For The Someday Book

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Journey Inward Journey OutwardJourney Inward, Journey Outward by Elizabeth O’Connor, HarperSanFrancisco, 1968, 176 pp.

I was introduced to Elizabeth O’Connor in my first semester of university, when I attended a retreat for those interested in exploring ministry as a vocation. (I was supposedly there as a music leader, not a candidate for ministry, but, well, you can see where that went.) A workshop leader used multiple passages of her Cry Pain, Cry Hope that have stuck with me ever since.

There is an ongoing conversation within my ministry colleagues about the crucial role of discipleship and faith formation, and the “competition” between time or investment as churches in acts of justice and compassion and acts of prayer, worship and study. I am firmly committed to the church’s mission and advocacy endeavors, but believe they require investment in the work of discipleship, shaping our inner lives in the mind and heart of Christ. The movement can work both ways–engagement in outward works of compassion and justice can lead us toward inward works of devotion, and inward works of devotion can lead us toward outward acts of social engagement. But it can be a struggle to sort through the balance, and engage those who think one side or the other is more important.

As I am preaching a Lenten sermon series on spiritual practices, including both inward and outward ones, this seemed like an apt time to seek O’Connor’s wisdom in a new arena, even though this book is old and set in a different era.

Journey Inward, Journey Outward is the second volume (the first was Call to Commitment) of the story of the Church of Our Savior in Washington, DC, an intentional, missional Christian community in the 1960s led by Rev. Gordon Cosby. The congregation has sought with care and great deliberateness to develop disciples of Jesus governed by inward habits of prayer, worship and communal living, engaged in outward practices of mission. As always, O’Connor’s gifts as a writer give voice and perspective and ways of framing that capture my thoughts and inspire deeper reflection.

 

She begins with a conversation about vocation, the way of intentionality and consciousness of God at work in our lives. She describes those without vocation, comparing them to the crowd surrounding Jesus (as opposed to the disciples):

They do not receive anything into themselves; things happen to them, but never in them. Their lives are rich in outer events, and poor in inner ones. (5)

The person who has lost his true self has a hunger in him. It may be expressed in apathy or industry. He may try to satisfy it with a job he works at 14 hours a day, or a family that is ‘everything’ to him, or success that is worth all striving, or the acquisition of things, of which there is no end of want. But there is nothing to fill the emptiness of the one who is not following the way of his own inner being. (7)

This is exactly the kind of pain I see so often in the people I meet every day, most of whom are “good people,” dedicated to serving others and trying to live rightly. Yet there is a pain, an alienation, a loneliness, a “God-shaped hole,” as some would say. More outward action and good works will not fill the void. More, it is not the way of Christ.

O’Connor says that the journey inward involves three engagements:

  1. The engagement with oneself — moving toward self-knowledge, plumbing the depths of our own consciousness
  2. The engagement with God — from St. Teresa: “We shall never succeed in knowing ourselves unless we seek to know God.” Prayer, both in daily life and in time apart, along with study and spiritual disciplines
  3. The engagement with others — a real commitment to friendship and relationship with others, even when it is difficult

She summarizes the whole thing here:

If engagement with ourselves does not push back horizons so that we see neighbors we did not see before, then we need to examine the appointment kept with self. If prayer does not drive us out into some concrete involvement at the point of the world’s need, then we must question prayer. If the community of our Christian brothers (and sisters) does not deliver us from false securities and safe opinions and known ways then we must cry out against that community, for it betrays. (28)

The inward must not be sacrificed to the outward, nor the outward to the inward. There is no transformation that way. (30)

That’s what it’s all about–transformation. If we are about the work of Christ, it is always transformation that we seek, and that requires both inward and outward engagements.

The remainder of the book gives practical insight and stories to the way Church of Our Savior has endeavored to live these practices in their life and work together. Specifically, they organize mission groups for all members that practice both inward-looking prayer and worship together and outward-looking engagement in service and justice in the community. The stories O’Connor tells speak of remarkable transformation, in both the communities they serve and the individuals who have opened their lives to God in this way: an army captain turned potter and artist; a homeless shelter for children emptied as children are placed in homes; a coffee shop become worshiping community. Each remaining chapter unpacks the story of a mission group, recounting its many challenges and small victories on both the inward and outward paths.

A few remaining treasures from her writing to share.

After discussing the role of risk-taking in the Coffee House community, and the importance of taking risks as part of the life of faith, she talks about the safety they found to take risks:

The safety was not in protection from ‘slings and arrows,’ but in a group of people who, however poorly they might embrace it, had as the basis of their life in Christ an unlimited liability for one another. (84)

The image of having “unlimited liability for one another” is worthy of further exploration and reflection.

She recounts the exploration of faith in the church’s education program, and in particular one person’s account of the role of Gordon Cosby in inspiring their faith. Quoting this individual:

“I knew that this was a man of faith, and that he included in it the faith that I could have faith. I became expectant myself, and when I became expectant, things began to happen for me.” (105)

There is something true and holy in this explanation of ministry. We hold faith that others can have faith, that God is at work in their lives. Even when we have doubts, the role of pastor and our presence with them represents that to people. And that simple presence and faith of expectation opens the way for people to believe for themselves that God is at work in them.

Dr. Cosby’s education session included three relationships that each of us need if we are to be growing in faith.

  1. We need those who are further along the way, who give us hints of where we are and raise the question of where we are going.
  2. We need those who are our peers–fellow pilgrims with whom we share the day-by-day events of our life in Christ
  3. We need those who are not as advanced as we–a little flock which is ours to tend and nourish (110)

While I resist the notion of being “advanced” in faith, it is true that there is wisdom and excellence in practice developed over time, and helping others navigate terrain that you yourself have already traversed is important to one’s own continued growth.

In spite of its age–some of the book is very 1960s–O’Connor’s writing and perspectives on the spiritual life and the inward and outward journeys remain insightful. If you are curious, you can usually find a used copy of O’Connor’s works online at Alibris. (I know because I have lent out Cry Pain, Cry Hope a few times and had to replace it.)

 

 

 

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Doing Good… Says Who? Stories from Volunteers, Nonprofits, Donors, and Those They Want to Help by Connie Newton and Fran Early, Minneapolis: Two Harbors Press, 2015, 163 pp.

Doing Good Says WhoShortly after I turned 18, during my first year of college, I spent my spring break on a mission trip to the hills of Appalachia. With high hopes, I imagined that my unskilled hands and loving spirit were going to change the lives of the poor, needy, helpless souls we would serve in Jesus’ name. On my first day, I spent nine hours scrubbing the baseboards of an old tuberculosis hospital, alongside one other shiny young volunteer and an old local deployed as our supervisor. I had volunteered to depart from the group and go with him because he was said to be wise and full of stories, but he spent the day in silence in another part of the building. He made it clear that he knew exactly what we were good for–washing baseboards, and not much else.

He was right, of course. We had lots of enthusiasm, little skill, and enormous amounts of unconscious prejudice. By the end of the day, left with nothing but silence and chapped hands, my self-centered idealism had been cracked open. It was a lesson in humility, service and perspective that I have valued ever since.

I wish this book had existed then, and that someone had given it to me before that first mission trip experience. I’m doubtful that it would have pierced my fantasies of “rescuing the poor from despair” with one week of unskilled labor, but it might have settled my expectations down or at least given me a resource to fall back on once I fell from such a great height of naive arrogance.

As they write in the introduction:

How do any of us go about recognizing what we don’t understand in another culture? How can we know when our efforts are actually “doing good?” Does it matter? In the stories that follow, it matters. (ix)

Fran Early and Connie Newton have assembled a collection of stories based on their years of experience living and working among the people of Guatemala and those good-hearted souls who want to improve their situation. These stories are collected from hundreds of interviews, woven together into five themed chapters. Each chapter is a story in itself, compiled from the many interviews into a single narrative. The stories themselves are powerful juxtapositions and memorable misunderstandings, and they range from recovering a stolen toilet to a disastrous offer of a $10,000 gift to a women’s co-operative only made possible by cakes and tamales. You’ll meet arrogant doctors and amazing ones; hardworking yet clueless funders; local women whose expertise is invaluable; and a cross-section of volunteers and local Guatemalans you will come to love.

 

I was initially disappointed with the authors’ decision to condense and co-mingle the stories into a single narrative. It felt a bit concocted or processed to me, and I wanted the raw experience that I thought I would glimpse in a direct interview. However, upon further reflection, I realized that’s part of their point.  If we travel or talk or read about people who are poor or foreign or struggling, we imagine we can have real, unadulterated access to other people’s lives. We can’t. Their strategy refuses to let us indulge in the illusion that, by this book, we too are somehow getting the real story. While we can grow in compassion and understanding, chances are we won’t ever fully be able to part from our own lenses to see things as others do. Such depth requires years of listening, living and learning, much as the authors have tried to practice. What we get here is, in fact, more helpful–it is the critical lens we need to question our perspective and learn to listen more carefully.

 

(And if you, like me, still worried that the narrative was not authentic enough, or you are bothered that stories take too many liberties, or you care about research methods and this kind of looseness makes you uncomfortable, start with the appendix. The appendix gives a thorough accounting of their research methodology and documentation of sources. Start there, your questions will be answered, and you will be at liberty to appreciate the stories and their contribution.)

Early and Newton identify five guiding principles or key concepts that anyone interested in helping out another community should come to understand. Each of these principles makes up a chapter of the book, one of the interwoven narratives that illustrates the theme, as would a case study. These themes are:

  1. Respect and value people
  2. Build trust through relationships
  3. Do “with” rather than “for”
  4. Ensure feedback and accountability
  5. Evaluate every step of the way

These guiding principles would be helpful tools for local church mission committees; mission trip participants; university service learning centers and students; any congregation or organization interested in forming partnerships (whether international or interfaith or just intercity/suburb); social work students; ministry students; Teach for America volunteers; NGO and non-profit boards of directors; and so many more. Any of these groups of good-hearted souls would benefit from a group reading and discussion of the stories, the guiding principles, and how they impact their work.

I typically make frequent notes and underlines in reading a study text, but not this time. Each story deserves to be taken as a whole, like the people they represent. They are not a frozen image or an inspiring quotation. There is no anecdote that can capture the complexity of reality. Only relationship, mutuality and listening with care can begin to get you there.

This book is so helpful, so necessary. I’m disappointed my 18 year-old self didn’t have it, but I’m glad to have it now, and plan to share it widely.

 

 

 

 

The Abundant Community: Awakening the Power of Families and Neighborhoods by John McKnight and Peter Block, Berrett-Koehler Publishers, San Francisco, 2010, 173 pp.

Abundant CommunityI have been feeling a great sense of discontent in recent years about the engagement of churches in traditional mission endeavors. My own congregation houses a thriving community meal, which has served 75-100 people every Saturday for more than 20 years. It’s important to those who come for food, and even more important to those in our congregation and many others who find a venue there for Christian service. However, I wonder exactly what we are doing. Are we actually ending hunger in our community, or are we making it easier for the community to allow poverty to persist? Are we enabling forces of poor wages, corporate greed and negligent government to stand unchecked by softening the consequences of their action? Feeding people who are hungry feels like a basic good, something that ought to be clean and true and good. But are we ending hunger, or just perpetuating it? Especially because it makes us feel so good to be a part of it?

This book is the first of a series I am reading to help address this topic. I have a background in congregation-based community organizing, and read Toxic Charity by Robert Lupton last year to begin to address these issues. This book, along with several upcoming, will continue that conversation.

The Abundant Community draws a sharp contrast between consumerism and citizenship, and the kinds of community that are possible within each conception of human life and connection. In the introductory chapter, beautifully titled “Welcome,” McKnight and Block draw the distinction.

Our culture tells us that a satisfying life can only be purchased. It tells us that in the place where we live, we don’t have the resources to create a good life. That we must find the expertise from marketers and professionals. This book reminds us that a neighborhood can raise a child, provide security, sustain our health, secure our income, and care for our vulnerable people. Each of these is within the power of our community. (xiii)

We have replaced the functions of family and neighborhood–caring for children and vulnerable people, providing security and income, sustaining health–with marketable goods, which has diminished the meaning of family and neighborhood while leaving us ultimately dissatisfied by the market’s inability to adequately provide what we seek (and have always found) in community. The first two chapters outline in detail the difference between consumerist attempts to provide those goods and community ones, and the history of how we moved from one to the other in the last century. The market mentality builds impersonal systems, with predictable ways to meet stated needs. However, those systems are predicated on perpetual need, commodified responses and predictable outcomes—none of which are capable of giving us the true intimacy, community and care we desire. The market relies on this ongoing dissatisfaction to ensure our continued engagement as consumers. Systems are designed to produce cures, but the human condition is not a problem to be solved. (38) McKnight and Block point to examples from education, law enforcement, grief care and health care to demonstrate how our consumer model of dealing with these concerns fails repeatedly, when a community approach could succeed.

One interesting observation they make is around privacy, professionalization and its impact on community.

This privacy is the enemy of community because it takes the personal away. It hides and removes our secrets from relationship building among families and neighbors. Secrets are the raw materials for good community. … Making secrets private also deprives the community of the capacity to deal with troubles. … (40)

Instead of dealing with problems together as a community, they argue, we send away everyone with a problem to a professional, which diminishes the community’s capacity to deal with problems.

The capacity has atrophied in the community. You do know what to do about it, but the professionalization of care has made you feel that you don’t. (40)

The third chapter enumerates the true costs of living in a consumer world–to the environment, to our sense of self worth, to relationships in the family and neighborhood, to the possibility of satisfaction. Because we have ceded so many responsibilities to the marketplace, neighborhoods, families and communities have become incompetent to deal with them. We must rebuild capable communities in order to reclaim those responsibilities.

One interesting observation throughout the book is the way that the consumer way strangles personality and individuality. The authors write, “A community is a place where you can be yourself. The institution causes me to lose myself–to be replaceable or to be called a ‘case.'” (55) I wonder at churches in this assessment. One of the best, most beautiful things about some churches is the way quirky people can find a way to serve and love and care for one another in true community. Yet sometimes, we in those quirky churches full of quirky people wish we could be more like the big, institutional, well-resourced churches who didn’t have to mess around with such troublesome uniqueness. Perhaps that instead is our greatest gift. The authors instead suggest that valuing idiosyncracy is key to community. The people in communities are not replicable–it’s Dr. Jack, the church usher that always carries Lifesavers in his pocket for the kids; it’s Horace’s unique artistry that graces the sanctuary; it’s Norma’s special brand of prayer and friendship. These things are unique and cannot persist beyond their lifetime, and that’s what makes the community.

The second half of the book points toward strategies for reclaiming community over consumerism and rebuilding competent communities. McKnight and Block name the abundance already present in communities–the collection of gifts, skills and competencies shared by any group of people. We must organize to help people share their unique gifts, rather than depend on impersonal systems.

A community based on scarcity, dependent on systems, with citizens competing and living in isolation from one another, threatens democracy. That is why consumerism threatens democracy. Because it is organized around scarcity and dependency by design. (110)

The way out of incompetent communities and consumerism is to claim our abundance, celebrate unique gifts, and decide to be satisfied with what we have.

There is much wisdom for pastors and churches in this book, and much to consider on my original question about church mission projects. Does our community meal foster community? Does it identify gifts and abundance? How can we do better?

 

Robert D. Lupton, Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help (and How to Reverse It), New York: HarperOne, 2011, 191 pp.

Toxic CharityI had been both intrigued and nervous about this book since it came out a few years ago. I have long wondered how many social service agencies and charities are in the business of eliminating hunger, poverty and injustice versus how many are in the business of making good business–which means securing and even increasing the number of people eligible for services, therefore growing their organization and its importance. Likewise, I share with Lupton a skepticism about how much church volunteerism serves the needs of church do-gooders versus how much it serves the needs of those supposedly being served. However, I am leery of those (generally right-leaning, Republican) thinkers who believe that all aid creates freeloaders and therefore we should eliminate all social programs, effectively punishing people who are poor or in crisis. I worried that Lupton would fall into that category, or at least support those arguments. I was hopeful that he would offer a scathing analysis of the injustice of our current economic system, including our reliance on charity for our social support system. I was fearful that he would ignore systemic injustice and insist that poverty was caused by entitlement and laziness.

Toxic Charity split the difference between my hope and my fear about it. Lupton does not blame poor people for their plight, or make claims that they should be abandoned to their own problems or “pull themselves up by their bootstraps.” He acknowledges the injustice of major barriers like low wages, zones of urban blight and lack of childcare. He dismantles all our charitable endeavors and analyzes the culture of dependence they create, the submission they demand, and the way they often create more problems than they solve. This was excellent. However, the solutions he offers are all embedded in the same capitalist economic system that created the problems in the first place. Creating jobs and economic opportunity is a good thing, and I applaud Lupton’s work and writing–but I desperately wanted him to take it one more step and label our current economic system as unjust, to name the reality that capitalism depends on cheap labor and extracting value from some to send it to others. Instead, he rests with efforts to help people succeed in the system as it currently exists.

The greatest strength of Toxic Charity is its absolute take-down of our current system of charity. Lupton argues, convincingly, that few charitable institutions actually help solve the problems they were created to correct. Instead, they tend to perpetuate them or even make them worse. He criticizes this from a business and stewardship perspective, but more from the perspective of healthy relationships.

“Relationships based on need are seldom healthy. There is an implicit expectation (or at least hope) that the recipient of charity will use that assistance to better himself. … Unless the victim of misfortune exerts honest effort to regain self-reliance, the relationship between helper and helpee will tend to deteriorate. At some point accountability is required. The lack of full disclosure opens the door to suspicion and mistrust. … Relationships built on need do not reduce need. Rather, they require more and more need to continue. When one problem is solved, another must be presented in order for the relationship to continue. (60-61)

Healthy relationships require some equality between partners. Our current charitable endeavors encourage exactly the opposite–an ongoing pattern of giver and receiver, which means those relationships quickly become toxic for both parties.

His analysis extends especially deeply and well into short-term mission projects undertaken by churches. Whether it’s a day spent in a nearby inner city neighborhood, or an expensive trip overseas to build some needed house or well in a foreign country, Lupton names the reality that these journeys are far more about the needs and feelings of the givers than the receivers.  They foster a culture of dependence, remove economic development opportunities from local economies, and waste millions of dollars on unnecessary travel to bring people with no expertise to do a job they are less equipped to handle than the local population. So why do we do it? What Lupton says: because it makes us feel good. What I want Lupton to go on to say: Because it makes us feel better about our own wealth. Because it helps us sleep at night. Because it relieves our guilt about benefiting from a system that is destroying others.

Lupton doesn’t tell us to stop giving money and time to help poor people. Instead, he says that giving time and money is the cheap, easy solution to help us feel better about being good people–it’s not actually about helping people succeed. (Again, this is where I wanted him to really lay down the systemic critique, to name the reality that our charity is subsidizing an economic system that is taking advantage of people and leaving them in the dust. He doesn’t do that, but it doesn’t take away the validity and import of what he does say.) He recommends ideas like helping establish co-ops for food or childcare, creating micro-lending opportunities, and engaging in economic development. He offers a basic guideline for charity. A crisis, whether personal or communal, requires direct provision of food, clothes, cash and other basic necessities. A chronic poverty need, however, requires a different response of engagement in the communal and personal factors causing the poverty. Otherwise, he says, “when we we respond to a chronic need as though it were a crisis, we can predict toxic results: dependency, dependence, disempowerment.” (56)

The kind of true engagement Lupton proposes requires a long-term investment in relationship, a deep risk-taking on behalf of a community, and a personal and corporate investment in doing with people, not for them. Lupton summarizes his approach in an “Oath for Compassionate Service:”

  • Never do for the poor what they have (or could have) the capacity to do for themselves. [I know this as Saul Alinsky’s Iron Rule–JMK]
  • Limit one-way giving to emergency situations.
  • Strive to empower the poor through employment, lending and investing, using grants sparingly to reinforce achievements.
  • Subordinate self-interests to the needs of those being served.
  • Listen closely to those you seek to help, especially to what is not being said–unspoken feelings may contain essential clues to effective service.
  • Above all, do no harm. (128)

Lupton’s book, even though I wish it had gone farther and been more critical of capitalism and injustice, should be required reading for non-profit boards and directors, church pastors and mission boards, and philanthropists of all kinds.

I am attending my conference’s annual clergy retreat. I look forward to the quiet time away with a room of my own and lots of books, good food and conversations with colleagues. I do not look forward to the presentations and featured speakers. It’s the same thing every time, and it’s always depressing.

Today, I heard basically the same presentation I have heard at the last two clergy retreats. It’s also the same basic presentation I have heard at the last two annual meetings of the conference. Today, the presenter actually cited the person who gave the previous presentation at annual meeting and showed his slides–probably not knowing he had given that presentation to us already. This same presentation is also the subject of numerous books, which I’ve been reading since seminary ten years ago (and the most recent two I have read and reviewed here on this blog). A colleague reminded me that the book the retreat is named after, The Once and Future Church, is now 20 years old.

This is not the particular fault of the presenters. They are all different, and fine presenters, and (as far as I can tell) no one has disclosed to them that this has been the theme for the last several years and they might be covering duplicate ground.

The topic is this: What went wrong with the church? What happened to the “good old days” when denominations were strong, attendance was high, churches and membership were growing and building, and everyone loved us mainline protestants? The presenter outlines the breakdown of generations (see my previous two book review posts here and here for more information), and talks about the mess we are in.

I have nothing against this particular information. I am interested enough to have read two books on the subject in the last month, and several more in the last year. It is an important and ongoing discussion. What gets me riled up is attitude of hopeless gloom and doom that can pervade the conversation. (And always seems to pervade the conversation at these conferences.)

Thinking about it, it seems there are actually two conversations going on about the exact same topic and same information. In one conversation, people are moaning and groaning, asking “how did we get into this pit?” (Literally, that’s what the presenter yesterday called it.) They are filled with fear and see the imminent demise of the church. People measure by numbers of money and persons and churches and come up wanting. You hear words like, “decline,” “shrink,” “collapse,” “fracture,” “end.” It is depressing, and the people having this conversation are depressed.

There is, however, another conversation going on at the same time, about the same topic. This conversation is bubbling over with excitement, and no one seems depressed, even though everyone is working hard and no one knows exactly what they are doing. In this conversation, you hear words like, “change,” “transform,” “connect,” “teach,” “revive,” “thrive,” “discipleship.” It sounds like this:

  • We changed our Sunday school program, and it transformed our whole community. Now, children connect to adult mentors, who teach them about church life. It has revived everyone’s faith!
  • We changed the way we do baptism, and it transformed from an old ritual to a real connection to the community. We teach people that baptism is about the community, and revived the tradition of baptism sponsors. Now everyone sees it as an important responsibility for discipleship.
  • We changed our governing structure, and transformed from committees into ministry teams. People can connect to one another, grow in discipleship and serve in ministry without having to commit to all these meetings. Our programs are thriving!
  • We have started a Facebook group to connect people, and it has transformed and revived Sunday morning fellowship time. People connect online, then in person. Instead of talking to the same old people, members are changing seats, moving around and friendships are thriving.

Tell me, which of those lists of words are Gospel words? Which are the words that Jesus used, the words of good news?

The facts are the same in both conversations–the trends, numbers, cultural realities and challenges have not changed. What’s different is the attitude of the people in response. For some of us, this is a moment of great opportunity for Christianity to be reborn, revived and re-established in its roots as a prophetic social movement critical of the powers-that-be. We feel like pioneers, venturing into new territory, discovering what it means to live in this new environment. Instead of the demise of the church, we see an entire generation who needs to hear the gospel–a mission field unseen in many generations. We emerge with new ideas and new faith. Rather than complain about biblical illiteracy, we relish the opportunity to shape people’s faith from the  ground up, to teach the Bible to a hungry crowd, to tell the stories of the faith to those who  have never heard. The advent of new technologies like social media gives us the opportunity to translate the gospel into new languages and new formats. It’s a whole new terrain, with the chance to build a whole new church that fits the changing landscape.

We are explorers and entrepreneurs, experimenters and inventors, going forth with only the Gospel of Jesus Christ as our guide–knowing that everyone in this new world needs to know about God’s love and the power of grace, to experience community and the power of hope. We see possibility everywhere, and God’s Spirit going ahead of us. When we get together, the conversation is endless, and filled with excitement, and we all depart energized by new ideas and holy power. This conversation is open–all are welcome to join.


About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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