Posted by: smstrouse | July 11, 2015

“No Cheap Grace for White America”

There’s been a lot said and written in the wake of the murder of the martyrs of Charleston – so many ways of expressing shock, sorrow, outrage and all the other emotions that have been roiled up by this senseless act. There has also been much said and written about the forgiveness extended to Dylann Roof by the victims’ relatives.

Their act of forgiveness raised a lot of questions about how people of faith respond to acts such as these. We’ve seen it happen before. The Amish school shootings in 2006 comes immediately to mind. A former seminary classmate forgave the man who murdered her husband and daughter. It’s hard for most of us to fathom how they could do that. Could I do that? Does it let the wrongdoer off the hook too easily? Is it cheap grace?
There’s a really good interview with the Rev. Dr. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite, in which  she reminds us that religions have always wrestled with how we respond to wrongdoing.
Thistlethwaite is Professor of Theology and former President of the Chicago Theological Seminary. She’s also a contributor and editor of Interfaith Just Peacemaking: Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Perspectives on the New Paradigm of Peace and War, which offers practices of repentance, forgiveness, reconciliation.
She admits that she initially opposed including the forgiveness aspect in the book because of the ways it’s been used against battered women. And now in this case, she wants us to remember that forgiveness is not a “get out of jail free” card, that repentance is part of the process. A relative of one victim said about Roof, “I forgive him and my family forgives him. But we would like him to take this opportunity to repent. Repent. Confess. Give your life to the one who matters most: Christ. So that He can change him and change your ways, so no matter what happens to you, you’ll be okay.”
Maybe this call to repentance will have an effect on Dylann Roof. Maybe not. We can only hope, for his sake, that it does. But Thistlethwaite doesn’t stop with Dylann Roof. She takes the issue deeper and speaks to all of white America: “White America craves this language of forgiveness because they want to forget. You want absolution, but you don’t want to confess, you don’t want to repent, and you don’t want to change.”
That’s a powerful indictment. Are those of us who are white able to hear it, feel it and do what is necessary to confess, repent and change? I’m afraid Thistlethwaite is right; in very large part, we are not. I can’t imagine us collectively doing what Pope Francis did in Bolivia  last week when he apologized for the “many grave sins” committed by Christians against indigenous peoples in South America.

But, at the same time the process of canonization of Father Junipero Serra continues, to the dismay of Native Americans who see him, not as  a saint, but as an agent of brutal colonization. Will the Pope also apologize for this?

All this is to say that the issue is not simple. Racism isn’t going to go away just because our churches had services of repentance and mourning last week. With repentance comes change. With change comes action.

As Thistlethwaite declared, “There is no cheap grace for white America!” We are not off the hook. We do not get a free pass on this. Racism does not go on the back burner until the next time it so violently rears its ugly head.

I don’t have good answers for how we’re going to achieve reconciliation. I often think the only way is to do what South Africa did with its Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Also by Canada in response to the damaging legacy of Indian residential schools.

Could America – land of the free and home of the brave – be free enough and brave enough to undergo the same kind of truth-telling and, hopefully, reconciliation process?

Posted by: smstrouse | July 4, 2015

Who’s Left Out on Independence Day?

Before we get too giddy this weekend with waving flags, patriotic songs and exploding fireworks, how about we take a moment to consider who’s been left out?

If we go all the way back to 1776, then let’s remember African-American slaves and Native Americans for starters. We still have a long, long way to go to make up for the freedom we took away from millions of people. I wish we could have a Truth and Reconciliation process like they had in South Africa after apartheid. How else will we ever be able to hear the terrible wounds that still infect our nation today?

Let’s at least recognize the fact that the original Independence Day left out a lot of people. And while we’re at it, let’s recognize the fact that we haven’t been too quick to grant freedom (the Civil Rights Act wasn’t passed until 1964) or willing to protect it (as of 2014, 21 states have enacted new restrictions).

We also took freedom away from thousands of Native American children, forcing them into boarding schools for the purpose of assimilating them into “American” culture. They were separated from their families, forced to give up their native languages, clothing and even their names. The Church had its hand in this as well, replacing Native American traditions with Christianity. This is but one aspect of the tragic history of America’s treatment of the indigenous population of this land. But this history isn’t one that we’ll hear about on Independence Day in the midst of boasts about being “the greatest country in the world.”

Then there’s what’s become known as the Prison Industrial Complex, which is fueled and sustained by an ever-increasing prison population made up of an inordinately large percentage of people of color. The inherent racism in the justice system calls into question the denial of freedom to many who are caught in its maw.

These are just a few examples of those left out of our Independence Day celebration. We could add those who are not free from poverty, from discrimination, from the threat of gun violence, from fear of attack because of race, sexual orientation or gender identity.

On this Independence Day weekend, we would do well to adopt a spirit of humility. We are indeed a great country in so many ways. But we aren’t perfect by a long shot. So instead of leaving it up to God, as we do in the second verse of America the Beautiful (“America! America! God mend thine every flaw”), I suggest that we take it upon ourselves to “mend our every flaw,” calling on God for courage, guidance and wisdom in so doing.

Have a wonderful weekend. Celebrate well. But, please, give a thought to those who aren’t included -and a commitment to make Independence Day truly meaningful for all.

Posted by: smstrouse | June 27, 2015

I’m About to Offend Somebody

Let me just say it from the start: I’m a white, Western, able-bodied, straight, cis-gender, Christian, middle-class person of privilege. So in any expressions of thought or opinion, I am bound to offend someone. Don’t get me wrong; I’m all for political correctness. But even in my my most well-meaning attempts, I sometimes step on a land mine. Trouble is, what’s a land mine to one person may not be one to another.

Years ago, in a conversation with a gay activist, I used the phrase “has his head screwed on straight” and got roundly chastised. Years later, I was (half) jokingly telling members of my congregation that I’d been worried about the part of the scripture reading that day when St. Paul visited “a street called Straight.” They thought I was being pretty silly, so I told them the story of the “head on straight” debacle. They thought the activist’s reaction was pretty silly, too. So – who’s right?

A lot of metaphorical ink has been spilled since the Charleston shootings about racism and white privilege. Of course, that’s been going on since #BlackLivesMatter. What role do white allies have in protests and demonstrations? I tried to talk about this dilemma at a dinner party recently and a Jewish guest immediately explained to me how I also could never understand her history as an oppressed person.

I get that. I really do. But I’m worried that we have become so siloed in our own stories that we aren’t able to communicate with those in other silos or  join together with everyone for the good of all. For example, a friend who is lesbian was chafing against being lumped into the “white privilege” category without a recognition of her own history of marginalization. She’s not against accepting her place of privilege, but would like there to be a better way for us all to talk about these matters.

In a way, I get Rachel Dolezal. I don’t condone what she did and I don’t know all of her story to really know why she did it. But in a way I get that to be accepted as an advocate for a particular group pf people, you have to have experienced their oppression first-hand.

Back in my Buffalo days, we tried a program of getting folks from white congregations in the suburbs to visit black churches in the city, not just for worship but also to sit down and talk. One pastor of a suburban church was honest enough to express his anxiety at the start of the conversation time. He said right up front that he was afraid he was going to say something that would come out sounding racist.

I’ve had that same anxiety – in many circles. After all I’m a white, Western, able-bodied, straight, cis-gender, Christian, middle-class person of privilege. And I know that I’m probably being offensive in even asking if we can somehow come out of our silos – a least for a little while – in order to talk together openly and honestly. Could we agree to be respectful, listening to one another’s stories, gently correcting one another’s misconceptions and errors?

Could we, in a spirit of interdependence, explore ways to advocate for one another that honor the unique experiences of one group without excluding the gifts of another?

Maybe we have to be willing to risk offending and being offended. This is big, I know. One category where I can claim marginalization is as a woman and a woman in a male-dominated occupation. So my feminist hackles can go up pretty quickly. I know how challenging it will be for all of us to take these risks.

Still I wonder. Is it time?

Posted by: smstrouse | June 20, 2015

Battling the Giant of Gun Violence

422396990_640In the wake of the horror in South Carolina, the image that keeps coming to mind is that of Goliath. Tomorrow we’ll read the story from our ancient sacred text about the heavily armed and armored giant as he taunted the terrified and hopeless Israelites. Today I have no trouble seeing Goliath in the guise of intractable systemic racism and a cultural obsession with guns.

We tend to read the story of David and Goliath as a nice children’s story. Who doesn’t love the little shepherd boy’s chutzpah? First because he volunteers to fight the giant, and then as he eschews any of the armor and weaponry he would surely need if he was going t6795322470_7275a68f59_bo survive, let alone win, the battle.

A slingshot and five smooth stones. And – it took only one stone to do the job. Hooray for David!

But what if this is more than a sweet Sunday school flannelgram (do they even make those anymore?)? What if this is a battle cry to us as we rant and rave about the roots of this latest nightmare?

I am grief-stricken at the nine deaths in Charleston. I am horrified at the manifesto of the shooter. In no way do I mean to take away from the suffering over this latest tribulation. But I am also aware that it is (as one blogger put it) “but a leaf from a poisoned tree.” It’s mixing metaphors a bit, I know, but we’ve got to take an ax to the tree – go up against the giant.

But how? That’s the question. I do feel small; I do feel powerless. How can we not slip back into complacency and fulfill Jon Stewart’s prediction on his Daily Show monologue the day after the murders, that “we still won’t do jack shit.”

How can we be David in the face of Goliath? It’s going to take a lot of real thinking, serious discussion and intentional action. But here’s my best answer for now:

1. Name the giants.
There’s a lot of chat in the blogosphere, speculation about the shooter, his family, his church, etc. But let’s naracismme the real giants here. The NRA. Gun culture. Racism. Symbols like the Confederate flag.
When we name the real enemies, we can be more focused on defeating them.


2. Be fearless in facing them.
We can’t give in to fear, despair or apathy. One person can make a difference. Individuals joined together in a case can change the world. There are plenty of organizations working for justice; get involved.

3. Use the right weapon.
One smooth stone brought down Goliath. Sure, it’s a legend. But there’s truth behind it. David knew what worked on a wild animal. He didn’t need the “big guns” to bring down the beast. What are our best resources in fighting the giants?

4. Hit ’em where it hurts.
In their  wallets. At the voting booth. In the court of public opinion. Wherever they’re most vulnerable. We’re not stupid; we can figure this out. But we’ve got to stay focused on the giants, look them right between the eyes – and take aim.

We’re grieving today – rightly so. But as people of faith, we have a legacy of courage to uphold.  May we remember David and the five smooth stones – and take aim for justice.


Posted by: smstrouse | June 13, 2015

Reading the Quran in Church – Again

A few yeas 640x392_80048_246190ago, First United participated in an initiative called Faith Shared: Uniting in Prayer and Understanding. We joined Christians churches across the country in hosting readings from the Qur’an as an act of solidarity with the Muslim community. The idea was to send a message both here at home and to the Arab and Muslim world about our respect for Islam. I was astonished by the flurry of negative emails and comments on our church’s web site. Several quoted the Bible to defend their messages. For example:

“Your (sic) planning to send “a message both here at home and to the Arab and Muslim world about our respect for Islam” with a time to read the Quran during worship this Sunday. Second Corinthians 6:14-18 says we’re forbidden to do that kind of thing. It’s one thing to be friendly with someone in Islam, but it’s a whole other thing in a Christian community to be reading something that is antithetical to Christianity and is hostile to Jesus Christ himself. You should be ashamed of yourself and resign never to preach in a Lutheran or Christian church again.”

Several accused us of becoming “Chrislam,” a hybrid of Christianity and Islam. That was a new one to me! I’ve since found many references to this fear-mongering tactic. One web site asks:”Is Your Church Secretly Indoctrinating You to Accept Chrislam?”

My answer to that is:
1) We’re not indoctrinating anyone to accept anything. We trust that you will use your brain to explore the teachings of any tradition. We’ll also encourage respectful questions, and even disagreements.

2) We are a Christian church that seeks to enter into respectful dialogue with people of other religions and those with no religion. If that makes us Chrislam, so be it. But we’re also Chruddist, Chrindu and Chraosit. Ouch, that makes my head hurt! But then so does the ignorance of anti-Muslim ranting.

3) Get ready; we’re doing it again. This week is the start of “Pluralism Summer III” at First United. Our first guest is from the Sufi tradition, and so, along with our usual Hebrew and Christian scriptures, we will have a reading from her sacred text, the Qur’an.

pope-reads-kuranWhile I don’t enjoy criticism, I’m also honored to be in the company of other spiritual leaders. Even Pope Francis is not immune. When he made the statement last year that “Islam is a religion of peace, one which is compatible with respect for human rights and peaceful coexistence,” he became the target of the Internet trolls. in January when he included Muslim prayers in a service at the Vatican, he was declared the antiChrist.

I agree with the statement he made urging Christians and Muslims to get rid of stereotypes in order to establish better interfaith relations. He said that most effective antidote to violence among us is learning about each other and then accepting differences. Inter-religious dialogue can make progress only by careful listening – something many have yet to learn.

Hopefully, our small effort at promoting inter-religious dialogue will have an effect on our corner of the world. I anticipate another round of criticism. But mostly I trust that we are part of the movement of the world into peaceful coexistence.

May it be so.

Posted by: smstrouse | May 22, 2015

Church Feud in AZ


“Theology Feud Pits Half of Town’s Protestant Churches Against Another”

So reads the headline posted on Christianity Today last week. The “another” in the story is The Fountains United Methodist Church and its pastor, David Felten. Up until now, I’ve known about David Felten only from his involvement in creating the Living the Questions and Saving Jesus series. These are two of the best progressive Christian adult education programs available, and now he’s taking heat for practicing what he teaches.

Last week, a group of eight conservative churches in Fountain Hills, AZ – including Baptist, Lutheran (sigh), Presbyterian, and non-denominational congregations – launched a unified campaign against the likes of Pastor Felton. And me. And maybe you, too.

progressive-xianityBanners appeared in front of the eight churches. A sermon series has been advertised by an op-ed and half-page advertisement in the local paper.  One of the stated objectives of the series is to differentiate between “Progressive” Christianity and Biblical Christianity. In quotes from these pastors, words like ‘heresy’ and  ‘apostate’ appeared. One said that those who promote a progressive form of Christianity are undermining the Christian faith.


They’re also pretty proud of themselves for joining together in solidarity to demonstrate the “unity of the body of Christ’ in Fountain Hills.” As one said, “Imagine Baptists united with Lutherans working side-by-side with Presbyterians, all while holding the raised hands of charismatics.”

Yeah, great.

To David Felten’s credit, he’s taking the high road on all this. He said, “It’s hard to imagine how much this kind of publicity would cost if we had to pay for it!” It worked on me; I went right to his church’s website to see what they were about. The first sentence of their mission statement says it all: “At The Fountains, our purpose is simple: to connect with God and serve others with thought-provoking openness and honesty.”

Oh, the heresy! The apostasy!

All this goes to show is that the gap between conservative Christianity and progressive Christianity is widening. If the questions being addressed in the sermon series (e.g. “Why Does It Matter that Jesus Was Born of a Virgin?” and “Why Does It Matter that the Bible is Reliable?”) are any indication, there’s not much room for discussion. There’s a fundamental difference in scholarship, theology, science and worldview at work here.

As churches continue to wring their hands at the loss of membership and money, they will either recognize that a whole lot of people are looking for congregations where they are welcome to be and welcome to think – or they will eventually die.

So I say, kudos to David Felten and the people of The Fountains. You’re a beacon of light that will not be put under a bushel.

For our part, we will continue to use Living the Questions apts-logo-white-framend other great material like it. We just started Painting the Stars: Science, Religion and an Evolving Faith. I can only imagine the reaction of the “Gang of 8” to that! Actually I wouldn’t mind some of the publicity The Fountains is getting. San Francisco is a tough market for any kind of organized religion.

Postscript: I just saw a response released by a group of Presbyterian clergy in the area stating that “the entire spirit of this campaign is not in keeping with the teachings of Jesus Christ” and calling on their colleague and his cohorts to cease and desist. Hurray for them! I hope the local Lutherans will follow suit.


Posted by: smstrouse | May 14, 2015

Creeds: The Frayed Furniture of the Church?

Presiding bishop Elizabeth Eaton had an article in The Lutheran magazine this month. It started out kind of interesting, talking about how to make church the same kind of  “third place” as our local coffeehouse (“first place” being home and “second place” work).

dscn4276She had a good insight that what we offer at church can be like a lived-in room, that’s become so familiar that we don’t notice the frayed furniture. Good metaphor, I thought.

But then she lost me. “And please, please do not rewrite the creeds. It took the church a couple of centuries to come up with the Nicene Creed. Why do we think we can do better knocking it out on our laptop?”

Ironic, I’d say, given that she’d just invited us to look at our “frayed furniture.” Actually I think that’s a very apt metaphor for the creeds. I am not a proponent of simply tossing them away. I consider them important historical documents, which give us knowledge of what the church of that time was thinking and how they were making sense of the Jesus story. They had a philosophic, theological and scientific worldview which was relevant for their time.

But not for today.

I’ve heard a lot of rationales for keeping the creeds in the liturgy, some from my greatest progressive heroes. But I’m just not buying it. Not only do the ancient creeds use outdated biblical knowledge (e.g. the virgin Mary) and old concepts like ‘substance’ and ‘begotten,’ they completely ignore the life, teachings and example of Jesus of Nazareth.


So what many have done is to ditch the Christ of faith and go solely with the Jesus of history. They say “I’m a follower of Jesus.” And that’s OK; I say that, too. But to jettison the Christ of faith because all we know is what we read in the creeds is to miss the experience of the reality of the Christ, which is bigger than the man Jesus, bigger even than Christianity. It’s to miss the Christ of the mystics, the Cosmic Christ of Teilhard de Chardin, the inclusivity of Christ-Sophia.

And I need both. In response to the question, “Which is more important, the historical Jesus or the Cosmic Christ?” theological John Cobb responded: “. . . the primacy of the Logos is not in competition with the importance of Jesus. When we identify the Logos with the Cosmic Christ we are recognizing how intimately the importance of these two very different kinds of realities is bound together. This unity is at the heart of the Christian faith.”

I think this is a better way for us to even hope to become a “third place” for spiritual seekers today. So no, I’m not going to use the creeds in worship. But I’m also not going to try to knock out something better on my laptop. We’ll be about following Jesus and abiding in Christ, not about ‘believing in’ a collection of frayed furniture that needs to be moved out of the living room.

images                                                 “The Cosmic Christ” by Sister Rebecca Shinas

Posted by: smstrouse | May 9, 2015

For All My Mothers

Mother887174_10203021373468572_6063021794519708667_os Day can be tough for many women for many different reasons. My mom has been gone now for seven years, and I still wrestle with the good and bad of our relationship. In the midst of all of it, though, I honor her  memory and all she contributed to who I am today.

But I’ve also come to appreciate the other “mothers” in my life – those women (some of whom I’ve never even met) who shaped my (relatively) healthy sense of self. I think of Gloria Steinem, who (believe it or not!) launched me into ministry.  The line “We are becoming the men we wanted to marry” from her book, Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions, stirred me out of bitterness toward the church and a clergy ex-husband into a career of my own. My doctor at the time, a staunch feminist, had a fit – but that’s another story. gloria__arthur_photossidebyside2

And at 81, Gloria still inspires. On May 24, International Women’s Day for Disarmament, she’ll join a group of women’s rights activists to march across the DMZ from North to South Korea. She’ll be the oldest person on the peace march. So if that’s what old age looks like, all I have to say is, “Bring it on!”

Then t6a00d8341c03ee53ef017d3c82ec6e970c-500wihere’s another one of my heroes, Sister Simone Campbell.  In an interview with Stephen Colbert, who called the Nuns on the Bus radical feminists, Sr. Simone answered: “We’re certainly oriented toward the needs of women and responding to their needs. If that’s radical, I guess we are.”

On the more personal level, my “mothers” include Sr. Joan Wagner, Rosita Torres and Marlene Denardo. These women have been (Marlene still is) my spiritual directors over the years. Each has inspired, guided, comforted, challenged, loved, taught and modeled “mothering” to me.

As far as I know, none of the women I’ve named has given birth, yet all have given me gifts that I didn’t get from my birth mother. This is not a criticism of my mom, just a statement of fact. There’s a lovely song by Sinéad O’Connor called “This Is to Mother You.” But when I sing it, I change the words “For when you need me I will do what your own mother didn’t do” to “what your own mother couldn’t do.”  Here’s a great rendition by Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt. 

For me, this song is not only about the women who have mothered me, it’s also about the God who continues to do so. On Mothers Day, what better time to honor our Mother, Christ Sophia and Ruach haKodesh?


To all my mothers – and to you and yours, Blessed Mothers Day!
Posted by: smstrouse | May 2, 2015

Incarnation Is You & Me

Hildegard-of-Bingen3-195x300Incarnation is one of those funny church words we throw around a lot. But what does it mean, really? We hear it a lot around Christmastime in reference to “the Word was made flesh,” but then we move on to other theological mysteries.

In our “Saving Jesus” session last week, we were amused by one presenter’s use of the name “Jesus con carne,” meaning that God was made flesh. But the main point was that incarnation isn’t just something that happened 2000 years ago, but happens when we are open to the Divine spirit in us. Also, we are reminded that each and every other person is the presence of Christ. In other words, we are all connected to one another in both our humanity and in the Divine Presence that dwells within us. Granted we are aware and responsive to this Presence in varying degrees. Still, it causes me (in my better moments) to stop and think before I judge someone as outside my sphere of interest.

And to care about people I will never meet, but who are intimately connected to me in a web of incarnational life:

  • Protesters in Baltimore, State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby, all those advocating for justice in all communities – as well as those resorting to violence and looting
  • Police officers who abide by regulations, as well as those who use their power to inflict suffering
  • Girls kidnapped in Nigeria, as well as their captors
  • The people of Nepal, rescue workers and victims’ families, as well as climbers who have made Mt. Everest the “highest garbage dump” in the world

Incarnational life isn’t about caring only for the lovable or the just. It also isn’t about letting injustice go unpunished. It is about honoring our common humanity and working together for the good of all.

This past week I attended a seminar on homelessness in San Francisco. One of the key messages I heard from both agency officials and from people who used to be on the street was that homeless people are often treated as if they’re not human. Even if we can’t provide someone with what they want or need, we can look at them, speak to them, smile at them – look upon them as the face of Christ, which they are.

Is incarnational life easy? No. It would be simpler to keep it as a Christmas thing that we can out away with the creche. Out of sight, out of mind. But instead, we’re supposed to be Jesus con carne. We’re the ones who carry Divine compassion and justice to the world around us.

Posted by: smstrouse | April 18, 2015

Christ is Not Jesus’ Last Name!


In my last post I wrote about the relevance of Jesus for the 21st century and asked the question: which Jesus? This week, I’ve been thinking about the post-Easter Jesus, that is the Jesus who’s obviously no longer with us in any of those pre-Easter physical forms.

Actually, I prefer the name “The Christ of Faith” over “The Post-Easter Jesus” because it differentiates between the man who was born into a particular place and time and the Christ which is a reality bigger than space and time. Jesus exuded (manifested, incarnated) this Divine Presence, but the Christ (Logos, Tao) is not confined to one person. So it makes sense that, although Jesus the man died, the Christ lives on. images

So when I see pictures of the post-Easter Jesus as a man rising on clouds, wearing a crown or any anthropomorphic imagery, I’m turned off. In Easter, I much prefer abstract art because the cosmic nature of the Christ is beyond my imagination.

ThUnknownis way, too, I can sing hymns like “O Christ-Sophia, Rise” by Jann Aldridge-Clanton which incorporate the feminine person of Wisdom. This in no way diminishes or denigrates the masculinity of Jesus. Rather it allows us to expand our awareness of the full, diverse, inclusive nature of the Christ.
(If you don’t know the work of Jann Aldridge-Clanton, you should check her out right now at

While I don’t agree with Christians who always put Jesus and Christ together, as if Christ is Jesus’ last name (sometimes we even put an H in as a middle initial!), I also don’t agree with some progressive Christians who are interested only in the historical Jesus. I don’t have any argument with their passion for following Jesus as a model of compassion, liberation and justice. I follow that Jesus, too. But I also believe in the cosmic Christ, who is present in the Eucharist and in many and various mystical ways.

Like a good Lutheran, I recognize that we live in a ‘both/and’ rather than an ‘either/or world’. For me, Christianity is about being both a follower of the historical Jesus and a devotee of the cosmic Christ: Wisdom, Logos, Tao, the Name that Cannot Be Named, Mystery. See, just as I don’t like being limited by representational art, I have trouble with names, too!

But no matter, the Christ is big enough to encompass all of our efforts at conceptualizing and understanding. You can’t get any more relevant than that.


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