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The Rabbi Lionel Blue Memorial Lecture “Wisdom, Futility, Death and Time: the Voice of Religion in the 21st Century” by the Archbishop of York, Dr John Sentamu

Wednesday 15th March 2017

The Archbishop of York, Dr John Sentamu this evening delivered the Inaugural Lionel Blue Lecture at the Alyth Synagogue at the invitation of the Leo Baeck College. The speech follows in full:  


My Lords, Rabbis, Ladies and gentlemen.

Ten years ago you kindly honoured me with an invitation to speak at the Gala Dinner celebrating the 50th Anniversary of this splendid Institute. 

It is a delight to return today, even though it is the 15th of March – the Ides of March - that notorious day when Julius Caesar was assassinated by his Senators.   I hope that tonight you will listen to me with more kindness and tolerance!

I feel truly privileged to speak at this, the Inaugural Lionel Blue Memorial Lecture whose title is : Wisdom, Futility, Death and Time: the Voice of Religion in the 21st Century”. Thank you for inviting me.

As you all know, Rabbi Lionel Blue was a man of warmth, humanity, faith and wisdom. His wonderful ability to share the truth and humour of his experience of life and God endeared him to audiences across the world. People of many faiths and people of no faith were given a glimpse of how God makes himself real and present in the midst of confusion and pain – but also more particularly in the midst of the humdrum ordinariness of daily life.

Before we try to answer that conundrum, we need to think about the nature of our times in these first years of the 21st Century.  Perhaps I may ask you to think what you would identify as some of the main characteristics of this Millennium?

I have come up with five and they are:

1.      Knowledge as a Commodity;

2.      the widespread use of Social Media;

3.      the Cult of Celebrity;

4.      Globalisation and Nationalism; and finally

5.      Terrorism

1.    Knowledge as a commodity: We are now in what is being termed “The Knowledge Age”. From the beginnings of organised society, people went about acquiring power and wealth according to the means of work and production. In the Agrarian Age wealth was in the land; in the Industrial Age power and influence shifted to manufacturers.

More recently we have lived through the Information Age which mushroomed through the growth of Technology in the second half of the 20th Century. Now much of our capital depends on Knowledge and how we can access, assimilate and use it, through constant learning and development. Accessing the best advice and the best ideas is what brings success and gives you the competitive edge.  Consumerism remains, but the nature of what we consume is changing all the time. And, as the Preacher says in Ecclesiastes 1:16:17 “I have acquired great wisdom… and my mind has had great experience of wisdom and knowledge. And I applied my mind to know wisdom and to know madness and folly. I perceived that this also is but a chasing after the wind.” The True wisdom of God is effective in leading us to wholeness. And this wisdom, which is greater than knowledge - and certainly not the acquisition of information – begins with ‘the fear of the Lord; and all who practice it gain sound understanding, (Sekhel Tov, Psalm 111:10; Proverbs 1: 7; 4:7; 9: 10).

2.      Hand in hand with the growth in technology and communication has come the explosion of Social Media. I wonder how many of you have a smartphone with you tonight.  And how many of you have felt that little buzz, the vibration which means you have a new message on your silenced phone.  Were you tempted to check it?  It wouldn’t be surprising if you were.  According to a new study by Professor Adam Alter in his book ‘Irresistible: Why we can’t stop checking, scrolling, clicking and watching”,[1] most of you will have spent just under 3 hours on your phone by the time you go to bed tonight. And 40 per cent of this audience may even be suffering from some kind of internet-based addiction.  Nearly half of you will think that you can’t live without your phone.  Why? Well, it connects us with the world through the internet news links, with our work colleagues through email and telephone conversations; with friends and family through Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, Instagram and all the other proliferating means of linking up without actually being with people. Its use in election campaigns has also been notable over the past few years.  At the same time is not surprising that its wide reach has also made it vulnerable to use for evil and corrupt purposes. For as we read in Ecclesiastes 7 v 29: “See this alone I found, that God made human beings straightforward, but they have devised many schemes.”

3.     These are also the days of Celebrity Culture - a phenomenon which has been fed by the growth of social media.  Celebs haunt our newspapers and our television screens.  It’s estimated that 11.7 million people read the celebrity gossip pages of the Mail online every day. Social Media offer us the opportunity to ‘Like’ our icons on Facebook, to ‘follow’ them on Twitter; to read their blogs; see what clothes they are wearing, what food they recommend and to buy into the package.  Celebrity is no longer just about acting or singing talent, sporting achievement, or even political power and wealth. It is about buying into a neatly packaged PR display – and this is something which is open to anyone to create online. Their fans, their followers idolize them, collect iconic pictures and artefacts to make them feel close.  Maybe it’s not surprising that a few years ago Russel Brand suggested that in our attitude to celebrities there was an echo of the medieval cult of saints. In the absence of religion is our society trying to create perfect people to admire.  How does the voice of religion speak into this environment?

4.      Globalization is the fourth characteristic of our current era.  The breaking down of international barriers of trade, communication, movement of people and jobs seemed to have many possibilities. Economic, cultural and political globalization - the creating of a single world society – seemed to many to be a vision which could bring benefits to people across the world. The European Union was, of course, part of this vision. And, as a Christian, I suppose I could also say that it was the globalization of that religion which brought me, in Uganda, to the faith I now profess.  However, in this century, the view of globalization has become much more negative. The economic, political and social impact has been seen more as a threat than as a benefit.  We have seen the resulting growth of nationalism and a kind of tribalism which looks nostalgically back to a supposed golden age of cultural distinctiveness, and economic independence, and in many places – both in the West and in the Middle East - a more rigid and traditional definition of religion.  As they do, they inevitably create and discover enemies of others. Rabbi Lionel Blue told Paul Vallely in an interview with the Independent Newspaper in 2004 – “It's easy to make a devil out of anyone who stands in our way or has a different opinion from our own.” [2]

And he told this joke to illustrate the point:

A Nazi said to a Jew: "The Jews are responsible for all Germany's problems."

"Yes," said the Jew. "The Jews and the bicycle riders."

"Why the bicycle riders?" said the Nazi, puzzled.

"Why the Jews?" said the Jew. [3]

 5.      And this brings me to the fifth characteristic of our 21st Century – Terrorism. Terror attacks have been part of the political scenery long before the beginning of the 21st century. From the fallout from the Israel-Palestine conflict in the late 1940s, to the Troubles in Ireland in the second half of the century, and with many other struggles in between, bombs, hijackings, shootings have become part of our experience. But ever since the 11th of September 2001, this pattern of has changed. Hyper Terrorism, a term used last year by the then French Prime Minister (Manuel Valls), describes the horror large-scale dramatic attacks that we have seen in the last 15 years.  This is a phenomenon which supposedly finds its roots in religion.

When we see the devastating results of religion wrongly conceived and practised, it is not surprising that we hear on all sides ‘a plague on all your religious houses’.

Whether it be the so-called Islamic State claiming the lives of innocent people in the name of Allah or the Nationalistic parties attempting to usurp Christian values and heritage, the purveyors of hatred and violence cover their wickedness with a religious cloak, or to use the words of Rabbi Lionel Blue, “the terrorists covering their own inner violence under a fig leaf of faith”. [4]

Such abusers of religion lay easy claim to centuries of heritage with lip service whilst their actions, and in some cases perverse ideologies, twist out of shape the garment of faith woven over centuries by faithful scholars and adherents.

So what should be the voice of religion in the 21stCentury. How can we, as members of two great faiths, offer something of more lasting worth, more healing power, more love and hope than the transient satisfaction of wealth and power, synthetic relationships, fame and glory, or even control through terror and oppression?

The ultimate injunction must be for us to know God more; to know God better.  To make him evident to all who are struggling with life.  How? By loving and serving our neighbour better.

The injunction to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your mind and all your strength”,[5] overlaps the three Abrahamic religions. And ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’ sums up the message contained in the Ten Commandments. These are a crucial line of defence against the destructive nihilism in the world.

Today, many people imagine we are living in an increasingly secular age.  Religion has taken something of a battering from critics many of whom are uncomfortable about its role in the public square, preferring to relegate it to the status of a private eccentricity. Indeed, they would challenge the idea of religion having a voice in this or any other century.

This has happened both at the level of political theory and in practice as Professor Roger Trigg has highlighted in his book ‘Religion in Public Life -  Must faith be privatised?[6]. As Trigg points out, it is profoundly dangerous to cut religion off from making any public truth claims or from being able to share in any overarching reality. He states,

  “Once part of human reasoning is enclosed in one compartment, the same considerations can lead to a distrust of all human reasoning. [7]

Though the 2011 census figures show that the number of people claiming to have no religious affiliation has risen to a quarter of the population, we should not be fearful of claiming our religious heritage. Around 70 percent of the citizens of this country claim a commitment to their faith. At the same time there is considerable anecdotal evidence that many people who currently have no religious affiliation are God-seekers; people who might describe themselves as spiritual but not religious. But Religion is still a core aspect of people’s identity and should not be relegated to the private square.

We need to assert the rationality of belief in God, and the right for religion to play its proper part in public life and policy–making in this country.

And here we see the limits of tolerance, particularly as it is applied in our society today.   Morally, if we don’t have any common vision or values, we can’t operate effectively either as individuals or as a society.  Instead we are in a moral vacuum for we can’t tolerate everything. There is also the philosophical dilemma which faces us today more than ever before – how does the tolerant society deal with the intolerant.  Both the philosopher Karl Popper and John Rawls have argued that you have to take steps to limit the impact of their intolerance.[8]

In spite of the dangers of unfettered online communication, the interconnectedness of our world gives us wonderful opportunities to develop inter-religious relationships and understanding. We rely on each other, in ways we only glimpsed in earlier times, and hence the case for learning how to live as near neighbours is stronger than ever. Besides, the Abrahamic faith knows no separation of the sacred from the secular. All of life is Religious. 

Sadly, we are seeing a worrying rise in those suffering religious persecution: Christians in Egypt, Nigeria, Pakistan, and you will know that recent surveys have revealed that Jewish people across Europe and the UK have reported increasing anti-Semitism.  We need to find a new attitude, a new readiness to approach one another as human beings.

There is a well-known story of a Rabbi who asked his disciples how they knew how they knew that night had ended and morning had broken.

“Could it be,” asked one, “when you can see an animal in the distance and tell whether it’s a sheep or a goat?”

“No”, replied the Rabbi.  “Could it be,” asked a second, “when you can look at a tree in the distance and tell whether it is a fig or an olive tree?”

“No”, the Rabbi replied.  “Well then, what is it?” the disciples pressed.

“It is when you can look on the face of any woman or man and see that she or he is your sister or brother.  If you can’t do this, no matter what time it is, it’s still night.”

So, we must build on what we have in common. In our case, our common link as Abrahamic religions and the many Jewish-Christian relationships which we have developed.

The long and distinguished history of the Council of Christians and Jews bears witness to the growing conversations and deepened understanding which we have developed over the years, thanks to the patient and dedicated efforts not just of our contemporaries, but also those who have gone before us.

Our inter-religious relationships must be based on mutual respect and understanding as people who strongly believe in the One, Holy, and Almighty God. We have an excellent basis from which to develop this.  Looking to the Future and not being enslaved by the Past.

As the former Chief Rabbi, Lord Jonathan Sacks said:

'Britain is the nation - perhaps the only one in the world- where the leaders of all the major faiths know each other as personal friends, where Christians, Jews, Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus, caught up in conflicts elsewhere in the world, meet in warmth and mutual respect.  It is where I, as a rabbi, am encouraged to speak to people of all faiths and none, not just my fellow believers. I do not know of anywhere else where this happens to quite the same degree’[9].

One worrying trend over these first years of the 21st Century is the growth of religious illiteracy both among young people and adults

A recent survey from the Bible Society (based on a poll of 800 children and about 1,100 parents) found that almost three in ten young people were unaware that the story of the birth of Jesus came from the Bible, whilst a similar number of children had never read or heard about the Crucifixion of Jesus or the story of Adam and Eve.

Whilst many of the parents saw the Bible as a source of good values for their children, almost half did not recognise the story of Noah's ark as coming from the Bible.

Many confused Biblical stories with plotlines from Harry Potter or Indiana Jones films. A quarter of adults think Superman is a Biblical hero. Six out of ten did not know the story of the feeding of the 5,000, three quarters did not know the story of Daniel and the Lion's Den; and almost nine out of ten had not heard of King Solomon.

But though this might seem shocking to us, who appreciate all the benefits of organised religion, perhaps it is also a wonderful opportunity to help these children and adults to see the excitement and universal message of God in their lives.  As an essay by Cheryl Bridges Johns[10] points out, our organised religions have for too long been based on a modernist world-view, and words such as ‘holy’, sacred, mysterious are long gone from our vocabulary. We need to recognise that deep inside many young people and adults there is a hunger for enchantment. They are the generation that devoured Harry Potter, Tolkein, the Vampire Diaries.` What we need is not so much to get back to the Bible, but to get back to God in the Bible.

My Rabbi Lionel Blue Memorial Lecture is entitled Wisdom, Futility, Death and Time: the Voice of Religion in the 21st Century”.

Someone may say that the “voice of Religion in the 21st Century is at best sung in a minor key and at worst sung in a major key of violence, terrorism, bigotry, sectarianism, ignorance, islamophobia, anti-Semitism, anti-Christian, homophobia, etc, etc.

But please listen to the Wisdom of Ecclesiastes:

“A good name is better than precious ointment, and the day of death, than the day of birth.  It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting; for this is the end of everyone…

Sorrow is better than laughter; for by sadness of countenance the heart is made glad…Wisdom is as good as an inheritance, an advantage to those who see the sun…” (Ecclesiastes 7:1-3, 11).

Hullo! I can’t smell the coffee!

I wonder what went through your mind when you heard those words from Ecclesiastes, Chapter 7?

Religious mumbo-jumbo? Utterances of misery-guts with a fevered mind that has pushed him completely off the wall?  Musings of an age lacking in enlightenment and detached from reality – completely irrelevant to our modern times?  Well?

Believe it or not, Ecclesiastes is a book for our time. But it is a difficult book, especially as a religious text, because if religion is a search for meaning, then Ecclesiastes seems to have sought but not found.

The Preacher – a Royal Philosopher - finds the world to be nothing but hevel, the word that appears 38 times in the book, and has been variously translated as vanity, meaningless, futile, empty, pointless, nonsense and a waste of time.

The key to understanding the book is that the original Hebrew means none of these things. All the words for soul in Hebrew have to do with breathing.

And hevel means a shallow breath, the way a young child breathes, short and painfully vulnerable. Life, says Ecclesiastes – the life of this world and its passions – is hevel, a mere fleeting breath. And the question he asks is: knowing that I will one day die, how can I live a life that matters, that is not shallow and fleeting, a life that redeems my mortality?

What makes Ecclesiastes so powerful today is that he is the supreme critic of the consumer society. He has it all, homes, gardens, parks, servants, wealth, knowledge, books, and though they give him pleasure they give him no satisfaction.

You can’t find happiness by owning a car that goes from 0 to 100 mph in four seconds and yet in you, you have nowhere in particular you want to go. Even worse, you will travel so fast, you’ll miss the view. You can’t defeat death by owning lifeless things. Life is a matter not of having but of being, of living.

In the end the Preacher, the Royal Philosopher, - the follower of the Wisdom of Proverbs - comes to a curiously moving discovery, that life is not to be found at the top of the hill, at the final rung of the corporate ladder or among the winners of The X Factor. It’s down here, in simple things. In simple things.

Ecclesiastes says, “The sleep of a labourer is sweet, whether they eat little or much, but as for the rich, their abundance permits them no sleep” (5: 12). “Enjoy life with your wife, whom you love, all the days of this fleeting life that God has given you under the sun” (9:9).

Work and love, the two ways in which we transform and are transformed, we give and are given. Nothing we can buy equals the giving of self in work and love.

Thus far even Freud would have agreed, for these are the two things he valued also at the end of a long and creative life.

But Ecclesiastes has one further message for us, buried in the original Hebrew text. The second chapter of Ecclesiastes contains the most sustained, repeated use of the first person singular in the whole of the Bible. “I built for myself, I acquired for myself, I made for myself.”

Nowhere else does a litany of phrases like this appear in the whole of biblical literature. Ecclesiastes fails to find fulfilment because his kingdom is bounded by himself, and he himself, like all of us, is mortal, fleeting, almost infinitely small in the scheme of things.

Here too he is like a man or woman of our time. For ours is surely the most self-regarding culture in many centuries. We make choices as individuals, we have rights as individuals. If it works for you, do it, try it, buy it; and if it no longer works for you, throw it away and go on to the next thing.

Never was a human universe so large and yet so small. Never was a culture so written in the first person singular. In the words of the late George Harrison: “I, me, mine”, or in that anthem of the 20th Century – ‘I did it My Way’!

No wonder we find everything easy except relationships, because relationships mean taking you as seriously as I take myself.

Ecclesiastes eventually found what he was looking for, and it is unexpected. Again we need to go back to the Hebrew text. Oddly for a book that is often read as a text of disillusionment, the word simcha, in one or other form, appears 17 times.

It isn’t easy to give a precise translation of simcha. It doesn’t mean pleasure, satisfaction, gratification, amusement, entertainment or even happiness. It means “joy,” specifically the joy we share with others. When the book of Deuteronomy talks about festivals as days of national rejoicing, it uses the word simcha.

When Jews today talk about a wedding or a Bar Mitzvah, they say, “We’re having a simcha,” meaning a joy we share with friends and the community. You can find happiness in solitude but you can find joy only in the company of others.

In an age in which even phones are smart but all too few people are wise, there is an abiding wisdom in Ecclesiastes that speaks to us, here and now. The pursuit of self will not satisfy even the self. We need the Divine other to open our eyes and hearts to the human other. And there we will discover simcha, the joy that only exists in virtue of being shared.     Work, love, community, the things that connect us to others, are where Ecclesiastes found, in the midst of mortality, signals of transcendence. They are still there, waiting for each of us, endowing life with meaning and lifting us beyond the siren song of self.

This is the True Voice of Religion in the 21st Century: Wisdom, Futility, Death and Time.

Rabbi Lionel Blue’s wisdom was wisdom which wore a very human face, but which reminded us that there was something beyond ourselves.

I can imagine him raising his eyebrows and smiling a little at the title of this lecture: “Wisdom, Futility, Death and Time: the Voice of Religion in the 21st Century”. And yet Rabbi Lionel Blue was a man who had learned, as the Preacher in Ecclesiastes had learned Two and a half thousand years ago, that life may have its pain and disappointments, its absurdities and futility, but yet it had meaning in God.

In his autobiography, ‘A Backdoor to Heaven’, he describes how, following the war, he tried to find what kind of identity there was for Judaism without God. Was it Communism, or Zionism.  He says, “The Jewish world in which I had my roots had been murdered or had died. I accepted this reluctantly, for it made me a displaced person, but there was a reward for honesty – freedom.”[11]

This is a theme he returns to again and again in his writing.  As he rediscovers God, religion and love he learns that honesty requires us to sacrifice our illusions and move out of our limitations. But, to his joy, he also discovers that ‘the truth shall make you free.’[12]

There is nothing new under the sun, says the Preacher in Ecclesiastes, and I’m sure Rabbi Lionel Blue would agree. His numerous and memorable “Thought for the Day” on BBC Radio 4 echoed many of the issues we read about in Ecclesiastes all those centuries ago.

In the centuries between the writing of Ecclesiastes and today, generation after generation has railed against the futility and pointlessness of life.  In the last century alone – possibly in the lifetime of many of us here – philosophers and writers like Camus, Sartre, Kirkegaard, laid bare the absurdity of life; Art movements like Dadaism challenged the status quo and expressed their discontent with violence, war, and nationalism.

Then there are protest singers like Pete Seeger in the early 60s who set Ecclesiastes 3 to music in ‘Turn, Turn, Turn’ and older ones among us may remember the Pink Floyd track ‘Time’ in the early 70s, singing that “hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way”. Ten years later Queen’s song ‘There must be more to life than this’ summed up the response of many to the greed and consumerism of the 1980s.

The Sociologists talk of ‘anomie’ and the Germans have a wonderful word: ‘Weltschmertz’.  The experience described by Qoholeth in Ecclesiastes is no respecter of time or place.

But what is the answer to the desperate cry of people from age to age as, like Ecclesiastes, they observe the restlessness and frustration of human yearning; the futile longing for fame and wealth; the pain of seeing how the unrighteous prosper and the righteous suffer.The hypocrisy of those in power. How are we to comfort those who are powerless  to affect their destiny, who suffer under the brutality and oppression of others.

Work and love, the two ways in which we transform and are transformed, we give and are given. Nothing we can buy equals the giving of self in work and love.

These are also things Rabbi Lionel Blue cherished as he discovered the truth about himself and about God in his life.  He said that one of his favourite songs is:

‘One more step along the world I go’,

one more step along the world I go;
from the old things to the new
keep me travelling along with you:

And it's from the old I travel to the new;
keep me travelling along with you.

And I can imagine him singing these words as he encountered each new challenge:

Give me courage when the world is rough,
keep me loving though the world is tough;
leap and sing in all I do,
keep me travelling along with you[14]

Yes, the Preacher in Ecclesiastes has a voice which reaches into our own experience in the 21st Century, but what should be the voice of religion today as we look at the landscape of these changing times. What words can we speak into the confusion and uncertainty of our brothers and sisters?

What we need is not so much to get back to the Bible, but to get back to God in the Bible.

This is the message that we see in Ecclesiastes – that true religion, points to the enduring and undeviating love of God in all the changing scenes of life.

Yes, this is what the voice of religion needs to articulate in the 21st Century – the truth that God’s love can transform even the least promising of subjects. ‘Send your bread out upon the waters’ says Ecclesiastes, ‘for after many days you will get it back’.  Yes – it’s a risk, but as Rabbi Lionel Blue said, “Religion, real religion begins when it can risk the truth”[15]– and when it does, it blows away the silliness and the self-deception and false attitudes.

May we all face the joys and the challenges of the 21st with that truth in our hearts and on our lips.

Seeking Wisdom, challenging Futility, not fearing Death and transforming the Present by faith in God whose time is everlasting.

Rabbi Lionel Blue would approve a Memorial Lecture ending with his favourite children’s song – “One More Step Along the World I Go.

Please let us stand and sing.

One more step along the world I go,
one more step along the world I go;
from the old things to the new
keep me travelling along with you:
And it's from the old I travel to the new;
keep me travelling along with you.

Round the corner of the world I turn,
more and more about the world I learn;
all the new things that I see
you'll be looking at along with me: Refrain

As I travel through the bad and good,
keep me travelling the way I should;
where I see no way to go
you'll be telling me the way, I know: Refrain

Give me courage when the world is rough,
keep me loving though the world is tough;
leap and sing in all I do,
keep me travelling along with you: Refrain

You are older than the world can be,
you are younger than the life in me;
ever old and ever new,
keep me travelling along with you: Refrain

[1] Irresistible: Why we can’t stop Checking, Scrolling, Clicking and Watching by Adam Alter. (Bodley Head 2017)

[2] Interview with Paul Vallely; The Independent 4 March 2004

[3] Ibid.

[4] The Godseeker’s Guide by Lionel Blue p.117.  Continuum, (30 October 2010)

[5] Luke 10:27

[6] Roget Trigg, Religion in Public Life – Must Faith be Privatised? , Oxford University Press, 2007.P 191.

[7]Ibid, p.207.

[8]  Popper, Karl,The Open Society and Its Enemies, volume 1, The Spell of Plato, 1945 (Routledge, United Kingdom); ISBN 0-415-29063-5 978-0-691-15813-6 (1 volume 2013 Princeton ed.); Rawls, John, (1971). "A Theory of Justice": 220

[9]Sacks.J, 'The House We Build Together'. Continuum, 2007, pp168-169

[10]“A Disenchanted Text: Where Evangelicals went wrong with the Bible”, Cheryl Bridges Johns (Professor of Discipleship and Christian Formation at the Pentecostal Theological Seminary. From ‘A New Evangelical Manifesto, Chalice Press 2012

[11] A Backdoor to Heaven; An Autobiography  by Lionel Blue, p.36 (Fount Paperbacks 1985)

[12] ibid. pp 49-50 (quoting from John 8:32)

[13] Words: Sydney Carter Music: SOUTHCOTE Sydney Carter Words © 1971 by Stainer & Bell Ltd. (admin. by Hope Publishing Co., Carol Stream, IL 60188). Ancient & Modern 757

[14] Ibid. verse 4.

[15] A Backdoor to Heaven; An Autobiography  by Lionel Blue, p.67 (Fount Paperbacks 1985)


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