Monthly Archives: February 2009

Trading In My Cape

A friend Howard Parrish sent me a very kind note in which he wrote from his own personal experience with ministry burn out, “As you may be experiencing now, I have experiences and still-painful memories of taking on more than my human self could handle, and believing that God would instantly transform me into whatever Superman was required to meet the challenge.”  I did not realize that I had taken up a cape and assumed a Superwoman persona but in this season when my super powers seem to be failing me I realize that I have denied my own humanity.  Wayne Cordeiro in the first line of his book “Leading on Empty” writes; “We do not forget we are Christians.  We forget we are human, and that one oversight alone can debilitate the potential of our future.”

I think my current unhealthy state was brought on by the challenges of this past fall with my daughter’s illness, surgery, hospitalization and recovery, my only two staff members being out with their own personal battles on top of a move to a new facility, hiring 17 people, firing 3 people, and coordinating a merger and total restructure of Embrace.  Then I cracked my ribs in January and I could no longer walk and much of my prayer life is linked to my walking. Through all this, I just kept pushing forward, running on nothing but adrenaline.  I would sleep on a chair in the hospital, then come to work and spend all day training new team members, preparing for our move, supervising the operation of the furniture bank, then return to the hospital to be with my daughter.  Cordeiro writes “Should you continue to run on adrenaline it will destroy your system.  You will burn out on the inside sooner than you’re able to see on the outside.  The fuel of adrenaline that keeps your engines running in the beginning will turn on you and destroy you in the end.”

I think as Christians we look at Paul’s words spoken to the Philippians in Phil 4:13 “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” and think that this means we can do anything we set our mind to.  However if you read this passage in its context what Paul is saying is that he has been able to endure suffering because Christ strengthened him.  The full passage reads “I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do everything through him who gives me strength.”  So often Christians pull this passage out of context and use it to fuel this superhuman understanding of what it is to be a Christian and I think us pastor types are the worst offenders.

While during this extreme season of stress, I know I pushed my body too hard and set expectations for myself that were unreasonable, I think there are a number of other contributing factors that added to my current state.  The most significant being a loss of my sense of call.  Since the merger in September, my sole focus has been on building the furniture bank and transitional employment components of the newly formed CARITAS Works.  While both of these programs meet a significant need within the homeless services system, neither reflect the sense of call that lead me to start Embrace in the first place.   My spirit is filled when I am operating out of my call and not out of a sense of obligation. 

I know if I am going to get back to a place of balance, I have to rediscover my call and make changes that allow me to get back on the right track.  Cordeiro writes “Sometimes we get so busy rowing the boat that we do not take time to stop and see where we are going…or what we are becoming.” 

This is where I am going to focus my efforts in the coming weeks or however long it takes me to gain the clarity I need to move forward.  In the past, it has helped for me to write about the insights that I am gaining when I am seeking to discern God’s leading.  If you care to follow me on this journey, I will be sharing insights as I am able on this site.

Many of my friends have written and called to encourage me on this journey and the one thread that I have heard in all their words of encouragement is this; “God is preparing you for something.  You have to go through this in order to move to the next level of what God has for you.”    Cordeiro’s book echoes my friend’s insights.  He writes “God’s ways are certainly not our ways, and all too often before the truth sets you free, it will make you miserable.  We dare not conclude that what we are going through lacks the Devine touch simply because it entered our life without our permission.  Faith is living in advance what we will only understand in reverse.”

Thank you all for your prayers and support.  I do believe this season is just a part of the journey and that in the end the journey is the destination.  One passage of scripture that has always comforted me when I cannot see where I am going is Jeremiah 29:11 “For I know the plans I have for you declares the Lord, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”

Thank you all for your continued prayers. 

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A Closet Franciscan

I have always loved St. Francis and a few years ago I met my first “Secular Franciscan”.  She is a woman who runs a home for people with Aids in Camden New Jersey.  She was bubbly and alive in the midst of tremendous suffering and pain.  I could see she was a woman of deep devotion and she loved her people deeply.  For her they had become true family.  She truly embodied the values of the Order of Secular Franciscan’s.

This weekend while reading the book “Leading on Empty” by Wayne Cordeiro, I ran across this prayer written by the ancient Franciscans which I absolutely love.

“May God bless you and discomfort you at easy answers, hard hearts, half-truths, and superficial relationships. So that you may live from deep within your heart where God’s Spirit dwells. 

May God bless you with tears to shed for those who suffer from pain, rejection, starvation, and war, so that you may reach out your hand and comfort them and turn their pain to joy.

And may God bless you with enough foolishness to believe that you can make a difference in this world and in your neighborhood, so that you will courageously try what you don’t think you can do, but in Jesus Christ you’ll have the strength necessary to do. 

May God bless you so that you remember we are all called to continue God’s redemptive work of love and healing in God’s place, in and through God’s name, in God’s Spirit, continually creating and breathing new life and grace into everything and everyone we touch.”

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Count It All Joy

 

If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing. 1 Corinthians 13:3

In the past three years I have been lied to, my name slandered, and robbed by more people than I can count. The most destructive crimes were committed by those I trusted the most.   I find myself at a very unhealthy place.  I am jaded, burned out, angry and fearful of those I was called to care for.  I have forgotten why I started doing this in the first place.  I find myself isolating and self protecting, unwilling to risk and unwilling to care.

I realized this week just how broken I am.  I realized that I no longer know the stories of those who enter our doors and even more sadly, that I do not care.  I feel so incapable of helping, so unprepared for this call.  Despite all the prayers I have prayed, all the time spent encouraging and loving those that have come and gone before, many are no better off than the day I met them.  Many are still caught in addiction or trapped in self destructive lifestyles.  I have sacrificed time with my family, our financial well-being, and my emotional health and now wonder why. 

In September, CARITAS absorbed the furniture bank component of Embrace and hired me to run it.  For the first time in more than eight years, I was actually being paid for my efforts.  I spent the past four months since the merger perfecting my managerial skills and focusing on building an organization.  I decided I would be a better manager than a minister and that was what everyone seemed to want from me.  So I established some new boundaries, emotionally distanced myself from everyone, and focused on those things that “I” have control over such as the systems for furniture distribution and the processes for doing aftercare.  

However, the past anger and disappointment is still festering just below the surface and I find myself lonely, isolated, and in a constant state of fear, just waiting for the next disaster or disappointment.  I thought what I needed was protection from the storms that are a natural part of this kind of ministry, but what I need is the grace to stand firmly in the midst of the storm. 

God placed a very wise woman by the name of Martha in my life.  She is involved in a similar ministry to people whom the world has beaten up and abused; people like those who have hurt me.  Martha too has endured the pain of unspeakable persecution at the hand of those she is called to care for; things far worse than I have had to endure.

A few weeks ago, at the height of my pity party, I went to see Martha and shared my desire to escape.  Martha said to me “God has you in this fiery furnace for a reason and won’t let you out until you are purified.  God has a lesson for you to learn and until you learn it you will stay in the furnace.”  I have been pondering Martha’s comments for weeks. 

I have come to realize that I have been heading in the wrong direction.  My natural answer to pain was “avoid it”, cut myself off from the source of pain, isolate and hide so that I won’t get hurt.  I realized this week just how unhealthy that approach was making me.  When I cut myself off from all possible sources of pain, I also cut myself off from the joy and I forget that despite the many failures I have endured; there have also been some astounding moments of grace; moments when I have seen God move in small but powerful ways. 

I am convinced the way back to health and wholeness for me is to stop fearing and simply start loving again.   I need to focus on growing in faith and stop living out of fear.   I need to remember that in the end, it is not about success but faithfulness. And I need to trust that God is in it all, the good and the bad.

During my visit with Martha she suggested I read the words of the Apostle Paul in 2 Corinthians 12:7-12

 “To keep me from becoming conceited because of these surpassingly great revelations, there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”

My friend Martha urged me to “count it all joy”; I know there is great wisdom in these words.  I wish I could say I am there, but of course I have only just begun to understand this mystery.  I am just beginning to understand the power of Christ love to bind up my broken heart and just learning how in my weakness Christ can make me strong.   I pray someday I will be able to say “I count it all joy” because I will have loved much.  I have a long journey ahead, but it feels good to at least know how to find the door out of this furnace.  Thanks Martha for your words of wisdom!

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The Gift of Lonely Places

“But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed. “ This passage from Luke 5:16 is one of many that tell of Jesus habit of seeking solitude in the wilderness.  Throughout the ages, Christians have heard and responded to the call to withdraw.  The dessert mothers and fathers, lived lives separated from the world in communion with God through nature some living in small huts alone in desolate places and others isolated in cloistered communities; all seeking the same thing, a deeper connection with their creator.  A connection that is stronger and more powerful when we cut ourselves off from the demands of this world and unplug ourselves from one another and immerse ourselves in creation. 

Some do this through a daily practice of contemplative prayer and can find that place of inner peace amidst the trappings of their life.  Some have a special corner, a chair, or quite literally a prayer closet.   I myself find prayer in my home challenging.  For me, I must literally “withdraw to a lonely place.”  On a daily basis that lonely place is a dock overlooking a lake near my house.  However, the connection to God at that place is often spotty with the interference of the daily stresses of life muffling my hearing and blurring my vision. 

Thankfully, I have another lonely place, far away from the world where there is always a clear connection and where I have never failed to hear from God.   That lonely place is a 22 acre ridge overlooking a small creek and pasture an hour away from my home.  From my tiny little cabin perched upon the top of the ridge,  I can hear the creek babble, the flocks of birds calling, and the rustling of the leaves in the tall hardwood trees of south central Virginia.  In between the melodious birds and gusts of wind that rustle the leaves, there are times, when I hear nothing at all.  In the dead of winter when the leaves have all fallen and the animals are sleeping, there is an eerie stillness that beckons all to be still. 

That is where I am today, perched atop my ridge, enjoying my magnificent view staring out at a world that has come to a screeching halt, a creation that has withdrawn and is waiting to be reborn again in just a few short months.  Soon, the grass will turn green; my view will disappear behind the growth of the forest that separates me from the now partially frozen creek. 

In it’s current state of nakedness and barrenness, this place reminds me of how life’s seasons are often short and fleeting but with each new season comes new gifts and new challenges.  With spring will come the flowers and the butterflies and with summer the black berries and the kids swimming in the creek and then fall will rush in with its magnificent color.  I love every season but am always waiting in anticipation for the one to come next.

Through the fall, Embrace was in a strange season, we have been dropping our leaves so to speak; letting go of branches in the hopes that we might grow in a different direction and in the hopes of reaching new heights.  I personally have had to go through some pruning; letting go of things that I know I am not called to do.  The letting go has been hard and painful and I have been very disappointed in my own inability to “do it all”.  In trying to hold it all together, I have reached a point of exhaustion and have felt like I am drowning. 

However, this week was a turning point; this week I was able to sit with someone much better equipped than I who will take on some of the branches of our ministry; someone much more called to those branches than I and someone whom I deeply love, respect and trust to carry those branches from here.  I do not know how long God will allow this person to be a part of our ministry team, but I know if I am to grow to become the person God has called me to become, I need to let go and there is no one whom I would rather hand my baby over to. 

Today I sit in this place feeling lighter and more hopeful than I have been in years.  Like these trees that stand before me stripped of their foliage, I can come to God today having let go of everything and in anticipation of the movement of the spirit that I know will cloth me anew with freshness and brilliant new color for a new season.

What will this new season bring?  I have no idea, but I know it will require me to grow and find the courage to try new things.  I just celebrated my 42nd birthday and I am finding growth and change to be more difficult than they used to be.  However, as challenging as this new spring season will be, I know it is nothing compared to the pain of the season of release. 

We all go through seasons of release.  For those of you who are parents of teens, you know the pain of this season all too well.  For those of you who have had to remove yourself from toxic relationships, you know this pain of separation.  I know during this difficult time many people are being forced to let go of their businessess, employment and economic stability.  And there are those of you who like me have seen your life’s work blossom and grow to the point that it has outgrown you and in order for it to continue to grow you must let it go.  No matter what you are letting go of, the pain is inescapable.  However, as I sit allowing God’s creation to teach me, the wisdom of these ancient lofty barren trees reminds me that a new season is on the way, and if we persevere, we too will receive the beautiful gifts of springtime.

I pray you all find time this week to withdraw to a lonely place and allow it to impart its gift to you.

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It’s Good to be Me; Lessons I learned from Rudy Green

In the fall of 2008, Embrace Richmond received an AmeriCorps grant which we have used to hire a number of homeless and formerly homeless men and women.  Many of these individuals are graduates from The Healing Place a 198 bed residential recovery program based on the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous.   Rudy Green was among the first group of men we hired from The Healing Place. 

I remember the day I first met Rudy, his large sensitive eyes revealed a depth to Rudy that I doubt anyone will ever fully understand.   As a child Rudy was bright, he showed great potential.  Growing up in the projects where less than 50% of students graduate from high school, Rudy beat the odds.  He went on to college and his entire family believed he would be the one; the one to escape the generations of poverty that had held his family back from living the American dream.

Though Rudy escaped the outward indications of bondage, he had been infected with a deadly disease that steals far too many promising lives; the disease of addiction.  Rudy will tell you that he was addicted to everything;  drugs, money, guns, alcohol, girls, and anything else that helped him feel alive and on top.  He was smarter than the rest, he kept his disease under control for years. 

After six months of college Rudy dropped out and eventually joined the army.  He found himself stationed in Fort Hood, Texas, just a few miles from my hometown, of Lampasas.  I remember growing up that we were warned to stay away from Fort Hood, that it was a dangerous place.  I was warned never to go near people like Rudy and for good reason.  It was at this time in his life that Rudy’s drug use got totally out of control and he found himself being dishonorably discharged from the military. 

Rudy’s story gets a little fuzzy at this point.  He spent time in jail and somehow made his way back to Richmond, Virginia where he had grown up.  He found himself homeless, friendless and penniless.  The bright boy with a bright future found himself living in an abandoned building, begging for change on the street corner, and living day to day for the next fix.  Most “Rudy’s” never make it past this point; most die on the street.  But somehow, for some reason, Rudy found his way to The Healing Place.  He went there first to get out of the cold but was drawn into the program by those who had gone before him and who professed to have made it out.

Upon graduating from The Healing Place, Rudy choose to stay for six months and serve as a peer mentor.  He gained a reputation for being an honest trustworthy friend to all and this is where I met him.  His sad eyes revealed the depth of the hell he had survived but also held a glimmer of hope that was captivating. 

When I asked Rudy what he wanted to do with his life he answered “I just want to help people.”  For those of you who know the story of how Embrace started, you will recognize those words.  Those were the words spoken by a homeless heroin addict five years ago that drew me into this ministry.  My primary calling is that of a dream releaser; helping people find their calling in life and live it.  I could see so much potential in Rudy but had no idea where it would lead.

In the early months of his time with us, Rudy served in our warehouse.  On his spiritual gifts inventory Rudy scored high in the area of leadership.  However, it soon became evident that years of surviving on the street had undermined Rudy’s ability to supervise his peers.  There was some kind of secret code of honor that I found puzzling at first.  When given responsibility, most of my guys did not want it.  One of my men finally confessed “I just want you to tell me what to do; I don’t want to tell other people what to do.”  I caught me completely off guard.  I have always worked with professionals who were programmed to climb the corporate latter; gain responsibility and move up in life.  But I found many of my Healing Place friends, simply lacked that drive.  There was a contentment that I still so not understand; contentment with being told what to do, when to do it and how to do it.  While Rudy suffered from the “I don’t want to tell others what to do”, he was not content just taking orders.  Deep down I could sense he had dreams, he wanted more out of life but for months we struggled with one another.  Rudy seemed to be just existing, floating through his time with us and after trying multiple roles and having the same outcome, I was ready to give up.

One fateful day, we had a group of youth come to serve at Embrace from my daughters High School.  I asked Rudy to share his story and I watch as he captivated the attention of over 50 students who were enthralled with his subtle way.  Rudy’s gentle voice and calm demeanor lulled them into thinking he was just an ordinary man, but when he shared his extraordinary journey to the depths of depravity and back, I could see he made a connection that few could have made.  In those moments of sharing, I saw Rudy come alive.  A week later the youth form Monacan High School, made cards for Rudy and Tom, the other member who shared, expressing their heartfelt gratitude for having heard their stories.  I remember one said “Rudy is the Bomb”, which made us all smile.  All the cards contained honest reflections on what they had gained from their encounter with Rudy and Tom.  Rudy took those cards home and over the months has spent time reading them and reflecting on that experience.

I decided to have Rudy act as a guide for our Unity-Works training sessions and found that he had the same impact on adults.  Rudy has a way of sharing himself that brings others into his story, leads them to new insights, and transforms their minds.   I tend to be a bit loud, excited and passionate about what God has done through Embrace.  That passion can move a crowd to action but I watched as Rudy’s gentle way of sharing himself lead the group not to action but to new insight and understanding which ultimately prepared them for thoughtful action.

One of the projects toward the end of Unity-Works is to draw a picture of what you would do for God if you knew you would not fail.  Rudy drew a picture of himself teaching and leading youth.   Rudy had finally found his call.  On his picture he wrote the words “Every ending has a beginning” and he remembered that bright young boy who could have done so much but who lost his way due to drugs and alcohol.  Rudy’s dream is to help that boy avoid the things that led him astray; to guide the next generation to a better future.  As Rudy shared his dream, I felt as though the heavens had opened up and spoken to Rudy with such clarity. 

For months I had watch Rudy float through life, doing what he was told, but never finding his place.  A few weeks after he revealed his picture of working with youth, we were doing morning reflection and Rudy shared a story of how he had introduced his 12 year old nephew to the drug trade.  He shared the guilt he felt over having used this innocent child to further his own selfish gain, and how he so wanted to make amends not only to this young man but for all who could follow in his footsteps.  It was a solemn offering and we could all see the pain he carried.

I began reaching out to ministries that I am aware of who work with at-risk boys and began talking with Rudy about his future and his dream and God began to confirm that dream in Rudy’s heart and mind.  This week, I heard Rudy say something I have heard him say many times before but this time, he said it with a new conviction; this week Rudy proclaimed with boldness “It’s good to be me.”

So what did I learn from Rudy?  I learned that we must be true to ourselves.  For months, I have been trying to be something I am not; I am not a business manager of a furniture bank.  I am a minister.  While Rudy was floating on a river of discontentment; I have been paddling with all my might up stream, trying to save a sinking ship; a ship that needs a real captain.  While I am busy bailing water, a true leader could help this ship navigate to calmer waters and could steer the furniture bank onto a new course.  I have tried to be something I am not and I have made myself and everyone around me miserable.  I have worked harder in the past few months than I ever have in my life but we are still taking on water.   It is time for me to turn this boat over to a more capable seaman and go back to what I do best; helping “Rudy’s” follow their dreams.   When I am doing that, I too can say with confidence “It’s good to be me!”

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Max and Me; Lessons I Learned from My Dog

A month ago, I was walking my 150 pound Bernese Mountain Dog, Max.  Generally speaking Max is a mild mannered, gentle giant.   That is except when he sees other dogs.  Max and I have been working on proper edict while walking past other dogs and he was getting much better.  Usually when I see another dog coming, I pull Max’s retractable leash in and I get between Max and the on-coming animal and prevent him from crossing in front of me and interacting with the other dog. 

Unfortunately, the other day, I had my MP3 player out and was searching for music and did not notice that there was a group of dog walkers coming down the hill.  Suddenly Max took off. Since I had not pulled the leash in, he gained some momentum and he pulled me over and I landed on my right side cracking two of my ribs. 

For the past month, I have not been able to walk Max without experiencing pain.  Yesterday, I decided to push past the pain and walk Max and as I did I tried to figure out what lesson God might want me to learn from this whole experience.

Is the lesson that I should not listen to music while walking Max? I reminded myself that the main reason I walk is to relax and gain perspective and as I listen to Christian artists, they generally help me find that perspective.  I have been walking and listening to contemporary Christian music for over 20 years, long before Max came along.  The music has always been a central element my walking experience and often turns what some would see as a simple form of exercise into a worship experience. 

Another alternative would be to keep Max on a short leash at all times and not allow him to explore his surroundings as we walk.  While this would likely solve the problem, I know from experience, it would result in him constantly pulling me which would make the walk unpleasant for both him and me. 

Some might suggest that I simply take the leash off Max and let him go where he pleases.  While both Max and I might find this option the most pleasurable for us, my neighbors and fellow dog walkers would not be so thrilled with this option.  Max has a tendency to jump on people and knock over small children.  He would also cause other animals to pull on their masters which would likely result in injury to others.

The option I choose yesterday was to attempt to train Max not to take off after other dogs.  We have a training collar that administers sudden shocks when I press a red button but only a warning sound when I press a green button.  It only took one touch of the red button to convince Max to stay in line. While this method worked well during our walk yesterday, I was hyper vigilant in watching out for on coming dogs and really did not enjoy the walk.  The ache in my ribs combined with the constant fear of being injured, was not conducive to a pleasant experience let alone a worshipful one. I think Max felt the same way.  While he was obedient, he was not as spirited and just seemed to go through the motions without the joy.   So what is a girl with a monstrous dog to do?

Some would say “Don’t walk the dog.”  While this sounds like a reasonable response considering that my walks are more about my own health than about the dogs, I have gotten somewhat attached to his companionship and something would be missing if I headed out without him.  His sad puppy dog eyes staring at me as I left him in the back yard would result in an immense level of guilt which would spoil my walking experience.

There is one final option.  Have someone else walk with me and Max.  If there were two of us, I could relax knowing that if he took off again, there would be someone there to help keep me up right and perhaps the person walking with me could take the leash when I wanted to change my music. 

As I prayed and walked yesterday, I realized that God was trying to use my fall to teach me about something far more important than my dog.  Embrace Richmond is like my walks, it started as a personal desire to grow in my faith, it grew into a ministry and has become my passion.  One element of Embrace is a furniture bank which has become much like Max.  It grew way to fast, takes up a ton of my energy trying to keep it moving in the right direction, and it inflicts pain on a regular basis.  It does not mean to, it just is too big and I do not have the time to properly train it.  It needs someone to gently teach it but all I have time for is the shock collar method.

I have three choices; One, I could close it down; two, I could expend more energy trying to run it on a tighter leash; or three, I can invite someone else to take control so that I can focus on the elements that are more central to Embrace, the elements that like my music during my walks, feed my spirit. 

I have chosen option three.  I have decided we need to hire a Director for The Community Sharehouse, Virginia’s only furniture bank.  It is not that the furniture bank is bad; like Max it has a good soul.  It is simply too big for me and as much as I have prayed for the strength to continue on, I feel God saying it’s time to let go.  My spiritual ribs have been cracked and the constant pulling and tugging on me is preventing them from healing.  I need someone else to take the lead from me.

What does this mean for me?  It means that I am going to focus more on developing the spiritual elements of Embrace and will be hiring someone to focus on the business elements of CARITAS Works, the entity that now houses the furniture bank.  It means that for a while, both agencies will experience even tighter financial constraints as we take on the additional cost of a director.  Long term I am not sure what role I will play at CARITAS Works.  All I know is that I have to have time to enjoy the music or I will only feel the pain.  I know keeping things the way they are is not healthy for me, Max, Embrace or CARITAS Works.

Some might find it strange to look for a lesson in cracked ribs but generally speaking God always uses pain to teach me.  I don’t think that God chooses to inflict pain upon me, I think it is more the result of me not listening and seeking answers until the pain becomes unbearable.  I really wish I were not so stubborn but like Max I need a short leash and a shock every now and then to stay on the right path.

What pain are you trying to understand in you life?  If you listen closely, you just might find the answers you seek.

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