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Archive for August, 2013

Jesus Icon'

A couple of months ago I blogged about the “Jesus Prayer” (May 15, 2013). After posting that blog, someone requested to be removed from my blog (ouch!). There wasn’t any reason stated for this request, but I think it might have to do with the subject of the Jesus Prayer. After getting over the initial “blow” of feeling rejected (hey, I’m a “feeler” with thin skin, but the Lord’s been working on my co-dependency issues), I realized there might be some misunderstandings about the Jesus Prayer and how I use it.

First, the Jesus Prayer (“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner”) is simply a way to humble myself in the sight of the Lord (James 4:10). In recent days, I’ve become more aware of the state of my soul. I’m beginning to sense when I am getting “too high on my horse” or too overconfident in my abilities. The Jesus Prayer is a check to remind me that I am always in need of God’s mercy, and that my spiritual state without His grace and mercy is that of a sinner.

Some react to this idea because it sounds like I’m condemning myself – calling myself a “sinner” all the time. “Doug, you’re not a sinner; you’re a saint!” Yes, I am a saint. And I am a sinner. I’m both. Theologically, I am not under the judgment of sin because of Christ’s mercy. But I am still functionally a sinner in the original sense of the word. The Greek word for “sinner” is harmartolos. It is actually an archery term for “one who misses the mark” (in other words, misses the bulls-eye). In the context of spirituality it constitutes those choices that cause me to live “less than” the righteousness of God. As a Christ-follower, I seek to live God’s righteousness under grace wholeheartedly (Matt  6:33), but I still “miss the mark sometimes. “Sinner” is not my identity in Christ, but it is an honest description of where I am when I start living for myself. The intention the Jesus Prayer is to get back to my true identity as a humble child of God through Christ.

 

I know this sounds counter-intuitive, but I sense tremendous freedom when I am humbled. I am in the better place where I can learn from others and hear what they are really saying. It keeps me from having to justify myself or defend myself (what I call “going sideways”). It also keeps me on the firm rock of my identity in Christ, rather than floundering in the quicksand of the “Doug Lee ego.”

I also pray the Jesus prayer when I get overwhelmed. My former tendency in facing challenges was to “react and work it out as expediently (and painlessly) as possible.” But the Jesus Prayer reminds me that even though I am not in control, Jesus is in control. Always. That’s why the first part of the Jesus Prayer is so important: Jesus is the Lord, the Christ, and the Son of God. It also calms my soul to wait on His solutions and to ready myself in knowing that He wants me to work through life’s challenges, not around them. But He is always there with me and my job is simply to follow Him. Again, freeing and transforming.

Some might have some objection over the word, “mercy,” as if it is too specific to pray for this all the time. Many of us have been taught that mercy means “not getting the punishment we do deserve” while grace means “receiving the favor we don’t deserve.” And while those simple definitions are great as pithy sermon points, they really short-change the meaning of those powerful words – especially “mercy.”

Anthony Bloom, writer (“Beginning to Pray”) and Orthodox Bishop, gives some insight on the word “mercy.” The Greek word we translate as “mercy” is eleison. This is actually an agricultural term that has to do with “olives” (the branch, the fruit, and the oil). In Middle Eastern culture, the olive is powerfully symbolic for divine blessing. If you remember the story of Noah, the sign of peace/shalom was the dove bringing the olive branch. If you recall the story of David, he became King (the representative of God to lead people) with the anointing with olive oil. Or think about the story of the Good Samaritan, who brought healing to the victim on the road by pouring … olive oil on his wounds. These are all examples of “mercy.” So it stands that we need God’s mercies all the time, not just when we first come to Christ. And it’s so much more than “not receiving just punishment.”

So I hope that clarifies a few things about the Jesus Prayer. I love it because it is so simple and “portable.” In those moments when I quickly need to change my attitude and focus, I can pray those few words in a breath, and it really makes a difference. I find it as a powerful tool to help us live out our Whole Life Worship of God.

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passion_worship

Over this past week, I’ve looked at Six Spiritual Habits that help us get bearings on our movement toward spiritual maturity. As I mentioned, this is neither an exhaustive list nor is it “Gospel truth.” It is just another way of staying intentional in following Christ. I like the “Habits” because they represent a pretty balanced approach to spiritual growth.

I’ve saved the best for last. My church calls this last habit, “Passionate Worship.”

Now that phrase probably drums up certain images in your mind, perhaps like the photo you see above. We think of a worship service. We think of singing a worship song with great intensity and focus. Perhaps there is lifting of hands. Perhaps there are tears streaming down your face. Perhaps there is a sense of intimate communion with God. And you are thinking, “Now, that is passionate worship!”

I used to think that way. In fact, as a worship leader that was my goal – both for myself and for the congregations I led. I wanted all of us to get to that place. I thought that is what passionate worship is supposed to look like. But now I think differently.

Don’t get me wrong. I still enjoy those deeply emotional experiences of connecting with God through music and devotion, both corporately and in my personal times. I still think they are a part of passionate worship. But if we think that is all of what passionate worship is supposed to be, we’re seriously missing the boat.

If you’ve read my blog for any length of time, you know that I’ll always go back to Romans 12:1-2 as the starting point of Biblical worship:

Therefore, my brothers and sisters, I beseech you, in view of God’s mercies, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God – this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not be conformed any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is – his good, pleasing and perfect will.

“Worship” is responding to the mercies of God through the offering of whole lives to Him. It involves the process of renewing our minds, being transformed and doing the will of God.

“Passionate worship” is simply doing the above, passionately – with all our hearts.

It is more about surrender than song. It is more about doing God’s will than lifting my hands. It is more about the transformation of my soul than the shedding of my tears. It is more about how I live my life outside of the worship service than how I perform inside the worship service.

Now here’s the interesting dynamic of true passionate worship: the more we live out our passionate worship by communing with and obeying Christ during the week (through the other 5 Spiritual Habits), the more we can authentically worship God during the worship service. However, the more we confine worship to the activities that we perform during the worship service, the less we are able to authentically worship God in real life.

The sad part is that we see more of the latter in many churches. We see emotional worship in our services. We experience passion for an hour. We are assisted by fine music and great sermons.  But it’s not “passionate worship” in the truest sense. We know that because something seems to lift off of us the moment we walk outside of the sanctuary, and we go back to life “as usual.”  And I think that is one of the reasons why our churches lack credible witness to our broken, fallen world.

Passionate worship begins with understanding the mercies of God – God’s passion for you and me as evidenced by Creation, Incarnation, and Redemption. Passionate worship continues as we respond, not with lip-service, but with life-service. Passionate worship is stoked when we trust God and see God in real life situations. Passionate worship culminates with the genuine praise and thanksgiving for what He has done in our lives because we walked with Him every day. Passionate worship is Whole Life Worship lived passionately.

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child-holding-candle

One of my favorite nursery worship songs is “This Little Light of Mine.” The little kids love to sing the verses, “Hide it under a bushel? No!!” and “Won’t let Satan blow it out, I’m gonna let it shine!”

It’s a great song. But it’s really hard to do in real life.

I have to confess that shining the light of Jesus has always been the “weakest link” in my nearly 40 year spiritual journey as a Christ-follower. Although I have the privilege to have led dozens of people to Christ and planted lots of seed, I still feel like I am fall short in this area of my life. I’m afraid to get to the end of my life and I’ll be like Oskar Schindler (from the movie “Schindler’s List”) who, at the end of saving over 1,000 Jews from death, weeps regretfully over the fact  that he could have saved a lot more if he wasn’t so self-absorbed. I fear there are people who might not know Christ if I keep “hiding my light under a bushel” or “allow Satan to blow it out.”

My church calls this shining of Christ’s light, “Compassionate Outreach.” It’s the Spirit inspired and Biblically mandated activity of going outside of ourselves to help others know the life and love of God in Jesus Christ. Other groups call it “evangelism” – which means “sharing the Good News.” But we also include the “actions” of the Good News (showing compassionate love to others through meeting needs), as well as the message (that God invites us into His eternal life as we receive forgiveness of sins through Christ and following His Lordship).

But as I said earlier, it’s easier said than done. The reason for the difficulty is that there are tremendous spiritual, cultural and pragmatic forces working against Christ-followers to share the Gospel with others. Our culture frowns on people who act spiritual and are too “outward” with their faith. We sense the fear of being labeled a “Bible thumper” or “weird religious fanatic” by others. Spiritually, there is an enemy who knows that if we effectively help others become Christ followers, his dark work is severely threatened. So Satan and darkness furiously work at keeping our faith “inward” and keeping the Kingdom of God contained.

The pragmatic obstacles are varied. One pragmatic obstacle is confusion over the “how” of evangelism. Many have this complex scenario in their minds that involves memorizing scripture, giving a “spiel”, and personally leading a person to pray the “sinner’s prayer.” Or we think that evangelism means we need to manipulate people into believing something they don’t really want to believe in. Maybe we got these ideas from our well-meaning churches or leaders. But I don’t think that’s what Christ had in mind when He told us to “let our light shine.”

Another pragmatic obstacle is that some of us are never “present” for unbelievers. We spend all our time relating with people who are already Christ-followers. It is so easy to stay in the “safe” confines of church activities and fellowship. Sometimes we don’t see our work or neighborhoods or community as places to build significant relationships with others. Sometimes we just don’t have the “time.” This is a very big challenge for those who are in ministry.

So what do we do?

As I confessed, this is my weakest area, but I have found these things to be helpful in growing in the habit of Compassionate Outreach:

1. Pray for God to open our eyes to see the “harvest.” The “harvest” is a word-picture of the lost people in the world whose hearts God is moving. In John 4:35, Jesus tells his disciples to “open their eyes to see the fields ripe for ‘harvest.’” There are people around you and me who need Jesus. We just need to see them (and not pass by on the other side). So we pray for God to open our eyes.

2. Meet with a fellow Christ-follower to pray for people who need Christ. When I pastored organic house churches, I met with other members one-on-one to share the names of people we know who need Christ (usually 3-4 people) and then we’d pray for them. We had a prayer guide that listed several short Scripture-based prayers that were focused on helping these people hunger for God, realize their need, and want to respond to Christ. We saw amazing and incredible results and opportunities when we prayed weekly through this prayer guide. (Email me at wholelifeworship@gmail.com if you would a copy of this prayer guide)

3. Just start conversations with people who are not (yet) Christians. As you see people at work, doing yardwork in your neighborhood, or watching your kid’s soccer game, go over and start a conversation. You don’t have to go deep and you don’t have to share anything spiritual (unless God opens a door). Just be a friend and pay attention.

I think Compassionate Outreach might be easier than what we make of it. In fact, I think we are probably doing it more than we realize. But I also think we need to have it on our mind, in our hearts and in our prayers so that we can recognize when God is at work on the hearts of those who don’t yet know Him. And then we can shine a “little light” so they can see Him.

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Who’s Got Your Back?

back

I realized something. I’ve never seen my back – in person. I mean I’ve seen some of my back in a mirror, but I haven’t ever seen, with my own eyes, my back. And yet it’s a large part of who I am. I guess that’s where we get the expression, “I’ve got your back!” Since we can’t see our back or the things that face our back, we need someone else – someone we can trust – to watch out for it.

In our desire to grow Christ-like, we need people who will watch our “spiritual” backs; people who will tell us the truth about things we cannot see about ourselves, as well as people who can encourage us in the tough pilgrimage in Christ. In our church we call this “Authentic Community.” This is hard because we live in a highly individualized culture, where it’s a “dog-eat-dog” world and we are trained to be self-reliant. But wise people understand that we cannot progress very far in our pilgrimage towards Christ-likeness without others.

There are three things we need to have authentic community that fosters spiritual growth:

1. We need to be “safe” people. It is difficult to be honest, transparent, and authentic if the people we share with are going to attack us, embarrass us, or use the information against us (like gossip or slander). “Safe” means we can trust them with our authenticity and they can trust us. We hold to confidentiality. We accept each other where we are.

2. We need to “speak the truth in love” with each other. This is the flip-side of being safe. If there is something wrong, we need to tell each other the truth, out of love. We can’t see our “backs.” We sometimes don’t know when we have bad breath or whether we crossed a line or whether we acted selfishly. Authentic community serves as a “mirror” to help us see the things that we say or do we can’t see on our own, so that we don’t hurt ourselves or others. As Proverbs 27:6 says, “The wounds of a friend can be trusted.”

3. We have a common commitment to Jesus Christ. What knits us together, more than affinity or common interests or personal friendship, is Jesus Christ being our common Lord. His way sets the standard of how we relate, support, care for, encourage, warn, and confront. If we don’t have this in common, it is extremely difficult to engage in authentic community that promotes spiritual growth. This is why Paul warned the Corinthians not to be “unequally yoked with unbelievers” (2 Cor 6:14). This doesn’t mean we can’t be friends with unbelievers, but it does mean that our most intimate relationships (our authentic community: spouse, mentors, and closest friends) need to be heading in the same direction we are.

My authentic community consists of my wife and a few very close friends. I meet with them regularly. I share honestly with them, and they with me. Although they are very supportive of me, they will call me to the carpet when they see me heading down the “lesser paths” of selfishness, temptation, fear, and compromise. They have permission to ask me hard questions. And I am so thankful to God for each of them. Truly, I would be lost in self-delusion, phoniness, and duplicity without them.

Too many Christians try to walk “the Walk” alone. As a result, no one knows who they really are. They are not “known,” nor is there someone that they “know.” As a result, they walk in circles – never progressing forward because they can’t see themselves honestly. And the real tragedy is that there are people out there who can watch their back, and people who need them to watch theirs. But the connection is never made. And Satan laughs because he doesn’t have to work very hard with these Christians.

Authentic community is risky at times. Sometimes it’s hard. And it takes a lot of work. But, like the other spiritual habits, it sets you free. Free to be more like Jesus – authentically.

So, who’s got your back?

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currency power

Our church is about to start a series on stewardship that uses Dave Ramsey’s “Financial Peace University.” While most of the response has been very positive, as expected, some negative comments are beginning to come in. Comments like:

“Why does the church always talk about money?”

“This is just another way for the church to get my money!”

Actually my church doesn’t talk about money very much. But the Bible does talk about it a lot. For some reason God thinks that how we look at money is very important.

I think the second comment comes from warranted public skepticism toward churches that mismanage their finances. While it hurts to think that some people in our church question our motives, what concerns me more are the two words at the end of that comment: “my money.”

That phrase reveals one of the greatest myths that people choose to believe:  the myth of ownership. The truth of the matter is that, in all of God’s Creation, I own nothing. Nothing, nada, zip. We did nothing to bring any of the things we think we “own” into existence. We have no legal right in the cosmos to owning anything. So if anyone thinks that anything they have (possessions, money, real estate, relationships, ministries) is theirs, they are severely mistaken and are in for a very rude awakening one Day.

But the greatest tragedy about the myth of ownership is that “whatever we own ends up owning us.” This is a ploy of darkness; it is an insidious trap. That was also the sad realization of the Rich Young Ruler (Luke 18:18-23). He could not follow Jesus because his possessions “owned” him. “Ownership” puts us in a prison where we forever serve to protect “what is ours” and causes our hearts to shrivel into becoming a black hole of self-centeredness.

The good news is that when we realize that we own nothing, we are truly free from being “owned” by things, people, and anything else. But this is only possible through the power of Christ and as we hand over the ownership of everything – including and especially our very lives – to Him (who also happens to be the rightful Owner of all things).

That’s where faithful stewardship comes in. Faithful stewardship is realizing that everything we have and are is a gift from God. He has given us the privilege and honor to “use His stuff” (which is everything, including our very lives). He has specific ways He wants us to use His stuff that He lays out in the Scriptures. And so He expects to be faithful in our stewardship of “His stuff.”

The amazing thing about faithful stewardship is that when we live out the gifts that God gives us (our lives, our money, our gifts, our abilities, our relationships) the way He directs, we receive blessing upon blessing. Things “strangely” begin to increase: resources, fruitfulness, loving relationships, opportunities, and most importantly – our hearts.

Stewardship is not a spiritual discipline; it is a reality. Because “ownership” is a myth, the operating reality is “stewardship.” We are all stewards of what God has given us – regardless if one is a Christian, atheist, or Buddhist. The question is not whether we are practicing stewardship, but whether we are practicing faithful stewardship.

Most people in the world (including many of us in the church) are rather unfaithful stewards. Think about it. If everyone in Christ lived as faithful stewards of God’s resources, the world would look a whole lot differently – things like poverty, pollution, social injustice, and hatred would be eradicated. Instead, the world is less impacted by Christ-followers. We have the potential to change the world radically, but we don’t. And I think that my less-than-faithful stewardship might have something to do with it.

So as a fellow “unfaithful steward” who desires to grow in faith and faithfulness, I encourage us to jettison the idea that we “own” anything. There is no “mine,” except Jesus. And because all we have is Jesus, we have everything. I encourage us to take some baby steps in faithful stewardship. We need to loosen ourselves from material attachments (Do we really need that Starbucks today? Do I really need that gadget?) And we can start giving generously: both to God’s work as part of our trust in His provision, as well as to those in need as part of being an extension of God’s love. As Dave Ramsey so aptly puts it, “Let’s live like no one else (in faithful stewardship), so we can give like no one else.”

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b291

If there was a point in my life that I knew I was growing in the Lord, it was when I started to serve. I was 17 years old. I had been a Christian for 9 months and my best friend volunteered me to lead the singing for Vacation Bible School – by myself! In all fairness, my buddy had to go to summer school and he was the regular guitar guy for VBS, and I was the next best guitar player at the church (having played a total of six months). But I had a blast with those little kids! We sang all the favorites (The BIBLE, This Little Light of Mine, Jesus Loves Me). My favorite was “Little Red Caboose,” a song with absolutely no spiritual value, but the kids loved following me around the classroom as the Red Caboose went all over the world.

There were three things I noticed when I served at VBS:

– It stretched me beyond my comfort zone

– I learned how to rely on God (I actually had no choice!)

– I felt more alive than any other time in my life

My experience with VBS was one of joy and growth. I left with a greater passion for God. It drove me to want to know more about the Bible – for myself and for others. I realized that if I want to grow in Christ, I need to serve joyfully. And I haven’t stopped serving since then.

Joyful Service is a cornerstone activity of energizing spiritual growth in Christ. The Apostle Paul takes it a step farther by teaching that when we serve (when each member of the Body does its part), not only do we grow, but we help grow the entire church into the fullness of God (Eph 4:11-13). The converse is then true: when we don’t serve, we not only stunt our own growth, but we also hinder the Church from growing and our witness of Christ to the world suffers.

But joyful service is harder than it looks and there are challenges. Here are some things that I’ve learned about joyful service over the years.

1. Take notice when serving ceases to be joyful. Serving, when done in the right way and at the right time, is naturally joyful. If we lose the joy of serving, there could be a number of reasons why. It could mean that there is something wrong. But it could mean that you are burnt out. Or it could mean that God might be calling you to do something else. Or perhaps God is teaching you something deeper about yourself. Don’t jump to conclusions when the joy of serving departs, but take notice of it and make it an issue of discernment through prayer and godly counsel.

2. It is important to grow from “doing what I like to do” to “becoming a servant, like Jesus.” When I first started serving, it was all about using my spiritual gifts in something that I liked to do. But as I’ve grown in the faith, I realized that God’s plan was for me to learn to be a servant. That sometimes meant doing things I didn’t like to do, but doing them because it was what God wanted me to do. Jesus told Peter about this in John 21 when He said, “When you are older, someone else will dress you and lead you to where you do not want to go.”

You might be thinking, “Hey, I thought serving was supposed to be joyful!?”

It is!

When we mature in the faith we begin to discover a greater joy than just doing what we like to do: the joy of becoming like Jesus. When we serve doing the hard things, we begin to understand what Christ went through for us. We experience a special “fellowship” with Christ. Our character begins to change when we serve in hard places. We become more loving, more patient, and being more free from having to have our own way (and, friends, that is true freedom). When Christ calls us to be servants, it’s not a “downward” call; it’s an upward call, an elevation, a promotion, a privilege, because it’s a way of seeing life from the great perspective of love and humility. That’s where we discover that when we serve the “least of these” we are actually serving the King of Kings. And that’s when you experience the deepest joy you can ever have.

If you’re not serving, ask yourself, “Why?” and think about where God might want you to serve and to bring joy into your life (as well as the lives of others). And if you do serve, start thinking about how you can discover a deeper joy in becoming more like Jesus – a servant – as you serve. One of the Biblical words translated as “worship” also means “to serve” (latreuo). So as we joyfully serve the Body of Christ, we are also joyfully worshiping God with our whole lives.

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TEST-YOUR-BIBLE-KNOWLEDGE

The first stop on our “multi-point” check of our spiritual lives is the Bible, the Word of God. For those of us from evangelical Christian traditions, the Scriptures are central to understanding God, His work in our world, and His ways of life. We see the discipline of getting the Word of God (both the Scriptures and Jesus Christ – who is also the “Word of God,” John 1:1-14) into us through the church (sermons, Bible classes, and small groups) and through our personal devotionals (Bible reading programs, Daily Office, blogs, Scripture memorization etc.)

So the crucial question I want to ask today is not whether we are getting God’s Word into our lives (although I constantly feel like I never invest enough time in it), but why do we get the Scriptures into us in the first place?

Sometimes I feel like the (unspoken) objective is: to get the most Bible knowledge. Like “he or she with the most Bible knowledge, wins!” You can tell who these people are: they are the ones preen around like peacocks and look for opportunities to show other people how well they know the Bible and Christian theology. I know I wrestle with this form of spiritual pride all too often. Besides trying to be the “Bible Answer man” all the time, I also like to subtly mention that I teach seminary and that I have a doctorate in spiritual formation (like I just did – shucks!) The Apostle Paul was spot-on when he told the Corinthian church that knowledge, without love, “puffs up” (1 Cor 8:1).

No, the indicator of spiritual progress is not Biblical knowledge, but Biblical growth. While it is important to know and understand the Scriptures, it is more important that we follow the Scriptures through obedience and action. Many times, Jesus affirms the person who hears His words and does them as being wise (Matt 7:24, Luke 6:47-48, Luke 11:28). But those who hear His words but do not obey them are foolish. So it is not the amount of Scripture that we know that counts, but whether we apply the Word into our lives. True spiritual growth is seen in how the Word of God transforms our character and multiplies fruitfulness in our lives, not how it enlargens our brain or massages our egos.

So how can we tell if we are experiencing Biblical growth? Here are two things that come to my mind:

1. People will tell you. If the Word of God is transforming your actions and attitudes, people will notice. They will come up and tell you. That is why it is so important to be in “loving and honest community.” My true spiritual friends will tell me, in a loving way, when I act like a jerk or an idiot (usually in nicer terms than that, but sometimes not). But they will also tell me when I’ve changed for the better. And I notice when they do: God is doing something in my life! Now it’s important to not try to “act” godly in order to impress people. That’s a “dead end.” But, chances are, your really good friends will know when you’re “posing” and when God’s transforming you into the real deal.

2. Your love for others (and God) will expand. Some of you might be scratching your heads, saying “Huh? What does love have to do with Biblical growth?” Well, love has everything to do with Biblical growth. According to Paul, if Biblical knowledge does not lead to love, then it is a total waste – you have nothing (1 Cor 13:3). True understanding of Scripture leads us to the generous, loving heart of God. If we’re reading the Bible right, we cannot help but fall in love with God. That knowledge of God’s love inspires us, fills us, and expands us to love others in the same manner. If we find that our love for others is not growing (that we’re still angry, bitter, prejudiced, or judgmental), then either we’re not reading the Bible or we’re reading into the Bible with self-centered eyes and heart.

In Paul’s definition of Whole Life Worship in Romans 12:1-2, the key to transformation is the “renewing of the mind.” True Biblical growth takes place when we start to think differently, when we start looking at the world differently, and when we start acting differently. We begin to see things like Jesus sees and we begin to do things that Jesus does because we believe in what the Word of God (Scripture) affirms, and follow what the Word of God (Christ) exemplifies.

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