Tag Archives: God

“Something More”

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I actually have a certificate signed by the Episcopal Bishop of Los Angeles that says I received the Holy Spirit together with His Sevenfold Gifts (Isaiah 11:1-2) when he laid his hands on me at my Confirmation in 1965 when I was 12 years old. But up to that point, and for a number of years afterwards, my experience of the Holy Spirit was just about as flat as that piece of paper.

In 1974 Catherine Marshall wrote her book Something More in which she explained that there is “a big difference between being indwelt by the Spirit and being ‘filled’ with His presence.” She explained that “for years (and sometimes for a lifetime) a Christian can keep the Spirit at a sub-basement level by the insistence on running one’s own life. Then through teaching or need – or both – that person recognizes his divine Guest’s presence, opens hitherto closed doors into crayon rooms in his being so that the Spirit can enter there too… It is not God’s attitude toward us that needs to be changed, but our attitude toward Him.  He will not give us anything new; rather we are to receive in a new and far fuller sense that which He has already given us at Pentecost… Sunlight can be kept out only by erecting barriers against it.  All we need do then, is take down our shutters and barriers and walk out into the sunlight already given” (276).  Until and unless this happens, she said, we will operate at a level well below what God intends for us spiritually, and we will experience this deficit as “an aching void in our hearts.”

It was a feeling of this kind of emptiness that brought J. Rodman Williams, a well-known and highly respected Presbyterian theologian, to the place of seeking “something more.”  In his 1972 book The Pentecostal Reality he wrote –

At the heart of much of our life and activity a deep spiritual crisis exists. Despite multiple attempts by the church at reassessment and relevance, there remains the haunting sense of something lacking or unfulfilled and a feeling of spiritual impotence… Where, many are asking, is the dynamic reality of God’s presence? In an article appearing in “The Christian Century” (May 13, 1979) entitled “The Power of Pentecost: We Need it More Now Than Ever,” the author asks, “Why in every sector of Christianity today… [is] there so little evidence of spiritual power…?” “I am haunted,” he continues, “by the memory of Pentecost and its power surging into the hearts of the disciples long, long ago.  Where is that power today?  Can it come among us again?”  Then, finally, he adds, “It is time we took Pentecost seriously and eagerly received a new infusion of the Holy Spirit.”

I believe that it is this awareness of “something missing” that prepares us for the “something more” that the experience of the fullness of the Holy Spirit brings into our spiritual lives.  It’s when we hunger and thirst for the reality of the things that we believe are true that we will start to ask, and knock, and seek, and that’s when Jesus said that the fullness of the Holy Spirit will be given to us (Luke 11:13).

My spiritual awakening happened in 1965.  That’s when I was “born again,” and I believe that it was at that time that I was forgiven and given the gift of the Holy Spirit.  The indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit is just “part of the package” of Christian conversion Biblically.  You can’t be a Christian and not have the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:37-38; Romans 8:9; I Corinthians 12:3; Galatians 3:1-5). But in my experience it wouldn’t be for another six years that I would “receive” or “make welcome” the Holy Spirit who indwelt me when I first believed.  For six long years the Holy Spirit had been living in the house of my life, but I wasn’t aware of His presence or consciously plugged into His power.  This happens because, as the Reformed Biblical Theologian Geerhardus Vos (1862-1949) explained –

In (the) great redeeming process two stages are to be distinguished. First come those acts of God which have a universal and objective significance, being aimed at the production of an organic center for the new order of things. After this had been accomplished, there follows a second stage during which this objective redemption is subjectively applied to individuals.

I’d believed the objective work of God in Christ to save me, but I’d not had a conscious experience of this saving work of God in Christ subjectively applied to me. I see this dynamic at work in the great “Apostolic Benediction” of 2 Corinthians 13:14 –

“The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God,
and the communion of the Holy Spirit, be with you all.”
 

Salvation is the work of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It originates in the love of the Father.  It is accomplished by the grace of the Son in the finished work of His atoning death, burial and resurrection.   And it is applied by the communion of the Holy Spirit, by the way that the Holy Spirit communicates God’s grace in Christ to us and facilitates our sharing in it.  When we resist (Acts 7:51), quench (1 Thessalonians 5:19), and grieve the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 4:30), we close the door on the Spirit’s indwelling and empowering presence in our lives, and miss the conscious experience of the adequate spiritual dynamic for the living of the Christian life that God in Christ intends for us.

Jeffrey Simmons was an Episcopal Priest who was irritated when some members of his parish kept urging him to go to a certain conference where he could “get the Spirit.”   He finally wound up going, but resolved that he wasn’t going to let anybody pray for him while he was there.  Dodging offers to be prayed over at every turn, and becoming increasingly irritated by the whole idea, he finally retreated to a quiet garden where he could hide.

Sitting with my back against the trunk of a tree, I tried to sort out my feelings. I felt trapped (someone else had driven and I didn’t have a car.)  I felt pressured and manipulated… But as the sunlight sparkling through the cool green leaves started to calm me, I became aware that I (also) felt curious and a little ashamed of myself for not being more adventurous.  The theme of the conference, boiled down to the essentials, was nothing more than, “God wants to have a closer and more productive relationship with you, if you will just open yourself to receive it.”  I couldn’t argue with that… so I sat under that tree fir an hour and a half praying the hardest I had ever prayed in my life, “Dear God, if you have something for me that I don’t have, I’ll take it.”

Several decades later, I still look back at that time of prayer with gratitude. I was not aware, when I emerged from under the tree, that anything had changed.  It was not an emotional experience at all.  The changes happened gradually over the next six months.  Prayer became a hunger, and the sense of God’s presence far more intense.  The amount of money I spent on Christian books increased dramatically. The biggest change, however, was what happened when I read the Bible.  Passages I had read fifty times took on a vividness and urgency that were almost disorienting.  All I had said was, “God, if you have something for me that I don’t have, I’ll take it.” …It simply says, as I think Christians should always say, that God always has more for me, and I am standing before him with empty, receptive hands.

Biblically, I believe that the normal Christian life consists of both being “born again” (John 3:3) and of being “Spirit-filled” (Ephesians 5:18). Jesus Christ as the Savior came to do both.  He is the “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29), and He is the “One who baptizes in the Holy Spirit” (John 1:33).  But my spiritual life had been artificially truncated because nobody ever told me this, or showed me in Scripture how this was so.  As the disciples of John the Baptist told Paul outside of Ephesus in Acts 19:2 – I hadn’t even been told “that there was a Holy Spirit!”  And then, everything changed for me when at a prayer meeting when I was encouraged to “receive” or “make welcome” the Holy Spirit.  I did, and what I had known for a long long time was true suddenly became just as real to me, in me, and that’s the promise that Pentecost holds for each one of us.  “Come Holy Spirit, Come!DBS +

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“All dressed up with nowhere to go, and nothing to do…”

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I grew up in the Episcopal Church, the high church variety. You know, “smells and bells.”  We took ourselves and our adherence to tradition quite seriously. In that old nature/nurture debate, I attribute my stalwart “SJ” temperament [matched by an “I” and a “T” for anyone who might be curious about my “type”] in no small measure to my being spiritually socialized in a church that actually had full rehearsals for all of its high holy day worship services so that we would “do it right” — that is, the way that it had always been done according to tradition.

Anyway, it was at the end of a long Lenten season and a marathon of intricate Holy Week worship services, that I was standing in the sacristy (the communion preparation room and worship staging area) with a couple of my fellow acolytes attending to all of the post-service details after the last Easter morning Worship, when I overheard our priest, getting out of his liturgical vestments, mutter – “Thank God that’s over.”

I’ve been through 40 Lents and Holy Weeks as a local church pastor now myself, so I know full well what he meant. He was tired.  He just wanted to go home and have a martini — what he had “given up” for Lent and go to bed.  He needed some down time.  I “get” that.  What I don’t “get” is the spiritual and Biblical myopia that his statement betrayed.

In the minds of way too many of us, Easter marks the end of the story. Get to Easter, and we’re finished until Advent and Christmas rolls around again in November and December.  This is our Christianity –

  • God becoming flesh and dwelling among us in Jesus Christ – the Christmas truth of the Incarnation – check – got it!
  • Jesus Christ going to the cross in a saving act of sacrificial love – the Good Friday truth of the Atonement – check – got it!
  • And Jesus Christ being raised from the dead on the third day triumphing over death and darkness – the Easter truth of Personal Regeneration and Cosmic Renewal – check – got it!

But if this is where we stop, then what we’ve got is Jesus back up on His feet and all dressed-up, but with nowhere to go and nothing to do! And if this is where your Christianity puts the period, then you’ve only got half of the Gospel.

bosch.pngDavid Bosch in his magisterial theology of the mission of the church Transforming Mission Orbis – 1991) identified the six Biblical moments in the saving work of God in Jesus Christ: (1) Christmas – the Incarnation – what God was doing to save us by becoming flesh in Jesus Christ; (2) Good Friday – the Atonement – what God in Christ was doing to save us by going to the cross; (3) Easter – the Resurrection – what God was doing to save us by raising Jesus Christ from the dead on the third day; (4) The Ascension –what God was doing to save us by seating Jesus Christ at His right hand as Lord; (5) Pentecost – what God was doing to save us by sending the continuing empowering presence of Christ to indwell individual Christians and the whole church; and (6) The Second Coming – what God is going to do to finish the work of salvation already begun in Jesus Christ when He comes again.

The “full” Gospel takes into account all six of these saving moments in the drama of God’s work in Jesus Christ.  And so, to pull up short and stop at Easter is to literally leave half of the Gospel on the table, and ironically, it’s the half of the Gospel that actually moves the story from history to our hearts!  As a prayer I am praying these days as part of my personal devotion puts it –

“Thou hast this day spread before us the fuller pages of revelation, and in them we see what thou wouldest have us do, what thou hast required of us, what thou hast done for us, what thou hast promised us, what thou hast given us in Jesus. [Now] we pray thee for a conscious experience of his salvation…” (The Sunday Evening Prayer from The Valley of Vision: A Collection of Puritan Prayers and Devotions – Arthur Bennet, ed.  The Banner of Truth Trust. 1975. — Yes, I really am an “SJ”…)

For a “conscious experience of salvation” we need the part of the Gospel that the Ascension, Pentecost and the promise of the Second Coming specifically offer us – that is, an awareness of the active Lordship of Christ over all of creation (Ascension); the experience of the indwelling and empowering presence of Christ assuring us of our identity as God’s children and driving us out to share in His mission in the world (Pentecost); and a deep aching for the final coming of the Kingdom when God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven (The Second Coming).  Without this awareness, this experience and this ache, our Christianity will always be more a theory than a love affair.  For a “conscious experience of salvation” we need the whole Gospel. So, to my priest’s exhausted – “Thank God that’s over” – spoken in the sacristy of the Church of the Holy Apostles in Glendale, California, 50 years ago, this veteran of 40 Lents and Holy Weeks now himself replies – “Not yet, Father… it’s not over yet.” Jesus Christ was raised on the third day to finish the work of salvation that His birth, life, death and resurrection began, and “finishing” it involves the Ascension, Pentecost and the Second Coming.

This all hit me with particular force a week ago at Sunday evening’s Ephesians Bible study (broadcast each week between 5:30 and 6:30 pm – Central Standard Time – on Facebook Live) as we dug into 1:17-21 –

17 I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better. 18 I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in his holy people, 19 and his incomparably great power for us who believe. That power is the same as the mighty strength 20 he exerted when he raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, 21 far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every name that is invoked, not only in the present age but also in the one to come.

Paul addressed these words to Christians, to people who already knew and fully trusted Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior. In 1:15-16 Paul had affirmed and celebrated with the Ephesians what it was that he had heard about their faith and love.  They were already well-grounded believers, and what Paul wanted for them next was growth.  He didn’t want them to rest on their past laurels of faith and faithfulness, but rather Paul wanted them to keep on growing in their understanding and experience of the hope to which they had been called, of the value of the promises that God had made to them, and of the power that was available to them.  It wasn’t over yet, and Paul wanted these believers who had had such a good start not to stall out in the face of the challenges and conflicts that were yet to come their way.  And in his word of encouragement to them, Paul appealed to what God had already done for them by raising Jesus Christ from the dead, as well as anticipating what it was that God was still going to do for them because Jesus Christ is now seated at the right hand of the Father in the heavenly places.  In other words, Paul brought the “full” Gospel into play in his efforts to encourage the faith of the Ephesian Christians as they moved into the future, and it’s there for us as well.

godIn Romans 8, Paul grounded his affirmation of God’s love in Jesus Christ from which nothing can separate us in three Gospel moments: (1) In the fact that Christ died for us (8:32); (2) In the fact that Christ was raised for us (8:34b); and (3) In the fact that Christ now intercedes for us at the right hand of God (8:34c). Again, it’s the “full” Gospel – what Christ has already done for us, what Christ is presently doing for us, and what Christ has yet to do for us – and not some partial version of it that securely tethers us to the certainty of God’s love and that tightly attaches us to the promises of God’s faithful care and concern for us, and the whole world.

When Christ was raised from the dead on the third day, He had somewhere to go and something to do, and for a conscious experience of the salvation that He provides, it’s best to see this story through to its very end, and to build our faith on the complete foundation that we are being offered. DBS +

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“Do Something Beautiful for God… Become Someone Beautiful for God”

Tradition says that after considering other religious options, that the Russians consciously chose Eastern Orthodox Christianity to be their state religion because when they experienced its worship for the very first time, they “knew not whether they were in heaven or on earth… for on earth there is no such splendor or such beauty… and they could not forget that beauty.”

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I thought this about our worship at Northway on Easter Sunday morning. I cannot forget that beauty — the Choral Scholars’ Quartet singing Mendelssohn’s “O Come, Every One that Thirsteth,” the flowering of the cross, the y’all come and sing version of Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus, Margaret and Justin’s astonishing piano and organ duet during the Offertory, the spectacular spread of blooming Easter lilies, the choir’s lush anthem and stirring preface to our processional hymn, and the worship team singing “Beautiful Things” after my morning meditation on “Beauty from Ashes” (Isaiah 61:1-3).

I didn’t know if I was on earth or in heaven!

goodWe have tended to underestimate the power of beauty as one of the God-triggers in our souls. One of the three “transcendentals,” we’ve tended to rely on the other two so much more in practice. Our activist impulse, that God-implanted desire to do something, anything, to make the world a better place orients us towards the way of the good.  And our drive to understand things both great and small routinely puts us on the path of the true. But classically understood, beauty is just as sure a way into an awareness of God as is our drive to do what’s good and to know what’s true.

I based my Easter message this year on the line from Isaiah’s “Suffering Servant” song about how the mission of God’s Messiah when He came would be to exchange “ashes for beauty” (61:3), and how this has become a familiar way for Christians to think and talk about the promise of Easter. After the brutality of Good Friday and the emptiness of Holy Saturday, when Jesus was raised on the third day, this exchange occurred — the ashes of death, despair, and apparent defeat became the beauty of the resurrection to newness of life. At the lowest moment in the story of Jesus, “all of the shattered fragments of spiritual power were suddenly quickened, strengthened, and clothed with loveliness.” On Easter Sunday morning I said that this is what Christ came to do – “to bring a new life out of the old ashes” (James D. Wilson). And this is not some abstract theological concept.  No, this is immediate and personal.

It’s about the difference that Jesus Christ makes in your life as your Lord and Savior. It’s what we mean when we sing – “I once was lost but now I’m found; was blind but now I see.” It’s about the ashes of death giving way to the beauty of life, both eternal and abundant. It’s about the ashes of despair giving way to the beauty of hope.   It’s about the ashes of shame and guilt giving way to the beauty of forgiveness.  It’s about the ashes of division giving way to the beauty of inclusion.   It’s about the ashes of defeat and discouragement giving way to the beauty of transformation and renewal.  It’s about the ashes of regret giving way to the beauty of regeneration.  The power of Easter is in how it takes our ashes and makes them into something beautiful.

Years ago Joseph Aldrich wrote about how it is the beauty of the Gospel and not just the Gospel’s words that has the real power to transform people. He wrote –

…The “music” of the gospel is the beauty of the indwelling Christ as lived out in the everyday relationships of our lives. We must become recipients of God’s blessing, begin to incarnate His beauty in our relationships, and open these relationships to the non-Christian… Once this “music” has been heard, then expect to be asked for the “reasons for the hope (beauty) that you have.”  Play the beautiful music, and they’ll listen to the words of the song. (Life-Style Evangelism 21)

motherMother Teresa was famous for telling her little brothers and sisters of charity all around the world to try to “do something beautiful for God” each and every day. This prompted Philip Kosloski to write an essay for the “National Catholic Register” on the beauty of Mother Teresa’s life and work for the weekend last September when she was canonized a Saint in the Roman Catholic Church. He asked —

…Will beauty save the world? Yes it will, but it must be a Beauty united to Truth and Goodness, and a beauty that encompasses all aspects of life. The Gospel we preach to the Modern World will not be found effective if it does not recognize the importance of beauty, especially the beauty of Christian witness.

…By drawing closer to God, our lives reflect a particular beauty, which has the capacity to attract others to the beauty of God. In seeing the beauty of God in our lives, others see that being a Christian is not something oppressive or burdensome, but is actually liberating and beautiful.

“… the Christian life is called to become, in the force of Grace given by Christ resurrected, an event of susceptible beauty to arouse admiration and reflection and incite conversion. The meeting with Christ and His disciples… must always and everywhere have the potential to become an event of beauty, a moment of joy in the discovery of a new dimension of existence, an invitation to put oneself on the road to the Father of Heaven to enjoy the vision of the Complete Truth, the beauty of the Love of God: Beauty is the splendour of the truth and the flowering of Love.” (The Via Pulchritudinis, §III.3 – Pope Benedict XVI)

You see, we don’t just believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ as Christians, we live it. The Gospel’s exchange of ashes for beauty that Christ’s resurrection 2,000 years ago embodied now plays out in our lives as the ashes of the rebellion of our sin and the brokenness of our lives getting exchanged for the beauty of our transformation and personal renewal.

If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come. And all this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to Himself…” (2 Corinthians 5:17-18)

Because Christ is Risen and we are walking in newness of life through our share in it by faith (Romans 6:1-1-11), this Eastertide let’s go do something beautiful for God, or better yet, let’s become someone beautiful for God. Because of Easter, our ashes have a beauty appointment.  DBS +

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What Was God Doing on the Cross?

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It’s said that good theology properly issues in doxology. I know that a carefully reasoned theological argument always makes me want to sing!  And the day that I first read this statement by Barton W. Stone (1772 – 1844) – one of the founders of my own spiritual tradition – on the Atonement (the meaning of Christ’s death on the Cross) when I was in Seminary, I was literally moved to thankful praise –

wigA father provides plentifully for a large family of children. Some of them may know the means by which the father got the provisions – others may not so well know, and the youngest may scarcely know anything more than that the father’s love provided these things. Yet they all eat and thrive, without quarreling about the means by which the provisions were obtained.  O that Christians would do likewise.

The generosity of this perspective seemed to me then to best fit the actual diversity of what the Bible says about what Jesus Christ was doing on the cross, the church’s “official” teaching (or, more technically, the church’s lack of an “official” teaching) on the atonement, and my own peculiar spiritual temperament.  What I really liked about Stone’s analogy of the father’s provision is that, if fully embraced, it can put a stop to the kind of theological imperialism that insists that you see things my way, and my way alone if you are going to sit with me at the church’s dinner table.

Back in the day this analogy liberated me from some spiritual bullying that I was experiencing from my fellow conservative colleagues and peers who insisted that the only way to be truly faithful to the Bible’s message of the cross was to think and talk about it exclusively through the grid of the substitutionary atonement interpretation of its meaning. This is the way that I was first taught to think about the cross, and it is still deeply ingrained in me spiritually.  It continues to inform the way that I think about the meaning of the cross on Sunday mornings when I go to the Lord’s Table.  It’s not the only way I think about the meaning of the cross, but it is invariably the first way that I do so. I have a deep appreciation for the truth of the substitutionary atonement theory of Christ’s saving work on the cross in my faith, and a genuine respect for its very real power in my life.  But, I know enough about the Bible and the history of Christian thought to know that this is not the only way to think and talk about the meaning of Christ’s death on the cross, and that it never has been.

Today I find that Stone’s analogy has had to take up position on my left flank. Many of my progressive colleagues and peers don’t find the substitutionary atonement theory of Christ’s saving work on the cross to be either compelling or particularly helpful to them.  And that’s fine — Barton W. Stone didn’t either.  But what Stone’s analogy doesn’t allow for is for the kind of theological incredulity that its critics display at the very suggestion that any thinking Christian anywhere might still find the substitutionary atonement interpretation of the cross to be meaningful. It’s one thing to talk about how and why you don’t find this theory particularly useful for yourself, and another thing altogether to insist that nobody else dare find it useful for them.  Stone’s analogy of the family dinner table where different understandings of how the father provides for his children would seem to argue for greater freedom of thought and a better generosity of spirit.

I didn’t like it one little bit back in the day when my conservative brothers and sisters called into question the theological intelligence and spiritual integrity of those who needed a different way, or additional ways of thinking and talking about the meaning of the cross than the substitutionary atonement theory. And I don’t like it one little bit now when my more progressive brothers and sisters call into question the theological intelligence and spiritual integrity of those of us who still find the substitutionary atonement theory to be meaningful.

A much better approach, it seems to me, and one so much more consonant with Stone’s dinner table analogy, is Scot McKnight’s Golf bag analogy of atonement theories –

golfEach “theory” of the Atonement is, like a particular golf club, better suited to some situations than others. Ministering the gospel is like playing a round of golf. Just as a golfer knows when to use a driver, a wedge, or a putter, the way we proclaim, teach, or share the Good News should be adapted to the situation. You can hit the ball out of a sand trap with your driver, but why would you if you had a wedge available? The strength of the golf-bag metaphor is that it asks us to stop being partisan toward one particular theory of the Atonement and to minister with the best tools at hand. [“Your Atonement Is Too Small” – David Neff – May 20, 2008 – www.christianitytoday.com]

Because I know myself to be a sinner of herculean potential and endless possibility, last Wednesday in the noon Bible Study that I teach I was moved in my spirit to doxology with Paul after some of his characteristic theological ponderings –

The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. And I am the foremost of sinners; but I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience for an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life. To the King of ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory for ever and ever. Amen. (1 Timothy 1:15-17)

The “sure and worthy of full acceptance” phrase in these verses – “That Christ came into the world to save sinners” tees up the substitutionary atonement theory as a primary way for me to work with and make sense of what the Bible teaches about what God was doing in Christ on the cross.  But it’s not just that.  It’s also personal, deeply personal for me.  With Richard Mouw I conclude –

Our burdens of shame and guilt have been nailed to the cross. Evangelicals have always insisted on that message as central to proclaiming the gospel. Again, a variety of images capture this emphasis—debt-repaying, ransom, sacrifice, enduring divine wrath against sin. But all these images have this in common: They point us to the fact that on the cross of Calvary, Jesus did something for us that we could never do for ourselves as sinners. He engaged in a transaction that has eternal consequences for our standing before a righteous God.

This is the thought that will quite literally drive me to my knees and move me to tears, probably more than once, before this week, Holy Week, is through. If it doesn’t you, that’s okay. It confuses me, to be sure.  I don’t “get” how the power and beauty of this scheme of redemption can leave you untouched.  But I’m really not interested in arguing with you about it.  Instead I’m perfectly content to sit at the family dinner table with you and your alternate understandings of how our Father has provided us this rich banquet of grace, and for us just to enjoy it together as brothers and sisters.

What God did for us on the cross is big enough for us to be able to think different thoughts about its meaning and to experience it in different ways. But just as you don’t want me as a theological traditionalist to call into question your place at the family dinner table as a theological progressive, or to disrespect your perspective or disregard your interpretation, so don’t try to relegate me to the theological kid’s table, or worse, sent to my room just because you don’t find my perspectives convincing or my interpretations compelling. That’s not what families do at a dinner table that’s as big as ours is. DBS +

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“I got an ‘A’ in God!”

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The Importance of Humility in Knowing God

I recently took a theology test online. It consisted of 33 questions on the Trinity.  I got them all right, at least from the perspective of the test giver, and he gave me an electronic “attaboy” for doing so.  I was made to feel like I was in a select group of people who had accomplished this feat, numbered among those who really know God.  It reminded me of a conversation I’d had in seminary long ago.

It was the end of a semester. A fellow student stopped me in the hall one day to ask me about my grade.  “How did you do in theology?” he wanted to know. I told him, and then he said proudly, “I got an ‘A’ in God!”

An “A” in God?

Well, I’d gotten an “A” in that class too, but that’s not the same thing as getting an “A” in God, and that’s an important distinction if you ask me.

God is not an object that we examine.   God is not a subject we master.  God is a personal being whom we encounter, and with whom we can develop a relationship.  This is why Eastern Orthodox Christians don’t think of people who have read the books, gone to school, and passed the classes to be the real theologians, but rather those who know how to pray, those who are in a sustained relationship with the living God, and this is not an idea that is alien to our own spiritual tradition.

Alexander Campbell (1788 – 1866) one of the founders of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), frequently championed in his writings some basic rules for the proper interpretation of Scripture using the very best tools of scholarship at our disposal (http://www.thebiblewayonline.com/Studies/A-%20Bible%20Rules%20for%20bible.htm). And after naming six rules that require us to fully engage our minds when opening our Bibles to read, Alexander Campbell concluded with his all-important seventh rule –

RULE 7 – For the salutary and sanctifying intelligence of the Oracles of God [his way of talking about the Bible], the following rule is indispensable: We must come within the understanding distance. There is a distance which is properly called the speaking distance, or the hearing distance; beyond which the voice reaches not, and the ears hear not. To hear another, we must come within that circle which the voice audibly fills. Now we may with propriety say, that as it respects God, there is an understanding distance. All beyond that distance cannot understand God; all within it can easily understand him in all matters of piety and morality. God himself is the center of that circle, and humility is its circumference… He… that would interpret the Oracles of God to the salvation of his soul, must approach this volume with the humility and docility of a child, and meditate upon it day and night. Like Mary, he must sit at the Master’s feet, and listen to the words which fall from his lips. To such a one there is an assurance of understanding, a certainty of knowledge, to which the man of letters alone never attained, and which the mere critic never felt.

Now, I hear in this an echo of something that the Protestant Reformer Martin Luther (1483 – 1546) had written long before –

I want you to know how to study theology in the right way… You should completely despair of your own sense and reason, for by these you will not attain the goal… Rather kneel down in your private little room and with sincere humility and earnestness pray God through his dear Son, graciously to grant you his Holy Spirit to enlighten and guide you and give you understanding… Although he knew the text of Moses well and that of other books besides and heard and read them daily, yet David desired to have the real Master of Scripture in order by all means to make sure that he did not plunge into them with his reason and become his own master.

Gabriel Fackre says that “mystery” and “modesty” are the two most undervalued theological virtues of all, and so I have tried to consciously cultivate them in my own life of faith.  Valuing “mystery” means that I try to constantly keep in mind the fact that there is always so much more to God and His ways than I could ever possibly comprehend.  As someone has put it, “If I had God completely figured out, then He wouldn’t be much of a God would He?” Valuing “modesty” means that I try to hold onto my own settled convictions just as generously and gently as I possibly can, appreciating the way that others have their settled convictions too, borne of their own struggles and experiences just as mine are borne of my own deep struggles and meaningful experiences.  And so, rather than using mine to clobber them with “the truth” that I “know,” I want to humbly put it into conversation with “the truth” that they “know,” in order that together we might be mutually engaged and enlarged.  And when this actually happens, inevitably I find that we wind up on our knees.

At a recent seminar I attended the speaker talked about the “4-D’s” of good theology – Drama, Doctrine, Doxology and Discipleship.

Doctrine grows out of the Biblical drama… then those doctrines rooted in the drama fill us with thankful hearts – doxology… and finally doxology yields the fruit of love and good works – discipleship. (Michael Horton)

That speaker argued that unity comes from getting the doctrine that is rooted in the drama right. But it seems to me that this is the approach that has gotten us to the hundreds and hundreds of denominations that currently litter the religious landscape of Christianity.  If I insist on a faith that says A-B-C-D, the minute you conclude that the way faith really goes is A-C-D-B, then we’ve got to part ways.  The more exact our doctrine becomes the more fragmented the church must be.

But what happens when we start from the other end? What happens when we start with doxology and discipleship?  By joining our hearts together in prayer and worship, and then by living out our faith together by joining our hands together in acts of concrete and specific service to one another and the world, I believe that we have a basis for the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace that we are told as Christians that we need to maintain (Ephesians 4:3). But it’s going to take an appreciation for mystery and a commitment to modesty if this is to happen — a willingness to acknowledge the limits of our own knowledge while at the same time creating space for what others have come to know.

Os Guinness in his terrific 2014 book Renaissance (IVP) startled me when he wrote –

Few controversies among Christians are so fruitless as the perennial debate over God’s sovereignty and human significance… Overall, it is quite clear that the general discussion of the issue has commonly been unproductive. Far too many hours have been wasted, far too much ink has been split, and because of the disagreements far too many have dismissed others as not being true Christians and have been dismissed by other Christians in their turn.

Some simple truths are worth recalling…

First, the Scriptures show plainly that reality contains both truths, and not just one or the other. God is sovereign, humans are significant, and it is God who made us so. 

Second, history shows equally plainly that human reason cannot explain both truths.   Those who try to do so almost always end up emphasizing one truth to the exclusion of the other, one side majoring on divine sovereignty and the other on human significance. 

Third, the lesson of the Scriptures and Christian history is that we should rely firmly on both truths, and apply the one we most need when we most need it. (90-91)

And then Os said it –

There is a mystery as to how God’s sovereignty and our human significance work together, and there always will be.

A recognition of “mystery” that fosters in us an attitude of “modesty” is what brings us within the hearing distance of the divine, and that’s the goal. DBS +

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“Incompetence is what we’re good at…”

crossAs part of my Lenten discipline this year I have been reading Christopher J.H. Wright’s new book To the Cross (IVP -2017).  This book is based on Holy Week sermons that he has preached through the years at All Souls Church, Langham Place, London.  Dr. Wright is a Cambridge University trained Old Testament scholar who is now the international director of the Langham Partnership, the successor to the late John R.W. Stott.  After reading his prophetic keynote address at the Third Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization in Cape Town, South Africa, in 2010, Dr. Wright has become one of my “go to” sources on all matters Biblical, missional and theological.

The chapter in To the Cross that has most stirred my head and heart so far is the one on “Peter’s Denial” based on Matthew 26:69-75.  This text is the familiar Gospel story of Peter’s threefold denial in the courtyard of the high priest after Jesus’ arrest in the garden.  Dr. Wright’s sermonic reflections on this text get organized under the big idea that “failure is a fact in the Bible” (37).  Quoting from his favorite book (The Book of Heroic Failures by Stephen Pile), Dr. Wright observes that “incompetence is what we’re good at.”

Bible2

He asks his readers to “think about it,” to “do a mental scan of the Bible.”  When he did this himself, Dr. Wright concluded that “the whole Bible, from beginning to end, is a story of human failure (with the single exception of then Lord Jesus Christ himself)” (38).  And the evidence that he amassed in support of this conclusion included these Biblical citations –

Adam and Eve failed, even though they were in a perfect environment. Abraham failed; he told lies about his wife and he abused Hagar. Samuel failed to get his own sons to behave properly, even though he started out his own career condemning Eli for the same thing.  Gideon failed, even after his great victory over the Midianites, when he said he wouldn’t become a king and then behaved as if he was one and made an idolatrous object.  Moses failed in the wilderness, to his own great regret.  David failed appallingly, not only in his acts of adultery and planned murder, but in failing to control his own family during the rest of his life.  Every king of Israel failed in one way or another.  The people of Israel as a whole – God’s covenant people, God’s redeemed people – failed for generation after generation through the Old Testament.  Failure runs through the Old Testament like a ragged thread.  [And] the New Testament shows us people failing all over the place as well. (37)

Failure is a fact in the Bible, and in each of our lives. Consciously following Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior now for more than 50 years now, I can tell you that much of my journey has been a matter of travelling the same ground over and over again.  The terrain of my failure is familiar.  I know the line from the poet/priest George Herbert’s poem “Discipline” by heart – “Though I halt in pace, yet I creep to the throne of grace.” In fact, I live these words.

The unknown author of the New Testament book of Hebrews wrote about “the sin that so easily entangles us” (12:1).  In the parlance of Christianity spirituality this is what’s meant by a “besetting sin.” This is the sin that just seems to have our number, it’s the sin that is our Achilles’ heel, our particular weakness.  It’s “the sin that so easily entangles us.”

Christian wisdom often pairs this notion of our “besetting sin” with that of the seven deadly sins – pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath, and sloth. These seven “deadly sins” are the headings of seven broad categories under which all of the different ways that we offend against God’s holy laws, leaving undone those things which we ought to have done and having done those things which we ought not to have done” can be organized. The guide for Self-Examination in Saint Augustine’s Prayer Book: A Book of Devotion for Members of the Episcopal Church (Holy Cross Publications -1967) is a good example of how this works (pp. 112-121).  And when you undertake this spiritual discipline, a frequent discovery that people make is that while we all certainly have a capacity for the sins in all seven of these categories that nevertheless we each seem to be particularly adept at the sins in one of them – and that’s our “besetting sin” – “the sin that so easily entangles us.”   This is the sin will become our familiar foe, our lifelong struggle.

A story is told of a holy man who was dying. Satan appeared before him and, looking abject, said “At last, you have beaten me.”  And the old man, near death but still alert, replied, “Not yet!” (Alan Jones in Soul Making – Harper San Francisco – 1989 – p.98)

silence-movie-poster.pngI thought about this one evening last December when I sat in a theater all by myself watching Martin Scorsese’s lifetime project, the movie “Silence.”  Hardly anybody saw this film, and there were good reasons why.  It was too long.  It was too slow.  It was too demanding of the viewer.  And I loved it.  In fact, it wasn’t just the best movie that I saw last year, it was the best movie that I’ve seen in the last decade.

The story of Jesuit missionary priests in Japan in an era of the violent suppression of the church and the martyrdom of Christians, Silence is a sustained meditation on the mystery and the meaning of what it means to be faithful before the silence of God.  One of the characters in the story is a Japanese Christian named Kichijiro.  He is a confusing character in the story, a jumble of contradictions – at once faithful and unfaithful, brave and cowardly, advocate and adversary.  Fr. James Martin, a Jesuit priest himself, has written about him in the magazine of which he is the editor-at-large, America: The Jesuit Review

I’ve heard that the figure of Kichijiro, initially Rodrigues’s and Garupe’s (the Jesuit missionary priests) Japanese guide, and later Rodrigues’s friend, elicited some chuckles in movie theaters. Kichijiro is, by his own admission, a sinful man. He repeatedly apostatizes and cravenly turns Rodrigues in to the Japanese authorities. Time and again, Kichijiro returns to Rodrigues for confession, and towards the end of the film, after Rodrigues’s apostasy, he seeks out the former priest to hear his confession. Some viewers have found Kichijiro’s manifold weaknesses and his repeated desire for confession amusing. I found it human. Who hasn’t struggled with a sin that comes back to haunt us? Who hasn’t felt embarrassed about repeatedly confessing the same sins? Who hasn’t longed for God’s forgiveness? Towards the end of the film, this seemingly weak man also helps to bring Father Rodrigues back to his priesthood by seeking confession. In a moving scene, Father Rodrigues places his head on Kichijiro’s head, as if in prayer. Or absolution. Kichijiro’s final scene may be the most mysterious. A Japanese authority notices a necklace around Kichijiro’s neck and rips it off. He opens the leather pouch and discovers a Christian image. Kichijiro is revealed as a Christian and is swiftly led away, presumably to die. It took me three viewings to realize something: Kichijiro would become a traditional Christian martyr. Kichijiro would become the kind of person that Catholics would later venerate. How ironic that this “weak” man becomes the inadvertent hero, while the “stronger” man, Rodrigues, whose “martyrdom” is of a different type, will not be venerated. It is a mysterious meditation on sacrifice and martyrdom. (http://www.americamagazine.org)

In Kichijiro I caught the reflection of myself.

On a webpage where Disciple ministers talk, a young colleague recently asked if any of us thought that ministers should be held to a higher standard of morality than the members of our churches. It’s the wrong question.  There’s no two-tiered morality in the Bible, one for serious Christians like ministers, and another one for everyone else.  As Gene Getz pointed out, all of the moral and spiritual prerequisites for elders found in I Timothy 3 appear elsewhere in the New Testament as moral and spiritual expectations of every believer.  No, there’s not a higher standard, and that standard doesn’t function differently for a minister than it does for a church member.

Now we know that whatever the law says, it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For “no human being will be justified in his sight” by deeds prescribed by the law, for through the law comes the knowledge of sin.  But now, apart from law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus… (Romans 3:19-24)

After watching a seagull circle round and round a crust of bread floating on the water, Helen Mallon said wrote – “repentance is the stillness around which I turn; this arc is my true shape.” She said, “I will move forward, my need for grace orienting me toward the true Center.” And finally she asks, “Can I find a better name than this: to be called One Who Returns?” (http://www.marshillreview.com/menus/extracts.shtm)

And this is where Dr. Wright ended his sermon on Peter’s failure in his book To the Cross.

Have you failed Jesus? Of course you have. The more appropriate question to ask would be: When did you most recently fail Jesus?  Then the key question is: Do you still trust Jesus?

Have you let Jesus down again? Of course you have.  Of course I have.  The question is: Do you still trust Jesus?

Have you felt the shame of that failure? And the embarrassment of it?  Have you found yourself almost unable to face Jesus in prayer again because of it? Of course you have.  The question is: Do you still trust Jesus?

And this is the question that Lent comes round each year posing with a certain intentionality and urgency – Do you still trust Jesus? The answer that Easter is requires us to wrestle with this question right now. DBS +

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Two Different Religions?

machenBack in 1921, J. Gresham Machen, then a professor of theology at Princeton Theological Seminary, preached a sermon that later became an explosive book called “Christianity and Liberalism” (not political liberalism, mind you, but theological liberalism). Harry Emerson Fosdick responded in 1922 with his equally incendiary sermon, “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” And the fight was on for the soul of American Protestantism. The thesis of Machen’s sermon, and then book, was that the historic Christianity of Scripture and the church’s great ecumenical creeds, and modern Christianity were two entirely different religions.

The chief modern rival of Christianity is ‘liberalism,’” Machen asserted. “Modern liberalism, then, has lost sight of the two great presuppositions of the Christian message — the living God and the fact of sin,” he argued. “The liberal doctrine of God and the liberal doctrine of man are both diametrically opposite to the Christian view. But the divergence concerns not only the presuppositions of the message, but also the message itself.”  (http://www.albertmohler.com/2012/10/08/two-rival-religions-christianity-and-post-christianity/)

controversyBradley J. Longfield tracked the theological controversy of those days in his award winning 1991 book The Presbyterian Controversy: Fundamentalists, Modernists & Moderates (Oxford University Press). I personally found the experience of reading this book to be something of a theological self-sorter of my own spiritual temperament, convictions and conclusions, and I came out of the exercise– no big surprise here – as a passionate moderate. My “hero” in this story was Charles R. Eerdman, the theological conservative who tried, without success, to hold the warring factions of his beloved Presbyterian Church together.

I find much to admire about the faith and faithfulness of J. Gresham Machen. In fact, I learned my New Testament Greek from his standard textbook for “beginning students.” Still, I have long thought that his argument about the modernists and the fundamentalists of his day representing entirely different religions to be something of an exaggeration, a polemical overstatement of the facts of the situation. Clearly there were genuine Christians among the modernists, just as there were genuine Christians among the fundamentalists. I suppose that this is just my “Disciple” coming out in me.

True to my faith’s traditional conclusions and convictions, my centrist moorings and my moderate inclinations, I have tried to navigate, not just the polarized and polarizing political and cultural divide of this past election year, but my forty plus years as an Evangelically minded and hearted minister in a progressive mainline denomination, by steadfastly following the good counsel of Hebrews12:1-3 –

…Fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith…
Let us run with endurance the race that is set before us,…
Consider Him… so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.

This is what I understand it to mean to be a big “D” “Disciple.” You know – “No Creed but Christ…,” “In essentials unity…,” “Where the Bible speaks…,”Not the only Christians, but Christians only,” and all that.

I truly believe that the basis for our unity as a church is Jesus Christ, and that so long as our eyes and hearts are mutually “fixed” on Him, that we can run the race of faith before us with endurance, without growing weary or losing heart.   But when Jesus gets left out of the picture, then it seems to me that there is nothing at the center that holds us together any longer, and all we have left are our jangling opinions that we feel free to offer up as the correct definition of Christianity. When the Christ of New Testament faith has been excised from the conversation, then the versions of Christianity that start to show up bear little resemblance to what the church has historically believed and proclaimed. Without our eyes and hearts “fixed” on Christ, the theological drift is dramatic, and I fear that this is the direction that things trending these days

In this era of hyper-politicized and partisanly divided Christianity, when people’s Christianity is determined more by who they voted for in the last election than by who they have confessed to be the Son of the Living God and have taken to be their Lord and Savior, I suddenly find myself rethinking that conclusion about Machen’s two different religions argument. With every passing day, I find that I have less and less in common with both the content and the spirit of the public positions that are being taken by so many of my denominational partners and peers. The tipping point in this for me was a ministerial colleague’s recent posting on Facebook. This old friend actually suggested the adoption of Bernice King’s (Dr. Martin Luther and Coretta King’s daughter) list of responses to the Presidency of Donald Trump as a “Lenten Discipline.

1. Don’t use his name; EVER (45 will do)
2. Remember this is a regime and he’s not acting alone;
3. Do not argue with those who support him–it doesn’t work;
4. Focus on his policies, not his orange-ness and mental state;
5. Keep your message positive; they want the country to be angry and fearful because this is the soil from which their darkest policies will grow;
6. No more helpless/hopeless talk;
7. Support artists and the arts;
8. Be careful not to spread fake news. Check it;
9. Take care of yourselves; and
10. Resist!

Keep demonstrations peaceful. In the words of John Lennon, “When it gets down to having to use violence, then you are playing the system’s game. The establishment will irritate you – pull your beard, flick your face – to make you fight! Because once they’ve got you violent, then they know how to handle you. The only thing they don’t know how to handle is non-violence and humor.”

When you post or talk about him, don’t assign his actions to him, assign them to “The Republican Administration,” or “The Republicans.” This will have several effects: the Republican legislators will either have to take responsibility for their association with him or stand up for what some of them don’t like; he will not get the focus of attention he craves; Republican representatives will become very concerned about their re-elections.

Now, this is very different from the invitation to the Lenten disciplines that I heard each year from the Book of Common Prayer when I was a kid growing up in church, and still use each Ash Wednesday at the church I serve  –

Dear People of God: The first Christians observed with great devotion the days of our Lord’s passion and resurrection, and it became the custom of the Church to prepare for them by a season of penitence and fasting. This season of Lent provided a time in which converts to the faith were prepared for Holy Baptism. It was also a time when those who, because of notorious sins, had been separated from the body of the faithful were reconciled by penitence and forgiveness, and restored to the fellowship of the Church. Thereby, the whole congregation was put in mind of the message of pardon and absolution set forth in the Gospel of our Savior, and of the need which all Christians continually have to renew their repentance and faith. I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.

In my mind and heart, I can’t avoid the conclusion that these two Lenten Invitations represent two very different religions. The first invitation makes no mention of God or Christ, has as its whole purpose partisan resistance, and reduces Christianity to a matter of opposing a certain President and supporting a progressive political agenda.   This is very different from the second invitation to the church’s traditional Lenten disciplines of penance, prayer, fasting, and a serious engagement with Scripture all in the interest of a renewal of the Gospel of our Savior in both our lives as individual Christians, and collectively in the whole life of the church.

William Ralph Inge famously observed – “Whoever marries the spirit of this age will find himself a widower in the next.” My variation on this theme would be – “Whoever marries Christianity to a political party or candidate will find himself a widower by the next election cycle.” Scot McKnight, after the Presidential candidate debates but before the general election last fall, wrote (http://www.patheos.com/blogs/jesuscreed/2016/10/10/political-christianity-american-style/) –

Progressives, in sometimes insufferable prose, align themselves and the church and especially the “red letters” of Jesus with the Democrat or Social Democratic party. For them, Jesus’ being for the poor ineluctably means Jesus is for centralized government and federal relief, aid and support for the poor and that, for them, means Vote Left.

 Conservatives, in sometimes insufferable prose, align themselves and the church with the Republican party (or its Tea Party variation). For them, to be Christian means to be anti-Left and pro-Right. Jesus and the whole Bible, they seem to claim in one variation after another, are for decentralization, free markets, and the platform list goes on.

…the closer progressives or conservatives get to seeing the way to change the world is through the Powers in Washington DC the closer they become to being Constantinian — a conservative Constantine or a progressive Constantine is still a Constantine.

 American Christianity, during election season especially (and since it lasts so long and occurs so often that means always), spends its energies on who will be the Next Apocalyptically-crucial Power in DC and in so doing is failing to use its energies — a zero sum game seemingly — for the mission of God in this world and to this world.

Back in the 1980’s the Religious Right tried to marry historic Christianity to the spirit of their agenda, and as a person of historic Christian faith I found myself publicly and adamantly rejecting their attempt co-opt the church’s Gospel voice and mission. You can certainly be a Christian and a Republican, but being a Christian is not the same thing as being a Republican.  And today as the Religious Left tries to marry Christianity to the spirit of their agenda, as a person of Christian faith I find that I must just as publicly and adamantly reject their attempt to co-opt the church’s Gospel voice and mission.  You can certainly be a Christian and a Democrat, but being a Christian is not the same thing as being a Democrat.

Of course, this rejection of the machinations of both the Religious Right and the Religious Left to turn the church into a constituency group of their political ambitions and to reduce the mission of the church to acquisition of political power hinges on just exactly what is meant by those words – “historic Christianity.”  I will write more about this struggle for the definition of Christianity in the coming weeks, but for now, I will conclude by simply inviting you to give some thought to some questions –

What is the question that the Gospel answers?
What is the problem that the Gospel solves?
What is the saving work of Jesus Christ?
What are we saved from?  What are we saved to?
And how do we know any of these things?
How can we say anything certain about God or
about God’s purposes for us and the world?

It seems to me that how you answer these questions will say a whole lot about your own particular understanding of Christianity, and I’m pretty sure that the way the answers will generally sort out, that there will be two basic versions of Christianity that are at work, that maybe even compete in life and thought of the church and in the world today. Are they two entirely different religions, as Machen suggested back in his day?  Well, the striking contrast between the two Lenten disciplines recommended for adoption that I cited earlier would seem to suggest that the answer is “yes,” but let’s take a closer look, shall we?

DBS +

 

 

 

 

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