Essay, Faith

The sacrifice of thanksgiving

First published 23 November 2013. I’m not by nature a happy person. That doesn’t mean I’m an unhappy person. I just don’t go around all day thinking sunshine, rainbows, and unicorns. I see the good and the bad.

I’m also a bit of a type-A personality. I have a considerable internal drive to make things better and to fix what is broken. I spend a lot of my time frustrated because I just can’t fix it all. Sometimes the problems are beyond my abilities, and frequently I lack the resources I need.

So you see where my focus is: more on the bad than the good. I’m aware of the good but I feel the bad.

The other day in some words in a psalm caused me to stop dead. From Psalm 50, verses 14-15 and 23:

Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving,
and perform your vows to the Most High,
and call upon me in the day of trouble;
I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me.

The one who offers thanksgiving as his sacrifice glorifies me.

sacrifice of thanksgiving? I know all of these words individually, of course, but strung together in that order I struggled to understand them.

So I asked, because this came up during a Bible study. The leader said, “One way to look at it is that you’re giving up ingratitude. But thanksgiving itself really is a sacrifice.”

It left me more puzzled than satisfied.

But as I studied it and thought about it, I came to see that just because something is always wrong, and some things are very wrong, it is a sacrifice to set it aside for awhile and be grateful for what is good and right.

This helped me realize that I had lost touch with something important. 15 years ago, my life fell apart. And as I put my life back together, the bad days and bad things dwarfed the good. I had to search hard for the good. They were usually very small things, and they were always very few in number. But I looked for them, because finding something good in every bad day was the knot at the end of the rope to which I clung.

My living room in the morning
One small thing for which I am frequently surprisingly grateful: the morning sun streaming through my front windows. I love how the warm light plays against the wall.

Thanks to a lot of hard work over the past several years, there’s way more good than bad now. But I’m still that guy who wants to fix and improve things – and often that’s all I can think of.

It’s hard to sacrifice it and offer up thanksgiving to God.

Perhaps that’s why it’s a sacrifice. When things are truly going poorly, when the biggest thing I have to be thankful for is mighty small, it can really hurt to thank God for it. And for some reason, at least for me, when more is right than is wrong it’s easy to focus on the wrong. It is still surprisingly hard to thank God for what is good.

And a sacrifice – you should feel it. Otherwise it’s not a sacrifice.

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Essay, Faith

Forgiveness isn’t reconciliation

First published July 17, 2013. It makes me crazy when I hear it said (especially by preachers or others teaching the Christian faith) that when you forgive someone, you must reconcile, returning the relationship to where it was before. It’s not true.

Hibbs Ford Bridge

In my last post I wrote about why and how to forgive – to suffer the loss and bear the pain, to no longer hold anything against the person who harmed you, and to give up your desire to get even. You forgive so you can be at peace.

Reconciliation is a separate step. Where forgiveness is about letting go of the past, reconciliation is about committing to a future – and sometimes it is best for a relationship not to have a future.

Even among people who haven’t harmed us, there are some who are a fit for us and some who aren’t. We routinely choose our intimates, friends, and associates based on any number of factors – shared values, common interests, demonstrations of care and concern for our well-being, and simple appeal. We don’t have to be tight with every person we encounter. We can’t be; there are simply too many people!

God can be tight with everyone; he is perfect and infinite, after all. God’s ideal is forgiveness and reconciliation, and that’s what he offered us at the cross. Jesus’s death gives us both forgiveness from and reconciliation with God, if we accept it as a gift from him. We get to be in relationship with him again, and he will not retaliate against us for our sins. I think God feels deep, deep sadness over every one of us who won’t accept his gift of reconciliation. It is much how we would feel if one of our children thumbed his nose at us and never came home again.

Canadian River Bridge

God wants us to live in peace with everyone, but I don’t think he means for us to keep opening ourselves up to harm. When Jesus preached at the mount, he said something that is frequently misapplied to justify reconciliation with someone who will harm us again and again.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.”

That’s Matthew 5:38-42, NIV. Jesus was exaggerating a little to make a point; his whole sermon was filled with such hyperbole. Seriously, do you think he means for us to find to a mugger in a blind alley and say, “Here’s my wallet and my phone, and have a nice day?” Jesus himself was struck in the face in John 18:22; he demonstrates his point in John 18:23 where he doesn’t present the other side of his face to his aggressor. He doesn’t hit back or argue, either; he remains peaceable. Jesus is only trying to tell us to let God have vindication and mete out justice.

1880 bridge

I think God wants us to love ourselves enough to choose people who treat us well and build us up.

So when someone harms you, ask yourself:

  • How much did you value the relationship? Highly, moderately, lightly, or not at all? You probably value highly the relationship with a parent, a child, or your best friend of 30 years. You probably place much lower value on the relationship with a distant acquaintance.
  • How much damage was done? Extreme, moderate, or light? For example, someone deliberately burning your house down is far worse than someone casually saying something offensive to you.
  • What does what the other person did say about their character? Was what they did way out of character for them, a one-time deal that is inherently unlikely to be repeated? Or was it consistent with who they are? It’s pretty simple: keep people with good character and shed people with bad character.
  • How well did the other person make amends? Fully, partially or imperfectly, or not at all? When someone harms you or lets you down, trust is damaged. Trust needs to be restored before reconciliation can be complete. Making amends is the first step in restoring trust. Trust builds over time as the other person continues to behave well.
Steel truss bridge, Mill Creek

The answers to these questions help you decide whether to reconcile fully, to end the relationship, or to redefine the relationship.

Let’s look at redefining the relationship for a minute, because it’s not an obvious outcome. It’s when you change the rules of the relationship to protect yourself.

In college, a buddy used to lend me his car sometimes. Once I brought it back with a slightly dented fender. I apologized all over myself. He told me it was all right, and that the little dent didn’t make his old beater look any worse. But he also said that he’d like it if I didn’t ask to borrow his car anymore. He was just as friendly to me after that, but there was this one limit to our relationship. Perhaps in time I could have rebuilt that trust and he might have let me borrow his car again, but college ended for us before that day came.

I once knew a woman with an alcoholic husband. She finally told him that while she loved him and didn’t want to leave him, she couldn’t tolerate his drinking anymore. She told him that when he came home drunk she would kick him out, change the locks, and cancel his debit card, for increasingly longer periods each time. When she let him come back home, she would treat him with love and respect. He eventually got into AA and got sober, but only after being kicked out like this a handful of times, the last time spending many months unwelcome at home.

US 36 Wabash River bridge

Still, there are just going to be times when it’s right to call it quits permanently. Many years ago someone who was supposed to love me hurt me instead, repeatedly, in breathtaking ways. It took me several years to forgive and heal from the abuse, and to be at peace again. There have been no amends made, not even an acknowledgement of what happened. I sometimes encounter that person. I am polite, but I keep interactions short and move on. I think it unwise to let that person be close to me in any way.

I’m thinking again about the college roommate who stiffed me for the $400 phone bill, whose story I told in my last post. He called me trying to apologize. He tried to rebuild my trust by sending me money every couple months towards the debt. Yet I spurned him until the debt was repaid in full. My heart was in the wrong place.

Thankfully, my friend forgave me for that.

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Essay, Faith

The mechanics of forgiveness

First published July 15, 2013. $400 bought my resentment and scorn.

Roadside flowers 2010

When I was in college, one of my roommates had a girlfriend who still lived in his hometown. He missed her a lot, and spent a couple hours on the phone with her every night. One day he abruptly quit school and moved back home to be with her.

The next phone bill was for $400. (Remember when we paid by the minute for long distance?) He’d left me no way to contact him, so there I was, left to pay this enormous bill. Oh my goodness was I ever angry.

After a couple months, he called and wanted to talk with me. With a huff, I said I wouldn’t take the call. He called a couple more times but I still wouldn’t have anything to do with him. But then he sent me a check for $50. Another small check followed, and later another, and then another, and after about six months he’d paid me back in full. And then I was able to let go of my anger. I forgave him, and I was willing to be his friend again.

And I had it all wrong. All wrong.

Roadside flowers

For those of us who follow God, it’s clear that God wants us to forgive and be reconciled when others fail us. Jesus even made it part of the model prayer: forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us. The whole point of Jesus going to the cross was so that God could forgive us and be reconciled to us. Forgiveness and reconciliation are simply core to the Christian life. Yet the Bible is maddeningly silent on why (other than because God said so) and, especially, how we should do that.

To fill in some of those gaps, I’m going to have to invoke the Nazis. Please bear with me.

When I lived in Terre Haute, a woman named Eva Kor was frequently in the news because she built a holocaust museum there. Terre Haute might seem like the last place you’d expect to find such a museum. But that’s where Eva ended up after she was liberated from the Auschwitz concentration camp.

Eva had a twin sister, Miriam. When Eva’s family arrived at Auschwitz, the girls were separated from their family, whom they never saw again. They certainly all died in the gas chambers. Meanwhile, Eva was injected with something – bacteria, a virus, something deadly – and was left to die. This was the practice of Dr. Josef Mengele, who gathered twins in the camps to experiment on them. He would inject one twin and wait for death, then quickly kill the other and autopsy both bodies to compare them.

Hello, Spring!

Unexpectedly, Eva survived her injection. At about the same time, the camp was liberated and Eva and Miriam were freed. But can’t you imagine how Eva must have felt? Her anger, resentment, and emotional pain had to be off the charts.

Yet in time she chose to forgive. In 1993, Eva flew to Germany to meet with one of the doctors who worked at Auschwitz. They went together to the camp, which still stands as a memorial to the slaughter. And there, in front of reporters and cameras, she said it: “In my own name, I forgive all Nazis.”

You would not believe how angry this made many of the other concentration-camp survivors. Their pain and anger was just too deep for them to let go. But Eva Kor is certain that she did the right thing. She will tell you that her forgiveness does not mean she has forgotten what happened. She just chooses not to hold it against the Nazis anymore, so that she can be at peace.

Peace – this is why we should forgive. Holding on to anger, resentment, and bitterness harms us. Like a loving parent, God does not want to see us harmed. And when we harbor those feelings, it can lead us to treat others poorly, or to retaliate against the one who harmed us. God doesn’t want to see us harm any of his other children, either. Even if you don’t follow God, peace is an incredibly compelling reason to forgive.

First color

To forgive means simply to let go of resentment, to no longer hold something against someone. It means that you accept what happened to you. It doesn’t mean that it didn’t happen. It doesn’t mean that you agree with what happened or think it is right. It also doesn’t mean that you automatically have to restore the relationship with the person who harmed you. It means only that you take the hit, suffer the loss, bear the pain, and give up your right to get even. The pain will eventually subside, and you will be left with peace.

Sometimes it takes a very long time for the pain to subside. Consider Eva Kor, who announced her forgiveness almost 50 years after the fact. I haven’t had anything as monstrous happen to me as happened to Eva, but I’ve learned a few things about how to forgive, and here they are.

  1. Don’t wait for someone who has hurt you apologize or to make it right. They might never. Sure, it’s easier to forgive then, but if you wait for that, you will carry your pain until you do.
  2. Pour out your heart to God. Let him know the pain you feel. Ask him to heal you, to ease your pain. If you don’t believe in God, pour your heart out to a trusted friend.
  3. But try not to keep turning it over in your mind, because it can become a self-defeating bad habit. When you find yourself ruminating, distract yourself. Go to a movie, get out of town, call a friend – fill your mind with something else.
  4. Keep asking God to bless that person, to watch over and protect that person, and to lift that person up. Remember Matthew 5:43-45: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.” (Again, if you don’t follow God, then decide within yourself to always wish that person well.)
  5. Cultivate compassion for the person who harmed you. Try to understand why they may have behaved that way – what happened to them that made them behave so badly toward you? We all have a backstory that explains who we are and how we behave. This isn’t meant to excuse their behavior. It’s just meant to soften your heart.
  6. Some days you’ll wake up willing to forgive but as the day goes on your anger and pain will be more intense than ever. This is just how it goes sometimes. Forgiveness can be a day-by-day thing. When this happens, just get up tomorrow and decide to forgive anew.

Can you see how forgiveness is a process? The bigger the hurt, the bigger the loss that must be grieved, and that takes time and attention.

What do you do to forgive that I haven’t listed? Please share in the comments. And in my next post, I’ll talk about reconciliation – why it’s a separate step from forgiveness, and when it may not be a good idea, even though it’s God’s ideal.

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Essay, Faith, Personal

Unrightable

First published Dec. 18, 2008. A friend has wanted to talk lately about the hard work of forgiveness, so I’ve been thinking about what I’ve learned about it over the past few years.

No More Sake
Photo credit: Matt Reinbold

Not long enough ago I hurt someone pretty badly and was hurt back as badly in return. We had cast down the china teacup of our relationship and it shattered. The best repair we could manage leaked through its glued seams. It wouldn’t hold and we came apart for good.

That experience taught me a lesson that seemed paradoxical at the time but is now so obvious that it’s elementary: Getting over being hurt means accepting the pain. It doesn’t go away as long as you deny it. It doesn’t go away as long as you ruminate on it, where it builds resentment. Acceptance is the only way through; acceptance accomplishes most of the healing. As I worked at simply letting myself hurt – and it hurt a lot – the pain diminished and disappeared, and I came to no longer hold anything against that person.

Because I’m given to foolish fantasies of a harmonious world, I also learned a second, more difficult lesson. I always thought that when I forgave, it was to be as though the wrong never happened and that I should be reconciled to the one who hurt me. God says that when he forgives, he remembers our sins no more. He gives second, fifth, ninety-fourth, and seventy-times-seventh chances. But while God loves reconciliation, he also does not want me to keep putting myself in harm’s way. Two people can simply not be good for each other. Maybe one or both have a nature that’s toxic to the other. Maybe the number or severity of past hurts make it too hard to rebuild trust. Maybe their needs conflict in too many ways. So sometimes the best way I can care for myself is to let the other person go. I’m sure that a few people are best off having let me go, too.

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Essay

On safety and security

(originally posted 12/14/15) If you live in a first-world country, you are pretty safe from harm. If you live a middle-class or better lifestyle in a first-world country, you are overwhelmingly safe.

Of course, my neighbors on Nextdoor, an online bulletin-board system for neighborhoods, might not agree. They wring their hands all the time about crime and safety. They share the weekly police blotter and links to crime statistics and to a database of where all the sex offenders live. They recommend their security-alarm companies to each other, talk about starting neighborhood watches, and pester the city to increase police patrols and install more street lights. My Nextdoor feed crackles with fear.

It’s a matter of time, I’m sure, before one of my neighbors on Nextdoor links to this interactive tool on Slate which maps every reported shooting across the United States in the last year. Type your address and bingo. I find five shootings within a two-mile radius of my house. Cue the Nextdoor discussions about police patrols and alarm systems. Something must be done!!!!

Entry system

Perhaps I’ve not been concerned enough about crime. Half the time, my car is unlocked; it’s old and there’s nothing in there worth having anyway. I don’t lock my doors during the day when I’m at home. Heck, I first installed deadbolt locks on my doors only this year. I had painted the doors and installed new doorknobs and locks, and decided I might as well finally have deadbolts installed while I was at it.

Even worse, once or twice a year I manage to drive away from here for the day and leave my garage door up, providing easy access to the whole house. I’m such a doofus.

Yet every time I get home, nothing is disturbed. Actually, I’ve largely escaped crime my whole life. I had one close call as an adult, in the early ’90s. Wham! bam! rattle rattle rattle! on my front door, and then the back door, in the middle of the night. Woke me right up and scared the bejabbers out of me. But my locked doors deterred the would-be burglar. Or maybe it was a drunk trying to enter the wrong house. Either way, the police didn’t find him. It’s the only time I’ve ever needed police because of crime.

That’s not to say terrible things can’t happen. About five years before I moved in here, my next-door neighbor’s house was ransacked and burglarized while he was at work. And of the shootings the Slate tool found near my home, one of them made national news. Maybe you saw the stories on TV. It was the brutal murder in 2015 of a young mother, a pastor’s wife, in a home invasion. She was pregnant with their second child. It was truly, breathtakingly, stunningly awful.

Dangerous people do exist. It’s easy, natural even, to fear encountering one of them someday.

But let’s consider the real risk. I like to think of risk as the product of likelihood and impact — what’s the chance a bad thing will happen, and how bad will it be if it does?

The other four shootings within two miles of my home appear to have involved people who knew each other — domestic violence situations or fights between familiars at a bar. This is terrible stuff, no doubt. But if you’re in a reasonably healthy relationship and have reasonably stable friends, you’re extremely unlikely to find yourself shot in either of these ways. Even if a shooting of this nature happens next door to you, you are enormously unlikely to be injured by it. And home invasions are so rare that they always make the news, even in this, the 14th largest city in the United States. Same goes for the mass shootings and domestic terrorism incidents that happen nationwide: you are more likely to be crushed by a bookcase falling on you than to be shot by a terrorist. So said The Washington Post, with stats to back it up:

Consider, for instance, that since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Americans have been no more likely to die at the hands of terrorists than being crushed to death by unstable televisions and furniture. Meanwhile, in the time it has taken you to read until this point, at least one American has died from a heart attack. Within the hour, a fellow citizen will have died from skin cancer. Roughly five minutes after that, a military veteran will commit suicide. And by the time you turn the lights off to sleep this evening, somewhere around 100 Americans will have died throughout the day in vehicular accidents – the equivalent of “a plane full of people crashing, killing everyone on board, every single day.”

But obviously, the impact of being shot, whether through terrorism or crime, is enormously high. The impact of having your house broken into while you’re away is fairly high. The impact of having, say, your lawn mower stolen from your front yard is frankly fairly low. It’s irritating and costly to the tune of a few hundred dollars, and you’re not likely to forget it. But if you’re in at least the middle class, you’ll recover pretty quickly.

And so you can and should do reasonable things to protect yourself. I was well overdue to have those deadbolts installed. And I should always leave my car locked to deter casual thieves — it’s easy to hit the lock button on my keyfob as I walk away.

Yet I have no plans to install an alarm system. I had one once, during my first marriage, that my wife had installed over my objections. (I had that kind of marriage.) I didn’t like having it armed when I was inside because I had to temporarily disarm it just to step out to get the mail. I usually forgot to arm it when I left. Once, I came home to find it armed, could not remember the code, and got a visit from the sheriff, angry at the waste of his time. I hated the constant weight of managing the alarm, when the events it protected me against were highly unlikely anyway.

I could buy a handgun, maybe even get a concealed-carry permit. Someone breaking in wouldn’t have a chance! Except that I know myself: I’d strap that gun on every day for a while, but soon I wouldn’t like how it made me think about an enormously unlikely event every day. So the gun would lie in a drawer in my bedroom. Then on the day an assailant did bust in through the patio door, I’d be just as screwed as if I didn’t have the gun.

You may choose differently on the alarm system and the firearm. Please do; I have no judgment to offer you. And I hope you don’t judge my desire not to think all the time about something awful but enormously unlikely, not to expend anything more than easy energy protecting against it. I want to live a life as carefree and relaxed as I can, and be free of needless anxiety.

Regardless of what measures you take to protect yourself from crime, someone can get around them. As the locksmith installed my deadbolts, he told me a story of a woman whose deadbolts he installed. Two days later, someone broke in anyway. Hacked the doorframe to pieces to get in. She called him back to fit new locks into a new door and frame.

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Essay, Faith

On reconciling belief

At church we’ve been having a discussion about whether baptism is necessary for salvation. I should say, the elders have been having that discussion, and I’m an elder. Where I go to church, we elders and the pastor are the church’s leadership. So it’s important for us to align on such matters.

St. Joseph Catholic Church

We elders all come from different faith traditions. The various branches of Christianity all follow God and Jesus, but there are so many branches because we don’t agree on all doctrinal points.

In my church, the elders have historically agreed on key doctrinal points. Crucially, we have also agreed that only a few points are key. When we don’t agree on non-key doctrinal points, we come to agree what we will teach on them so there is unity.

Over the last few years a couple elders have stepped down and a couple new elders have come on. It’s reopened some formerly settled doctrinal points. We recently realized that we might not agree on whether baptism is necessary for salvation.

There is no doctrine more central to the faith than that of salvation. It’s how we access God’s waiting forgiveness of our sins, and it’s how we are joined with him forever. We need to get this one right.

Brazil, IN

I’m in a Restoration Movement church. You know us as the Churches of Christ, independent Christian Churches, and the Disciples of Christ. We believe that a person must make his or her own decision to follow Christ. We link baptism to that decision (in different ways, as I’ll explain in a moment). Therefore, we don’t baptize infants.

If you decide to follow Christ in one of our churches, we’ll ask you to publicly confess your faith: “I believe that Jesus is the Christ, the son of the living God, and I accept him as my Lord and Savior.” If you’ve never been baptized, or if you were baptized before you could choose for yourself, we will baptize you. It’s quite a spectacle, as we dunk your full body into a pool of water. Bring dry clothes.

(We believe that baptism, by the way, is a sacrament any believer can administer. I baptized one of my sons. Read that story here.)

North Liberty Christian Church cornerstone

The Bible says in Ephesians 2:8-9 that we are saved by God’s grace through our faith in him. I believe that you’ll hear this preached in every Restoration Movement church. We agree that we must confess our faith to be saved.

We are not all aligned on baptism’s role, however. Some of us also say that unless you are also baptized you can’t access that saving grace, for the act of baptism washes your sins away. Acts 2:38 is usually cited in support. Some of us say that baptism it is a necessary step of obedience to God, but in itself does not accomplish salvation. The rest of us say that baptism is nothing more than an outward sign of the grace you have received, and a public declaration of your changed mind and heart.

This is tricky stuff. Many learned and earnest people have carefully and prayerfully studied the Bible on baptism’s role in salvation, and yet my faith tradition is still divided by these three positions. I hew to the middle one: we are saved entirely by grace through faith, but baptism is a necessary step of obedience.

St. John Lutheran Church

I’m just a man serving as best I can, fallible and imperfect. I’m always open to looking at scripture again, and again, and again. My study and prayer, as open-minded and -hearted as I can make it, has certainly expanded, refined, and outright changed my understanding of other doctrinal matters many times. But this is where I stand today on baptism.

We said goodbye to my mother-in-law not long ago. She was 90; her time had simply come. She and her husband are deeply faithful Catholics. I had little contact with Catholicism before marrying their daughter Margaret. I watched firsthand how the beliefs and traditions of the Catholic faith comforted this family through this loss. The funeral mass was powerful. The priest was fantastic. He modeled Christ at every moment, with every turn, as he helped this family grieve. He materially helped me grieve as a non-Catholic. I’ve never been to a funeral that so thoroughly helped a family say goodbye to a loved one.

Christ Lutheran Church cornerstone

My mother-in-law was baptized as an infant, before she could choose. I know that there is a path of preparation in the Catholic Church, that a young person at a certain age can choose to continue, to be confirmed. My mother in law chose confirmation.

She deeply loved God and Jesus. She obeyed and served to the best of her ability throughout her life.

I don’t find the Catholic pattern in the Bible. But do I think my mother-in-law is saved? Oh my goodness, yes. She was a human being with shortcomings, but I saw every one of the fruits of the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23) in her. She belonged to God. It would be a miscarriage of God’s grace and justice if my mother in law is anywhere other than with God in his Kingdom today.

Woodruff Place Baptist Church

All of us who try to figure out what God asks of us misinterpret or misread something somewhere and believe — and therefore act — wrongly. I’m highly suspicious of anyone who says they’re certain they’re right, or that they know the one proper way to think, believe, or act.

Yet I have to believe something, especially when it comes to crucial matters like how one is saved. I have come to believe that salvation is by grace through faith, chosen freely, and that baptism is a necessary step of obedience to that saving grace. But I cannot bring myself to criticize any soul who earnestly follows God and, thoughtfully and prayerfully, believes and practices something different.

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