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I’ve spent part of today watching Rob Bell’s dvd “The Gods Aren’t Angry”.  (It’s funny, having just put in that link, I’ve found myself, through Google, looking through a lot of people’s thoughts on Mr Bell.  Goodness, what a controversial figure he is in some quarters.)

It’s been a thought-provoking, challenging ray of sunshine on a wet day in Edinburgh.  Fundamentally, to me, it has spoken of grace, of the world-changing spiritual earthquake there is in knowing we are not caught in a trap of endless offerings to unsatisfiable ‘gods’ (today, perhaps those relentless gods of work, money, family, approval…).  One part that really has made me think is the idea of the rituals that we sometimes use, religious or otherwise, to somehow try to appease those angry gods our minds and hearts can be preoccupied with.  What is a useful, a meaningful ritual?

I can only quote from Rob Bell himself:

What is the point of a ritual?  The point of a ritual is to ground us, to open us up, to remind us, to tap us in to the peace that has already been made at the culmination of the ages, through this Christ who offered himself.  Any ritual that piles on a whole load new weight …[of] the same old guilt…is not a Christian ritual…The only proper Christ-centred ritual is one that reminds you, that refreshes you, that awakens you…that opens you up to the God who has made peace with all things in heaven and earth through this Christ who offered himself.

It’s ridiculously easy to allow ourselves to become trapped by rituals, practices, ways of living, which negate that, as if the reconciliation and restoration Jesus brought was not for all, for all time. 

But I’m a Christian, I know this stuff (even if I don’t always quite manage to live in the reality of it).  This message is for all who are far off, for a world of people who don’t know the story of grace, and have not experienced people like me – like I said, people who know this stuff – bringing grace and love into their lives.

In the dvd Rob told some beautiful stories of grace.  Like the newly single mother of four who lost her home and was facing homelessness with her children until a couple from Rob Bell’s church stepped in, bought her a home (!) and gave it to the family freely.  Or like the family struggling in the economic downturn to put food on their table, so another family committed to buying all the groceries they might need until things got better (and spent $900 on the first grocery shop!).  Or like the friend who spent time with Rob himself a few years back when he had become caught in a spiral of ever-working, ever-proving himself to the detriment of much else, and sat with Rob telling him with great love and persistence “You don’t have to live like this, you don’t have to live like this, you don’t have to live like this…” until Rob finally heard him. 

I would like to be a grace-bringer to the lives of others, and this reminder of the source of the grace extended to us all has been timely.

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 Step 1:  A missional expression is about living out your faith in a collective way, about loving your tribe – about knowing who your tribe is.  With this in mind, your missional expression will need a ‘vehicle’.  Most of the time this will be figurative.  However, sometimes it will turn out to be literal…

 

 

 

 

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 Step 2:  …(and even have retro cool-appeal) Once you have established what your vehicle is, you need to spend some time examining said vehicle from every angle…

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Step 3:  Think it through – is it just your ‘big idea’ or can others get onboard with you?  Once you’ve thought this through it’s time to get going! 

 

 

 

 

 (So for a beach/surf based missional expression here’s how it might go next)

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 Step 4: Put Jesus at the centre.  There’s not much point otherwise.  Surf, play on the beach, be part of the tribe you belong to in this context.  And as you live authentically it may be that others who share your interest, your passion, will join you…

 

 

  

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Step 5:  Be open to others joining you who have a different way of living out the missional expression.  Not everyone will want to jump into a wetsuit and catch some waves.  But how great would it be if a differently gifted, differently impassioned person wanted to be on the beach getting the barbecue ready for when everyone gets out of the water, ready to eat?

 

 

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Step 6:  …So it’s not surprising that more people will join in time.  It’s going to be awesome!

 

 

 

 

 

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Step 7: Shared beach, shared surf, shared food, shared life, shared love.  Authentic lives lived openly with one another.  And the chance to hang out in a VW campervan? 

 

 

 

 

 

 Okay, this is a playful rendering of an idea we’ve had.  Children’s toys make everything look fun!  Who knows what will happen, but in the meantime we’re going to have some fun on the beach anyway, because it’s what we love to do and we spend far too little time doing it.

The last 3 weeks have been so beautiful, and so full of blessing it’s hard to know how to begin to describe it.  We returned from a 10 day trip to Cornwall at the beginning of last week, and as a family I think we’re still awash with gratitude and general chilled-out vibes.  It’s not usual for us to feel the benefit of a break much beyond the time the break lasts, and I think there are several reasons for that being a little different this time.

Firstly, this holiday was in the company of my parents and also some very dear friends who we see far too little of because of geography.  Somehow, what could have been a bit of a disastrous mix (my parents and our friends didn’t know each other, we just hoped the size of the holiday home we’d rented would allieviate any ‘in your face-ness’) just really worked.  My parents are having a hard time because of my mum’s recent cancer diagnosis, and my dad in particular has become very tense and over anxious.  Our friends are in that early stage of parenthood when you are negotiating your way through life on very little sleep and facing a new parenting/management challenge every day.  Yet they all just got on so well, and actively enjoyed each other’s company – and so, of course, did we.  And there was that extra sense of delight in seeing two separate groups of people we love taking pleasure in each other.

Being in Cornwall itself was a massive blessing (we were in the same house, in a wee village called Helstone near Camelford, just last September with another wonderful family we are really close friends with – the fact we returned less than 9 months later and are currently seeing if we can organise another trip in October speaks volumes about the place).  I found real refreshment in being somewhere both unfamiliar – that ‘where are we now?’ feeling – and like an amplified, uber-version of the Britain that we know.  Plants and landscape somehow the same but not quite (greener, more abundant, both more friendly and more dramatic). 

The chance to be ‘at the seaside’ was an unalloyed delight.  This time round our daughter was thrilled beyond measure to be near any of the beaches we went too, and as someone who grew up on or near the coast in various parts of the UK  I loved seeing her share the same joy at playing on the beach, in the sea, in rock pools and so on.  I went wading into the sea with her (neither of us in swimming stuff) more times than I care to remember on this holiday, and yet neither of us really minded getting wet clothes, sand in unmentionable places and hair bouffed by the lively coastal breezes.  And there’s nothing like drying off in hot sun to compensate for wet underwear…

I also had massive fun rediscovering bodyboarding on this holiday over a couple of afternoons, something else my daughter and I have discovered together this last year.  I confess I cannot take pleasure into the getting into and out of a wetsuit, and nor can I truly take pleasure in the photos of me in a wetsuit either:

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… I think my husband and daughter look pretty good though.  One aspect of being in and part of the sea (the Atlantic Ocean no less!  sounds much fancier than my ‘native’ North Sea) is something I’ve read and heard people who surf talk about quite a lot, and there are some really good quotes too:

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(Thanks to my husband’s blog for this photo taken at The Tubestation last year)

In other words, there is a well-documented spiritual connection we seem to find with the ocean.  I’m alternately afraid of and in love with the sea, and personally I think that’s a pretty healthy state of affairs as it can be a dangerous place (and like many of my generation it’s hard to leave the spectre of ‘Jaws’ behind – I long thought it was just me but have discovered it’s a reasonably common thing!).  Yet to launch yourself across a breaking wave as you head a little further out, a little further out, to lie bobbing peacefully on a bodyboard and let the water carry you up and down, to gaze in silent respect as rolling waves crash together from opposing shores of a bay and merge to make a foaming mass of water is to find yourself in a place of wonder and of peace.  The other aspect of playing with a bodyboard that I liked a lot was just that – it was play, and it was completely acceptable to play wholeheartedly.  I am coming to believe, from my position as amongst other things a playworker and playwork trainer, that play can also be a time of spiritual connection.  Sometimes the Godness of the world he’s made is just there to be seen and experienced and rejoiced in.  Playing in the sea was, for me, an experience of the Godness of his world.

Pretty much the highlight of the whole week, if we had to pick one, would be a week ago, when we spent Sunday in Polzeath, first going to church at The Tubestation, which you will learn more about from my husband’s blog so I won’t repeat it here but I do urge you to check it out, then hanging out for a bit there afterwards and being given a fantastic and completely unwarranted gift by our friends of a beautiful piece of art.  We spent much of the rest of the day just playing on the beach at Polzeath, then each of us got to surf or bodyboard as we chose, and all of this was sandwiched with the eating of lovely icecream and yummy chips.  It was a perfect day.  If there was one day that left us seriously trying to figure out how to make a move to Cornwall so we could become part of the community in Polzeath and get involved in The Tubestation, then that was it. 

And now, back home in Edinburgh, back at work, back amidst the worries and mess of normal everyday life, it seems like a dream that we’re still somehow carrying with us.  Life is good today.  Tomorrow my mum begins her treatment for the cancer they found a few weeks ago, and my prayer above all else is that life will somehow continue to be good, even through that, for all of us.

I’ve not felt too much like blogging for the last few weeks.  After having a bug that just bugged and bugged, I got back to work and life at full tilt, and my brain hasn’t had too much capacity to hold on to thoughts for any longer than it takes me to think them.  I began to wonder if I’d had some kind of attention-deficit bug, with lasting effects.  But finally, tonight, at the end of another full and challenging week, I find myself getting to the heart of the matter.  My thoughts have in fact been focussed on a couple of very specific things, which have consumed all my energies – but weirdly I didn’t make the connection with my ‘bloggers block’ until today.  I can only write about one of them just now…

A few weeks ago my mum found out she has a form of cancer.  It’s effectively a kind of skin cancer but is in a place where it could give her some pretty nasty problems if it were to become just a wee bit bigger or spread beyond the surface of the skin.  Surgery will be a last resort as it would in all likelihood leave my mum facing a life reliant on medical support and intervention.  So they’ve been looking at the ‘best of the rest’.

The outcome, we found out this week, is likely to be good, so that’s encouraging.  However, (and I have no previous experience of cancers to draw upon so don’t know if this is typical or atypical of the cancer she has, or other kinds) the process she needs to go through to get to that good outcome is going to be horrendous for her.  She will get a couple of doses of chemo topping and tailing the bulk of her treatment, which is radiotherapy for five days a week, for five weeks.  The oncologist warned her it’s going to be excruciatingly painful, and she’s going to feel really poorly for a good while (she’s already in pain now, so not much to look forward to there). 

How are my parents coping with this?  My mum sounds stoic and resigned, my dad, well he sounds frightened.  And it is frightening, to face pain in the hope of a restoration of health but without guarantees.  To find yourself wondering how much pain you can bear, how you will respond to this unknown dragon.

I see us and we are all lost children in the woods, holding hands as we gaze fearfully into the dark night.  We are wondering which is the right path to safety and what monsters we will have to face down on the way.  We are wide-eyed with worry and just want to be back safe at home where it is warm and secure and there is a locked door between us and the scary world.  I want to close my eyes to make it go away, and yet these night when I do that all I find is the picture of my mum, small and purse-lipped and she tries to find the strength to cope with this. 

I wonder what God sees when he sees my mum, and my dad? I wonder what he will do?

Time has once again been on my mind. 

A while back our pastor told us that the speed of God is 3 miles an hour (I am paraphrasing…), because that’s walking speed.  It’s the speed we need to travel at to connect with His world and to notice the people around us, to become aware of and attuned to our environment.

A few sermons back we heard that you can’t hurry a tomato – and I love the message of waiting and expectation that is implied.

Then at the weekend, after a rotten few weeks of being poorly, and finally enjoying being on the mend, I was excited to receive the latest edition of Jamie Magazine, Jamie Oliver’s most recent adventure in publishing.  It was full of lush photography, gorgeous recipes, and some lovely evocative articles.  My favourite was about a winemaker in Beirut, whose passion and relish for wine and for his country infused everything he said.

I loved this:

“This is my Beirut,” says Serge, in his soft, exotically accented English. “And these are my babies, they improve with age.” He waves an immaculate cuff over the six or seven million bottles of vintage Musar, that are quietly, splendidly maturing in cool damp dark cellar cut deep into the flanks of Mount Lebanon.

“My wines need time”,  [Serge] states, “Time to grow, time to mature, time to taste.  Now, ” as he eases the corks from bottle after venerable bottle, “let us take our time.”

A few weeks back I read a little filler article in the Guardian about a journalist’s one-day attempt to ‘go slow’.  It was a bit of a half-hearted effort really, and seemed to mainly consist of her getting stressed about not getting stuff done.  It made me think once again about the obstacles which lie in our way as we pay lip-service to slowing down, to relishing life.  I don’t live a crazy manic life really, but it’s very full and busy enough to always have stuff undone.  Not so unusual really, but in terms of appreciating the world I’m in (in the micro as well as macro sense) and in terms of simply paying attention to those who come my way, most of the time life is too much of a blur to be that intentional about it.  And that just isn’t good enough really.

So I’m brought to wondering if that’s the underlying blessing of being ill so often, and in particular having a really horrible bug that has floored me for the last fortnight and intermittently for the 3 weeks prior to that.  ‘Go slow, take a little time’ became a command to be obeyed, not a suggestion to be shrugged off.

And so now, as I return to ‘normal’  I look back over the last five days in particular, as I felt less ill and more on the mend.  The afternoons spent curled on a garden chair in my pyjamas and dressing gown, cup of tea at my side, unread paper on my knee as I listened to the blackbirds singing, watched the apple blossom begin to flower, saw blue tits begin making their home in the bird box on the side of the garage.  The drowsing in the sunshine, the time taken to mull over interesting articles in the paper or magazines, the long chats with friends and family on the phone.  The sowing of seeds, the gentle easing of seedlings into pots and vegetable plots.  Time to reflect, infused with the hope and promise of spring.

I like going slow.  Taking my time is my favourite thing.  Looking another person in the eye and being entirely focussed on them – “love the one” as we’ve heard in church recently – is a powerful experience and a powerful gift to give to another person. 

So as I return to life with a little less leisure, (but hopefully a lot more health) I am holding on to those thoughts, those aspirations and aim to moment by moment put them into practice.  A little time well spent.

One of the things I am so supremely rubbish at is sharing my faith in any kind of cohesive and unembarrassed way.  I know that’s a ridiculous thing to admit to, it’s so contradictory to have a faith that you apparently lack sufficient faith in to declare.  I don’t think I lack faith in my faith (stick with me, I’ll get less convoluted soon), so much as lack faith in my ability to articulate it in a way which won’t make either me, or the person I’m speaking to, or God, cringe.  I have this deep-seated belief that everyone else in the whole world has more valid views than me, and is much more likely to ‘win’ any kind of debate I get embroiled in. About anything.

So (sweeping aside all of the can-of-worms implications hinted at above) I am utterly delighted and not a little baffled that our daughter (who is just 4) has the whole ‘talking about God’ thing cracked.  And I’m filled with thankfulness for the people in her life that have developed that faith and that confidence.  Not least the staff and volunteers at our church who are playing a fundamental role in this.

Last Sunday, at our church’s ‘Sunday Club’ (Sunday school if you prefer) she made a little badge which says ‘Jesus loves me’.  Now, safety pins, crushed cardboard and smudged felt tips aside, she thinks this badge is the coolest thing EVER, and has had it pinned to whatever top she’s wearing almost every moment since then.  She’s worn it to nursery 2 out of the 3 days she’s been there so far this week.  On the first day we worried her teachers might think it was a bit weird, or that her friends might tease her.  However, her teachers think it’s lovely, and today she came home from nursery having basically started a new fashion trend.  Her friends have been trying to copy the writing so they could make their own ‘Jesus loves me’ badge.  I love imagining that the staff (who have to be very non-partisan about these things) are sat helping children to write out ‘Jesus loves me’ because one little girl who is utterly unembarrassed about her beautiful baby-faith has proudly shown everyone her precious badge that, to her, marks that faith and is a statement that gives her great comfort.

Now, what lesson should I learn from this I wonder?

Several years ago a friend lent me the book “The God of Small Things” by Arundhati Roy (which, incidentally, I enjoyed) and when we later spoke about it one of us, I can’t remember which now, mistakenly called it “The Small Things of God”.  This slightly more whimsical title appealled to both of us immediately and, amidst laughter, the book was instantly renamed for evermore.

It’s still a phrase that comes to mind often, despite the fact that I’ve lost touch with that friend over the years.  (She lives in India now, I wonder if she ever remembers the book and our conversations about it?)

I was just looking at the blog of Without Wax and his reflections on “Celebrating Monotony”.  It strikes me that the small things of God are those mundane little blessings we overlook so easily.  I am seated in my warm kitchen, cup of tea at hand, almost brand new laptop beneath my fingertips, knowing that my daughter is sound asleep in her lovely bedroom down the hall, and my husband is blogging away on our pc upstairs.  It’s a Friday night in Scotland in January, nothing much going on, and I’m freshly thankful for that.  I wonder how many of the minute details of our lives, embroidered by God to communicate his love and care for us, pass us by without thought or thanks. 

(I read this back and consider that this is a very middle-class (yikes!) western-world kind of reflection.  I wonder what I would have said if I were a Christian living in poverty in a much harsher part of the world?)

I suppose the small things of God, the little blessings and graces he has furnished our world with to ease our passage through it, are in evidence everywhere.  It would be a wonderful thing if I could make my way through life bearing that in mind, with a thankful heart.

What are the small things of God in evidence in your life?

Our small group shrank down to just four the other night.  Sometimes TSTIAI and I get a bit discouraged when that happens, when not many people manage to make it along, but that night was so nice that, despite missing our temporarily absent members, we felt at peace that the night had panned out as it was intended to. 

We were joined by Mr and Mrs Fourth Space for the evening, and we all happily set about eating all the food in front of us whilst chatting and setting the world to rights.  A funny thing happened for me that evening though, which I’m sharing here because, although it relates to the events and conversation of the evening, it has taught me a really big lesson. 

As we chatted away and munched away we heard our daughter crying a bit from her bedroom, so I went through to check on her and get her settled again.  As I sat stroking her head, shushing  her back to sleep I prayed silently, and to be honest, almost absentmindedly.  As I did this I found myself half-remembering some verses, but couldn’t quite recall them properly.  I knew they were words Jesus had quoted from Isaiah, but I am hopeless at remembering bible verses. 

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me…The Spirit of the Lord is upon me to… something about captives…preaching good news…?

I couldn’t get this half-memory out of my head so once my daughter had settled back to sleep I crept through to our bedroom to see if I could find the passage in my bible.  I scanned Isaiah but couldn’t see the passage I was thinking of so put it out of my mind for the time being, scolding myself inwardly for being such a bad Christian – shouldn’t I be able to quote whole chunks of the bible after being a ‘Jesus follower’ for over 20 years? (No need to answer that)

Back with our miniature small group we ended up talking through some ideas about our church’s forthcoming project Love Out Loud, and pondering what our wee group might get involved in doing.  There were some good initial thoughts, but it was one of the last things that was said by Fourth Space that stayed with me.  He said something along the lines that people are feeling so down with all the bad news around just now, that perhaps whatever we do should just aim to be a blessing, freely given.  In essence we should be bringing joy. Well, that was how I heard it, so I’m not quoting verbatim.

Goodbyes were said, and TSTIAI and I set about tidying up and getting ready for bed.   A short time later, tucked under the duvet with a hot water bottle toasting my legs and a comfy pillow propping me up I opened up my bible and the devotional notes I’ve been using on and off for a good while (God 360).

It asked me to read Luke 4:14 – 21…It was the exact passage I had been (randomly?) thinking of and half remembering earlier in the evening, where Jesus stands in the temple and reads a passage from Isaiah then declares that he is the fulfillment of that message.  I decided to go to Isaiah 61 where the original passage is found, and read it in The Message.  Check this out (this is where Fourth Space was essentially quoting from Isaiah too – I wonder if he knew?):

The Spirit of God, the Master, is on me because God anointed me.

He sent me to preach good news to the poor, heal the heartbroken, announce freedom to all captives, pardon all prisoners.

God sent me to announce the year of his grace – a celebration of God’s destruction of our enemies – and to comfort all who mourn, to care for the needs of all who mourn in Zion, give them bouquets of roses instead of ashes, messages of joy instead of news of doom, a praising heart instead of a languid spirit.

(Isaiah 61: 1 – 3, italics my own)

It confirms for me that no matter what we do for Love Out Loud, if we fulfill that part of Jesus’ manifesto from Isaiah we’ll be doing exactly what will delight God’s heart. 

And the lesson I learnt, that God has been working overtime to teach me this week, is that he is full of stuff to tell me, stuff to talk to me about, stuff to guide me.  I just need to listen.

(And maybe I should set about memorising a few more bible verses.)

As is usual for his very thought-provoking blog, Fourth Space got me mulling over exactly how and why God loves me (of all people!).  And as is often the case when you start thinking about something (my previous post about autism being a case in point) it seems then to be EVERYWHERE you look.

So last night, feeling poorly, I was lying in bed clutching a hot water bottle to my aching tummy and trying not to move too much in case I was sick (this is called setting the scene…).  I was tired but not sleepy and had started to reread a book that I had found on my bookshelf from earlier last year.  It is called “Operating Instructions” by Anne Lamott, and is basically a journal that she kept during her son’s first year.  It’s a compelling read, but I’d struggled with it the first time round because she was so painfully and brutally honest, some of which was too close to the bone for me to deal with during what had been a bit of a difficult patch.  This time round I’m loving it, and really relishing the honesty.  It feels raw, but healing too.

This was the bit that jumped out at me as I lay feeling lousy and fragile:

I’m trying to be extremely gentle and forgiving with myself today, having decided while I nursed Sam at dawn this morning that I’m probably just as good a mother as the next repressed, obsessive-compulsive paranoiac.

I think we’re all pretty crazy on this bus.  I’m not sure I know anyone who’s got all the dots on his or her dice.

But once an old woman at my church said the secret is that God loves us exactly the way we are and that he loves us too much to let us stay like this, and I’m just trying to trust that.

(“Operating Instructions” by Anne Lamott, Anchor Books 1993)

I’ve heard that view of God’s love before, and it does kind of encapsulate the complicated love that he has for us. 

It has proved helpful to me today.

Well today (like many days in my life, it seems) I’m sick.  I think I’ve caught the bug my daughter was so poorly with last week.  After feeling a bit odd at various points yesterday and managing to dismiss them as the outworkings of a busy weekend and not enough sleep, I spent last night feeling increasingly yuck and then trying and failing to get myself functioning this morning. 

As is the way with these things, I find it’s often when I need the most sleep that I get the least.  So during my sleepless hours last night when I awoke feeling unwell I found myself ruminating on the kind of random tangents that the 2ams are so well known for.

One of the random tangents came from a conversation we’d had with a minister friend of ours who was round with his fantastic family on Saturday afternoon.  We’d been joking about my increasing interest in the idea of communal living and how this works itself out in communities we’ve come across.  After considering the areas we’d find most challenging about communal living (pretty much all of it) our friend said that they had approached it from the other direction and basically let people know they had an open house for anyone, whenever.  I wondered if this was an expectation of their role in the church he leads, but apparently not – so many of his congregation had never been inside the church manse until he took up post.  Marla has also spoken in various places on her (fantastic) blog about having doors open to whoever needs them.

As I lay tossing and turning in bed, head and body aching, mind whirring, I began to wonder how I would find communal living, or living with ‘open doors’ when, like today, I was unwell.

Would it be great to know that if I needed something there would likely be someone around to help me out?  Or would I struggle with feeling my space was restricted, that Iwould need to make conversation when I just wanted to lie or sit quietly?  And in terms of reciprocity would I be willing to go into someone else’s house when they were sick and be there for them? I would, but being the over-empathiser that I am, I tend to imagine others share the same feelings as me and wouldn’t welcome my presence.

I am full of admiration for those who open their homes to the world, and can see that actually the physical act of letting someone in the door is not always the big deal.  It’s the opening and sharing of lives which follows which is the real challenge, the real joy and the real act of servanthood and love.

I haven’t made any resolutions this year.  But this area is something I am challenged by and challenged into doing and not merely thinking about.  I intend to work on it this year.  I suspect it will be a lifelong project

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