Finding Purpose in Pain

All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.

He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth.

(Isaiah 53:6-7)

It’s been a while since I’ve jotted out a migraine post. In fact, I realized my last one was in early September when I wrote about my latest dietary experiment.  In fact, today is  my 49th consecutive day on the ketogenic diet.

So how’s it going? Well… not bad. My first two weeks were like a dream. I had more energy and fewer headaches than normal, and what headaches I did have were extremely minor. In short, I felt well for several days all in a row – something that has not happened since… honestly, I don’t know. Ask my husband. He pays more attention than I do.  For me, it was enough to actually feel like doing things rather than merely muscling through the day until bedtime.

Unfortunately, subsequent weeks were not as remarkable. It is possible I had a touch of the virus that went around our house, but my usual crazy fatigue was an unwelcome visitor during the last weeks of September. October did not begin well, either, and last Saturday saw the blessed end of a 6-day-long, slowly building migraine that left me feeling perfectly wretched.

But that is all over, this week is looking promising, and I am feeling as wonderful as my first days on the diet. Hurrah! I have sworn to give it at least two more weeks before ‘cheating,’ and my cheat will be minor – a signature coffee beverage from a friend’s newly opened coffee shop.  (By the way, this is a shameless plug for the Fainting Goat aimed at my local readers…)

Now on the other side of the month-long energy drain and the resurgence of headache issues, I can honestly say that this whole experience – from the meningitis when my middle child was a few months old all the way through today – the ups and downs and all the in-betweens has been good.

I mean it. Despite the unpleasantness, it is really, truly good.

Not to sound like a nutcase, but I am thankful for the pain. Even today as I sit writing with a clear head and an inexplicably aching hip, I can rejoice in my suffering.  Admittedly, a large part of that rejoicing comes from the fact that some of it is past… but also because in the midst of it all, God reminds me to give thanks in ALL circumstances – including the less enjoyable ones (1 Thessalonians 5:18).

For one thing, as this morning’s reading in Isaiah 53 has reminded me, I do not deserve health, wealth, or prosperity. For countless past acts of rebellion against my Creator as well as for a continuing propensity to wander astray like some doltish sheep drifting mindlessly after what looks like a mouthful of greener grass far away from the Shepherd’s safe pasture, I deserve death.

But my gracious and incredible God gives me Life instead. And just so the spiritual ledger is not out of balance, He paid the penalty of my crimes with His own blood.

What’s more, He continually offers purpose in my pain. Though last week was discouraging and left me feeling physically spent and emotionally defeated, this week starts fresh, beginning with absolutely priceless time spent with a young lady, one of my part-time daughters, who also struggles with chronic migraine.

Because I can relate, she can speak freely and be understood – which I must say, is no small thing for those who struggle with an “invisible” disease. And because I love her, I am delighted to participate in the suffering so that I can encourage her as she fights through it and remind her that God is still good even when life looks bleak.

After all, if He did not spare His own sinless and perfect Son, the Radiance of His glory and the exact Imprint of His nature;  if the King of kings was not spared physical and emotional pain, why should I be? For I have sinned and fallen far short of tGod’s perfetcion, but by His grace I can share in my Lord’s sufferings – because even pain, when surrendered to Him, can be used for something glorious.

Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed.
(1 Peter 4:12-13)

 

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Diplomacy and Other Poetic Sentiments

Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.
Hebrews 12:14

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“With all my heart, I tolerate you.” 

Oddly enough, I have yet to see these words splashed in false gold-leaf across the front of a sappy floral greeting card.

When I consider the amount of airtime the word, “tolerance,” is given, I have to wonder why it has not yet received this high commendation of public approval in the sentiment department. For $3.99 or thereabouts, an average human can purchase a bit of folded paper in order to proclaim undying love and devotion, wish a friend a happy birthday, send all manner of random holiday greetings, or even express sympathy over the loss of a cat.

Yet the only “tolerance” cards I can find have been sardonic parodies meant for a laugh. I have yet to hear any young man blubbing out an ardent and passionate confession of tolerance for a woman or a furious teen shrieking, “I tolerate you!” at the top of her lungs to her life-ruining mother.

Tolerance, it would seem, is a bit inadequate as an emotion.

So what’s all the fuss? Oh, yes; I remember. Tolerance is supposed to pave the path to peace.

What a heartwarming image that evokes – a room full of people representing widely differing cultures, races, and viewpoints all tolerating one another with tender, brotherly toleration.

Or perhaps the scene might more accurately be described as a room filled with heads bent over a wide variety of electronic devices upon which people tap out their knee-jerk responses to a staggering volume of bullet-point, shock-and-awe headline sound bytes, because really there simply isn’t time in the day to process it all.

I guess that’s why the author of that ancient letter now titled “Hebrews” in English translations of the Bible felt the need to qualify his call to “strive for peace with everyone.”

Peace alone, it would seem, is also a bit inadequate.

For one thing, we are urged to “strive.” That alone tells us that achieving “peace with everyone” will not be easy. This is going to be a matter of good, old-fashioned blood, sweat, and tears… the most precious of which were shed some 2000-odd years ago upon one of the more heinous modes of public execution that my species has invented.

But I digress…

The point is that peace is not enough. We must also strive for holiness, because without that key ingredient, no one will see the Lord; they will only see the friendly neighbor or the pacifist.

I find it interesting to note that the admonition to strive for peace and for holiness comes immediately after a discussion of the importance of discipline in training and the author’s coaxing to “lift drooping hands and strengthen weak knees,” which in today’s vernacular may or may not be slightly akin to “man up” or “put on your big-girl panties.” I can’t be sure because I am not privy to the nuances of colloquial Koine Greek.

At any rate, the import is that peace and holiness are not easily achieved. In fact, I would postulate that it takes something very unearthly to attain either true peace or holiness ; nothing less than the very life and breath of God in us… or at least that’s how I understood the Messiah’s words, “apart from Me, you can do nothing.”

With all this in mind, I think I love the Complete Jewish Bible’s translation of Revelation 3:19 most of all because it so beautifully reflects the idea of expended effort (and ironically is written to the lukewarm Laodicean church):

As for me, I rebuke and discipline everyone I love; so exert yourselves, and turn from your sins!
Revelation 3:19, CJB

Exert yourselves, and turn from your sins…

Hmmm… it seems to me that some of this striving for peace and holiness stuff might require me to first expend some effort in a reversal of my own faults, flaws, and outright crimes. That puts some punch to the Lord’s statement about denying self and taking up crosses in order to follow Him. He certainly did not carry His cross to the Roman equivalent of Disneyland.

It could be that what the world needs most is not so much tolerance as it is a stout number of Christians willing to take a sober look in the mirror and Biblically evaluate how well the Kingdom ambassador peering back is doing in his or her representation of the Most High God.

Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.
2 Corinthians 5:20

Personally, I am humbled by that thought…

 

At the Risk of Redundancy, Some Thoughts on Thought

We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ,
(2 Corinthians 10:5)

This is a unique season in my life where my days are no longer filled with endless circling like some featherless vulture, swooping periodically among my three children and snatching a stray variable out from an algebraic equation or pecking at a choppy paragraph or the occasional furtive word from the “Banned Words” list.

It isn’t that I am overloaded with free time – not by any stretch of the imagination. I am still sloooowwly working my way through a course in Biblical Hebrew, working part-time as a sort of tutor/life coach to a teen with a burden too heavy for her thin young shoulders, working one day on a second novel and the next on a non-fiction work (or articles, or proposals, etc.), and I still have a household to manage, however ineptly.

But for the first time since the birth of my son, I have a little space to breathe. And in that space, I have been contemplating the importance of my thought life.

It’s no big secret that the general moral climate of my nation has become so relaxed that one would be tempted to think it was asleep if it weren’t so darn cheeky.

After all, much that was once considered shameful and intentionally obscured by darkness is now quite literally paraded in the streets in the full light of the sun. Words that were once scandalously taboo may now be heard on any public broadcast or even read on an interstate billboard.

More sadly yet, even those who claim to be followers of Christ engage in activities and entertainments that reveal an attitude so far from holy and appropriate fear of the Almighty that it could quite easily be mistaken for something very like cursory fondness; sort of the spiritual equivalent to that nod you give the new grocery clerk when you pass them stocking an aisle.

Except me, of course. I’m apt to smile and greet them by name, because… well we won’t get into that beyond saying that I spend an inordinate amount of time at the grocery store. But I’ve mentioned that before, and now I have badly digressed…

Maybe it is because in the lackadaisical, anything-goes atmosphere of the modern age, we have forgotten the importance of the little things. We have overlooked that just because something is culturally acceptable — or even culturally encouraged — does not mean that it has ceased to be morally reprehensible.

Maybe in the breakneck information overload of inescapable connectivity and an entertainment glut where thoughtful pursuits have been largely sidelined in favor of cut-to-the-chase storylines soaring high on action but slender on plot, we have forgotten that one ought to take the time to think.

Perhaps, even, in a culture of insane rush in which news is thrust at us with fanatical shock-and-awe violence one day and forgotten the next in the melee of the next great scandal; when many people glean their news from headlines alone and their truth from a combination of popular opinion, cat memes, and “Verse-of -the-Day” apps, we have lost sight of the incredible, undeniable power of thought.

Today as I walked and thought, ruminating over Scripture I had just read and other sections that I had previously stored up in my heart, the importance of what our minds are set upon was impressed upon me.

As Paul wrote to the church in Rome: “For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot.” (Romans 8:6-7)…

…and to Philippi: “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” (Philippians 4:8)…

…and to Colossae: “If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.” (Colossians 3:1-2)…

…and as some now-obscure computer geek once wrote, “GIGO” aka “Garbage in, garbage out.”

Certainly, there is enough information and entertainment in this world to occupy every spark of mental energy we can muster, flying past at rates so ridiculous that we have barely processed the first image or word before the next thirty come hurtling by.

But there is a lot to be said for the good, old-fashioned exercise of unhurried thought as well. Perhaps it is because my migraine-prone brain is quick to short-circuit at such speeds, but really I believe it is mainly because I like to spend time. I enjoy mulling over God’s Word, or His character, or His creation. I love contemplation, and I feel incredible satisfaction when I have time to savor it.

And not only that, but in my four decades, I have realized that without a doubt, if I do not take every thought captive to obey Christ, then each one of the irresponsible little devils goes and makes itself a slave to sin…

On that note, I will be unplugging for a few days, so I’ll catch you on the other side of the weekend!

Vibrant

I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.
(Romans 12:1-2)

In celebration of the first day of autumn, Middle Tennessee is enjoying a refreshing high of 90°F/32°C with the current heat index at a wicked 96°F/35.5°C. This whole past week has been rather warm, with highs and lows more apt to provoke a craving for ice cream than pumpkin spiced anything (although I understand an adventurous body can now get pumpkin spice ice cream in addition to a myriad of other products that ought never to have been pumpkinized…).

I can only hope we Middle Tennesseans are not in for a repeat of last fall and winter. Last year, summer grandly overstayed her welcome, and though we had a few brief interludes of wintry weather, overall the latter days of 2016 were remarkable for warmth. For the first time since we have lived in this house, I never fully packed away our shorts and tank tops for the simple fact that we needed them last autumn and even through the winter.

Winter was nice, in some ways – once the heat abated. I admit I enjoyed a few Christmas-break strolls in the balmy air. But although last winter was spring-like, it was not spring. It was a cheat, without the quickening of life and color that is the quintessence of true spring. It was warm, but it had no heart.

There were no spring aromas wafting on the breeze. A few confused insects buzzed around but there were no flowers to pollinate. The typical monochromatic greys and browns of a normal Middle Tennessee winter still wearied the eye, the sun still sank before 5:00 pm, and a devilishly hot autumn drought meant that the annual drabness of the landscape began disappointingly early as most deciduous trees simply opted out of the usual autumnal color parade and dropped their withered leaves shrewdly in an effort to mitigate water loss.

In the Christian community, I think sometimes our worship can be a bit like that.

Sometimes, we have many of the right elements and go through all the right motions, but something is missing. There’s a lack of fragrance and sincerity, a drabness to our spirits that belies the effort we put into the appearance of worship. Sometimes, what we call “worship” is really a heartless cheat; a parody lacking the quickening of true love and life that heralds the presence of the Holy Spirit.

No matter what the coming seasons hold, I would like to challenge myself and all my brothers and sisters worldwide to give ourselves up to honest and earnest worship; to a worship that begins with a sincere love of the God of Truth and of his Word of Truth.

And when I say “worship,” I do not mean merely a mindless parroting of words penned by others. I mean worship as it is described the Bible and carrying the connotations of sacrifice and service.

I mean a worship that is not merely performed; that is neither ritual obligation or some scheduled, route transaction but a bona-fide worship springing up naturally from the overflow of a fierce joy and a bone-shaking reverence and a vibrant trust in the One who gave us life, forgave our rebellion, and retains us even now as ambassadors of His scandalous and improbable grace to a world grown weary of drab pretence, empty promises, and false starts.

I will greatly rejoice in the LORD; my soul shall exult in my God, for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation; he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself like a priest with a beautiful headdress, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.
(Isaiah 61:10)

 

Victim

Love is patient and kind…
(1 Corinthians 13:4a)

I have the very greatest prayer partners on the face of the planet. No joke.

Just this morning, two of us carried our coffee mugs down to the basement where we proceeded with a pre-dawn outcry before the Throne of Grace on behalf of our families, our friends, our nation, and our persecuted brothers and sisters in Christ worldwide.

While one of our members could not make it this particular day, these ladies are my go-to warriors, my trenchmates on the front line, my confidants.  With them, I confess sin with unabashed candor, knowing that they will join me in lifting up a broken and contrite heart as well as in the celebration when a particular sin has been vanquished.

We laugh and cry, we make pleas for the salvation of friends and loved ones who walk in hopelessness, we praise our God that He provides us with enough difficulties along the way that we never forget our incredible need of Him. Together, we pray that we will not only be partakers of grace, but givers of it as well; that merit for any good deeds will be credited to His account and not to ours.

This morning, one friend and I chatted for quite a while after we had knocked fervently at the pearly gates. As our small group is doing a Scripture-based study on marriage, we were thinking back to our selfishness with our spouses early on in our marriage and discussing areas where we may still owe these dear men an apology.

And it got me thinking…

If you have perused this blog for long, you’ll know from a past post that my marriage did not begin with a typical “love and courtship” type of relationship. We did the commitment thing first and worked on the love part along the way.

Through it all, that vow about “in sickness and in health” has been well-tested for my longsuffering husband. He has stuck with me through babies, routine illnesses, meningitis, a surprise baby on the tail end of recovery, and chronic migraine.  Years of chronic migraine.

In fact, I had one yesterday (first in 2 weeks, though, so celebrate with me!!). In the midst of it, I had a tutoring/study skill coaching session with one of my part-time daugthers who also struggles with migraines. After some meds and a nap, I composed a quick email to her dad (my adopted brother/sensei/co-small-group-leader)… and subsequently had to compose another quick email to clarify my muddy thoughts from the first one.

It is very likely that I was unsuccessful. However, at the end, I recall typing out, “Thank you for your patience!”

Since then, I have been thinking about those words, especially in the context of my early-morning discussion on marriage.

For anyone who deals with any type of debilitating or life-altering medical condition or chronic pain, patience can quickly run short. In the fog of fatigue or the pestilent gnawing of pain, it can be difficult to answer your children softly or speak with respect and love to your spouse.

On days in which the old gray matter is sluggish and each thought seems to be extracted with great effort as if wrested from some glutinous quagmire and even basic tasks loom to towering heights of impossibility, a body needs an extra measure of patience just to exist. In such situations, it can be tempting to see oneself as a bit of a victim of circumstance.

Yet in reality, it is my husband who has been the victim here.

When I am annoyed with my own inability to string a handful of words together, how much more patience must it require for the man who listens and struggles to comprehend my disconnected (and often repeated) words?

If fatigue leaves me feeling frustrated with of piles of unfinished tasks, how much more frustrating for him to watch me fight a battle we both know I cannot win? If it is a great feat of composure for me to handle my teenagers’ vitrolic responses delicately when I feel that gentle stabbing behind my left eye, how much more patience it must require for them to respond to me when I am (quite literally) out of my mind – or for my Man to listen to  the lot of us?

So to my Man, if you read this, I have to say:
Thank you so much for your years and years and YEARS of unswerving, unwavering patience and for your example of uncompromising, Biblical love!

Ah, Lord! Forgive me for my self-pity and thank You for an amazing husband who is also an incredible father. May I learn to count the cost of my words as well as he does and spend them as carefully. Let the word of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in Your sight! Amen!

… love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
(1 Corinthians 13:4b-7)

 

 

Impetus

“The LORD is my portion,” says my soul, “therefore I will hope in him.”
(Lamentations 3:24)

When our small church was unable to meet corporately last Sunday due to a scheduling conflict in the elementary school where we meet, some of our friends and family decided to move our worship outdoors. Because of the unusual opportunity and the beautiful weather, we met to hike a portion of the Fiery Gizzard Trail in South Cumberland State Park.

The plan was to take a 9-mile loop that included a stop at a scenic overlook about half-way. However, due to a, um… slight disagreement about the direction to take after our  stop, we wound up hiking down a steep gorge and back up again. Meanwhile, my intuition, which has been honed by playing, “Hey, guys, let’s see if we can get lost in the woods” with my cousins when we were children, dogged each step with a cerainty that we were headed the wrong way.

As we took the rough stone steps, I recall thinking that our navigator may be in some slight danger of mutiny if we had, in fact, taken a wrong turning. Not until we had climbed to the bottom of the  ravine and back up the other side did we all stop and look at one another with the absolute certainty that we were not on the 4.5 mile loop back to our cars, but on the 8-mile stretch that headed to the trail’s southern end in another town.

Frustrated with himself (and possibly nervous about the possibility of violent mutiny), our navigator took off back towards the way we had come, as, with a few scattered murmurs, the rest of us collected ourselves and followed him.

It was absolutely glorious.  

There is not much I love more than hiking, and this particular trail is on my personal top Mom01110 list. Each step of the way back, I brought up the rear with my mom (who turns 66 today – happy birthday, Mama!). She had tweaked her knee somewhere in all the elevation change and had to take it a little slower. This was fine by me since it afforded an opportunity to drink in all the splendor of my Father’s handiwork.

All told, we hiked approximately 14.25 miles and by doing so answered the question of about how long we would need to plan to hike the Fiery Gizzard end-to-end (13 miles). It’s easily doable in a day, even leaving time for my beloved Nikon if we start early.

And as is my habit, the whole trek got me thinking about my walk with the Lord.

Some of our number who are not as giddily in love with the forests and hills as I found the last leg of our trek to be sheer misery. A fair amount of complaints were vocalized, as were several wistful wishes for extra water or a nice, juicy steak.

But for me, even the accidental detour was delightful. Even through the discomfort of thirst and the annoyance of arthritic feet, I enjoyed the quiet beauty of the woods, the surprising red-orange of occasional mushrooms, the steady plashing of the streams. In my experience, I have found that focusing on trouble only makes it that much harder to bear.

The difference, however, was not only focus but motive. 

True, I chose to concentrate on the scenery rather than ponder hunger or the pain of sore feet. But the bigger reason for the disconnect in our various experiences is that I love hiking for hiking’s sake. A short jaunt into the woods, particularly after a long drive, leaves me feeling cheated, so an entire day spent reveling in the Master’s artistry was a rare and wonderful pleasure.

Likewise, my walk with the Lord – and for that matter, all my relationships – are affected by motive. If my motivation for following God’s trail is solely what I can get out of it, be it blessings, comfort, peace, provision, or anything else, then I stand to be disappointed when things take a wrong turning.

However, following my Messiah for His own sake – well, that, my friends is where joy in the journey is found; not merely joy because of circumstances but even joy despite them. There – in Him – is true and lasting peace.

You keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on you, because he trusts in you. Trust in the LORD forever, for the LORD GOD is an everlasting rock.
(Isaiah 26:3-4)

Adventures in Migrania

Today is Day 7 of yet another experiment with yours truly serving as both research analyst and guinea pig.

While I wait on my April appointment with a headache specialist, some friends convinced me to try (another) dietary approach to dealing with the fatigue and pain associated with chronic migraine. So it is that I find myself trying out a diet that flies in the face of everything I have ever associated with healthy eating: I am on a ketogenic diet.

Today is only the seventh day, and so I do not yet know if it will actually help the headache situation or not. However, the last seven days have been the best I’ve had in weeks.

I was told both by my friends and through all my research that I should expect to feel perfectly lousy for the first few days.  Dutifully, I blocked out a couple of days on the schedule and began the diet last Wednesday fully expecting to wake up on Thursday or Friday with the so-called “keto flu.”

But I didn’t. If anything, those two days were better than average for me. Who knew?

So far, seven days into eating extremely minimal carbohydrates, a moderate amount of protein, and high fat content, I find I am still feeling better than usual. Admittedly, I was exhausted and a little sluggish yesterday, but I strongly suspect that it has more to do with an enormous energy expenditure plus inadequate consumption the day before. Besides feeling lethargic, I was also hungry all day which lends credence to my theory.

I suppose a 14-mile hike fueled by a couple of boiled eggs and a handful of nuts will do that to a body.

At any rate, my first week has been promising. I haven’t had significant head pain since the day before and the first day of beginning ketogenic dining. With the exception of last Thursday and yesterday, I have not suffered the debilitating fatigue that has long been a marker of my days.

And honestly, Thursday’s crash could easily have been due to the 48-hour migraine that preceded it and I’ve already mentioned the possible cause of yesterday’s listlessness.  However, during the hike, my energy never flagged and I enjoyed every single minute of the trek.

If this works, I plan to make it a lifestyle and not just a “diet.” I’m certain I will “cheat” here or there down the road, but in all honesty, any food that becomes associated in my mind with pain becomes less desirable anyway.

For instance, I know that wheat is a killer for me. After enduring weeks of ocular migraine, a constant underlying headache, and increased severity of “full-blown” migraines following each intentional cheat or unintentional wheat consumption, I do not miss cookies or cake. I’d rather have less pain, thanks.

That being said, if there is something as simple as a dietary change, no matter how radical it may be, that could help me get off the meds and gain some of my life back, I’m in for the long haul. I’ve counted the cost and decided that even if I have to give up sweets forever, I am resolved to focus on thankfulness for all the years I enjoyed them rather than indulge in self-pity for whatever time I cannot.

As I type those words, I cannot help but note that my attitude towards following Christ ought to reflect the same principle. If obeying Him and drawing close to Him means giving up anything at all, no matter how much temporal pleasure it may bring, it is worth it. I will follow Him, no matter what the cost because He is worthy.

There, too, I have counted the cost… and both the cost and reward in Him are so much higher than mere physical well-being.

Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple. For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it?
(Luke 14:27-28)

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