I do not always like conversations about the Church. It invariably becomes problematic. The Orthodox sound unbelievably hauty in our description of the Church, others are driven to defensive positions, and on it goes.
When we look across the Christian scene, however, we should be accurate in what we see: failure. Not by counting numbers (they may tell us very little), but by how well Christians in fact show forth the faith that is within them. That the Church is a mess is a good description of history. The Catholic Church says one thing, but has a hard time finding a parish that actually believes and practices the magisterium of the faith. Protestants have launched into a sea of splintering that can only be justified by positing a deficient ecclesiology. The Orthodox, despite the accuracy of their historical claims, remain in the backwash of collapsing empires (both the Byzantine and the Russian).
Having offered a quick but depressing overview of the Church (which I could expand in any number of directions), let me be quick to say that there is something for us to understand other than how badly we’ve done with what Christ has given us. I believe the “failure” of the Church is itself a revelation: the failure of the Church is the result of man’s efforts to do what he cannot do. The failure of the Church, to put it clearly, is a result of works – a triumph of flesh over Grace.
In earlier postings on the “ecclesiology of the Cross” I have argued that the Church can only be the Church if it embraces the emptiness and self-offering of the Cross. I stated there and believe that the ecclesiology of the Orthodox Church presumes this inherent weakness and that whenever we resist the self-offering of the Cross, Orthodoxy gets messier and messier.
I would extend this to the entire Christian world (since the Cross certainly extends that far). I believe the claims of the Orthodox faith. But having said that, I also believe that there are many faithful Christians who are not Orthodox but whose Churches have in no way escaped the failure that has encompassed us all.
This is not an argument that says, “We’re all messed up, do the best you can,” though sometimes that is a temptation. But it is a call to look at failure for what it is and not be afraid to call it by its name. There will be failure in all Christian lives whenever we seek to live apart from Grace.
Promised definition: Grace is nothing other than the very Life of God. Only His life dwelling in us and doing in us what we cannot do will save us. That’s the simple truth, and the right reading of Grace in the Scriptures.
If we use the Church as a Bible (St. Paul called us “his epistle written in the heart”) then we have to say the message is garbled and in need of correction. I am the last person to call for Reformation of the Church (we’ve had too much already). It’s not reformation that the Church needs. It’s the reformation of Christians that is sorely lacking.
My own life, as I examine it daily, is wracked with failure. Anyone who makes confession in any frequent fashion will have to agree with me and say that their own life is no better. But the Gospel to us and to the Church is that God has come to redeem our failure. It is not the Reformation that needs justification, it’s our justifications that need reformation.
Nearly 10 years ago I entered the Orthodox Church after having been an Episcopal priest for 17 years. I had invested my life in what was a failure and an increasingly worse failure. I did not become Orthodox in order to escape failure – but in order to heal the failure that was me and to share in Christ’s healing of the whole human failure. I did not then think that Orthodoxy had somehow escaped the failure that had overtaken us all – but rather that it still taught the fullness of the medicine of immortality – Christ’s own remedy for the failure that has infected our race, and that its sacraments and way of life were indeed that medicine. I still believe that and moreso. But when we say that the Church is a hospital, we are confessing that Christ is the Great Physician and that all the rest of us are patients (priests included).
I do not confess the failure of the Church with sadness, but with frankness, because unless I confess this fact, I will delude myself into some sort of religious madness and begin to think myself a physician instead of a patient. It’s a dangerous thing to put the patients in charge of the asylum.
Thus, as one madman to another, I invite you into the honest conversation of our failure. I believe I have seen the cure, but I don’t think I’m cured.
Thanks for your insight. I am a member of the Anglican Church in Australia, and I imagine the condition of the church is similar to the Episcopalian. My own thoughts lately have been for the Kingdom, and the church sponsored delusion that the church is equivalent to the kingdom.
I was working on something completely unrelated to your post earlier today when I decided that I’d dig into 1 Corinthians 12. Whenever I really want to wrestle with the word, I try to write my own paraphrase translation. Please don’t take this as anything other than an exercise, but I thought I’d offer it to you:
There are unseemly parts of the body, but we are modest about them because they are precious to us. We are not modest about them because we are ashamed of them, but to honor them. We have been made dependent on these unseemly parts, so that we cannot deny that we are one.
Most of all that God intended the parts to be as they are.
The Church is Kingdom – in the sense of a realized Eschatology. The Liturgy (St. John Chrysostom) begins: “Blessed is the Kingdom…” because it is truly in the Kingdom that we celebrate the liturgy. But to equate the institution, per se, with the Kingdom is probably very descriptive of the works of man, though not of God. The Kingdom is better than that.
I was directed here by a comment a friend made elsewhere…
I would concur with your thoughts. I’ve been tremendously burdened with the brokennes and sorry witness the Church exhibits in Her disunity and lovelessness. I feel as if I’m beating my head against the wall trying to engage Anglicans in a way that will make them pause and reexamine their inherited Protestant presuppositions in the wake of the collapse of the Anglican Communion ™.
How long, O Lord?
Br. Dominic-Michael OHS
The kingdom, for us, is Christ, and the citizens of that kingdom are those called out (the spiritual church) to serve Christ.
Whether that can be achieved within the ‘set in concrete ‘, structures of the church as it has become, is a challenge for each individual who believes that they serve Christ.
And those who think that they do will have no criticism for those who serve in different ways, because the unity of Christ in the cause of the poor and needy travels many different roads as it responds to the love of God.
In the two-story world that I once lived in I accepted the fact that I was a sinner and that my simple faith saved me and that was that. Then I became frustrated knowing in my heart that I had a faith and salvation but that I wasn’t changing really. Any change seemed only topical and definitely on my own terms as to what “I” thought God wanted from me. What arrogance on my part! I could interpret scripture any way that suited my need at the time. The Orthodox church helped me to face my miserableness head on, to be accountable for it, and to “work” on the cure that the church offers me. I understand that it is a moment by moment struggle full of choices towards the cure or not. Thanks be to God that He set His church up this way to lovingly offer the true healing we all strive for.
I understand what you’re saying, but many of your ideas are foreign to me. We can attain the kingdom because it’s a gift. I don’t know what a spiritual church would mean because I don’t know what an unspiritual church would mean. See my articles on Christianity in a one storey universe and you’ll see, perhaps what I mean.
Serving in different ways is obvious (1 Cor 12) but is not what denominationalism is about. God did not create denominations – they are the fabrications of man. God does give us different gifts and different ways to serve, but that is (or at least was) in the one Church. Nor should denominationalism be confused with some notion of diversity. Denominationalism is the result of sin, not the Holy Spirit. I didn’t create it, and you didn’t create it, we inherited it, but we dare not justify it anymore than we should seek to justify Eve’s actions in the Garden. Denominationalism is a massive failure. That is a place for real conversation to begin.
But using words like unity and spiritual to get around the reality of how we really are doesn’t make the situation different. It just creates a second storey language in which we can imagine ourselves to be doing something other than what we are.
I would, by the way, not want to criticize anyone who is serving the poor, even if they’re doing it for something other than the name of Christ.
I agree with your *failure* words. it is depressing. horribly so. but it is we, the people, that as you say, have failed.
Throughout history , man (speaking of all mankind here, not just *men*) has taken what is given and warped , deformed, desecrated and destroyed (war, death, murder, bombings). the Church has always , it seems, been in this selfish path. Yes, it is We who always think we know what is right and we act on it. Something it has made beautiful things and works, but eventually it all becomes self serving. We invite hostility , we demarcate our borders with invisible lines and say that we are the Chosen people. (America). The City on the Hill.
The Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church set up their demarcated zones and declared , We are Better, this is the way, (and perhaps it is the Way, but it is a crooked path to tread) This is the world God made for us. We abuse it with amazing speed and then act confused when things begin to crumble. Man is the King of Justification. The Catholic Church justifies everything because of the Pope, Peter , the rock.
And so on, the point is, i can sit here and be angry and depressed and what not, but it all comes back to *me* and my own failures. I have been lost in spiritual limbo for about ten years (after leaving Oak Ridge TN….) and ultimately decided to do things my way, and i justified every piece of it. So, why am i so spiritually bankrupt. I don’t know. But i can’t sit and point out what is wrong with every other church , denomination, ecclesiology, proof , etc…
I have to remember that it starts with me, and Christ with me. I am one brick , so it starts with me , as with you. I must pray to be more Christ like, yes the Imitation of Christ…and listen to what the Holy Spirit is telling me. I have been shown bits and pieces, the rest i search for, hopefully with a humble heart and a giving hand. If i don’t start there, i have nothing.
wow. i am rambling. and i think i confused myself with my words….: )
I’ve been hesitating to write this, but thought this posting would be a good opportunity to share something I find troubling about the Orthodox Church. I’ve been an inquirer for nearly two years and like to think of myself as a truth-seeker, so I apologize in advance to anyone who may find my comments to be offensive.
This summer I spent two months in Ukraine, where I attended Orthodox services several times a week at some of the most beautiful cathedrals on earth. It was gratifying to see new churches being built throughout the region I traveled, and it was surprising to see so many young priests and young adults in attendance. The liturgies were indescribably beautiful.
Yet based on my observations and discussions with Orthodox and non-Orthdox, I must sadly conclude that the OC is failing in the heart of Slavic Orthodoxy when it comes to helping the poor. I’ve heard the excuse many times that everyone is poor in that part of the world and the church can’t begin to make an impact with such overwhelming need. Indeed one pious man explained to me that it wasn’t the church’s job to “reach out,” rather it existed to perform the rituals!
Having long been weary of evangelical Christianity, I really thought that my trip to Ukraine would provide the impetus for me to finally take steps to become Orthodox. But it was undeniable that it was the evangelicals of all stripes who are getting their hands dirty in Ukraine while the OC turns it head, and I’ve heard this is the case throughout Orthodox Eastern Europe.
For example, during one bad winter, the orphanage where my daughters were adopted from made a desperate appeal to all area churches for food. The only church that did not respond with food was the local Orthodox Church, which provided an icon instead!
As I said, new churches are being built all over the place, so pleading poverty is not an excuse. The street kids of Odessa hang out every day in a beautiful park surrounding the largest OC in town, but have to visit the evangelical ministry blocks away for food and shelter.
I know that someone will respond by defending the great sacrifices that Orthodox have made throughout the centuries and I acknowledged this while in Ukraine: http://gettingthegirls.blogspot.com/2007/06/eastern-orthodox-church.html
But I think it’s time that Orthodox come to realize how badly the OC is failing when it comes to reaching out to the poor, both in America and at least in the country I visited.
It will always be easy to make fun of evangelicals but if it wasn’t for them, many of Ukraine’s orphans would never be attended to by the church that is synonymous with its culture. As D.L. Moody once said, “I like the way I’m doing it, better than the way you’re not.”
In the Orthodox faith I found the true church and I found myself. Orthodoxy answered the important questions and forced me to not only take an honest inventory, but gave me guidance in discovering my own brokenness. Now I see the big picture and my place in it.
My thoughts on a ‘spiritual church’ are an attempt to separate Chukchi, meaning those called out, from the bricks and Mortar ‘church’ that the name seems to now define.
You say “I don’t know what a spiritual church would mean because I don’t know what an unspiritual church would mean.” and in that sense I entirely agree. Where I have questions is when the word ‘church’ is changed to mean a structure and a system. That does not seem, to me, to fit with Christ during his time on earth.
That’s all. Not an attempt to confuse, but rather a means of separating truth.
Can I ask you to put these few posts together in one page as you did with the one-storey universe, if its not too much trouble? My friends are probably all annoyed by my daily emails with links to your site (though I am certain they are appeased once they read your words!)
There is something, so far as I can tell, which seems peculiar concerning the ethos of failure in the Orthodox Church, though I do not know if I can describe it well.
One thinks of St. Nil Sorsky and St. Joseph Volotsky. They represented contrasting views regarding monasticism, the role of the Church in any number of affairs, the role of the State, the specific role of Russia in the world and the degree to which the Church should be concerned with such, and so on and so forth. In the world’s eyes we would see these men as enemies. They certainly contested against each other for a time. Yet the Church made them both saints. St. Joseph “won” the battle in their day over monastic possession of land. When one considers later Tsarist meddling in the affairs of the Church one might think that a St. Joseph would never have put up with it and would have had the Church politically and strategically prepared to combat such meddling. Sometimes God provides for the Church such pragmatic men to see to her interests. But other times He does not, or such men are unable to to anything pragmatic in a given situation. In the Gulag, it is St. Nil’s spirituality that came to the forefront, not much possessing to be had there. I think that neither St. Nil’s or St. Joseph’s “theory” was something which should be held up as absolutely right in all times and all places for the Church. In some senses, both of them were right and both of them were wrong. But somehow through the difficult and confusing time they lived in, even on opposing sides of a serious ecclesiastical debate, both men achieved sanctity. God found a way to lead both of them, in what we might think of as a messy situation, to holiness.
I also think of St. Cyril of Alexandria, who went with his uncle Patriarch Theopholis to the Synod of the Oak which wrongfully deposed St. John Chrysostom. Of course, Theopholis was the enemy of St. John. After Theopholis dies, St. Cyril was made Patriarch. Early in his career St. Cyril supported the deposition of St. John on disciplinary grounds but later in life he praised St. John for his sanctity. The Synod of the Oak was a complete farce which makes today’s Orthodox synodal squabbles look mature in comparison. Yet somehow, out of all this mess, the nephew of the culprit in the whole affair would inherit the Alexandrian Patriachate, witness against the lies of Nestorius, and achieve sanctity himself. St. Cyril would write that wonderful and oft talked about phrase – “the suffering of the impassible God” – so rich in meaning that it is too heavy for this mind to comprehend.
Orthodoxy is, by modern standards, a failure on many levels. Upon studying Orthodoxy one begins to see consistent patterns of failure. This is not remarkable, because they are pretty much the same patterns as one sees anywhere. What is remarkable is that these failures consistenty produce saints. Saints even come out of the most failing sides of the failures. In fact, part of the genius of the Church’s appropriation of failure is that, in the end, she so rarely takes sides. If recapitulation is the method of salvation, there are no sides. God acts to save St. Nil where he is at, God acts to save St. Joseph where he is at, God acts to save St. John, God acts to save St. Cyril. We know that none of these men holds a grudge now. There is such gross ugliness and banality and sometimes brutality to the failings seen within the Church, but the beauty of the cruciform Gospel which Orthodoxy teaches is that by this too will God save us. If we accept suffering with and through the failures as for our salvation.
Thank you. I was thinking (and still think) that I might have done a poor job of writing in this post. I mean to use the strong language of “failure” that we might embrace the cross and in so doing truly embrace the Church. I do believe that the cross invites us into weakness and failure tht the excellency might be of Christ. The discussion earlier had begun to drift, myself included, a little in the triumphaist direction and the only triumph that is of value is the cross. Thus failure.
Note to Jim: The Orthodox must do more, the OICC is beginning to do much more. But whether you like it or not, to compare evangelical to Orthodox is to compare the rich to the poor. Worldwide, resources for the Orthodox Church, on a per capita membership basis, are pretty third-world.
The Church is just now coming out of its most devestated period. And there have not even been temples to worship in (they were destoryed or otherwise abused). That the Orthodox would build a temple before doing almost anything else is not surprising – it’s not unlike the people of Jerusalem coming home from Babylon. Build the temple first (Hosea).
But the poor must be fed and the Church does know this and they will speak and act, I have no doubt. But if Orthodoxy is true then its true whether its members are doing anything or not.
Become Orthodox, move to the Ukraine, and help organize efforts to feed the poor. The OCMC will help you. Sounds exciting.
Thank you for this post Father.
Often Jim, and it is heartening to know that your trip to the Ukraine filled your heart and touched you in so many ways, often we compare and see the Orthodox Church as equal to the Roman Catholics or Protestants when we are not equal either numerically or financially and are spread out with no central way of helping.
In the United States there are many ways to help, the OCMC and IOCC being just two, check the blogroll of my blog for more…
As to a local OC in the Ukraine sending an icon, glory be to Jesus Christ, along with that icon came prayers! A local church is made up of the local community and these are not rich people by and large, they are also used to suffering in a way that Americans are not. Cultural differences can be difficult on the heart.
As this post is about failure, I would submit that, for some, the suffering of the poor is considered (and I want to say this the right way) a condition beyond understanding, a mystery of their salvation. Because our Lord said, the poor you have with you always. Its a condition of the fallen world. This doesn’t mean we do nothing about this, in fact, I submit, we are charged to do everything about this, because this is the gospel of love.
But we are all born into different conditions and we all come to different realizations of what is important in life.
How easy to point the finger at the Orthodox for their ethnic pride, contemplative monastacism, and more local charity efforts, etc. and say you people don’t do enough, when those who are not Christian point out that Christianity on the whole needs to get its act together.
This series of articles has helped to articulate, for me, why it isn’t necesary for Christianity to be “perfect” even though we are called to be so. For that I thank you Fr. Stephen.
Thank you, again, for your call to the Cross. Transformation in the lives of those who call themselves Christian, is what is needed. How can a “believer” partake of the divine mysteries and live their lives as an unchanged person is beyond my understanding. But it happens across the whole spectrum of Christianity.
My only recourse is to confess our (collective) failures and to pray for mercy, not only for all of us, but especially for myself. As we each travel the road of obedience and live ‘graced-lives’, may the life and light of Jesus reach to the darkness of our blindness.
Dear Father Stephen, bless.
Father Stephen, Owen, Jim, Leah, everyone – I am very grateful for your thought-provoking comments.
Jim, I think Leah is right on target with John 12:18 but I wanted to share one of my experiences with you also. Directly following Divine Liturgy one Sunday, a parishioner approached our parish council president, asking if there was anything our church could do to help a recent Ukrainian immigrant who was struggling financially. Our church president waved him away, snapping, “We’re not in the business of helping people!” For some reason, my knees literally buckled and I had to grab a chair and sit down.
We fail and fail and fail; and often, the juxtaposition of our failure with the evidence of God’s grace so near at hand, is shocking and hurtful.
Sometimes I feel a sense of the Kingdom of God during the Divine Liturgy and I want to hold onto it. I always pray fervently that the “whole day may be perfect, holy, peaceful and sinless …” It’s not unusual for me to have angry thoughts or express impatience with a child while driving home from church!
Jim, I believe that when it comes to charity, we can and must do more and better; but I am thankful that our humble successes and our failures too, are occurring in the Church as part of our struggle. — Martha
Very poignant and sad example. We don’t do enough in my parish, but we make a point to give outside ourselves as well as take care of our own needs. Not enough is done. We should be grateful for the kind help that is coming from others as well. There is so much to be done.
On the topic of helping the poor: our Orthodox parish has been planning to build for some time–it is sorely needed. We were going to go ahead, but realized that our parish was doing very little to help the poor in our community.
The building plans were put on hold (not canceled) and we first established a regular collection and distribution of funds to people & families in need. Our bishop has pointed out that the Church should not be constantly asking for handouts from the community–the Church should be *giving back* to the community, and so our parishes have followed suit.
Now we have regularized almsgiving and are proceeding to build; thank God!
The Orthodox can be insular and unconcerned, at times. But I wrote about at least one exception in my local church. Project Mexico can work wonders.
Thank you for your humility. I am one of those who has been hurt by the church’s “failure”. Those wounds run deep, but you have no idea what a difference it makes to hear someone admit, “Yes, we’ve messed up,” instead of being blamed for not being spiritually strong enough to overlook these failures. Your words may have opened the door to forgiveness.
“But whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to sin, it would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were drowned in the depth of the sea. Woe to the world because of offenses! For offenses must come, but woe to that man by whom the offense comes!” Matthew 18:6-7
Lord have mercy! Lord have mercy! Lord have mercy! Forgive us our sins and grant us Your compassion for all others. Brethren who have been made to stumble in your trust in God because of the poverty of our love, forgive us!
“Assuredly I say to you, inasmuch as you have done it to one of the least of these My brethren, you have done it to Me. . . . Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me.” Matthew 25:40, 45
when i think of the church as failure (specifically the orthodox church in america greek, russian, antiochian etc) i think of, jeez they have been in the united states for how long and they have no developed curriculum’s for k-12 education, or a curriculum for Catechesis, i cant tell you how many friends have gone to churches to become catechumens and the priest laugh and say we have never had one of these before so i really don’t know what to do as far as provide a direction of study, or the priest be ignorant of the backgrounds of any converts they may have even though they are serving as quasi missionaries in this land for their archdiocese , or how woefully ignorant most (some do a fair job) orthodox children are of the faith…. its like they (the orthodox church) ignores industry best practices as far as education, i grew up in the protestant church, as a child i memorized the Lords prayer as part of sunday school, learned the books of the bible, memorized scripture, we had wonderful sunday school curriculum that was everywhere, later when i worked as a methodist and lutheran music minister its always amazing to watch how they set about being good stewards of the intellectual capital that they have, even in the smallest churches, investing in the education of the people both young and adult………………….. in general i do not blame the priests…. they have not had this stuff modeled for them at seminary and they definitely do not get leadership in this direction from the bishops, i tell you what though if this was a company that judged the keeping of ones job with just a modicum of any type of job performance, i would fire a bunch of people, starting with some archbishops and metropolitans and working down…. it is disgusting the stuff i see, if they would ever give someone a fair conversation i wonder what excuse they would offer as to why the orthodox church is in such a sorry state here in the united states, and what is their game plan to fix it
I think the answer to some of your questions are that the Orthodox Church in this land is quite different historically and in other ways from other churches here and that it’s hard to compare. The Orthodox Church initially, despite its early mission work, was still very much geared towards serving an immigrant population, and then, of course, was devasted in its unity by the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia.
But for many groups, like the OCA, its members were poor and uneducated for ever so long. It’s priests were trained but mostly in a manner that fitted them for diaspora style ministry.
Many things have been maturing over the past generation, including curricula, and catechetical materials as well as increased awareness of mission.
I can think of no other group of Christians in America that have been receiving entire congregations as converts (Pastor, people and building). Thus it is obvious that some things are being done correctly.
I think you should re-read the article if you think there can be a “game-plan” to fix the Church. Protestant mainline denominations have all the sorts of material and programs you describe, but they have lost their way in following the doctrine of the faith.
It is the Church recognizing its weakness and failures that should make it turn more firmly to Christ who alone can give us the grace to become what we are called to be. The game-plan must be Christ’s, not man’s.
I absolutely agree with your statements, that is the correct way, however there are some practical steps i feel the church has not taken that are completely obvious steps to take….. for example if the goal is education, look at the people who do education best then adapt it and put your own material inside it, an adult education program is also important, i wonder if most parishioners had been educated if more of an outcry would have been made during that mass receiving as you put it. I have met so many great, i mean great orthodox christians both convert and cradle that truly seek Christ, but the church has not done enough to equip them, or help put them to use, sunday school at most orthodox churches is at best an afterthought, run over here for a 20 min lesson real quick while we wrap up liturgy, most the teachers are moms and dads who have hardly been equipped as teachers with knowledge such as (this is what to expect for this age group etc) in most churches in the protestant world after the paster a director of education is appointed/hired and that person is normally theologically trained and acts as a force multiplier if you will providing support and direction for the existing teachers by arranging for substitutes when a teacher is out, providing teachers clinics, selecting curriculum that builds on each year so at the end of 12th grade there is a certain body of knowledge each student would have, also coordinates the adult education programs…… of course most small parishes could never accomplish all this however, the larger ones could pilot it, and then roll out stuff that could be sent to the smaller parishes. the emphasis could change from lets be an ethnic community country club that seeks to build bigger buildings to one that seeks to build an actual church by investing in the people (normally the buildings build themselves somehow when whats right is put first) that is the kind of stuff when i say a plan…. if we have not lost our way in the following of our doctrine of our faith should we not also be wise in its execution and dissemination so to speak, what is the plan to equip priests for the modern environment they find themselves in for example, more converts as a percentage of their population, how should they run an adult education program, how bout a children’s education program, how does church budgeting work?, these are some basics of life that i find most priests are behind the power curve on, that i wish we could lead the way in….. is this crazy to think these things? as the church moves forward in its healing, spiritually, there are some physical house keeping items that i think should also be attended to….. am i crazy to think this way?…….. on another note nice blog i am really glad i ran across it, thank you for the dialog i can not tell you how much i appreciate it
My goodness Chris! Use sentences and paragraphs, please!
I think there is room for much improvement for those things. We have a well-equipped and trained Sunday School here, in an OCA parish, and would always want to be better, but it can be good if you’re willing to work at it.
I will state that the mainline denominations with their incredible financial warchests are notorious for their lousy educational programs.
Which is not an excuse for us. Volunteer to serve in the educational part of your jurisdiction. Your energy in this should be put to good use.
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