Wednesday, January 30, 2013

How to Handle a Good Morning

Photo by Nelso47

Um...It was a good morning.

No, seriously, I mean it!  Things went smoothly.  No significant fights over getting ready, no hatred spewed, no ugliness at all.

If you don't know me and my life, that might not sound like such a big deal.  But if you know me, you know what a rare jewel a good school morning is.

I used to handle such things horribly, and even now I usually don't handle those jewels as well as I should, but I want today to be different.  I hope you'll come along as I work my way through this, and maybe you'll be blessed, too.

What's that I said?  I don't usually handle God's good gifts well?  Why would that be?

It's simple, really.  In the past (and to a lesser extent, even now), I have tended to receive good mornings (or any rare blessing) the way a pre-linguistic Helen Keller received things from her caregivers.

Snatch.  Gnaw.  Consume.  Figure out how to make sure you get more.  Try to get control over those who give it.  Hold it tightly.  Give no thought to humble gratitude...but be prepared to dish out severe punishment if more good stuff isn't immediately forthcoming.  This good thing is a little taste of life, and you need need control over it...desperately.

Ironically, the snatching, grasping, desperately clawing recipient gets no real, lasting joy from the gift.  The most she can settle for is an uneasy sense of triumph with no assurance of future blessings at all.

Does any of this sound familiar?  I admit, my imagery was rather stark. No one who has seen "The Miracle Worker" can ever forget the intense, knock-down, drag-out fight scene between Helen and Anne Sullivan.  We don't want to see ourselves in Helen, and most likely we've never behaved exactly as she did (at least not since our tantruming toddler days). But look at my description again.  At its core, at least to some degree, does the above describe how you receive God's blessings?  No?  Walk a little further with me, and you may begin to recognize it a little better.  Even if, like me, the worst of these attitudes is behind you, you might still see hints of them trying to rise up again.  So please indulge the following question:

When you've received a rare blessing... something you desperately desire but have to do without most of the time... do you pray afterwards?  If so, how do you pray afterwards?

Perhaps you don't pray.  Why would that be?

  •  Perhaps it's because you already got what you wanted, so what is there to pray about, right?  (Translation:  Prayer isn't about a loving relationship with God, it's about controlling God, getting what you want out of Him.  Therefore it's pointless to pray if you've got "it" already.  To go back to our example above, Helen has been handed enough cake to satisfy her sweet tooth, and once she's gobbled it, she's ready to go play.  The giver is forgotten until something else is needed.)  I've been guilty of this, for sure. 
  • Or perhaps it's because you see God as an unpredictably explosive despot, who is best handled by tiptoeing around Him.  Like an abused child, you just want to make sure you keep under His radar, so that maybe He won't hurt you.  I used to see God that way.  It's far from the truth about Him, and I pray that He will lovingly remove such misconceptions from your heart if they're there.

Perhaps you pray, but with a heart that's in the wrong place.

  • Perhaps you pray as if you're God's teacher, trying to use Behavior Modification techniques on Him.  "See now, God, how this went?  You finally got it right.  This is how it's supposed to go, and I expect it from now on."  You dish out what you call "praise" not from a humble heart of gratitude, but as an attempt to manipulate and control God.  You see Him as a praise-hungry, grasping soul Himself.  He needs strokes from you, and you need (whatever it is) from Him.  So you work out a trade.  There's nothing even approximating love or respect here.  I know, because I've been there.
  • Perhaps you pray fearfully, as one who thinks the gift could be snatched away at any time.  Every "good morning" seems to you like a chance that things could go well from now on, and in fact, they should go well from now on...but God might just play the Grinch and take it all away.  I know this reality far too well.  Just over a week ago, I actually corresponded with a teacher who was gushing over how well things had gone in first period...and almost immediately after responding to that email, I got a call from another teacher telling me that my son had done the worst of all the awful things he's ever done in school.  Disciplinary actions would have to be stronger.  Details would have to go in his permanent record.  I would have to meet with deans and school psychologists yet again.  Medication consults would have to be scheduled.  The soon after a hopeful email that made my heart seemed cruel and capricious indeed.  If it had happened a few years ago, that's exactly how I would have seen it.  And I still find little hints of that attitude popping up now and then.

Can you see how such attitudes would completely ruin whatever we received?

So how should you and I handle God's good gifts?

  • Recognize the Giver, and receive His gifts accordingly.
    • He is our loving, perfect Heavenly Father who does all things well.  Everything He sends to His children is love.  Love Him in return!
    • He is the Heavenly Gardener who sends both sunshine and rain, at the right times and the right quantities (even though they might not seem right to me at the time).  Trust Him.
    • He's the Great Physician.  He sees how sin has broken us, and He knows how to set the bones so they'll grow straight and strong again.  If the setting process is painful, it's still done in love.  Submit to His care.

  • Recognize the gift, and receive it accordingly.
    • It is given as a secondary gift.  The primary gift that God gives is Himself.  He is the greatest good.  And He is always there for His children, even when His gifts are not obviously given. So receive each gift as a secondary thing.  Treasure it...but treasure Him more.
    • It is given for a particular time.  It will probably not last forever, but it will last as long as God deems best. Do not fear that it will be taken away prematurely.  It may well be taken away before you'd like it to be, but His timing is perfect.  So enjoy the gift thoroughly, even as you hold it loosely.  
    • It is an act of His love, not a test of His love.  The proof of His love came at Calvary, when He gave infinitely above and beyond all reasonable doubt of His love.  He gave His life to purchase eternity for you!  (Imagine if your own children doubted your love between every meal, viewed each mealtime as a test of your love, received each meal as proof.  Of course you would be terribly grieved by that kind of distrust.  And if your love should be obvious to your children, shouldn't God's love be obvious to His children? You can trust the love of the one who died for you (See Rom 8:32).

  • Recognize the recipients of the gift.  Yes, I said recipients - plural.  Let's go back to my pleasant morning as an example.  It was a gift to me, of course, but it was also a gift to the child in question, his father, his siblings, his teachers, his classmates, and anyone else who could benefit from the good start we all enjoyed.  In fact, the recipients include YOU, the reader of this blog.  This entry wouldn't have happened today without the good morning that made me think these things through.  Only God is wise enough to weave together all of the threads of our lives in ways that make everything work out for the good of everyone who loves Him.  When you realize how many people are involved, it's easier to accept the fact that "The Good" is far more complex than you or I can comprehend.  Expand your view beyond yourself, and then trust God to make it all work out the way it should.

"Thank You, Lord, for this morning.  I know it came from Your loving hand, but I also know that the hard mornings also come from Your loving hand.  I trust You with all of it.  Thank You for the good that You plan to bring out of it all, not just for me, but for all those who are touched by our family, directly or indirectly.  I don't know if the phone is about to ring with bad news, or if things will seemingly "go wrong" in some other way...or if this wonderful peacefulness will last for a good long while.  Whatever you place in my hands, I willingly receive.  And whatever you take from my hands, I willingly relinquish.  In the Name of the One who died for me, Amen!"

Friday, January 25, 2013

Praying "For Others"...Selfishly?

Photo by adzika

Have you ever caught yourself praying "for others"...selfishly?

Don't get me wrong...there's nothing wrong with anticipating blessing, with desiring God's gifts for oneself.  God has lavishly promised blessings throughout Scripture, and it's good to desire them.  We are creatures of desire, and if we don't desire good, we will desire evil.

Few things could be more harmful to our prayer lives than navel-gazing...searching our prayers for any speck of self-interest and then feeling defeated when we find it there.  Such introspection is, by definition, totally self-centered.  The Enemy of our Souls LOVES to get us into traps like that.

We are commanded to rejoice in God's kindness towards us, and it would be wrong to refuse His kindness, or to receive it with a guilty spirit that is concerned only with our own perceived piety.  We don't want to go there.

But putting that aside, let me ask again...have you ever caught yourself praying for others selfishly?

I caught myself doing that the other morning.  I was wrestling my way through the usual, painfully difficult morning routine with a particular child of mine, and I realized that I was praying "for him" with only one goal in mind.

I want to be done with frustrating mornings like this!

Again...that's not a bad desire.  But it was the only desire behind my prayer that morning.  The child for whom I was supposedly praying was not even in my thoughts except as the source of my frustration.


Am I the only one who is this self-centered?

I'm tempted to say, "I hope not," but then again, the world would be a much better place if everyone else in it loved their neighbors better than I do.

How can can we pray for others unselfishly?

The key is not to try to eliminate all self-interest.  Christian prayer is not like Buddhist meditation.  It is not an attempt to empty oneself of Self.  It is not an endless cycle of subtraction.

Christian prayer prioritizes.  Instead of trying to annihilate Self, it seeks to dethrone Self and bring it to its knees.  It seeks first the Kingdom, understanding full well that other desires (both worthy and unworthy) will be there as well.  Unworthy desires must be repented of, but worthy ones need no repentance.  They need only to be put in their proper places.

But how?

If you've been following this blog over the past several months, you've seen how the Lord has been shaping my prayer life to align it with His priorities, especially those priorities revealed in the "Lord's Prayer" and the Beatitudes.  I continue to be amazed at the power that comes with praying this way...power to submit myself to God and His desires, rather than trying to manipulate Him into giving me my selfish desires.

And yet, as I caught myself doing the other morning, it's possible to pray even these prayers with a selfish spirit.

"Lord, may this child do Your Will the way it's done in Heaven...cheerfully, lovingly, trustingly... because He's driving me nuts!!!"

Of course God wants us to be honest with Him in prayer, so that wasn't a bad way to start.  But if the Holy Spirit hadn't grabbed me and convicted me, it would have been the whole prayer, not just the beginning of it.

Betsy, do you care about this boy, too?

Oh Lord, forgive me.  Yes, of course, but not nearly enough, at least not when I'm frustrated.

And so I prayed the Lord's priorities again, but this time I added, "for (this child's) sake and Your Glory."  I'm not talking about rote words, of course, but once again, aligning my priorities with God's and submitting to Him.  I had already prayed for my own sake.  It was time to move on to bigger things.

Such softening came to my soul!  Frustration gave way to tenderness, and selfishness yielded to love.

Ok, it didn't last long, because I'm such a selfish person.  But I knew I'd hit on something vital, something I would have to return to again and again.

Pray God's priorities not only for your own sake, but also for the sake of others apart from you, and for the glory of God.  Do it deliberately.

It's so basic that it hardly seems like I should have to say it.  And yet I know that I need to be reminded of it, often.  Perhaps you do, too.  So here is a helpful outline.

When I pray for others whose lives rub up against mine, I need to pray about several spheres:

  • The sphere of my relationship with God.  I cannot relate to others well if I'm in a state of rebellion myself.
  • The sphere of my relationship with that other person
  • The sphere of that person's relationship to others apart from myself...for his sake, other people's sakes, and for God's glory.
  • The sphere of that person's relationship to God...for his sake and God's glory.
Do you see how love is encouraged when I deliberately choose to pray for others' sakes in our relationship, and even in the spheres of their lives that don't rub up against mine at all?  I can begin to see others as the whole people that they are, not just as the sum total of their impact on my own life.

Of course, in the midst of a rushed and frustrating morning routine, there's rarely time for a thorough, deliberate prayer time.  That's why I find it so vital to pray thoroughly for others all throughout the day, so that when crisis situations arrive, my attitudes and priorities have already been shaped in good ways.  

If my heart has often knelt before God, then in the moment of crisis, my heart can kneel even when I don't have time for thorough prayer.  My "knee jerk" can change.  So can yours, by the grace of God.

And our worlds will be better for it.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Influence vs. Control

Photo by Stickysen

Yesterday we talked about how not to give up on impossible people.  We discussed our need for meekness, and for a desire to exert influence rather than control over others.  (Of course I'm thinking of the way we interact with older children and with adults.  Naturally, with younger children especially, there are times when control is necessary. Just be sure it's loving, godly control, rather than the ungodly control detailed below.)

What's the difference between ‘influence’ and ‘ungodly control’, and why is one better than the other?  

I’m going to do some comparing and contrasting below, but I want to start with a disclaimer and some encouragement.

First, the disclaimer.  I’m a novice at this.  I’ve been a wanna-be controller my whole life, and the result has been devastating to my life and my witness.  But I’ve caught glimpses of beautiful truths that, since I’ve begun to apply them, are bringing more peace and joy and actual, healthy influence to my life.  So I write these thoughts as a convinced person thirsty for more, not as one who has “arrived.”

Second, the encouragement.  If the standards of “influencer” presented here seem discouragingly impossible, or if you’ve dabbled in this approach and not seen instant results, please read all the way through to the bottom (or skip ahead if you must) for a balancing perspective.

Godly Influence - Can only be wielded by one who is, herself, submissive to God.  (1 Co. 11:1)

Ungodly Control - Can be wielded by anyone with the ability to cause pain or pleasure, regardless of her relationship to God.

Godly Influence – As the godly influencer humbly submits to God in how she interacts with others, she also cares enough about them to give them wise and loving guidance from her position of peaceful surrender.

Ungodly Control - The controller tries to force others to do her will, and tries to usurp God's role in their lives.

Here's something to think about...can I lead anyone to trust in God and submit to Him if my number one priority is that they submit to ME?  (Yes, when we are in a legitimate place of authority, we should expect those under us to obey.  But what is our top priority when it comes to their obedience?  Who do we see as their ultimate authority?)

Godly influence – Is accepted and received by others when the influencer has earned their respect, and when they sense that she honors them, as God commanded (1 Pet 2:17).

Ungodly Control – Is resented by others who sense that the controller does NOT honor them, but rather see them as pawns on her chessboard.

Godly influence – Comes from someone who is genuinely concerned for the welfare of others, more than of self (see Php 2:4).  Such a person is not detached, and will truly suffer if the other sins.  Even so, she is more concerned with the other’s well-being than with her own.

Ungodly Control – Comes from someone who may care about others, but is more concerned with self.  Her attitude is, “I have to make you do such-and-such, because I’m so afraid of what will happen to me if things go wrong with you.  If you do what I don’t want you to do, I won’t be able to stand it.  I control you to protect myself.”

Godly influence – Comes from a parent who draws her life, peace, hope and joy from God alone, and rests securely in Him.  Such peace is itself hugely influential. Her children will know that their sins grieve her because she loves them.  But they will also see that she has Solid Rock under her feet, and they will want that for themselves.

Ungodly control – Comes from a fearful, distrusting parent who does not draw what she needs from God’s well, but rather tries to get her needs met by others.  She becomes like a leech, trying to suck life out of those around her, and terrified if she can’t make them meet her needs.  Leeching and loving are incompatible opposites, and the recipients of leeching know that they are not loved.  
    Also, the controller’s fearfulness loudly broadcasts to others that, no matter how much the controller claims to advocate trust in God, she herself has no such trust.  Again, such a parent will say, by word or action, “It will kill me if you do such-and-such!”  Her lack of faith in God to sustain her through a child’s sin makes her profession of faith a sham, and gives children no reason to trust in the God that their parent distrusts.

Godly influence – Seeks to lead people to the cross where they can be freed from guilt, and teaches them how to live by grace.

Ungodly Control – Uses guilt and fear to dominate others, and pushes them away from the liberating truths of the gospel.  This happens even (perhaps especially) if the oppressor verbally preaches the gospel.

Godly influence – Comes from love, and builds love.  The influencer is free to love, because her needs are met by God more than by other people.  When she has a rebellious child, she does not have to withdraw or kick the child out of her life in order to restore peace.  She can love because she draws her peace from God.  The godly influencer is able to be truly kind, to truly love, because she does so without ulterior motives of gaining control.

Ungodly control – Comes from self-centeredness, and inevitably becomes oppressive or even abusive.  Because this controller is not godly, even her kind acts are suspect.  Since they are truly efforts to gain control through the back door, the kindnesses will cease if they don’t work.   
Godly influence – Is mostly wielded unconsciously.  The moments of direct guidance may be powerful, but the life of the influencer has even more power, and helps make her guidance believable.  It is fondly remembered by the person being influenced, even after the influencer is gone.  She leads by following Christ, and hopes sincerely that others will come along, encouraging them to do so whenever appropriate.  Whenever someone else follows, it’s because they want what she has, not because she tries to drag them against their will.

Ungodly control – Is mostly deliberate and forceful.  It ceases as soon as the controller isn’t around, and certainly ends with her death.  Even if the controller succeeds in forcing others to follow her, she leads them to the wrong place.  Ironically, she also has an unconscious influence over others, but it is a repellant one.

Godly influence – Does not get into power struggles.  She is controlled by God alone, though she is certainly affected by those around her.  Her responses to others are dictated by God, not by those around her.  Because she is God-controlled, she is also self-controlled, and is able to respond to others in truly good and helpful ways.  She does her best to teach and lead others, but trusts God to wrestle with each sinner’s heart, including her own.  She never dreams of seeing herself as anyone’s savior.

Ungodly Control – Not only gets into power struggles, but often loses them.  Why?  Because a child learns early on that his actions dictate the parent’s responses.  The child is actually the one in power in the relationship.  Because the parent MUST maintain control, she MUST fight with the child, and is helpless to avoid any escalation the child brings about.  The parent sees herself as savior, and therefore becomes very dangerous.  To what lengths will a parent not go to save a child’s soul?  (For a tragic example of this danger, see my post about the murder of Lydia Schatz perpetrated by her controlling “Christian” parents.)

Godly influence – is forgiving.  This person knows that other people are primarily accountable to God, not to her.  Therefore, she recognizes the biblical truth that all sin is first and foremost against God, and if God forgives, we can and must forgive also.

Ungodly control – Holds grudges.  The controller sees herself as the primary victim when anyone else sins, and so she does not forgive.  If she offers forgiveness, it is only as a power play designed to bring others back to their proper position as she sees it...on their knees before her!

Godly influence – Is patient.  The influencer hopes to see others changed for the better, and is delighted if she gets to see it happen.  But she trusts God’s timing and keeps on walking in obedience to Him and love for others, even if she doesn’t immediately (or ever) see the results she was hoping for.  Her desire is to lead, but her goal is to follow.  And because of this, her goal is reachable every day, no matter how others respond. Therefore, she can live at peace and with a sense of fulfillment, even if her desires are not yet met.  Also, she knows that genuine change takes time, but it’s more permanent and real than anything she could have forced in the moment.  

Ungodly control – Needs to see results NOW!  Such a parent will use whatever means necessary to get those results (or what looks good outwardly) right away, regardless of the harm done in the process.  Though God is patient with the parent, the parent is not patient with the child, and so is a hypocrite very reminiscent of the wicked servant in Matt 18:23-34.

Godly influence – A person who exudes the kind of godly influence I’ve described will naturally see personal holiness as a great source of joy, because it allows communion with God, who is our joy.  Because this person loves God, she grows in obedience to Him throughout her life.  Her close walk with God and enjoyment of Him is her definition of success.  He is her goal, her dream, her life’s pleasure.

Ungodly control – Will “do things God’s way” as long as it “works” (defined as, “getting me the instant results I covet”).  If God’s ways don’t get the immediate, desired results, this person will abandon His ways and go off on her own, and will genuinely feel that she had no choice.  Or, she will refuse to even try do things God’s way in the first place, because she is convinced (probably rightly) that it won’t enhance her control.  God is not her goal, her dream, her life’s pleasure.  Walking with Him is not success.  Controlling others is everything.  So even when she thinks she’s walking with God because she follows certain rules, she is not really in relationship with Him. To the extent that she finds her life in other people instead of in God, to that extent she is not a person of faith.


Do you find this list discouraging?  Please don’t.  

Christ wants you to have a joyful walk of faith with Him.  He wants it so much that He lived a perfect life, died a perfect, sacrificial death, and resurrected to give new life to all who put their trust in Him.  

Confess to Him that you’ve been needing other mere mortals to be your life, but that now you will put your trust in Him as the only true source of life.  Ask Him to forgive you and make you new, to put His Holy Spirit inside of you to start changing you from the inside out.  (Or, if you know that the Holy Spirit already resides in you, ask Him to begin to work on this area in your life.)  

Seek Him first, submit to Him, obey Him no matter what results you see around you.  Walk in love as He loves, as His Spirit makes you able to love unselfishly.

You will find that your godly influence grows as long as you seek Him first, seek loving influence second, and seek ungodly control never.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

How Not To Give Up On Impossible People

Photo by fireyes

"I give up!  I can't do ANYTHING with him!"

"Years and years and years of this, and nothing ever changes!  He NEVER listens, NEVER learns, and NEVER will!"

"How am I supposed to fix this?"

Co-workers, spouses, neighbors, church members, classmates... impossible people are everywhere.  But in some cases, much more than others, we feel the burden almost unbearably.


Because these "impossible people" happen to be our God-given responsibility, that's why.  We've been entrusted with them, and we've been commanded to "raise them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord" (Eph 6:4).

And, to make matters even more complicated, we LOVE the darn critters.

I don't know if you know this about me or not, but I have an angry mouth.  I'm a verbal person, so my mouth is one of the first places where my sin nature broadcasts itself in all its ugliness.  No, I don't use curse words, but I can manage to spoil even the presentation of biblical truth by the anger that I corrupt it with.

And, at some level, I still firmly believe that the right angry words could change "that person" if only I could find the right words and say them angrily enough.  I know it's not true (see Jas 1:20), but I still believe it in my gut, in the part of me that I react from when I'm in knee-jerk mode.

(There's plenty of jerk in my knee jerk, believe me.)

The other thing you might not know about me is that I'm a born quitter.  Actually, I prefer avoidance, but when I find myself in a situation I can't handle or control, and my anger doesn't make it work, I have one strategy I can be counted on to adopt.

I quit.

I give up.

I withdraw.

So, basically, here's how I see my options in life (when I'm walking "in the flesh")

Painful situation

  • Can I avoid it?
    • Yes?  Then go knit something, play something, or watch something.
    • No?  Then get control of it.
  • Can I control it while being calm, cool, and collected?
    • Yes, people are cooperating, so stick with it.
    • No, people are not cooperating, so get angry and ugly.
  • Are anger and ugliness working?
    • Yes (if you consider sullen obedience "working.").  Congratulate yourself on having "won."  (Best to ignore the emotional and spiritual harm you've just done.)
    • No?  Then get even angrier and uglier.
  • Are the increased anger and ugliness working?
    • Yes?   Congratulate yourself on having "won."  (Best to ignore the emotional and spiritual harm you've just done.)
    • No?  Then quit.  Be sure they know you've given up on them, and go find something you enjoy doing.

Yep, that's me in a nutshell (which is doubtless where I belong).

Do you see how hopeless that model is?  Do you see how it offers absolutely no way to "win" that doesn't involve setting up your children...the offspring of your body and your heart... as "the enemy," and then crushing the opposition?

Do you see that such a "win" is really a dreadful loss for everyone, and especially for our Heavenly Father whose reputation we've just sullied?

But what else can we do with situations we can't control?

And it's here that Jesus meets us with words that make no sense to our fleshly selves.

"Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth." (Matt 5:5)

What does it mean to be meek?

I'm sure I can't comprehend the full depth of it, but here's how I currently understand it.  To be "meek" is to be eager to operate from a place of total inadequacy and dependence on the Lord.  A meek person is not obsessively driven toward mastery of life in her own strength, and is not envious of those who seem to have it.  A meek person does not seek to take by force what can only be inherited from the Father.  A meek person does not seek to control people, to control situations, or to control God.  A meek person seeks to control only her/himself, placing self in humble submission to the Father.

A meek person is fine with not being in control of others or of situations!  Do you hear what I'm saying?

But at the same time, a meek person doesn't stop loving or caring.  Meekness isn't anywhere close to my "withdrawal, giving up" strategy.

Meekness values godly influence over others more than control of others.  A meek person knows, to the depths of her heart, that when SHE has snatched control of a situation, she has probably lost her godly influence, and she would have been better off if things had worked in reverse.  Everyone else would have been better off, too.

A meek person isn't caught in the hopeless flow-chart I pictured above.  She has other options.  Options based on faith, hope, and love.

As I'm writing this last paragraph, I have just received another "bad news" phone call.

I hurt.  I really, really hurt.  I can't control this, and I mustn't throw in the towel.

I can't control this, but God is in control.  In fact, God insists on occupying His throne alone.  He never commanded me to sit there.  What He has commanded me to do is this:  To do justly, to love mercy, to walk humbly with Him.  He has commanded me to speak the truth in love, and to hallow His name in all that I do.  He has commanded me to be an imitator of Him, and to walk in love as Christ loved me and gave Himself up for me.

If I focus on controlling MYSELF, and keeping myself in humble submission to Christ, then I will have had a godly influence even though I have no control of others.  And someday, that influence can be used by the Holy Spirit to reach someone for Christ, where my "control" would only have pushed that person further away.

Love is patient.
Love bears up under it all, believes in all that God can do in and through self and others, hopes all things, endures all things.
Love never ends...

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