Category Archives: Jesus Loves Me

Sermon: Meekness

My family and I are in the middle of a move – as in, this time last week we were scrambling to find boxes holding church-appropriate clothes. My daughter showed up in a tank top and rainbow shorts, so we only partially succeeded. As of Tuesday morning when it was time to leave for preaching team, we had one house key and one garage opener. I asked my husband for the key – he was standing right in front of me with it – and he said, “Will you take the garage opener? I’ll need the key when I come back this afternoon.” That would’ve been fine if the garage opener had worked. As fate would have it, he had driven away by the time I discovered the door wouldn’t shut, with our open garage housing literally all our things. And already I was running late because I couldn’t find anything I needed. I did what any reasonable spouse would do and laid into him over text before driving to preaching team, seething.

“Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth.”

Since “meek” is a word used to describe Christ, it pretty clearly doesn’t mean “weak” or “spineless” or “impotent” because that is not our God. In fact, the Greek word is praus, a military term denoting horses trained for battle. Without robbing them of their strength or power – since these qualities are vital in warfare – trainers prepared them to unflinchingly face weaponry, torches, and exploding cannons. They were taught to use their strength in response to their rider. They controlled their power. They were called praus, meek.

These horses exhibited a balance between aggression and passivity: they used their full power at the rider’s command. They submitted their strength. They didn’t get hot under the collar or act based on what they saw. They employed the extent of their might at the will of the one in control. They were secure in their role in relation to the rider; they were meek.

One way to look at biblical meekness is that it is power under control. It characterizes those of might, strength, and influence. So as citizens of the wealthiest country in the history of humanity, meekness is a relevant topic for everyone in the room.

Jesus responds to the Father the same way throughout the Gospels. Jesus – who turns over tables the Temple, constantly befuddles church authorities, heals every kind of physical and spiritual ailment, and speaks to crowds of thousands – obviously lacks no power. But in John 5:19, Jesus makes clear how he uses it: “The Son can do nothing by himself. He does only what he sees the Father doing. Whatever the Father does, the Son also does.” And another example: his heart-wrenching prayer prior to his betrayal and consequent death sentence: “If it is possible, let this cup of suffering be taken from me. Yet I want your will to be done, not mine” (Matthew 26:39). He controls his power, using it at the will of the Father. He doesn’t defend himself or get angry during his supremely unfair trial. As he awaits his punishment from the high priest and Pontius Pilate, he is pelted with insult after insult – from a mob, no less. He’s accused of what he hasn’t done, and misunderstood for what he has. But he remains silent, feeling no need to defend himself because he trusts the Father. He is gentle; he refuses to retaliate because he is meek. His power is under control. That takes a kind of courage unfamiliar to most of us.

This is not natural human behavior. Jesus’s course of action runs in the opposite direction of contemporary American culture. Corporate culture, in particular, writes us off as “weak” if we behave submissively, gently, and preferentially to others. As a result, most of us have learned that you really can get ahead by controlling, manipulating and scheming your way to the top. It seems that it’s not the meek inheriting the earth; it’s the aggressive, it’s those attempting to take advantage of other people before they can do the same us. And this is all reinforced by a zeitgeist that constantly asks us, “Have you received what you earned? Have you achieved enough? Are you enough?” It is exhausting.

I think Jesus’ heart is breaking for us when he says, as we sing every Sunday, “Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest…Let me teach you, because I am meek and gentle at heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Matthew 11:28-30). We will find rest in meekness, in trusting our strength to God, in finding our security not in our own power but in our identity as his so deeply loved children that we’ve been promised we’ll inherit the earth.

And the secret is the meek are already inheriting the earth. The ones who trust God’s goodness enjoy every gift he sends, rather than trying to leverage it for something always beyond reach. The ones who use their power at the command of their God are guaranteed victory, rather than having to scheme and hustle for it. The ones who wait for God to act on their behalf can rest in his wisdom and his sloshing-over-the-sides-of-the-bucket love, rather than taking matters into their own hands.

And so, after showing up at preaching team last Tuesday morning infuriated at my husband for a broken garage opener – sitting there self-righteously miserable in my anger – I was administered a discussion about how we’re secure in God and are therefore released to be meek. Using my strength to push against my husband wasn’t necessary or even helpful. Relinquishing it meant being able to trust that God’s plan of me preaching today couldn’t be foiled by a garage door that wouldn’t shut. I decided, after two hours’ worth meekness talk that it was the best route. Instead of spouting off at each other all day, when I backed off and chose not to keep defending myself and trying to exert my rights, my husband and I were back to being a team.

Meekness requires a posture of peaceful obedience coupled with ultimate trust in God’s wisdom and strength. In your everyday routines, what causes you to react with quick anger? Where do you feel inferior? Where do you feel misunderstood? Where do you feel a need to prove yourself or justify your actions? Where, ultimately, do you find your peace? These answers might show you where there’s work to be done toward increased meekness.

It’s so hard to choose this path, but so worth it. A weight is finally lifted, and we are set free. Our meekness comes from from the Holy Spirit, the very essence of God that God promises to all who come to Jesus. So, Mission Chattanooga, come to Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, our love, our worth and value, our holiness…and our meekness. Come to Jesus! Amen.

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Adventure.

One day as Jesus was walking along the shore of the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers – Simon, also called Peter, and Andrew – throwing a net into the water, for they fished for a living. Jesus called out to them, “Come, follow me, and I will show you how to fish for people!” And they left their nets at once and followed him (Matthew 4:20, NLT).

I wish I had that kind of pull with my toddler. “Come, follow me, and I will show you how to thoroughly clean up your own messes.” And she would leave Elsa’s ice castle at once and follow me.

Ahh, a mama can dream.

But in fact, when I invite her away from what she’s invested in to do something different, she’s usually dubious. “I just want five minutes longer,” she says. (She comes by negotiation honestly. I’ve seen my man haggle over prices at Walmart.)

She also says a lot of, “Why?” No surprise there; she’s three. And human. “Make it worth my while” is a refrain we’re probably all familiar with, regardless of age. Why should we drop what we love for something we’re not sure about?

It’s hard to get too frustrated with her in situations like this. (Actually, no, it’s not. Because TODDLERS, MAN.) I do exactly the same thing when God asks me to do something I’m unsure about. It’s been happening since last July. He’s asking me to take what feels like a running leap from one side of the Grand Canyon to the other and just trust that he’ll be there.

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I’m all like, “I just want five minutes longer.”

But look at the model of Peter and Andrew. They hear the voice and Christ and, boom! In the next sentence, they’re dropping their nets “at once” to follow him. No hesitation, no questions, no “Did he say what I think he said?” is in the text.

They didn’t negotiate with him. “We’ll leave if you’ll prove we’re going to be successful.” “We’ll leave if you promise it won’t cost our safety.” “We’ll leave if you pay our wages to our families while we’re away.” “We’ll leave if you let us secure our boat in the marina first [or whatever is the culturally appropriate version of a marina].”

They didn’t try to take the lead. “Okay, but let us show you the best spots.”

They didn’t try to get Jesus to join them instead. “Hey, if you want to hang, you’re welcome out here on the boat. We’ve got plenty to eat.”

Without any assurance from Jesus of anything, they let the Holy Spirit whisper in their hearts that he wasn’t fooling around, that he meant business, and that he wanted them in on it if they could be bothered to join. And they dropped the nets and went after the Stranger.

I bet they didn’t look back.

Will I?

For that is what God is like. He is our God forever and ever, and he will guide us until we die (Psalm 48:14, NLT).

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grace > ice cream

She’s just so crazy about her dad that I said, “How about I take the baby on home while you guys finish up here?” I knew she’d love to be alone with him for a while, her princess status unshared with mom and sister. I was right: she glowed at the suggestion and gleefully laced her fingers with his as they took off to collect the rest of the groceries.

What surprised me was when I put her to bed that night and asked, “What was your favorite part about your date with Dadoo?” (That’s what she calls him, Dadoo.) I expected to hear “When we had ice cream” or “We sang the whole ride home” or, as she once said with a sigh, “He’s just so beautiful.”

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Instead, she beamed and said, “He told me it was 100% not a big deal.”

Intrigued, I asked, “What was 100% not a big deal?”

She said, “I thought he’d be mad, but he wasn’t!”

Still I had no idea what we were talking about, so I tried again: “What happened right before he said that?”

She replied, “The thing that wasn’t a big deal!”

I know better than to attempt to pull something from a three-year-old – odd, ultimately frustrating verbal judo inevitably results – so I asked her dad later. “She says her favorite part of tonight was when you said, ‘it was 100% not a big deal.’ What happened?” He looked a bit mystified and told me about something gross she did that he corrected. When her eyes filled and chin wobbled, he said, “Don’t worry. It’s 100% not a big deal. Just don’t do it next time.”

Her favorite part of the night was grace.

During this Lent season that we just finished, I felt strongly as if God were dealing with my pride. An occupational hazard as a counseling graduate student is hearing stories of some of the worst things people do to each other, especially to children. I ended up developing this righteous anger that somewhere became unrighteous, thinking, “If I could just get ahold of those child abusers / rapists / neglectful parents / the ones who inflict fates worse than death, I’d fix them once and for all.” I had no trouble imagining them at the Good Friday scene: throwing stones at Jesus, screaming for his death. Bad, bad people. I’ll show them.

Here’s the problem. As a sinner, I was there too. Also throwing stones. Also screaming for his death. Also committing sinful acts that nailed that perfect man to the cross. Because that is what sin does (Romans 3:23, 1 John 1:8-10). We are the same, the “bad people” and me. We are all bad people without Christ.

If I want him to show me grace, I can’t keep it from them. If I don’t want him to give me what I deserve, how can I turn on them, hoping they get what they deserve?

And my favorite part of my story with my Father is grace. When they make their way to him, I bet theirs will be too.

My daughter already knows this, even though she’s only lived three and a half years. In Chris Tomlin’s “How Great Is Our God,” she always replaces the second word with “grace.” You can correct her all you want, but she stands her ground. (Believe me, I’ve tried.)

But there’s something that rings very true when you hear a toddler singing her lungs out:

How grace is our God!
Sing with me, how grace is our God!
And all will see how grace, how grace, is our God!

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What devotion looks like.

Having grown up in church, I’m sometimes guilty of parroting words and expressions I haven’t thought through. “Surrender to Jesus,” and “Put God first,” are excellent examples. I know they’re true, I just don’t know what they look like in practice. But true to God’s nature, when you ask for understanding, you get it (see Luke 8:10).

My most recent “Aha!” came with the word “devotion,” which has largely come to mean “time spent reading the Bible and praying,” an unfortunate reduction of a strong term originally derived from “to consecrate,” or “to make sacred.” What does “making oneself sacred” mean exactly? We’re instructed in Titus 2:12 to do just that in order to live in an evil world, so how do we do it? I found a simple, beautiful picture of devotion in Mark 16, a picture that’s worth hanging onto.

On Easter Sunday, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of Jesus, and Salome (the disciple, not the scary one) famously went to Jesus’s tomb to anoint and care for his body. On the way, they discuss a problem: an enormous stone bars them from Jesus. They even ask each other as they walk, “Who will roll away the stone for us at the entrance to the tomb?” (Mark 16:3, NLT).

Get this: three women – Jesus’s mother, at least, would be in her forties by now; I’m not sure about the others – encumbered with spices and oils, are headed out to anoint a corpse blocked by a huge stone.

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They know there’s an obstacle. They know they’re physically incapable of the task they set out to accomplish. In case we’re missing it, verse 4 epithetically points out, the stone “was very large.” But nothing was going to keep them from their Lord. They physically can’t do what they’ve set out to do and they know it, but they packed up their oils and spices and hit the road anyway. And their devotion to Jesus affords them the greatest blessing in all of history: they’re the first to witness the fact that he rose from the dead. When they make it to the tomb, the stone is already off to the side. An angel is waiting for them and says, “He’s alive! Here’s proof!”

Devotion results when nothing keeps you from loving Jesus. It doesn’t matter to you if showing your love for him sometimes seems useless or even laughable. It doesn’t matter to you when obstacles are in your way. It doesn’t matter to you if it’s just you and a couple other people who seem as weak or broken as you are, you’ll do whatever it takes to get to him. Devotion doesn’t care about drawbacks and impediments. Devotion says, “I’m on my way, and I’m trusting you to move the stone when I get there.” Devotion remembers that nothing is impossible with God (Luke 1:37).

The faith these three women showed is what gets us through our evil-occupied world (Titus 2:12). When matched with enormous stones that can keep us from Christ – stones like addiction and other sinful patterns, dubious track records, pain you’ve caused, pain you’ve experienced, or any other thing that worries you or brings you shame – devotion says, “I’m coming anyway, Lord.” That’s the kind of devotion I want.

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The Title-Loan Disciple.

By some cruel twist of fate, my family had to pay the IRS this year. It’s not yet been explained to me in a way I find satisfactory. Even so, it’s nice that the IRS isn’t an evil oligarchy running the show and illegally making money off the poor in order to oppress them further. From what I’ve read, that was the case in the Roman Empire a couple millennia ago. Tax collectors took not only the requisite income tax but also outrageously more in illegal funds to keep for themselves. Worse, they were abusing their own people: the brutal Romans hired them as Jews to steal from the Jews. The profession, of course, attracted the greediest, most dishonest thieves alive. They were so sinful that Jesus lumped them together with pagans (Matthew 18:17).

So it’s odd that in Luke 5:27, Jesus stops at one of these booths and asks the guy inside to be a disciple, in Jesus’s most intimate circle of friends. I think this would be kind of like Jesus stopping into a title loan shop and inviting the manager to become a disciple.

But not only did Jesus choose that kind of person, he also gave the invitation while the sinner was in the middle of sinning. Matthew’s at work, stealing from everyone, generally being abusive and awful, when Jesus says, “Wanna get away?”

Jesus saw this terrible man not as he was but as he would become. Jesus knew the strength and goodness seeded in Matthew’s heart. It caused Jesus to push past the sin in the guy’s story to get to the real man underneath.

And look what it does to Matthew: the immediately following verse tells us he threw a huge party at his house (Luke 5:29). He went from being swallowed up by greed, hatred, and abuse to utter generosity. He was willing to pay to feed everyone so they’d come over and meet Jesus too. That’s what Jesus can do: when he calls you away from your junk and starts whispering to you about who you really are, it changes you. Whatever ensnared you the most forcefully can be completely reversed. You simply can’t look at both options – the sinful you and the freed you – and want to stay where you are.

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There is one thing that can keep people from Christ though, it seems. He says to the religious bigots, “I have come not to call those who think they are righteous, but those who know they are sinners and need to repent” (Luke 5:32). A person who “thinks he/she is righteous” is pride-full, and that’s what apparently keeps Jesus away. In order to receive the grace of the Messiah, you have to know you need it.

But why choose greed and pride over Jesus? He is kind, protective, loving, and holds all power. He has sustained me with joy in my very darkest moments. He has surrounded me with a community of people who, because they love him, hold me up and cherish me as he does. He has not stopped giving me the desires of my heart since I trusted my life to him. And even if none of those things were true, he is still all we need on this earth. He literally provides everything from food to healing to comfort. There is no one like my Jesus. And even though I started out as selfish and sinful as Matthew, Jesus is fulfilling his promise to accomplish inside of me all he promised to accomplish since the beginning (Psalm 138:8). Since it’s a promise made to everyone, that promise goes for you too.

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Got Wine?

Is there anything more infuriating than job hunting? During my recent stint, I found myself inwardly screaming, “Serenity now!” à la Jerry Stiller an unfortunate amount of times each day. You first have to find something you’re qualified for – but not too qualified for – that you can imagine yourself doing for more hours than you spend with your family through the week. Then, when you find a match approaching that, you have to craft a cover letter in which you present yourself as strong and desirable but not arrogant, recognizing all the while that you might have just wasted hours of your life because the employer might not grant you an interview or even acknowledge your existence.

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Humbling.

After several weeks of applying and stressing and generally whirling like a dervish, I was invited to interview at a nearby high school. The minute I left the office, I knew I had the job. They even called a day earlier than promised to offer it. Then came the proverbial fork in the road.

Just a few days earlier, I had told my man that my perfect job would be writing, teaching, and counseling. So while this job offer at the high school would easily pay the bills, it wouldn’t let me go confidently in the direction of my God-given dreams, to borrow from Thoreau. More importantly, my pastor always says, “When you have to make a decision, look for Jesus and run hard that way.” I know Jesus is at that high school, but I didn’t have the sense he was calling me to join him there. And yet, turning the offer down meant passing on a tantalizing amount of comfort and safety. I prayed hard and felt like the answer was no, so I called and thanked them for the opportunity but declined.

As soon as I obeyed my Lord, the heavens opened. The day after I called HR with my answer, a local university asked me to teach writing for them this fall. The day after that, my own school hired me in its work-study program. So I turned down the comfortable option, but then Jesus gave me exact job I wanted: I’ll be teaching, writing, and studying to be a counselor this fall.

I’m not the first one to be scared because Jesus asked me to do something that, on first blush at least, made no sense. Think about those servants at the wedding at Cana in John 2. Jesus asked them to dip water out of a jar and take it to the master, knowing they could lose their jobs or lives if they displeased the boss. Imagine how terrifying that would’ve been, taking water to the master, who was expecting wine. But Jesus 1) does not always ask us to do the thing that makes sense, and 2) never lets us down. As it turned out, the master of the wedding evaluated the water-turned-wine as the very best from the whole event. Likewise, Jesus gave me the very best situation for this coming fall, the “perfect job” I described days before Jesus made it happen.

Another benefit of obedience is that it cleanses you of pride. It’s impossible to boast about a gift someone else gives you. Since it results solely from the grace of the giver, you know it had nothing to do with you. Maybe that’s the reason that Jesus asked the servants to take water from the thirty-gallon jars meant for ceremonial washing (John 2:6). Obeying him cleanses our hearts.

If you do obey the Lord, you can expect peace, knowing you did what you were asked by Someone who never abandons you. Intimacy with God is also cultivated when you know you heard from him and showed your devotion by changing your course. But another incredible result of obedience is a deluge of blessings (Deuteronomy 28:1, 2; Luke 11:28; John 10:10b). Since the servants chose to obey, they got to witness the first miracle of Jesus. Not only that, but their obedience blessed everyone around them: all the invitees enjoyed the “best wine yet.” And in that moment those servants must have felt freedom too from their fear and unbelief.

So there’s only one question left: how do we obey? Mary says it best, “Do whatever he tells you” (John 2:5). Blessedly, it’s not always as frightening as turning down a job. Sometimes it’s paying tithe, exercising self-control, speaking gently when you’re angry, or choosing to spend some time with him instead of letting your Bible gather dust. Regardless of what he asks, you can trust him. He’s good, he’ll dump blessings on you like water from a thirty-gallon jar, and he will never abandon you (Matthew 28:20). Just do whatever he tells you. You’ll end up with a full glass of the best wine ever.

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Patterns.

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In the first grade, I failed at patterns. The worksheet asked us to color a series of shapes in a red-blue pattern, but that bored me. Instead I colored mine teal-violet-violet-teal-violet-violet – a pattern, to be sure, but the wrong one. My teacher not only gave me an F for the assignment but also refused to let me leave during bathroom break. The anger on my mom’s face when I told her about it that afternoon might have been amusing had it not been so terrifying.

Still, it is of vital importance that we get our patterns right. Like a quilt is composed of its patterns, we humans are composed of patterns too. A repeated choice to numb pain with alcohol creates an alcoholic. A repeated choice to overeat in loneliness creates a food addict. A repeated choice to light up creates a smoker. The patterns make the person.

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Not only that, but our patterns end up manifesting themselves in our children too. They do what we do. That scares me a little; I know how often I fall short of perfection. However, blessedly, this is a biblical concept, which means there’s hope attached. In 2 Timothy 1:5, Paul thanks God for Timothy’s mom and grandma, who passed down their faith, establishing a pattern of Godliness for Timothy. They were examples to him of how to live wisely, and they also raised him in truth and love. We can do the same, constructing the same type of patterns within ourselves and our children. If our children can be persuaded to scream when angry because that’s how they see it done, they can also learn to be patient when angry if it happens around them. Paul says that’s what teaching is for in the first place – building patterns for living. In verse 13, he tells Timothy to “keep the pattern of sound teaching with faith and love in Christ” (NLT, emphasis added). We’ve got to show our children how to live according to Godly patterns.

Some transparency: in my story, what has most often kept me from the patterns Jesus wants is a belief that I have no self-discipline, as in, “I’d eat better, but I just can’t seem to stop.” That often leads to a second, more detrimental belief: “It’s just who I am.” But that’s not Godly. First Timothy 1:7 says, “The Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love, and self-discipline.” It’s not a quality you have or don’t; it’s part of the Spirit given to you by God. If you have him, you have self-discipline. Self-discipline for the Christian is like quad muscles: you’ve got them already, but you have to exercise them if you want them to be strong. You can get your patterns sorted out. You can stop yelling when you’re angry. You can find another way to deal with boredom. You can end any bad habit or any destructive pattern. Jesus gave his life to secure freedom for everyone (1 Timothy 2:6), which means you’re in.

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In addition, I’ve spent a lot of time believing that “one piece of chocolate won’t hurt.” It seems many of us fall prey to this: “one cigarette won’t hurt,” “one porn film won’t hurt,” “one beer won’t hurt.” And maybe it won’t (although these statements have not been evaluated by the FDA), but the pattern you’re setting up will. The pattern of all that chocolate, all those cigarettes, all those hours of porn, all those beers, all those moments spent killing time when you could be talking to Jesus…those will eventually hurt. In fact, they’ll eventually destroy.

Know what I’ve found to be even harder? When you know all that, and you even keep trying to change your patterns, but your efforts produce nothing. Simon Peter, the day he met Jesus on the lake, had been trying all night to catch fish, and nothing had worked. Every fisherman’s technique he knew failed him. Then, Jesus said, “Try one more time. Row out to the deep water and give it one more go.” Simon says, “I’ve already done that. But hey, if you say so.” He rows out and, boom! More fish than he and his partner can lug into the boat. (The story is found in Luke 5.) That’s the power of obedience: it can change your patterns. You’re trying, you’ve seen yourself fail repeatedly, and Jesus says, “Just one more time.” When you respond, “Okay, if you say so,” it will work. It will. It still may not be a straight shot from sickness to health, but you’re headed in the right direction. Just take his advice; he’s Jesus, so he’s right.

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It probably goes without saying that you won’t ever get your patterns right all by yourself. It’s not because you’re weak. It’s not because you’re a failure. It’s because you’re human, a condition that’s not going away. But God has “unlimited resources” (Ephesians 3:16) to help you follow a different pattern.

And we have to – we really don’t have a choice if we’re going to be followers of Jesus. It’s part of “training for holiness,” as Paul labels it in 1 Timothy 4:7, 8. Paul knows we won’t get it right the first time, just like you’re not ready to participate in the Iron Man until you’ve spent a considerable amount of time training. We are called to holiness, and that’s a tall order. But we’ve also been equipped for it by a God with unlimited resources. Besides, imagine what that would be like: complete freedom from the pattern you’re so tired of following.

So maybe give it one more try. See what happens if you row back out one more time. Jesus will make sure you have everything you need to change your patterns. Jesus will set you free.

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