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Losing My Religion

A lot of you have asked why I have stopped posting about items of faith and Christianity here and the reason is pretty complex.  First of all after reading around 5 books a week for 15 years or so, I no longer have the time or the desire to read that much.  Much of that reading was theological or about church life and what has been said on the topic for me has been said.  I still get probably 100 books a year to review and most of them are just rehashing what has been said and said and said again.  On the occasional time when I can force myself to enter into Scott’s Parable, I see the same book, just written by different authors.  I know I am taking some shots at some friends here but it seems like a lot more reflection and a lot less publishing may help everyone.

It goes for me as well, if I don’t have anything to say, I am not going to log in and write anything.  To paraphrase a good friend of mine who used to joke, “If you want a better sermon, get Max Lucado to write better books”, so in other words, if you want a better blog, write better stuff for me to link to.

The more serious reason is that I struggle with the distance between neighborhood/community and the church.  I have read and heard pastors say that they need to vision cast (what a geeky and churchy phrase) or sell their church on the idea that they need to be a part of their community.  This is a phrase I have heard for years but I never realized how strange it was that the church had stopped being part of the community.  Now of course with more and more churches wanting more real estate, they are literally moving outside of their cities and towns so they can create more programs that compete with and pull people away from the communities they are apart of.  The fact that we have to “vision cast”, sell, manipulate, or coerce our congregations to be part of the community, in fact, we had to come up with new church growth terminology to describe what should be our natural reaction as human beings… (I’m missional, your missional, we are all missional) that is our responsibility to make our local communities a better place for everyone to live in. 

Years ago I listened to a series of podcasts by Todd Hunter and Dallas Willard in which Hunter talked about one of the metrics his church used was how far people were travelling to get to his church without realizing the impact it had on local communities.  While that may represent one extreme of the equation, it was quite similar to what we experience as a family in finding a church in Saskatoon.   There is a pull to be a part of the church community, which church leaders tend of think of as a true or at least superior community which puts us in tension with my commitments to other things that are going on in my geographic community.  While I agree there is a need for involvement in the church, our local communities the need is often just as pressing.  So I have kids clubs that interfere with Mark taking karate, small groups that only work for people who work 8-5 (and definitely not for those who like Wendy and I who are work from 7:00 a.m. when I go to work to 10:45 p.m. when Wendy walks in the door from work).   I have prostitutes on my street, a brothel on my block, guys grinding drugs across from the local elementary school, the Terror Squad working out a local restaurant and bar and I keep hearing that my number one priority needs to be a small group in a church.

I follow some pastors and church leaders on Twitter and I realized it’s a giant irrelevant echo chamber where the tweets and retweets reinforce what they believe.  I haven’t lost my faith in Christianity, I am just in doubt that the church is an accurate representation of what it represents anymore.  I was in a room of pastors earlier this year and they were still talking about media in worship, ancient future song writing, and all sorts of peripheral things about church life with great interest and not one of them mentioned life in their community.  A friend of mine sent me a sermon the other day on YouTube to check out as it would cure what ailed my soul.  The stage looked like it was stolen from David Letterman and I am pretty sure it was meant to be a copy and after watching the sermon, I realized that he was speaking in the same style that Vince does while pitching Slap Chops.  Sadly not only did I used to speak like that in public but so do so many other pastors I know.  I realized while watching this that the church had become a parody of itself.  The Emperor has no clothes.

I realized that I no longer see most churches any differently than Kiwanas or another service club but this one has higher fixed costs.  Are all churches like this?  I don’t think so.  One of the great experiences I have had in life was spending a bit of time with Dave Blondel and the Third Space.   Both Wendy and I have said that we would be quite comfortable attending a church lead by my friends, Scott Williams, Randall Friesen, Pernell Goodyear, Kim Reid or Darryl Dash but those kinds of churches and those kinds of pastors aren’t that easy to find.  The problem for me is when I see the kind of church that is engaged in creative ways in it’s community, it’s awfully hard to go back.  When I was down in Maple Creek, I did some pastoral work with people.  We literally put on some orange Salvation Army vests, went from flood ravaged house to flood ravaged house and chatted with flood victims.  Everyone in that community knew the Salvation Army Corps officers, Captain Ed and Charlotte.  Every last person.  When he was in Saskatoon, he was everywhere in the community as well.  If he can do it, so can other churches and their leaders.  If Wendy, myself, my staff, and a bunch of volunteers can work amongst Saskatoon’s poorest, so can everyone.  What we do isn’t brain surgery (umm, except for my staff, you are all brilliant… underpaid but brilliant) but a compassionate response to the community around us.   Instead I find churches that are isolated and focused on themselves.  Too many times over the last couple of years to hear a sermon on parenting, the need for leadership, church growth or again, church growth.  Did I mention I hear a lot of sermons on the need for church growth.  Sadly I am not alone.  A good friend of mine recently left his long time church and said, “I’ve learned all I need to learn from the pulpit on the need for church growth”.  It’s like the church has lot’s it’s reason for existence and is just looking at how to keep paying the bills.  Yet sadly in a lot of communities, the need for the church and it’s redemptive message has never been greater.

The other thing is that while I hate the overuse of the concept of “a dark night of the soul”, it has been an extremely lonely time spiritually for me.  God was extremely distant and I don’t really have a lot of people to talk to about this stuff.  The praxis of my spiritual life was solid but there was no connection.  After exhausting my traditional options, I sought out a Roman Catholic spiritual advisor who I spent a lot of time talking with.  He was the one who said, “It’s not a dark night of the soul, it’s a wounded soul that I was dealing with.”  A co-worker once said to me, “We aren’t normal.  We are so desensitized by what we see sometimes, we aren’t bothered by what should bother us.”  I thought about it a lot and realized that my job had changed me deeply and for the worse and I wasn’t equipped for what that has done to me.  As an INTJ, I am already an underdeveloped feeler which at times makes it hard to fully understand what I am feeling.  Looking at life from a rather cold and analytical mind has it’s advantages but it always makes it hard to look at life when the problem isn’t a rational one and as any of the staff that I work with will say, rational behavior can often be in short supply with what we see some days.  Toss in that the amount of violence and death we have seen this summer, it has taken a toll.  It seems like every murder and suspicious death in the city has been connected to someone I know and it’s hard.  The first thing I am doing in the morning is dealing with another one.  Jaded or not, it has had an impact and those add up a little bit.

As my spiritual advisor and I have talked, I shared that when God reveals himself to me, often I feel He was disappointed in me.  I have long that was my biases, insecurities, and self worth issues coming out.  I have come to seriously wonder if maybe God was quite disappointed in me and the reason for the silence, or just lack of disappointment is that maybe He isn’t anymore.

My evangelical friends don’t really get what I see.  It actually upsets many of them when I tell them what I am seeing.  I was talking to one friend about the fact that there are 600 known prostitutes in the city (of course they move from city to city to city) and he was totally freaked out.  Our conversation ended with, “I am glad our church isn’t on the west side, I couldn’t deal with this".  Yet I talk with some of them all of the time.  They are working tonight two blocks down from where I am writing this.  Addicted to drugs, sexual abuse survivors, acquired brain injuries.   They aren’t abstract numbers but real girls with real stories and real families but the church ignores it.  They also ignore the fact that many of their congregants are the ones that are paying these girls to get them off.  While my faith seems as strong as always, I am no longer interested in a religion that is disconnected from the community it is a part of. 

I know there are reasons for that, Lyle Schaller will tell us that the idea of the neighborhood church died with the rise of the car and cheap fuel but at the same time when I hear that people are living in over crowded slum suites because of sky high rents, there are 600 known prostitutes in the city and the vast majority of them are being trafficked, gangs are taking an toll on our kids, and some local elementary schools have had to cut back to 30 minute lunch breaks to stop elementary school girls from working the street on lunch breaks… doesn’t this call people to do something other than giving away some free clothes and serve soup once in a while?  If young grade seven and eight girls losing their virginity to STD carrying john’s doesn’t call us to drastic action, what will?

Over fifteen years ago, columnist Paul Jackson wrote in The Star Phoenix that the church had abandoned it’s role of social services provider – taking care of widows and orphans – to the government during the 1960s and 70s.  As the economies in North America struggled to pay for their new obligations, Jackson felt the church needed to step up again.  It hasn’t happened yet.  In fact most trends show churches walking more and more away from those difficult tasks and instead continuing to move to younger and younger suburban neighborhoods and therefore away from the problems.  It may be great church growth doctrine but what about the neighborhood and that you left behind.  The east side of Saskatoon has twice as many churches per person than then west side does.  Guess which side of the city has the higher concentration of wealth and guess which side has the core neighborhoods in it.  I’ll let you figure it out.

32 Comments

  1. Jaymes says:

    Just wanted to let you know that you are not alone… and not in the “God is with you in this struggle” kind of way.

    Though we have never met, I, too, am FM and a pastor (so evangelical) and am dealing with a lot of this stuff (poverty, being apart of the city-community, numbers vs. community, attractionional vs. missional etc.).

    So know that your wolf-pack has grown by one.

  2. trevor says:

    Thanks for your honesty. We too are seeing churches that are oblivious to the community around them.

  3. Ed Cyzewski says:

    This post puts into words the very thing that keeps me up at night. Thanks for sharing it. I think that it’s easy for churches to fall into the trap of thinking that by simply surviving and existing they are doing what they’re supposed to do. And then I read Isaiah 1, and I realize that is not the case at all…

  4. stew carson says:

    Thanks for your raw honesty Jordan – it is a gift to us.

    You have out to words my experience with institutional churches as well. I hear it all the time – the constant tension with reaching our neighbours vs ‘getting in a small group’ & being used as a metric to see the strength of the church.

    May you be able to press into the Father during this dark night of the soul friend.

  5. Michel says:

    Thanks, Jordon, for writing this, in such an open forum. A lot to digest! You are articulating for many of us what we sometimes have a hard time verbalizing, or expressing openly. I hope this post will be used by some as a spring-board for discussion with others, leading to actual change in behaviour (not just a nice chit-chat about Jordan’s latest musings).

  6. Darryl says:

    Thanks for your honesty. I asked a pastor friend of mine the other day why the business of pastoring seems to be so different from the business of the kingdom. It’s a tension I’ve felt even more acutely this past three months as I’ve been on sabbatical. I think a lot more of us need to be honest about this and at least recognize it as a problem, although I admit I don’t have the solution. At least honesty is a good place to start.

  7. Darryl says:

    Thanks, Jordon, for your honesty. I asked a pastor friend recently why the business of the church seems so far removed from the business of the kingdom. It troubles me, and it has become even more pronounced to me over the past three months as I’ve been on sabbatical. I don’t have the solution, but I’m pretty sure we need to be a lot more open in recognizing it as a problem, as you have. It’s a good place to start.

  8. Bill Kinnon says:

    Important and timely post – at least for me, Jordon.

    Thanks for writing this.

  9. Jordon,
    I so appreciate your sentiments and my heart goes out to you in the midst of your struggles. Like you am sick of the books that rehash what I have read a hundred times before. So many of the same things I struggle with. And not just in church either though I must admit it tends to be worse there. I get sick and tired of people talking about Jesus but not living like Jesus. I also get frustrated with people who talk about the problems of the poor and yet never interact with them. And those that speak about environmental concerns but don’t do much to change the way we live and effect the environment.
    However I have been encouraged lately by a couple of books that call us to radical change – not just in the way we think but in the way we live. Chris Heuertz leader of World Made Flesh together with theologian Christine Pohl wrote a very compelling book called Friendship at the Margins that talks about the need to rethink our understanding of mission. I have also been encouraged by Keith Meyer’s book Whole Life Transformation in which he talks about the need to place spiritual formation at the centre of church life and as a consequence centering everything we do on the kingdom of God.
    Like you I am an NTJ though E rather than I so maybe it is easier for me to be a little more optimistic. So I take heart in the glimpses I catch of where God is at work in the world – in people like you who are out on the streets all the time showing us how God wants us to live rather than talking about it.

  10. David Fitch says:

    I needed to hear/read this today … thanks

  11. Ro says:

    ….yet somehow God can work on the east and west side….. Which leaves the eager (and usually lonely) few trailblazing in their communities offering a foretaste of what is to come while having a blast doing it. No apologies or laments required.

  12. + Alan says:

    That’s layin’ it out there, Jordon. I definitely hear you. If I started writing about all my disillusionments, etc. about church, the Church, and all that, I might overwhelm myself and everybody else in the process. Grace and Peace to you man.

  13. Matt Wiebe says:

    Great thoughts Jordon, thanks for sharing them. My wife and I just moved into an intentional communityin Winnipeg’s roughest neighbourhood. We’re blessed to be in a church that makes the poor a central part of its existence, but even here we face much of the dynamic you’re describing.

    My newest way of describing my thoughts on these matters is that a church with a parking lot isn’t into community. A touch hyperbolic perhaps, but it’s a good conversation starter (or ender).

    Grace for your journey.

  14. i spent today on East Hastings in Vancouver. I was at Insight, the safe injection site watching people shoot up and thinking – the evangelical church has nothing left to say to these people.

  15. Lance Ford says:

    Jordan,
    Thanks Bro! Honest, reflective, sincere, and insightful sharing. I’m with David on this. I needed to hear it. Maybe I’m not going crazy after all…at least I’m not the only one.

  16. Pat Loughery says:

    Jordon, thanks for sharing where you are and where many of us have been also.

    One quick note – I’ve been reading you for the last year, and you are still talking about issues of faith – not postmodernism and church planting like we used to, but the intersection of faith and society in what has been for me a deeper way. Keep writing as you are able, please.

    In the past few years I have fou nd myself in a neighborhood church doing service work as an expression of worship, and it is deeply helpful to me. However i have to drive 35 minutes to get there, which drives me crazy, but i find myself needing to reverse that church migration you speak of by driving from my exurb into the city. It has been healing to me, and challenging to me.

  17. i’ve noticed myself going through the same trend, my google reader went from mostly churchy kinda of things and over the last year I skim only a few of the sites, you are right, it’s all the same bs and no one is really doing anything that should resemble the church (and putting the church label on it).

    we’ve been downtown sarnia for over three years, and i’m still not convinced anything we do on sunday resembles church at all. i’m there 5 other days in a week and for the first time that i’ve been a part of i can see a community of people that work, eat, laugh, tell stories exists completely separate from what happens on a sunday. so i joined that community and all of sudden all the things that we talked about are coming to life. i have no idea why i still hold on to sunday and what happens there because it doesn’t really feel like many others care, besides a few of us leader types.

    this post is important, especially for someone like you to write because people looked to you to fill their resource appetite for more great information on different kinds of church. if you are saying there is no more new great information, then maybe people will start to clue in. the church plants you mentioned, and i would add a few more like al doseger in kingston, bruce zantingh in simcoe, james shelley in london, even garst in kingston….these are the guys that i’ve seen them invest into their communities and help build the already existing communities to be stronger and give them a faith element. neighbourhood churches/communities are going to thrive and need to thrive and are thriving, I just don’t know if we will ever be able to tell those stories appropriately to explain that this is actually a good way to go. try telling trhe story of a church planter who uproots his family, takes a part-time wage, struggles with an identity crisis the entire time, and after ten years has a handful of relationships with addicts and the mentally ill. try to tell that story and blog about it and you’ll lose your readership. no one wants to read about real success.

    thanks for writing this jordon, timely and needed.

  18. Bret Wells says:

    Great post Jordon. I too have grown weary, to the point of despair, of the church failing to live anything that resembles the new kingdom Jesus proclaimed. This isn’t a church-hating comment, I just think that over time, living in the center of power and influence has had a numbing and emasculating effect on (white, western) churches.

    BUT, I believe that the Spirit is stirring something. I think there are many people who are awakening to the subhuman experience and thirsting for something that matters – the reconciliation and healing of God’s creation. I’ve spent a lot of time feeling alone and isolated in these desires, but like survivors in post-apocalyptic movie, we’re starting to find each other among the wreckage. It is time for the image bearers of God to rejoin the revolution. I don’t think that established, located churches have completely ceased to be the church and thus outlived their usefulness to society, but I don’t think we can sit around waiting for established church culture to change either.

    I don’t know you, but in my feeble attempts at perception, I think you have the right idea. It seems futile to try to write, talk or otherwise convince anybody of anything. We just readjust our gaze, enter the dark places and love those we find there. God will do the work of bringing his ministry of reconciliation to others’ attention.

    May the God of all peace strengthen you to live more and more fully into who you were created to be…

  19. Steve says:

    Well said! I am definitely on the same path. Just one question for you. This is the first time I ran into your blog and I immediately recognized you from the documentary Prince of Peace God of War. I know my journey down this path has made me embrace the pacific position quite strongly… any new thoughts from you in this area?

  20. Mike Todd says:

    Well said, Jordon. I was just thinking the only time I go to church now is for a wedding, a funeral, or to preach. Sort of odd. My church “home” is Vancouver’s downtown eastside, and Jesus is alive and doing fine down there.

    Glad to hear you’re not throwing the baby out with the bath water. Keep the faith.

  21. This post simultaneously encouraged & discouraged me. Perhaps it is because we are both in Canadian prairie urban context or perhaps it is because we are both INTJ’s, but I feel like this post could have been pulled right from my brain/heart. I am encouraged because I think there are more of us than I ever thought. I am truly hopeful that many people & communities are beginning to get it.

    But I am also discouraged because they are not getting it fast enough and the price for this slow shift is paid in peoples lives. Forget the fact that I worry about burning out, the brokenness, fear, addiction, poverty, systemic injustice, despair, etc. that my neighbours face every day isn’t going to wait for other Christians to “get it”. This had me up quite late last night.

    Thanks for giving voice to my own painful and angry passion.

  22. Mark Humphries says:

    I appreciate your post. I remember your blog in the wide eyed days of postmodernism and missional church hoo-has. At a distance it seemed you were set to be Canada’s own Pomo super star, but now I see that you have been walking the way of the cross, which is much more difficult. Hearing about your struggle has encouraged me in my own. I felt beat up and left at the side of the road by by God and church for several years, things were very dark and dreary, but I’m starting to understand it was part of the work of the cross in my own life….I hope you can find sustaining meaning and healing on your difficult path

    INTJ’s unite.

  23. ron cole says:

    I left the church about two years ago. After 25+ years I’d heard every twist and that scripture could be distorted into. I’ve taken a lot of flack from people, but I don’t care it was irrelevant to the community that surrounded it. Community for me is working in a dish pit in a soup kitchen, and handing out food and clothing on Victoria’s Pandora Avenue. It is a pit of humanity…mental illness, drugs, alcohol, poverty. But I’ve made friends here, I’ve learned more about faith in this space than I ever did in church. The church continues to lure the suburban middle class to maintain their dynasties. To risk it all and go after the marginalized humanity that Jesus went after is to costly. I really believe it may have to die like that grain of wheat Jesus talked about…maybe this is the only way that something faithful will sprout. Anyways, Jordon, I’ve followed your blog ever since I first met you ,Wendy and Mark when Brian McLaren and Dan Allender were in Victoria…your words, and stories of you living out your faith have always challenged me and inspired me to live my faith out. Thanks!

  24. Charme says:

    I was in church ministry for many years and have in the last month switched careers. I am now a caseworker for the poor and the homeless. Though the mission I work for is an arm of a church, it is not the same as working as a minister for the congregation. The other day I was working for one of my clients who lives in public housing trying to get him a ride to the next city for a doctor’s appointment at the VA Hospital. I knew he lived near a church with which I had some association in days gone by. I called to see if the church might have a volunteer group or someone who would consider giving this man a ride and sitting for a while waiting for him to be finished then bring him home. I got the answering machine two days straight (okay everyone can take time off). The message was: “thank you for calling the ….. church. Our times of worship are 9:30 and at 10:30 Bible classes for all ages. On Wednesday night Bible study begins at 7:00.” I thought, really??? That is what our churches have to offer? That is what we think it is about? That answering machine message was not for people in need it, was for insiders. That message made me really sad as it reminded me of how insular we are in congregations. Lest I ride my high horse to hard, I remember that I am paid to be a caseworker and to spend time with the poor and the homeless, but the fact remains as Jordan points out, we have really lost our vision for what is needed.

  25. For those who would be willing to be honest, more and more followers of Jesus Christ would have to agree with much of what you have said. When I was a pastor and really saw the disconnect between real community and the church is when I kind of connected with you and Scott Williams. To me, the church is a “church organization”, I mean, really, we call this organization “the church”! What an insult to the real body of Christ! As a few of your posts (to your post) have said, the body of Christ doesn’t have a Sunday – Midweek schedule, it is (or should be functioning all the time. Obviously, many of my friends are still active in “church organizations”, and they always want me to be a part (mostly because of my music and speaking talents), but, when I challenge them on what it is to be a real follower of Christ, they admit that what they are part of is really lacking, they are usually still going because of their kids. They have the consumer attitude. Many throw guilt on me for not doing an hour on Sunday, when they do jack during the week…

  26. Dana Ames says:

    Jordon, God bless you. Any honest Christian would struggle with this, and even more so as one actively tries to do something.

    Official Roman Catholic social teaching notwithstanding, serious Christians have always tried to relieve the suffering of the poor; it’s just not good press, because so much was done in anonymity. But someone who wasn’t anonymous was St Basil the Great, Bishop of Caesarea, 300s He not only had a great mind, he had a great heart. He is my hero in this regard.

    From Wikipedia: “His letters show that he actively worked to reform thieves and prostitutes. They also show him encouraging his clergy not to be tempted by wealth or the comparatively easy life of a priest, and that he personally took care in selecting worthy candidates for holy orders. He also had the courage to criticize public officials who failed in their duty of administering justice. At the same time, he preached every morning and evening in his own church to large congregations. In addition to all the above, he built a large complex just outside Caesarea, called the Basiliad, which included a poorhouse, hospice, and hospital, and was regarded at the time as one of the wonders of the world.”

    Here’s an article with more detail: http://www.incommunion.org/2008/12/07/building-the-new-city-st-basil%E2%80%99s-social-vision/

    You’re in my prayers.
    Dana
    (received into EOrthodoxy in June 2009)

  27. well said
    there’s probably more of thinking about this sort of stuff than we are aware of.
    As the title of Anne Jackson’s new book says: we need to give “Permission to Speak Freely”

  28. […] There’s a lot more going on in Jordon’s life; and although I’ve been reading him for many years, we don’t know each other.   There are many paragraphs beyond this one, and if you wish to continue — you might want to pray for him, too — here’s the link. […]

  29. Mike says:

    Dear Jordon –
    I came across your blog by googling on “intj.” I know that is my personality type and I am having an extremely difficult time understanding how to get that to work well for me in my career. And then as I read your posts I discover that you are an evangelical Christian as well! yay! Reading this post made me feel like someone else understands what has been so hard for me to get my head around as regards the church. I live in a part of the US that is considered a “graveyard for church plants.” Why is it that church plants so often feel like something foisted on a community instead of growing organically along relational lines? I think it has a lot to do with what you said in your post here.
    Part of the “indigenous” community – i.e. the locals who grew up here – is the sport of hunting feral pigs (non-native, cross-bred, horribly destructive animals!) with dogs. The hunters let the dogs find the pigs and when they do the hunters leap on top of the pigs (try that for fun! jumping on top of a 100 kilo enraged animal in the middle of the night) and dispatching the pig with a knife.
    My point is NOT to start a discussion on the morality, etc of this. My point is this: if a person truly wanted to engage with this group, and all of the people in the community connected with them, with the goal of church planting in mind, how far “out of the box” would a “typical” evangelical (like myself) have to think before they would be ready to spend the night running through the woods chasing pigs with a knife? And perhaps (shock!) even holding a can of beer and occasionally sipping from it? Horrors! but consider that it might take something like this to understand and bring Jesus into this community. Yet I sincerely doubt I have ever met a “modern” church planter who would consider making something like this a “real” part of their life.
    And my point is the realness of it. Not this as a strategy – or a method – but as a truly heartfelt desire to connect with a community like this – whether it be pig-hunters, or streetwalkers, or gang-bangers….A real willingness to say, “if I never live anywhere else but here or connect with no one else but these folks, that is good.”
    For my part, I believe that coming fairly soon, whether it is years or decades away, is a time when the church (in North America) will be ‘out of favor’ with people and with governments – when our buildings and programs and resources will all be taken away – and we will all either get back to the business of walking with God and reaching out to those close to us (or give up being Christians entirely!) to the end that we are back doing what we should have been doing all along – ministering to our world as a community in relationships. that will be a terrible day – but a good one as well.
    Anyway – rambling along. thank you for being honest about what you see. Thank you for helping me with your words!

  30. […] Jordon Cooper has thoughts about the role of the Christian Church – or lack thereof – in communities in which she is located. His post is not for the faint of heart or faith: […]

  31. Aaron McCarroll Gallegos says:

    I’m with you. Deeply moving post. Thank you Jordon. (Just discovered it thru Rudy)

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