Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Bono, Eugene Peterson, and the Psalms

Fuller Seminary just released a great video of Bono and Eugene Peterson talking about the Psalms.

It’s fantastic.  The two of them are so different in some ways, and yet display a very real friendship.  It’s made me consider about the role of the Psalms in my own life (or the lack thereof).  I confess to not knowing what to do with many of them, and to being positively revolted by some of them (like Psalm 137).  They defy categorization.  Frameworks like “biblical inerrancy” positively miss the point (at best) IMO.  Having come to that conclusion, I’m quite ready to give them another chance.

And honestly, who gets to bake cookies for Bono?!


Friday, April 22, 2016

The Privilege of NOT Talking Politics


As the world of politics gets nastier and nastier, I’ve been more and more inclined to just ignore it all.  Write it off.

For one thing, I simply can’t keep up with the constant barrage of news and the associated political spin.  What is my source for “unbiased news”?

But more than that, I’m tired of the “my tribe is better” power struggle.  Let "them" hash it all out.  “The future of our country” narrative, I tend to believe, is largely fear based manipulation because fear provokes action and rallies supporters quicker and more effective than calls for patience and the common good.  Civility has all but vanished.  I find myself getting caught up in the spirit of anger.

It’s not that I don’t have opinions.  I do, and I try to make them informed opinions.

But there is a sense in which stepping away from the circus is a realistic option for me.  Don’t mishear me.  It’s not that I exist outside the world of politics.  But there is a degree to which it can be compartmentalized.  I can lay it down and pick it up as is convenient.  I don’t say that with pride.

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As the same time as the political world descends into chaos, I’ve been coming to an awareness of the privilege that I’ve enjoyed throughout my life.  My "success" cannot be reduced to "hard work" alone.  I’ve been given SO many opportunities and I’m increasingly able to recognize the political side of that.

So when Science Mike said this on Episode 34 of The Liturgists Podcast entitled “Black and White: Racism in America”, it stung.

“I’ve been learning that the ability to NOT talk politics is an embodiment of what some would call privilege…..”

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I think he’s right.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Thoughts on "Raising Children Without Fear"


Roughly 6 months ago I read an essay by Cindy Brandt (who blogs at http://cindywords.com/) entitled “Raising Children Without Fear”.  Cindy is a gifted and honest writer, and both the particulars and overall substance of the post continued to swirl around in my mind in subsequent months.  I'm “responding” to her thoughts not because I disagree but because, in large, I heartily agree.  In some ways my story is like hers.  I also believe that, sadly, these sorts of experiences are the natural result of the prevailing theological systems.  Cindy has verbalized the experience of many.

Cindy, of course, didn’t intend nor could have possibly been expected to cover all the ground that I ended up covering in my response below.  In some ways, I’m trying to tease out what I heard her saying.  But in other ways I’m taking things beyond what I perceived as her original intent.  Still, the issue of “Raising Children Without Fear” is obviously much bigger than could be done in her brief post, and it’s one that deserves ongoing thought out of love for our children.  Many parents - parents that have had similar experiences to me and Cindy - HAVE to be thinking about this sort of thing.  It’s in that spirit - both appreciation for Cindy’s words and a posture of ongoing conversation - that I offer the following thoughts.

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Unlike the author, I wasn’t a morbidly fearful child. Well, not in terms of my biological “childhood” anyway.

The Fear didn’t come until later.

I was raised in a church-going family. We attended regularly and although we bounced around a bit from church to church, the variety that we attended were always conservative and evangelical.  Certainly not every evangelical church is “fundamentalist”, but I can now look back and recognize them as basically being just that (in terms of theology), just a lot jazzier and more “relevant”. I didn't know this at the time though because honestly, I didn't pay much attention in church growing up. I had no conception of theological variety or distinction. Church just was what it was. I was born into the right religion (and even the right “tradition” within that religion) and had the right Holy Book, I supposed, and that was enough.

Friday, April 15, 2016

The Resurrection (IOCC Newsletter)


I've been thinking a lot lately about the various ways that theologians speak of what "salvation" even is.  The differences between legal/forensic and ontological views of salvation are huge. Terms like "forgiveness" and "faith" are frequently described in fundamentally different ways. I found the view below to be a beautiful illustration of the “ontology” of salvation and the inherent participatory nature of it.

The following is just a quick blurb from the Spring 2016 International Orthodox Christian Charities (IOCC) Newsletter.  It's so rich that I thought it worth posting here.

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In the image of the crucified Christ who “takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29), the Church also receives the tragic and sinful experiences and failures of man, for it is the Body of the Crucified Lord.  In order to save the world, the Church must pass through the reality of death.  As St. Paul says, death takes place within us (the Apostles), so that life can begin inside you (i.e., the Corinthians and members of the Church) (cf. 2 Cor 4:6-12).  This is what the real saints do.  Without this identification with the tragic destiny of the world, there is no salvation of the world.

The great truth that modern ignominious treatments of death ignore is that fear of death is conquered by taking upon oneself the death of others, so they might live.  To live truly means to die and then to live.  Fearless with regard to death are those who die daily by sacrificing for others.  If the spiritual fathers do not die, everlasting life cannot be born in their beloved ones (for example, spiritual children).  The Lord said, “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24).  It is out of the Eucharistic perspective that St. John the Theologian proclaims: “He who does not love abides in death” (1 John 3:14).  Sanctity cannot exist outside of the “other” because the other serves as the “terminal” or “reference” of holiness.  This ontology of love leading to communion justifies the centrality of the Resurrection in the economy of salvation.

Bishop Maxim
Serbian Orthodox Church in North and South America
Diocese of Western America

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Health Insurance - Right, Responsibility, or Luxury?


A lot of what I write is just me processing stuff, attempting to work through information and to navigate a variety of well-informed and honest perspectives.  The following thoughts started as some scribbling on how to think about the various components of health care just to better understand it.  It evolved, for me, into something of a framework through which I could better understand the relevant issues.  Thought I'd post it here.

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Many across the political spectrum can agree that there are significant problems with healthcare in the US, both before and after Obamacare.  Ever have to go through a medical bill line by line to see if you’ve been billed correctly?  How would you even know one way or the other?  Ever tried to get info on costs before service is incurred?  Or try to get an insurance company to work directly with a healthcare provider?  It’s not pretty.  The quality of care suffers for all of this.

I’m not convinced that anybody really knows what’s in Obamacare (including Obama).  We can only guess at the unintended consequences that may lie in wait – consequences both good and bad.  This is no different than most other bills, though, and I don’t see any reason to single it out in that regard.  The bloated nature of it aside, the MOST controversial part of Obamacare is the so-called mandate.  THAT is what people argue most about.  THAT is the root of the accusations of so-called “socialism”.  (To be accurate, the enforcement of the mandate is a monetary fine.  The penalty of any failure to comply with the mandate is not criminal in nature.  Thus the Supreme Court ruling of it as a “tax”.)

I personally think that in talking about the mandate, we have to back up and talk about pre-existing conditions.

Actually, let’s back up even further.

Recall the 2008 election year debate between McCain and Obama over whether health insurance was a “right” or a “responsibility”.  And I’d like to add the term “luxury” as a 3rd option.  So “right”, “responsibility”, or “luxury”.  Obama said that it was a “right”.  McCain said that it was a “responsibility”.  (I think that the position Obama supported is more of “right to be responsible”, the debate itself being centered around access to health care.)

Now I think it fair to say that both candidates wanted everyone to have access to health care, so I think it fair to frame the disagreements within that paradigm.  Among other things, they disagreed about the role of government in promoting this access, particularly within the context of the privatized health insurance market that characterizes our current health care system (note that there ultimately was no public option within Obamacare).

I’d like to focus specifically on McCain’s answer – that health care is not a “right” but rather is a “responsibility”.

Now clearly it is not a “right” in terms of the constitution, and I don’t think anyone would argue that it is.

So the idea behind using the term “responsibility”, I presume, is to indicate (1)a level of personal accountability and (2)that government should have as minimal involvement as possible.  The philosophical idea that underlies this, I believe, is that these two things are necessary for long term success and “prosperity”, and that the government granting excessive “rights” undermines that.  Opponents tend to frame such a “right” as a “handout” – a form of political pandering to lazy and irresponsible individuals who will do nothing more than ask for more and more.  Ultimately in this view, legislation to ensure a credible and transparent marketplace is needed to ensure that “individual responsibility” has a fighting chance (though some are opposed to any sort of regulation AT ALL, I suppose - these people are delusional), but that the government can and should do the bare minimum and then get out of the way.

But I want to pause and, rather than get caught up in the inflammatory rhetoric of laziness and entitlement when it comes to “rights”, instead look at that word “responsibility”.

Now, if a person is going to assert that having health insurance is a “responsibility”, it MUST follow that a “responsible” person would have the ability to fulfill this “responsibility”.  It must be reasonably achievable.  Right?  If this is not the case, then the word “responsibility” is a misnomer and should be discarded.  Agreed?

And this happens to be where the assertion of “responsibility” begins to fall flat.  The freedom of private insurance companies to withhold access to a health insurance product due to pre-existing conditions has ensured that millions (it is undeniably in the millions though estimates vary as to how many) will be unable to get any type of health insurance AT ALL.  None.  No amount of “responsibility” on the part of these individuals is going to change that fact given the current nature of the system. 

This is THE essential point.  The system itself prohibits people from being responsible when it comes to acquiring healthcare.

This is indisputable.  And if the language of "responsibility" is to be retained, something has to change.  Period.

With the ability to deny coverage based on pre-existing conditions, health insurance can only be characterized as a “luxury”.

What is also beyond dispute is the reason that pre-existing conditions are grounds for ineligibility.  Money.  Period.  Pre-existing conditions mean more costs for insurance companies, less profits, and/or higher premiums for everyone else.  It's unnecessary to get into the ethics of insurance in order to understand the issues (though the conflicts of interest are obvious).  IF the U.S. is married to a model in which private insurance companies manage health care (which it is), it is essential that these BUSINESSES remain viable.  Their operations, efficiency, and viability is necessary to the health care system.  Period.

Now, prior to the “mandate” it’d possible to group the uninsured into two groups of people – (1) those who wanted insurance and couldn’t get it and (2) those who could get it but didn’t want it.

Supporters of the law generally focus on group #1, whereas opponents of the law either focus on #2, or are so opposed to the general idea of a “mandate” that, for “slippery slope” reasons, it outweighs anything else including the benefits to or the moral claims associated with group #1.

Which group do YOU focus on?  Which is the law focused on?  As an aside I might also ask, which is the Christian focused on?

I will say that my primary concern is with group #1.  If there is, in fact, a way to provide coverage to group #1 without a mandate, then I would support that.

Indeed, shouldn’t it be possible to eliminate the ability of insurance companies to deny coverage to those with pre-existing conditions while simultaneously not legislating an insurance mandate?  Why both?  Why not just ensure that all who want coverage can get it rather than also require that those who don’t want it have to have it?   Needless to say, there was general agreement across the political spectrum about the harmful effects and injustice of the unavailability of health care insurance due to pre-existing conditions.  Thus the bipartisan goal to provide access to coverage to group #1.

But in short, no.  You can’t do one without the other.

Why do I say that?

Without getting into the similarities (or lack thereof) between mandating a company to sell a product and mandating a consumer to buy a product, the possibility that individuals could wait until they’re sick to acquire insurance shouldn’t be minimized.

In fact, without the ability to deny coverage, the occurrence of such a situation is a virtual certainty.  And that’s a problem.

Now it could be argued that the vast majority of people with pre-existing conditions wouldn’t acquire coverage ONLY when they needed it.  Nevertheless, insurance copies couldn’t take that risk.  Nor, given the key role that they play within the health care, could society risk their bankruptcy.  This becomes (gasp!) a social issue.  This could either bankrupt insurance companies or drive up premiums to the point that more individuals forego coverage (or devastate the economy because people have less disposable income) thus perpetuating the problem.  Or perhaps individuals just don’t want their OWN premiums to go up because the patient pool just got sicker – ideology being a smokescreen.

Now THIS is where the mandate comes in.  This isn't some random “big government” power grab as it’s often framed.  “Government death panels” and all that.

If insurance companies were going to be required to provide insurance to ALL people regardless of any pre-existing conditions (as both sides of the political aisle wanted), then the insurance companies themselves WANTED the mandate.  They effectively DEMANDED the mandate.  Otherwise, what prevents people from gaming the system and signing up for insurance only when they’re sick?  How is that fair?  What about profits?  What happens to premiums?  Could it bring these insurance companies down?

So in large part, the mandate relates to the “rights” of group #1 vs. the “rights” of group #2 as identified above.  Someone is having their “rights” infringed.  Either group #1 is having their “right” to purchase health insurance infringed, group #2 is having their “right” to NOT purchase insurance infringed, or insurance companies are having their “right” to profits infringed.

How do we navigate this?

A quick side note before I wrap up.  Health care costs themselves are a separate issue.  An important one, but a separate one.  Lower costs don’t change the nature of this particular problem AT ALL.  Lower costs may lower the potential cost ceiling, but it doesn’t materially change the nature of the problem to be solved.

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I recognize that this is an extremely brief commentary about a complex and polarizing topic.  To conclude, I’ll simply return to a set of questions that precede the mandate.

Is health insurance a right, a responsibility, or a luxury?

Can a system in which millions are denied access to coverage due to pre-existing conditions rightly be characterized as one in which health care coverage is  a “responsibility”?

Can those with pre-existing conditions be offered private insurance coverage without a “mandate”?

To restate, I think that an appropriate starting point for talking about health care, including the so-called mandate, is asking that first question – right, responsibility, or luxury?  I’ll argue that without access to coverage for those with pre-existing conditions, the characterization of health insurance as a “responsibility” is flat out wrong.  Period.  And I also contend that there’s no way to offer that universal access without a mandate for the reasons I highlighted above.  This, of course, is THE big question.

I understand why people don’t want a mandate.  My intent isn’t to argue the merits or lack thereof, the legality or illegality of an insurance mandate.  I simply don’t know.  I’ll leave that to others.  You are free to argue that a mandate is a dangerous crossing of the line.

If that is the case, however, I WILL argue that you’ve no right to characterize health insurance coverage as a “responsibility”.  Stand up tall you politicians and pundits, confess that a rightly functioning federal government cannot and should not do ANYTHING about health care access, and call it what it is – a “luxury”.  Speak those worlds clearly, and then let those implications sink in.  Or if you have an alternative, bring it to public discourse.  Either solve the problem (and I'm very open to hearing alternative solutions to the pre-existing conditions issue) or disclose that it is well outside of the jurisdiction of the government ("here is the problem, and here is why government shouldn't solve it").  That’s all I ask.

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Thursday, April 7, 2016

Why George MacDonald "turned with loathing from the god of Jonathan Edwards" - Ron Dart


"In an interview between John Piper and Tim Keller, Piper quotes George MacDonald as saying, "I turn with loathing from the god of Jonathan Edwards." This leads Keller to question whether MacDonald was a Christian. Why would MacDonald say such a thing of this American hero of the Great Awakening? What was it about Edwards' Calvinist God that caused MacDonald to react to strongly? Ron Dart examines MacDonald's Calvinist roots and his connection with the Anglican scholar, F.D. Maurice, who played a role in liberating MacDonald to a new way of seeing God."

Sunday, April 3, 2016

What Is "Useful" Knowledge?


"If the skill could not be practiced by anyone, anywhere, then it was useless knowledge."

I read that last week in Walking With Grandfather.

The quote is made in the context of survival skills.  It goes on to say:

"So, for example, there are over twenty ways to make fire depending on the terrain and weather.  Yet if you know two basic ways you can make fire in almost any circumstance."

So here, what qualifies something as true knowledge (contrasted with useless knowledge) is the applicability and perfection of a skill in such a way that it can be learned and effectively put to use by almost anybody (again, keeping in the mind the context of survival skills).  So knowledge is not necessarily "I learned 20 ways to make fire."

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I think Hardin would characterize the journey described in his book as one of knowledge. So it got me thinking more generally, what is knowledge?  What is "useless" knowledge?

Is knowledge synonymous with ideas?  The more ideas that one has - the more facts one knows, the more points of view that one can effectively understand, the more up to date a person is with current events - is that "knowledge"?

I don't think that the answers to these question are without ambiguity.  It can be yes or no, which tells me that there is something deeper and more fundamental to consider.

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Perhaps the more fundamental thing is the role that "knowledge" plays in a persons life.  "Knowledge" is in service to what?  What is it's end?  Is it it's own end?  That is, what does this knowledge imply about what it means to be, and in what way does it impact my being?  Does it draw me into reality, or away from it?  To what or to whom does it point?  Questions not easily answered.

More thoughts from Hardin:

"Later I would learn still other fears.  My entire existence was one lived in fear, except for books.  The world of ideas was not a fearful one.  Until I became a born again Fundamentalist, then fear came back with a vengeance."

"I had to keep my heart closed; it was the way I learned to survive.  Later in life I would use alcohol and drugs to mask my feelings; and when they weren't available I had "my books and my poetry to protect me" (Paul Simon, I Am a Rock).

"I liked living in my head.  Ideas were much better than feelings.  Ideas could change the world; feelings were just subjective states to which I had never been."

I hear echoes of myself in this quest for certainty and objectivity and the driving force of fear.  Questions about "useless" knowledge isn't about "mere" ideas (as if there is such a thing), or how practical something might be, or books, or extroversion/introversion, or being friendlier or nicer, or avoiding solitude as if it's a waste of time at best.  Far from it.

Rather, it's about the degree to which knowledge cuts us off, perhaps leading us to believe that we are neutral observers.  It's about the way that the pursuit can snuff out the flame of wonder, mystery, and gratitude, closing us within an intellectual box observing a life that we aren't really living, observing a world that we aren't living in.

Interestingly, the subatomic world calls into question this idea of objective observation, arguing for the connectivity of all of life.  Sounds new-agey and dangerous?  Perhaps I'll explore that in a future post.

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There are a multitude of ways of speaking of knowledge within the scriptures:

We know that "We all possess knowledge." But knowledge puffs up while love builds up.
--1 Cor 8:1 NIV

But there is also:

In whom are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.
--Colossians 2:3 KJV

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Saturday, April 2, 2016

Random Thoughts: The Week of 3/25/16 to 4/1/16


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In his Meditation from Friday, 3/25/16 entitled "The View From The Bottom", Fr. Rohr writes:

"Only by solidarity with other people's suffering can comfortable people be converted.  Otherwise we are disconnected from the cross - of the world, of others, of Jesus, and finally of our own necessary participation in the great mystery of dying and rising."

A few thoughts:
  1. The word "solidarity" is a carefully chosen word.  It is not "caring" about other's people's suffering (as in feeling a twinge of emotion or guilt when watching the news or a movie) though this is not a bad thing in and of itself.
  2. It is not simply a long distance financial commitment to the suffering of others (though this is far, far, far from a bad thing).
  3. It is solidarity with other people's suffering.
  4. Solidarity implies that you also will suffer.  You too are affected.
  5. Change that word "you".  I will suffer.  I am affected.
  6. Solidarity leads to suffering.
  7. But I don't want to suffer.  And it seems like the entirety of my life is set up to avoid it.  The "panem et circenses", the "bread and circuses", seeks to define my life.
  8. Solidarity can only happen in love.  And love can only happen in solidarity with others.
  9. Love leads to suffering.  The Way of the Cross.
  10. Love, the manifestation of which is solidarity, also leads to conversion.
  11. This "conversion" itself is a "participation in the great mystery of dying and rising."
  12. Conversion  = participation.
  13. Now what???
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Paul Ryan in a recent speech:

"There was a time when I would talk about a difference between "makers" and "takers" in our country, referring to people who accepted government benefits. But as I spent more time listening, and really learning the root causes of poverty, I realized I was wrong. "Takers" wasn’t how to refer to a single mom stuck in a poverty trap, just trying to take care of her family. Most people don't want to be dependent. And to label a whole group of Americans that way was wrong. I shouldn’t castigate a large group of Americans to make a point.

So I stopped thinking about it that way—and talking about it that way. But I didn’t come out and say all this to be politically correct. I was just wrong. And of course, there are still going to be times when I say things I wish I hadn’t. There are still going to be times when I follow the wrong impulse."

It's impossible to pretend that the rhetoric that Ryan seeks to eliminate isn't prevalent.


Biased?  Perhaps.  But the question is not whether there is "bias" in the presentation, but whether the source material itself is real and being used in reference to broad groups of people (as opposed to addressing specific cases of abuse).  It represents a fundamental way of seeing the world, one in which all people get and are getting what they deserve.  Poor?  It's your fault.  The opportunities are there and are available to all without exception.  Government should get.  Out.  Of.  The.  Way.  I'm successful?  Wealthy?  I have earned it.  Me.  The system works!!

This is not true for me.  I have two wonderful parents who stayed married.  My health and basic needs were provided for.  I lived in safe neighborhoods growing up.  I went to safe schools where I could learn effectively.  I wasn't ANY more motivated than any other teenager, but my own lack of motivation was effectively covered up by extensive opportunity.  I was able to get into a good college.  My parents paid for it, and I graduated virtually debt free.    This lack of debt opened up opportunities - to travel a little bit, to buy a house, to save money, etc.  Would I have started dating my wife if I'd been living at home with my parents?  Through all of this, I made TONS of mistakes that I got away with where others haven't.  I have done things that could have ruined my life.

This is not to say that life is just pure randomness with no cause and effect.  It's just to say that where you start goes a long way in determining where you end up.

I'll be curious to see how this plays out within the political world.  Is this posturing, rhetoric and political gamesmanship, or something more?

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A walk from Thursday to Sunday of Holy Week with two of my favorite bloggers, Richard Beck and Brian Zahnd:

Thursday: To Hell With Symbolic (Richard Beck)

Friday: Good Friday: A World Indicted (Brian Zahnd)

Saturday: Awake, O Sleeper, And Rise From The Dead (Richard Beck)

Sunday: The Gardener (Brian Zahnd)

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Much of what marinates in my mind over the course of a week originates either directly or tangentially in the things I’ve read during the week, some of which is new, some was published earlier but is new to me, and some I’m returning to after having read it some time ago.  Among the dozens of excellent blog posts and articles that I read each week, here are a few that I found to be particularly profound, inspiring, challenging, enlightening, informative, memorable, or provocative for me personally.  I might even reference something with which I profoundly DISAGREE (which I’ll identify accordingly - there won’t be a need to guess!)

Owning Up to Torture (New York Times) – Eric Fair

The growing controversy over Georgia’s Indiana-style religious freedom bill, explained (Vox) – German Lopez

The Self and the Gospel (Eclectic Orthodoxy) – Brian Moore

Traditio Deformis (First Things) – David Bentley Hart

It’s Always Better to be More Gracious than God (Speaking Freely) – Matthew Frost

How the Soul Matures – Fr. Ron Rolhesier

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And lastly, a few quotes that I came across this past week:

"Life is lived forward, but is only understood backwards."
--Kierkegaard (as quoted in Walking With Grandfather by Michael Hardin)

"If the skill could not be practiced by anyone, anywhere, then it was useless."
--(Walking With Grandfather by Michael Hardin, p70)



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