SANCTIFYING PAIN

June 3, 2023

We have a lot of hurting families in our congregation these days. There’s the pain of accidents in ordinary living, of life-threatening communicable diseases, of lifestyle induced afflictions, the mental anguish for loved ones who have heard the good news of the Gospel and chosen to ignore it, the pain of major maladies that seem to come out of nowhere, and the pain of aging bodies, of which yours truly is well aware. Overhanging all of that there’s a painful sense of foreboding in a fallen world falling faster than ever.

Note well: All that pain in every detail is brought to you by a Sovereign God, who meant it to draw you to himself. Scripture makes clear that pain and suffering are part of the sanctification process. CS Lewis said, “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains …” ― C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain

Faith, a gift from our Sovereign God, who alone has the power to change lives for eternity, makes pain endurable. Faith finds joy in pain. I know that sounds contradictory, what Luther called that “that old demon reason,” but joy in the Lord in the face of pain is supernatural. The Apostle Paul, with 5 times 39 ribbons of scars crisscrossing his back, said, the “… sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us … for those who love God all things work together for good” (Ro. 8:18, 28). James said count trials all joy (James 1:2). Our Savior himself, “… for the joy that was set before him, endured the cross.” (Heb. 12:2). 

Beth, the most joy-filled child of God in our congregation, has had a heart transplant, a kidney transplant and years of pain. It’s hard to be happy when you’re hurting, but she abounds in the joy of the Lord that is set before her and exudes it! If you are “sealed with the promised Holy Spirit” (Eph. 1:13), a hundred years from now you’ll say with Beth and the Apostle Paul that your earthly sufferings were not worthy to be compared with your current glory. Set your mind on the joy of glory and palliate the pain of preparation.

Persevere Christian! The Holy Spirit will supply that, too. “Spirit of the Living God, fall afresh on me” (Daniel Iverson).

“May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope” (Romans 15:13).

See you in church

SPITFIRES AND SUPER SABRES

May 27, 2023

“Please don’t say that I’m a hero.
Save the word for friends of mine.”

A Memorial Day soul-stirring musical tribute to my friends–different war, opposite outcome, but same sentiment among the brotherhood of fighter pilots:

Larry Whitford, MIA
Vince Willet, MIA
Lance LaGrange, KIA
Lynn Hoffman, KIA
F-100 Super Sabre pilots in the Vietnam War.

“In the clouds I see their faces,
In the rain I feel their tears.”

When our nation called they stepped up and said, “Here am I! Send me,” and gave their last full measure of devotion. God, duty, honor and country will always be the noblest calling.

https://youtu.be/mgkqWsGGUwY

See you in church.

THE LORD KNOWS HIS OWN

May 20, 2023

“Were they ashamed when they committed abomination? No, they were not at all ashamed; they did not know how to blush.” (Jeremiah 6:15a).

Puritan preacher Thomas Brooks (1608–1680), described the England of his day in fire and brimstone terms that would not get by social media sensors today. He sumarized by paraphrasing Jeremiah 6:15a: “They have sinned away shame, instead of being ashamed of sin.”

That seems to me an apt description of England’s rebellious colonies four centuries later.

God’s verdict for ancient Israel in a similar state was, “… behold, I am bringing disaster upon this people …” (Jeremiah 6:19). And he did. Will God, who has not and will never repeal the penalties for sin, treat America otherwise?

Hold fast your faith, Christian. The Sovereign God who controls the orbit of every atom that exists does not forget those for whom he died. “… the Lord knows those who are his…” (2 Timothy 2:19). In The Sermon on the Mount Jesus said, “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matthew 5:11–12).

“I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means! … So too at the present time there is a remnant, chosen by grace” (Romans 11:1, 5).

Kingdoms rise and fall, cultures come and go, but the Word of the Lord endures forever, and his promises are more powerful than principalities, more powerful than the cosmic powers over this present darkness and more powerful than the spiritual forces of evil. If you are chosen by grace you will never be unchosen.

“My sheep hear my voice and I know them and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand” (John 10:27-8).

See you in church.

SALVATION IS FREE

May 16, 2023

This quote from last Sunday’s sermon is still echoing in my mind. God willing, it always will. Salvation is a gift of God’s free grace, and it includes your born again heart, new eyes to see (John 3:3) and indwelling Holy Spirit which inclines your will to do according to his good pleasure (Phil. 2:13), committing all you are and all you have–everything–to your Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, heartily willing to live for Him for eternity. (Romans 8:14)

MY HEROINE

May 13, 2023

A 24-year-old rerun about the saint who taught me the most important truths that could ever enter the mind of man:

“Did I wake you?”

With that earnest, considerate question preceding her calm plea for help over the phone just before dawn, she faced death with the serenity of an eighty-two-year-old saint. It was a heart attack. As we raced to the hospital she said softly, “Don’t worry about me. I’ve had a wonderful life.” A day-and-a-half later, following the best hours of my life with her, Mother joined the heavenly choir.

Everyone who knew Alberta Wetterling loved her. She taught me how to be a friend, to say my prayers, and aspire to the Golden Rule. This saintly, silver-headed warbler spent her last twenty winters on the Gulfcoast of Florida in a condo near my family, migrating from Illinois on the first of November. She always arrived cheerful as a mockingbird at dawn, and the sun shone brighter for the rest of the season. It was the season when I went off my austere low-fat diet, dining one night a week at Mom’s Café—some things are worth dying for.

Sure, it was a bit of a bother to take time out of our busy schedules to fly up to Illinois and drive her down to Florida so she could have her car here with her. But it didn’t begin to equate to the bother I was to her for the first eighteen years of my life. It began when I demanded to be born in the middle of the night and the hospital was twenty miles of mostly gravel roads from home. I am sure it was a terrible bother when she sat up with me when I cried in the night from an allergy that drove the doctors, Mom, and me crazy until they figured out it was the chicken feathers in my pillow. Getting a haircut on the back porch from Mom with her mechanical, semi-sharp clippers was a bother and a pain for both of us. I was fifteen years old before I experienced the joys of a barbershop haircut, and it is still one of the highlights of my social life.

I owe Mom for everything I have, am, or hope to be. Her prayers brought me safely home from 268 combat missions in an awful war half-a-world away. Two generations of Illinois farm folks owe her for a great first grade education. She taught hundreds more the joy of music. At her wake I heard scores of tearful testimonies to her impact on lives young and old.

Her work ethic was beyond my reach. As a fatherless child she hired out, with her mother, as a live-in maid at an age that’s now far below the legal minimum. As a farmer’s wife she cleaned a big old farmhouse devoid of indoor plumbing, cooked twenty-one meals a week for six mouths, tended a large garden and hen house, push-mowed a huge lawn, and interrupted her teaching career to raise four children with abundant love. In the evenings, as Dad rested from his labors, Mom hummed her favorite hymns as she stood and worked at the ironing board till bedtime. Then she sat at the foot of the stairs darning socks as we trooped up to bed and said our prayers in unison loud enough for her to hear.

God blessed Mom with many other gifts. She could bring an ax to bear on a chicken’s neck with finesse, drive a team of horses, slop the hogs or milk the cows when Dad worked late in the fields. Those same hands played the piano in accompaniment to her beautiful soprano voice. She could wield an elm switch across my behind like a Puritan schoolmarm…or cheer louder than any teenager in the stands when I scored a touchdown. And she got more Christmas cards than anyone I know—the fruit of selfless friendship.

Sunday was her favorite day because singing God’s praise was her passion. With a college degree in music, she directed the church choir all her working life. No one in Henderson County was properly married or buried unless blessed by Mother’s solos. From age four until two months before she died Alberta’s ageless vocal cords were in demand.

By Grace alone I’m adjusting to life without her hugs, but when Mom’s favorite hymns are sung, I can still hear her angelic voice just half-a-decibel louder than all the other voices in church.

“She opens her mouth with wisdom, and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue” (Proverbs 31:26).

See you in church.

ROCKING DORCAS

May 7, 2023

What do you call a mature women’s pajama party that lasts 2 days and two nights and everybody has a wonderful time … sewing quilts? At my church we call it Dorcas. It is the “rockingest” and most productive Dorcas of any church we’ve ever been a part of. The weekend is officially called a Dorcas Quilting Retreat held at the estate of their inspired leader, Ruth Estep, to eat and sleep and laugh and stay up late gabbin’ and making quilts for 48+ hours. They are currently creating personalized quilts for the residents of Wears Valley Ranch, a Christian Children’s Home in Kentucky, with the color preferences and themes of each individual child. Their long-term goal is to blanket Heartland America … These gals can show you how to “glorify God and enjoy him forever!”

The culture may be in the midst of a dumpster fire, but the joy of the Lord reigns in our loving church family.

“May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope” (Romans 15:13).

See you in church

A SKEPTIC’S PRAYER

April 29, 2023

1.) FIRST THIS HAPPENS:

Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3).

2.) IT LEADS INEVITABLY TO THIS:

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).

3.) AND RESULTS IN THIS:

…“What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Corinthians 2:9).

4.) ABSENT #1 and #2, THE ONLY ALTERNATIVE IS THIS:

So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth (Matthew 13:49-50). And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell, ‘where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched’ (Mark 9:47-8).

5.) IF YOU’RE NOT LIVING #2, DECEIVING YOURSELF ABOUT #3, AND TRYING TO  DENY #4, PRAY FOR #1. PERSIST TILL EFFICACIOUS.

Heart change, repentance and faith are gifts from our Sovereign God.

Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you (Matthew 7:7). All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out (John 6:37).

A Skeptic’s prayer

God, if you are there, I just want you to know I don’t get it. John 3:16 sounds wonderful, but I can’t wrap my mind around it.  A few verses earlier you said I must be “born again” before I can see and understand such things, and that just blows my mind. I had no control over my first birth!

I’ve made so many mistakes in my life that a supernatural do-over certainly has appeal. If you are real, God, and nothing really is impossible for you, then open my eyes to your reality. I want to believe that Jesus was who he said he was, that he was crucified to save me (!) from my sins (?) because he loved me so much before I was even born, but that is beyond my comprehension. What manner of love is this? I want to be one of those “whoever’s” who sincerely  believe in your Son and have eternal life in that heavenly place with one who loves me that much, but you’re going to have to work a major transformation of my mind.

If belief in you is a gift from you, would you please give it to me? I come weary, loaded down with skepticism, a dearth of understanding, a gnawing, confusing emptiness somewhere deep inside, and stark terror at the thought that a fiery furnace in hell might be my eternal destiny. If you could remedy all this in some miraculous way, I would be forever grateful. God, if you are there, here am I. Change me.

GOD’S GLORIOUS RESURRECTION PROMISE

April 23, 2023



Jonathan Edwards was once found in the forest dismounted from his horse and down on his hands and knees, crying over a patch of tiny wildflowers. I could do the same over my neighbor’s patch of tulips (but for fear of Senior Services carting me away). Sometimes the beauty of creation just overwhelms the eyeballs. God manifests his glory in the grandeur of his creation, in every flower that blooms and countless shades of new green in nature’s spring resurrection, a glorious annual reminder of his promise:

For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day” (John 6:40).

“Then sings my soul, my Savior God to thee, How great thou art … !”

See you in church.

HEROES OF GUADALCANAL

April 19, 2023

JUST RELEASED: “The Heroes of Guadalcanal” in Combat Ships, S4, E4 on the Smithsonian Channel (can be viewed with a 24-hour free pass).


My brother in Christ, now with the LORD, Jack Bennett’s role in that battle, was used as background and a brief quote as told to JDW in No Time to Waste, Chapter 4. I’m delighted to have played a small part in telling this amazing story of God’s grace to a wider audience.

“… the whole team thanks you for allowing use of Jack’s quotes in the episode – to hear of what it was like to be there in such a vivid way will make a big impact on how we can present the events.”–Woodcut Media
London, UK

Excerpt from No Time to Waste, beginning page 32:

On the afternoon of November 12, 1942, Lieutenant (j.g.) “Jack” Bennett, just twenty-one months out of Annapolis and a veteran of the Pearl Harbor attack, stood amidst the awful din on the aft deck of the heavy cruiser, the USS San Francisco (CA-38) controlling the automatic (anti-aircraft) weapons fire—the same guns he commanded at Pearl Harbor. The heavy cruiser, at 186 yards long and 21 yards wide, the next biggest weapons platform after a battleship, was a plump broadside bulls-eye for twenty-one attacking Japanese torpedo bombers.

The San Francisco was the flagship—the commanding ship with Admiral Dan Callaghan aboard—of a small, weary task force now made up of five cruisers and eight destroyers. Like a dead duck falling into a blind filled with blazing guns, an enemy plane crashed into the San Francisco’s after superstructure thirty feet from Jack. Its wingtip flew through the air like a spinning razor blade, clipping his elbow and spinning him like a top. A major fire ensued with burned bodies and charred body parts scattered grotesquely around the gun platform. Twenty-one San Francisco crewmen died helping shoot down twenty Japanese planes.

The battered task force licked its wounds and wearily took its position to defend against the “Tokyo Express,” a Japanese fleet that nightly shelled the Marines on Guadalcanal. Later that night, with his bloodied but unbroken left arm in a sling, Jack reported for duty on the bridge as Officer of the Deck. He overheard the distraught ship’s new skipper, Captain Cassin Young, conferring with Admiral Callaghan about the pending night battle against an alarmingly larger Japanese force steaming their way. It included two battleships, the fearsome scourge of the seas, one cruiser, and twelve destroyers enroute to bombard Henderson Field. Radar was new and rudimentary in those days, and only the U.S. had it, but it was good enough to identify the two big battleships out there in the dark to the northwest before the smaller ships even popped over the horizon and onto their cathode ray screens.

“But that is suicide, Sir,” Caption Young said.

“We have no choice, Captain,” replied Admiral Callaghan.
The Admiral looked toward Jack as he entered the bridge, smiled in recognition and greeted him. Callaghan was a basketball fan and Jack had been the player/coach of a winning team under his command stationed in Pearl Harbor in the months before the Japanese attack.

As they talked Captain Young noted Jack’s elbow was bleeding through his sling and ordered him below, proclaiming him incapacitated for duty. After putting up all the resistance a junior officer dared, Jack obeyed to the letter—he went below but he did not stay below. If this was a suicidal charge, he was determined not to drown in his bunk. He made one lap around his tiny room and reported to the Gunnery Officer to request a new battle station, sticking his head just far enough through the door to talk while keeping his sling hidden from view. He was assigned automatic weapons control aft on the fantail.

Just after midnight the task force passed through Sealark Channel in column formation and ran head-on into a surprised Japanese battle group, also in column formation with a smaller protective column on each side of the battleship column. The San Francisco led the charge right up through middle of Japanese battle group. Out of the darkness the enemy’s searchlights blinked on, pointed right between Jack’s eyes—the one-second warning that his ship was in the crosshairs of two of the greatest concentrations of firepower afloat. It was a broadside free-for-all slugfest in utter chaos at pointblank range for twenty-eight brawling behemoths in a sea made too small by surrounding islands.

The San Francisco’s three triple-mounted eight-inch gun turrets, sometimes firing in nearly opposite directions simultaneously, and assorted smaller weaponry were a poor match for the eight fourteen-inch guns of the two Japanese battleships. The Marines ashore stopped fighting to watch and listen in awe as star shells bursting overhead momentarily illuminated the ships like midday followed by pitch-blackness. The blinding cycle continued while multiple fiery red arcs of tracers crisscrossed the night sky and the ship vibrated like a tuning fork from the thunderous blast of its own guns.

The impact of enemy projectiles nearby spewed lethal white-hot shards of jagged metal through the air like sparks from a spinning grindstone, enveloping Jack but leaving him miraculously unscathed. Gunners in the turrets bled through their ears from the frightful cacophony and concussion of incoming and outgoing, leaving no remembrance of sounds a half-century later…only an indelible silent 3-D horror movie. Jack directed his gun batteries while tending to dead and wounded all about him. He saw a sailor’s legs protruding from under a pile of smoldering scrap metal, but when he tugged on them he found no torso attached. He knelt to give a wounded sailor a shot of morphine and was knocked flat by the blast of the San Francisco’s eight inch guns depressed so low they would have decapitated him had he still been standing. As he lay there stunned he saw a half-cantaloupe two feet from his eyes. When his vision cleared he realized it was the top half of a human head.

With his guns all wiped out Jack organized a crew of volunteers to fight a raging fire in the ship’s hanger. They drug a fire hose from outside gun turret # 3, that was still firing at the enemy, into the inferno where 400-pound depth charge bombs were in imminent danger of cooking off. Of all the indelible visual scenes vividly recalled by Jack, the most powerful sensual recollection that remained with him for life was the indescribably pungent odor of burning human flesh. But above it all was an awareness of an inner peace at ground zero of hell in a sea too small. It haunted him for 55 years thereafter.

When the shooting stopped all of Jack’s guns were out of commission and the San Francisco’s deck was a blazing junkyard with survivors frantically fighting fires. Eighty-six sailors perished on the deck alone, including a third of Jack’s gun crews.

With no more star shells bursting or searchlights sweeping the area, everything beyond the San Francisco’s gunwales was inky blackness. Without a visual reference Jack sensed the ship was sailing in lazy circles. He struggled to the bridge he had been ordered to leave a few hours earlier. Enroute he stumbled over a sailor tending to a man propped against the bulkhead breathing his last—Captain Cassin Young. The bridge was destroyed and the admiral and senior battle staff were dead. With Jack’s help Lieutenant Commander Bruce McCandless, also wounded, the lone survivor on the bridge, managed to jury rig a control system from the conning tower. A single sound powered telephone line connected them with the quartermaster at the wheel in the number four steering station, below the flooded marine compartment, the other three having been wiped out. With no compasses working Jack repeatedly shouted steering directions—“10 degrees right rudder…5 degrees left rudder,” to a quartermaster fighting to stay conscious at the wheel in the smoke-filled steering station.

With all radios out of commission a Morse code message was flashed to the cruiser Helena with a 5-cell flashlight, informing her to assume command of the decimated task force. McCandless then left Jack in charge and went to search for whoever had succeeded to command. He never returned the rest of the night.

Jack put the San Francisco into formation behind the relatively unscathed Helena. It was difficult keeping track of the Helena on a dark night through the small observation slits in the conning tower, so he stood just outside and called his orders back to Rogers, the phone man, who remained inside, who then repeated them to a groggy Quartermaster Higdon below at the wheel.

While he was squinting at the vague black shape ahead and adjusting course as necessary, Jack’s roommate, Dick Marquardt, shouted down from his superior vantage point in his battle station in Sky Forward, “You’re about to run aground on Malaita.” The Helena shape had merged with that island and when she changed course to the right, upon entering Indispensable Strait, the island masked it and Jack was unable to detect it, still “following” the island.

He instantly ordered full right rudder, the San Francisco swung to the right and disaster was averted. The cloying aroma of Guadalcanal’s bountiful gardenias proclaimed the benediction of their deliverance.
Dawn found ten ships at the bottom of the sound, one cruiser and four destroyers from each side, and 1800 American sailors, including two Admirals, were dead. A Japanese battleship lay dead in the water (to be sunk a few hours later by Navy aircraft), the other was damaged and the rest of the force withdrew. The enemy attack had been repulsed, but at a catastrophic cost.

Two providential circumstances explained the San Francisco’s survival. She had taken forty-five major caliber hits, including twelve fourteen-inch shells, and innumerable smaller hits, but they were all high explosive incendiary projectiles, not armor piercing, because the enemy force was prepared to bombard the Marines at Henderson Field. And she was still afloat, though barely recognizable, because she had sailed so close to the enemy battleships they could not depress their big guns low enough to put holes in her hull at the waterline. In fact some Japanese shells hit other Japanese ships on the opposite side of the American column.

Three battle-damaged cruisers and three destroyers, all that was left of the task force, limped for safe haven in the bosom of Espiritu Santo Island—Spanish for “Holy Spirit,” about 80 nautical miles east. A flat sea sparkled in the morning sun, seabirds swooped and dove as a thousand years before and prayers were offered as the bodies of brave men solemnly slid down a chute into a watery grave.

Jack was still in the conning tower as the San Francisco sailed in a defensive zigzag pattern against enemy subs when once again he witnessed the incredible hand of providence. An enemy submarine launched a spread of three torpedoes their way. Unlike the American torpedoes the Japanese torpedoes were normally extremely reliable. The heart-stopping telltale bubbly wake of one of them headed toward the San Francisco, but it was running erratically. It broached—popped to the surface—just off the San Francisco’s port bow, dove again under her keel, surfaced again on the starboard beam, then continued on to hit the light cruiser, Juneau, amidships, right in the ammunition storage area. In an explosion more violent than any Jack had witnessed at Pearl Harbor, he watched one of its intact twin five-inch gun turrets, with the crew still in it, ride the top of a massive mushrooming fireball. Scrap metal rained on the San Francisco, breaking both legs of a sailor on deck who had survived the night battle. The Juneau gun turret fell like a falling leaf, splashing into a debris-littered sea where only moments before 6,000 tons of armored might had floated.

A few weeks later the Medal of Honor was presented to four men (two posthumously) and the Navy Cross was presented to twenty-nine others (twenty-one posthumously), including Jack—an extraordinary number of our nation’s two highest honors for heroism in a single battle. In the providence of God it was a turning point in a global conflagration that saved our land of the free, and it also, in His amazing ways, was instrumental in saving the soul of a hero I am honored to call a friend, long after the battle ended.

Fleet Admiral Ernest J. King called the night sea battle at Guadalcanal “…the most furious sea battle fought in history.” Jack and his fellow sailors epitomize what his Sacramento boss in another era, Ronald Reagan, called “the formidable will and moral courage of free men that is America’s exclusive weapon.” His story should be told as long as free men have breath.

NUMBER YOUR DAYS

April 15, 2023

Fifty-four years ago tonight, sometime past midnight over the mountainous jungle of Southeast Asia, my friend and wing man, Robert “Vince” Willett, Jr., gave the last full measure of devotion for his country, at the age of 25, in a spectacular departure for glory. No trace of plane or pilot has ever been found. Only our Sovereign God can explain why a firehose of tracer fire enveloped us both and got him, not me.

“ … in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them” (Psalm 139:16).

“So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom” (Psalm 90:12).

Matthew Henry explained the latter verse well.  I find great comfort in it as, a lifetime later, that dark night over the Ho Chi Minh Trail is as vivid in my memory as it was the morning after.

“It is an excellent art rightly to number our days, so as not to be out in our calculation, as he was who counted upon many years to come when, that night, his soul was required of him. We must live under a constant apprehension of the shortness and uncertainty of life [as surely Vince and I were that moonless night in the Orient] and the near approach of death and eternity. We must so number our days … as those that have no time to trifle … No man then can regulate his life with a settled mind, but he who knowing the end of it, that is to say death itself, is led to consider the great purpose of man’s existence in this world, that he may aspire after the prize of the heavenly calling.”

Lord, we know not the day nor the hour you have determined, and each dawn we are one day closer. Just because we are not dueling with big-caliber weapons does not mean we are one heartbeat further away from our end. Teach us by your Spirit, that we might get a heart of wisdom to aspire after the prize of the heavenly calling as if today were the day. In Christ’s name we pray. Amen.

“Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour” (Matthew 25:13).

See you in church.

The rest of the story of that dark night.


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