A Note from Josh – College & Center Newsletters December 2018

Can you imagine being Mary, the mother of Jesus, pregnant with the Son of God? how in the world did she bear waiting on God to be born?! During the season of advent we talk a lot about waiting. Advent is the season before Christmas, where we intentionally acknowledge our waiting for Jesus to come. We light candles, sing songs, and pray our prayers that acknowledge we are in  a waiting place. Theodor Seuss Geisel, also known as Doctor Seuss, wrote a book called, Oh the Places You’ll Go!, in which he writes about a journey to and through “the waiting place”. Seuss writes, “You can get so confused that you’ll start in to race down long wiggled roads at a break necking pace, and grind on for miles across weridish wild space. Headed I fear for a most useless place . . . the waiting place.” Seuss characterizes the waiting place with people who consistently lack action. And isn’t he right? Don’t we tend to view waiting as useless because it seems that we attache waiting with a lack of action?

Becca Messman, a Presbyterian minister from Virginia, rewrote Seuss’s words to go something like this:

In the pews every week, there are people waiting . . . 

waiting for the service to end or the organ to start,

for a clearer path or a healed heart, 

for the doctor to call or snow to snow,

waiting around for a yes or a no,

for a better job or their future wife,

for a bigger house or a calmer life

for the boss to decide or for giving to spike,

for a Santa to bring a shiny new bike,

for the contract to end or the package to come,

for the big birthday party or to stop feeling numb,

for a tooth to fall out or the other shoe to drop,

for a weekend with girls to getaway and shop,

for the email to come or for roots to show,

for the trip to St. Louis or the kids to grow,

for the pastor to leave or the next review,

for the phone to ring from their stepson Lou,

for the end of the month or to say “I do.”

Everyone is waiting so we do what we do.

We tap our foot, we clean the house,

We finally fix the computer mouse,

We keep hitting ‘refresh’ or changing the channel,

We change out the pictures on the living room mantel,

We tend flocks by night, or follow a star,

We all feel a tug, wherever we are.

The one who is coming will not be delayed, 

And he told us to remember and not be afraid.

So we sing and pray and light candles in hope,

And wait a bit longer than the end of our rope.

The day will come and is already here,

When all people together, the far and the near,

Will join in the song that is ancient and new,

And love will be born

This action in which our hope is anchored is not our action, but the action of a God that birth’s love in this world in the midst of a gestation waiting place. May we wait this season as Mary did, in pregnant expectation of God’s action in our midst. Amen? Amen. 

A Note from Jessie – Covenant Newsletter December 2018

How do you feel about poetry?

Love it? Avoid it? If you are like my mother, perhaps you vaguely appreciate that poetry exists but do not often engage with poems because they seem (in her words) “like confounding and unsolvable puzzles”. To me, however, meaningful poetry is not a question to be answered, but rather an experience of beauty and truth. Here is an excerpt from a poem by Leah Naomi Green I happened upon the other day that took my breath away and strangely enough reminded me . . . of Advent:

I pick [my daughter] up – the miracle
of her lungs that grew inside of me,
kept long dark – her working heart
let out into the rounder world,
the more extravagant feast.”

I read and reread those lines. And then I read them again. How utterly amazing to stop and consider that each one of us started our physical journey in an enveloping, mysterious darkness before entering an overwhelming world full of sound and brightness, heartache and exhilaration, confusion and love. What an astonishing rite of passage from dark to light that marks every human being’s first interaction in life.

As winter approaches, the sun sets earlier than seems reasonably possible, and the cold night spreads over our rooftops long before supper. We find ourselves surrounded by darkness. And sometimes that darkness can creep into the corners of our psyche this time of year, can’t it? The holidays are meant to bring joy for the masses, yet for countless others, the sting of missing loved ones or the chaos of managing packed schedules or the anxiety over downright scarcity may cause many to feel distinctly alone, treading water in the darkness.

But tucked within Green’s poem is a beautiful suggestion: those arduous periods of shadowy uncertainty are the fertile soil for miraculous growth. And if this is true, then waiting in the darkness invites us into an audacious hope. Together.

Poet and critic, Allison Seay, also notes a particular connection between Green’s poetic imagery and the Advent season:

“This is the season where we tell each other [Christ’s] narrative over and again, where we make a manger of our hearts and prepare for joy, for divine birth, for peace, for comprehension, for salvation and unity and hope beyond all measure.”

Comparing our hearts to willing mangers strikes me as profound. There is a poignant ring of truth to the idea that our hearts can be as messy as piles of hay in dimly lit cattle stalls; yet when we prayerfully open our hearts to the wondrous miracle of Christ’s birth, oh, what a flood rushes in!

Let us open our hearts to each other this season, too. Let us pour out grace and compassion upon the heads of those around us. Let us honor the vulnerable infants each of us once was by handling each other lightly and with care. Let us encourage each other that the days for waiting in confounding darkness are numbered. Now is the time to pull each other a bit closer, be even more generous with our hugs and our time, and to pray for each other a little more fervently.

And as we sing out another poetic verse this time of year, the heart-piercingly beautiful lines written by the 19th century French poet, Placide Cappeau, we realize that we are indeed not alone in the darkness. Indeed, we are all together in the dark human struggle that Advent presents, and we will also be together in the dazzling light and delightful relief of Christmas morning that God promises to every last one of us:

Long lay the world in sin and error pining!
Till He appeared and the soul felt its worth.
The thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices,
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn!

A Note from Josh – College & Center Newsletters, November 2018

My daughter just turned one, which means she has been crawling and even recently took her first steps! In the midst of her new found mobility, my three year old son loves to tell her what she isn’t allowed to touch, play with, or even go near. We have to continually remind him, “Jameson, she is just exploring. She is allowed to explore.”

Rob Bell writes in his book, What We Talk About WHen We Talk About God, “…there is a growing sense among a growing number of people that when it comes to God, we’re at the end of one era and the start of another, an entire mode of understanding and talking about God is dying as something new is being birthed.” I work with young people, and I have had a front row seat to this growing sense in a growing number of people. I have witnessed people’s desire to explore.

So, what are we talking about when we talk about God? For some, someone told them about God, Jesus, and the Christian faith when they were young, like maybe three or four years old, and the expectation is that they were supposed to keep talking about God the same exact way for the rest of their life. It is as if we invite people to explore God on a reservation, ignoring the outside world. Is that really exploring?

It seems as though people are tired of exploring God on a reservation, that is to say, with unnecessary boundaries of what they can ask, who they can read, and the language they may begin to use. Now, to be certain, I don’t think that means people are tired of talking about God. I believe people are hungry to talk about the God they grew up praying to, singing to, and serving in the name of. When I tell people I am a pastor, more often than not, I am gifted with the person’s faith story. They grew up in church. They went on a mission trip. Something happened. The church may have failed them, or maybe something far less dramatic, like college, or a nine to five job or a couple of children. Ultimately, I hear them saying, “I grew up, and the reservation felt small, and inauthentic to life, so I decided to wander elsewhere.”

It may be problematic for you if you are talking about God the same way you were when you were four. Perhaps you may use the same words, or the same sentiment, but maybe in order to capture the love, hope, resurrection and life of Jesus, whatever it is that you can’t seem to let go of, or won’t seem to let go of you, you need to talk about God differently. That is okay.

Of course, none of this is to say that children are talking about God incorrectly, and afterall, Matthew quotes Jesus saying, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” But I want to say, some of us need to explore. After all, despite what my son may say to his sister, we are allowed to explore.

Blessings,

Josh

A Note From Jessie – Covenant Newsletter, November 2018

Am I imagining things, or is Mr. Rogers everywhere these days? With last summer’s release of the new documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, it seems that Mr. Rogers name, show, and catch phrases have been pulsing through our church, bubbling over in pop culture, and even turning up in casual conversation left and right. Just last weekend when I was attending a beautiful “Friendsgiving” event that my wonderfully gracious friends host each year before Thanksgiving, I surprisingly encountered more than one conversation about … you guessed it … Fred Rogers. Was it the spirit of neighborliness that evoked his name that night? Whatever the reason, it made me pause to wonder: have we all been quietly craving the resurgence of this unlikely hero – lo these many years – without even knowing it?

In stark juxtaposition to that dreamy evening with friends, on the morning after our most recent midterm elections, I awoke with a deep sense of unease. Regardless of where one stands on the political spectrum, it is universally unsettling to see our beloved country divided. It can feel helpless – too many conflicting perspectives of well-meaning people who simply do not (cannot? will not?) see eye to eye. And as I prayed over my morning coffee, preparing myself to face the morning hustle, I’ll give you one more guess as to what reassuring image rose into my mind’s eye. Yep. Fred Rogers.

Specifically, a smalls cene from his documentary appeared in my brain as if suddenly projected from an unseen source. If you’ve seen the movie, you will remember it. An austere-looking Senator John Pastore gazes dismissively down at a timid Rogers in the midst of a Senate subcommittee hearing. the issue revolves around governmental funding for public television programming; and from the moment the scene begins, it is abundantly clear that the two men are viewing the issue at hand through two very different lenses. In fact, at first glance, it seems that these two men might view the entire world from entirely different planets. While Pastore is all grit and austerity, Rogers is pure meekness (my heart nearly leaps out of my chest in empathy for that gentle underdog as I recall this scene.) But then something magical happens. Instead of cowering, Fred Rogers calmly begins to share the mission of his work. He earnestly explains that every child deserves to be treated with dignity and love, and that his life’s goal is for each child to receive the grounding affirmation of his or her inherent worth. Because we know that Rogers was a Presbyterian minister,we understand that these statements come from his unshakable belief that God created each human being as a unique gift to the world. And by naming this truth as he kindly peers into the Senator’s eyes (as if speaking straight to the heart of the old man’s long lost inner child), Fred Rogers strikes a chord that visibly melts the Senator’s stern exterior until he emotionally exclaims, “Looks like you just earned the twenty million dollars!”

How did that happen? Mr. Rogers did not raise his voice or point any fingers or even hint at disrespect. No, if we take a look at Rogers’ words, it is plain to see his Christ-like love and values at play:

“This is what I give. I give an expression of care every day to each child, to help him realize that he is unique. I end the program by saying, ‘You;ve made this day a special day, by just your being you. There is no person in the whole world like you, and I like you just the way you are.'”

What if we spoke to each other like this? What if we looked into each other’s eyes and sought the little child who lives within? What if we practiced humility in the face of opposition, leading the way to more honest communication and understanding? Perhaps it could start in our own homes, in our very own neighborhoods. Yes, I am grateful indeed that Fred Rogers has resurfaced in our lives. Now if only we could turn the kindness and gentleness of his “Land of Make Believe” into a living, breathing reality of today. Perhaps a good place to start is by viewing each other as a neighbor, as a child, and as a friend.

A Note from Jessie – Covenant Newsletter, October 2018

Have you ever had a pen pal?

I’ll never forget learning about this thrilling prospect of “pen pal” when I was in the 6th grade. My French teacher, Mrs. Wiltshire, announced one afternoon that she had signed up every member of our class for an international pen pal program. The next morning, she passed around a large manilla envelope so that my classmates and I could pluck out random cards containing names and addresses of Western European students who had also signed up for the program. And that was that. Voila! Suddenly I had a new letter-writing friend named Cara who lived in Germany and kept pet gerbils and lived with her grandmother and seemed to have a certain affinity for coins. I remember the twin feelings of anticipation and exhilaration associated with this year of my life: the anticipation as I attached a fancy overseas stamp and set my letter free to travel (unfathomably) over the Atlantic Ocean to a part of the world I had not yet been, and the exhilaration of receiving back an interestingly colored envelope with cursive lettering (that in and of itself looked other-worldly) and contained a small peek into a stranger’s life abroad. Cara and I kept in touch for that year I was in Mrs. Wiltshire’s French class, sharing all sorts of tidbits about our days, our schools, and often including photographs that we paid to develop and print for each other. We were curious about each other and perhaps more than a little intrigued to think of our own lives as exotic when viewed through the lens of another’s perspective. I now wonder who sent the last letter to whom, as our devotion to letter-writing faded away with the tide of a new summer.

Pen pals have been on my mind lately because I reckon that is what Doug Tilton, a Presbyterian missionary who serves churches across southern Africa, has been to me for the past two years. When I joined the Presbyterian Women’s Circle 4 in the fall of 2016, a similar moment occurred that swept me right back to Mrs. Wiltshire’s class. After I agreed to be our Circle’s “Foreign Missionary Liason” (which I learned simply meant sending an encouraging email once a month to check in and ask for prayer requests), our wonderful Circle leaders handed me a folder full of several missionaries’ info-cards. Doug Tilton’s caught my eye with this line: “Wherever I go, I am often surprised and profoundly moved by the ways in which God works through the mutual recognition, affirmation, and encouragement shared among brothers and sisters in faith from different parts of the world.” What a beautiful sentiment. When we make connections with people who live on the other side of the planet from us, we celebrate the ways we are gloriously different yet miraculously connected as a global family. Since that day in 2016 when God nudged me toward Doug, we have kept in frequent contact with each other, sharing humorous anecdotes from our days as well as heavy-hearted requests for prayer.

The ease of internet communication has quelled some of that wondrous anticipation and exhilaration from the letter-writing days of yore, but I am as amazed as ever at the sheer magnitude of this awe-inspiring world we share. God is so much bigger and grander and more mysterious than I can conceive, and somehow communicating with Doug has sublimely reminded me of this. Inevitably, we all can become too bothered by the small details of our daily grind. Isn’t it refreshing, then, to untangle ourselves from narrow-minded pettiness with the reminder that our world is VAST and VARIED beyond our wildest dreams? And moreover, what a much needed reminder that God’s love is infinitely BIGGER than the problems lingering on our to do lists.

This week, my South African missionary pen pal came to Nashville for a visit. Doug is in the States visiting family and serving several churches sprinkled throughout the country, and he asked if we might like to have him “swing through Nashville for a visit.” It has been surreal to meet him in person, see him wearing the Nashville shirt that our Circle included in his care package last year, and hear first hand about his travels. What a gift. If you were fortunate enough to meet Doug on his visit and ask him about his life’s passion, he may have told you that it is “exploring ways of working together and building the capacity of the global church to bear witness to the good news of Christ’s redeeming love for ALL humanity.”

Doug has reminded us to take a step back to gain a greater view, to adjust our eyes to the bigger picture, and relearn that each of our missions in this grand world is to love God and love each other well. Amen.

 

A Note from Josh – College & Center Newsletters, October 2018

In the past, our country solely relied on the justice system to convict people of their crimes. Now, we have another force at work. Now, we can lean upon the media to convict people. In some ways, this has worked against our nation. People have made accusations that are unsubstantiated and simply unprovable. People’s lives have been ruined by claims that may or may not be true. That is an issue. Seemingly, the media and the masses aren’t concerned with the truth, only the effect a claim may have on any given situation.  The justice system isn’t any better at times. We have observed our justice system consistently fail to convict those that have committed substantiated and provable crimes. Bill Cosby may only serve three years in prison for sexually assaulting 60 women. That is an issue.

People have responded to the current climate of our culture in all kinds of ways. Some refuse to believe anything that media reports. That is an issue. Some have accepted everything the media reports. That is an issue. Others have found themselves in a rather unsatisfying place of simply not knowing who to believe, or what to accept as truth. Likely, most of us find ourselves in the third category. What is a faithful response/posture in the third category?

This month First Pres. Nashville is going to begin a study, through communities of belonging, on the Six Great Ends of the Church. We will study, as a faith community, what we believe are the ultimate purposes of the church. One of the ends is the, “Preservation of Truth.”  I don’t have a pretty answer for how we interact with all of this at this point in time. I trust Truth in this setting will help me. Whatever you believe, however you make decisions, don’t do it absent of your faith in Jesus, in a faith community. Wherever we land, we can’t get there alone, and we shouldn’t get there without Jesus. If you want to be part of this conversation in our community, let me know.

Blessings,

Josh

A Note from Josh – College & Center Newsletter, September 2018

Butts in seats. The Lord may require you to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with him, but the church requires your butt in a seat. Some of my time is spent inviting people, likely via text, to participate in something that requires them to show up. In our world today, that is unique. Most of what the world asks of us is to like, swipe, or view. The best organizations have figured out how to avoid the expectation of getting people to actually show up. The church isn’t amongst these. Well, I suppose some churches have taken on the task that our culture has put before us. Some churches have chosen to compete with the trends of our time. God bless their efforts.

This dynamic isn’t new. The church has always had to take an inventory of the tides and figure out how they will chose to navigate the waters. Paul had to address meat sacrificed to idols. The Reformers had to figure out the separation of church and state. We have our own issues to address. Do we try to get people to show up or do we avoid the ask all together?

Someone told me the church can receive, reject, or redeem what culture has to offer. I think there are a lot of benefits to receiving the cultural trend of ministering to people with technology; phones, video games, etc. In fact, I think some people who have social anxieties or particular diagnoses benefit from ministers who have been creative enough to incarnate virtual spaces. I think others have simply rejected the cultural trends. I understand the benefit of avoiding competition with devices that welcome our dwindling attention spans by the second. Some have chosen to attempt the route of redemption. All of the responses have the potential to be faithful for any given community in any given place.

However we choose to engage culture, we must remember that the Christian faith requires all of us, individually and communally. The communion table welcomes all of Jesus. Paul names every christian as a part of the body. Our butts matter, so does Jesus’ for that matter. How have you shown up in your faith lately? If you are a person of faith, how do you know right now?

Blessings,

Josh

A Note from Jessie – Covenant Newsletter, September 2018

I have been thinking a lot lately about… Seamus Heaney. Some of you may know him? A Nobel-Prize winning poet hailing from Northern Ireland, Heaney was one of the most prolific and lauded poets of the 20th Century. I vividly remember studying his poetry for the first time as an undergrad at Sewanee and feeling captivated by his masterful use of gritty, gripping language.

Why has he been on my mind lately? Well, not only was the fifth anniversary of his passing last week, but I have also spent the past month immersed in his revolutionary translation of the ancient epic, Beowulf, with a most eager 11th grade student whom I tutor each Wednesday.

Do you know the feeling when you are in the midst of engaging in something that feels bigger and far more powerful than yourself? Perhaps it’s when you are playing an instrument or running the trails or delivering a presentation at work or watching your child succeed for the first time in a new skill you taught her. When I teach literature, especially the literature of a beloved author, I feel naturally swept up in a cloud of exhilaration, as if I am a mere element of something far greater than any one of the gathered parts. I believe this feeling must be an example of God’s graciousness. When we pursue and give life to our inborn interests and talents, this must be an act of gratitude to God’s goodness for the unique gifts He bestows upon each of us.

I confess, Seamus Heaney also holds a particular place in my heart because I had the distinct honor of meeting him after sitting for hours on the edge of my seat in an old barn outside Middlebury, VT, where he delivered a lecture to my graduate school class. At one point in this lecture, he recited (off the cuff and in his thick, gravely Irish accent) one of his most famous poems entitled “Digging.”* If there is something more beautiful in this world than listening to someone bare his soul or share his deepest truths to others, then I cannot name it. So goes my treasured memory of hearing Heaney recite his poem. The truth of one’s deepest being rings differently in the ears and tugs more fervently at the heart. In that cramped, over-heated Vermont barn on that long past summer night, I was witnessing an old master lost in the cloud of his God-given art. And I will remember it always.

As I have spent my past several Wednesdays teaching Heaney’s work and delighting in my student’s budding passion for his words, I am reminded of Apostle Peter’s encouraging words from 1 Peter 4:10: “Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms.”

What gifts will you use to lift up your family or friend or community today? Is it your gift of empathy? Of administration? Of healing? Of humor? Of leadership? Of parenting? How will you intentionally connect today to those skills God has embedded inside you, so that you may push yourself and others closer to living out the glory of God’s kingdom? May we each work toward moments of mutual transcendence, when God’s gifts and our willingness to be conduits of His grace allow us to be swept up and bonded together as something bigger, far better than the summation of our individual parts.

 

*There is no video of Heaney spontaneously reciting “Digging” on the night I describe in 2005 at the Bread Loaf School of English, but for reference, here is a clip from Villanova University in 2010: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KNRkPU1LSUg

A Note from Josh – August 2018 Newsletters

Do you need God to get through your day? How about to get through the fall season that is quickly approaching? Will you need God this fall? My sense is that most people, myself included, have figured out a rhythm to life that isn’t dependent upon God, and in that, I see a lot of potential.

In July I had the privilege of leading a group from First Pres. to Varadero Cuba, to partner with a Presbyterian Church there in providing a vacation bible school for the children of an under resourced community. It was a wonderful time of being in mission together with my Cuban brothers and sisters.

First Pres. has been sending groups to Cuba for 13 years. 99 people from our community have gone, most of them several times. I have been to Cuba four times now, and as I have reflected on our relationship with that church, it occured to me that we don’t really need each other. They don’t need us to come down every year. Their church will likely continue to thrive without our presence. We don’t need to visit them for First Pres. to continue on here in Nashville. But the more I reflected, the more I thought that is what makes the relationship so sweet. We don’t need each other, but we are committed to being in relationship with one another, and when we are in relationship together, life is simply more full.

Perhaps, that is how we might think about our relationship with God this coming season. Most people tell me they don’t go to God until they need God, typically because of a crisis of some sort, which I am not condemning. I believe God welcomes us whenever we pursue him. God is always committed to relationship with us; seemingly, because he wants to be. Perhaps this season of life we can commit to being in relationship with God, because we want to be.

Now, some may say, theologically speaking, we absolutely need God every day. Sure, I get that. And I celebrate the sentiment, but I am thinking more along the lines of a daily experience than an eschatological worldview. Anyway, that is another blog post.

Consider this coming season how you might commit to being in relationship with God. Let me know what you come up with.

Blessings,

Josh

A Note from Josh – July 2018 Newsletter

Anytime my wife and I buy something that requires directions or a manual, I take the ridiculous route of assuming I can get the thing put together without looking at the directions. My wife on the other hand takes the time to read the manual, to look through the directions. Inevitably, I’ll get to a point when I say, “I don’t know what to do.” She will ask something like, “Do you have the A piece connected with the B piece?” She knows I don’t. So I say something like, “I don’t know what any of that means.” It is a wonderful moment of humility. The scene typically plays out by me finally taking the time to read the directions and listen to her guidance. The lesson I have learned over and again – it is easier to put something together, and to good use, if you read the manual.

I think the same is true for the bible.

In the Study Catechism, question 57, it says, “Scriptures basic function is to deepen our love, knowledge and service of Jesus as our Savior and Lord. And its ultimate origin is in the Holy Spirit, who spoke through the prophets and apostles, and who inspires us with eager desire for the truths that Scripture contains.”

Does the bible function this way in your life? Do you sense the Holy Spirit inspiring you through Scripture? If you say, “yes.” Great. Keeping reading the bible like you are. If you say, “no.” Maybe it is time for a change. Maybe it is time to read a manual, or some directions.

A few weeks ago I led a bible study with some young people. We are studying the bible and reading What is the Bible, by Rob Bell. Bell asks this question, “But isn’t the Bible ultimately about Jesus and how there’s a narrow way and a few people will find it and everyone else is going to burn in hell?” He responds, “No, it’s not. It’s bigger and more expansive and inclusive and embracing and enlightened than that because the Jesus story is bigger and more expansive and inclusive and challenging and dangerous and enlightened than that.”

Do you think of the bible as expansive, inclusive, and dangerous?

During our study, we read Bell’s chapter on Revelations. Bell suggests reading Revelations more historically, that is to say that it had something to offer the people who read it a couple thousand years ago. That would mean that maybe it wasn’t written by someone who thought, “this won’t make any sense to anyone now, but in a few thousand years, it will all be clear.” One of the young people asked me, “Why hasn’t anyone ever told me this before?”

If Bell is right, along with a plethora of others, suggesting that Revelations is written to a people in a particular time who are in need of a word from God, but this young person has only ever read it as a book that had nothing to offer the Christians of that day and age, perhaps they have been reading the book all wrong.

I think the Bible has a lot to offer, but it requires a manual, some understanding. I’m not suggesting that Rob Bell is THE manual for reading the bible, but I do believe he has written a helpful manual for reading the bible.

What is your relationship like with the bible? I know that might be an odd question, but lean into it a little. Do you read it often and regularly find it enlightening? Do you read it alone or with others? Do you read it sporadically? Do you just feel guilty for not reading it enough? Do you read it plenty, but mostly out of Christian duty? Do you want to read it more?

Before you buckle down and just keep reading the bible as usual, try reading Bell’s book first, and see how or if it changes things. My sense is that you will not be disappointed.

Blessings,

Josh

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