It wasn’t deliberate. It just happened. I simply thought it would be a good idea to interview them. After all, they were much loved members of our church who were going to be founding members of a totally new congregation. But I stood in awe as he answered my fairly ‘run of the mill’ question with a clarity, integrity and zeal that I’d not anticipated.
I actually found it quite moving.
As he spoke of their godly ambition to be part of a new church plant so that they could be intentional about reaching unbelievers with the gospel, I couldn’t help but think of Romans 15:20 where Paul says, ‘it has always been my ambition to preach the gospel where Christ was not known, so that I would not be building on someone else’s foundation’. It was only as I read an article this week that I realised that we’d done something very sensible and very wonderful when we interviewed them. This article was all about dealing with wrong ambitions in the workplace (this is something from which I am not exempt). And (it suggested) one of the things we fail to do as local churches is to make heroes of ordinary people who are rightly ambitious to do extraordinary things for the gospel. The world takes care of making heroes of wrongly ambitious people in the workplace. And we tend to swallow that hook, line and sinker. But we don’t often ‘big up’ those who are all about the success of God’s kingdom. And yet we’d inadvertently highlighted an example of godly ambition. We hadn’t meant to. But his answer took care of that.
This is a man who is currently doing a job for which he’s hugely overqualified. He’s earning less than he has every right to expect. And he continues to look for work in a noble but fairly normal career. Humanly speaking there’s nothing about him or his career that shouts ‘success’. But he’s an example. To us all. Of godly ambition. His answer about deliberately wanting to re-organise his and his wife’s life so that they can share the gospel, models the kind of godly ambition that churches ought to celebrate and encourage. So pray that as churches we make as much of those who show us godly ambition as the world does of those who show ungodly ambition.
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a picture from google!
We’ve been away the past two weekends; a weekend break in Rutland (delightful countryside) and catching up with brother in law’s family in Bury St Edmunds (charming Suffolk market town that I’d thoroughly recommend). But as a result of being away, I’ve missed the first two sermons in our series in Titus. I love that little letter. And so this week I caught up with our apprentice’s sermon on Titus 2. We listened to it together. I found it much easier than he did, which is good. (There’s something very wrong about enjoying the sound of your own voice). I thought he did a really good job. It was terrifically helpful. I found it hugely stimulating. I’ve spent time since then thinking about what it means for me practically to live in such a way that my lifestyle is consistent with the healthy doctrine of the gospel (2:1). Rather depressingly though, whether I’m an old man or a young man, it appears that self-control or mastering myself, will always be something that I’ll have to keep working on!
One of the things that’s striking in Titus 2 is the picture Paul paints of congregational interdependence. The young men and women need the old men and women and vice versa. Nowhere does Paul say who qualifies as the ‘oldies’ and who qualifies as the ‘youngsters’. Being an oldie is more about functioning as one and taking responsibility for the youngsters than it is about reaching an absolute age of qualification. I guess it depends on what the church family you’re a part of actually looks like. The most ‘ancient’ man in our congregation has only recently become familiar with his fifties. In absolute terms, that’s young. And you only need look at the picture of health and vitality that he represents to recognise this! Discretion prevents me from asking our older women where they land on the age scale. But they’re all younger than that. And so at CCB it’s quite possible to be in our mid-thirties and be an ‘oldie’. I’ve tried to encourage those in that age bracket not to dwell on how that makes them feel. I’ve been there and done that. And I’ve usually ended up in morbid introspection and bitter resentment. It’s the mid-life crisis and it’s not pretty! They should think instead about what that means that they can do. For others (2-10). And in response to the achievement and purpose of our salvation by Christ (11-14). Notably, Paul commands Titus to encourage the older women to train the youngsters (2:4). And that’s a massive issue in our church family. We don’t have a women’s minister at present. The last one was stolen from us by marriage! And even if we did, she simply wouldn’t have the capacity to look after all the women that God has brought us. We need to find a way of multiplying what one women’s minister could do so that we have a stack more of women’s ministers.
When Paul says that the older women need to train the younger women, he doesn’t mean that they need to be able to run seminars or speak at women’s breakfasts. They can if they have the desire, ability and capacity. But more often than not it means befriending the gaggle (if that’s the right descriptive noun) of wonderful young women in their twenties who are looking for a spiritual big sister to mentor them in godliness. At our Autumn Bible School and on one or two occasions thereafter, we’ve been banging on about reading the Bible one to one as an ideal way for us to be involved in personally discipling one another. Re-reading Titus 2 left me feeling vindicated for sounding that note so repeatedly and frequently.
When we think about it, we recognise that we really need others to help us grow in the faith and we really need to help others grow in the faith. That’s true whether we’re men or women. In particular we really need our oldies to disciple our youngsters. But we can’t do that if we don’t know one another. And that’s a bit of an issue for us at the moment at CCB, I suspect. We have two distinct services, which really means that we’re two separate churches that just happen to share some common resources (like staff, elders, musicians, building and so on). But one of the thrilling developments over the past year or so has been the growing number of singles and marrieds who come along to morning church. But we need to keep making every effort to befriend one another. But at least being in the same place at the same time provides us with an opportunity to do that. Maybe then the benefits of being older will bless those at the other end of the age spectrum!
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‘We will remember them’. That’s what we promise. And every year since 2002 (when CCB was planted), we have. It’s not always felt comfortable doing so. It feels slightly odd to listen to ‘The Last Post’ played through an iPod. We meet inside a secondary school gymnasium. It hardly creates an atmosphere conducive to a formal act of remembrance. Wonderfully we’re not all British. In fact many have come from countries against whom our country has fought in the past. Few of us have ever done any military service. And not many of us have any military connections. And yet, every year we say the following.
Let us remember with gratitude those who, in the cause of peace and the service of their fellow men, died for their country in time of war.
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old. Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. At the going down of the sun, and in the morning, we will remember them.
And no one complains. I’ve occasionally wondered why that is. After all, we don’t tend to be tub thumping right-wing warmongerers (though they, like anyone else, are always welcome). We live in London amongst the left-wing liberal elites. And some of that has to rub off on us even if we don’t identify unreservedly with their ideology. Post Iraq II and the protracted and painful campaign in Afghanistan, most people are cautious of military intervention. We understand the necessity of the Armed Services. We’re glad that they do what they do. But we’d prefer not to dwell on it too much. It’s like death. We want to keep it at arms’ length and out of sight.
I would imagine that there’ll be a host of reasons why people at CCB are content to commemorate Remembrance Sunday. But chief amongst them must be that we’re Christians. It seems to me that Christians, of all people, ought to be among the strongest supporters of Remembrance Sunday. For we see in the death of our servicemen and service women an echo of an even braver and more brilliant act of self-sacrifice. We know, more than anyone else, what it is to benefit from someone who went to their death in order than we might have life.
In Neil Oliver’s book Amazing Tales for Making Men out of Boys, he writes this,
‘The older I get, the more I realise how easy I’ve had it all my life. Having been born white and male, into a loving family, living in Great Britain in the last third of the 20th Century, I’ve been dealt what amounts to a winning hand from the cosmic deck of cards. All the opportunities of life have been available to me since day one. I’ve never had to live with poverty, or endemic disease. I’ve never experienced any kind of prejudice or disadvantage born out of race, religion or creed. I’ve been kept safe all of my life by nameless strangers, from dangers both foreign and domestic. Our politicians are as keen to send our soldiers into wars in foreign parts as they ever were, but having been born beyond the grasp of conscription or National Service, as I have, such dangers have always been the other chap’s problems. At 40, I’ve lived long enough to be too old for conscription even if they reintroduced it tomorrow. My safety has been provided for me by people I don’t know and whom I haven’t bothered to thank. I have effectively enjoyed an endless childhood. I’ve acquired certain responsibilities along the way – jobs, mortgages, partner, children – but nothing on a par with the responsibilities borne by men of all generations before me. To paraphrase Jack Nicholson’s deluded colonel in A Few Good Men, I’ve slept under the blanket of security provided for me by other people’. (p63)
I’ve slept under the blanket of security provided for me by other people. I’ve done so as a citizen. And I’ve done so as a Christian. I formally remembered Jesus Christ’s death only last night as I shared the Lord’s Supper with my church family. And I’ll be formally remembering the death of my fellow countrymen on Sunday when I listen to ‘The Last Post’, stand silent and give my thanks to God for those who self sacrificially gave themselves in war so that I might know peace.
Will we remember them?
I hope so.
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Let me state something that I hope is becoming a deepening conviction. Religion is a monumental waste of time. But it’s actually far worse than that. It’s a futile and tragic enterprise. And yet many of us, whether Christian or not, continue to allow law keeping to shape our lives. It seems as though we can’t evaluate how well we’re doing unless we compare ourselves to some recognisable standard.
This is a current issue for me because I’m in Romans 10 for my quiet times at the moment. In that passage, Paul describes two ways to pursue the righteousness that God requires. He does so in verses 5&6. On the one hand there’s a righteousness based on law. And secondly, there’s a righteousness based on faith. I much prefer the latter (as does Paul). But for many years I was taken up with the former. Like the Jews in the cross hairs of Paul’s well aimed observations, I too was zealous and clueless. Paul doesn’t quite say that about his cherished fellow countryman. But he comes pretty close. He writes in verse 2, ‘I can testify about them that they are zealous for God, but their zeal is not based on knowledge. Since they did not know the righteousness of God and sought to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness. Christ is the culmination of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes’.
I tried to be the kind of bloke that I thought God would accept. I didn’t want to suffer his punishment in hell and, being ignorant of the gospel, assumed that by keeping his law (or at least my modified version of it) he’d find me acceptable. But try as I might, I simply couldn’t do it. And don’t think you’ll do that much better. Because no sinner can attain righteousness through the law. And that’s because it’s not the job of the law to make anyone righteous. It’s the job of the law to show us what righteousness looks like. So that we know we’re not. It’s meant to drive us to despair of ourselves so that it might also drive us to Christ. Israel made the tragic mistake of failing to see that Christ as the end or, as the new NIV puts it, the culmination of all that the law was pointing towards. The righteousness of which the law speak, is found in him. And it can be ours simply through faith in him. All we need to do is give up our pointless exercise in religious rule keeping and put our confidence instead in the righteousness of Jesus Christ. It’s a no-brainer, isn’t it?
And yet, everything other than authentic biblical Christianity is achievement based. Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and so on; the multiplicity of human religious enterprise says that righteousness comes only through religious rule keeping. God requires righteousness, for sure. And he doesn’t lower the standard for acceptance. But what he requires he also provides. But not to those who work, but to those who have faith. This is the momentous news of the gospel. And anyone who doesn’t get it labours under a tragic tyranny; attempting to pursue a righteousness which is both impossible (because the law can’t give it to you) and unnecessary (because Christ can). Is that not the best news that you have ever, ever heard?
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The ideal small group leader?
Small groups started this week. About time. Not a moment too soon, in my view. I’m sure it makes sense to have a small group holiday in August (because people are on theirs) and to delay the start until October (because September is a time of figuring out who we’ve got to work with). But that two month gap always makes me nervous. I worry that people aren’t getting what a small group provides in terms of support, encouragement and accountability. And I’ve found those things to be crucial to my own Christian life.
Small groups have a treasured place in the (albeit short) history of Christ Church Balham. They can be a nightmare. And I’ve been in some shockers in my time. I’ve run some shockers in my time as well. But Rosslyn and I are hopeful for this years’ Growth Group (in case anyone is reading this!). The best thing to do when they’re like that is shut them down. But they can also be a great blessing; usually when you’ve got a good leader and keen members. And I remain a massive fan of the latter of those two options.
Our small groups have provided a place for people to take their first faltering steps in spiritual leadership. From the very beginning we’ve had to throw people in at the deep end. We’ve tried to provide then with what they need in terms of instruction and on the job training. A few sink. Usually they swim. No one drowns. But it does take a while for the doggy paddle of the inexperienced novice to become the front crawl of the seasoned pro. And, if you’ll allow me to continue the analogy, our swim squad is getting better year on year. Partly that’s because the coaches are becoming clearer about what we need to do and how we need to do it.
But my principal concern about the summer absence of small groups comes out of my convictions about what they offer. When they’re not happening, it’s not immediately obvious to me where we get the following things. And that makes me nervous. In a good way!
You see, small groups provide a great place for people to grow in their faith. We can ask the questions we’d feel awkward about asking in a sermon. It’s difficult to put your hand up halfway through one of my sermons to stop me and ask what one earth I meant by the last thing I said. And I fear if everyone did that we may never get to the end of the sermon. In the security of a group of people we’re growing to love and trust we can begin talk openly about faith in Christ. Together we can figure out what God is saying in a passage and personally apply God’s word to what we think, what we love and what we do. We grow together in our knowledge of God, what He’s done for us and what He requires of us in groups.
And small groups provide a great place for people to find their encouragement. Most of us struggle to live the Christian life without some support. We’ve all tried to. Usually it doesn’t end well. But the Christian life is not meant to be a solo undertaking. That’s why, when the Spirit unites us to Christ, he invariably joins us to a church family. The support we need usually comes in the positive form of encouragement. Very occasionally we need the chastening correction of a leader we respect or a friend we trust. And small groups allow the kinds of friendships we need to take that kind of rebuke on the chin to develop. But mostly I need encouragement to do what’s right. Not correction when I don’t. Most of us are no different.
And lastly, small groups provide a great place for people to develop their skills. They’re not meant to be a surreptitious midweek seminar. But this is where an approach to reading the Bible is caught as it’s taught. By example. We could run a three-week ‘Handling the Bible Correctly’ course. And we can give people the new NIV Proclamation Bible containing all the right interpretation by all the right people. But that’ll only take us so far. It’s as we study the Bible with others and under the influence of a leader who’s down the hard yards of preparation that we pick up how to observe, interpret and apply the text. That can only make a hugely positive difference in our own habits of Bible reading.
I’m delighted that our weekly small groups have started once again. It’s been a nerve-racking summer. There don’t seem to have been too many casualties. But I’m sleeping a little easier now. Our Bible study groups may be small and imperfectly formed but in God’s kindness they continue to have a big impact in our church life. Long may that continue.
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I’ve come to the conclusion that I need to clone myself. Leaving the ethical issues to one side for a moment (which, for the record, is not something that you should encourage church leaders to do) I’ve realised that the world needs more people like me. And the church even more so. This won’t surprise some of you who‘ve long harboured the suspicion that I think too highly of myself. But this isn’t arrogance. Not this time. It’s compassion. I’m concerned that I can’t provide for all the people in our church family. And that does my head in, because I actually care. It really bothers me that people’s lives are not what they’d want them to be and they’re not what they ought to be. But as I said to our church family recently, ‘there are simply too many of you and there’s only one of me’ (which is not to suggest that I don’t have my own issues!!!)
I’ve had to accept that that it’s a good thing that there’s only one of me. It’s not been easy! Of course, I’m aware that I don’t ‘do it’ for everyone even in our church. And as hard as it is for me to accept, I’m not what everyone needs. But everyone needs someone. And the New Testament is chock-full of references to Christians ministering to one another. Therefore, since cloning didn’t look like a realistic or indeed a helpful solution, we were convinced at CCB that we had to find an alternative way of multiplying the numbers of word ministers so that everyone could be cared for. It was this conviction that fuelled our desire and the decision to make ‘one to one Bible reading’ the subject of our recent Autumn Bible School. We wanted to persuade people that it’s beneficial, possible and wonderful. And anyone who heard one of our young women on the subject wouldn’t have needed much more convincing. Her testimony of the benefits to her own life from being cared for by another Christian woman and the benefits to another younger Christian women with whom she met to study the Bible was enough to dispel many a doubt about the value of meeting up ‘one to one’.
We need to multiply our ministers at CCB so there’s more ministry going on. And when I say ‘ministry’ I’m not talking about all the stuff that the staff team do. I’m using it as a summary for the kind of normal activity of one Christian helping another to live their life for Christ in the light of the gospel. I imagine we’re not that different to lots of other urban churches. There’s so much to be done amongst those of us who struggle to live for Christ amidst the temptations of a secular lifestyle. There are people who need support and help because they’re in the midst of personal suffering. There are people who need gentle loving correction from someone they’ve come to trust because they’re struggling with sin. And there are those who need training because with a bit of knowledge and opportunity they have so much to contribute to our church family. And God has given us in the Bible everything we need to equip one another to live for Him (2 Timothy 3:15-17). So what we need is a whole bunch load of people at CCB who get together with someone else at some point in the week to look at something in the Bible. There’s a little bit more to it than that, as we explained over the three weeks of Autumn Bible School, but in essence that’s all it takes. Apart from my understandable joy at seeing my colleagues, the best thing that happened in the church office this morning was hearing about a woman in our congregation taking the initiative to approach someone else and read the Bible together so that she might grow in the faith. I just wasn’t expecting it. And it’s terrific.
I’d love for our sessions on ‘one to one’ Bible reading to be the beginning of a process and not simply an event. If it was something that we ‘did’ and it’s not something that we’re ‘doing’, it failed. Alternatively if it’s something that we’re doing then lots of us are being helped to grow in our knowledge and love for the Lord. And as our children’s worker (the preserver of the youthspeak on the staff team) would say, ‘#winner’.
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The fragrant Rosie Dunn
One really interesting conference that’s started and grown in recent years is the Administrators’ Conference. I remember going to a joint church lunch when Jonathan Fletcher announced that he didn’t believe in church administrators and pointed out that Emmanuel didn’t have one or indeed need one. However, he was wrong then and he’s still wrong now! A whole host of extraordinarily talented people kept administrative stuff off his desk so that he could do what he’s best at; namely preaching, pastoring men and being playfully provocative! And so I think this conference is a brilliant idea. But I’m not sure how widely it’s known. I’m under no illusions. I don’t think that this post will radically change that. The readership of this blog doesn’t extend a whole heap outside my immediate family.
Anyway, it’s organised by three friends of mine: Rosie Dunn from Dundonald Church in south West London, Mary McNeely from Jesmond Parish Church in Newcastle and Sharon Peters from Christ Church Mayfair. That’s a terrific photo of the irrepressible Rosie Dunn on the right.
When we’ve had an administrator on the staff team at CCB we’ve always sent them along. And they’ve loved it. But I’ve never been. I guess it seems a little niche for those of us in full-time gospel ministry. We preach. We don’t plan. Planning is of the devil or at the very least, the flesh we were taught at the Cornhill Training Course. But things may have changed because Adrian Reynolds from the Proclamation Trust is going to speak so perhaps they’ve softened their line! But if we take seriously the leadership component of our responsibility as church leaders then it’s worth serious consideration. Managing the household surely involves elements of strategic planning, implementing change and progressive planning (which are the subjects for three of the seminars). The others are tidy desk v messy ministry, keeping going and making the most of technology. You can download the flyer here.
For the past few years I’ve kicked myself for not getting the relevant part of my anatomy in gear in order to free up the day to attend. This year it’s going to be different. I’m going. And I’m taking our staff team with me. There are more useful seminars than I am capable of attending. And so we can spread the staff and take full notes! We don’t have the luxury of a full-time administrator at the moment. And so we all muck in. And anyway, even if we did have one, administration and organisation is something we’re all inevitably engaged in. And I’m not sure that it needs to be paid staff who attend. Most of our church members work for a living and yet they’re often involved in planning, organising and co-ordinating various ministries in the life of our church. I reckon, if they can take a day off, this would be worth attending.
The blurb on the Good Book Company booking website says this,
For 2013 our topic is one that all in such roles, whether paid or volunteer, will be familiar with: planning. For you, it might come in the form of putting the coffee rota together or perhaps advising the minister on a realistic timetable for rolling out an innovation such as an extra service or new area of ministry – planning is hard to avoid if we’re doing our jobs correctly! And as Christians, we have a great ultimate purpose to all of our planning: serving the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords! Our reference manual then must be the Bible so our main speaker, Adrian Reynolds, honorary Associate Minister at East London Tabernacle Baptist Church and Director of Ministry for the Proclamation Trust, will help us to discover what it has to say on this topic. Adrian is a lively and engaging speaker so we’re looking forward to his application of Ezra to our job descriptions!
This day conference will include a variety of practical workshops containing something for everyone and in addition to talks from Adrian, we’ll have we’ll have book reviews, exhibitors and useful contacts, and a chance to ask questions of our interview panel. One of our primary aims for the conference remains to provide a forum for you to meet others in similar roles and share knowledge and information. We’ll facilitate this by inviting you to sit with others from your local area or region at lunchtime.
We’d love to see you on 18 November to share from our combined experience of 25 years as Church Administrators and to learn from you; plan to be there!
The booking website is here.
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The latest ‘Preaching Matters’ from the boys at St Helen’s is now online.
If you’re thinking about preaching through Ecclesiastes, it’s well worth a listen. Matt Perkins (no relation) interviews Nigel Styles from Emmanuel Church Bramcote, Nottingham. It’s about 13 minutes and gives a good steer on what the book’s about, how to preach it and what to look out for. I’m on sabbatical at the moment and so I’m missing out on Phil Allcock from Clapham Central who’s preaching through it at CCB. So I’m unlikelyto cover it for a while. But after listening to Nige’s analysis, I’m itching to give it a go.
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The Gospel Partnerships asked me to describe what it’s like to be left behind in the sending church once the new plant has started. Here are my reflections.
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That’s better. It felt like we got somewhere. Numbers were down on the previous day, which was a little disappointing but to be expected. This was Wednesday and we were competing against sports’ fixtures. But word may also have got round about the historicity talk! This time the audience engagement was considerably better. Perhaps the innovation of a phone number to text questions helped. I certainly think the quality of the talk helped. It was a whole load more engaging. The topic was ‘Outdated: Has Science Killed Christianity?’ I tried to argue that the approach of the New Atheists is to abuse scientific method rather than use it to investigate the evidence for Jesus. And so they hijack in the service of naturalism and ask it to justify an ideology that it simply can’t support.
It generated a fair few questions. One of them was brilliant. And, as you might expect, I fluffed it! The question said something like ‘does creation point in the direction of a creator, or not?’ And I ended up rattling on about the presuppositions which we bring to the debate whether we’re Christian or not. That’s not wrong. And it may have been helpful. But I failed to talk at all about God’s general revelation, which was an oversight! What I should have said was something along the lines that the Bible says that creation speaks of God’s existence and his invisible power and divine nature (Romans 1:18-20). But we suppress the evidence. And the reason that we do that is because we’re predisposed to keeping God at arms’ length. And so although God is ‘speaking’ to us in creation, we do not have ears to hear. But wonderfully God provides another word for us to listen to in the person of his Son, Jesus Christ. He’s less easy to ignore.
I did wonder whether I was the best person to be giving this talk. I’m not a scientist. I was an engineer. Once. But there are reasons why I got out of engineering. And they had to do with not being much good at it and not being remotely interested in it. But an engineering degree from Warwick University is not to be sniffed at. But it raises the question of whether I should have been doing the talk at all. I’ve had guys in our congregation say that people like me (non-experts) shouldn’t do talks where a specialist is needed. They’re not entirely wrong. If you had the choice between Professor John Lennox and me, it’s a no-brainer. But there’s only one of him. He’s large brained, clear thinking and engaging. That combination is rare. Specialists in a subject can be unbelievably dull. I really don’t have anyone in mind. It’s just the kind of sweeping generalisation that I’m in the mood for making. And so I want to speak up for the specialist communicators, the run of the mill pastors who are used to understanding stuff and explaining it. We may not be experts in the field of apologetics but at least we can be understood and engaging. We’ll need to work hard at understanding the arguments. And to do that we’ll usually try and climb on the shoulders of experts like John Lennox, especially but also other apologists. But when we do, perhaps being able to speak apologetically is a speciality! My own view is that you want people who want to win people to Christ not simply people who want to win the argument. Evangelists have to be better than experts because they’ll head for the gospel rather than simply their learning. But I’ve seen John Lennox do both. And it was electric. But apparently he wasn’t available!
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