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If I Should Die Before I Wake

 Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep;

If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.

 –Bedtime prayer for children

This week I begin a new series of Life Notes titled If I Should Die Before I Wake. In the coming months I will reflect upon topics related to death and dying. I intend to explore the various types of deaths we go through and witness during our lives on earth, as well as delving into speculations about heaven and hell, resurrection, an afterlife, and other related topics. I enter this discussion not as an expert, but as one intimately impacted by these issues and curious enough to explore them in some detail. As always, I invite your thoughts, insights, and feedback. You can communicate with me directly via email at ghildenbrand@sunflower.com, or you can comment through my website, www.ContemplatingGrace.com. At the website, you can also sign up to have these reflections delivered to your Inbox every Thursday morning, if you are not receiving them in another manner.

The thought of death makes most of us squirm. We sometimes fear if we talk too much about it, we may invite it to come closer. We know that everyone and everything dies, and in many ways we have been in a process of dying since taking our first breath on earth. We joke that the only two certainties in life are death and taxes. One of my mentors, Jim Finley, likes to say that our death is “in the mail,” meaning it is on its way. Even when death is likely decades away, each passing day draws it closer. Death is frightening because of its uncertainty and unknowability. We do not know when it will arrive, in what manner, under what circumstances, or what lies beyond. It hangs like a dismal shroud over everything good, beautiful, and joyful in our lives.

Spiritual teacher Robert Brumet posted a blog in May 2019 titled, Using Death as Your Advisor.[1] He quotes the Yaqui Indian sorcerer, Don Juan, in saying, “Death is our eternal companion. It is always at our left at arm’s length. It has always been watching you. It always will until the day it taps you.” Brumet advises, “The thing to do when you are impatient is to turn to your left and ask advice from your death. An immense amount of pettiness is dropped if you catch a glimpse of it.” He encourages us to assess our priorities in view of our impending demise. If this were my last week on earth, which of my typical worries and stressors would still matter? What activities are worthy of trading for any of my precious moments? It is in this spirit of using our death as an advisor for living that I hope this series of reflections will remain true. I do not wish to be morbid or fatalistic, but I do believe there is much to be learned from the discussion.

I have witnessed physical death in a close and personal way three time in my life, thus far. I was at my father’s side for his sudden death, and I was able to spend extended time with my mother and grandmother as they went through a slower dying process. I am forever grateful for the few hours spent with my dad the night before he died. Neither of us knew, at least not consciously, how life was about to change. I am equally grateful for the days and weeks spent with my mother and grandmother during their gradual transition toward whatever comes next. My grandmother shared a number of experiences she was having of the next world whenever she drifted back to conscious presence with me. Truly, time spent with the dying is a blessed gift when we are present enough to receive it. We must, however, go deeper into the experience than our sadness at losing physical contact with one we love typically allows. Of course, this is easier said than done.

Brumet offers sage advice about death and dying: “Remembering that the span of my life is limited makes my remaining days all the more precious.” My hope is that these reflections will encourage us to reorder our priorities for our remaining days, treating each as a priceless gift. If that occurs, these reflections will be less about death and more about living life to its fullest. May it be so.

This is the 1st in the series of Life Notes titled, If I Should Die Before I Wake.

Prefer to listen? Subscribe to Life Notes Podcasts at https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/life-notes-podcast/id1403068000

[1] Robert Brumet, Using Death as Your Advisor. May 2, 2019, http://www.RobertBrumet.com

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Praying With One Eye Open (Reprise)

 Devote yourselves to prayer, keeping alert in it with Thanksgiving. At the same time pray for us as well… Colossians 4:2-3a

Throughout this series of Life Notes I have presented the metaphor of praying with one eye open in a negative light. I have used it as an illustration of how we hold back from surrendering completely to God. There is another way of looking at this, however, in which praying with one eye open might actually be the most appropriate way to pray. First, I’ll take a slight, but hopefully interesting detour.

Most people are aware that our brains have two hemispheres. It is one of the countless and unfathomable aspects of how we were created. In very broad terms, the left hemisphere specializes in small details and differentiates what it experiences into concrete groupings of right or wrong, dark or light, male or female. The left hemisphere, useful and necessary as it is, cannot see the big picture. The right hemisphere specializes in the big picture and attempts to fit its experiences into a larger whole. It seeks similarities and relationships, not differences. Here is an example of the typical functioning of the two hemispheres of the brain, paraphrased from Iain McGilchrist’s book, The Master and His Emissary[1]:

A small bird in search of food must perform two tasks simultaneously. First, the bird must focus narrowly on the ground to identify what is edible from what is inedible, i.e., a grain of wheat from a pebble. This is detail work that is the domain of the left hemisphere, which controls the right eye. So our bird is scanning the ground with its right eye in search of food. At the same time, our little friend must also scan the environment for predators. This bigger picture focus is the domain of the right hemisphere, so the bird is also checking her/his surroundings with the left eye. For its well-being, our bird must be aware of both its internal needs and its external dangers. The divided brain allows it to do so.

I use this example to illustrate the dual nature of our earthly lives. Although we are one being, we have both a spiritual and physical aspect to that being. In a related way, we have an internal life as well as the life going on around us. Our divided brains show how we were created with the ability to comprehend and experience in both detailed and broad ways, in concrete and ethereal realms, and in our inner and outer lives. As we awaken to the amazing manner in which we were created, we become capable of unifying and reconciling what we witness in the world around us with the life we experience within.

In prayer, there is a need to focus on the details of our personal situation and a simultaneous need to be aware of the needs of others around us. Like the hungry bird, we have need for both attention to our inner details and a view beyond our own little world. For prayer to be effective, we must attend to both our internal and external worlds.

When we understand that God created us with physical eyes and senses to perceive the world around us, but also with internal senses to explore our inner lives, then we begin to see the wisdom and practicality of praying with one eye open. In other words, we have been given the capacity to be attuned to our inner and outer worlds simultaneously. In order to close our physical eyes in prayer, we need not turn a blind eye to the suffering around us. Likewise, we need not ignore the struggles and conflicts within, pretending as if they do not exist. Our inner and outer worlds mirror one another and ignoring one simply intensifies the struggle in the other.

We were created as single beings with dual capabilities. We actually can attend to seemingly opposite realities until it becomes clear that they are two sides of the same thing. We can become unifiers of the seeming dualisms and contradictions of our world. We attain the peace of Christ when we embrace all of the diverse realities in this life as a single and good creation, valuable and worthy of our respect and love simply by being. In order to grow into this knowledge of our essential unity, we need to pray with one eye closed, i.e., focused internally, and one eye open, i.e., focused externally.

This is the 36th in the series of Life Notes titled, Praying With One Eye Open.

Prefer to listen? Subscribe to Life Notes Podcasts at https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/life-notes-podcast/id1403068000

[1] Iain McGilchrist, The Master and His Emissary. Yale University Press, 2019.

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Praying With Both Eyes Closed

But as for me, my prayer is to you, O Lord. At an acceptable time, O God, in the abundance of your steadfast love, answer me. Psalm 69:13

In January of this year, I began this series of Life Notes with a reflection about praying with one eye open. I used it as a metaphor for not giving oneself fully to God. Since that time I have written numerous additional reflections about the various ways we find to avoid or otherwise not surrender to God as much as we can or perhaps should. Make no mistake, I do not write these as a person who is particularly good at that type of surrender. Maybe that makes me a hypocrite, but these are topics I struggle with and assume at least some others do, too. I remember Sundays in church as a child during prayer time looking around the sanctuary for people whose eyes were not closed. I always found a few. I think I figured if I got caught, the captor would automatically expose his or her own guilt if he or she called me out. It was not that I was serving as the prayer police as much as it was just difficult for me to keep both eyes closed during the prayers that seemed to drag on forever. I, like most of us, was taught to pray with both eyes closed. I guess it was considered disrespectful to God to be looking around during prayer.

The years have given me a slightly different perspective on prayer. I no longer believe God cares whether our eyes are open or closed. I do, however, believe it can make a difference to our personal prayer experience. We receive so much information and stimulation through our eyes that it is difficult, if not impossible, to focus on something ephemeral, like God, with our eyes open. We believe our connection to God is internal and, as such, that our gaze should be internal, too. That implies that our eyes should be closed.

As I have stated in earlier Life Notes, having both eyes closed makes us vulnerable. We cannot see what is going on around us. We do not know but that everyone else might be staring at something that has gone weirdly wrong with our hair. Keeping our eyes open is probably an instinctual trait dating back to the days when we needed to watch for angry Mastodons that might be coming after us. Keeping our eyes open helps us keep control of our environment, or at least gives us a sense of control. Which is exactly not the point in prayer. Closing our eyes requires a degree of trust and surrender, both of which are helpful orientations in seeking God’s presence. In my experience, God does not compete for our attention.

There is a school of thought that when we are doing something, we should be focused on that one thing to the exclusion of everything else. Work efficiency experts tell us to clear everything out of the visual field in our work space except for the immediate task at hand. Distractions like phone calls, emails, and other projects begging for attention come at a cost in terms of getting our tasks done in a timely and accurate manner. Experts tell us we cannot multi-task nearly as well as we believe, so attending to one task at a time is preferable. Under this methodology, when we pray, we should be completely focused on our prayer, and our eyes should be closed.

Certainly in our relationships, when a friend or partner is speaking, particularly about something sensitive, we want to give our attention wholly to her or him. A quick and sure way to damage the relationship is to check our cell phone while the partner is sharing something close to her or his heart. It is a colossal show of disrespect and an indication of how little we value what is important to him or her.

Perhaps for all these reasons and more, keeping both eyes closed during prayer is the best option. It helps keep us focused on God (at least in theory), and it puts us in an attitude of surrender. Having both eyes closed is a symbolic way of saying we trust God to protect us in our times of vulnerability. Those of us who are parents want our children to trust and feel safe in our presence, so why would God feel differently?

This is the 35th in the series of Life Notes titled, Praying With One Eye Open.

Prefer to listen? Subscribe to Life Notes Podcasts at https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/life-notes-podcast/id1403068000

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Divine Violence, Part 3

 His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind? Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. We must work the words of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. John 9:2-4

As a way to illustrate the shared responsibility for the violence manifesting in our world as mass shootings, human slavery, and various forms of oppression and abuse, consider a sometimes-violent, homeless, and mentally ill man living on the streets of our town. Whose fault is it that he is homeless? We are quick to blame local governments for their inadequate funding for affordable housing. Whose fault is it that he has untreated mental illness? We are quick to blame the government’s inadequate funding for mental health services. Whose fault is it that he is sometimes violent? We are quick to blame the local justice system. Now, follow this chain: Who controls governmental purse strings and priorities? (Our elected officials) Who elects these officials? (We do) Most elected officials are inundated with complaints about high government spending. Others complain that taxes need to increase to take care of people like this man, but they believe someone else’s taxes should increase. We recognize the need, but not our own responsibility to participate in the solution.

So, who is to blame for this homeless, mentally ill man on our streets? Is it the government, local service providers, elected officials, or the voters? The responsibility for the problem and the solution, of course, rests on us. I do not point this out to infuse guilt. This is shared guilt and shared responsibility. It starts, however, with recognizing and taking responsibility for our individual part. Pope Francis, in his message for the 2017 World Day of Peace said, “Jesus taught that the true battlefield, where violence and peace meet, is the human heart: for “it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come” (Mark 7:21). [1] The change we seek begins within. As I noted last week, the external violence in our world mirrors the internal violence within each of us. Our desire to shift the responsibility for society’s ills onto others is a manifestation of that violence. It reveals the split between our true self, which suffers with the suffering, and our ego-self, which focuses narrowly on its own self-promotion.

How do we identify and heal the violence within so we can begin healing the violence we witness in our world? Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Identify the areas of internal resistance, the motives and beliefs, inhibiting your ability to recognize society’s problems as your problems. For example, “My taxes are already too high” or “That is not my responsibility.”
  2. Once exposed, work to transform those motives and beliefs from something individually focused to something more socially focused. For example, transform the belief that “my taxes are too high” to “we are all going to have to sacrifice to resolve this issue.”
  3. Form or join like-minded people to influence positive change in your community as a whole. For example, form a group to pressure local officials and voters to adequately and sustainably fund local services for the marginalized.

The essential nature of sin is the sense of separation from others. Many perpetrators of human atrocities are isolated beings trapped in their isolated ego-self. How can we safely and effectively integrate those on the margins into society? How can we expand our boundaries to make them feel included? How can we give them a sense of belonging and social responsibility?

In today’s scripture, the followers of Jesus wanted to know who was responsible for a man being born blind. In his day, many believed the man’s blindness was due either to his or his parent’s sin. Jesus said the man was born blind to reveal God’s works – works performed by the hands and hearts of those seeking to love God actively in the world. Whose fault is it we live in a violent world? Ultimately, it is ours. For what purpose? Perhaps it is so those willing to be the hands and heart of God on earth can manifest God’s glory by transforming divine violence into divine love. That is how we will open the gates to God’s kingdom on earth.

This is the 34th in the series of Life Notes titled, Praying With One Eye Open.

Prefer to listen? Subscribe to Life Notes Podcasts at https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/life-notes-podcast/id1403068000

[1] Pope Francis, “Nonviolence: A Style of Politics for Peace,” Message of His Holiness Pope Francis for the Celebration of the Fiftieth World Day of Peace (January 1, 2017).

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Divine Violence, Part 2

 For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come… Mark 7:21a

Last week I reflected on how we can read the violent sections of the Bible in a metaphorical way that helps us reconcile a loving God with a sometimes violent text. This method of biblical interpretation is based on the foundational belief that our inner struggles not only mirror the violence recorded in the Bible, but also mirror the external violence we witness in our world today. These inner struggles occur between our ego-self – the part of us that is overly identified with our mortal, physical being – and our true-self – the part of us that is inseparably wedded to God, others, and the eternal. These two selves, both of which are us, find themselves in frequent conflict because their goals, values, and perspectives differ widely. Unfortunately, the violence in our world is not metaphorical. The murder of innocents, physical abuse, oppression, and the heartbroken victims and families left in their wake are all very real.

Let me restate the proposition that some will find silly or heretical: The world outside of our selves mirrors the world inside of our selves. As such, our eternal fate is inseparably tied to that of all others. Salvation is not an individual achievement; rather, it is a communal awakening. The traditional view of heaven would not be heaven if we were there alone. That would be hell. We have neither the wisdom nor the perspective to judge who is worthy of either glory or damnation. What we have is a commandment to love each other. Followers of Jesus, by definition, try to do what he did. Jesus reached out to and served those on the margins of society – prostitutes, tax collectors, widows and orphans, the sick and lame, immigrants, the blind. In no uncertain terms he told us to go and do likewise. This command was not simply because loving these people is a nice thing to do, but because bringing them into our circle of care is a necessary step for our own entry into the kingdom of heaven. Remember, our inner life mirrors what we witness externally as their life.

A common question I hear in discussions of mass tragedies like the Holocaust is this: Where was God? That question is as wrong as it is reasonable. We are far too quick to blame God for evil manifestations of human brokenness and ignorance. The correct question is: Where were we? Granted, most of us were not alive during the Holocaust, but where are we with the immigrants at our southern border? Where are we in the mass shootings occurring throughout our country? Where are we in human trafficking and the myriad of other continuing forms of human slavery and oppression? If we are God’s hands and feet on earth, where are we? We are an integral part of the fabric of this society and the communities where we live. We help perpetuate that which we do not oppose. What public action have I taken on gun control, global hunger, immigration, or human trafficking? Personally, I have done far too little.

So here is our dilemma: If the outer world mirrors our inner world, what are we doing about the senseless violence within? I think the answer begins with the degree to which we consciously identify with our ego self. The ego has no problem with personal gain at the expense of another. It has no problem looking the other way when someone else is being beaten or robbed, as long as the perpetrator does not come after it. Is it any wonder we live in a violent, self-centered society? The ego has no social conscience, and a lack of social responsibility is at the heart of mass human tragedies. Assuming personal responsibility for the suffering of others is lacking. The ego is very quick to assign blame elsewhere. And the first to suffer and last to recover are those at the margins – the ones to whom Jesus dedicated his ministry.

Once we identify more strongly with our true self, our connection to others becomes more apparent. We can no longer stand by and witness the persecution of others because their persecution is our persecution. Refusing to consider scripture and the life around us as a reflection of our inner world is like praying with one eye open. We allow into our awareness only those parts of reality that support our ego-self. And those at the margins pay the price for our ignorance.

I will attempt to wrap up the loose ends of this discussion next week.

This is the 33rd in the series of Life Notes titled, Praying With One Eye Open.

Prefer to listen? Subscribe to Life Notes Podcasts at https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/life-notes-podcast/id1403068000

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Divine Violence, Part 1

 Let burning coals fall on them! Let them be flung into pits, no more to rise! Psalm 140:10

There are a number of methods to interpret what we read in the Bible and other sacred texts. One common method, although it is relatively recent in Christian history, is the literal interpretation. This assumes that God dictated the Bible as opposed to inspiring it, as Timothy states in his Epistle.[1] “It is in the Bible, therefore God said it, so I believe it,” is a common sentiment of those who apply a literal interpretation. Others follow a historical reading, meaning they see the Bible as a historical record that may or may not have current relevance beyond recording events from long ago. Another method of interpretation is the allegorical or metaphorical, which bypasses questions of factuality and seeks the story-within-the-story the reading attempts to impart. For example, Jesus used parables in his teaching, which are not factual accounts but are relatable stories with an important moral lesson. There is a use for each type of interpretation, depending on the scripture passage and our stage in life, but I find the metaphorical reading most useful for spiritual growth and understanding.

One concern that turns many away from the Bible is the violence recorded, requested, and alluded to throughout its pages. Particularly for those who read the Bible literally, God appears to play favorites and sometimes violently so. For example, as the Israelites were seeking their freedom from slavery, God caused a series of plagues to fall upon the people of Egypt in order to convince Pharaoh to grant them their freedom. The tenth plague brought death to all the firstborn in Egypt, both children and livestock.[2] As a firstborn myself, I find this very disconcerting! Not only were the plagues caused by God, but God purposely hardened Pharaoh’s heart following the previous plagues so that Pharaoh would not set the Israelites free.[3] A literal reading of Exodus would mean that God not only caused thousands of deaths to innocent people and animals to send a message to Pharaoh, but God was manipulating Pharaoh in such a way as to prevent him from relinquishing. One must be a nimble biblical apologist to reconcile the literal Biblical record with what we want to believe is a loving and just God.

In the creation story of Genesis, after creating every living thing on the earth, God created humankind and pronounced the whole of creation “very good.”[4] This story does not distinguish the Israelites as better than non-Israelites, although much of the Bible refers to them as God’s “chosen” race (never mind that most of the Bible was written by these chosen ones). My point is that a God who created all things and all peoples and pronounced them “very good” seems unlikely to take sides in squabbles among God’s creation, let alone initiate or support such violent and fatal action against either side. The Psalms are full of accounts of exactly that sort of vicious favoritism, either requested by someone feeling offended or granted on their behalf. My belief is that God’s part in these stories is either a misunderstanding on the part of the author or an allegorical truth-sharing using a non-factual story.

Fortunately, there is another way to understand such texts without portraying God as arbitrary or violent toward innocents. As followers of Jesus, who was unquestionably non-violent, we need another option. A metaphorical reading, while not taking a position on the literal or historical accuracy of the passages, leads one to ponder how the message applies to one’s own life. For example, we can read the story of the exodus as the story of our own struggle to free the true and pure part of ourselves from the ego-self and its bondage to materialism. Pharaoh represents our ego, and the Israelites are our true self. The various plagues represent the numerous attempts we make to free ourselves from the addictive consumer-mentality of our culture. There are many plagues because we must persist with sustained efforts at self-change. The death of the first-born can represent the “death” of some of our “first-born” ideas about life and God that are either wrong or that we have outgrown, many of which we inherit from ancestors. Those ideas and beliefs can be stubborn entities, like Pharaoh, that do not easily relent.

Such metaphorical, internal violence is one thing. The very real and tragic violence in our world is quite another. I will reflect on that next week.

This is the 32nd in the series of Life Notes titled, Praying With One Eye Open.

Prefer to listen? Subscribe to Life Notes Podcasts at https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/life-notes-podcast/id1403068000

[1] See 2 Timothy 3:16.

[2] Exodus 12:29.

[3] See Exodus 11:10.

[4] Genesis 1:31.

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A Beautiful Soul, Part 3

I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. John 15:15

The last two weeks I have shared my thoughts about our individual souls. On the one hand, our soul needs to express in physical ways. On the other hand, our soul is not of this world, but is an extension of God’s eternal realm. As such, we can feel wounded when a sincere expression of our deepest essence is not received with the same level of respect and care from which it came.

One of the hardest things to grasp is that we are quite literally one at the soul level – one with God and one with each other. An indication of how much we identify with our physical nature is in how much we feel separate from others. The truth is that we sink or swim together. When others suffer, we suffer, regardless of whether we feel the direct impact that tragedies across the globe have on us. This is why Jesus of Nazareth and other great spiritual leaders manifested as suffering servants. They knew who they were at their core, and so they recognized the suffering of the world as their own suffering. Author and teacher, Richard Rohr, writes, “Becoming who we really are is a matter of learning how to become more and more deeply connected.”

Because the soul is not bound by time and space our connections with others are not limited by time and space, either. That is how we can maintain a close friendship with someone whom we seldom see and pick up conversations from where we left off years before. It is why we can be moved to tears by a symphony written centuries ago by a composer we never knew personally. It explains why certain paintings of long-dead artists can connect so intimately and emotionally with something deep inside of us. These connections are soul-to-soul and they spring from a realm beyond the physical. The concept of soul mates has been hijacked by romantic notions, but it really refers to deep connections with others that transcend space and time. Truly, our soul knows no boundaries.

I attended a presentation by a poet in college. He drew a distinct line between those who opened a channel to their soul for others to experience and those who did not. In his opinion, there were two choices – live life as an emotionally unstable but serious artist or live life as a stable but mediocre (at best) artist. In my opinion, he probably succeeded on the emotionally unstable front, but I found his poetry to be more an expression of his egoic insecurities than reflections of something terribly profound or deep. I do not believe our choices for manifesting the spiritual, soulful part of ourselves to be nearly so stark. In fact, I believe we are meant to allow our souls to embody in all the ways we are gifted to manifest. With an awareness that not everyone will receive our soulful expressions with the appreciation and respect we believe they deserve, we can learn to express from the deepest parts of our being simply for the joy of such expression.

Our ego becomes overly identified with our mortal bodies and with the opinions of others. It is our ego that is fragile and easily wounded, not our soul. When we overly identify with our ego and with our physical being, we will almost certainly turn into an emotional basket case, like the poet mentioned above, anytime anything that springs from our essence is rejected. As we learn to identify more with the eternal, spiritual part of us we are less likely to be wounded by the words and actions of others.

When the veil between the physical and spiritual begins to thin, we can allow our beautiful soul to shine through and touch others. This is evangelism beyond words. We allow others to be touched by the Spirit through us. Whether we manifest great works of art, poetry, music, or just comforting presence is beside the point. Our beautiful soul will draw out the beauty in others, and there is no art form more beautiful or impactful than that. This is how we manifest the healing presence of God; it brings the peace that passes understanding. It is how we live our lives to the fullest, beautiful body and beautiful soul.

This is the 31st in the series of Life Notes titled, Praying With One Eye Open.

Prefer to listen? Subscribe to Life Notes Podcasts at https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/life-notes-podcast/id1403068000

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