsch and our creche is tame by comparison. Thanks to a recent Beliefnet inventory of off-the-wall nativity sets from around the world, marshmallow shepherds and mini-frankfurter baby Jesuses have put our kitsch to shame.  Are these the product of just way too much time on somebody’s hands or what?

Next, stay tuned for a touching true Christmas story about the power of Love.  Then don’t miss the final countdown of our “Weird Jesus Sayings” series.



“God is Like a Shitty Girlfriend”

"What are you doing?! That's your kid, what is wrong with you?" God, according to Louis CK

The Old Testament story of Abraham’s near sacrifice of his son, Isaac, (Genesis 22:1-19), has flummoxed many a thinker.  The great nineteenth century theologian, Soren Kierkegaard, wrote Fear and Trembling as a response to this disturbing story, which in turn has brought many a seminary student to her knees in her efforts to “decode” it.  Which may be one reason why I find comedian Louis CK’s interpretation of the story so funny.  If you can stomach the irreverence and a bit of crassness, then you may find this piece redeeming both as theological provocation and a “LOL” moment.

YouTube Preview Image


“Living Water,” Compliments of a High School Boyfriend

It is rare that your ex-boyfriend’s sister becomes your maid of honor.  That is what happened when I married my college sweetheart almost twelve years ago in a little church in New Haven, Connecticut. My friend, Laura, held the train of my dress and raised her champagne glass to toast my marriage.

Yesterday Laura sent me the following video: it takes Jesus’ words to the woman at the well and sets them to music; apparently my high school boyfriend who composed the video with his wife is now launching a career as a composer.  The piece as a reflection on living water (John 4) is really beautiful and poignant in a George Winston sort of way, and I thought I’d share it.  That way some day when Mark Lybarger-Monson becomes a famous composer, I can say we snuggled at the CIF swimming championships.

I hope you enjoy it!

YouTube Preview Image



From Disciples to Fisher People: Weird Sayings Continued…

"Halo there, let's go fish for some people." The Calling of the First Disciples, Ghirlandaio, 1481

“As Jesus was walking beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon called Peter and his brother Andrew.  They were casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. ‘Come, follow me,’ Jesus said, ‘and I will make you fishers of men.'”  At once they left their nets and followed him.”  Matthew 4:18-20


Fishers of people?  What in the world is Jesus talking about here?  So often when I hear this passage preached, the emphasis is on how God calls the disciples and how they respond.  How they seem there and then to stop what they’re doing and follow, because they can’t do otherwise.  Jesus is enough.

And while this is all good and true, it has always stopped short of unpacking the expression, “fishers of people.”  What does Jesus really mean when he employs it? If there were a job description for a fisher of people, what would it be?  The image can bring to mind unsavory associations, like loud street evangelists with bull horns calling the world to repentance, or politicians who in fishing for votes wear their Christian faith on their sleeve.


But what does it really mean to fish for people?

I have never liked fishing.  It demands way too much patience.  For that reason, I tend to place fishing in the same category as golf.  They’re occupations that if I had all the time in the world I might try some day; but because I don’t have all the time in the world, I prefer to spend it doing things I find more, well, adventuresome and exhilarating, like paragliding in the Alps, for instance.

But maybe that is precisely why discipleship is so hard, too.  It demands a whole lot of the patience I don’t have.  You have to have just the right bait for the fish so they come swimming to it, but you also have to wait for them to bite first.  If they don’t bite, you’re out of luck.  There’s no sense forcing those tasty morsels down their throats. They eat when they are hungry.  They come when their stomachs feel empty, or when they see a worm that looks especially appetizing.  And in the sea there are lots of distractions competing for the fishes’ attention.  So fisher people have to be patient.  They have to be willing to hold their line out for a while until they feel a tug, and then they need to be careful when they pull their catch in.


Because I don’t fish, it is disingenuous to feign knowledge about fishing as a sport or livelihood. But I am married to a man who comes from a long line of North Sea fishermen (and in this case they all are men) who make their living on the deep seas catching big fish.  These men are tough, hard-working, no-nonsense sorts of people who have been weathered by many a storm.  They risk their lives doing what they do.  Many a spouse or sibling has watched them go off to work never to return.

I suspect that this suspense-laden existence is closer to the reality of fishing in Jesus’ time.  Simon Peter and Andrew weren’t regularly shooting the breeze on a sunny day over a couple of beers while waiting blissfully for their lunch to turn up.  They were living on dinghies, watching the skies and the currents for the next big catch to reel in so that they could pay the bills.  Sometimes business was good; other days it wasn’t.


So when Jesus uses the expression “fisher of people,” I imagine he has in mind a certain set of qualifications: he is looking for strong, patient, risk-taking people with both a penchant for adventure and a tolerance for the tedious.  Not just anyone can be a fisher of people then- in the same way that not just anyone can fish for tuna.

In reality, nobody starts out as a fisher of people.  The occupation takes time following Jesus first.  Peter and Andrew, when they first throw down their nets and follow Jesus are not fishers of people.  It is in the process of following Jesus that they become fishers of people.

The good news is that for starters any one of us can be a disciple, because anyone of us can follow Jesus. If you’re unsure as to whether you qualify, just check out this list of twelve characteristics of disciples (the first eight characteristics come compliments of Don Miller, and the last four are my additions):


1. You think Jesus wants to take over the government so you cut off a soldier’s ear in order to get the fighting started. (The neo cons are definitely disciples!)

2. You keep pestering Jesus about who he will give more power to in heaven.

3. You have no theological training but own a small fishing business which somehow makes you qualified because you “get it.”

4. The Holy Spirit crashes into one of your mini sermons so everybody can speak different languages and outsiders think you’re drunk.

5. People ask you if you know Jesus and you freak out and say “no” and run away.

6. You hear they killed Jesus on a cross and you figure the whole thing was a wash and you got duped.

7. You choose other disciples by playing rock, paper, scissors.


8. You teach bad theology and have to have somebody else come over and correct you.

9. You’re “undomesticated,” in that you find children a bit annoying, get stressed out when in charge of dinner for large crowds and only visit your mother when she’s sick.

10. You think you can walk on water even when you can’t.

11.  You find it hard to say “no” to good wine, especially when there’s lots of it.

12.  You would have no trouble quitting your day job if Someone gave you an offer you couldn’t refuse.

If you see yourself in here, then you’ve got a future following Jesus.  And the fishing of people?  That will come along the way, so relax.







The One, Unforgivable Thing: Weird Sayings Continued

"Letting God do the work and then stealing the credit? An ingenious idea!" -Beelzebub (a.k.a. Satan)

“If anyone speaks a word against the son of man, it will be forgiven.  But if anyone speaks a word against the Holy Spirit, it won’t be forgiven, either in the present age or in the age to come” (Matthew 12:32). 

Every once in a while when my son expresses his dissatisfaction with the Dover Management by throwing a full-blown temper tantrum, my husband gives him a stern and rather menacing warning: that while my son might get some clemency for hitting and throwing things at his father, he will get no such thing in the case that he hits and throws things at his mother.


And there is a sense in which at least on the surface Jesus is doing something similar here. Like one parent looking out for the other, He is issuing a foreboding warning to wayward, misbehaving children.  It is as if he is saying, “You can mess with me- you may even crucify me- but if you mess with my partner, you’re in for it.”

But if this kind of parental defense line-up were the only dynamic at play here, then this statement would not be so cryptic or foreboding.  Because Jesus is also equating “speaking against the Holy Spirit” as the one, unforgivable thing.  The one thing that will land you in a very hopeless “time out,” not just in the here and now but forever. The question, then, is really this: what does it mean to speak against the Holy Spirit, and how does this differ from speaking against the son of man (Jesus)?


To answer this question we need to return to the context in which this weird saying appears.  Only verses earlier, Jesus’ interlocutors, the Pharisees, have been murmuring about Jesus’ ability to exorcise demons, attributing it to the devil. Only someone in league with “Beelzebul” (a jokey slang term for Satan) could drive out demons the way Jesus does.  Or so goes their whining.

To which Jesus gives a long, sensible retort that puts an end to their convoluted reasoning.  Why would Beelzebub undermine himself by driving himself out of people? And, for that matter, what power was at play behind the Pharisee’s own successful efforts to exorcise demons?  Beelzebub, or God’s Spirit?

In this context, “to speak against the Holy Spirit” is to deny the power by which God is at work in the world turning around lives and restoring wholeness and shalom. Sure, one can say mean things about Jesus, but to attribute the new, abundant life that Jesus brings to the devil will leave you out in the dark, gnashing your teeth at reality.


N.T. Wright puts it well:  “Jesus is warning against looking at the work of the spirit and declaring that it must be the devil’s doing.  If you do that, it’s not just that you won’t be forgiven; you can’t be, because you have just cut off the very channel along which forgiveness could come.  Once you declare that the only remaining bottle of water is poisoned, you condemn yourself to dying of thirst” (Matthew for Everyone).  

Chances are that if you have read this verse and wondered a bit worriedly whether you’ve been guilty of doing this sort of thing, then you haven’t done what Jesus is talking about here.  Because what Jesus is talking about here signifies a pretty dramatic affront to God’s Person.  The same Spirit of God that empowers Jesus to cast out demons and points the way in the direction of God’s “promised land,” a place of rescue, hope, restoration and abundant life, is at work in the world all around us…


Whenever peace comes to war-torn hearts. Or, forgiveness to broken relationships. Or, healing to sick bodies and souls.  When this kind of thing happens, we blaspheme the Holy Spirit when we attribute this miraculous new life to the devil- or, to our own best efforts alone.  And when we do this, we cut off our access to that life-giving source of power.

The scenario reminds me of the old joke about the guy who, when the floods come, keeps all potential rescue parties at bay by exclaiming that God will save him.  The only problem is that he hasn’t recognized that God has been trying to save him all along in the form of the row boat, speed boat and helicopter.  Until finally it’s too late and the man drowns.

Here Jesus puts an end to this stupidity.  If you like what you see about a God who does unexplainably beautiful, life-giving things in people’s lives, don’t cut yourself off from being part of the redemptive drama underway and in league with the goodness. Let God do as God does and be open to what God might do in your life.  The best place to start is by being at least open to the idea that the One sending the lifeboats- the same One who sent Jesus- is really God Himself and nobody else.



A Sabbath from Seriousness

The following religion-related typos on the final exam papers that my husband is currently grading made me chuckle.  Here they are for your edification, accompanied by our editorial remarks:

“Jesus made the long walk to Calgary.”  (Did he cross the Polar Ice Cap to reach it?)

“The religion of Islam has several different types of Muslin within it.” (So apparently one-quarter of the world’s population is a kind of fabric?)

“Moses, under the direction of YHWH, takes the Hebrews into the dessert for forty years until they emerge to see the promised land of Canaan.”  (That’s what I call a a serious sweet tooth.)

“Another difference in Christianity is their belief in the ‘Hole Trinity.'”  (So Father, Son and Holy Spirit are not “three-in-one” but rather “three-in-a-hole.”  There’s some theological potential in the metaphor, yes?)


“Those who believed in [Jesus’] teachings, and that he was the messier, the Son of God.”  (The more I think about it, a God-in-the-flesh Messiah has to be a bit, well, “messier” than God the Father or God the Spirit, don’t you think?)

“What is interesting about the monotheism in Judaism is that they have a special convent with God.”  (A convent…really?)






You Know It’s a Bad Day When You’re Giving a Blow Job to a Stranger for $5

Magdalene is a residential recovery program for women who have survived lives of violence, prostitution and addiction.

Fellow saints and sinners, today was to feature a weird Jesus saying, but something profound happened yesterday that I have to tell you about. Because it is not every day that I get propositioned by a prostitute.  In fact, yesterday evening at the Citgo gas station in inner-city Atlanta was a first.


I didn’t see her until she was standing a few yards away. By then she had me cornered, my hand on the gas pump, my back against the fuel dispenser.  When I saw her, I knew there was no escape from what would probably be the common line I got these days in our neighborhood: “Mam, could you spare some money for the bus?,” or “Mam, I’m really hungry and I’m just looking for another dollar.”

This time, though, she preceded her proposition with an introduction. “Mam, My sister and I are standing on the corner over there trying to get $5 each for candles and dinner, but I just got out of prison for prostitution and I don’t want to do it anymore because I’m pregnant.  I know you think I’m trash, and I am- but would you let me wash your windows for $5?”


An interesting proposition.  This was also the first time that anyone had introduced themself to me as “trash.”  The admission elicited a sharp pang of pity.  Regardless of whether this woman was telling the truth about her situation, I couldn’t let her claim go unchallenged. “Mam, you’re not trash,” I protested. “God loves you!”

“I know God loves me,” she said. “He’s about the only one who loves me these days.”

“So you’re a prostitute and you’re four months’ pregnant?,” I asked.

“Yes,” with a grudging nod, then lifting up her baggy shirt to show me the protruding bulge. “I don’t want to do it anymore because I’m pregnant now.  And I’m HIV positive.  But sometimes I have to.  Sometimes when I explain I’m pregnant, they’ll say, ‘Well you still have a mouth.’  She gave me a knowing look.  (Apparently blow jobs were still not off limits.)


She went on. “My sister is over there trying to get a client. But she’s menstruating.  I know that’s gross, but…,” she trailed off. “We’re just trying to get candles, because we’re staying in a vacant apartment across the street right now.”

Her story was becoming frighteningly believable now.  My heart was starting to hurt for her and for me and this sorry lot that we human beings can be. So little ultimately separated me from this woman in her tragic predicament.  She was just another sinner born into a different family and a poorer neighborhood with less education.

“I don’t have any cash but I can drive you to the food mart down the street and buy you dinner and candles,” I said.


“Thank you, Mam,” she stammered, “but I’m really smelly.  I try to clean myself up but I don’t want to stink up your car. And I don’t want your daughter to see me.  (My two-year-old, Sam, was watching the strange proceedings from her car seat.)

“What’s your name?,” I asked.

“Nikki,” she said.

I insisted Nikki get in my car.  She finally agreed.  She was smelly, her hair greasy, her clothes soiled, as probably anyone obliged to do cheap sex tricks for a fast food meal would be.

I asked her if she wanted to keep her baby.  She said she had prayed and asked others to pray that God would remove “it” from her, but God hadn’t.  So now she was going to the local clinic and seeing a “Ms. So-and-So” who was helping her prepare for putting her baby up for adoption.


“There are so many couples out there who can’t have babies and want to,” she had been told.  And so she was going to have her baby. This twenty-eight-year-old, just out of jail having served a one-year sentence for prostitution and now jobless, homeless and HIV-positive, was going to have her baby. And here we were driving her to the mini mart to get her some basic groceries.

When our shopping run was over, Nikki asked to be dropped off at the apartment across the street- the one that she was not supposed to be staying in but at least was a safe place to lay her head, even if it didn’t have water or electricity.

I asked her if she had a phone. (Duh.) “No” was the obvious answer.

I asked her if she would like my phone number- that I could put her in touch with some friends who run a really successful residential recovery program for women just like her.  (The Magdalene House, in Nashville, Tennessee, would be just the right fit, even if it meant paying Nikki’s bus fare to Nashville; and if not the Magdalene House, there were other programs here in Atlanta; there was always hope.) She said, “Sure,” a bit happily surprised that I’d even offer to stay in touch.


After some unsuccessful rummaging through my purse, we were out of luck in our search of a pen.

“How shall we stay in touch?,” I finally asked.

“I’m always on the corner at the gas station,” she said.  “You can always find me there.”  (Only minutes earlier when we were pulling out of the mini mart parking lot, she had said under her breath, “I don’t want to go back there again.”  I hadn’t blamed her. I wouldn’t either.)

By now she was out of the car.  After thanking me again for the groceries, she was turning to go.

“Nikki,” I said, realizing this might be the last time I’d see her, “I know it’s hard to believe right now, but God is going to take care of you and your baby.  God bless you, and I’ll be praying for you!” And, maybe I was saying this for both of us, because somehow I had to believe that the God I worship was looking out for Nikki and wouldn’t let her and her unborn child slip through the cracks.  Somehow I needed to believe this, because the alternative- that this woman and her baby were on a dead-end road with no hope and no future- was too hard to bear.


Nikki’s eyes lit up for the very first time and the faint edges of a smile appeared.

“Thank you,” she said.

This morning I can’t stop thinking about Nikki.  I can’t stop thinking about how she got to where she was- in such a desperate place that her only meaning is putting out for a few bucks and a hot meal.  And I can’t stop thinking about what it takes to help Nikki get back on her feet, so that one day she can say with conviction that she is a child of God.  So that one day she can hold down a respectable job and her own apartment and have a new lease on life.  What combination of government and church-run social services need to be in place to give women like Nikki hope and a future?


It is a bit strange to think that I’ve been driving past that gas station every morning and every afternoon when I take my son to and from school, having never known that a young woman named Nikki was standing there fighting just to survive.  Now when we pass that run-down corner, I’ll be looking for her. I’ll be wondering how she and her little one are, and whether today they have managed to get by just washing windows.






“I Want Jesus!”

Does it get any more kitsch than this?

“I want Jesus!,” my two-and-a-half-year-old daughter exclaimed the other day, as she grasped for the ceramic baby Jesus in the nativity scene on our kitchen table. These days when advertisers prostitute themselves for our dollars and every manner of holiday festivity competes for our time, my daughter’s un-self-conscious exclamation reminds me of what I really want, too, when I am obliged to stand still and face my inner neediness.


A friend has reminded me of theologian Stanley Hauerwas’ words: “It’s all about Jesus and the rest is bull shit.”  Hauerwas’ sentiments, I suspect, could not ring more true than around this time of year when Christians celebrate the birth of a Savior in a manger, because there was no place for Him at the inn.  We don’t have to worship God in an actual feeding trow at the nearest farm (or in our case, the local petting zoo) to appreciate the full significance of the imagery:  that we (or at least most of us, I suspect) relinquish only the rough-shod, unkempt, least-valued margins of our existence to One who has come into the world to indwell all of us and our world with His Holy Spirit.  Like a Lover who wants all of us but gets only a small part of us because our lives are too crowded and our hearts too restless, God waits for us to return to Him.


A friend recently lamented her forgetfulness of God of late- that she over the years had grown distant in a relationship that she knew was important.  I told her what my spiritual director once told me not long ago when I voiced a similar concern.  She said that my thirst for God would tell me when “to drink.”  I have found this to be true.

Somewhere, in the midst of the endless commercial bustle and incessant demands on our time, I suspect that there is a voice in every one of us which exclaims, “I want Jesus!”  Or, “God, where are you?”  Or, “God, will you show up?  I need you.”  Or, “God, is this holiday bullshit all there is? Because I want more.”

And the One who put that thirst there will lead us to water.

Don’t miss the next in our series, “Weird Jesus Sayings”:  “If anyone speaks a word against the son of man, it will be forgiven.  But if anyone speaks a word against the Holy Spirit, it won’t be forgiven, either in the present age or in the age to come” (Matthew 12:32).



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