January 29, 2015

In Her Shoes: When You're the "Older Woman" in a Sea of Youth

I've discovered that church plants tend to be filled with younger people, especially for the first few years. We were no exception, and it was such a strange feeling to be considered an "older" woman while in my mid-thirties. Being one of the oldest in our church revealed to me what I'd taken for granted in former churches: older believers who have experienced more of life and walked with Jesus for many years are pure gold. Especially to a church plant. So I began to pray that God would grace us with mature, wise believers who could disciple and come alongside us to lead the gobs of young people at our church. One such woman He brought is Krisan Marotta. She is a gifted teacher (find audio of her Bible teaching at www.wednesdayintheword.com) who has blessed me personally. We were recently discussing what it feels like to be one of the "older women" in a church full of twenty-somethings, and I asked her to share in my occasional In Her Shoes series what she shared with me.

Once while shopping with my husband's grandmother, I pulled a dress off a rack for her consideration. She took one look and exclaimed, "I could never wear that!  That's an old lady dress!"  She was 94 at the time.

I'm starting to understand her reaction. My first thought on my last birthday was "how can someone so young be this old?"

In modern American culture growing older seems to mean becoming invisible; unfortunately this trend is also infecting the church. While researching a book, Sarah Bessey collected stories from women who disappeared from church leadership when they reached a certain age.

"One woman told me about how she had led worship at her church for years. But when a new young pastor was hired, he wanted a cooler band to get more young people in the door. First thing to go? Older women. 'No one wanted to see middle-aged women on stage,' she wrote candidly, and so she was replaced with young women in their late teens and early twenties." - Sarah Bessey, The Invisible Generation
How are we to respond to this trend in the church? While I certainly don't have all the answers, it strikes me that relegating older women to the nostalgia-bin is a symptom of "The Huddle Syndrome."  Fortunately, the Huddle Syndrome is easy to break.

The Huddle Syndrome
Imagine a party where everyone faces the center of the room. The people huddled in the center are the "in-group", those deemed hip, cool and young, while everyone else stands behind them facing their backs. Still more people are on the outskirts and some stand in other rooms peering through the doorways.

This arrangement allows minimal interaction, communication and conversation. It visually illustrates what happens when people spend their social energy seeking to be friends with only the inner circle.

At this party, everyone thinks they are the farthest outside the center, because they are focused on the backs of the people closer in. Little happens to break the solitude; everyone feels isolated.

Now imagine you are standing somewhere in the middle of this strange party. What can you do?
If you elbow your way to the center, do you know what you will find?  Nothing special. Additionally, once in the center -- no matter which way you turn -- you would still lack contact with the majority of the people at the party. What else can you do?

Breaking the Huddle
Turn around. Right behind you is someone wanting to be part of the group, to feel less isolated and more accepted. In any social group (including the church), no matter how left out you feel, you can almost always find someone who seems to fit in even less than you do. If a significant number of people at our strange party turned around, the huddle would break into several small clusters -- each of which could foster an interesting connection. Rather than "the action" happening only in the center, "the action" could occur all over the room, in other rooms and even the backyard.

Turning around is a ministry. The ministry of the body is not confined to the teaching and evangelizing of professionals or those in leadership.  Each of us is a minister in Christ's body, given our own gifts and opportunities to be used by God in the lives of others.

Ministry is a word of encouragement over coffee, a phone call to see how someone is doing, or asking a question and listening to the answer.  Ministry is two families spending an evening together and finding out they are not the only ones who struggle with loneliness.  Ministry is any act of kindness and friendship which breaks the huddle.

Aristotle said, "Without friends no one would choose to live, though he had all other goods." But we are not equally blessed by good friends. Friendships are like money: some are socially rich, while others are socially poor.

Many older women find their social wealth plummets when they retire, or when their friends move away or their kids leave the nest.  Men who work long hours find themselves isolated after work. 

Twenty-somethings whose college friends have scattered across country may feel abandoned.  People with families often have no more social support than singles.  They may be lonely together but they are still lonely.

The low priority on friendship in modern society means the fewer friendships have a chance to grown and blossom. People move more frequently. Extended families are scattered across state lines. Work relationships can marred by competition and office politics. And neighborhoods are filled with people who don't know each other. The result is people live more isolated lives, with mainly virtual friends and our society has become friendship poor.

If the local church is defined by the huddle syndrome with only the young and cool in the center, we will add to the growing isolation. But if we start turning around, the local church can be less like a huddle and more like "Cheers" -- "where everybody knows your name and they're always glad you came" -- even if you're not young, hip or cool.

So the next time you feel socially isolated and left out, turn around. And if the woman you meet is older than you, just smile and introduce yourself. She's probably lonely too.

Other posts in the In Her Shoes series that you may find helpful:

January 27, 2015

The Time I Said I Don't Always Like Women's Events

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She's been coming to our church for several years now, but I don't know her well. I've talked with her several times, trying to draw out more than one-word answers, trying to find a subject that makes her come alive, but I still don't know her beyond what her resume' might tell. I think I make her nervous, or maybe it's that I'm overbearing, so I give her space to find her way.

I invite her to our women's day retreat, not because I'm the pastor's wife and am filling some quota, not because I'm teaching and want a huge crowd, not because it's something to talk about when I see her at church. I invite her because I see that look in her eye: the look of being an outsider, the look of isolation, the look of being contentedly closed off but also deathly afraid to stay that way. I invite her because I want to know her and I want others to know her. I want her to experience community that, in reality, is well within her reach. I invite her because it seems we're playing some sort of game of jumping in, hesitating, and then jumping back out, and it feels like a fear filled  charade.
She says no. She says it with absolute, total conviction, a "no" that feels like it's answering all future invitations, a "no" that indicates it's not busyness keeping her away, a "no" begging for explanation. So I gently probe. She describes past experiences of women's events characterized by shallow conversation, girly crafts, and topics never veering far from marriage and motherhood. I tell her what we're studying (not marriage or motherhood) and guarantee there will be no girly crafts and lots of opportunities to make connections with other women. She thanks me for the invitation, reaffirms her "no", and moves off into the crowd.

As she goes, I am sad, not for me, but for her and for the "us" that is our church's women, because we're not going to know her until she lets us know her, and we're probably missing something wonderful.

But I am also sad because I understand where she's coming from. I understand what it's like to dread women's events at church, to walk in with a smile but also a heavy weight of insecurity, and to overanalyze everything I've said after it's all over. I understand what it's like to get all twisted up in paranoia about friendships and to wonder if I've said too much after sharing something personal. I understand the pressure to appear put together and the pull toward assumptions and comparison. I wish I could help her see that, even though I'm the pastor's wife and often out front, we have more in common than she thinks.

At the retreat, I stand before our women and, even as the words tumble out, I want to take them back. I don't always like women's events. I actually say it. The pastor's wife at a women's event says she doesn't always like women's events. Because I get nervous, I say. Because there is this pull to compare and a fear of revealing ourselves and I have all these insecurities. The room gets still. Raise your hand if you're nervous too. Raise your hand if it was hard to come this morning. Hands slowly go up all around. So let's just drop all that and let's get down to it. Let's give and receive. Let's share and learn. Let's love each other well today. The room releases an audible sigh and we get to work studying and discussing Scripture together.

Later, I have a moment to think and I immediately berate myself for saying such a vulnerable and stupid thing. But then one-by-one women that I know and love approach me and tell me of their own insecurities about relating to other women, insecurities about their appearance, about not knowing the answers, about sharing their struggles and doubts, about not having it all together.

They understand from my words that I understand. We have more in common than we think. Saying it out loud just did something for us all, because we women tend to think about and assume our differences more than our commonalities. And our differences, seen through the filter of insecurity, only drive us away from one another.

I saw that day what helps us push through our fears and insecurities and awkwardness and come together: naming. Naming our common struggle and our common need is what helps us get to the true community we crave, and with true community, true growth. Because where we name common need, we can also name common grace in Christ and grasp onto Him together.

We can't get to the community we crave as long as we embrace image-keeping. We can't get to it while also striving to be "good enough", because that striving conveys to other women that we're not in need of grace and coaxes them to race to "good enough" with us.

We must instead value faith, hope and love above appearance, affinities, and categories. We must value growth above self-glory and self-consciousness. Community among women blossoms when the love of Christ is talked about and shown, because that perfect love casts out all fear and insecurity. We're all in need. We all can come and receive.

I wish she had been there. It might have felt uncomfortable and awkward for her at first, but she would have found herself among friends expressing common needs and receiving common grace. I'll invite her again next time, and maybe I'll tell her that I don't always like women's events either, that I get nervous about them even as the pastor's wife. Maybe she won't believe how much need we have in common, but I'll speak to her of common grace all the same and invite her into the community waiting for her on the other side of insecurity.

January 20, 2015

How to Stay Sane In Ministry {A Podcast}

I have not been a huge podcast listener in the past, but I'm slowly becoming a fan. I've found that listening to talks passes the time while I'm getting ready in the morning, making dinner, doing carpool, or cleaning (which, let's face it, there isn't much of these days).
I especially love hearing authors on podcasts, because then I know their voices and they can narrate in my head when I subsequently read their blog posts or their books. I've especially enjoyed Jess Connolly's interview about starting The Influence Network, Elyse Fitzpatrick's talk from the TGC Women's Conference on understanding the indicative/imperative divide (so helpful!), and I fell headlong into the Serial craze a few months ago. Currently, I've got our worship leader's new album on repeat because it is so.very.good. I realize this isn't a podcast but it's so.very.good. Did I mention that it's good?

Anyhoo, in honor of my growing love of podcasts, today's blog post is not something to read but something to listen to, perfect for your dinner-making, carpooling, and cleaning (or not cleaning) needs.

Last summer, I had the incredible privilege of speaking to a large gathering of pastor's wives. I shared with them the four primary conversations my husband and I must have on a consistent basis that helps us thrive in ministry (a.k.a How to Stay Sane In Ministry). I hope it's helpful to you in some way, whether you're the wife of a pastor, a church planter, a teacher, or a salesman.

Download the talk 4 Conversations to Have With Your Husband.

January 16, 2015

May I Recommend? (Suggestions for Your Season)

One of my favorite things to do in our church is to connect women with one another and watch their friendship blossom. I am almost fanatical about making it happen, and I'm not afraid of being awkward or annoying in introducing people with similar interests, seasons of life, or backgrounds. The most satisfying matches, however, are connecting women who have questions with women who have answers to those questions and then watching mentoring, community, and spiritual growth develop.
I do this with books, too. I've told everyone I know probably a zillion times in the past few years to read Unbroken. And now it's Notes from the Tilt-a-Whirl and The Warmth of Other Suns. I feel myself going off agenda here, which is what happens when books get on my brain.

Anyway . . .

Can I connect you with some resources today? Most of them are free and some I've shared recently on the blog, but I wanted to have all them in one spot for you. I hope you'll find in one or more of these resources a "match" for a season you're in. I'm just so happy to introduce you to great material and watch what develops out of it. Let me know what you choose to read in the comments below, would you?

Needing structure for your spiritual life? 
May I introduce you to the Naptime Diaries Lent Devotional? This little ditty of a book is 40-day devotional designed with Lent in mind, but really could be used throughout the year. Not only is it written by a wide range of authors (including yours truly), but it is simply beautiful to look at.

I love the tagline of the book: Watching, Waiting, Wonder. We're invited to watch for Jesus, wait for Jesus, and wonder at Him. I hope you'll work through this devotional with me this spring.

Naptime Diaries is offering a 15% discount to my readers if you hop over to their site and use the code "Christine". Go on, hop over. I'll wait here for your return.

Needing encouragement as you mother? 
Desiring God has compiled essays into a book called Mom Enough, all of which expound on and answer the foolishness of competitive mothering. This is not necessarily a practical book; it's a foundations book for all mothers who want to think about their role through the lens of the gospel.

They've made the pdf or Kindle version of the book free on their website, but if you're like me and want to hold a real book in your hand, you can buy a paper copy on Amazon.

New to a community or new to church planting? 
My friend Shauna Pilgreen, a fellow church planting wife and fellow mom of three boys, has written an ebook called Live Sent: 31 Days in the City. Shauna and her family moved to San Francisco five years ago to plant Epic Church. She mapped out a plan for how they were going to learn, embrace, and engage San Francisco. That plan has become Live Sent, although instead of just San Francisco, she invites us all to look at our new (or very familiar) communities with fresh eyes and to begin engaging our communities with the gospel.

Send Network is offering the ebook for free, but Shauna also has an extended version with loads of practical ideas and templates available for $2.99 on her website. 

Struggling under the weight of pressure, shame, or guilt? Or just needing a broader understanding of grace? 
Y'all, my second book, From Good to Grace, is almost here! The ebook version releases on February 24 and the paperback version on March 3. You can preorder your copy on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Christianbook.com, or iTunes.

Can I tell you why I wrote From Good to Grace? We all are trying so very hard to be good Christians and good moms and good wives and good friends and the list could go on. But God has something greater for us than being good. We need to know what that is, because trying to be good is killing us inside.

You can get a taste of the book to see if it might be something you'd like to read (oh, I hope so!) by sampling the first chapter.

If you like it, will you invite others to read it with you? It's the kind of book best read if you can also process it with others. I've even included a handy discussion guide in the back of the book for that very reason.

Could you use a little more cowbell? I mean, er, Grace Covers Me?
I really don't want this blog to ever be an infomercial, but I do want to have a space where I can share behind-the-blog details with those who want them. So I've started sending out an occasional newsletter (a whopping one has been sent so far) that enables me to share more private writing, books I'm reading (see my love for books above), and other things I'm loving.

I'll be sending out a newsletter next week in which I share a fun idea for the new year, some incredibly great music that I can't wait for you to hear, and details about how you can join my book launch team.

If you read Grace Covers Me by email, you are already signed up for this newsletter, but if you read it in a blog reader, you can sign up to receive the very occasional newsletter here. Thank you for entrusting your email address to me. I don't take that lightly.

Now, what do you have to share with us? Any blogs you're loving? Books? Resources? Music? Inquiring minds want to know.

January 15, 2015

Is It So Wrong to Want Rewards?

In December, a dear woman in our church handed me a tin of Christmas treats she'd made for our family, and as I received them, I felt tears immediately welling up in my eyes.

She didn't know and couldn't have known, but I had been in need of encouragement--even something as simple as a tin of cookies, something that expressed I'd been thought of and that I was appreciated.
I'd actually been fighting against this desire for weeks, fighting against it because I felt it had crossed a line into craving approval and validation. Craving reward. Maybe even a little self-glory. The craving was strong in its temptation; my faith felt fragile and weak.

Is it so wrong to want reward? Sometimes I just want to know from God that what I'm doing for Him matters. Sometimes I want to see the fruit of my labor and get to rejoice at how the Lord is moving in and around me. But then sometimes a desire for reward is more sinister. I feel in my bones the lure of applause, money, worldly success, comfort, ease, and self-glory. All temporary, all things that might provide immediate gratification. I know to seek after these as rewards for things I've done is wrong.

But reward also appears in Scripture as a positive, like in Hebrews 11:6: "He who comes to God must believe that He is and that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him", and as displayed in the litany of characters whose faithfulness was rewarded. 

So in regard to encouragement, which is it: right or wrong? I had to see for myself. Mid-morning on that ordinary Thursday, I set aside my work and began reading Hebrews 11 and 12 out loud--like really loud--as if preaching to myself. 

The one person who stood out in my reading was not Abraham or Moses or Sarah or any of those who get the most play in those chapters. It was Esau. Esau, the twin who, on a whim, gave up his inheritance for a bowl of soup. His reward could have been a double inheritance from Isaac, but he settled for a quick bite to eat in order to satisfy his hunger. Temporary, immediate gratification.

And the tears just fell because I knew I was Esau. I wanted a reward but not the greater reward. I wanted to satisfy a hunger, and quickly.

The others mentioned in Hebrews 11 sought the greater reward. But to get it, they had to give up the immediate reward. They chose to go hungry, so to speak. Abraham, for example, moved to and stayed for the rest of his life in a foreign place. He raised his kids in a place where they were outsiders. He could do whatever God asked of him, because he staked everything on a future inheritance, a future satiation.

Did he receive reward in his lifetime? Certainly. He had children. He had wealth. He had influence. But his desire was for the heavenly country and all the rewards that his faith would win him in that place.

I've never noticed it before, but as I read Hebrews 12 aloud through my tears, I realized we're actually given a description of our future reward. Verses 22-24 say our reward is the heavenly Jerusalem, an innumerable company of angels, joining in the assembly of the church, God Himself, the company of the spirits of men made perfect, Jesus our Mediator, and the blood that is our redemption.

That's so much more glorious than a temporary, passing reward.

We may receive success, money, applause, and comfort as gifts from God in our lives, but the reward to crave is the reward that is yet to come. 

If we stake everything on that future inheritance, we can do anything God asks of us.

When I realized that, my tears of unmet desire turned to tears of anticipation and joy.

Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom which cannot be shaken, let us have grace, by which we may serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear. Hebrews 12:28

January 14, 2015

Live Sent {A Free Resource for You}

Shauna Pilgreen (@shaunapilgreen) is a friend and fellow church planting wife who lives with her husband and three boys in San Francisco. When my family and I went on sabbatical in 2013, I saw first hand her love for Jesus, her enthusiasm for church planting, and her desire for His name to be known and praised in her adopted city. In fact, after spending time with her, I brought home a renewed passion for my own community and practical ideas to implement that she'd shared with me. Shauna is, simply put, an inspiration, which is why I'm happy to tell you about an ebook she's written called Living Sent- 31 Days in the City, made available today for free by Send Network. I've asked Shauna to share about the ebook on my blog today. Here she is:

Do any of these describe you?
  • I’ve just moved to a new place.
  • My family is considering church planting or a ministry move.
  • I don’t know much about where I live.
Have I got a plan for you! One that is sure to grow your love for where you live and those who live around you. While I can guarantee adventure and new relationships, the heart that goes into it is entirely up to you!

Living Sent - 31 Days in the City was compiled and lived out in our first 31 days in San Francisco, where we moved to plant a church and engage in a culture far different from what we had known. The book recounts the planned adventure for how we met our neighbors, engaged with a diverse culture, and began opening our home to others. The book is filled with my personal journal entries and the stories of struggle and deep joy. 
But it's not just about me. It is also a guide for you, whether you've recently moved to a new place, you are church planting, or you want to have eyes to see your community in a new, missional way. 

You can use this as a guide in a month when the kids are on summer vacation or spread it out over the course of a few months. Or you can take your seven favorite ideas and create a fun, community-engaging stay-cation out of it. 

I believe this to be true: the most alert you will ever be to your town or city is right when you arrive. And call it a 'move' if you must, but by the end of these 31 days, I hope you see it as 'sent.' It takes us humans time to figure out why God does what He does. For us stubborn ones, we might not figure it out this side of heaven. That's where perspective comes in. Sent is a move with purpose. This is the perspective I want you to see. The job, the family circumstances, the opportunity, the fill-in-the-blank, that has uprooted you and plopped you down again, has purpose. Your new zip code. New address. New neighbors. New surroundings. They matter in perspective. 

Here’s the exciting part. Send Network believes in this concept and in seeing ministry families and Gospel-centered families thrive in the places we call home. They are gifting this book as a resource to you for FREE! You can download it here. (And while you're there, pick up my ebook, Partners in Planting, for free as well!)

To you, the new ones to your town or city...may God grant you the courage to explore. To embrace a new culture, a new process on how things operate, a new community. To you, the ones who are comfortable where you live...may God give you a fresh new look at your surroundings. What's that part of town that still needs your footprints? {excerpt from Living Sent - 31 Days in the City}

And if want a little more than 31 days? On Shauna's website, you can get an extended version of the ebook, which offers over 10 additional chapters full of highly practical and useful ideas for Living Sent, such as 31 days of prayer, craft ideas and recipes, templates for neighbor gatherings, family structures, and celebrations, practical ways to invest in your kids' school, and a teaching lesson called God of the City. 

Thank you for your wisdom and ideas, Shauna!

January 9, 2015

Friendship: It's Worth the Risk

The words came through an email and, as I skimmed through, I assumed I hadn’t read them correctly. My heart started beating quickly as I re-read the first few lines and saw that, in fact, I’d read it right. The biting words sunk in deep. A friend had misunderstood me, had not given me the benefit of the doubt, and she was writing to let me know I had disappointed her.

We’ve all been hurt by someone we considered a friend, whether it’s an inconsiderate word or an unexpected betrayal. I’ve discovered that when it happens to me, as it did through that email, it’s my natural tendency, like it is the tendency of many women, to pull away, erect protective barriers around my vulnerability, and let the friendship fade into the background as if it never existed.

Sometimes, when the wound is especially deep, our tendency is not just to write the friend off but to write friendship off. We’re hurt so badly that we give in to cynicism, bitterness, and resentment, and we wonder if friendship is worth the risk of wading through the emotions and hurts, reconciling relationships, and making ourselves vulnerable again. We are friendly and sociable at a safe distance, but heart-level friendship? It’s too hard and too risky.

Why do we become cynical about friendship after we’ve been hurt? Too often, it’s because we cling to a false idea of what friendship should be: the sugary-sweet, easy-come community where we flit into one another’s homes without knocking, laugh deep into the night, know each other and are known without effort, and never exchange a cross or challenging word. I typically envision dinner parties and game nights. You may envision vacationing together or talking on the phone everyday. We all have that ideal picture, and with that ideal view in mind, it’s easy to feel insecure about or frustrated with our reality.

I tend to want to cast the responsibility or the blame for my imperfect relationships on others, but it works both ways. Sometimes I have hurt others, which I did inadvertently this year. Although my friend that I hurt brought it to my attention, I remained blind to the way I was wounding her, wanting to blame her instead. She brought it to my attention again, just as clear and gentle as the first time, and I finally saw what my protective barriers had kept me from seeing and, in reality, how they had been used as weapons instead of defense. This friend challenged me to stay in the friendship and work through our differences rather than keep my distance, something that felt risky to me but in the end has been worth it.

Isn’t this what true, biblical community is about: being willing to love, forgive, and bear with those we might not necessarily always understand and being willing to confess sin, inadvertent or not, and receive the grace that helps us grow? This is more what it’s about than dinner parties and game nights.

Over coffee, a young woman in my church and I discussed this together, about how we have this stubborn belief that community can actually be what we ideally picture in our heads. She said she wishes people would invite her to more things, how it seems like everyone is always getting together without her. I said I sometimes envy certain relationships and resent that I’m not included in them. After confessing our self-focused thoughts to one another, the conversation turned to what true community is and what it should look like in reality.

Isn’t it, we said, an ongoing effort? Isn’t it having to deal biblically with our inevitable hurts, being quick to forgive, crossing life-stage boundaries and refusing to put other women in categories? Isn’t it pushing through awkwardness and refusing to give up on people even when they disappoint us? And perhaps the most important question: isn’t it the greater blessing to be a person that seeks for this type of community rather than clinging to false ideals and waiting for it to just “happen” to us?

While it is a greater blessing, we determined that it’s also risky. We must look to serve rather than be served, which means it’s possible that we might not be served in the ways we hope. We must be ever-willing to broaden the circle, which means we must have an eye for the outsider rather than an eye for how we can be an insider, and it’s possible we might be forgotten in the process. We must be willing to address sin and conflict in an appropriate way, which means it’s possible we might be rejected. We must be willing to be vulnerable, which means we might be misunderstood and grace might not be extended.

Instead of holding fast to our ideals, we need a new definition of friendship, one that allows for awkwardness and risk and fumbling through, because isn’t true friendship paved by these very things? Paul offers us a definition for friendship in Colossians that we’d do better to cling to than our false ideals:

“Therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, put on tender mercies, kindness, humility, meekness, longsuffering; bearing with one another, and forgiving one another, if anyone has a complaint against another; even as Christ forgave you, so you also must do. But above all these things, put on love, which is the bond of perfection. And let the peace of God rule in your hearts, to which also you were called in one body; and be thankful.” (3:12-15)

Paul certainly goes beyond vacationing together and small talk and waiting for someone else to initiate. He exhorts us to actively pursue being a godly friend to others, to actively pursue being patient, forgiving, loving, and being thankful for others as we relate to them. The focus is on what we give to others, not what they give to us. We don’t do these things because we hope to get something in return, friendship or otherwise. We do these things because it is the way Christ showed His love toward us and because biblical community will always model itself after Him.

Until Heaven, our community will never be perfect; it’s inevitable that we will experience hurt and disappointment in relationships. But it’s worth the risk. Because by actively pursuing others in the way Christ pursues us, we extend an invitation for the friendship we desire, but we also discover the beautiful and always-faithful way in which Christ relates to us.
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