Archive for the ‘Conversion’ Category

You Don’t Have to be the Bad Guy

With two Lego-loving boys in the house, there was little doubt that we would see The Lego Movie.  The previews looked cute, but I was pleasantly surprised by how much of the movie I genuinely liked.  It was fun, funny, and playful, and you can’t leave the theatre without singing “Everything is Awesome!”

There’s one scene that struck upon a deep theological truth.  Short of being a spoiler alert for those who haven’t yet seen it, I’ll simply say that in the battle between good and evil, good wins.  It’s not just that good wins, but what happens next.  Tucked in to the last moments of the movie is a conversion story, where the protagonist (Emmett) tells the antagonist (President/Lord Business):

You don’t have to be the bad guy.”  

The characters take a moment to carefully consider their responses, and of course good wins. But I love how the movie drives home the idea of choice.  You don’t have to be the bad guy.  You can choose.

In some ways, this scene reminded me of the conversion of Darth Vader in Star Wars: Return of the Jedi.  In the battle of good and evil, Luke is convinced that there is still good within his father.  The moment of conversion from Darth Vader back to Anakin Skywalker is the unexpected and almost unbelievable climax of the film, which leads to the triumph of good.

So many of the stories we watch and read (and show-to and tell our children) involve good triumphing over evil.  It’s rare to see a story of conversion, however. Usually, the bad guys are dismissed as evil and defeated (and often humiliated by the victor).

Yet it’s these stories of conversion that pervade Scripture, particularly as a major theme of Jesus’ teaching.

  • Think about the stories you’ve read or movies you’ve watched lately.  Are they stories of conversion or defeat-and-dismiss?

Paschal Mystery

Catholics use a lot of words and phrases that we don’t always stop to unpack and explain.  One of these is “the Paschal Mystery.”  I’m pretty sure that as a child I resigned myself to not understanding what it meant because as it says, it’s a mystery.

The Paschal Mystery refers to the Passion (suffering and death), Resurrection, and Ascension of Jesus.

The very essence of Christian faith revolves around the fact that the suffering and death of Jesus was not the end of the story.  Rather, from His death, comes new life–in the Resurrection.

Death is not the end.  From death to new life.

It is a mystery because we do not understand how it happens.  But it does.  And in this mystery we find our salvation: death is not the end.

Moreover, it’s not just something that happened to Jesus.  God’s transforming power in the Paschal Mystery happens in our lives every day.  We see the cycles of from-death-to-new-life when we recover from brokenness, whether it is physical, emotional, spiritual, or even financial.

In the post Change Anything, Change Everything, I talked about my biggest regret mistake–my failed first marriage.  After that marriage ended, I was broken.  Shattered.  Depressed.  Eventually, I picked up the shattered pieces of my life, moved half-way across the country, and with the loving help of my family, an excellent therapist, and the right anti-depressant, I worked on healing and rebuilding.  And by the Grace of God, I healed.  I grew.  I matured.  I am not the same person I once was.  From-death-to-new-life, the Paschal Mystery is alive in me.

  • What are some of your own experiences of death-to-new-life?  How is the Paschal Mystery alive in you?
  • Where in the Paschal Mystery are you now: the suffering and death of the Passion on Good Friday?  The in-between of Holy Saturday?  New life in the Resurrection of Easter Sunday?  

Lent is Coming

Lent

Ash Wednesday is around the corner, which marks the beginning of Lent.  Lent is a term derived from a word meaning “spring” or “springtime,” the season where we see nature go from death-to-new-life.  Like Jesus’ time in the desert, it is a journey of 40 days.

Theological Geek Moment (also known as “an interesting aside”):  Jesus wandered the desert for 40 days; Moses for 40 years; Noah wandered the waters for 40 days…  Ever wonder why 40?  For the ancient peoples, the number “4” carried the significance of an “earthly” meaning.  We have four seasons, the four directions (North, South, East, and West), the four elements of the body, and so on.  The number “10” means “a great many,” and the more zero’s the greater the many.  So the number 40 signifies a great many days/years, all over the earth.  The number “3” signifies divinity (not just the Trinity, but think about all the times when people in Scripture were selected in groups of threes).  When “3” and “4” – heaven and earth – come together, it signifies perfection and completion.  Numerically, this happens in two ways: 3 + 4 = 7 and 3 x 4 = 12.  Thus, 7 days of Creation, forgiving 7 times 70 times, the 12 Tribes of Israel, the 12 Apostles… a perfectly, complete number.

Getting back to Lent… Lent is literally a 40 day period, but since it’s 6 1/2 weeks, it doesn’t look like 40 days on the calendar.  There are 46 days from Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday, but the six Sundays during Lent are not counted because we dedicate Sundays to celebrating the Resurrection.

Ash Wednesday sets us up for this Lenten journey, marking our foreheads with ashes and telling us to “turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel.” The focus of Lent, Vatican II reminds us, is Baptism–either preparing to for the Sacrament of Baptism or preparing to take seriously the renewal of our baptismal promises at Easter.  Therein, the focus of Lent is conversion.  A death-to-new-life, turning away from sin.

Giving Something Up

As a child, I understood Lent as a time to give something up like soda or candy, but in my teen years, this felt very pedantic.  It felt like I was approaching Lent as a practice of self-denial so as to suffer.  Because Jesus suffered.

The Paschal Mystery is at the heart of our faith, and yes it involves suffering.  The Passion of Jesus refers to his suffering and death on Good Friday.  That’s an important part of the Paschal Mystery, but the story doesn’t end on Good Friday.  With a Paschal Mystery spirituality, Lenten practices are never about suffering for the sake of suffering.

Asceticism is an ancient practice that means self-denial or abstaining from worldly pleasures.  (Note that “asceticism” is distinct from the similar sounding “aesthetic” which means beauty.)  It is an opportunity to take something that we may be somewhat addicted to (like candy or soda or tv or electronic devices or Facebook), take that obsessive energy and instead direct it towards God.  When we find ourselves thinking about (or craving) that “thing,” we are presented with a built-in reminder to focus on God.  Ascetic practices serve to open us to new life in God.

Some people choose to take something up or do something positive rather than give something up.  In a manner of speaking, a person might give up their “free time” to attend daily mass.  But it’s deeper than that.  With a Pashcal Mystery spirituality, the aim is conversion; new life in Christ that honors our Baptismal promises.

Perhaps this involves giving up a sinful behavior; reminding ourselves “You don’t have to be a bad guy.”  Perhaps this involves intentionally practicing virtuous behavior.

  • Is there a Lenten practice that you could do to give up a sinful behavior or take up a virtuous behavior?
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Not to be a Pollyanna, but…

As a child, I absolutely loved the 1960’s Disney movie Pollyanna with Hayley Mills.  There was something about the hope and joy that this little girl brought into the life of so many people that spoke to my heart.

It’s easily been 20 years since I’ve seen the movie, but one of the bits of dialogue that always stuck with me had to do with the message about “glad” and “sad” pieces of Scripture.

Pollyanna innocently and gently mentions to the Reverend–whose weekly sermons had been filled with fire and brimstone–how her father had noted over 800 verses in the Bible in which God tells us to rejoice or be glad or be happy.  If the Lord took the trouble to tell us 800 times that he wants us to rejoice, then He must really mean it.*

These days, to accuse someone of being “a Pollyanna” implies being naively optimistic.  But I think she was on to something.  And I think that an inordinate focus on the fire and brimstone messages of Scripture does damage to people’s faith.  Whether I’m talking with an 83 year old woman on a retreat, a group of high school kids in a theology class, or a mom in her mid 30’s over a glass of wine, I find that people’s faith has been scarred by a fear of God and the threat of hell.

I’m not alone in rejecting the inordinate focus on fire and brimstone messages.  But many have swung so far to the opposite side that they have thrown the baby out with the bathwater, so to say, rejecting either God or hell or both.

If God is all loving and forgiving, then how can there be anyone in hell?

I suppose that’s why eschatology, the theological term for the “last four things” (heaven, hell, purgatory, and judgment), is one of my favorite topics to teach about.  A renewed understanding of heaven, hell, and judgment is so healing for so many people.

Imagery

Most people’s understanding of how heaven, hell, and judgment work is a cartoon-ized version of the following:


20140115215105Upon death, we imagine standing before the pearly gates.  St. Peter looks at the big thick book on his podium.  All of the good and all of the bad we have ever done is weighed on some cosmic scale; whichever way the scale tips determines our destiny.  If the scale tips “good,” then the pearly gates open, choirs of angels sing, and we enter heaven.  If the scale tips “bad,” then the trap door opens beneath our feet and we descend down to the fiery pits of hell.  

That simplistic imagery might work for cartoon and comic artists, but it’s lousy theology and everyone knows it.  So why is it so pervasive?  From a religious education perspective, it engages our religious imagination, even if it’s unhealthy.  So rather than just replacing that cartoon-ized imagery with the language of good theology,  I’d like to offer some different imagery that opens us to healthier theology.

Upon the moment of your death, imagine you walk in to a IMAX theatre equipped with a great big sofa in the middle of the room.  Who is sitting on this sofa?  The Almighty and Ever-Loving God.  You take a seat next to the Divine Presence, and God puts a Divine arm around your shoulder.  The lights dim, and the instant the movie starts, you immediately recognize it as the story of your life.  As it plays, you notice that for every good you have done, God squeezes your arm and lovingly whispers Thank you!  For all the harmful or hurtful things you said or did… all times you should have done something but didn’t… you notice a tear roll down the Divine face.  You realize that your thoughts, words, actions, and inactions have hurt God.  You. Have. Hurt. God.  Notice how that realization feels.  

As the movie of your life continues, you also notice that any of those instances that you have expressed sincere remorse for–the ones you have sought forgiveness for in the Sacrament of Reconciliation–do not make it in to the movie, as if God does not feel the need to rehash it.  

The movie ends, the lights come up, God turns to look at you and you realize you are now faced with a choice. 

  • You can look into God’s loving eyes, take responsibility, apologize, and seek forgiveness… to which God will reply, “Child, you are already forgiven.  Welcome home!”

Or…

  • You can refuse to accept the Truth of what you have made of your life.  You can rationalize, making excuses and justifying your behavior.  You can simply get up and walk out, choosing to believe your own version of events, indifferent to God.   In effect, you can reject God and, in doing so, choose hell.

Heaven

God wants heaven for us.  God wants us to choose heaven.  Rather than thinking of heaven as some playground in the sky, think of heaven as being in the complete and total presence of God.  United with God in heaven is the fulfillment of all longing, of our deepest desires.  This is the beatific vision–seeing God’s face.  This joy is paradise! A wedding feast! (See CCC, 1023-1029.)

But God is God.  And Truth is Truth.  And we must choose: God’s Truth or your own version of truth.

Hell

It is in rejecting God and God’s Truth that a person chooses hell.  If heaven is being completely and fully in God’s presence, hell is complete isolation from God.  (See CCC, 1033-1037.)  We have no idea what complete isolation from God is like.  Our lives are imbued with the presence of God.  The grace of the Holy Spirit permeates our lives so much so that we don’t even have a concept of what complete isolation from God really means.  

They will throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth. (Matthew 13:42)

The images of heaven and hell in Scripture are intended to conjure relateable ideas, not provide a literal description.  A fiery furnace… have you ever been badly burned?  My sister has.  She spent two weeks in the pediatric unit of the burn center of New Jersey when she was 10.  Every day burn patients would need to spend time in the “tank room” where the raw skin in their wounds is scrubbed clean of debris so as to prevent infection; it’s more painful than most of us can imagine.  A fiery furnace where clothing melts into skin… Isolation from God feels like that.

Purgatory

But what if you’re the sort of person who needs time to process the difficult Truths you faced.  You want to take responsibility, you just need time to think and come to terms with things.  This is where purgatory comes in.  Purgatory is most emphatically not a punishment (see CCC, 1031), but rather Church tradition calls it a time of purification.

To use some traditional vocabulary terms: thus far, I have been describing what Church tradition refers to as “particular judgment,” or when each individual person is judged, they end up either heaven, hell or purgatory (CCC, 1022).  Ultimately, there will come a time for all decisions to be made… the process of purification will need to be completed at some point; purgatory is not an eternal option.  This is what we know as the “last judgment” and the Second Coming at the end of time (CCC 1038-1041).  So we’ve got some time if we need it… just not forever.  

But…

One of the things I always loved about teaching adolescents is their willingness to ask the difficult, uncomfortable questions that everyone is wondering.

But if all we need to do is ask for God’s forgiveness in the end and “choose heaven,” then what’s the point of being good?  Why not just do whatever you want and ask forgiveness later?

This is the question that transitions the discussion from eschatology (heaven, hell, purgatory, and judgment) to morality, which will be discussed in another post.  But it’s an important question that deserves an answer here.

Have you ever run a marathon?  I have.  All 26.2 miles.  I never imagined I could do it.  I never used to run. (I don’t actually run now, either.)  But I did it with the help of my husband who mapped out the six months of daily training.  From barely being able to run 2 miles without wanting to die, we trained and trained and trained.  And in October 2003, I finished the Marine Corps Marathon alongside my then fiance, now husband.

After

The moral life is much like the training for the marathon of eschatology.  Is it possible for someone who sits on the couch all day, every day eating cheetos to wake up the next morning and finish a marathon?  Our faith calls us to say, Yes – it is possible.  But not probable.  I don’t know about you, but that “possibility” is not something I’m willing to rest my eternity on, either.  Moral behavior is that training that helps us develop the quality of character who can–in the end–say yes to God.

Prepare the Way

Today is the first Sunday of Advent.  The season of preparation.  The season of waiting.

We live in an instant-gratification culture that hates waiting.  We are barraged with Christmas sales, music, and merchandise in October.  So when we hear talk about “Advent” we tend to think only of the countdown calendars… and even then, it’s hard to understand and embrace the waiting.

Advent Calendar

But wait, we must.  We encounter the waiting game in every nook and cranny of our lives.  We wait in lines.  We wait in traffic.  We wait for news of a job, news of a diagnosis, news of a birth… a death… a pregnancy…  In this season of Advent, we are given the opportunity to baptize (notice the little “b” there) or consecrate (set-aside for God) our experiences of waiting as time to be present to the moment… to the yearning for goodness.  Perhaps in the waiting, we can put down the cell phones and set aside the frustration and take the opportunity to pray.  In embracing the waiting, perhaps we can relinquish control to the One who is the Messiah.

Advent is a Season of Preparation

What is it that we are preparingfor?  We prepare for the coming of Christ.

For young children, we certainly focus on the Miracle of the Incarnation: in Advent we prepare for the birth of Christ.  But as we grow older, we hear the readings throughout Advent… readings that are not simply about the coming of the Christ-Child, but of the Second Coming and John the Baptist’s message of repentance.

St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) summed up the meaning of Advent when he suggested that in it, we celebrate three comings of the Lord: the past, the present, and the future,

  1. The Past: The first coming was the coming of Christ in history: the Miracle of the Incarnation.
  2. The Present: The coming of Christ within the hearts of disciples.
  3. The Future:This final coming (often referred to as “The Second Coming”) will take place at the end of the world (the Apocalypse).

The Past – The Incarnation: Amid the secular holiday retail extravaganza, we do manage to see the images of the nativity, however meager. Look for them.  Revisit the story of the Nativity.  Marvel at the Mystery of the Incarnation: God became human.

The Future – The Second Coming: Though admittedly, we don’t see many images of the Second Coming in seasonal decorations.  Not very heart warming, I suppose.  Even as Jesus himself admits we do not know the hour (Matthew 24:36), we are called to prepare our lives for this reality by having our priorities in order. 

The Present – In Our Hearts:  St. Bernard referred to this dimension of Advent as the “invisible” reality.  Here, we can look to the multitude of Christmas movies and focus on the messages of conversion, from The Grinch to Rudolph to even my least favorite, Frosty.

Yet still, we manage to misunderstand the meaning of this season of preparation in our daily lives.  Bear with me as I ask you to take a moment to engage your religious imagination:

Imagine going to the mailbox and sorting through the bills and junk to find you have received a very special announcement: Jesus will be joining you for dinner tomorrow night, and he’s very much looking forward to it.  Somehow – however you need – you know for certain that this is not a joke.  Once you get over the shock, what’s the first thing you’ll need to do?

Even as I write this question and I know the “right” answer, I feel myself tempted to do an emergency house cleaning while I let my husband deal with the menu.  And then there’s getting the kids cleaned up, into nice clothes and practicing their table manners.

The thing is that Jesus couldn’t care less about the condition of my house.  What he cares about is the condition of my heart.

When John the Baptist tells us to Prepare the Way… to Repent and believe… he’s telling us to get our priorities in order.  To quit obsessing about the things that don’t matter (consumerism, materialism, and perfectionism, just to name a few) and give our hearts to the things that do matter (love, presence, and a faith that does justice).

So perhaps in the midst of all that time we spend waiting, we could ask ourselves a better question:  What do I need to do to prepare my heart–my life–to welcome Jesus?

Vanity of Vanities = First World Problems

So one of the things I love about living in my neighborhood is that we can bike–as a family–to Church, to friends houses, to the pool, to my husband’s work.

IMG_1731

Biking to swim practice

It’s Sunday morning at 9:45am. I’m all excited that we’re actually walking out the door with plenty of time to bike the 1/2 mile and get to the 10 o’clock Mass without rushing.  Everyone has bike helmets on, I’m loading stuff into my basket, and my husband grimly tells me that my front tire has a hole in the tube.  

So we walked.  Quickly.  In the Houston heat and humidity. And got to Mass at 9:59am. Sweaty, but on time.

First World Problems.

The first time I heard the phrase “First World Problems” was on FaceBook, in a meme.

first-world-problems

Except I didn’t know it was a meme.  I read the shallow complaints common to American society and flipped out.  [Me: THESE ARE NOT PROBLEMS!] A couple of FaceBook friends gently explained that it was an expression and what it meant.

First World Problems, also known as “White Whine,” are frustrations and complaints that are only experienced by privileged individuals in wealthy countries. It is typically used as a tongue-in-cheek comedic device to make light of trivial inconveniences.*

A couple of weeks ago, my Mom explained that she heard the phrase for the first time.  It changed things for her: How privileged am I to have THESE problems?

So when I heard the readings today – readings I have heard a gazillion times before – I felt like I was being called out on something.

Vanity of vanities, says Qoheleth,
vanity of vanities! All things are vanity!
Here is one who has labored with wisdom and knowledge and skill,
and yet to another who has not labored over it,
he must leave property.
This also is vanity and a great misfortune.
For what profit comes to man from all the toil and anxiety of heart
with which he has labored under the sun?
All his days sorrow and grief are his occupation;
even at night his mind is not at rest.
This also is vanity.

(Ecclesiastes 1:2; 2:21-23)

The word vanity translates as “breath” or “vapor,” as in breath of breath or vapor of vapors.  Designating something that lacks substance, in effect, meaning “nothing of nothing-ness.”

First World Problems.

Though I was disappointed that we couldn’t bike to Church–and that I’ll have to buy a new tube to fix the tire–I was fully aware that this wasn’t a real problem.  I take a look at my FaceBook feed… and I see a lot of complaining about things that aren’t really problems.  It’s so easy to complain.  Too easy.  And all too often, I join in the misery.

Vanity of vanities! All things are vanity!

I read the book A Complaint Free World a while ago… I love the theory (complaining less; appreciating more).  I also recently lost a dear friend to cancer… there’s nothing quite like watching your friend’s newly widowed husband having to care for three kids under the age of nine to put things in perspective for you.

There’s a lot of things that we expend our time, energy, money, and effort worrying about that really don’t matter.

Brothers and sisters:
If you were raised with Christ, seek what is above,
where Christ is seated at the right hand of God.
Think of what is above, not of what is on earth.
Colossians 3:1-2

Throughout Scripture, Jesus calls us to conversion.  The Greek word is metanoia.  A change in our whole being; a transformation grounded in repentance.  Metanoia is less about rejecting earthly things and more about recognizing what really matters.

What if, instead of complaining about things that don’t really matter, we saw each inconvenience as an opportunity to embrace something new.  Or simply thought “How privileged am I to have these problems?”

 If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts. (Ps 95:7-8)

Perfect

If there was one thing you could (magically, effortlessly) change about yourself, what would it be?

Play along: come up with one thing.  Perhaps it’s…

  • developing virtuous habits (and eliminating unhealthy ones)
  • addressing some physical characteristic (in the realm of body image or ability)
  • acquiring a desired talent

Sit with your answer.  What does it tell you about yourself?

  • Is it just for fun?
  • Does it have to do with something you struggle with?
  • How does it relate to your personal goals?  Hopes?  Dreams?

What does it tell you about where you are on the spectrum between self-love and self-loathing?

In the lifelong journey of growth and change, there is usually some thing or another that we are working on improving.  This is good.  However, there is a legitimate concern for our spiritual well-being insomuch as how we treat ourselves in the process.

You are a child of God, created in God’s image and likeness.

Then God said: Let us make human beings in our image, after our likeness. Let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, the tame animals, all the wild animals, and all the creatures that crawl on the earth.  God created humankind in his image; in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. (Genesis 1:26-27)

When it comes to the things about yourself that you want to change, do you honor the image of God within?  Do you treat yourself with the love and respect that the image of God deserves?  

Healthy self-love appreciates the goodness that is.  It is from a place of love, not hate, that we are called to conversion – or metanoia.

In the reflection “Just Paint Over It,” I referenced the Greek word metanoia while discussing the transforming process of forgiveness.  Metanoia [pronounced meta-noy-ah] translates as “a change of heart.” Meaning a conversion where the person turns away from what is destructive, hurtful, hateful, and instead turns towards God.

Too often, however, we can be overly critical of ourselves in a way which is neither helpful nor loving.  There is a fine line between goals that motivate and the expectation of nothing less than perfection that can shut a person down.

The need for perfection.

There are two times that the word “perfect” appears in the gospels, both in the Gospel According to Matthew.  The first is in Matthew 5:48, which is the part of the Sermon on the Mount in which Jesus discusses Love of Enemies.

You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your heavenly Father, for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust.  For if you love those who love you, what recompense will you have? Do not the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet your brothers only, what is unusual about that? Do not the pagans do the same? So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.  (Matthew 5:43-48)

The Mount of Beatitudes and The Sea of Galilee

The second appears in Matthew 19:21 within the story of The Rich Young Man.

Now someone approached him and said, “Teacher, what good must I do to gain eternal life?”  He answered him, “Why do you ask me about the good? There is only One who is good.  If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.”  He asked him, “Which ones?” And Jesus replied, “‘You shall not kill; you shall not commit adultery; you shall not steal; you shall not bear false witness; honor your father and your mother’; and ‘you shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” The young man said to him, “All of these I have observed. What do I still lack?” Jesus said to him, “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” When the young man heard this statement, he went away sad, for he had many possessions. (Matthew 19:16-22)

If you wish to be perfect…

In reality, there is always room for improvement.   If we think we are all done with the personal/spiritual growth thing (as if to say: “I have arrived”), we are reminded that our work is never complete.It is then, that Jesus will say to us:

If you wish to be perfect…

It’s the all-or-nothing extremes that are useless.  Unhelpful.  Paralyzing.  In no way does Jesus insinuate that this rigid interpretation of perfection is what we are to aim for.

Growth—change—is a process.  Metanoia is a “turning” away from something (sinful) and towards God (who is wholeness, life, and truth).

Think about the self-improvement / growth things that you are working on in your life.  Do you treat yourself with love in the process of turning?  Or do you become overly critical and hateful about perceived failures?  Because that “hateful” thing is not what Jesus would do.

To move beyond my own struggle with perfectionism, I found it helpful to redefine “perfect” as functioning at my best, right now.  For me that implies being my best and doing my best in the present moment, while looking to take the next step to become better.

The “next step” is an important concept in overcoming paralyzing perfectionism, because it recognizes the space between the “reality of now” and the “ideal” or “goal.”  And in order for it to function, the “next step” should be realistic.  Small.  Doable.

And then celebrate the success.  And build upon it.  Because that is perfect.

You are not now what you were… You are not now what you will be when God has perfected you.                  – St. Vincent de Paul

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