Category Archives: Spiritual Formation

“Mental” Theology

My friend Emily Perez recently preached a sermon that discussed prayer, depression, adoption, the psalms, community, God’s unrelenting pursuit, and grace. Exploring all those topics at a deep level and making them cohere gave the sermon a high degree of difficulty and Emily stuck the landing. She delivered the sermon at City Life Church in Sacramento, using Psalm 126 as her text and titled the sermon, “‘Mental’ Theology.” (The audio can be found here. It is dated 4/27/14.)

I recommend the sermon highly because Emily articulates the darkness of depression as well as the good news God offers those who suffer. For many, that good news does not come in the form of immediate alleviation from the pain, but in people willing to travel with the other person through the darkness. I think Emily clarifies the mission of the Church to be like Emmanuel, “God with us.” We are called to be with those sitting in darkness and who cannot yet see the light. We are not there to answer all their questions, correct all their confusion, but to be with them, listening. The Holy Spirit comforts us through friends who do not judge or frighten easily when we ask angry questions.

For those who preach or speak publicly, I also recommend the sermon as a wonderful example of story-telling and reflection. It really is amazing that Emily could cover all those topics and still craft a unified sermon. When preachers try to cover a myriad of topics in sermon, they often dilute their message. Emily’s sermon, however, grows stronger as she combines these important matters.

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The Church and Stupid Fathers, All in Time for Mother’s Day

I don’t write much about being an at-home dad. One can easily find plenty of solid blogs written by good guys. That said, I want to address a couple of videos that recently crossed my path and deal with fatherhood. The makers of these videos seek to honor in a comedic way the hard work that mothers do. The videos they produced, however, rehash tired stereotypes found in the popular culture as they portray dads as bumbling incompetents who should not be trusted with the care of their children. I’m all for celebrating the unique work of mothers—I merely don’t think we need to make dads look like idiots in order to do so. I address these videos in particular because they are produced by Christians and are marketed toward the Church in preparation for Mother’s Day celebrations. (I wonder, how many churches will celebrate non-Church holidays like Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, and Memorial Day, but not the Ascension of Jesus or Pentecost? That’s another post.) I am concerned some Christians think the best way to honor one group of people, mothers, is to ridicule another group, fathers. Further, we should not be in the business of mocking dads as inept, but instead celebrating dads who are deeply involved in raising their kids and encouraging dads to be even more involved and Christlike. Let’s look at the videos.

First is the trailer for the film Mom’s Night Out.

I hesitate to comment on a film I haven’t seen since trailers can be cut in misleading ways, but we can at least discuss what appears in the trailer. Here we have overworked moms needing a break from childcare. They set up a mom’s night out and leave their husbands to take care of the kids. The dads are so inept they can’t think of anything to do except take their kids to a restaurant/indoor playground where they can lock their kids up, “like Shawshank Redemption.” This inevitably leads to a trip to the emergency room. Another dad leaves his child at a tattoo parlor and goes out on the town by himself. All this fatherly incompetence requires the moms to cancel their night out and save the day.

The second video comes from The Skit Guys, entitled, “Mom Goggles.” They make short videos with faith-based messages and often use humor to make their point. The set-up for this video is essentially the same as the trailer above: a couple moms take some time for themselves, leaving their children with the fathers. The dads worry about possible outcomes, realize they don’t have the necessary skills, and thus order “Mom Goggles” from a “Daddy Doomsday Survival” website—doomsday for a dad is apparently having to take responsibility for your children. Through this wonderful invention, the men are able to see the world as their wives do. Toddler babble suddenly becomes intelligible. A child’s painting becomes a masterpiece. And the greatest miracle of all, these men realize just how hard their wives work as mothers. Thankfully, “Mom Goggles” does not fully encapsulate The Skit Guys’ view of dads. As Chris Routly points out, The Skit Guys have produced an excellent video extolling the virtues of fatherhood and show dads being great in their roles.

Since these videos are intended for Christian audiences, we can take a look at the theology they communicate.

Positively, these videos seek to honor mothers, which is one of the Ten Commandments. It is right to remember how our mothers offer us unconditional love and grace and to thank them for it. It is no accident that biblical authors describe God’s love like that of a mother’s. To that extent, we learn more about who God is when we experience our mothers living into their vocation.

By adopting the dominant culture’s mockery of dads as 8-year old boys trapped in middle-aged men’s bodies, the Church offers no counter narrative, no city on a hill to be a contrast to the rest of society. Instead we say the dads in the Church are selfish, immature, and obtuse. Sure they have their moments of epiphany, but that only happens after some catastrophe or because of magical tools. As my friend Chad wrote, “If you need Mom Goggles to change a diaper or see the beauty in your kids’ artwork, well I’m just going to say it, you suck as a dad.” What we’re saying is that the gospel has largely not transformed these men into people who think of the interests of others before their own. At least they cannot be bothered to work at becoming better dads until after the kids are released from the emergency room. I do not think we need to present Christian fathers as though they are without blemishes, but it would be nice to see how the good news has made a difference in their vocation as dads.

I am also concerned that these jokes can only work in a world in which there are hermetically sealed gender roles. A mom is honored only when a dad crosses the boundary and tries to engage in a different role. Worse, these videos encourage keeping those roles entirely separate. These videos actually don’t encourage men to become more involved and caring fathers. Instead they warn dads away from engaging in childcare. The videos communicate, “Just stay on the couch and watch football. Don’t try to do what your wife does because you’ll hurt the kids and yourself.” Theologically, this is dangerous, because just as we learn about God from the examples of our mothers, we also learn about God from the examples of our fathers.

If you think I’m being obstinate or just can’t take a joke, which is a possibility, I invite you to engage in a thought experiment. Imagine someone made a video or a feature length film wanting to honor dads by employing the same gender stereotypes, but reversed the players so that the filmmakers mock moms. Are churches going to show a Father’s Day video in which a couple moms have panic attacks about mowing the lawn and needing to order special “Dad Gloves” so they can teach their kid to throw a baseball or work the circular saw without cutting their fingers off? Imagine a movie in which moms have to fill in for their husbands at the office and then make such a terrible mess of it that the dads have to come in and save the day because, well, you know, the office just isn’t the woman’s place. We would say those stereotypes are backwards and sexist because mothers—and women in general—are capable of excellence in the workplace and can skillfully use power tools.

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I Saw a Man on the Ledge of the Golden Gate Bridge Today

My family saw a man standing on the ledge of the Golden Gate Bridge contemplating suicide today. We were on a bike ride across the bridge and back on a gloriously clear spring day. As we took some pictures near the south tower, we noticed the crowds strangely looking toward the center of the bridge and not out at San Francisco or Alcatraz, as is often the case. Two police officers on bicycles hurried up and a tourist near the tower pointed them toward a small group of people gathered near the rail about forty yards from us. One of the cops uttered, “Shit,” and they both pedaled hard to the location where a young man in a green sweatshirt and bluejeans stood beyond the rail, his back to the bridge.

My family stayed where we were and except for a few more onlookers, the majority of the pedestrian and bicycle traffic continued and seemed not to notice the crisis. I could see the two police talking with the man, who, at this point had turned around and faced the bridge, though he squatted on his haunches and didn’t look people in the eye. We eventually continued our trek across the bridge. At Vista Point, on the north side of the bridge we saw another police officer watching the scene through a pair of binoculars. I figured as long as he was there, the man was still on the bridge.

The Coast Guard deployed boats and jet skis near the bridge, but whether that is standard procedure whenever there is a possible jumper or only when they know they need to retrieve a body, I am not sure. I do not know what happened to the man. I only know that after several minutes, the police officer with the binoculars was gone and the Coast Guard vessels broke formation. On our return trip across the bridge, we saw no signs of the prior events. The crowd had dispersed, the police were gone, and new sightseers enjoyed their journey across the landmark, oblivious to the fact that just a short time before, a young man at least contemplated ending his life by jumping into San Francisco Bay.

The experience horrified me. Again, I do not know whether the policemen were successful in talking the man back onto the bridge. I pray that they were. I am not sure what was the appropriate response to this man’s situation. We left because we knew there was not much we could do—the police who work on the bridge are well trained in suicide prevention. During my internship as a hospital chaplain I saw death, but I have never seen a suicide. Today I did not want to watch a man take his life. I did not want that image in my memory. At the same time, I wonder if I should have stood as a witness, to be able to name I saw that man. To be a testament for him. To claim to someone his life is worthwhile. Should I have watched because though he may not want to live, I cannot accept that he would no longer exist?

I whispered prayers into my son’s ear as we rode along the bridge, asking for God’s mercy to be on that man. I asked that he might know the glory and hope of Christ’s resurrection. I prayed that he might know he is deeply loved. I hope he survived. I hope he came back onto the bridge.

For some reason, this passage from Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Crossing comes to mind:

Things separate from their stories have no meaning. They are only shapes. Of a certain size and color. A certain weight. When their meaning has become lost to us they no longer have even a name. The story on the other hand can never be lost from its place in the world for it is that place. And that is what was to be found here. The corrido. The tale. And like all corridos it ultimately told one story only, for there is only one to tell.

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“So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.” John 13.14 (NRSV)

Osservatore Romano/EPA

I post this picture of Pope Francis washing and kissing the feet of people on Maundy Thursday of this year as a record, a reminder to myself of what Jesus’ ongoing ministry in the world is supposed to look like. This is one of the most beautiful and true and holy pictures I’ve seen in a while. I am challenged by my brother in Christ.

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Readings, Prayers, and Candles for Lent

March 5 of this year is Ash Wednesday, marking the beginning of the season of Lent in the Christian calendar. Lent offers us space to reflect on our sin and Jesus’ sacrifice on our behalf. Through fasting and other acts of penitence we come to terms with our need for God’s grace. During these forty days we repent of our sins so we can recommit to God’s mission in the world.

Observing Lent is a deeply personal experience, but it runs the risk of becoming private. We have to acknowledge our families, communities, and churches need to repent as well.  Recently I learned about a growing practice of communal Lent observation using readings, prayers, and candles. The idea is not that different than the wreaths of candles used during Advent. Whereas Advent begins in the dark and we light another candle each week until Christmas representing the growing presence of Jesus, the Lent candle cross begins fully lit and each week we extinguish another candle as we move toward Good Friday. This growing darkness reminds us we had Jesus physically with us, but we rejected and killed God incarnate. We tried to snuff out the light of the world.

A Lenten candle cross is easy enough to make. It has places for six candles, one for each Sunday in Lent.

A Lenten Cross

The first Sunday begins with all six candles lit, the second Sunday with five lit, and so on. My church is going to include this observation during the season and I have written some readings and prayers  for our services. I have included these readings and prayers in a PDF. Feel free to use them and adapt them however you wish. Just don’t sell them.

Readings and Prayers for Lenten Candle Observances

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Multiple Bottom Lines: Reforming Capitalism

In a column for the Autumn 2013 issue of Prism, “Bono on Capitalism with a Conscience,” Rudy Carrasco cites Bono’s defense of capitalism as a better means of lifting people out of poverty than aid. This shift seems to have surprised some folks given Bono’s famous campaigning for increased aid and debt relief, as if these endeavors are mutually exclusive to other forms of economic development. Regardless, Bono has become a vocal supporter of capitalism. In a 2012 speech at Georgetown University, he said, “Aid is just a stopgap. Commerce [and] entrepreneurial capitalism take more people out of poverty than aid.”

Carrasco explores some of the hesitations with embracing capitalism among justice-minded folks.

I know where the ambivalence comes from. We who consider ourselves justice advocates do not subscribe to a single bottom line, the financial bottom line. We desire a multiple bottom line, one that acknowledges people, purpose, and planet alongside profit as vital components to the “life that is truly life” (1 Tim. 6:19).

Carrasco then highlights a couple of businesses with a multiple bottom line, including Broetje Orchards, which pursues “people, planet, profit, and purpose.” Expanding the bottom line beyond mere profits is an important development, one I believe makes capitalism more just and humane. In a capitalist system, businesses will succeed and fail, but if those businesses which succeed are interested in the common good as well as their own balance sheet, the negative effects of failure and success can be better mitigated.

At the same time, I do not necessarily fault justice advocates for being hesitant about fully embracing capitalism as it currently stands. I would venture to guess the vast majority of large corporations and defenders of capitalism don’t espouse a multiple bottom line. Instead, they would likely agree with economist and Nobel laureate Milton Friedman, one of the most articulate and influential voices supporting a radically free market. In 1970 he wrote a seminal article in The New York Times Magazine entitled, “The Social Responsibility of Business is to Increase its Profits.” He criticizes the idea that executives of corporations have any responsibility to guide their businesses’ practices so that they might help society. His argument says executives work for shareholders and are playing with shareholders’ money. Friedman sees any use of shareholders’ money that does not maximize profits as essentially a tax and those who believe a business might have more than one bottom line are “preach­ing pure and unadulterated socialism.” (How it can be socialism when one may freely buy shares of a business and seek to fire executives or divest from the company if one is disappointed, Friedman does not say.)

What we then need is a capitalism where more businesses are encouraged to pursue multiple bottom lines. This means reforming capitalism and reclaiming it from those who see profit as the chief end of businesses. We need to pay attention to success stories of companies like Broetje Orchards or even high-end office furniture manufacturer Herman Miller, whose former CEO, Max DePree argued profit is only a means to an end. He writes in Leadership is an Art, “Corporations can and should have a redemptive purpose. We need to weigh the pragmatic in the clarifying light of the moral. We must understand that reaching our potential is more important than reaching our goals.” (69) We must remember humans create markets, they are not naturally-occurring forces like the tide. Our values and beliefs shape markets. We decide what the bottom line is. We must also remember that while our values shape markets, the markets return the favor. If we value monetary profit above all other things, our markets will primarily reward monetary profit and will shape us to only value profit more.

So let us ask, what do we value and how can we shape markets to reward excellence, innovation, and efficiency in areas other than profit?

I am of the opinion that it would be wonderful for a greater embrace of business and free enterprise among justice advocates. The successes of capitalism to bring communities out of poverty should not be diminished. Let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater. We should remember aid is meant to address short term needs. The transformation of communities in poverty requires more than one-time assistance. A healthy economic environment is the result of many factors that aid alone cannot achieve—e.g., good governance, sustainable capital, etc. Equally important, I believe it would be wonderful if our business schools and corporations taught more about ethics and morals. We must measure the success of a business by more than the balance sheet. In order to reform capitalism, I believe we need to engage the system. Support and invest in businesses pursuing a multiple bottom line. Let’s change that bathwater.

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Christmas Cards of the Real Mary

My friend, Carol Joy Lutz, recently delivered a wonderful sermon, “Wisdom from a Teenager: Lessons from Mary.” She reveres Mary for her faith and courage while avoiding sentimentalizing Mary to the point that she no longer resembles the thoughtful young woman we meet in the Bible. In the sermon Carol suggests what Christmas cards could look like if they truly honored the challenges Mary faced because God blessed her with being the mother of Jesus.

I loved Carol’s more honest and raw Christmas greetings that respect the story of a young, pregnant, unwed virgin, whose son will be betrayed and unjustly executed. I decided to make mock-ups of these cards.

These cards might shock people. I do not intend to make light of or diminish the difficulties and tragedies Mary and other parents who share her experiences have endured. My hope is that the surprising words of these cards will prompt reflection on the costs of Mary’s discipleship. I wanted to play up the incongruities between the staid imagery of Jesus’ mother and Carol’s sobering, earthy descriptions of Mary’s experience.

Mary was truly blessed, but let us remember the Bible defines blessing differently than we do. We often confuse being blessed with having an easy life, which is hardly ever the case for the people in the Bible who receive God’s blessing, especially Mary.

As Carol says, “Life is not all neat and tidy, like a dime store Christmas card. Here are some Christmas card sentiments you’ll never find at Hallmark:”

Stinky Manger Christmas Card

Foul-Mouthed Shepherds Christmas Card

Filled with Doubt Christmas Card

I’ll give Carol the final word:

Can we be like Mary? Taking time and care to unclench our jaw, to uncross our arms, to be open to what gifts God wants to give us, even if they may be disguised as suffering?

Can we say a prayer of gratitude in the midst of the struggle, knowing that God can redeem the worst pile of mess in our lives?

Is there something that God wants to birth in you that may have a very long gestation, that may even have a long, painful delivery, but that could bring light to this broken world?

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Generosity in Line, on the March, or: Starbucks Becomes a Thin Place

In our Advent devotional, Embrace the Coming Light, Eddy Ekmekji and I suggest following a spiritual discipline that coincides with each week’s character and theme. This week’s discipline is generosity, following the story of the wise men. My mother’s fiance, Doug, has been reading the devotional and put that discipline into practice yesterday. As he made his daily morning Starbucks run, after paying for his order, he then decided to buy the order of a police officer behind him in line.

When Doug returned to that same Starbucks this morning, he learned from the barista that his act of generosity set off something truly amazing. The police officer whose coffee he purchased then bought the following customer’s order. That person then bought the next order. This chain of generosity continued for over eighty people and lasted from 7:15am, when Doug paid for the cop’s coffee, until 9:20am.

I find it astounding how God can use one act of grace to offer serendipitous gifts to people as well as to form their characters. For one morning, the Holy Spirit made over eighty people more generous. A busy Starbucks, full of cold, tired people wanting their caffeine fix on their way to work became a thin place, where the boundary between Heaven and Earth was more permeable and the goodness of God was more easily experienced.

Embrace the Coming Light

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Recovering Passion, but it Might Hurt

We are a passionate people. We care deeply about matters we find important, whether it is wanting to see human trafficking end to wanting to see the Oakland Athletics win the world series (Go A’s!). What we mean when we say we are passionate is that we have strong feelings about a subject. We are not a generally apathetic people in that we are unconcerned or uninformed. Whether our concern translates to action is another issue, however.

We have largely lost an older definition of the word passion and I think it would be wise for us to recover it. Passion used to mean suffering and to be passionate about an issue signified one was willing to suffer for it. Too often we see people who are passionate about an issue in that they care deeply about that issue, but they are not passionate in that they do not suffer for that issue. We need people to clearly articulate their strong opinions. At the same time, these opinions cannot take the place of actual sacrifice. This is not to say I think we should develop martyr complexes. In fact, I hope we can avoid seeking martyrdom for the sake of martyrdom.

I am guilty of this problem. I can read lots of articles about a matter I find important and have lengthy and heated debates about said topic. I can even let my concern about that topic dominate my thoughts throughout the day and keep me up at night.

But it stops there. My life doesn’t really change so I actually do something to make a difference in these issues I say I am so passionate about. I may give money to a cause, but not so much that I have to radically rearrange my budget. If it’s a matter that can be affected politically, I might sign a petition, attend a rally, or let my opinion on the matter shape how I vote. I don’t really adjust how I spend my time because though I may volunteer a bit, it is usually when I have an opening in my schedule. I may even write a blog post about the matter. But I haven’t put even my comfort at risk. Some of the only negative costs may be a few awkward dinner conversations or a few Facebook friends block me because they disagree with my opinions.

We need more people to be passionate in the old sense of the term. We need people to move beyond merely being moved emotionally. We need to be moved toward acting for the common good, even at great cost. It is important to be well-educated about these matters. Action without first trying to consider all the consequences can lead to unintended dangers, such as the case of the American evangelical push for transnational adoption leading to a “boom-and-bust market” for adoptable children in developing nations. But let’s not confuse — as I often can — educating ourselves with effecting change. We cannot stop just at education.

I’m trying to change my language and reserve the word passionate to describe things for which I am willing to sacrifice to the point of suffering. If I say I am passionate about a matter but I can’t point to examples of how I have rearranged my life or the costs I was willing to incur so that I work to bring some improvement to that matter, then I doubt that I am truly passionate about it. I simply have strong opinions on that subject.

What would happen if we considered the issues that evoke strong opinions from us and then asked, “How much have I suffered to effect positive change for this?”

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Our First and Last Word: “On the Glorious Splendor” Excerpt

The following is the first essay from my new devotional, On the Glorious Splendor: Devotional Readings on Psalm 145, available both in the Kindle format and paperback at Amazon.com.

Psalm 145 Cover Side Tree 01

Our First and Last Word

Praise is the beginning and end of our prayer life, framing all of our speech directed toward God. When we first meet the powerful creator God of the universe, we naturally respond with awe and worship. We realize we are not God, nature is not divine, and our nations, economies, militaries, material goods, and families are not supernatural. In praise we meet Yahweh, the God of Israel, who is in control, loyally loving all of creation, establishing justice and peace. Coming before Yahweh and exclaiming praise is the intended state for humanity. Therefore in the Book of Psalms we find numerous examples of and calls to worship Yahweh. A right relationship with this God requires exuberant, abundant praise.

This short guide will help you prayerfully read through Psalm 145, a prayer-poem that enthusiastically expresses “glad astonishment”[1] at God’s greatness and goodness. The psalmist marvels at the great power of God seen through works of creation, sustenance, and salvation. The psalmist also proclaims Yahweh’s goodness is evident through God’s graciousness, mercy, patience, and deep commitment to people.

Psalm 145 is a model of praise. The psalmist focuses all the attention on Yahweh, not on himself, or even on what God has done for the psalmist. Though the psalmist mentions God’s works, he does so only in the most general terms. The emphasis lies on what those works reveal about Yahweh’s character. The psalmist shows praise is incomplete until we declare God’s greatness and goodness to others.

The God-focused nature of biblical praise may come as a surprise to Christians in the West since so much of the church music we call, “Praise and Worship,” seems to be more about the singer and his or her psychological wellbeing than about God’s greatness and goodness. The psalms of praise correct our self-absorption, or as the Hebrew Bible scholar Claus Westermann explains: “In praise I am directed entirely toward the one whom I praise, and this means, of necessity, in that moment a looking away from myself.”[2]

The people of Israel and the Church have used the Book of Psalms as their prayer guide and hymnal throughout history. The Psalms have much to teach us about prayer and praise if we simply slow down and allow their poetry to usher us into a world that deals directly with the joys and sorrows of life as well as the God who is immediately available.

Praise, however, is not just an appropriate response to encountering Yahweh’s greatness. It also sets norms and expectations for our relationship with God. The praise psalms describe the world as it should be. In them we see God is gracious and patient and we humans are to respond with worship and obedience. The content of our praise allows us to move to the other forms of prayer found in the Psalms. The claims we make in worship become the basis of our lamentation when we encounter injustice and suffering. God should be in control, life should be characterized by peace and justice. The psalms of lament (e.g., Psalm 88) acknowledge we have moved away from the ordered peace of the praise psalms and they call out to God to again assert control and deliver us. The writers of the lament psalms often hope and promise to return to praise once God rescues them from the calamity. The psalms of thanksgiving (e.g., Psalm 34) are that return to praise, recalling both the trouble the writer experienced, as well as the salvation Yahweh brought about. In their own way, lament and thanksgiving assert a life dedicated to worshiping Yahweh is the best life possible.

As you read and pray, bring your whole life forward. If you are in a season of peace and justice, gladly follow Psalm 145’s worshipful design. Let the psalm usher you into a reality in which God is active and gracious, showing deep loyalty to all of creation. If you face trouble and question where God is, it may be more appropriate to spend time with a psalm of lament, or perhaps you can let the words of Psalm 145 shape your prayers by saying, “God, aren’t you supposed to be great and good, like the descriptions I read in this psalm?” The author of Psalm 145 calls us to meditate on God’s powerful works and what these acts reveal about Yahweh’s abundant goodness. Receive the invitation to drink deeply from these words. Do not rush. Allow the wonder of Yahweh to overwhelm you.


[1] Walter Brueggemann, “The Psalms as Prayer,” in The Psalms and the Life of Faith, ed. Patrick D. Miller (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995), 60.

[2] Claus Westermann, Praise and Lament in the Psalms, translated by Keith R. Crim and Richard N. Soulen (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1981), 27.

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