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Wednesday 18th November

The Our Father Study 6 – Ceding everything to God

Isaiah 6:1-8

Notes

Matthew

Verse 13 (Footnote) The phrase “For the kingdom and the power and the glory are yours for ever” was not part of the original Gospel according to St Matthew. Yet, it has become so integral to our practice of praying the Our Father and is so perfectly in accordance with other prayers in the Bible that we would find it hard to end a series of studies on the Our Father with no reference to it.

Isaiah

Verse 1       Isaiah is granted a vision of God on his throne in heaven that incorporates all three of the aspects of God’s exalted existence that are referred to in the appendix to the Our Father. Note that there is no distance between the throne room of God and the temple. The hem of God’s robe fills the temple. If Isaiah were to dare to stretch out his hand, he could touch it!

Verse 2-4   provides us with a description of the Seraphim (glorious creatures themselves!) proclaiming God’s praise and of impact of God’s appearance on the temple building itself.

Verse 5       describes the only fitting response to a vision of the power and glory of the heavenly King. Isaiah is overpowered by the awareness of his insignificance and sin and prostrates himself before the throne of God.

Verse 8       Isaiah’s vision of the majesty, power and glory of God makes him utter, “Woe is me!” The grace of God and the desire of God (“Who shall I send?”) turns this into “Send me!”

 

Meditation

It is fitting to end a prayer like this. It takes as full a perspective on God – who God is, what God is like – and then concedes the incomparability of Gods rule, power and glory. In comparison with God, no-one can lay claim to any of these qualities. This is the purest form of worship. And it is when we bow before God that we are energized to act on his wishes. Like Isaiah. Like Christians through the ages. This uncovers the wisdom of the saints who attached “For thine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory” to the Our Father. And that is why it is wise to keep ending our prayers with something of the sort. It gets us to our feet and into the world.

Let us unpack the three words used in our ending to the Our Father.

“Kingdom.” The major theme in Jesus’ preaching and teaching was the kingdom the reign of God. The best description of the kingdom I have come across is “God’s preferred future.” This links to what we prayed for at the start of the Our Father: “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done…” It is something that will be fully realized in future, but God is already at work establishing it at present.

Ending our prayer by acknowledging the kingdom as God’s kingdom should get us to our feet, ready to participate in the coming of the kingdom. But the kingdom is not ours to initiate or to determine. It is God’s kingdom. We arrive after God has already initiated it. We are invited to participate in it, which is a tremendous privilege. Yet we don’t get to describe what shape it should take. We leave that to God. “Thine is the kingdom”!

“Power” is the next thing we cede to God. This means that we get up from our knees, determined not to play power games to establish the kingdom. This does not mean that Christians should simply roll over whenever they are accosted by people with power, but it does mean that we act in reference to God’s power. We should not feel hopeless when the wrong people get access to power. Any earthly power is temporary and extremely vulnerable. Berlin Walls come crashing down, seemingly untouchable dictators topple, firmly entrenched politicians fall prey to scandals that turns the tide or are voted out. “Thine is the power” is a powerful prayer to say before stepping out into a world where different factions are vying for power and where Christians increasingly feel a lack of power.

“Glory” is a slippery word. It refers to something indescribably good, beautiful, exalted and pure. The word “holy” is similar in many ways, yet with the emphasis on goodness and purity. We start the prayer by praying “Hallowed be thy name”, but now we acknowledge “Thine is the glory!” In a world of superficiality and squalor we know God, who is glorious beyond anything we have ever witnessed.

There is an old Hasidic story that links with Isaiah’s vision. It refers to the seven ranks of angels in Jewish folklore. Second from the top are the Cherubim. They have perfect knowledge of God. The highest order of angels are the Seraphim, for they have perfect love of God. They are the ones singing “Holy, holy, holy” before the heavenly throne. They are born out of the flames emitting from under the throne of God. After being born from the flames, they rise up and, upon seeing God, they sing the first “Holy!” and then are so overcome with love that they burst into flames and burn out completely. They are, then, born again from under the throne of God, rise to sing the second “Holy!” before burning out in the flame of love again. Once more, they are born from the flame under the throne of God and rise to sing the third “Holy.”

In a strange way the story might tell us more about the immensity of God’s glory than any descriptive language ever could. “…and the glory” ends our prayer with the hope that we would perceive enough of God’s glory to live passionately in this world, passionately for our Father, his Son, the Holy Spirit.

Digging deeper: Some questions to ponder

  1. What do you understand to be saying when you pray “For thine is the kingdom” ?
  2. What do you understand to be saying when you pray “For thine is the power” ?
  3. What do you understand to be saying when you pray “For thine is the glory” ?

Prayer

Pray the Our Father, and when you get to the last three “For thine is..” words, add something from your own understanding of what you are ceding to God. It need not be elaborate and can be very simple.

Wednesday 4th November

The Our Father Study 4: How to pray: Needy, but not greedy; forgiven and forgiving

Matthew 6:11-12, 14-15

Notes

Verse 11     The Greek translated as “daily bread” could literally be rendered “tomorrow’s bread.” This lends an even stronger sense of living day to day, moment to moment in complete dependence on God. It also transfers a sense of asking minimally – enough to satisfy our needs, but not our greeds.

Verse 12     The last three petitions are three separate sentences, but the last two both start with the word “and,” as if to say that life sustained by bread alone is not enough. We also need forgiveness of sin and deliverance from temptation.

The Greek word variously translated as “debts” and “sins” normally has the meaning of debt in a financial sense. We should, however, remember that Jesus spoke Aramaic and that Matthew is translating for a Greek audience. The Aramaic word Jesus most probably used is an Aramaic word that could mean either “debts” or “sins”. It is clear that the latter meaning is what Jesus intended.

“…as we forgive those who trespass against us” should not be read as if God is setting conditions for his forgiveness. Adding this to our petition for the forgiveness of our own sins, rather intends to demonstrate that we have a sense of the magnitude of God’s grace towards us. In the light of God’s forgiveness, we find it easy to forgive others. Forgiveness has become the logic by which we operate.

 

Meditation

Praying for our daily bread is about much more than daily sustenance. It turns toward God in total dependence. It reveals our basic stance before God – total dependence. It also sticks to the bare necessities. The prayer teaches us to approach God humbly, asking only from our need and not our greed.

It is striking that the second and third petitions in the “us” part of the Our Father both start with “and”, linking them to the first petition. Physical sustenance is not enough for human existence. We also need forgiveness and deliverance from temptation – just as desperately as we need food! Physical need and spiritual need are not separated. As surely as we would die without food, we also die spiritually without forgiveness and without forgiveness others.

Lewis Smedes, the American theologian and psychologist helps us towards a much richer understanding of the importance of forgiveness in Christian life. He makes a telling distinction between forgiving and excusing. God does not excuse us our sins. Neither should we excuse others their sins against us. Some things are inexcusable, and we should not take the burden upon us to think that we have to do that. Excusing someone says, in effect, that the transgression is not such a big deal and that there are good reason to simply write it off. “Let’s forget about it. It is not that serious.” It should be clear that when we confess our sins as “…our own grievous sin” every Sunday we are decidedly not merely asking to be excused. We are asking for forgiveness of something that cannot be excused, for something that has rightly caused offense that we cannot simply sweep under the rug or move on from without admitting that we are at fault. So, when Jesus teaches us to confess our sins and ask for forgiveness, it is implicit that we admit that they cannot be excused. So when God grants us forgiveness, it should make it logical that we would also be willing to forgive others. Receiving God’s forgiveness makes an end to a retributive stance towards others.

Lewis Smedes continues by identifying forgiveness as the most basic truth of the gospel. We cannot do without God’s forgiveness. That much is clear. But he also adds that we cannot do without forgiving others. He states, “When you forgive someone you set a prisoner free, and the prisoner is you.” This is a great truth. One we cannot do without. When Jesus tells us to forgive others, he sets us free to live lives in accordance with the gospel. We are free from either living with deep resentments or the pressure to excuse the inexcusable. We learn to say, “Yes, I have been wronged. But I am willing to write it off without revenge or resentment. I have been forgiven much. I will now do the same.”

One more thing needs to be added. Smedes also says that we need to distinguish between forgiveness and reconciliation. “It takes one person to forgive. It takes two to reconcile.” There are times when reconciliation would be impossible, either because the other person would not be willing to reconcile or because I have lost contact with her or him. There are also times when reconciliation would not be wise, for instance when a woman has parted ways with an abusive husband who is unrepentant. Even then, we can forgive. We need to forgive to be set free, Lewis says, even when the other person is not yet ready to accept my forgiveness.

It should be clear that the prayer for God’s forgiveness is a prayer that encompasses so much more than mere fear of punishment. It opens up possibilities for life in a world where hurts and slights are regularly meted out. If sets us free from deep hurts from the past and the recent past and makes reconciliation possible where retribution and animosity seem the only possibilities. And so, let us enter this alternative to our harsh society and pray in all earnestness, “And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

Digging deeper: Some questions to ponder

  1. In which ways has the current Covid crisis eroded your sense of security? How has this helped you to discover the extent to which we rely on God to provide what we need?
  2. How would it harm your relationship with God to ask for forgiveness while harbouring resentment towards another person?

Prayer

Pray the Our Father, and when you get to the petition for daily bread, pause for a moment and mention your most pressing needs at this time. When you continue with the petition for forgiveness, pause again and honestly confess what springs to mind as a thought, deed or word that was sinful. Then also lay before God something that was done to you that you need to confess. After that, pray the rest of the Our Father.

Wednesday 28th October 2020

The Our Father Study 3: Your kingdom, your will, not mine

Matthew 6:10, 19-24 and 31-33

Notes

Verse 10     The coming of the kingdom of God (or, sometimes, the kingdom of heaven) is the most frequent theme of Jesus’ preaching. Praying for the coming of the kingdom yearns for life on earth to be ordered according to the will of our great King. Adding to it the prayer for God’s will to be done, amounts to another way of saying the same thing, but by adding “on earth as it is in heaven” prevents us from imagining this only to be something that will occur after the apocalypse. Jesus teaches us to pray for the kingdom, for God’s will to be done here and now – as it is already the case in the heavenly realm. It also sets a high standard. We pray for nothing less than the complete alignment of heaven and earth.

Verse 19-24 concerns the priorities that shape our choices. If the kingdom of God is our priority, we will not waste our time by being overly concerned with things that have little lasting value. If we choose to value earthly goods as our greatest treasure, this will shape what we long for and pursue (verse 21). If I make a bad choice of priorities, my focus will be on things that will turn out to be harmful in the long run. (verse 22-23) and this focus will rule my life instead of God (verse 24)

Verse 31-33 does not prohibit us to see to our basic needs (sustenance and clothes). Our Father acknowledges our need for this (verse 32). The word “strive” (“seek” in other translations) is important here. This passage seeks to contrast the focus and priorities of those that do not know God and those who do: The first group are anxiously focused on worldly goods, while the second group are focused on the kingdom and will of God and expect to be sustained and clothed by God.

The word “first” in verse 33 is important. It points to concern for the kingdom as our greatest priority.

The word “righteousness” in verse 34 concerns a way of living in full submission to the will of God. Being a Christian is not merely to refrain from the pursuit of temporal things, or from transgressing the law, but to actively live your life towards goals resonant with the kingdom of God.

Meditation

The word ‘desire’ is usually seen as a negative for Christians. Yet, this is exactly what this part of the Our Father is urging: desire, but the kind of desire that we are warned against. What is advocated is desire for the kingdom of God. A deep sigh would do well when you pray “Your kingdom come.” It should be prayed with longing, with a thirst for God’s preferred future for the world to take shape in our society. The same is true about the prayer, “your will be done” that is a direct extension of the prayer for the kingdom of God.

At first glance it might seem like a prayer that leads to passive waiting. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Reformed faith, in particular, has always maintained that the kingdom of God is not something reserved for the end-time, but is already taking shape among us (as Jesus proclaimed). It is something we can already be involved in and not to be postponed. This is what the word, “Seek…” (well translated as “strive for” in the NRSV) in Mat 6:33 intends to express. It conjures up a picture of a strong desire for the kingdom of God, a desire so strong that brings us to our feet and sets us to striving to do whatever we can to join God in making it a visible, tangible reality. When this desire takes hold of you, you become part of a long and venerable tradition of Christians who have impacted society in healing and grace-giving ways. The energy we receive from this desire is much greater and infinitely healthier than the energy we could ever get from doing the same things with the aim of garnering praise and ego-strokes. An opponent of our early Calvinist ancestors once remarked, “I would rather see heading towards me a whole division with drawn swords than a single Calvinist, intent on doing the will of God.”

We should not think of this striving to inaugurate the kingdom of God, this thirst for the will of God to be done as something necessarily dramatic or big. Most of the deeds done from this desire are small, everyday acts of alignment with the values of the kingdom and the will of God. It can be as simple as showing courtesy, of lending an ear to someone who is distressed, as taking food for a sick person. In Matthew’s parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25 the king invites the sheep to inherit the kingdom for the many small acts of kindness done to “the least of these who are members of my family” (Matthew 25:40) – acts as simple as giving food to a hungry person, something to drink to someone who is thirsty, offering hospitality, providing clothing for a person in need, caring for the sick, or visiting someone in prison. The king views these acts of kindness as if they had been done to him personally. It is striking that the sheep are surprised by the king’s high praise for what the had done. Most of what we do when we participate in the coming of the kingdom of God does not seem worthy of such high praise. It rather seems like something any decent person would do, even when it involves going against my own interests.

There is irony in the way this plays out in practice. We start out subduing our own desires and will and subjecting it to God’s desires and will. In the end we discover something infinitely more valuable and attractive than we could ever have imagined. We experience a complete confluence between God’s desires and will and our own. We discover something much, much better than our initial desires and this becomes our greatest desire. This is gospel, not law. It does not seek to make my life less, but to give me the key to life in all is God-given fullness. So let us continue to pray for God’s kingdom to come, for God’s will to be done as an exercise in aligning our desires and our will to that of God.

Digging deeper: Some questions to ponder

  1. When you pray for the coming of the kingdom of God, what would you like most to see as an answer to your prayer?
  2. What are some of the “small” things that come naturally for you, and would count as participation in the coming of God’s kingdom and fulfilling of his will on earth?

Prayer

Make a list of the things you long for as visible signs of the coming of God’s kingdom in Scotland. Now simply pray the Our Father, inserting these yearnings after the prayer for the coming of the kingdom and for the will of God to be done.

Bible Study for Wednesday 21st October

The Our Father Study 2: How to pray – Addressing the approachable and holy God

Matthew 6:9 and Hebrews 10:19-25

Notes

Mat 6:9       “Our” is an important word at the start of the Our Father prayer. The Our Father is a communal prayer. It is not the uniquely personal prayer of some very spiritual individual. It is a prayer all Christians can pray, no matter how mature or immature, old or young, or how sophisticated they are.

“Father.” It was uncommon, though not totally without precedent to address God as “Father” in Jewish prayer. It was, though, normally done indirectly, rather than directly. Jesus turns it into our standard way of addressing God, which was totally unique. In doing this we are taught to pray in an intimate and trusting fashion.

“…in heaven” does not have the function to refer to a place far away, but intends to express the loftiness and holiness of God. Binding this to the intimacy of calling God “our Father” prevents prayer from dissolving into sentimentalism (if the last part of the address was missing) or impersonal aloofness (if the first part was missing). In the Old Testament God is regularly called “the holy One of Israel” to the same effect.

“Hallowed be your Name.” This is a prayer that all living beings would honour God as the incomparable being he is.

Hebr 10:19  The word parrēsia (confidence) is an important word in Hebrews. A literal translation of the word means something like “boldness to speak your mind”. The main message of the letter to the Hebrews is that, because of what Christ did on our behalf, we may now appear before God with confidence instead and speak our minds instead of cringing before his holiness in fear.

“Entering the sanctuary” is a way of speaking about approaching God – even when no sanctuary is involved. Yet it has overtones of awe – as would have been natural for a person of the Jewish nation when entering the sanctuary of the temple in Jerusalem.

The reason we can “have confidence to enter the sanctuary” is given as “the blood of Jesus.” Jesus’ death on the cross has cleared the way for us to freely approach the holy God. Jesus’ redemptive work is described in detail in the letter to the Hebrews by using the symbolism of Jesus as our high priest, as seen here in verses 20-22.

Hebr 10:20  By equating Jesus’ body to “the curtain” (the curtain separating the most holy place in the temple – the holy of holies – from the rest), the wounding of Jesus’ body is depicted to the moment when the curtain was torn from top to bottom. This removed the barrier between the place where God’s holy presence was believed to be most palpable and ‘ordinary’ life. Jesus’ death on the cross, therefore, did not merely have the effect of removing our sins, but also of bringing us in close proximity to God.

Meditation

The holy of holies – the inner sanctuary in the temple – was an inaccessible place for all but one priest, and only once a year. It was separated from the rest of the temple by a heavy curtain. On the Day of the covenant a priest entered the holy of holies with great trepidation to bring an offering for the sins of the people. There is a Jewish legend that attempts to convey the deep trepidation in which this was done by informing us that a rope was tied around one of the priest’s ankles. The rope was long enough for the other priests, if something were to happen to him that would incapacitate him, to be able to pull him out without themselves entering the holy of holies!

The letter to the Hebrews depicts Jesus’ death on the cross in parallel with the curtain sectioning off the holy of holies from the temple being torn from top to bottom, opening up access to the holy of holies for all who would dare. Note that the curtain “was torn” (obviously by God) from top to bottom (obviously not by human hands). Now, the author of Hebrews says, we can not only enter the holy presence of God; we can enter it with boldness, with confidence. When we add the opening words of the Our Father to it, we can expand on this by understanding this boldness as the trusting boldness of a young prince or princess approaching the king. When Jesus calls God the Father “my Father” it sounds completely natural. And now he teaches us in joining Him in saying “our Father”! This is now the standard way for Christians to address God.

There is a danger to only addressing God as “our Father.” This danger is that we might forget that God is the incomparable and holy One. We might become so fuzzy and comfortable in our approach to God that it becomes sticky sentimentalism that takes far too little account of the powerful presence of God. The intimacy with God offered to us should in no way diminish the awe and respectful manner in which we pray. Therefore, Jesus adds “…in heaven”. Yes, by all means, we have a Father, but we have a heavenly Father.

God is infinitely more than we could ever imagine. Who God is will only be fully revealed in the end time. In a word, God’s holiness and loftiness is not compromised by his approachability. Therefore our first prayer is “Hallowed be your Name.” This prayer is another fence around God’s holiness and loftiness. We pray that not only those who are Christians, but all living beings would acknowledge the incomparable glory of God.

So, how do we approach God then? We are taught to approach him with both confidence and with reverence. The Our Father teaches us to do this with a marvellous economy of words and with admirable accuracy!

Digging deeper: Some questions to ponder

  1. What does it mean to you, on an emotional level, to call God your Father?
  2. When praying “Hallowed be thy Name,” what are you, personally, praying for?

Prayer

See if you can rephrase the first part of the Our Father prayer that we have just studied and write it down on paper. Now, pray it slowly and thoughtfully and, if a response to what you have just prayed comes to mind, ad that to your prayer.

Bible Study for Wednesday 14th October

The Our Father Study 1: How not to pray

Matthew 6:1-7;16-18

Notes

The Our Father is embedded in the central section of the sermon of the mount, where the three most important spiritual practices in Jewish piety (almsgiving, prayer and fasting) are discussed. The Our Father is an example of healthy prayer, that contrasts with the unhealthy forms of almsgiving, prayer and fasting found in today’s passages. A good look at the wrong way to go about spiritual practices, as provided by our passages, will set the stage for a proper understanding of what we are doing when we pray the Lord’s Prayer.

Verse 1       This verse sets the tone for the whole section that ends with verse 18, including the Our Father. The word translated as “piety” is actually the Greek word dikaiosine (“righteousness”), which is the key motif of the whole of the sermon of the mount. Practicing you piety” refers to spiritual practices. The concern here is that these actions should be a true expression of one’s interior communication with God and not mere posing to win the acclaim of others. The Our Father prayer is given as an expression of such piety. What is expressed here, though, is not in any way to favour private devotion over public worship but is applicable to all worship. It is aimed at the basic attitude with which we approach worship

Verse 2, 5, 16  The word “hypocrites” is derived from Greek theatre. It is the word for an actor and uncovers these religious acts as a mere façade. Jesus often applied this label to the Pharisees and scribes.

Verse 6       The “inner room” (a literal translation of the Greek text) was a room in the middle of the typical house of that time that had no outside walls and was, therefore, cooler than the other rooms. It was used to store perishable foodstuffs. It should not be taken literally, as if proper prayer could only be done in isolation but indicates prayer as something that should never be done for show. Your prayer is something that is directed at God alone.

Verse 7       This is not a prohibition of long prayers , but of imagining that we need to twist God’s arm by an overload of prayer (to “heap up” phrases) – or by some magical, effective formula that guarantees God’s attention (which is what “empty phrases” alludes to). Verse 8 tells us that God, in fact, already knows what we need and is not unwilling to answer our calls for help.

Verse 16-18 should not only be seen as instruction on fasting but can equally be applied to any form of Christian service.

Meditation

There is total clarity on the main theme of this passage: Don’t practice your faith for show. Don’t do it for the ego strokes you will receive when it is applauded by other people. Aim all you do as a Christian at God and God alone.

But here’s the thing: Do we ever know how pure our motives are? Are our best deeds, our best worship not tainted by our propensity to feed our egos? Do we ever progress beyond a mixture of pure and impure motives in our service to God?

We have no other honest answer than “yes, unfortunately that is the truth.” But it does not end there. Admitting this is already a step away from the kind of hypocrisy Christ uncovers so mercilessly and it sets our feet on the path of a life of honest prayer, honest conversation with God. What makes the Our Father such a vital antidote to hypocrisy is the deep concern for God’s honour, kingdom and will instilled by the first three “thy”-prayers. Praying these three prayers regularly bends our will and desires towards those of our Father. Dag Hammerskjold, in his diary posthumously published under the title “Markings”, worked them into a short prayer that goes like this:

Hallowed be Thy name —not mine.

Thy kingdom come —not mine.

Thy will be done —not mine.

Lord—Thine the day And I the day’s.

Give me a pure heart—that I may see Thee. A humble heart—that I may hear Thee, A heart of love—that I may serve Thee, A heart of faith—that I may abide in Thee.

So, when we pray the Our Father, we start out by turning to God. And after that? After that we place our broken lives at God’s feet and profess our total dependence on him for daily bread, for forgiveness, for protection from temptation. What Jesus is steering us towards is not perfection, but honesty. And if we are honest with God, we have the assurance that God will not turn his back on us, but that he will grant us growth towards a deeper and more fulfilling journey with him. We loosen the grip of our ego and self-centredness and find our way towards wholeness of spirit.

Knowing how not to pray, how not to live as Christians helps us recognise the radical cure offered us in this short but profound prayer. May we plumb its depths in a lifelong journey into its depths.

Digging deeper: Some questions to ponder

  1. In our culture, which religious practices can be used to garner praise and in which way?
  2. Which attitudes would help us guard against this?
  3. When practiced in healthy ways, what would the effect of these same practices be?

Prayer

Pray Dag Hammerskjold’s prayer through slowly, pausing after every phrase until you are ready to pray the next phrase.

Hallowed be Thy name —not mine.

Thy kingdom come —not mine.

Thy will be done —not mine.

Lord—Thine the day And I the day’s.

Give me a pure heart—that I may see Thee. A humble heart—that I may hear Thee, A heart of love—that I may serve Thee, A heart of faith—that I may abide in Thee.

Amen.

 

Introduction: The Our Father

At the very centre of the sermon on the mount. Centrepiece of the section on prayer and fasting (seen as also focusing on God, and closely related to prayer). Pivotal for all that precedes it and for all that follows. Without this very personal address to the holy God the rest of the sermon of the mount dissolves into secular moral teaching.

 

Study 1    How not to pray

Study 2    How to pray: Addressing the approachable and holy God

Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy Name. Matthew 7:     and Luke 15 (Prodigal son) or something in the sermon of the mount. Transfiguration on the mount.

Study 3    How to pray: Your kingdom, your will, not mine

Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven

Study 4    How to pray: Needy, but not greedy; forgiven and forgiving

Give us this day our daily bread

And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us

Study 5    How to pray: Acknowledging our vulnerability

Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil

Study 6    How to pray: Ceding everything to God

For thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory, forever and ever

 

 

 

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