Paul Tripp delivered a message during PasCon2018 at Bethlehem College titled “Danger of Familiarity.” Directly addressing the pastors in the room, he directed their attention toward a single danger of life in ministry—familiarity with the gospel.
The overwhelming privilege of spending a life dedicated to understanding, declaring, and ministering the gospel can have the adverse effect of numbing pastors to the splendor of God and the gospel. Knowledge and experiences that once led to worship subtly fade and actually become irritants that produce selfishness and self-worship. The danger is that, in the midst of serving God in a life of ministry, pastors often lose their awe of God—the principal shaper and motivator of pastoral ministry.
The following is an uncorrected transcript generated by a transcription service. Before quoting in print, please check the corresponding audio for accuracy.
Paul Tripp: Well, I’m going to speak to this morning a clear and present danger for anyone in ministry. How many pastors in the room? I want to address pastors directly, and what I have to say will have application to anybody in ministry. I want to talk about one of the inescapable dangers of ministry calling. I think the best way to begin that is a little of my own story. Some of you have heard my story, but I think it’s worth repeating because it really does frame the importance and significance of what I would like you to consider.
I was a very angry man. I didn’t know I was an angry man. My dear wife, Luella, knew that I was angry, and my children knew I was angry, but I didn’t know I was angry. Man, if you would have described me in that way, that would have hurt my feelings because I had no concept that that’s who I was. I was in the midst of destroying my life and my ministry, and I did not know it. Luella would come to me, she did it very graciously and patiently and faithfully, and she would bring that anger in front of me, and I would not listen, and I would not hear. I’m a bit of a domestic man. I don’t mind doing things around the house. I’ve done most of the cooking in the family, and I would wrap my robes of righteousness around me, which I do not actually have, and tell her what a wonderful husband she had.
I told her I thought her problem was discontent, and I would pray for her. That helped her. That’s a lie. There was this moment where I got in a roll, and this is embarrassing to confess, but I will, I said these deeply humble words to my wife: “95% of the women in our church would love to be married to a man like me.” How’s that for humility. Luella very quickly informed me she was in the 5%. It was a moral disaster. I happened to be on a weekend much like these days that you’re now participating in with my brother Ted. On the way home, Ted said to me, “Paul, we probably ought to make what we’ve heard practical to our own lives. Why don’t you start?”
What happened next I will never ever forget, I will celebrate 10 million years into eternity. Ted didn’t make a statement, he began to ask me questions. And as he asked me questions, it was like God was reaping down curtains, and I was seeing myself with accuracy for the first time in a long time. I was hearing myself with accuracy, and I was broken and grieved. I couldn’t believe. It was hard for me to believe that that man that I was now seeing, that man that I was now hearing was me. But it was. Can I say this? Well, I don’t know why I’m asking permission, I’m about to. Don’t resist the convicting ministry of the Holy Spirit. Don’t run from the convicting ministry of the Holy Spirit. Run, run, run toward the convicting ministry of the Holy Spirit. You are not being condemned, you are being rescued.
Man, if conviction comes, fire your inner lawyer. I can say that because I have an inner law firm. Fire inner lawyer and open your heart, you’re being rescued. Praise God for His faithfulness. Praise God for His patience. Praise God for the zeal of His grace. Praise God that He wants for us what we don’t have the sense to want for ourselves. Praise God that He doesn’t give up on self-righteous pastors. Don’t look at me, man, like you don’t know what I’m talking about. Praise God. Praise God. Praise God. I went home that evening. For the first time, I couldn’t wait to talk to Luella. I couldn’t wait to engage her in this conversation. Guys, listen to me. If you are more concerned and engaged and irritated by the sin of people in your family or who are around you than you are your own, you’re a person in moral danger.
For once, I didn’t want to defend myself. For once, I wanted to hear, “Praise God for the softening of a hard heart.” Luella could tell that I was serious. I have a lively sense of humor. I often enter the house humorously, and I came in very serious that night. I asked her if we could talk. We sat down. I said to her, “For years, you’ve been trying to talk to me about my anger, and I was unwilling to listen, unwilling to hear. I would defend myself. I could honestly say I long to hear you, I want to hear what you have to say me.” I won’t forget what happened next. Luella began to cry. She told me that she loved me, which I thought was an act of amazing grace given what I’d put her through. And then she talked for two hours.
In that two hours, God began a process of the radical undoing and the redoing of the heart of this man. Praise God for a gospel of fresh starts and new beginnings. Praise God. Now, the operative word in what I just said, I don’t know if you caught it, was the word process. I wasn’t zapped by lightning. I didn’t immediately become an unangry man. But I was now living with an open heart and willing heart and open eyes and open ears, and I began to see that anger everywhere I looked. Those months were painful. There are times where the pain was so great I thought I couldn’t breath. But I want you to hear this, it was the pain of grace. God was making that anger like vomit in my mouth so I would never go there again.
I’ll never forget an afternoon coming down from upstairs of our house and seeing Luella’s profile as she was sitting in the living room. When I saw her, I couldn’t remember when I felt that old, ugly anger. I want to be candid with you, I don’t mean that I had reached a level in my sanctification where a moment of irritation was impossible for me. But that life dominating anger was broken, gone. Praise God. And I put my hands on her shoulders from behind like this, and she looked up at me like this, and I looked down, I said, “I’m not angry at you anymore.” We laughed and cried at the same time at what God had done.
Now, as I’ve gone around the world telling my story, I wish I could say that I was unique. But as I’ve told my story, that’s given pastors the courage to tell their stories to me. I’ve heard story after story after story of pastors who lost their way, where this man who is skilled in preaching a message of grace in his private domain is a man of ungrace. Pastors, I would like to do something, and everybody in the room do this right now. If your husband or wife could describe you in your home most accurately with five character qualities without fear of your reprisal, what would they write down? If they could describe your attitudes, your actions, your words, your reactions with five character qualities, what would they write down? If your children could describe you as a dad or as a mom, the way that you interact with them, the way that you deal with problems with them with five character qualities, what would they write down? How great is the gap between your public ministry persona and the details of your private life?
I want to just take our time this morning to consider one danger of a regular ministry life, one danger that can corrupt and derail a ministry life, one thing that can infect and redirect a ministry life. I want you to consider with me this morning the danger of familiarity, the danger of familiarity. Listen, if you’ve become familiar with the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ, if every day you get to study it and unpack it and meditate on it, if every day you get to think about how to proclaim it, if you have been chosen to live up close to the person and the work of the Lord Jesus Christ, if it’s your core message, if it’s the thing that you’ve been called to think about again and again and again, if you’re standing close to the mercy seat, you have been gloriously blessed by the redeemer. Who could ever say that you deserve that?
Yet, you have to understand that that familiarity that is once a huge and glorious blessing, where all of us could say, “How is it that I’ve been chosen to carry this message? How is it I’ve been chosen to spend my life doing this?” I say to Luella all the time, “I get to this for a living. How crazy is that?” But you must know that that thing that is a huge blessing is also a grave danger, because familiarity does something to us. The more you’re familiar with something, the more that you examine something, the more that it’s in your life, the less it tends to grip you, the less it tends to amaze, the less it tends to stop you, the less it tends to make you breathless and aware and thankful. The longer you hold something, the more temptation it is to take that thing for granted.
Let’s say you move to a new city, and to get from your house to your office, you have to drive this gorgeously wooded road. Huge, big, old trees, century-old trees. The first time you drive down that road, it is worship for you. You’re thinking of how gorgeous these trees are, and you’re thinking of what was culture like when this tree was planted. And you think how these branches actually lift themselves and point to their creator. They’re like arms giving glory to God. You’re thinking to ourself how thankful you are that you get to drive every day on this road and be reminded of the splendor of the one who created this physical splendor.
Six weeks later, you’re on the same road. You’re pounding on your dash saying, “This traffic drives me crazy,” and you haven’t seen a tree in three weeks. That’s what familiarity does to you. The trees are still there, that physical splendor is still there. The branches of the tree are still like arms pointing to the glory of God. The glory hasn’t changed, you have. Some subtle thing inside of you has changed. And what drew out of you worship, what drew out of you humility, what drew out of you a sense of place and a thankfulness that in this place you are once again introduced to the glory of the God that is the location of your life, your life is lived in this sphere of His glory, that sense of place is important, is gone.
And what grips your heart is the fact that the person in front of you has the audacity to be in your way. It’s a shockingly self-oriented, selfish moment. How dare they? What was once worship has now descended to a delusional desire that the roads you drive on would be paid for by other citizens who chose not to use them. You may even have curses come out of your mouth, things that you would be embarrassed to have other people hear. Worship has now been reduced to irritation, impatience, selfishness, maybe even cursing someone made in the image of God. Something’s happened, and it’s not good.
You see, what the danger of familiarity is, the danger of this is that you would lose your awe of God. I want you to turn in your Bibles to Psalm 145. Before we get there, I want you just to think with me that in God’s plan, awe of God is meant to be the principal motivation of every human being. Awe of God was intended to be the base reason that every human being does whatever they do. Human beings are hard-wired for awe because awe is meant to direct us, to shape everything we do. That awe of God is meant to be the fundamental motivation for everything a human being thinks, desires, says, and does. Now, you know human beings are hard-wired for awe, that’s why we like the triple overtime NBA game. We like it because it’s awesome. That’s we like the seven layer chocolate mousse cake, because it’s awesome. That’s why we like that dramatic movie because it’s awesome.
Animals aren’t wired that way. The penguins don’t score one another as they dive off the ice. “It’s a 9.5. Lacked a little bit of technical merit.” The rhino doesn’t say to the zebra, “Dude, where’d you get that coat? That coat is just fly. It’s awesome.” It doesn’t happen. But human beings are hard-wired for awe. And so that means every human being, his life is shaped by awe of something. Write it down. Every human being’s life is shaped by awe of something. People don’t understand that they’re awe-driven. But they are. You should be able to say to me, “Paul, why do you treat your wife the way you do?” I would say, “Because of my awe of God.” “Why do you say the things you do?” “Because of my awe of God.” “Why do you read the things you read?” “Because of my awe of God.” “Why do you spend your leisure time they way you do?” “Because of my awe of God.” “Why do you parent your kids they way you do?” “Because of my awe of God.” “Why do what you do with your finance?” “Because of my awe of God.” “Why do you engage culturally the way you do?” “Because of my awe of God.” Why do you think politically you do?” “Because of my awe of God.” Everything is meant to be shaped by the awe of God.
But there’s something more. The awe of God is meant to be a principle shaper and motivator of your pastoral ministry. You could argue that the purpose of preaching and teaching is to give people back their awe of God once again. Because everybody that comes into the room on a Sunday morning, or if you’re a really cool church, Saturday night, everybody who comes into the room is in the midst of a massive battle of awe, war of awe. And there’s only two sides to that conflict. I either live in awe of the creator, I don’t mean theological there, I mean practical, functional, street level, or I’m living in awe of some aspect of the creation. Don’t think that you’re safe because awe of God is an aspect of your formal theology. Because where the war takes place is in the streets, in the hallways and kitchens and bedroom and family rooms and vans of every day life. I’m deeply persuaded of this. Your enemy will give you your formal theology if he can capture your heart.
He’ll give you your belief system. Where your heart actually exist, he’s got your heart. Don’t think that massive awe idolatry can’t live right next to sound theology. It can. It did in the heart of this man. I never in those angry moments, although I was living a massively contradictory life, I never abandoned my formal theology, not one aspect of it.
You see, everyone in the room is in this war. My job is to present a God of such stunning glory that there’s nothing that this person could ever hold onto that would ever come close to competing with the massive, glorious, supremacy of this one. That’s my job. Listen to how Psalm 145 captures this, “I will extol you my God and king, and bless your name for ever and ever. Every day, I will bless you and praise your name for ever and ever. Great is the Lord and greatly should be praised, and His greatness is unsearchable.” I love these words. Now, ministry calling, one generation shall do what? “One generation shall command your works to another and shall declare your mighty acts on the glorious splendor of your majesty, and on your wondrous works I will meditate. They shall speak of the might of your awesome deeds, and I will declare your greatness. They shall pour forth the fame of your abundant goodness and shall sing aloud of your righteousness.”
Listen, my job is to give people back the awe of God again. Now here is the ticket; it’s nearly impossible in ministry to give away that which you do not have yourself. It’s very hard for a pastor who’s no longer inspired by the awe of God to inspire awe of God. A seminary professor used to have a regular lecture with his students where he would warn them of standing up next to the mercy seat by being weary of God. In his choice of language, he actually mean being bored with God. Doesn’t grip me in the way that it once did. What happens? What happens to a person in ministry when awe of God no longer captures you? I would ask you in this moment that we have to open your hearts right now. I would ask you not to think about the person next you, that tendency to say, “I’m so glad so-and-so is in this room and hearing this.”
I would ask you to think about yourself. Could there be somewhere in your private life, in your family life, in the way that you respond to fellow leaders, in the way you approach the Word of God, in the lack of a devotional life, the way you look at your own sin, could it be that there’s evidence that you’ve lost your awe of God? That what once gripped you, what brought you to tears, what silenced you, what threw you to your knees, what produced huge, humbling surrender and gratitude doesn’t in that way? Let me say this first, there’s a direct relationship between awe of God and awareness of sin. There’s a direct relationship between awe of God and a personal awareness of sin. Turn to Isaiah 6 with me, would you?
“In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting upon the throne, high and lifted up. And the train of His robe filled the temple. Above Him stood the seraphim, each had six wings: and with two He covered His face, and with two He covered His feet, and with two He flew.” I am so thankful that we get to eavesdrop on this moment. “And one called to another and said, ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of host. The whole earth is filled with His glory.’ The foundations of the threshold shook at the voice of him who called out, and the house was filled with smoke, and I said, ‘Woe is me for am lost, for I’m a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of people of unclear of lips, for my eyes have seen the king, the Lord of host.” Get the scene. The holy glory of God is revealed to the prophet. It’s part of his calling. And this holiness is so magnificent you can’t say, “Holy is the Lord.” That’s not enough. You can’t say, “Holy, holy is the Lord.” That’s not enough. You have to say, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of host.”
It’s meant to just remind you of the expansive holiness of the Lord that is holy in every way. Holiness is not a characteristic, it’s the summary of characteristics, everything that God. He’s holy and faithfulness. He’s holy and love. He’s holy and sovereignty. He’s holy and grace. He’s holy and power. He’s holy. He’s holy. He’s holy. He’s holy. He’s holy. And we’re not. And then it can’t stop there, it’s not enough. You can feel the expansiveness of His filling this moment. The whole earth is filled with His glory. The world’s filled with the holiness of the glory of the Lord. That’s the way you ought to think about life. When you look out the window, you ought to be saying to yourself, “It’s filled with His glory,” not, “Crap, it’s snowing.” Come on, get a grip. Every different snowflake is majestic because it points to the glory of God. He can make snow boring but He doesn’t.
But you and I can look at creation and not be moved at all. It’s just a lawn that needs to be mowed. Can I just say this? We Americans are just lawn freaked out. I mean, many of our lawns, you have lawns here in this room that are just chemical dumps. I just say, “Let it grow long and bale it.” At least you could feed one of God’s creatures with it. It’s just poor stewardship. Now, now, whenever I preach from this passage, I feel so weak and unable. I can’t capture for you with my failing words the glory of this moment. But what you need to pay attention to is the reaction of Isaiah. He didn’t say, “Wow, that’s cool. I can’t wait to get home and tell them what I saw.”
No. It takes perfect holiness to expose unholiness. Because you see, if you’re making horizontal comparisons, you’ll always be able to find somebody who appears less holy than you. If you want an accurate view of who you are, you look in the mirror of the perfect holiness of this God of glory. Isaiah’s immediate response is, “I’m cooked. I’m done.” It’s he’s filled with a sense of the ugliness of his own sin. What he points to is exactly what James points to. No one can tame the tongue. If you want a picture of your struggle with sin and that your only hope can be found in God’s grace, you don’t need to go any further than your own tongue. That’s where he goes. “I’m a man of unclean lips. I dwell amongst people of unclean lips.” Look at what comes out of us.
Now, you see, this connection is important, because disobedience is first an awe problem before it becomes a law problem. Disobedience is first an awe problem before it becomes a law problem. You know that by reading the Ten Commandments, right? The first commands are about what? You can talk, it’s legal. They’re about worship. They’re about God, having God in His rightful awesome place. That’s what they’re about. You see, it’s all of God that makes me willing to surrender myself to the rest of His commands. If you don’t start with the first commands, you have no possibility of keeping the rest of the commands. Now, you know this is true, instinctively, if you think about it. Listen, if you’re a pastor, or any Christian, and right now you’re mad and you’re saying nasty, irritated, impatient, fairly cruel things to your wife, you’re with me? You’re not doing that because you’re ignorant of the fact that that’s wrong. You’re doing that because at the moment you don’t give a rip what’s wrong. Because there’s something that you want, something that she’s in the way of, something that’s captured your heart that’s now more important to you than the glory of the one who is presently giving you breath and mentally to say the words that you’re saying.
You don’t care. That’s not just a law problem, that’s an awe problem. And you rise to the throne of God, you write your own set of rules, and you do what you want to do to get what you want to get. You have dethroned this awesome God and enthroned yourself in this moment. See, there are pastors in this room, if you were honest, you are more engaged by and moved by the sin, weakness, and failure of people around you than you are your own. And that’s an awe problem. It’s awe that makes you willing to surrender to the surprising variegations of God’s sovereign plan for you without anger, without accusation, without bitterness. God will interrupt your life. You will deal with the unexpected, the unwanted, the unplanned in your life simply because God is God and you’re not. It’s awe of God that’s filled my heart a sense of incalculable, expanse of His wisdom, the unsearchable depth of His love, the ever-present bounty of His grace that makes me willing to surrender to whatever God would bring into my life, to see that God never gives me second best, He always gives me what is best.
It keeps me from bringing God into the court of my judgment and complaining against Him. Listen, I’m tired of meeting angry pastors. I’m tired of meeting bitter pastors. I’m tired of pastors who’re asking, “Where is the grace of God?” and they’re getting it. But it’s not the grace of relief. It’s not the grace of comfort. It’s not the grace of ease. It’s a better grace. It’s the grace of divine interruption. It’s the grace of a plan that’s better than yours. It’s a grace of a God who wants better for you than you would want for yourself.
Some of you know, I’ve been through three brutal years of physical suffering. First two of those years I had six surgeries, a surgery every four months. Unspeakable pain, rendered weaker than I’ve ever been in my life. I laid in my hospital bed afraid, with tears streaming down my eyes, a combination of physical pain and fear, and said to my Lord, “I will not argue against you. I will not judge your goodness. I will run to you. And I have no ability to do what I just prayed, so would you please meet me by your grace?” Some of you know, a year or so ago, I published a parenting book which is called Parenting. I’m a simple man. Parenting, it just seemed right. That’s what it’s about. I was thinking of Parental Stuff but that seemed too complicated.
This book was written during utter physical travail. When I received the first copy of the book, I took it up to show to my dear wife, Luella, who has walked through me with such faith during this period of time, and I cried. I said words that will seem to you to be hyperbole, but they are not. I said, “I don’t remember writing this book.” It was written in that level of travail. And for the first time, in all the books that I’ve written, I sat down over the next week, and I read my book from cover to cover.
Now, people have said to me of the things that I’ve written, in unique ways, that book drips with God’s grace. Guess why. Because I was holding on to that grace with both hands. That moment of weakness over those two years was not an interruption, it was a plan. That was not God turning His back on me, that was not God doing an evil thing, that was God doing for this man a good thing. That was God giving me a soft, tender heart, God removing the pride of accomplishment, the pride of strength, and the pride of knowledge, because God loves His people and was positioning me to speak hard truths with grace to struggling people.
Do you [inaudible] against God’s plan, when the finances aren’t there? When a ministry colleague seems out after you? When some elder has some audacity to blow away idea you’ve lived with for six years? You’re just filled with the glory of your own wisdom at that moment, he’s not. When your children don’t walk the path the way you want them to? When physical sickness comes? When passages of your marriage are hard? Does awe prevent you from bringing God into the court of your judgment, to question His goodness and His faithful and His love? How much do you struggle with the unwanted, the unplanned, the unexpected, the hard? Awe of God also produces a particular patience and humility, a tenderness in pastoral ministry. Because awe of God will remind you that there’s no thing that you could ever preach, teach, or counsel anyone else that you don’t desperately need yourself, that you are much more like your people than unlike them.
I think beautiful gospel preaching is not born in seminary classrooms. It’s born in the pain of personal brokenness and the rescue of grace. That’s where it’s born. And if you’re not there, there’s a way in which gospel preaching becomes accusatory. It becomes burdensome. It becomes tiresome. One final thing I can’t not talk about, awe of God will prevent you from slipping into ministry mediocrity. I am convinced it’s your heart being filled with God’s excellence that produces the life of ministry excellence. And one of the places where I think this mediocrity lives is in preaching. I’m going to say this because I think it needs to be heard, but maybe because I also get to leave. I’m tired of hearing boring homolytical lectures by preachers who have long since lost their awe of God. I’m not surprised that people fall asleep, I’m surprised that more don’t.
Something wrong with that. There’s something amiss with that. On weekends when I’m doing a conference at a church, we always try to schedule on Saturday afternoon a leadership event. I can’t tell you how many times pastors say, “I’m going to have to slip out early, I have to start working on my sermon.” I want to very lovingly say, “Don’t bother.” Listen, there’s no way that in that period of time I can get where I need to get in my own heart and then to get where I need to get with you with the time left. That’s not a schedule problem. Don’t blame that on your schedule. That’s an awe problem. You’re called to be a guardian of the dignity and significance of the gospel pulpit. No one will do that for you. You must do that.
I think of preaching as like preparing a feast meal. I love to cook and I always do the Thanksgiving meal. I like to say I do that because I have a servant’s heart, it’s just because I like to cook. There’s two parts to this. First is the collection of fine ingredients. Because if you don’t have fine ingredients, you’re not going to get a fine meal. And it’s one of those moments where you don’t just go to your one grocery store, you go to several different grocery stores that have the best of those products because you know you got to start with good raw material. That’s the theological exegetical part of preaching. You have to draw out of that passage all those important exegetical theological ingredients. But that’s not yet a sermon. Because on Thursday, Thanksgiving Thursday, I don’t put ingredients on the table. A tablespoon of floor and a tablespoon of butter and a teaspoon of baking powder and a little bit of cornmeal would gag you. But cornbread is awesome.
And so, those theological ingredients have to be formed into an attractive, consumable meal that can by the spirit be eaten by your people and actually come out by the spirit as their own strength. That takes time. The meal preparation aspect of preaching is very, very important. You don’t have time to do that if you push that to Friday. For me, I’m not suggesting this for you, this is my idiosyncratic way of doing it, I’m always prepared in [inaudible] way ahead of time, so the week of I’m preaching that sermon over and over again. I usually preach to myself the full sermon out loud 15 to 30 times. What’s happening is turn of a phrase is coming, connections are coming, illustrations are coming. That’s not just repetition, it’s now becoming a meal, so I’m ready with fluidity and passion to deliver this meal to people.
I’m not throwing ingredients at them, because that requires everybody in the congregation to be a chef. If everybody was a congregation of chef, you wouldn’t need to cook these gospel meals for them. It just makes sense. And if you are content with slapping together some theological ingredients and reading those to people passionatelessy, there’s something that’s happened in your heart not just your schedule. Besides the fact that I think healthy preparation for preaching demands devotional moments for you, with your head down in your Bible, and saying, “God, I wish I could say that I live gripped by these truths, but I don’t. I wish I could say I was a good example of this by now. Oh, won’t you rescue me as you’ve called me to be a tool of rescue in the lives of others.” Preparation requires confession and admission.
Could there be evidence that familiarity has caused you to lose your awe of God? Well, I have good news for you. If that’s the case, you don’t have to wallow in fear or shame. You don’t have to play act. I don’t know if you’ve thought about this or not, but the most significant aspect of the suffering of Jesus on the cross was not physical, it was relational. It was that moment where the Father turned his back on His Son and Jesus cries out, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani? My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” Jesus took every ounce of our rejection so that we in our sin, weakness, and failure would never again see the back of God’s head. If you say, “Yes, Paul’s there evidence that I’ve lost my awe of God,” don’t run from God, run to Him. There’s grace and mercy in your time of need. You will not be rejected, because every piece of your rejection has been borne by your savior. Let’s pray.
Thank you, Lord, that you poured down your awesome glory on us. We would confess to you that familiarity does do bad things to us. We would confess that today we would run to you for your help. “Oh won’t you, once again, rescue us,” we would pray. In the sweet and strong name of Jesus, we pray. Amen. God bless.
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