Mercy > Merit

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Kameron Wilds about the readings for All Saints Sunday [B] (Isaiah 25.6-9, Psalm 24, Revelation 21.1-6a, John 11.32-44). Kameron is an ordained elder for the United Methodist Church in the Virginia Conference and currently serves at Smith Memorial UMC in Collinsville, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including All Saints habits, the problem with stained glass language, really long communion tables, being mindful of the malleability of time, removing disgrace, holiness and hand sanitizer, open doors, funeral texts, and the universality of death. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Mercy > Merit

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We Still Need To Talk

Mark 10.46-52

They came to Jericho. As he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside. When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” Jesus stood still and said, “Call him here.” And they called the blind man, saying to him, “Take heart; get up, he is calling you.” So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. Then Jesus said to him, “What do you want me to do for you?” The blind man said to him, “My teacher, let me see again.” Jesus said to him, “Go; your faith has made you well.” Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.

A blind beggar was sitting by the roadside.

How should we react to this? Does it make us grieve with disappointment about the state of the world? Do we feel a sense of shame for the times we’ve passed by a beggar by the roadside without offering a thing? 

Here in one sentence we have the sad fate of a man, but it is, at the same time, the entire state of humanity itself. It should go without saying that in the man by the roadside we have what “life” can make of any of us today, tomorrow, or a year from now.

Life is a harsh mistress. When all is well, we forget about those who experience a life of hell. When life is good we continue through day after day without a thought about those by the roadside. We feel surrounded by those who love us, we rest in the comfort of our own existence, and we feel the sun shining even on gloomy days.

But life can change in an instant and we never know when it might grab us by the heel, throw us to the ground, and roll us in the mud. Life exists on change, sometimes gradual and sometimes immediate – change that results in even the best being knocked off course toward a roadside of ignorance. 

A blind beggar was sitting by the roadside. 

Look at what life has made of the man who can no longer look at anything! Why is he blind? How long has it been since he could see? Was he given improper treatment from a doctor? Did he experience some horrible attack from the powers and principalities? Has he been in a war? Was he beaten by the police?

Life, and scripture, pay no attention to such questions.

We simply do not know. All we know is that the man has experienced misfortune, and such he has resigned himself to a life of begging by the roadside.

Can you imagine the questions in his mind as he listens to the constant footsteps of passersby? “What good am I?” “Is this all life has to offer?” “What did I do to deserve this?”

His life has ceased to be lively.

And so he begs. A blind beggar by the side of the road, among the healthy and the wealthy, the strong and the powerful. He is totally and completely reliant on those who have exactly what he does not. 

The whole world looks remarkably different when seen in the darkness of the blind, or through the small windows of a hospital room, or through the bars of a jail, or from the many places of abject poverty even here in our community. 

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The whole world looks different to an older individual who wanders around from town to town without a job and hoping for one. Or to a homeless family that tries to keep their children’s truth a secret from the classmates at school. Or to the family running away from fear of death to a new country of new possibilities.

The whole world looks different to the grieving widow who cannot seem to take a step in any direction after the sudden death of her spouse. Or to the child who continues to bounce from family to family in the foster care system. Or to the family who waits out in the cold every month at the food distribution hoping for something fresh to eat.

A blind beggar was sitting by the roadside. What can he do except accept his fate? He has been cast aside by the very life that so many of us desperately cling to, and he no longer has bootstraps from which he can pull himself up. 

He will humbly beseech each set of footsteps he hears along the road, he will pray for good people moved by compassion to pass him some coins, he will express his gratitude to anyone who offers him a scrap of food.

But under it all he is filled with a rage. Can we blame him? His world, his life, is nothing but suffering, and fear, and uncertainty. Does he curse God under his breath with every passing footstep?

So, who is right, who sees the world as it is? The blind beggar by the road side or we who are secure, happy, and healthy?

We fill our conversations with the false platitudes of self-righteous indignation. We believe we have received what we have received because we deserve it or we have earned it. We assume that God rewards those who take matters into their own hands.

And we are so sure that we are right! We continue to walk by the blind beggars, and the weeping widows, and the fractured families. We convince ourselves the the world is simple the way that it is, and there’s nothing we can do about it.

And yet, there is something in the blind beggar by the roadside that captures our attention. Somehow, he sees the world as it is. He, in his blindness, understands the world better than we do with our perfect vision. We are deceived, but he is to be believed. 

Life is a harsh mistress, and he knows it, but we miss it.

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Though sometimes we catch a glimpse of the truth – when we find ourselves sitting in the pews while a casket sits at the front of the sanctuary, when we hear word of a friend who has fallen prey to the temptations of sin, when we hear about people gunned down in the middle of a worship service

Where is the hope in the middle of such terrible suffering? What does it mean for us to live in a world where the blind wait by the roadsides for help? Is this all life has to offer?

At best, we can place ourselves beside those trapped in the amber of despair, and we can jointly lift up our accusations against brutal inhumanity of humanity. We can raise clenched fists of rage against systems that profit on the poor while rewarding the rich. We can scream into the ether our frustrations against the insanity of war, the ignorance of isolation, and the injustice of life.

But what good does it do? It’s as if with every scream, and fist, and posture of solidarity, life continues to blow past without much of a care. We might help bring a little light to those who rest in the shadow of the cross, but mostly, it just feel like life stays the same.

But, now another person passes the blind beggar by the roadside. He too is a human being who suffers under the weight of the world. He too is a victim of the cruel fate that life tends to throw. He too will be pushed by the people around him toward the road, and eventually to be thrown out among the dead. 

He is not like others who pass the blind man. He does not walk with airs of superiority, he does not relish in the suffering of the marginalized, he does not profit off of the poor remaining poor. 

He, like the blind man, has lost the possibility of proper and holy friendships with all the right people. He, like the blind man, has suffered tremendously and will only suffer more in his remaining days. He, like the blind man, knows what injustice looks like and soon he will see it from the vantage point of Golgotha.

He comes from Narareth, but Nazareth wants nothing more to do with him. The bridges were burned. His mother and brothers consider him a crazy fool, the people of his home town plotted to kill him after his first sermon, and even those who know him best, his so-called disciples, are still arguing about which of them is the best and which one will hold all the power in the new kingdom. 

He is followed by a crowd as he passes the blind man, and yet they will all desert him and betray him when he needs them most.

Life is a harsh mistress.

And for this brief moment –  these two are in one another’s company. They see the world as it really is. They know the truth of what life has to offer. And yet they are different. 

One is disappointed and shocked by the hand life has dealt.

The Other knows the deep and indiscriminate power of what life has to offer.

One is abandoned by the side of the road with no hope of a future.

The Other will be abandoned in a tomb that cannot contain him.

One is the result of world in which individualism reigns supreme.

The Other will destroy the expectations of the world and will forever reign supreme.

So what will this Other say to the blind man? Will he preach a sermon about God helping those who help themselves? Will he sigh under his breath and mutter a “sorry about your bad luck”? Will he toss in a coin and continue walking as if unaffected?

No, this Other is not the one who proclaims a gospel of settling, a gospel of making lemons out of lemonade, a gospel of silver-linings. No, again and again, this Other promises that life must not remain as it is, that none of the darkness will outweigh the light, that with God all things are possible.

The Other will make the impossible possible while mounted on the hard wood of the cursed tree, and while breaking forth from the tomb with liberty. He will bear on himself the whole burden of humanity’s inhumanity in order that we might see, truly see, that God is the divine master of all things, that God is victorious over the old life of indiscriminate suffering, that resurrection is greater than any word offered on the side of the road or any miracle of sight being offered to the blind. 

And thus we begin to see, behind the curtain of the gospel, the truth. The blind man, and all who are like him, people like you and me, we suffer in this life and we do not know why. Most of the time we don’t even notice how bad things are until its too late. We trudge through the muck of life day after day after day, but Jesus refuses to leave us in our sad estate and wills to make all things new, not without us, but with us.

And so the Other walks past the blind man by the side of the road, and yet something happens. The blind man notices something, he feels something, he sees something he should not have been able to in the Other who walked by. And behold, he jumps from the road, he abandons the posture of weak resignation, he forgets the shackles that life has wrapped around him. 

Behold, he begins to understand the truth that we seek. God can help and God will help. 

Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me!

And the bridge made possible by the incarnation and the cross is already taking form as he catches a glimpse of the future ahead. This Jesus who walks with all the suffering of the world shines a light, a blinding light among the blind, and something has been changed for good.

And Jesus says to him, “What do you want me to do for you?”

“My teacher, let me see again.”

“Go, your faith has made you well.” 

And immediately he regained his sight, and followed him on the way. Amen.

Getting Out Of The Way

Devotional:

Job 42.17

And Job died, full and old of days. 

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Eugene Peterson died yesterday.

Peterson was a pastor, scholar, author, and poet. Throughout his life he wrote over thirty books, and served a church in Bel Air, Maryland for almost 30 years.

His name might not be familiar, but he leaves behind a legacy of bringing people closer to the Word through The Message. The Message is Peterson’s paraphrased version of the Bible for the modern vernacular. The story goes that in his early days of leading a church, he would “translate” passages in little bits as devotionals for the congregation, but as they became more and more popular, he eventually tackled the whole of scripture and had it published.

By 2015, The Message had sold more than 6 million copies.

To be clear: The Message is not a translation of the Bible, but is an interpretation of what it might sound like had the Bible been written today. There are of course problems with trying to adapt any piece of writing this way, but Peterson’s commitment to the paraphrase most definitely brought people to the church in a way that was exciting, refreshing, and life-giving.

I am grateful for Peterson’s work, and in particular The Message. I have used parts of his paraphrases throughout my ministry in order to bring people closer to the God that has come close to them. There is a comfort with hearing what God has said, as if God was saying it right now in a conversation.

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But Peterson’s contribution to the church extend far beyond The Message and his memoir (The Pastor), which was published in 2011, played a huge roll in my call to ministry. In fact, the passage below was so powerful, that I copied it in a notebook when I read it for the first time and have kept it in my top desk drawer ever since:

“What does it mean to be a church of Jesus Christ in America? We had let Luke’s storytelling in The Acts of the Apostles give us our text. We saturated our imaginations in the continuities between the conception, birth, and life of Jesus and the conception, birth, and life of the church. As we let Luke tell the story, it became clear that being the church meant that the Holy Spirit was conceiving the life of Jesus in us, much the same way the Holy Spirit had conceived the life of Jesus in Mary. We weren’t trying to be a perfect model or a glamorous church. We were trying to get out of the way and pay attention to the way God worked in the early church and was working in us. We were getting it: worship was not so much what we did, but what we let God do in and for us.” (Eugene Peterson, The Pastor. 171-172)

Like Job, Eugene Peterson lived a full life. The church is better for having had him in it and his legacy will last long after his death. His life was never so much about what he did with it, but what he let God do in and through him. 

We would be so blessed if someone said the same for us when we die. 

Jesus Ain’t Your Friend

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Kameron Wilds about the readings for the 23rd Sunday After Pentecost (Job 42.1-6, 10-17, Psalm 34.1-8, 19-22, Hebrews 7.23-28, Mark 10.46-52). Kameron is an ordained elder for the United Methodist Church in the Virginia Conference and currently serves at Smith Memorial UMC in Collinsville, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including loving and loathing the pastoral vocation, preaching better sermons, dust and ashes, leaning toward mystery, the use of dissonance, tasting the Lord, TV trays vs. tables, Jesus as the perfect permanent priest, and believing without seeing. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Jesus Ain’t Your Friend

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We Definitely Need To Talk

Mark 10.35-45

James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” And he said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?” And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” They replied, “We are able.” Then Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.” When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

The midterm elections are coming up.

Do you all know what those are?

I’m sure you haven’t heard of them. I’m sure that you’ve been able to watch your favorites shows on television, and listen to your favorite radio station, and even get on the computer without hearing about who is running and where.

All of us here don’t care about politics. And we certainly never talk about politics. Not here at church when we’re milling around before the worship service. Not at work when we’re sitting around at a common table with fellow employees. Not at home when we’re catching up with a neighbor over the fence.

No. Politics are a rather boring endeavor these days. It’s just too bad that we don’t care about our politics enough!

So, for the vast majority of you who have absolutely no idea what I’m talking about (read: sarcasm), the midterms elections will be taking place on November 6th. They happen every four years, and they always fall during the mid-point of a president’s four-year term in office. All 435 seats in the House of Representatives are up for grabs, and there are 33 being voted on in the Senate. 

In certain places there will also be state governors on the ballots in addition to ordinances that pertain to the local community.

All in all, it is just another voting day.

Yet, in all of its regularity and perfunctory nature, all the research and data made available points to the conclusion that more than 4 billion dollars will be spent on the elections by election day, with at least 1 billion of that being spent on television ads alone.

4 billion dollars for an election.

Now, don’t get me wrong – elections are important, they are part of the fabric of our country, and they represent a freedom many people in other parts of the world will never know. And, of course, not all politicians are bad or evil or corrupt. Some of them feel called to run for office because they want to make things better.

But, at the same time, I want to just say again… 4 billion dollars!

That’s more than what it cost to make every single Marvel movie, combined!

What does it say about those running, and those of us financially supporting those who are running, that we are willing to spend 4 billion dollars on an election?

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James and John were two of Jesus’ twelve disciples, and he referred to the sons of Zebedee as the sons of thunder. Why? We don’t really know, but if it was good enough for Jesus, then it should be good enough for us.

The thunder brothers were pretty self-absorbed.

Jesus has just predicted his passion for a third, and final, time. “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and I will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn me to death; then they will hand me over to the Gentiles; they will mock me, and spit upon me, and flog me, and kill me; and after three days I will rise again.”

And what happens next? The thunder brothers approach Jesus, immediately after he told them for the third time what was to happen. Like the children they were, they said, “Hey Jesus, will you do whatever we ask you?”

“What do you want?!”

“Allow us to sit at your right and left in your glory!”

They wanted all the power. They wanted to be Jesus’ Secretary of State and his Secretary of Defense. They wanted to be the junior and senior State Senators. They wanted to be the Speaker of the House and the Majority Leader in the Senate of whatever Jesus’ kingdom would be.

And yet, their question comes on the heels of Jesus laying it all out for the disciples. So either they were not listening to what their Messiah said, or they were just plain dumb.

Which makes me wonder how people reacted to this story the first time they heard it. Did they laugh? Because it is laughable.

Did the other 10 point their fingers and ridicule the thunder brothers for their idiot question? Well, apparently not. Because, lest we bash the thunder brothers alone, the rest of the disciples fared no better. Hearing Jesus’ utter rebuke of their request, the rest of the disciples got angry. 

It doesn’t take much of an imagination to picture these would be rag-tag followers of the holy one bickering with each other about who was the best, and who would get the authority, and who held all the power.

It was such a squabble that Jesus had to respond with his teaching about true greatness and true power: “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

The whole story reads like a comedy. We have the benefit of knowing the end of the story, we know that the tomb is empty, but did any of us feel like laughing when the text was read today?

We, for some reason, feel either defensive about their behavior, or we’re apathetic. 

We might not like to admit it, but we can feel for the thunder brothers; maybe they just want to make sure they’re protected should anything serious happen to Jesus, or perhaps they’re just seizing their moment and shoring up future opportunities…

It’s far too easy to bash the thunder brothers across the sands of time, because all of us here have a little bit of that same thunder in us, and maybe our thirst for power and security has us asking for things that we do not really understand.

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Surely, we know better than to make outlandish and insensitive requests like the thunder brothers did, but most of us still want to be first in line at the grocery store, we want our children to go to the very best schools, we want to pay the lowest amount of taxes possible. 

We want, we want, we want…

We actually want a whole lot of things that we’d never actually admit out loud.

But maybe the thunder brothers were just desperate. And then, could we really blame them? Here they are, getting close to the end of the gospel, Jesus has thrice told them about his impending death… Maybe the thunder brothers just wanted to make sure their pension was going to be okay. 

So, perhaps it was just pure desperation that propelled them to ask for such a crazy thing – and therefore their desperate clutch for power blinded them from the truth of the Messiah they were following.

But desperation, particularly in the face of the cross, is a strange thing to experience in the kingdom.

And we really are no better. Each of us, in different ways, are desperate for our own power. From the frightening ways that we are so gripped by the politics of our time (4 billion dollars!) to the strange ways we isolate ourselves from experiencing anything other than what we might deem as normative. 

We are a people hell bent on securing our futures, rather than risking the way of the cross.

Even the church itself is guilty of the thunder brothers temptation. We water down the gospel and present it in bite-size pieces in order to appeal to as many people as possible. We want all the grace without all the transformation. We want Jesus to fix our problems, but when someone else is in need, it is all too easy to turn a blind eye.

We, sinners and saints, are all filled with insecurities and fears that drive us toward greed and covetousness. As individuals, and families, and communities, and political parties, and even as the church, we do it all the time. 

Overcoming these deep seated insecurities is no easy thing, and it certainly can’t change overnight. But it does start to transform into something else through service, whatever that might mean. Because it is in serving those we might otherwise deem unworthy, that we are confronted with the profound truth – we are unworthy.

In the other we see the sin of our desire for power.

But serving others, putting others’ needs first, doesn’t “fix” us. It’s not a salve and it definitely doesn’t earn us any reward in heaven. All serving does is reorient our perspective, while transforming the world for someone else. Serving the other helps us see how often our thirst for power is what drives us away from the cross instead of toward it. 

Jesus’ rebuke of the thunder brothers, and the rest of the disciples, might sound harsh to our modern and prejudiced ears, but it’s actually a promise. Jesus promises that we need not live in fear, we need not wake up every morning worrying about our security, we need not scheme to accrue as much power as possible. But Jesus doesn’t promise our protection, or our safety, or even our power – Jesus promises us the cross!

The way of prosperity and power, though decisively tempting in a time like ours, is but a shadow and shallow promise of what the empty tomb ironically contains. Jesus’ way, the way of the cross, is a way of resistance to the dominating systems that are all around us, and are within us. 

Those domination systems are those that do whatever it takes to maintain and exert power dynamics that keep the weak weak. From politics, to families, to churches, the thirst and hunger for power lives and breathes by controlling people, subordinating the marginalized, and further dividing the weak from the strong, the powerful from the powerless, and the rich from the poor.

But the way of the cross is the ultimate alternative to the domination systems that plague our existence. Jesus lived and breathed not by amassing power and prestige, but by bearing the suffering that always comes as a result of caring for the weak and putting the last first.

Throughout his earthly ministry Jesus regularly resisted the kind of power that is still all too present in the world. From being tempted with ultimate power in the wilderness, to the temptations of the crowds jeering while he hung on the cross – Jesus always believed in something that we often forget.

True power comes through weakness, true power comes through service, true power comes through sacrifice.

We know that among others those whom they recognize as their rulers, the politicians and the powerful, lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it not so among us; whoever wishes to become great among us must be a servant, and whoever wishes to be first must be slave of all. 

For Jesus came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.

For us.

And that changes everything. Amen.

Sheep Without A Shepherd

Devotional:

Isaiah 53.6

All we like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way, and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.

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My son’s preschool class announced a few weeks ago that there was going to be a school wide field trip to a farm in order to celebrate the season of fall. Parents were encouraged to attend and act somewhat like chaperones as the children would have access to most of the property including many of the animals. In the days leading up to the field trip, I didn’t give it much thought, until yesterday morning when we arrived at the farm and saw the hundreds of other kids and families descending on the farm.

The place was massive and filled with all sorts of activities – there were pirate ships to climb on, pumpkin patches to weave through, and a 45 min long hay ride through the whole property.

The best way to sum up the experience was something I overheard between a husband and his wife (outside of earshot from their children), “Who needs Disney World when we have this???”

All in all it was a great experience, and one that my son talked about all afternoon, evening, and even while I was putting him to bed last night. And I hope he will remember with fondness the slides, and the doughnuts, and the castles, but the thing I will always remember will be the wandering sheep.

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It should go without saying that sheep are dumb. They are some of the most simple minded creatures and they have to be taken care of with particular attention.

The sheep at the farm yesterday morning was wandering around outside of any fence or pen and no one seemed to notice. But the longer it paced back and forth, the more it commanded my attention. At least, it did until one of the farm workers walked over and presumably began directing the sheep back to its proper place, and when he saw me watching he said, “She’s nothing without a shepherd.”

“All we like sheep have gone astray,” says the prophet Isaiah, “we have all turned to our own way.” We modern people tend to think that we’ve got all of this life stuff figured out; we wake up day after day and go through the motions we presume give us meaning. But the hard truth of the matter is that, many of us, are no better than the wandering sheep. 

When we become so consumed by our own desires, our own hopes, our own expectations, we become like that farm animal trapped in our own loop of isolation.

Thanks be to God, then, that we have a shepherd named Jesus – the one who comes when we are lost and guides us back to the flock – the one who pulls us out of our self-absorption and helps us to see that there is a better way.

Hold On To Your Butts

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Lindsey Baynham about the readings for the 22nd Sunday After Pentecost (Job 38.1-7, 34-41, Psalm 104.1-9, 24, 35c, Hebrews 5.1-10, Mark 10.35-45). Lindsey is an ordained elder for the United Methodist Church in the Virginia Conference and currently serves as the Associate Director for Call, Candidacy & Discernment in the office of Clergy Excellence. Our conversation covers a range of topics including the daughter of thunder, reading before seeing, level playing fields, hospital texts, PTL, singing with clergy, guided prayer, Jesus as priest, and the spiderweb of scripture. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Hold On To Your Butts

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