On making too much of vows I

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This is the first of a two-part article.

By Donald Schell

It feels like a new Episcopal church norm or standard may be emerging, making an Easter Vigil part of our Holy Week. I like that. For more than twenty-five years I was pastor of a congregation where the Saturday night Vigil was our biggest liturgy of the whole year and our only Easter celebration. Easter Day we had a picnic.

But often the rediscovery of the vigil brings with it yet another “Renewal of our Baptismal Covenant.” I’m increasingly uneasy with our attachment to promise making and promise renewing – renewals of baptism covenant, renewals of ordination vows for clergy in Holy Week, anniversary renewals of wedding vows. The passion narratives in Holy Week and the Easter appearances of the Risen Jesus sharpen my worry. Each of the four Gospels tells catastrophic story of promise making and promise breaking – Peter’s vehement promise to stand by Jesus when everyone else abandons him.

The oldest version of Peter’s promise making in Mark’s Gospel has him insisting to Jesus, “Even though I must die with you, I will not deny you.” Jesus replies with the haunting prophecy that before the cock begins its pre-dawn crowing Peter will have denied him three times that very night. Resurrection stories in all four gospels attend in some way to Jesus’ mending the fracture of betrayal, folding Peter back into the community. Often the New Testament lists Peter as the first witness to the resurrection, displacing the story of Mary Magdalene encounter with the risen Jesus, probably for the sake of telling the story to emphasize the restoration of Peter the to the place among the twelve that his betrayal might seem to have lost him.

To my mind John’s Gospel offers the loveliest of these reconciliation stories by the lakeside in Galilee, almost at the very end of the Gospel. Jesus has appeared, shared breakfast with the disciples, and then takes Peter aside and three times (to match the three denials) asks, “do you love me more than these?” and “Do you love me?” Peter, insistent as ever, keeps saying, “Lord, you know I love you.” And each time to this insistence, Jesus replies, “feed my sheep” or “feed my lambs.” Loving expressed in doing seems to trump promise making.

Promise making has an odd history in the church’s liturgical evolution. Apparently monastic vows were the first church-acknowledged promises. Wedding vows come some centuries later. The earliest Christian wedding practice followed Judaism, where the sacramental act wasn’t husband and wife making promises, but the priest (or rabbi) praying on behalf of the family and assembly to ask God’s blessing on the couple. Apparently the most ancient ordination rites also were blessings prayed by the bishop without the person who was being ordained offering vows. We certainly know of a number of sainted priests and bishops who tried to refuse ordination in this period and in the end were forcibly ordained against their will – doesn’t sound much like promises were made there. And the baptismal covenant that we’re often repeating now was an addition to baptism with the last round of Prayer Book revision. Whenever I hear someone talking about ‘my baptismal covenant’ or ‘our baptismal covenant,’ I remember Martin Luther’s refuge in times of darkest depression feeling himself besieged by Satan himself (like the line in “A Mighty Fortress,” “and though this world with devils filled should threaten to undo us”). Luther’s steady response to facing his demons was to remind himself, “I have been baptized.” He didn’t find direction or comfort in his own promise but in the church’s faithful act and God’s faithfulness.

Actually, of course, most Episcopalians over the age of about thirty-five were baptized without any covenant being uttered, not even on their behalf as babies. It was the revisions leading to the 1979 Book of Common Prayer that reframed the apparent working of the sacrament around an extended vowing.

So what did these sacraments look like before each, in succeeding centuries was reframed with vows?

Jewish style, they were blessings with a physical, enacted or embodied affirmation:

-a blessing over the water and a sacramental gesture of water and the sign of a cross,

– a blessing over the ordinand and a sacramental gesture of laying on of hands,

– a blessing over the couple and a sacramental gesture of a kiss and exchange of gifts or rings.

I’m not against vowing or promising. I’m often deeply moved to hear a couple make this symmetrical promise each to the other in turn:

“In the name of God, I, [name], take you, [name], to be my husband/wife, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, until we are parted by death. This is my solemn vow.”

In fact I suspect that in the fifteen hundred year history of vow-creep that’s reshaped our ancient sacraments that the marriage vow is the most profound and spacious – it’s simple as unreserved, faithful love until death no matter what.

Baptismal vows and ordination vows for the orders of bishop, deacon and priest all go beyond simplicity to offer a fuller picture of the commitment the candidate is making. It’s not a bad picture they make. All these other vows draw appropriately on the Bible, on tradition, and on experience to sketch that picture, but somehow in the end what more they offer seems less than the stark, lean vows of a wedding.

This time of year with Holy Week, musing about ordination vows and baptismal covenant, I was haunted by the French film, Of Gods and Men, the Trappist monks facing what would be their martyrdom in Algeria. The film retells a real event of 1996 from the accounts of the two surviving brothers of the community, the journals of the martyrs, and the stories of their friends and neighbors in the Muslim village alongside the monastery. Nowhere in the painful, confusing time of choosing to stay and face possible death do the brothers remind one another of their ordination vows.

“Peter, do you love me?” “Feed my sheep.”

It’s love that drives them, not keeping their word. Love for Christ, for the brothers in their community, for their Muslim friends in the village. And they don’t stay in order to be martyred, but simply because they come to see staying and facing danger with each other and their neighbors as the only reflection of their love that makes sense.

The Rev. Donald Schell, founder of St. Gregory of Nyssa Church in San Francisco, is President of All Saints Company.

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leesytag
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leesytag

This is wonderful conversation, much enriched by the experience of making promises that we find ourselves unable to keep, for whatever reason. Much to think about for the next few days and life-times.

I want to add another 'formative' picture (I'm the parent with the 'show me the acts and I'll believe the vow' response above) that has come to mind with love and tears as I've read through the conversation here:

My parents were married in 1952. I have vivid childhood memories of my parents marking various anniversaries by repeating their vows. From memory (as at their wedding), but not from rote. It was as if they were alone in the universe, just with God and each other and this congregation of their children.

What I didn't know until later was that my parents would also repeat their wedding vows when they were angry with each other, or afraid. When Dad had a psychotic break and had to leave for an extended stay in a locked hospital.

I don't know this, but I'll bet that when they discovered her cancer was terminal and that the road ahead was going to be very hard for both of them, that they repeated their vows.

When we scattered Mother's ashes up in the mountains, my father poured them out, repeating those same vows.

When he remarried, he asked the minister who performed the rite to use the familiar old words, because those were the only ones that mattered to him.

There are times (thankfully not many) when the only reason I stay in my marriage is that I promised to. Those vows are deeply important to me. But when I tried the same kind of repeating of vows that meant so much to my parents, it felt flat and rote.

I guess that I'd take from this that I am glad that vow renewal is a spiritual practice that is available, and that it can take many forms. It seems a mistake to ritualize the ritual, so that NOT participating becomes suspect or a political statement. Like any ritual, if it becomes too far separated from the experience from which it springs, it is a dead thing -- from which something else needs to spring to life.

Leesy

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Donald Schell
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Sharon,

thanks for adding powerful (and powerfully ambiguous) experience to this conversation. I like very much how all you've written circles back to Pam's response, the first in this sequence. She's linked her name on the post to her blog which offers us more brave storytelling and wondering and ambiguity and frustration as she finds the way to live into called love of her husband and children -

http://deeplanguage.blogspot.com/

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Rowsofsharon
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Thank you Donald for starting this conversation, and all of you for your insights.

As one who has tried very hard to live into the Baptismal Covenant (and am one of those baptized from the 1928 BCP) that I plan on renewing at tomorrow's Great Vigil, I ponder how so many of us say the words and make the promises without really understanding the full meaning behind them. It's easy to say, "I will, with God's help." It's harder to actually live it out 24-7-365.

These postings recall the sacramental promises I have made in my life: my marriage vows (34 years and counting) and at the baptism of my children. One of my children chose years ago not to be Confirmed - he felt that he didn't need to stand in front of the congregation and answer "Yes" a couple of times with a bunch of young people he knew he would never see set foot inside the church again. I've told him, "But I made a promise that you would come back and reaffirm the vows I made for you as an infant." He tells me not to worry - Jesus doesn't mind and God didn't build a church.

My father is caring for my mom, who has Alzheimer's disease. I recently put her on the waiting list to enter a long-term care facility. This was a hard reality for my dad. He had promised her he would never do this. Today my husband signed papers to begin hospice care for his mother. When she signed over power-of-attorney and a DNR request years ago, he promised he would care for her when she could not care for herself. As I sat beside him while he signed more papers, I can help but remember the last time he signed papers "for" her.

Perhaps all this conversation taking place on Good Friday is appropriate. Somehow I recall a saying, "Promises are meant to be broken." But perhaps promises are meant to remind us how to care for one another.

Sharon Ely Pearson

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Donald Schell
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Christopher,

Thanks for your reflection (and for adding your witness to Sylvia's and Marshall's). As I read this ongoing conversation, I can add a tad of clarification. While I get the power of structure and definition that the various vows bring (and wonder why the lean marriage vows with the least description seem the most powerful among marriage, ordination and baptismal promises), what I'm most wondering about is whether the ritual repetitions and routine reiterations of the vows contributes to Christian formation. Is this re-vowing practice? Or does it hold our minds and hearts at stage of novices and new initiates? Today, Good Friday, remembering how Jesus, 'having loved his own, loved them to the end,' are we witnessing the living out of a vow, or something beginning promises (i.e. ours in marriage, ordination, baptism) could only hint at?

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Christopher Evans
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Christopher Evans

Donald, I would posit as I did in my lectio piece that patterned gospel responses seem closer to an Anglican emphasis that gives real flesh to love thy neighbor. As Sylvia notes, to renew vows which give us some shape or patterns of response the gospel presented just previous in the Creed, convicts and renews. As Marshall notes our culture is very up on love but without sense of pattern that does sometimes mean forgoing because of a particular commitment, and that this over the longhaul can be a freedom. In other words the Gift takes shape in our lives and works to order our lives more to the gospel. We can otherwise end up with a cheap form of grace.

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Richard E. Helmer
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Richard E. Helmer

I too am drawn by the image of "Of God's and Men" of those in community struggling for clarity in community in the face of all but certain dissolution. It strikes me their assumed vows were offered with the hope of making that kind of journey together possible -- considering the vows as an implicit negation: of not being there, but here (no matter what.). That also suggests to me vows as a beginning -- not an ending; as a hopeful means, but never the end itself. It goes back to your main point so vividly -- making too much of vows -- losing the proverbial forest for the trees!

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Richard E. Helmer
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Richard E. Helmer

I too am drawn by the image of "Of God's and Men" of those in community struggling for clarity in community in the face of all but certain dissolution. It strikes me their assumed vows were offered with the hope of making that kind of journey together possible -- considering the vows as an implicit negation: of not being there, but here (no matter what.). That also suggests to me vows as a beginning -- not an ending; as a hopeful means, but never the end itself. It goes back to your main point so vividly -- making too much of vows -- losing the proverbial forest for the trees!

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Danny Berry
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Danny Berry

I very much like your use of that post-resurrection story on the beach (which never fails to give me goosebumps) as a model for what is meant by loving Jesus: our taking care of one another.

In my parish the footwashing is taken up by all members of the congregation who choose to participate rather than an act done by the pros (priests) to the rest of us (congregants).

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Donald Schell
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Olivia,

Thanks for your brave response. I know part of my own reflection on vows and promises does come from being divorced and remarried. Same vows. Crazy experience of trying to live the vows as willed, rote actions when neither my ex- nor I could find our way back to the power of love. Same vows again, a beginning I'm grateful for and a long marriage that makes a different sense. Clearly that's grace. But it also feels like it's taught me something that made the monks in Algeria make a difference kind of sense.

And conversations with you about art and the making of art, the unvowed calling that takes the artist into suffering a vision too big to fully realize, the unvowed calling that keeps the artist digging deeper for inspiration and returning to the studio to birth or create something that s/he hasn't yet fully succeeded in making, a passionate, unvowed suffering for love.

To me that says that vows can show us the way to something, but that what sustains it and takes us deeper is love.

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Donald Schell
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Marshall,

I've raised nested (intertwined) but distinct questions.

1. what's going on in ritual vowing? Why's it so prominent in our liturgies when it was absent in the first centuries of the church's life, and

2. (given that the church actually has incorporated vows in several of our sacraments)

- do our vows mark a beginning,

- offer a picture or description, or

- are they a method or practice?

I think you're suggesting that vows are a method to guide us to faithful practice of our duty.

What I trying to articulate and describe is a spirituality and practice that flows from desire rather than duty. We can find it in St. Paul. It's evident an well elaborated in Gregory of Nyssa who said that we're most god-like in our infinite desire and that our desire draws us ever deeper into God.

A friend just showed me this fascinating review of the film, "of Gods and Men":

http://www.poptheology.com/2011/04/of-gods-and-men/

If you do see the film, I'd be glad to talk about the conversations we DO see and hear the monks having. They don't talk about their vows (monastic or priestly), they're struggling to find their way to clarity and authenticity in their love.

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Richard E. Helmer
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Richard E. Helmer

Thank you for this provocative piece, Donald!

What has emerged for me as I've chewed on your words here is along similar lines to Sylvia's allusion to Luther's teaching:

Vows in our tradition always happen in the context of grace. God acts first, the vows we take are a response to that grace, and are offered as an act of will frequently "with God's help." (It has given me to wonder what would happen in the marriage rite if people added this to the "I will's" and the solemn vows!)

As my spiritual director is fond of saying, we offer the will, God provides the grace.

Preparing in my own journey to take the first steps towards vows in religious community, the novitiate of the Brotherhood of Saint Gregory begins with a vow of obedience:

Will you promise to obey those who are appointed over you?

God being my helper, I do so promise.

It's followed by the affirmation of support from the community, very much after the community's affirmation of support found in our baptismal rite as well as the marriage rite.

Starting with obedience assumes relational accountability. That's what matters, and it's never a one-way street.

Without presupposing your next installment, Donald, I think this is a key problem we have with vows: In our individualistic society, we too often see ourselves holding them in an existential vacuum, alone and largely unaided. No wonder we find them uncomfortable! Vows in our Christian tradition are offered not only in the context of God's grace, but that grace manifested through a community of support.

No married couple can make the vows work on their own, nor any monastic, nor any of the baptized! It's when we lose sight of this critical relational context for the vowed life that we risk great trouble.

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Execute
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Donald, I'm wrestling with your theme, that it is not the vows but the love that has driven decisions. Perhaps you're positing a contrast between obligation and gift. However, I find myself reflecting on duty and motivation, and finding, or at least feeling that the distinction is false. Love is our motivation. Duty is the framework for expressing that love, not under duress, but in commitment to the beloved and with determination in our expression.

We live in a culture that demonstrates dypsychia, double-mindedness, about duty. We joke about the fear of commitment of the prospective groom; but we have experienced it much more broadly, from the loss of a sense of career and the security of long-term, stable employment, to the failure of either major corporations or politicians to think beyond the next two-year election cycle. At the same time, we praise (appropriately) those who serve in the Armed Forces, demonstrating a clear sense of duty to their colleagues, to the country, and, yes, to the vows made in commissioning. We do seek to call our people to compassionate service; but perhaps if we fail to inculcate a sense of duty to service, expressing our Christian faith and not simply the personal satisfaction that comes in seeing ourselves as generous, we fall short in our formation.

And by the way, I would point out that the Trappists had indeed taken vows, not first as priests, but as Cistercian (Benedictine) monks. While I have not seen the movie, I can well imagine their discussions leading to their decision to stay, were centered on living out their vows of obedience, stability, and conversation mori, conversion of life.

Marshall Scott

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Olivia Kuser
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Olivia Kuser

Dear Donald,

As a twice divorced person, now living again with my second ex-husband, I have a dim view, not to mention a dim track record, of promises and vows. When I think of times in which I think I have best fulfilled the commitment of loving another person, it has been in situations in which I never promised anything, but gave of myself by choice, over and over, till at the end, it almost seemed beyond choosing. And perhaps, no promise or vow can actually be judged until the very end. Until our own death. Then, and only then, you see the shape, the whole shape, of the life, and which desires were followed.

I think it is interesting that no child ever vows to love and cherish their parent until death do them part, nor does any parent vow the same; it seems almost ludicrous to ask such a thing. How do we manage to fulfill that mutual relationship, without a rite or a sacrament? One of the things that most struck me in caring for newborn babies is that it TRULY didn't matter what you thought or said to them- they did not speak English yet. It only mattered what you did to them. I found it wonderfully freeing.

Love, Olivia

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Sylvia Miller-Mutia
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Sylvia Miller-Mutia

It seems, to me, like the purpose of repeatedly renewing vows is sort of like the purpose of the Law from a Lutheran perspective...regularly revisiting my vows (and my failure to live fully into them) convicts me of my inadequacy/shortcoming (sin) and reawakens my awareness of my need for God's grace in my life (as a baptized Christian, as a wife, as a parent/godparent, as a priest)

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leesytag
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leesytag

Donald, thank you.

I'm actually coming to this now as a parent of children in their second decade of life, the oldest of whom has asked to be baptized on Easter. He has said that his reason was to commit himself to a community, to the work we do together, and to a process of growing in spirit. I think that, as he contemplates leaving home for college in a year or so, he's also seeking to ground himself more concretely, to have something to remember when he needs to remind himself who he is. It's like the woman at the well demanding of Jesus: GIVE ME some of that living water! I don't want to be thirsty anymore.

We often find ourselves as parents, saying to our children's passionately delivered promises to do or not to do something: We hear your promise, but we'll know it means something when you act on it. At our best, we ask how we can help them keep their promises. At our harshest, we tell them their promises don't mean sh*t until we see their actions.

I looked back at the rite most likely used in my baptism in the Methodist church in the 1950's. My parents and godparents promised to make sure that, as I reached the appropriate age, I was taught the meaning of my baptism and that by a variety of means to seek to lead me into the love of God and the service of Jesus. I like that.

But what I like more is the service for baptizing children and youth. The child is asked to commit to repentence, to study of scripture, to trying to live a life pleasing to God. And to each of these she/he answers 'God helping me, I will.' Then the most important question, which echos the question asked at a marriage: "Do you desire to be baptized?"

So, given this grounding in desire and intention -- what is useful in remembering and living into the commitment? I think about the people who stand as spiritual parents in my life right now. They ask me (very explicitly) from time to time, what are you doing to deepen your life in Christ? What are you doing to deepen and sustain your marriage? These are hard questions, and there are times that I avoid the people I know will ask them -- was Peter looking forward to that conversation on the beach, despite his impetuous joy at seeing Jesus there?

Many people find deep meaning, strength, and new life in renewing their vows. For them, I'm glad the opportunity is there. I wonder what answer a bishop might give to a priest or ordained deacon who doesn't find that and openly chooses not to participate in a ritual of renewing vows.

For me, the growth comes in the wrestling, the confession, and the remembering. And in knowing that there are people who love me enough to ask the questions and care about the answers.

Leesy

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Donald Schell
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Lauren,

We did our diocese of California renewal yesterday. I'm guessing it was my thirtieth time, since my first memories of it were coming back to this diocese in 1980. I was ordained in Connecticut in 1972 and serving there and later in Idaho, I don't think the renewal was happening yet. And my memory may have slipped on that.

Some of my thoughts on vows come from gradually noticing how much I looked forward to the Eucharist with a whole diocese of colleagues, loved how seating us all together in the cathedral choir brought that space to life for singing and prayer, and noticed that the repetition of the vows felt flat in a way that hearing them at an ordination did not (that is at an ordination, the ordinands' responses move me deeply).

Additionally now, I'm noticing a Biblical suspicion of vows in the Old Testament and the New Testament and wondering about commitments we make outside church. When people make a lifelong commitment to address the AIDS crisis in Africa or to making art or to parenting a child - do we ask or expect them to make a vow?

And why is A.A. so adamant that people in recovery should avoid promising never to touch a drink again. Twelve Step spirituality that has so much to teach us pulls us back to the simplicity and humility of one day at a time.

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laurenstanley
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laurenstanley

I understand what Donald is saying, and think his questions are valid.

But I must add, I like taking the vows, I like renewing them. Those moments allow me to reintroduce myself to them, as it were, to reexamine my life to that point, to recommit, to get back up when I have fallen down. I renewed my ordination vows yesterday, 2 days shy of my 13th anniversary of my ordination to the priesthood. Renewing those vows made me think yet again about why I said "Yes" to God, and what that "yes" means.

The same is true whenever I renew my baptismal vows.

Perhaps the answer is to make sure that we explain, teach, explore those vows every time before we actually renew them.

Lauren Stanley

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Chaplain
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I like the questions Donald is asking. It seems like some, maybe most, of our reduntant promise-(re)making is driven from the protestant side of our history since 1776. As an example consider the Southern Baptist take on this: promise-making is an exercise of one's "soul sufficiency" such that without it there is no church.

Seems like Donald's church as grace and mystery is real no matter the promises we make. I like that church, how do I join? 😉

Dann Brown

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Pam
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This is very thought-provoking. I am married to a person with dementia and I sometimes feel torn between my marriage vows and meeting my own needs so I have the strength to continue to care for my husband. To focus on love rather than on vows helps me move away from judgmental attitudes towards myself.

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