Religious Blog

Healing Toxic Systems

Rev. David J. Fekete, Ph.D.

June 23, 2019

1 Kings 19:1-15                                              Luke 8:26-39                                       Psalm 42

Our readings this morning are about healing toxic systems.  Systems can develop in many places.  Families are a system.  Workplaces can be a system.  Churches can be a system.  Any place people gather and see each other over a period of time can become a system.  Systems can be healthy or toxic.  Today’s readings are about toxic systems.

Toxic systems are systems that are dysfunctional.  There are tensions, manipulation, hurt, anger, abuse, and fear, among other things, in toxic systems.  But in toxic systems, these stressors are often beneath the surface.  People have a lot of ways of trying to make bad things look good.  Then these harmful behaviors are veiled and submerged.  In order to keep functioning, the bad things in toxic systems are suppressed and unacknowledged.  So, for instance, sometimes people who are abused exhibit a forced smile all the time.  Another kind of coping mechanism in toxic systems is creating a problem child.  The problem child becomes the family’s scapegoat.  They are always misbehaving; they are always blamed; they may develop mental illnesses.  The family that has a problem child may send the child to counseling.  But a wise therapist will look at the whole family’s dynamics.  Virginia Satir was an early pioneer in family systems.  When the therapist looks at the whole family, instead of the problem child, the family panics.  They point all the stronger to the problem child, exclaiming, “No, we don’t have a problem!  The problem child is the problem!  You need to heal the problem child!”  The dysfunctional family doesn’t want the real problems to be exposed.  When the therapist looks at the whole family, the status quo gets upset.  The dysfunction begins to be exposed and people have to look at the real problems instead of putting them all on the problem child.  The psychologist becomes a threat.

Another toxic system can develop in families where one or more of the members are addicts or alcoholics.  An alcoholic is so unpredictable and often violent and abusive, that the family surrounding the alcoholic develops neurotic behavior patterns.  They can minimize the extent of the alcoholic’s dependency.  They can make excuses for the alcoholic’s behaviors.  They can deny that the alcoholic is a problem.  When a person is drunk, they can be easily pushed around.  Often decisions have to be made by others in the system because the drunk can’t make decisions.  Sometimes the family finances are placed in the hands of another member besides the drunk.  Then, if the alcoholic sobers up, the family system is broken up.  They don’t know how to live with a sober person, since over a period of years they have developed a system structured around a drunk.  The sober alcoholic becomes a real, living person, starts asserting their own wishes, starts making decisions.  This can be an unwelcome disruption of the toxic system that had developed around the alcoholic.  I’ve heard of couples who get a divorce after one of them sobers up.  The drunk they married wasn’t around anymore.  The adjustment to the sober person was too difficult.

Our story from Luke got me thinking about dysfunctional family systems.  Let’s imagine what was going on with the demon-possessed man.  Cities back in Jesus’ day were communities.  Everybody knew everybody else’s business.  They were mostly what we would call small towns.  They were a system.  Let’s think about the system in our Luke story.  There was a man possessed by demons.  He was bound with chains and he even broke the chains.  He tore off his clothes.  And the villagers exiled him to the graveyards, out of their town.  But he was still a part of the village.  Everyone in the village would have known the man.  I imagine that the whole village was almost controlled by this wild man.  Almost certainly a system developed around this man.  And since the man was so hysterical, the system that developed around him would most likely be toxic.  Jesus enters the village.  And as God does in every toxic system, God brings healing.  Jesus casts the demons out of the man.  The villagers find the man fully clothed, in his right mind, sitting at Jesus’ feet.  The reaction of the villagers is fear.  They see a miracle of healing and they are afraid.  In a surprising move, they ask Jesus to depart.  They are so afraid they want Jesus to leave them.

I thought long and hard about this story.  I wondered why people, who saw something good happen to the demon-possess man, wanted the source of healing to leave.  Have you ever had something good done to you and you asked the giver to go away?  I couldn’t think of any examples.  But then the idea of toxic systems occurred to me.  The village that had grown used to the wild man didn’t know how to go forward now that the man was a sane part of their village.  They didn’t have a place for him.  The man becomes a prophet.  He wants to stay with Jesus, but Jesus tells him instead to return home and spread the word about what Jesus did for him.

Prophets are not welcome.  In our story from 1 Kings, Elijah flees for his life.  Ahab’s wife Jezebel threatens to murder Elijah.  There is a passage in Amos in which the king’s priest tells Amos to leave the country and go prophesy elsewhere,

Then Amaziah, the priest of Bethel, sent to King Jeroboam of Israel, saying, “Amos has conspired against you in the very center of the house of Israel; the land is not able to bear all his words. 11 For thus Amos has said,

‘Jeroboam shall die by the sword,
and Israel must go into exile
away from his land.’”

12 And Amaziah said to Amos, “O seer, go, flee away to the land of Judah, earn your bread there, and prophesy there; 13 but never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king’s sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom” (Amos 7:10-13).

In both stories, the land is corrupt.  The prophet’s voice brings healing.  But the people in the lands do not want healing.  They prefer the rituals from the gods in the surrounding territories.

The moral laws of Yahweh, or Jehovah as God’s name is translated in the King James Version, were rejected by the Israelites.  They preferred the relatively easy rituals of the Baal priests.  In Baal worship, sacrifices made by priests covered the people and the people thought they could do whatever they wanted.  So injustice in the courts, seizing the land and goods of the less powerful, living in luxury, scales with false balances measured out the grain and other crops for sale flourished in the toxic systems in Israel.  But God’s laws insisted on protection for the disenfranchised.  God said in plain speech that the courts were not to show favoritism to the rich.  God insisted in protecting the widow, the orphan, and also the foreigner who lived with the Israelites.  When the Israelites turned away from Yahweh to follow Baal, they thought that they wouldn’t have to follow all these rules.  Worshipping Baal meant living in luxury at the expense of the common people.  The voice of the prophet reminded Israelites of Yahweh’s laws and told them to turn back to worshipping Yahweh.  So they tried to get rid of the prophet.  In the case of Amos, the prophet was told to go home to Judah and to leave Israel.  In the case of Elijah, Jezebel wanted him dead.

Untangling toxic systems is delicate work.  When people intervene to bring liberation to toxic systems, it is important to provide support as the dysfunction is unwound.  Changing the behavior patterns that people are used to can be emotionally difficult.  Anxiety and even suicidal ideation can develop when toxic behaviors are revealed.  When systems are unwound, places like church can become a place of refuge and community.  Church can provide stability and support as systems change.  So can counselors provide support as people and systems grow healthy.  The question we need to ask ourselves is whether we are a voice of healing or whether we are the villagers who expel the healer from fear of change.

 

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Fathers and Atypical Swedenborgian Monotheism

All that Belongs to the Father Is Mine

Rev. David J. Fekete, Ph.D.

June 16, 2019

Isaiah 45:5-8, 22-24                                        John 16:12-15                                     Psalm 8

Quite a while back I was interviewing for a teaching position at our divinity school in California.  I made the observation that in Swedenborgian theology, the male corresponds to truth and the female to love.  The dean of the consortium to which our divinity school belonged challenged this doctrine.  He said, “I feel that I love my children as deeply as my wife does.”  Fathers do love their children as deeply as their wives do.  I was caught off guard by this remark.  I didn’t say what dawned on me later.  I could have asked him if he expresses his love in the same way as his wife does.  I still believe that there is a distinction between the way men and women express love.  But this doesn’t mean that fathers love their children any less than mothers do.  The fathers I observe in this church are very affectionate with their children.

Fathers haven’t always shown their love for their children.  In my parents’ generation, fathers were often the disciplinarians in the family.  “Just wait till your father gets home,” I often heard my mother say.  It was difficult to relate to my father on a day to day basis; he wasn’t easy to talk with; and his general manner was harsh.  While my father may have expressed his love for me decidedly differently than my mother did, on a few occasions he indicated his love dramatically.  There was one time when I had set out across the United States and moved to a far-away city.  I was going to be my own man, stand on my own two feet, and make it on my own.  I didn’t need my parents; I was a man.  Later, a friend of mine and I were driving back to our parents’ house in the winter for Christmas vacation.  As it turned out, my van broke down outside of Detroit.  We had to hitch-hike into the city.  We waited and waited for someone to pick us up.  But no one did.  Standing outside in a blizzard, in the freezing cold, we seriously wondered if anyone would ever pick us up, or would we die in the cold.  There weren’t any cell-phones back then, so there was no way to call anyone.  Finally, we did get a ride, and my friend and I got dropped off at the bus station in Detroit.  What do you suppose this man who was standing on his own two feet, who didn’t need his family, who was going to make it on his own, what do you suppose the first thing he did upon arriving at the bus station?  I called home and my dad answered the phone.  I broke up, and couldn’t talk.  My dad asked me where I was.  And while my mother slept through it all, my dad drove out in a blizzard to the bus station and took me home.

Years passed.  Now I was completing my studies for ministry.  But after five years of studying in good standing, the Committee on Admission to the Ministry had doubts about me.  At Convention in 1985, they held a meeting of the whole council of ministers late at night to decide whether they would ordain me.  In a rather perverse display of ineptitude, they told me to sit outside the meeting room while they deliberated just in case they wanted to bring me in for questioning.  I had gotten a degree at our church’s university, spent five years in our church’s divinity school, I was now 29 years old, and my future was being decided in the meeting room I was sitting outside of.  I sat there for three hours.  But I didn’t sit there alone.  For the whole three hours, my father sat next to me, trying to make the unbearable situation bearable.  My mother had gone to bed.

All this happened when I was living in Boston.  The result of the meeting was that I wouldn’t be ordained.  I had no future.  Over the next year, I applied to Ph.D. programs.  One by one, my applications were declined.  Only one came through, the University of Virginia.  Then, as I was preparing to make the move from Boston to Charlottesville, Virginia, the engine blew out on my car.  My father drove all the way from Detroit to Boston, had a trailer-hitch installed on his car, helped me load up a U-Haul, drove me down to Charlottesville, and helped me get set-up in my new apartment.

It’s unfortunate that my father was so hard to deal with on a day-to-day basis.  Though these dramatic actions demonstrated how much he loved me, our relationship remained strained throughout our lives.  I think that he believed that a father had to be in charge all the time;–be the boss.

I think that today’s fathers feel differently about their role in the family.  Showing outward affection, hugging, playing with their children are things that today’s fathers do, which fathers of my dad’s generation didn’t.  Today, we see stay-at-home-dads.  Today’s dads are nurturing.  Like mothers.  Maybe today, even the differences between the way women and men show affection are beginning to diminish.  Men and women are beginning to show love in analogous ways.

This new direction in fatherhood has important theological resonances.  We use male language when we talk about God.  We talk about God the Father and God the Son.  And with today’s fathers showing love outwardly, our images of God are more loving than they had been a generation ago.

However, in Swedenborgian language we speak of God as Divine Love and Divine Wisdom.  This includes both masculine and feminine correspondences in Swedenborg’s system.  Remember, the feminine corresponds to love and the masculine to wisdom.  So seen as love and wisdom, God holds includes feminine and masculine aspects.

This Sunday is also Trinity Sunday.  And once again, I need to state that Swedenborgians do not have a doctrine of Three Persons, as do traditional Christians.  Our understanding is based on language like we heard in John, “All that belongs to the Father is mine” (John 16:15).  Only if Father and Son are the same Person can Jesus say, “All that belongs to the Father is mine.”  It is all Jesus’ because the Father is in Him and He is in the Father.  It is not that they are as one—they are one.  How else are we to understand Isaiah 45:22,

Turn to me and be saved,
all you ends of the earth;
for I am God, and there is no other

Most Christians think that it is Jesus who saves.  But Isaiah 45 clearly says that it is Yahweh who saves, or Jehovah as the King James Version translates God’s name.  And also, Yahweh clearly says, “I am God, and there is no other.”  So either Jesus isn’t God, or Jesus is Yahweh.  “All that belongs to the Father is mine.”  Jesus and the Father are one.  Jesus is Yahweh in the flesh.  “I am God and there is no other.”

Among the last things that Jesus says after His resurrection is, “All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth” (Matthew 28:18).  Jesus has all power because He is one with the Father, is Yahweh in the flesh.  This is what John’s Gospel means when it says, “Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God” (John 13:3).  Only God comes from God and goes back to God.  Only God has all things under His power.  Jesus is God; God is Jesus.  Jesus is God, and there is no other.

The Jesus Question

For those who are interested in Christianity, I delivered a talk on the Jesus question last Sunday which is too long to post as a blog.  My talk may be accessed at:

I WATCH HER IN THE BLUES CLUB

I see her every night in the blues club

There is where she finds community

Not a drunk, as I was, she is a regular

The bar’s her church she once confessed to me

 

She was dealt a harder deck that I was

Foster homes, running away, the streets

I had advantages of middle-class

Her past defines her life and who she meets

 

She holds out love and acceptance to everyone

It’s a sobering lesson for me

She even asks me weekly for a sermon

And each night demonstrates Christian charity

 

Jesus hung around with disdained people

And reached out with his heart to one and all

The blues club is her church without a steeple

The benefit from our relationship is mutual

Is Jesus’ Message Dead?

I can’t believe that Jesus’ message is dead.  I think that, rather, what Christian churches have done with it may be dead.  Churches and church services are not necessarily what Jesus’ message is all about.  I say this as a Christian minister.

I’ve recently been reading carefully the Gospel of Matthew, focusing on Jesus’ words.  Jesus is about looking at the heart.  Jesus is about spiritual values, not materialism.  Jesus is about forgiveness.  Jesus is about opening up to foreigners and outsiders.  Jesus is about helping those less fortunate.  Jesus is about healing.  Jesus is about love.  Jesus is about connection with God.  I can cite chapter and verse for these assertions.

Is our society opposed to these messages?  I don’t think so.  I think that society basically would agree with these ideas.

What kind of world would oppose ideas like this?  It would be, one by one, a society that doesn’t look at the heart, that only looks at outward acts, that wants only more and greater status symbols and material goods, that lives for revenge, that hates foreigners, that only cares about one’s friends and family and no one else, that cares nothing for the poor, weak, and orphaned, that hurts instead of healing, that hates, that disbelieves and cares only about self.  Is this the world we live in?  Maybe.  But I hope not.

It is true that the world sends us messages, largely through TV commercials that run counter to Jesus’ message.  Expensive car commercials show people who are superior to others, or are superior by some standards.  That is a dual message: 1) buy an expensive car; and 2) be better than everyone else.  There are many movies whose plots turn around revenge.  It’s not “good guys versus bad guys.”  Rather it’s more and more, “You killed a loved one so I’m going to get you.”  So there are messages in the world that run counter to Jesus’ message.

But driving around town, I see a lot of Hondas and Fords on the road, so it’s not true that the world is populated by ubermenschen driving expensive cars.  I think most of society is people living with a beloved partner, or a circle of friends, going to work and coming home and trying to do the right thing.  Then there’s the issue of God.

A lot of people, I think, don’t have much room for God.  It’s not that they disbelieve, it’s that they have no time for God, no need for God.  You can’t separate God from Jesus’ message.  Maybe that’s why it may look like Jesus’ message is dead.  It’s certainly true that self-sufficiency is a strong drug.  Making it on your own; self-made man or woman.  Top of the heap.  Number one.

Then there’s the issue of church.  I think about young people clubbing to those insipid songs with pounding rhythm, overpowering bass tones, monotonous melodies.  Then I think about the 17th and 19th century hymns that we typically sing on Sunday.  And the notion of sitting still for an hour listening to me pray, read from the Bible, and preach.  It’s not surprising that some people would have other things to do.  And none of that is a necessary part of the Jesus message.  It is true that Jesus taught in synagogues and read the Scriptures in them.  And I think that Biblical literacy is important.  But that doesn’t mean the traditional church services that have evolved over millennia.  Nor does Christianity mean the vocal, politically-motivated proselytizing, self-righteous right-wing form that seems to get all the attention and would define all Christianity by their own style.  Indeed, all religion.

I think that society has been shaped by Judeo-Christian values.  We think that soup kitchens, Habitat-for Humanity, health care, minimum wage, friendliness, doing a good turn daily are good things.  While there are counter-messages to the Jesus message, I think that a lot of people would be attracted to what Jesus says, if they read His words freshly and without the lens of tradition and church.  While some churches exclude unbelievers, Jesus included everyone He contacted.  He even dined with a Pharisee on at least one occasion.  While churches are dwindling, I still think that Jesus’ message lives.

Jesus Christ Superstar Revisited

I remember hitch-hiking to the lake my uncle lived on, one summer in 1970.  I got picked up by a car with four girls in it.  As a male adolescent, I couldn’t believe my good luck, riding in a car with four girls in it.  They had the car radio tuned to the FM rock station (back then there was AM radio, which played “bubble-gum” pop music, and there was FM which played acid rock like Hendrix, Clapton, Ten Years After, and Jethro Tull).  “Jesus Christ Superstar” came on the radio.  I asked the girls, “Is this Jesus Christ Superstar that everybody’s talking about?”  They didn’t know.

The fact is, everybody was talking about Jesus Christ Superstar in 1970.  It was one of the most popular rock-operas next to Tommy, by The Who.  And it launched Andrew LLoyd Webber’s illustrious career, who wrote the music for Jesus Christ Superstar.  Everybody had to have an opinion about Jesus Christ Superstar–stoners, clergy, church-goers, theater buffs, everybody across the board.  It was that much of a sensation.  Life Magazine devoted a whole issue to it.

Jesus Christ Superstar challenged religion, which happened a lot in the late ’60’s/early ’70’s.  The very title, calling Jesus a superstar, was a challenge.  And Jesus Christ Superstar was good rock music.  We listened to it over and over again because we liked the music.  But this rock-opera also took the Jesus story seriously, and engaged with the story seriously.  I remember one evening while there was a social event at our church’s divinity school.  One minister offered to listen to the whole rock-opera with any church goers who wanted to do so.  Then, after we heard the piece, he opened up the floor for questions and comments.  We took it that seriously, and the minister took it that seriously.  Some thought it was sacrilegious; some thought that it brought the Jesus story into the modern world; some thought it was a holy opera; some thought it was too strange a mixture of religion and rock.  But everyone had something to say about it.  Godspell came out later, but it wasn’t the musical masterpiece nor as sensational as was Jesus Christ Superstar.

What occasions these reminiscences is my TV.  On the retro channel, due to the Christmas season, they just played Jesus Christ Superstar.  Watching it so many years later, I had many feelings.  But I was mostly struck with the thought that they could never make this album and movie today.  Back in 1970, religion had a strong enough influence in society that you could make an album about religion, and it would mean something.  There is so much religious apathy today that Jesus Christ Superstar would largely be ignored.  And Andrrew Lloyd Webber’s career wouldn’t be launched by it today.  Consider two films, The Passion of the Christ in 2004; and The Last Temptation of Christ in 1988.  I thought I should see The Last Temptation of Christ.  It was a  shocking movie in its day because it depicted Jesus and Mary Magdalene in a sexual relationship.  I didn’t see The Passion of the Christ, and didn’t think I needed to.  These films came and went but weren’t the sensation that Jesus Christ Superstar was.  And they were only movies, they weren’t music and film and theater all, as was Jesus Christ Superstar.

It would largely be ignored today because religion is largely ignored today.  An opera that engages seriously with the Jesus story wouldn’t catch on because of the so few people who also engage seriously with the Jesus story.  Or with religion itself.  W. H. Auden writes, “But on earth indifference is the least/We have to dread from man or beast.”  I think today’s indifference to religion, though, is indeed something we do have to dread.  If we still can dread anything–other than something that threatens self-interest.  Apathy and indifference is more of a threat than we may credit it to be.  I’m glad that the abuses and ridiculous and hurtful ideas from religion are being denounced and done away with.  And if apathy is the remedy for this, well and good.  But by the same token, the bland world I am finding myself in today, is still frightening.  To me, it is a deafening silence.

Parliament 3–The Star Teaching

For an hour and a half, I was afforded a glimpse into the world of First Nations.  I attended a talk about the Star Teachings from an elder of the Mi’kmoq Nation, David Sanipass.  When I went to the seminar, I thought I was going to hear some ancient First Nations lore and stories.  I was waiting the whole time for the Star Teachings.  Instead, his wife opened the seminar by telling a story.  She said that David had encouraged her to go to the bank with a twenty-dollar bill she had, and change it into single dollars.  Then she was to start giving away the dollar bills.  That proved more difficult than she had imagined.  She went to a grocery store and tried to give the cashier a dollar.  But the cashier exclaimed, “I can’t take that!  I’d get fired!  But you could go to the next cash register and give it to the woman in line there.”  So she did.  Then she went around the store giving out the dollars.  In the long run, giving these dollars out got people talking about why she was doing it.  It transformed the whole atmosphere of the store.  While she was telling her story, I was waiting for the Elder to start talking.  And I was waiting for the Star Teachings.

The Elder did speak.  He opened with a 24,000-year-old story about Creation.  As he spoke, the Elder would pick up his flute and play tunes.  The story began before Creation.  There was a great bird who had the most wonderful song.  Since humans couldn’t speak, the bird was going to give them the gift of his song.  But his grandfather came to earth in the form of an old man and coaxed the humans into talking.  The bird got mad, thinking himself duped, and decided to hide his song in a cedar tree at the centre of a swamp.  He returned to the swamp later, but couldn’t find his song.  David asked his father if that was a true story, or just a legend.  His father told him to go to the swamp and listen.  He did, but a woodpecker kept pecking at the tree.  This bothered young David because it was interfering with the song he was trying to hear from the primordial Great Bird.  But when a woodpecker pecks a tree, he makes holes in it, like the holes in a flute.  Young David missed the song.

David told two more stories.  One about him giving last rights to a woman pinned in an overturned car.  When he was young, David had been authorized to give the Catholic Last Rites.  Once, there was a woman pinned in a car that had overturned from an auto accident.  David climbed in the car and gave the woman the Last Rites.  All the while, gasoline was dripping onto his shirt, and the First Responders tried to get him to leave the overturned car before it exploded.  “No,” David said.  He stayed with the woman until she went into infinity, back to the stars.

His last story was the longest.  It was about a bear hunt.  Feeling excluded from the other elders at a story-telling gathering, because he didn’t have white hair, David went to an elder for advice.  “Go on a bear hunt,” the elder said.  David decided he would shoot the bear with a camera.  Trying to photograph a bear, despite the dangers, occasioned many hilarious adventures.  The story ends with David running from the bear which he awoke with the flash from his camera, running through the forest and getting bent double by running into a fallen tree, climbing another tree to escape the bear.  But the bear sniffed and followed him through the field, climbed up the tree and stared him face to face.  The bear talked, “You lost your camera when you ran into the tree in the forest, I came to return it to you.”  So saying the bear climbed down the tree and walked into the forest.  Shaking with fear, David discovered that the film had all fallen out of the camera.  When he got home, David looked in a mirror and saw that he had white hair!  He held the whole lecture hall in rapt attention.  In the telling of his story, David had carried us all into a special collective experience of love and interconnectedness.  By the time the bear hunt story was over, we’d run out of time.

David said he would give us the Star Teaching.  All he said was, “Don’t let the moment end now.  Bring this message out into the world.”  I was left to wonder what the Star Teaching is.  What I came up with, and I’m not sure I got it right, was that David’s wife’s story about giving away dollar bills, and the story about staying with the woman in the overturned car, and the bear hunt were all the Star Teachings.  It is a teaching about love.  It is a teaching about going out of our way to bring love into the moment, onto earth.  It was about the power we have to make the world a more loving place.

I was personally and professionally transformed by my experiences at the Parliament of the World’s Religions.  And I have more experiences to narrate in the upcoming days.  After the intense seminars, the guided Vedanta meditations, the Indigenous stories, the Nithya healing I underwent, I came away a different person.  It will take some time to integrate everything I learned with my own Swedenborgian faith tradition.  For learning something new, even personal transformation, doesn’t mean abandoning what we know about religion.  Rather, it means accommodating, and integrating it all together.

I’ve been practicing my understanding of the Star Teachings lately.  I’ve been buying food for homeless men, confronted convenience store clerks who didn’t understand why I was doing it, meeting the barrister at my local coffee shop, trying to make all my relations a real human interaction.  Spreading the message of love, the Star Teachings as I understood them.

I knew these teachings from my Christian background.  But for some reason, they never spoke to me the way they did when David Sanipass spoke.  Hadn’t Jesus said, “Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. . . . But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High” (Luke 6:30-35).  For some reason, it took David’s stories to energize me to act.

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