The Sacrament of Waiting

“We must let go of the life we have planned, so as to accept the one that is waiting for us.” – Jospeph Campbell – 

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Traffic lights, coffee queues, airport security, hospitals … they have a common theme: waiting! And I am not very good at it. But these last 2 weeks, with a loved on in hospital, I have become reacquainted with this discipline and grace.

I was reminded of Macrina Wiederkehr’s beautiful poem, The Sacrament of Waiting. May it speak to you as it has to me – enjoy!

Slowly
she celebrated the sacrament of letting go.
First she surrendered her green,
then the orange, yellow, and red
finally she let go of her brown.
Shedding her last leaf
she stood empty and silent, stripped bare.
Leaning against the winter sky
she began her vigil of trust.

Shedding her last leaf
she watched its journey to the ground.
She stood in silence
wearing the color of emptiness,
her branches wondering;
How do you give shade with so much gone?

And then,
the sacrament of waiting began.
The sunrise and sunset watched with tenderness.
Clothing her with silhouettes
they kept her hope alive.

They helped her understand that
her vulnerability,
her dependence and need,
her emptiness,
her readiness to receive
were giving her a new kind of beauty.
Every morning and every evening they stood in silence
and celebrated together
the sacrament of waiting.

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“Youer Than You” – Saying No To Comparison

“Today you are You, that is truer than true. There is no one alive that is Youer than You.”
– Dr Seuss –

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You may be someone who looks back fondly on your school years: friendships, laughter and camaraderie. My school years were complicated. We moved around continents and countries and I changed schools regularly. It felt like the moment I began to settle and form new friendships there would be another house move and the inevitable change of schools. A new environment meant a whole new silent learning about the social order of the classroom and the playground. When I compared myself to the other kids in my new environment it didn’t take long to realise that I was the one on the outer. A skinny, dorky, spectacled German child, who did not really care for cheerleading or sports (unless it was watching heavyweight boxing matches or German soccer games with my dad), did not bode well when trying to fit into the country of “braaivleis, rugby, sunny skies and Chevrolet” (South Africa).

Comparison seems to be the social motivation upon which most schools are built upon. We learn the technique of comparison far more quickly and intrinsically than we do English or Maths. From a young age, we are taught to recognise those who are different to us and with it comes the cruel social obligation to make sure this person, or these people, know that they are different. This creates a herd angst to ensure that we all fit in. Comparison has made idiots out of all of us. Through the power of social media, we have now enabled a younger generation to analyse themselves 24/7, unable to escape that sense of incompetence and self-loathing that comparison brings.

Centuries before psychologists raised the alarm about this detrimental human behaviour of comparison, there was a man who touched on it in his writings. Saint Paul wrote numerous letters, or epistles, to various congregations in the first century, which can be read in the New Testament. Amongst his many words of wisdom was the idea that when we are children we think and behave like children but when we grow up we need to put childish thought and behaviour patterns behind us (1 Corinthians 13:11). Writing to the same Corinthian congregation in another letter he says that those who compare themselves with each other are serious idiots (my translation – 2 Corinthians 10:12). It seems that part of Paul’s plea to Corinth was to stop the childishness of allowing egos to run unbridled, to grow up and learn that love is the greatest of all. We should heed his words. There is nothing loving about comparison and there comes a time when we need to silence it’s very loud, mouthy and judgemental voice in our heads.

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Mark Twain once said that “comparison is the death of joy”. Research backs his statement showing how when we compare ourselves with others we become increasingly envious, depressed, distrusting and lacking in self-confidence. Engaging in paralysing comparison creates self-loathing. Remember, that in most instances, especially when it comes to social media, you are comparing yourself to someone’s highlight snapshot: a tiny fragment of their life, nearly always positive, adventuresome and happy. This is NOT their whole life – it’s a tiny SNAPSHOT and sometimes it is totally incongruent with what is actually going on in their life! When you compare yourself to someone’s SNAPSHOT you will think that you are missing out on life … but, darling friend, their life has just as many issues, mundanity, hardship, tears and suffering as yours … it’s just not on Snapchat, Facebook or Instagram!

When we compare we will always lose. Always! Why? Because we are not meant to live someone else’s life, dream someone else’s dream or envy someone else’s journey. Our social compass and sense of ‘self’ became scrambled when comparison entered the mix! Violence, greed and murder … list all the evil of humanity … many of these things started when we stopped being satisfied and content with the path we were given and wanted another life. In contrast, joy comes creeping back when we start to retrain our brain to stop comparing our life to another. When we recognise that our life, with all its ups and downs, is a gift, and only we can live it!

“There is no one alive that is Youer than You” is the prophetic statement of Dr Seuss into each one of our lives. Maybe it is time to lay aside the glamorous, photo-shopped magazines that crowd our shelves and pick up our own dusty, neglected personal epic? Maybe it’s time to delete some personas off social media or go on a tech blackout? Maybe it’s time to make friends again with the person staring back at you in the mirror? Marcus Aurelius once mused about how much time we gain when we stop worrying about what others are doing, thinking or saying, but rather focus on living our lives. So stand up tall, get back on your track and live your magnificent life.

“Owning our story and loving ourselves through that process is the bravest thing we will ever do.”
– Brene Brown –

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Life’s Most Ignored Partner: Death

“It is hard to have patience with people who say, ‘There is no death’ or ‘Death doesn’t matter.’ There is death. And whatever it is matters. And whatever happens has consequences, and it and they are irrevocable and irreversible. You might as well say that birth doesn’t matter.”
– C.S. Lewis –

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My sprightly father has been researching the price of funerals in the Sunshine Coast. Or should I say, he has been exploring the cheapest possible way to dispose of his body when he dies. His Melbourne plan to donate his body to research at a local university was sabotaged when we moved to the Coast. Never fear, he just discovered that he can save a whopping $2,000 by using a funeral home near Brisbane and he reported his finding to me with a smug sense of satisfaction! As you can tell, I grew up in a home where we talked about death. It was as natural as talking about life. I only discovered that talking about death was a social taboo when I moved to Australia, and strangely enough, especially in church.

It remains somewhat of a mystery to me why people avoid this subject at all cost. Last time I checked, the death rate of Homo sapiens was pretty high – sitting very close to 100%. Death is inevitable. Considering this, why wouldn’t we ensure that we have a will in place (no matter what age) and clear instructions for end-of-life care? “DO NOT RESUSCITATE”, for example, has been emphasised to me by my father. If he could, he would have that clause tattooed on his forehead. I know it’s hard, but we need to talk about our mortality and death with our loved ones.

Our society’s strange avoidance of death is really quite insane. It seems like we fear death so much that we have convinced ourselves that by not talking about it we can dodge it. Anyone grieving the loss of a loved one in such a cultural “Truman Show” is normally met with awkward comments, a change of subject, or, a total lack of contact and care. By refusing to see life and death as part of the human existence we have created hell for those touched by death.

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One of the most famous historians of death, Philippe Ariès, claimed that death became a shameful scandal in modern society, that the dying were hidden away in hospitals and that grieving survivors were silenced to repress this scandal of death: “We ignore the existence of a scandal that we have been unable to prevent; we act as if it did not exist, and thus mercilessly force the bereaved to say nothing. A heavy silence has fallen over the subject of death.” Ariès is amongst a growing chorus of voices calling on society to stop this nutty denial and recognise and humanise death, “Death must simply become the discreet but dignified exit of a peaceful person from a helpful society that is not torn, not even overly upset by the idea of a biological transition without significance, without pain and suffering, and ultimately without fear.” Ignoring our mortality does not make death go away, rather, it creates even greater fear and hysteria about this unavoidable life event.

Looking back it also seems rather strange to me that for the many years I spent in church I only ever heard one whole sermon dedicated to death and preparation for dying. I know not all faith traditions avoid the subject, but in the Pentecostal/Charismatic scene a sound theology of suffering and death still remains fairly undeveloped. In fact, talking about death in these places is taboo. An almost superstitious-like fear hangs in the air, coupled with an often over-emphasis on healing (understood in the limited context of physical symptoms), miracles and positive confessions. The disappointment that an individual who had invested into this ideology encounters when touched by death or suffering cannot be understated. It can take someone years to recover from the toxic idea that God has let them down or they did not have enough ‘faith’ to avoid disaster.

My life and the life of our family was irrevocably changed with the sudden death of my mother in 2007. She played a key role as a very loved matriarch in our family structure. Her absence is felt to this day. C.S. Lewis wrote a most poignant journal where he recorded the death of his beloved wife, Joy, in A Grief Observed. He writes, “Her absence is like the sky, spread over everything” and “The death of a loved one is like an amputation.” So I am not for a moment suggesting that talking about death is easy. The very idea of losing the people we love is too sad for words. Yet life requires us not to ignore its partner, death. If the consequences of someone’s absence are so monumental and devastating, we have to be able to talk about our mortality and the decisions that await us or another person in such a tragic event.

Friend, take courage. We do not have much say into life choosing death as its partner. We do have a choice about ensuring that we have things in place for our departure. We also have a choice to talk about death, to discover the wishes of loved ones, and discover the details surrounding wills, accounts, legacy plans, etc. The stories we hear of the distress of people left in chaos when this unpleasant topic has been neglected should be enough to convince us that it is time to defy this silly social taboo and become vocal about mortality. Life is a journey, so is death, and both need our attention.

 

“End? No, the journey doesn’t end here. Death is just another path, one that we all must take. The grey rain-curtain of this world rolls back, and all turns to silver glass, and then you see it.”
– J.R.R. Tolkien “Return of the King” –

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New Streets and Old Maps

“Not all those who wander are lost …” – Bilbo Baggins

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In the 1990’s nearly every car in Melbourne still had an often mangled, coffee-stained Melway in the back seat. In the ‘good old days’ we did not have any fancy satellite navigation systems that talk to you in that annoying, patronising voice (you can almost see Mr or Mrs Automated Voice roll their eyes as they incessantly repeat: “Make a U-turn, Dumbass!” when you take the wrong turn). No, we were tough. We had printed maps that led us to our destination – most of the time!

Using a printed map for direction is problematic in several ways. First, you have to keep driving with your eyes on the road, while frantically scanning the map on your lap to ensure you are going the right way. Second, due to destructive car occupants such as dogs and toddlers, you may have found that the page you needed has been ripped out and chewed. Third, if you got lost, there were no mobile phones to let people know that you accidentally arrived in Wangary instead of Wanguri. But most frustrating of all, if you had a Melway that was several years old, you found yourself in deep custard when navigating a new sub-division with brand new streets.

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Old maps and new streets are not great travelling companions. The map will tell you that the street you are looking for does not exist, has never existed, and you are wasting your time looking for it. In fact, if the map suddenly turned into a talking, philosophical, map-person (yep, imagination needed here) they would probably say something like, “Look, I know you desperately think that you can visit someone in Gertrude Street, but I hate to break it to you, Gertrude Street does not exist. Trust me, we have been doing this for a very long time. My father, my father’s father, and my father’s father’s father have all said the same thing. There is no Gertrude Street. You have to let it go. You are looking for a destination we have never been to … and we are the experts.”

No one has told the old maps that landscapes change. These maps, like the old wineskins that Jesus talks about in Luke 5, have only ever known old streets or old wine. It is ludicrous to demand anything else of them. We can hope, we can try, we can get angry, but in the end, old maps direct you around old streets and old wineskins hold only old wine. If you want to drive around new spaces, then you will either have to find a new map or you will have to draw your own.

Friend, I wish I could tell you that the maps you have used in your formative years, or in times of flourishing success, would be sufficient for the rest of your life – but that is not the case. Ideas, paradigms and methods we use to navigate life can disappoint us as we continue to learn new things and drive down streets we have never visited before. Some maps may last a lifetime but the way we read them may need to change, and the person who taught you to read that map is not always the expert. That realisation alone can be life changing.

In this life we have choices. We can allow old maps to rule our lives because the very idea of new streets terrifies us. Or, we can recognise that from the moment of birth, life is an ever changing landscape and without taking risks we will never discover new possibilities. Today we live our lives with certain knowledge, like the earth being round and orbiting around the sun. We forget that this knowledge came at a great price for people who, many years ago, threw away their old maps of thinking. Now it’s our turn. Time to explore some new streets.

I’ll show you a place
High on the desert plain
Where the streets have no name
Where the streets have no name (U2) 

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Congestions, Delays and Detours!

Odd, how life makes twists and turns. I never would have guessed that I’d end up where I am now, but I wouldn’t trade it for the world. I wouldn’t trade this path I’m on for the whole solar system, for that matter. If I’ve learned anything these last several months, it’s that sometimes the most scenic roads in life are the detours you didn’t mean to take.
– Angela Blount –

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I was meant to fly back home to the Sunshine Coast yesterday. The alarm went extra early to ensure that we could negotiate Melbourne’s traffic mayhem, and get to the airport in plenty of time for my 10am flight. But, alas, even at 6.30am the freeway had already ground to a standstill. My quick thinking partner took a detour, weaving in and out of tiny streets through sleepy suburbs. Then the phone went with a text message. My flight had been cancelled. I tried to call the airline to change to a different flight and was placed on ‘hold’. We listened to repetitive announcements and the jingle of ‘hold’ music for over an hour. By the time someone eventually picked up we had just arrived at the airport.

The person on the line was not helpful. Referring to the airline as ‘they’ it became obvious that the delicate job of dealing with irritated customers had been handed to some contract group. They showed no mercy. No, I cannot catch another flight that day as they were all fully booked! No, they won’t allow me to detour via another major city! No, they do not compensate in any way or form. You have to find your own accommodation. By the time I put the phone down I was in a frightful fury and we took the long trip home – stopping for strong coffee, as it was too early for wine!

After I managed to downgrade my feelings towards a rude airline encounter from ‘cold hatred’ to ‘loathe entirely’, it occurred to me how much of life was represented in those few frustrating hours. We plan our life journey: how we will travel, what we will do when we get there, and the people we will meet and greet … and then we wake up to life with all its detours, congestion and cancelled travel plans. Have you noticed that?

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Sometimes life feels so congested that we need to be reminded to breathe. We frantically look for a different way and venture on a random detour through uncharted territory. Our congested, helter-skelter life has flung us into some unknown suburbs that we have never heard of or thought we would visit – perhaps an oncology ward? Or an interview for a totally different career? Or surrounded by strange tribe of people that quickly become friends and people we love deeply.

There are times we are caught totally unaware. We thought we were bound for an exotic destination, only to have our dreams and hopes ‘cancelled’. We furiously dial the ‘God’ line – but it feels like God has placed us on hold and taken a liking to elevator music!! We desperately look around for a comforting word from the people around us, but they have been kidnapped and replaced with distant, look-alike cousins that mouth robotic, religious cliches that once held meaning.

Life is full of congestion, detours and delays. To expect anything else is to live with constant disappointment or frustration. It is not a matter of whether you will encounter these travelling companions but rather a matter of where and when. At any moment, life can grind to a total halt and we sit on the freeway and wonder whether it will ever go back to ‘normal’ – whatever ‘normal’ means. We cannot force things to start moving again, we just need to sit and wait. What a terrible dilemma for all of us addicted to our own adrenaline in a hurry-sick, congested world.

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So I was stranded yesterday. I treated myself to a pedicure and read my ‘Slow‘ magazine. Sitting in the corner of that bustling little store I remembered to be grateful. It was a begrudging sort of gratitude at first, but gratitude nonetheless. As I leant into breathing, being mindful and grateful, I reflected on my life. My whole life has been a set of detours, congestion and delays. I have walked paths I never dreamt of walking, I have met people I never thought I would have the privilege of meeting, I have been in spaces that were thin places – and so many of these encounters happened because of … you guessed it – detours, congestion and delays.

Most of the time we do not know why life can get so awfully complicated. We feel helpless and vulnerable when circumstances come into our lives that we have no control over. But there are a few things we can do. We can remember to breathe. We can practice mindfulness. And we can be grateful. May your delayed, congested and detour-filled life also be filled with unexpected joy, a sense of purpose, wonder and gratitude, dear Pilgrim.

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Honey, I Shrunk the House!

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Freedom, it seems, sometimes comes to us disguised as pain. Perhaps, that’s why it takes us so long to fully embrace it? It has now been several years since I became a fan of the minimalist movement – you know, the idea that you actually need a whole less shit to make you happy? Outrageous! I have also been continuously challenged by how I live, recognising that I need to learn to tread a lot more softly on Mother Earth.

With the pursuit of a simpler life came a change of work circumstances for my partner. He felt it was time to make a shift. In his words, “At age 54, I am at a time in life when I’d like a smaller world not a bigger one, a slower pace not a faster one, and a simpler life not a more complex one.” So we stand at an intersection in our lives that demands us to be honest about what has been brewing in our hearts for a long time: it is time to lose in order to gain.

One of our first steps has been to downsize our house and get rid of a mortgage. Sounds great? Not when this is the spot that has become my ‘thin place‘. Over the last few years, this home as been my place of refuge. I love the garden which has been a massive labour of love. I work from my office and watch the birds busily going about life just outside my window. It is the place where our family and friends have met. So many lives and stories have been shared in the kitchen or sitting on the porch. This home holds untold memories. To say goodbye is not easy. A simpler path comes at a price.

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Everything in life comes with a price tag. To embrace convictions and live authentically sounds wonderful, but, trust me, there are many times you will have to be very brave in order to do so. For us personally, to pursue this simpler life we are learning to fly against so much of what ‘mega’ Christianity has embedded, encouraged and enshrined: the desire to influence, to become bigger, to be famous, to accumulate, to safeguard … the list goes on. However, for my partner and I, this no longer holds any attraction. In fact, for us (and we realise this is not everyone’s story or path), the pursuit of more is full of emptiness. We have been challenged to live a different life … and, in order to do so, we need to let go.

So it’s time to shrink the house! Shrink our footprints. Embrace a different tomorrow. I have always prided myself with the idea that I do not ‘horde’ or ‘accumulate’ stuff. Well, this blog is a confessional. I have spent hours sorting through stuff that I haven’t used or looked at for several years. I am now doubly motivated, as we will be moving into a house half the size of the one we currently live in. Everything I own is being scrutinised before being packed. It is exhausting … and freeing. I can’t really explain it, but there’s something very liberating about deciding to take just one pot of a certain size, not three, or just one set of crockery, not the whole caboodle I kept for entertaining the many large groups we would have through the house every year. 

And before I make myself sound like a minimalist saint … I have failed the packing ideal with my books. O my glob! I am attached to those books. It was fairly320px-Carl_Spitzweg_021 easy to part ways with books that flogged a certain modern religious pop culture or ones that upheld an ideology of colonial, white, privilege under the guise of orthodoxy. In fact, they made great fire starters. But other books … well, they are all coming. Remember, I am a recovering ‘accumulatist’.

I am discovering that shrinking brings joy, that less is definitely more – not just a fancy cliche. Life is found in the word ‘few’ and contentment is a most wonderful travelling companion. Of course, I grieve over what was, I feel the deep loss of what I have here. There is pain in minimising . Don’t underestimate it! However, I also feel the excitement of freedom from debt and stuff … there is no price I can put on that. 

Friend, we all make decisions every day to either simplify our lives or make them more complicated. May you choose wisely. May you choose life.

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Thin Places: Where Heaven and Earth Embrace

“Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.”
Exodus 3:5

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Last year I visited Elk, or Lyck as it was known to my family. The town of my ancestors. I stood on the shores of the lake that held so many of my childhood fantasies. Fantasies that were fed by my grandmother’s mesmerising stories. I walked through the vibrant forest, up a hill, overlooking that magical place of a thousand lakes. I could hear whispers from the past, a distinct sense of the closeness of another dimension. It hit me. I was again standing amidst a Thin Place.

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The Celts coined the term ‘Thin Place’ for spaces and moments where the distance between heaven and earth seems almost non-existent. There is a Celtic saying that heaven and earth are only three feet apart, but in the Thin Places the distance is even smaller. My guess would be that the first person to utter the term probably did so in an Irish brogue, as they stood in wonder, looking at the wind-swept isle of Iona or the rocky peaks of Croagh Patrick.

Thin Places confuse our senses. We suddenly see the world in a different light. Our perceptions change. With breathless wonder we encounter the Divine and it changes us. For people who hold to a faith, Thin Places are those places where we feel most strongly connected to God’s presence.

“Thin Places,” the Celts call this space,
Both seen and unseen,
Where the door between the world
And the next is cracked open for a moment
And the light is not all on the other side.
God shaped space. Holy.”

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As I stood looking around by the lake at Elk, memories came flooding back. I was familiar with Thin Places. I remember the moment I stepped onto the edge of the Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania, that holy hush that descends as all words fall short in the face of such beauty. Or as I watched the sea eagles swoop through pristine Norwegian fjords. I recall the Thin Place moment as I trudged through the dark, cold catacombs along the via Appia in Rome, sensing that I was surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses. And then there are those Thin Places of life and death. The moment when I took my newborn into my arms and marvelled at the wonder of life. Or when I held the hand of my dying mother on one warm and balmy December evening, and watched her pass over to another dimension filled with light.

So what makes a Thin Place ‘thin’? Not every beautiful place we encounter is a ‘Thin Place’ and it is not necessarily marked because of its tranquility. Perhaps a Thin Place can best be identified through how it effects us, changes us, strips us, and transforms us. We can’t really plan day trips to Thin Places. Rather, it seems, that Thin Places find us. Those mindful moments when suddenly we catch a glimpse of heaven and earth, unencumbered. It is that moment of recognition that Jacob experienced and exclaimed: “God is in this place — truly. And I didn’t even know it!”

It is the moment we passionately wake up:

“Indeed, it is a lovely testimony to the fullness and integrity of an experience or a stage of life that it intensifies towards the end into a real frontier that cannot be crossed without the heart being passionately engaged and woken up. At this threshold a great complexity of emotion comes alive: confusion, fear, excitement, sadness, hope.” John O’Donohue

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As I stand on the threshold of a new and different tomorrow, I also sense this is a Thin Place. I feel like the last few decades, lived in a blur of hurry and productivity, have given way to a rhythm of grace, and of seeing and hearing with an ever increasing sense of wonder. It has not been a comfortable place. I don’t think Thin Places are intended to be. Rather, it has been a place of irrevocable change of the way I view and relate to the world and who I am.

What about you? Can you identify some Thin Places in your life? What was it about them that made them Thin Places? How are you different because of those moments?

You only have one life to live and it’s not as long as we’d like to imagine. May you resist the temptation to live it in the way others expect of you. May you live deeply and not be asleep when the sun rises. May your very life be the sacrament of a Thin Place for you.

“A sacrament is when something holy happens. It is transparent time, time which you can see through to something deep inside time … you are apt to catch a glimpse of the almost unbearable preciousness and mystery of life.” Frederick Buechner

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