Thinking Out Loud

August 22, 2022

Henri Nouwen and the Acrobats: Behind the Making of the Book

In late May I received a short note from the co-author of a book I had briefly mentioned on my Christian book trade blog. The book was Flying, Falling, Catching: An Unlikely Story of Finding Freedom (HarperOne, 2022) by the late Henri Nouwen and Carolyn Whitney-Brown. Both Carolyn and I thought that the story behind the book deserved greater attention, and months later, she sent what follows, which at this point, we have exclusively. You can learn more about her writing at this link.

by Carolyn Whitney-Brown

I first met Henri Nouwen at L’Arche Daybreak in Richmond Hill [North Toronto] in 1989 when he drove me with my husband Geoff to a local pizza place for lunch. He was a terrifyingly inattentive driver. But we had a terrific conversation that day. Geoff and I were completing our PhDs in English literature, so like Henri, we were coming from academic backgrounds looking for ways to live the gospel more concretely in a diverse community.

As Gord, a longtime L’Arche member with Down syndrome, would encourage us, “Open your heart.” We lived with Henri and Gord and many others at Daybreak until 1997, learning to think and love and laugh and pray in new ways. Those were transformative years.

Carolyn Whitney-Brown with Henri Nouwen

Henri first saw the Flying Rodleighs trapeze troupe perform in 1991, and it hit him like a thunderbolt. He described a physical response that left him shaken, excited, in tears – a response of his body, not in words. Over the next five years, he got to know the trapeze troupe and they became close friends. His times with them were relaxing, inspiring and full of fun. He talked about them constantly.

I knew from conversations with Henri at the time that he wanted to write differently; something that would read like fiction or even a novel. He wanted his circus book to be different than any of his previous books, based not on ideas or insights, but offering a story that would draw readers into an experience and invite them to draw their own significances and connnections.

But he died suddenly in 1996, and the fragments that he left behind sat in his literary archives for decades.

In 2017, because I was a writer who knew Henri well, I was invited by the publishing committee of Henri’s literary estate to have a look at his trapeze writings and see if anything inspired me.

Immediately, I was hooked by two mysteries. First, why did his encounter with the Flying Rodleighs strike him so powerfully at that moment of his life? And second, why he did he not finish his book about them?

I started to read widely in the archives, trying to figure out what else was going on in his life and spirit in those years, what had prepared him to see, as he put it, “the angels of God appearing to me in the form of five trapeze artists.”

I couldn’t write the book that Henri would have written, but in Flying, Falling, Catching, I honour his desire to write a creative book that would be as engaging as a novel. I juxtapose his writings about his friendship with the Flying Rodleighs trapeze troupe alongside other significant moments in his life. Those experiences in Henri’s own words are framed by the true story of his first heart attack and his rescue out the window of a hotel in the Netherlands in 1996.

The book is in two voices, Henri’s and mine, with two typefaces so that readers know which writings are Henri’s and which are mine.

I had a lot of fun writing it.

After completing the book, I keep thinking about pedestals. It’s easy to put Henri on a pedestal: he was wise and brave even when he was demanding and anguished. He’s often called a spiritual master. But that elevates him to a unique and lonely place, and being admired like that was not a healthy place for Henri. The trapeze act involves a different image of a pedestal, as somewhere to launch from. You’d look silly staying on a pedestal. It’s a platform to allow you to take a risk. And trapeze performers are rarely on a pedestal alone: no one can do a trapeze act by themselves.

Henri Nouwen with The Flying Rodleighs
Photo: Ron P. van den Bosch

You can actually see some hilarious film footage of Henri on the trapeze pedestal on the online recordings of two book launch events, one with commentary by Rodleigh Stevens himself, and the other with L’Arche Daybreak. In that one, I tell viewers to notice that real friends will not only accompany you on a pedestal, but they will throw you off at the right moment! You can find links to both book launch events at:

https://www.writersunion.ca/member/carolyn-whitney-brown

It struck me recently that I am now the age that Henri was when he was so entranced by the Flying Rodleighs, and interestingly, so is Rodleigh himself, since he and I are close in age. At our age, Henri let his imagination be seized by a whole new adventure. He said,

On a deeper level, [my friendship with the Flying Rodleighs] has given me a sense my life is just beginning. I don’t know where it’s going but I’m only sixty-two so I may have another thirty years. The Rodleighs are saying to me indirectly, don’t be afraid to fly a little, don’t be afraid to take a few doubles or triples or a few layouts. If you really miss the catcher you fall into the net so what’s the big issue! After all, take a risk and trust, trust, trust.”

Henri cared passionately about building communities that honour differences, that work for justice, that seek God’s vision of peace on earth and goodwill to all. As you finish reading Flying, Falling, Catching, be open to the spiritual challenge: What seizes YOUR imagination? What excites you? What life of fun and creative energy does God imagine for each of us, not just alone, but in our communities?


Flying Falling Catching is also available in the UK through SPCK Publishing.


Related: At Christianity 201 — Henri Nouwen quotations

January 21, 2021

“I” vs. “We” — Couples, Families in God’s Presence

So then, each of us will give an account of ourselves to God.
– Romans 14:12 NIV

And I tell you this, you must give an account on judgment day for every idle word you speak.
-Matthew 12:36 NLT

For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil.
-2 Corinthians 5:10 ESV

All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.
-Matthew 25:32 NIV

Before we begin, apologies to those of you who are single, separated, divorced, or widowed. I wrote this with couples in mind, but as you see from the title, have expanded it slightly to include the concept of entire families.

I have several married couple friends who have shared social media accounts. It isn’t something I recommend. It was hard enough for Ruth and I to share an email account until she finally got her own computer. But I realize that, with Facebook in particular, there are sensitivities that some couples overcome by not having any contacts or communications apart from the other.

The problem is that many times all of us express opinion on Facebook and Twitter, and believe me, husbands and wives don’t always agree on everything, and this is probably a healthy situation. Some work around this by presenting names in parenthesis, such as: “I (Paul) thought the show was funny.” And of course there are things on which we do agree, not everything should be a battleground.

Beware of “We”

Almost every day at this site’s sister blog, I begin with something like “Today we’re featuring the writing of a new author…” Of course we is me. I produce and edit and format the daily devotions on my own; it’s a one-person project. “We” in this case is sometimes referred to as an editorial “I.”

But it can be overused. I tend to type, “Today we want to consider…” first and then, taking a moment to reconsider, realize I need to own the content more, and re-type, “Today I want to look at…”

I have some friends who share a few social media accounts. They use “we” a lot. I decided to call them out on it. Friends will forgive, right?

And they did. While they made it clear that I was making assumptions, they also assured me that while I may see them speaking with one voice on various things online, they do hold and value individual opinions on various issues, including theological ones. Honestly, I was relieved to hear that. I really shouldn’t have expected anything different.

When the stakes are higher

But then I think of another couple who recently gave up on church and I would say perhaps for one of them even any pretense of deism.

I opened this article with several scripture verses. (I know some of you thought I’d written this for my devotional blog, but I actually wrote it for you guys!) I keep thinking of the idea of each of us standing before God individually. We don’t get to have our spouse stand next to us.

This is also true for families. We don’t have the option of an inherited faith. Perhaps growing up your parents rooted for one particular college sport team and so you just joined them in that passion. Or liked one late night talk show host over another. Or one local radio station’s format better than another which played similar music. This is the stuff of good humored banter at the dinner table. Dare I mention political parties?

With faith, you stand on your own. I am aware that there is a passage in Acts from which is derived the idea of household salvation, and I know it does happen where an entire family turns to Christ at the same moment and is perhaps all baptized on the same day; but from that point on each of us is on an individual journey.

This leads to the possibility of one member of a family, or one spouse attending church and being faithful to Bible reading on their own, and I do frequently run into personal contact with a woman who is the wife of an unsaved husband or the man who is the husband of an unsaved wife. I feel deeply for people in that situation, and try to point them to resources written specifically to address this.

But let me clear on this: That’s better than not attending weekend services because your husband or wife won’t attend. Or not being active with a local congregation because your brothers, sisters, parents or children don’t want to take part.

In the end, when I stand before God, I simply can’t use the word “we” as any possible line of defense.

 

May 22, 2018

Anniversary of a New Start: Are We There Yet?

Yesterday was a holiday Monday in Canada, and by about 9:30 PM, the local kids had used up their supply of fireworks. It was the silence, not the sound of bottle rockets, that reminded me of another May holiday Monday.

This one took place when I was 17. The impact wouldn’t be known until the next day, but on the Monday night, a beautiful young girl on our street was killed on the back of a motorcycle. My father came in my room on Tuesday morning and informed me of what he’d heard on the radio.

It hadn’t been a good weekend for me already. Clearly, my life was on a trajectory that wasn’t good. I had one foot in the church and one foot in the world and the gap between my feet was growing larger.

So I used Mary-Ellen’s death as a defining moment and decided, as the summer holidays came calling, to leave high school a different person and start college with a different focus, a better mindset, an attempt at cleaner living.

Which brings me to last night.

I don’t usually reflect on this on the May long weekend, but it occurred to me to ask — audibly — if I’m where I should be all those years later.

Clearly, my life was heading for a train wreck, and I’m considered a leader in the Christian community, and I’ve raised two fine boys who are serving Jesus, and I have several blogs, and lead worship and speak in churches, and… and… and…

But what about who I am? The inner life that few ever get to see?

Suddenly in the silence caused by the absence of fireworks, I had this sense that I’m not where I’m supposed to be; or at least being all that I could be. That I still have a long way to go. Most people, in a similar situation, would never admit this. But here we are…

…Sorry…it’s just me thinking out loud.

 

February 10, 2018

Testing for Christianity

Several years ago my doctor sent me for a particular test. He told me upfront that this test can be inconclusive but added, “Right now, it’s the only test we have.” (Everything turned out okay, in case you’re wondering.)

I was thinking about that this morning in terms of church attendance as a test of Christian faith. This particular test can be inconclusive for a variety of reasons.

I know people whose spirituality runs deep. They pray and meditate on the scriptures, they read Christian books, they give to Christian causes, and their faith graph continues to move up and to the right. But they have no connection at all to a local church. For some of them it’s been 3-4 years, for others 8-10, and yet others much, much longer.

Going to church does not make you a Christian any more than going to McDonald’s makes you a hamburger.

However…

There are eight things you can’t do when you (or you and your spouse, or you and your entire family) exist as isolated Christians.

  1. Corporate worship
  2. Corporate local/world intercession (and being made aware of these needs)
  3. Corporate liturgy (hearing the word read out loud and speaking it out loud yourself)
  4. Corporate prayer covering (this, for when it’s you that needs prayer, your faith community steps in)
  5. Corporate giving (and being made aware of special needs)
  6. Fellowship (everything from asking, “How’s it going spiritually” to talking about yesterday’s game)
  7. Communion / Lord’s Table / Eucharist
  8. Sitting under a teaching you did not choose (or in a Lectionary church, the pastor him self did not select specifically)

But there is an ninth thing that happens when you are part of a body and that is

  • Identification as a member of the local church

It’s this last thing I was headed toward today specifically with the medical test analogy. It’s the only test we have. Without participation in a local church there is both the perception and the possibility that your doctrine has moved away from orthodoxy. There isn’t a church locally which satisfies your needs, therefore your beliefs must be somehow different. Or worse, that your beliefs have simply migrated to some other faith system, or just plain died.

Listen…I have heard the stories. I know you may have been hurt. I know the preacher on the TV/podcast is such a great speaker. I know the bed never feels more comfortable than it does on Sunday morning. I know there are people in the church who are just taking up space; some who don’t believe any of it. I know the people in your local church are jerks because I am one of them.

But without identification among the numbers of people who publicly identify with the crucified and risen Christ, you’re simply part of the crowd. You may have been part of a church 25 years ago that was committed to reaching “unchurched Harry and unchurched Mary,” but over time, you’ve become unchurched Harry or unchurched Mary.

I’ll leave the last word to The Beatles:

Get back, get back
Get back to where you once belonged

 

 

May 18, 2015

Praying Like Opposite George

Filed under: prayer — Tags: , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 5:57 am

This jumps you into the middle of an article by Benjamin L. Corey at the blog Formerly Fundie, where he takes a fresh look at prayer. If it whets your appetite for more, click the link at the bottom.

Opposite GeorgeTake a season being Opposite George with your prayer life.

My favorite Seinfeld was the Opposite George episode  (which became a chapter in Christian Outsiders) where George started using his opposite instinct to make life choices. I’ve found this “opposite instinct” to actually be helpful for prayer life. Have you been approaching prayer in the same way since your childhood? Try doing the opposite for a season.

If you grew up in a highly structured, liturgical culture, try getting rid of all of the canned prayers you’re used to, and just talk to God from your heart. Or, if you grew up completely unstructured and find that’s not helpful right now, try adding structure to your prayer by trying either of the following: using a prayer book and praying prayers written in the book, or pick a Psalm and pray that particular verse as a personal prayer. If neither of those options ring your bell, you could even write out your own “life prayer” to ritualistically pray each morning. The key here is to try something different.

…continue reading Rediscovering Prayer When Your Prayer Life is Dead

January 31, 2015

Faith Itself is Not a Destination

Bruxy Cavey:

“We treat faith in our culture much like a painting that you hang on the wall. It’s something you go and look at. Look at my faith. Faith is a beautiful thing. But biblically faith is a connecting concept to connect you with something else. It’s not an end point destination that you stare at but it’s something you stare through. In other words, faith is more like a window that you install in a wall, not a painting you hang on a wall. It is something designed to help you see through the wall or whatever barrier is there to see … the outside of your particular world.”


~Bruxy Cavey, author of The End of Religion and Teaching Pastor of The Meeting House, an eightteen-site church in Ontario, Canada from the series Get Over Yourself, part six, December 13, 2009

May 28, 2012

Sometimes, The Christian Life is Just Plain Messy

My life is a mess. After forty-five years of trying to follow Jesus, I keep losing him in the crowded busyness of my life. I know Jesus is there, somewhere, but it’s difficult to make him out in the haze of everyday life. For as long as I can remember, I have wanted to be a godly person. Yet when I look at the yesterdays of my life, what I see, mostly, is a broken, irregular path littered with mistakes and failure. I have had temporary successes and isolated moments of closeness to God, but I long for the continuing presence of Jesus.

Most of the moments of my life seem hopelessly tangled in a web of obligations and distractions. I want to be a good person. I don’t want to fail. I want to learn from my mistakes, rid myself of distractions, and run into the arms of Jesus. Most of the time, however, I feel like I am running away from Jesus into the arms of my own clutteredness.I want desperately to know God better. I want to be consistent. Right now the only consistency in my life is my inconsistency. Who I want to be and who I am are not very close together. I am not doing well at the living-a-consistent-life thing. I don’t want to be St. John of the Cross or Billy Graham. I just want to be remembered as a person who loved God, who served others more than he served himself, who was trying to grow in maturity and stability. I want to have more victories than defeats, yet here I am, almost sixty, and I fail on a regular basis. If I were to die today, I would be nervous about what people would say at my funeral. I would be happy if they said things like “He was a nice guy” or “He was occasionally decent” or “Mike wasn’t as bad as a lot of people.” Unfortunately, eulogies are delivered by people who know the deceased. I know what the consensus would be. “Mike was a mess.” 

When I was younger, I believed my inconsistency was due to my youth. I believed that age would teach me all I needed to know and that when I was older I would have learned the lessons of life and discovered the secrets of true spirituality. I am older, a lot older, and the secrets are still secret from me.I often dream that I am tagging along behind Jesus, longing for him to choose me as one of his disciples. Without warning, he turns around, looks straight into my eyes, and says, “Follow me!” My heart races, and I begin to run toward him when he interrupts with, “Oh, not you; the guy behind you. Sorry.”I have been trying to follow Christ most of my life, and the best I can do is a stumbling, bumbling, clumsy kind of following. I wake up mostdays with the humiliating awareness that I have no clue where Jesus is. Even though I am a minister, even though I think about Jesus every day, my following is . . . uh . . . meandering.So I’ve decided to write a book about the spiritual life.

When a decade later people are still raving about a book as though it were published yesterday, it’s a good idea to sit up and take notice. When people whose reading tastes you trust keep talking about that one book that you never got around to reading, it’s a good idea to check it out.

Mike Yaconelli was the co-founder of Youth Specialties, and therefore, by default, it’s magazine, the classic Wittenburg Door, a magazine that was very influential in my spiritually formative years. Sadly, a year after writing his signature book, Messy Spirituality in 2002, Michael was killed in a traffic accident.

I finished reading Messy Spirituality yesterday, and it’s significant to be blogging this fact on a Monday. We’ve all just come from weekend services where we interacted with other members of our  faith family, people who outwardly seem to have it all together. There’s a lot of posturing at church, and you’ll see better acting there on a Sunday morning than at any of the finest shows on Broadway.

But not all of us are perfect. Some of us are misfits. Some of us are tainted by sin. Some of us are broken by circumstances. Some of us are just plain lost and confused.

This is why Jesus came. This is why we needed a Savior.

This brokenness, our messiness, is not something to sweep under the rug or try to cover up with cosmetics; it’s something to celebrate.

Messy Spirituality is a book that reminds not-so-perfect people that we are loved and accepted as we are; we don’t have to clean up first to come to church or to come to him.  Through many anecdotes from Michael’s later career as pastor of a small church, and reminders of Christ’s ministry on earth, Michael weaved a tapestry that brought tears to my eyes several times.

This is a book that will appeal to readers of Brennan Manning, Eugene Peterson, Henri Nouwen, Philip Yancey and Wayne Jacobsen.  This is a book “for the rest of us;” those who find their spiritual life is, at times, simply messy. 

Read another excerpt from the book at C201

Messy Spirituality was published in 2002 in hardcover and released in 2007 in paperback by Zondervan. Unlike some review books here, this one was purchased by myself and is staying a part of my permanent book collection.

February 4, 2012

Culture and Society: Shifting or Imploding?

This is from the blog Pastor Jeff Ramblings. It appeared there as The Cultural Shift

I will turn 52 later on this year. For some of you reading this that makes me very old and for some of you I am still quite young. But my 50+ years have allowed me to see some pretty major changes in the way in which we live. My children still find it hilarious that we only got three TV stations when I was growing up (which went off the air at 11:00pm) along with the palpable sense of excitement we had when we got a fourth station. Those of you my age know exactly what I am talking about. My first computer was an IBM XT8088 with a 10mg hard drive and a 5 1/4 floppy drive which I bought used when I was 28 years old. A friend of mine put a 286 motherboard in it along with a 40mg hard drive and that was all the computer that I was ever going to need.

We can laugh about some of these changes. There are other changes that feel almost cataclysmic in nature and ones that many of us do not see as changes for the better. Ravi Zacharias speaks to some of these in the opening pages of his new book Why Jesus?: Rediscovering His Truth in an Age of Mass Marketed Spirituality.

“Spirituality is writ large in the West as gurus come and go. Perhaps a primary reason for this spread of alternative spirituality and a key to unlocking much of this puzzle for us is our means of communication today. Cultural shifts do not happen in one giant step.

  • How is it that a culture that once frowned upon certain sexual practices now frowns upon those who frown upon them?
  • How is it that from the normal use of language in public broadcasting and in public discourse, so well tempered that even mild deviations were viewed as serious infractions, we now experience on a daily basis entertainment that has moved from the genius of humor to the crassness of shock and vulgarity?
  • Why is it that the more perverse the story, the greater the audience it draws on television or at the theater?
  • Why do people create false scenarios in order to have their own ‘reality’ shows?
  • Who are these icons created by the media of the visual whose belief in some form of spirituality seems real, even if they are made-up for the sell?

Has all this happened because our taboos were wrong or is it that, in a very real sense, we have pushed the Replay button on the saga of Eden and can now look, touch, and taste anything we wish to because we have become gods, determining for ourselves what is right and what is wrong?” (pp. XIII-XIV)

 

December 27, 2011

So How Would You Respond?

First, someone who subscribes to some faith-focused view of things decided that this was an appropriate response to atheism:

But then, as often happens in these situations, someone subscribing to atheism decided to fire back across the bow with this:

At this, the majority of Christ-following blog readers here are expected to be offended.  However, for some reason, I’m not.  I rather like the rather quaint way of putting the story because it highlights that this is indeed a story of “foolish things that confound the wise.”

Cosmic?  Yes, in the sense of ‘out of this world.’  In fact, I would think it very important to begin the story with the premise that the intersection of God and mankind is very much the intersection of different dimensions.

Jewish?  Yes.  Christianity is birthed out of and is very much the fulfillment of the promise given to Abraham, even the promise given to Adam.

Zombie?  Well, that’s a little extreme, but it fits.  Personally, I always viewed Zombie-ism as a kinda a lifestyle thing, so for me it could describe both Jesus and John the Baptist in their respective wilderness days.

Live forever?  Indeed!  Eternal life starts now.

Eat his flesh?  No self-respecting Christian I know has ever denied that this is a “Top 5” entry in the category, “Hard Sayings of the Gospel.”   But non-Catholics would say the language is figurative inasmuch as we partake of his sufferings on the cross; Catholics would claim a more literal experience of actually eating his flesh.

Telepathically tell him you accept him?  I’d say the person who wrote this has a better understanding of the gospel than the average church-attender, because at least he/she grasps that the centrality of crossing the line of faith has more to do with an act of believing faith than it does with trying to earn acceptance on the basis of helping little old ladies across the street.  Apologies to elderly females reading this.

…As your master?  Again, bullseye!  There are references in the New Testament to Jesus as Savior, but they outnumbered by references to Jesus as Lord by a ratio of 215:1.  Besides, if you’ve bought in to this point — if you’ve gotten past flesh-eating and zombies and telepathy — you probably feel you’re on to something that you’re going to dedicate yourself to, right?  In for a penny, in for a pound.

So he can remove an evil force?  Sorta.  The Apostle Paul acknowledged the ongoing presence of sin and temptation in the life of the Christ-follower.  I’d refine that one to read, “So he can give you the power to conquer an evil force” on the basis of the conviction that he already conquered it.

A rib woman was convinced by a talking snake…?  God created beings with totally free will including the ability to both reject his authority and to reject his love and desire for community with mankind.  But that had to both be tested out, and also be demonstrated for the man and woman to see for themselves.  There might be dozens of ways to do this, but if you’re looking for a good story, you really can’t make this stuff up. In the first chapter of The Jesus I Never Knew, Philip Yancey quotes Walter Wink as saying, “If Jesus had never lived, we never would have been able to invent him.”  That’s how I feel about this.

Makes perfect sense?  Depends to whom you’re speaking.  “The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.” II Cor. 4:4 (NIV) On the other hand, “But to all who believed him and accepted him, he gave the right to become children of God. ”  John 1:12 (NLT)

Thanks for reading today.  If you’ll excuse me now, I’ve got to spend some time in telepathic communication, and then me and the rib-woman are gonna have some breakfast.

July 3, 2010

When Scripture Becomes Conversation

Filed under: apologetics, cults — Tags: , , , , , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 8:13 am

About ten days ago I walked in a conversation one of my staff members was having with a member of the LDS or Mormon church.   We were quite busy and so I started dealing with her, leaving my staff member to deal with other customers.

She was hoping to find some LDS material from their in-house printing company, Deseret Publishing, and I gently explained why it is that you don’t see those materials in a Christian bookstore.

But once I’d drawn a few lines in the sand, she was comfortable staying as I was comfortable continuing the conversation.

The thing that impressed me was how — without citing chapter or verse — the scriptures of her faith flowed out of her conversationally.   I could tell when she quoting something versus when it was just her talking, though she didn’t make a big deal out of it.   Of course, I don’t know if she was quoting Doctrine and Covenants, or Pearl of Great Price, or The Book of Mormon; while conversely, she was impressed that I could name those books off the top of my head.

I don’t know how many quotations our conversation contained.   I was able to spot two or three but there may have been more.    It was natural, effortless.   Biblical quotations flow from me just as easily — either quoted or instantly paraphrased — though I wasn’t trying to match her line for line, as it wasn’t that type of discussion.  But maybe that’s why I recognized what was going on at her end.

She remained convinced that I would be won over if I would simply sit down and read The Book of Mormon, though she failed several times to truly hear me when I said that I do, in fact, actually own one and have read large sections of it.

I’m reminded again of two quotations:

Of all the major religions in the world, Christians are least acquainted with their own scriptures.

And this one:

A faith community that does not impart its sacred writings to its young people is one generation away from extinction.

Sorry, I don’t have the sources on those at hand.  But obviously, either my LDS friend, or whoever has been mentoring her, gets it.

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