Dawn on Our Darkness: A Radiant and Merciful Light

But if we hope for what we do not see, we eagerly wait for it with perseverance. Likewise the Spirit also helps in our weaknesses. For we do not know what we should pray for as we ought, but the Spirit Himself makes intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered.
Romans 8:25-27

And so many of us.
How can we expect Him
to keep track of which voice
goes with what request.
Words work their way skyward.
Oh Lord, followed by petition —
for a cure, the safe landing.
For what is lost, missing —
a spouse, a job, the final game.
Complaint cloaked as need —
the faster car, porcelain teeth.
That so many entreaties
go unanswered
may say less about our lamentable
inability to be heard
than our inherent flawed condition.

Why else, at birth, the first sound
we make, that full-throttled cry?
Of want, want, want.
Of never enough. Desire
as embedded in us as the ancestral tug
in my unconscienced dog who takes
to the woods, nose to the ground, pulled far
from domesticated hearth, bowl of kibble.
Left behind, I go about my superior business,
my daily ritual I could call prayer.

But look, this morning, in my kitchen,
I’m not asking for more of anything.
My husband slices bread,
hums a tune from our past.
Eggs spatter in a skillet.
Wands of lilac I stuck in a glass
by the open window wobble
in a radiant and — dare I say it?—
merciful light.

~Deborah Cummins “Just One God” from Counting the Waves

We who are nothingness can never be filled:
Never by orchards on the blowing sea,
Nor the rich foam of wheat all summer sunned.

Our hollow is deeper far than treasure can fill:
Helmets of gold swim ringing in the wells
Of our desire as thimbles in the sea.

Come like an ocean thundering to the moon,
Drowning the sunken reef, mounting the shore.
Come, infinite answer to our infinite want.
~John Frederick Nims from “Prayer”

Each morning’s sunrise, each evening’s sunset
is answer to our unuttered prayers.
From subtle simmer to blazing boil, settling back to gray.

And so our prayers of praise, thanksgiving, petition
rise and fall, simmer and boil and are sometimes breathed in silence.

Yet our Father answers with radiance and mercy.

So we keep on trudging,
with each step our prayers are answered:
we will take the next step,
and the next, and the next.

Never alone. Always heard. Forever loved.

This year’s Advent theme “Dawn on our Darkness” is taken from this 19th century Christmas hymn.

Brightest and best of the sons of the morning,
dawn on our darkness and lend us your aid.
Star of the east, the horizon adorning,
guide where our infant Redeemer is laid.
~Reginald Heber -from “Brightest and Best”

O radiant Light, O Sun divine;
Of God the Father’s deathless face,
O image of the Light sublime that fills the heav’nly dwelling place.
O Son of God, the source of life,
Praise is your due by night and day.
Our happy lips must raise the strain
of your esteemed and splendid name.

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Dawn on our Darkness: How is it Possible?

The yellow tulip in the room’s warmth opens.

Can I say it, and not seem to taunt

all who live in torment? Believe it, yet

remain aware of the world’s anguish?

But it’s so: a caravan arrives constantly

out of desert dust, laden

with gift beyond gift, beyond reason.

Item: a yellow tulip
opens; at its center
a star of greenish indigo,
a subtle wash of ink
at the base of each of
six large petals.
The black stamens
are dotted with white.
At the core, the ovary,
applegreen fullness
tapering to proffer—sheltered
in the wide cup of primary
yellow—its triune stigma, clove
of green and gold.

That’s one, at nightfall of a day which brought

a dozen treasures, exotic surprises, landscapes,

music, words, acts of friendship, all of them wrapped

in mysterious silk, each unique.

How is it possible?

The yellow tulip in the room’s warmth opens.
~Denise Levertov “A Yellow Tulip” from Sands of the Well

I feel like I’m constantly aware of the world’s anguish, reminded in headlines, and radio news updates. The knowledge of others’ grief and mourning, their losses and struggles can be overwhelming. This world is a darkened place of pain and tears for so many, so much of the time.

So who am I to write of a moment of incredible encouragement and beauty, to post pictures of the latest masterpiece painted through sunrise and sunset, to search out and share the gifts that exist all around me – while people are suffering?

We were not created to wallow in anguish – yet here we are, trying to every way to climb our way out of the mess.

I only know this Advent promise: I am but one of countless witnesses to the dawn which has been sent to diminish and overwhelm our darkest times. I seek an oasis of restoration in the desert dust that comprise our days.

I cannot turn away from the gifts laid at my feet — they are as unexpected and awe-inspiring as the angel chorus must have been to lonely shepherds that glorious night. Suddenly, for those isolated people, nothing was the same ever again.

How is it possible?

So too, I open: waiting, watching, longing for the glory.
Nothing will be the same, ever again.

This year’s Advent theme “Dawn on our Darkness” is taken from this 19th century Christmas hymn.

Brightest and best of the sons of the morning,
dawn on our darkness and lend us your aid.
Star of the east, the horizon adorning,
guide where our infant Redeemer is laid.
~Reginald Heber -from “Brightest and Best”

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Dawn on our Darkness: Split Open to the Light

What next, she wonders,
with the angel disappearing, and her room
suddenly gone dark.

The loneliness of her news
possesses her. She ponders
how to tell her mother.

Still, the secret at her heart burns like
a sun rising. How to hold it in—
that which cannot be contained.

She nestles into herself, half-convinced
it was some kind of good dream,
she its visionary.

But then, part dazzled, part prescient—
she hugs her body, a pod with a seed
that will split her.
~Luci Shaw “Mary Considers Her Situation”

Ere by the spheres time was created thou
Wast in His mind, who is thy Son, and Brother;
Whom thou conceivest, conceived; yea, thou art now
Thy Maker’s maker, and thy Father’s mother,
Thou hast light in dark, and shutt’st in little room
Immensity, cloister’d in thy dear womb.
~John Donne “Annunciation”


For Light to illuminate
where darkness thrives in me,
there must be a wounding,
a splitting open;
a crack exists in everything,
cleaving me so joy can infiltrate and heal
where I hurt the most,
celebrating
as I say yes.

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.
~Leonard Cohen from “Anthem”

This year’s Advent theme “Dawn on our Darkness” is taken from this 19th century Christmas hymn.

Brightest and best of the sons of the morning,
dawn on our darkness and lend us your aid.
Star of the east, the horizon adorning,
guide where our infant Redeemer is laid.
~Reginald Heber -from “Brightest and Best”

When time sweeps yesterday away,
It leaves behind an empty heart,
Weeping through the night so dark and long.
When words are lost among the tears,
When sadness steals another day,
God hears our cries and turns our sighs into a song.

Sing to the One who mends our broken hearts with music.
Sing to the One who fills our empty hearts with love.
Sing to the One who gives us light to step into the darkest night.
Sing to the God who turns our sighs into a song.

From heaven falls a mercy sweet,
The time for weeping now is gone;
God hears our sighs and gives us His eternal song.

Sing to the One who mends our broken hearts with music.
Sing to the One who fills our empty hearts with love.
Sing to the One who gives us light to step into the darkest night.
Sing to the God who turns our sighs into a song.

Sing to the One who mends our broken hearts with music.
Sing to the One who fills our empty hearts with love.
Sing to the One who gives us light to step into the darkest night.
Sing to the God who turns our sighs into a song.
~Susan Boersma

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Dawn on our Darkness: A Reckless Joy

After all the false dawns,
who is this who unerringly paints
the first rays in their true colours?
We have kept vigil with owls
when the occult noises of the night
fell tauntingly silent
and a breeze got up
as if for morning.
This time the trees tremble.
Is it with a kind of reckless joy
at the gentle light
lapping their leaves
like the very first turn of a tide?
Timid creatures creep out of burrows
sensing kindness
and the old crow on the cattle-shed roof
folds his wings and dreams.
~Richard Bauckham “First Light”

Who is this who dawns on my darkness,
changes everything in my life
and everything within my heart?

Who is this who paints the skies to speak to me from His creation?

Who is this who wraps me firmly within His grasp
and holds me tenderly when I am trembling afraid in the night?

There will be no more false dawns.
He brings the sun with Him
and I am here, a witness to the reckless joy of His Advent,
as I stand before His kindness and mercy.

This year’s Advent theme “Dawn on our Darkness” is taken from this 19th century Christmas hymn.

Brightest and best of the sons of the morning,
dawn on our darkness and lend us your aid.
Star of the east, the horizon adorning,
guide where our infant Redeemer is laid.
~Reginald Heber -from “Brightest and Best”

You have broken this old soil
You have torn this skin apart
And the seed that you have planted
Buries naked in the dark

In the springtime of my breathing
You have sheltered me from harm
All you asked was that my seedling
Play into your earthen yarn

If you trimmed off all my branches
They would not complete your pile
There is no way that I’m left standing
When you light that final fire

Even small fruit you have nourished
On these branches weighs them down
If I bear it, if I carry
It will sink me to the ground

With the sunset in the background
And this tree placed in the fore
I could just make out what you have
Planted all these years before

In the forests in the orchards
Broken trees cover the ground
When they’ve fallen, when they’re trampled
They have made a clapping sound

And they join with the mountains
And they join with the seas
And they join with the parts that are alive inside of me
And they cry out in longing for the earth that’s yet to be
And they find joy and peace
And they find joy and peace

If I’m bearing when you’re ready
If you come at the right time
Take the fruit that I have carried
Crush it down and make your wine
~Wendell Kimbrough

If I am alive this time next year
Will I have arrived in time to share?
And mine is about as good this far
And I’m still applied to what you are

And I am joining all my thoughts to you
And I’m preparing every part for you

And I heard from the trees a great parade
And I heard from the hills a band was made
And will I be invited to the sound?
And will I be a part of what you’ve made?

And I am throwing all my thoughts away
And I’m destroying every bet I’ve made
And I am joining all my thoughts to you
And I’m preparing every part for you
For you

~Sufjan Stevens

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A Girl from Spring Valley

Fourteen years ago today, my mother, Elna Schmitz Polis, returned home for good, gently picked up and carried away by the Lord before dawn. She was just over 88 1/2 years old, and had lived much of her life anticipating her death day with some apprehension, having almost been called home at the age of 13 from a ruptured appendix, before antibiotics were an option. That near-miss seemed to haunt her, filling her with worry that it was a mistake that she survived that episode at all. Yet she thrived despite the anxiety, and ended up, much to her surprise, living a long life full of family and faith.

She was born in the isolation of a Palouse wheat and lentil farm in eastern Washington, in a two story white house located down a long lane and nestled in a draw between the undulating hills. Despite having one older brother, it was a lonely childhood which accustomed her to solitude and creative play inside her mind and heart. All her life and especially in her later years, she would prefer the quiet of her own thoughts over the bustle of a room full of activities and conversation.

Her childhood was filled with exploration of the rolling hills, the barns and buildings where her father built and repaired farm equipment, and the chilly cellar where the fresh eggs were stored after she reached under cranky hens to gather them. She sat in the cool breeze of the picketed yard, watching the huge windmill turn and creak next to the house. She helped her weary mother feed farm crews who came for harvest time and then settled in the screened porch listening to the adults talk about lentil prices and bushel production. She woke to the mourning dove call in the mornings and heard the coyote yips and howls at night.

As a young woman, she was ready to leave the farm behind for college, devoting herself to the skills of speech, and the creativity of acting and directing in drama, later teaching rural high school students, including a future Pulitzer Prize winning poet, Carolyn Kizer. She loved words and the power and beauty they wielded.

Marrying my father was a brave and impulsive act, traveling by train to the east coast only a week before he shipped out for almost 3 years to the South Pacific to fight as a Marine in WWII. She must have wondered about the man who returned from war changed and undoubtedly scarred in ways she could not see or touch. They worked it out, as rocky as it must have been at times, and in their reconciliation years later after divorce, I could see the devotion and mutual respect of life companions who shared purpose and love.

As a wife and mother, she rediscovered her calling as a steward of the land and a steward of her family, gardening and harvesting fruits, vegetables and children tirelessly. When I think of my mother, I most often think of her tending us children in the middle of the night whenever we were ill; her over-vigilance was undoubtedly due to her worry we might die in childhood as she almost did.

She never did stop worrying during the last few months if her life after a devastating leg fracture. As she became more dependent on others in her physical decline, she tried to give up the control she thought she had to maintain through her “worry energy” and became more accepting about the control the Lord maintains over all we are and will become.

I know from where my shyness comes, my preference for birdsongs rather than radio music, my preference for naps, and my tendency to be serious and straight laced with a twinkle in my eye. This is my German Palouse side–immersing in the quietness of solitude, thrilling to the sight of the spring wheat flowing like a green ocean wave in the breeze and appreciating the warmth of rich soil held in my hands. From that heritage came my mother and it is the legacy she has left with me. I am forever grateful to her for her unconditional love and her willingness to share the warmth of her nest whenever we felt the need to fly back home and shelter, overprotected but safe nonetheless, under her wings.

Dawn on our Darkness: What We Are Running From

…when we run from darkness,
how much do we really know about what we are running from?
If we turn away from darkness on principle,
doing everything we can to avoid it
because there is simply no telling what it contains,
isn’t there a chance that what we are running from is God?
~Barbara Brown Taylor from Learning to Walk in the Dark

…the deepest darkness is the place where God comes to us.
In the womb, in the night, in the dreaming;
when we are lost, when our world has come undone,
when we cannot see the next step on the path;
in all the darkness that attends our life,
whether hopeful darkness or horrendous,
God meets us.
God’s first priority is not to do away with the dark

but to be present to us in it.
~Jan Richardson

Go slow
if you can.
Slower.
More slowly still.
Friendly dark
or fearsome,
this is no place
to break your neck
by rushing,
by running,
by crashing into
what you cannot see.

Then again,
it is true:
different darks
have different tasks,
and if you
have arrived here unawares,
if you have come
in peril
or in pain,
this might be no place
you should dawdle.

I do not know
what these shadows
ask of you,
what they might hold
that means you good
or ill.
It is not for me
to reckon
whether you should linger
or you should leave.

But this is what
I can ask for you:

That in the darkness
there be a blessing.
That in the shadows
there be a welcome.
That in the night
you be encompassed
by the Love that knows
your name.

~Jan Richardson “A Blessing for Traveling in the Dark”

Light and dark are part of the interwoven tapestry of advent.
We stumble in the dark to the uttermost ends of the earth,
groping for a foot and hand hold
to keep ourselves from falling off the abyss.

Then He hands us His Light.
His glory lifts us, illuminates, covers and surrounds us
so we can find our path and walk alongside Him.

Startling, wondrous magnificence beyond imagination.
This grace brings us to our knees,
especially when we are mired in trouble.

Our Light has come, unexpected,
shining in an infant’s smile,
from the depths of darkness within a manger.

No need to run from such a gift of Love.

This year’s Advent theme “Dawn on our Darkness” is taken from this 19th century Christmas hymn.

Brightest and best of the sons of the morning,
dawn on our darkness and lend us your aid.
Star of the east, the horizon adorning,
guide where our infant Redeemer is laid.
~Reginald Heber -from “Brightest and Best”

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Dawn on Our Darkness: There’s Nothing Like the Sun

There’s nothing like the sun as the year dies,
Kind as can be, this world being made so,
To stones and men and birds and beasts and flies,
To all things that it touches except snow,
Whether on mountainside or street of town.
The south wall warms me: November has begun,
Yet never shone the sun as fair as now
While the sweet last-left damsons from the bough
With spangles of the morning’s storm drop down
Because the starling shakes it, whistling what
Once swallows sang. But I have not forgot
That there is nothing, too, like March’s sun,
Like April’s, or July’s, or June’s, or May’s,
Or January’s, or February’s, great days:
August, September, October, and December
Have equal days, all different from November.
No day of any month but I have said—
Or, if I could live long enough, should say—
“There’s nothing like the sun that shines today.”
There’s nothing like the sun till we are dead.

~Edward Thomas “There’s nothing like the sun”

Each day throughout the year, I search the sky for a hint of how the sunlight might appear through the clouds. Like a gallery of landscapes in a museum, the artistry of Light penetrating darkness changes moment to moment. Some days the sun is completely missing in action and we’re covered under a gray flannel blanket. Other days, there are no clouds whatsoever for the light to flow over and play with.

November can be particularly poignant because of the dying light at the end of the year. At times I feel desperate for the dawn, almost worried it won’t come. During these recent chill late autumn mornings, any light is welcome, along with the potential warmth it brings.

I keep taking pictures of what I see during this transition from night to light and light to night. I keep trying to find words to describe what these brief moments feel like, as it is always a visceral experience, often exhilarating, watching the sun navigate the horizon yet again.

I know if I could only live long enough, there will be a day when I say “nothing can equal the light I see today.” That would indeed be the day when the ultimate Light has called me home. What I see here is merely the preview. Indeed, God Himself came down to see how things look from our perspective.

There’s nothing like the Son to light the way home.

This year’s Advent theme “Dawn on our Darkness” is taken from this 19th century Christmas hymn.

Brightest and best of the sons of the morning,
dawn on our darkness and lend us your aid.
Star of the east, the horizon adorning,
guide where our infant Redeemer is laid.
~Reginald Heber -from “Brightest and Best”

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Dawn on our Darkness: Where We Dwell

To go in the dark with a light is to know the light.
To know the dark, go dark. Go without sight,
and find that the dark, too, blooms and sings,
and is traveled by dark feet and dark wings.

~Wendell Berry “To Know the Dark” from Soul Food – Nourishing Poems for Starved Minds

What is coming upon the world is the Light of the World.
It is Christ.
That is the comfort of it.

The challenge of it is that it has not come yet.
Only the hope for it has come, only the longing for it.
In the meantime we are in the dark,
and the dark, God knows, is also in us.

We watch and wait for a holiness to heal us and hallow us,
to liberate us from the dark.
Advent is like the hush in a theater just before the curtain rises.
It is like the hazy ring around the winter moon
that means the coming of snow which will turn the night to silver.

Soon.
But for the time being, our time, darkness is where we are. 
~Frederick Buechner from The Clown in the Belfry

We enter Advent immersed in darkness; it exists both outside us and within.
Somehow we must withstand it until the Light comes.
It is where we are.

We are promised this in the Word: “and night will be no more. They will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light… Revelation 22:5.

The Word in the beginning set a dark universe in motion.
The Word became both flesh and Savior to a world dwelling in darkness.
The Word as Spirit thrives eternally to enlighten our hearts, our minds and hands.

Advent is a time of quiet stillness, awaiting the Light brought by His Word;
He is a flint struck to our wick – the darkness abolished by His illuminating glow.

This year’s Advent theme “Dawn on our Darkness” is taken from this 19th century Christmas hymn.

Brightest and best of the sons of the morning,
dawn on our darkness and lend us your aid.
Star of the east, the horizon adorning,
guide where our infant Redeemer is laid.
~Reginald Heber -from “Brightest and Best”

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Dawn on Our Darkness: A Seed in the Ground

…new life starts in the dark.
Whether it is a seed in the ground,
a baby in the womb, or Jesus in the tomb,
it starts in the dark.
~Barbara Brown Taylor from Learning to Walk in the Dark

If seeds in the black earth can turn into such beautiful roses, what might not the heart of man become in its long journey toward the stars?
G.K. Chesterton

The seed is the word of God.
Luke 8:11b

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
John 1:1-5

I began a mere seed lying dormant in the darkness of my mother’s body, plain and simple.

Just as the spring murmurs life to the seed in the ground, so the Word calls a human seed of life to stir and swell, becoming at once both an animate and intimate reflection of Himself.

The seed shakes off the darkness as growth begins.

I was awakened from quiescence to sprout, bloom and fruit. I reach as far as my tethered roots allow, aiming beyond earthly bounds to touch the light and be touched.

These days of Advent seed renew hope in my heart, ready and waiting to unfurl. A precious fragrance will linger, long after my last petal has withered, loosened, and fallen to freedom.

I began in the dark and dawn is calling me to reach for the heavens.

This year’s Advent theme “Dawn on our Darkness” is taken from this 19th century Christmas hymn.

Brightest and best of the sons of the morning,
dawn on our darkness and lend us your aid.
Star of the east, the horizon adorning,
guide where our infant Redeemer is laid.
~Reginald Heber -from “Brightest and Best”

Christmas comes anew, O let us sing Noel!
Glory to God! Now let your praises swell!
Sing we Noel for Christ, the newborn King,4
Christmas comes anew, O let us sing Noel!

Angels did say, “O shepherds come and see,
Born in Bethlehem, a blessed Lamb for thee.”
Sing we Noel for Christ, the newborn King,
Christmas comes anew, O let us sing Noel!

In the manger bed, the shepherds found the child;
Joseph was there, and the Mother Mary mild.
Sing we Noel for Christ, the newborn King,
Christmas comes anew, O let us sing Noel!

Soon came the kings from following the star,
Bearing costly gifts from Eastern lands afar.
Sing we Noel for Christ, the newborn King,
Christmas comes anew, O let us sing Noel!

Brought to Him gold and incense of great price;
Then the stable bare resembled Paradise.
Sing we Noel for Christ, the newborn King,
Christmas comes anew, O let us sing Noel!

Now the green blade rises from the buried grain,
Wheat that in the dark earth many years has lain;
Love lives again, that with the dead has been:
Love is come again, like wheat that springs up green.

In the grave they laid Him, Love Whom we had slain,
Thinking that He’d never wake to life again,
Laid in the earth like grain that sleeps unseen:
Love is come again, like wheat that springs up green.

Up He sprang at Easter, like the risen grain,
He that for three days in the grave had lain;
Up from the dead my risen Lord is seen:
Love is come again, like wheat that springs up green.

When our hearts are saddened, grieving or in pain,
By Your touch You call us back to life again;
Fields of our hearts that dead and bare have been:
Love is come again, like wheat that springs up green.

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Blinking in the Sun

When you have been
at war with yourself
for so many years that
you have forgotten why,
when you have been driving
for hours and only
gradually begin to realize
that you have lost the way,
when you have cut
hastily into the fabric,
when you have signed
papers in distraction,
when it has been centuries
since you watched the sun set
or the rain fall, and the clouds,
drifting overhead, pass as flat
as anything on a postcard;
when, in the midst of these
everyday nightmares, you
understand that you could
wake up,
you could turn
and go back
to the last thing you
remember doing
with your whole heart:
that passionate kiss,
the brilliant drop of love
rolling along the tongue of a green leaf,
then you wake,
you stumble from your cave,
blinking in the sun,
naming every shadow
as it slips.
~Joyce Sutphen “From Out the Cave” from Straight Out of View
.

Rather than mindfulness, I try to practice something I call “heartfulness.” Instead of staying so much inside my head while going through the necessary motions of everyday routine, I try to make sense of my place and purpose in the world to invest my heart in it. I pay attention to what is happening around me – the sights, sounds, smells – to where my feet will land next and to where my hands might extend to serve. For internally focused people like me, it helps to stretch my vision and my actions beyond my own needs.

It is like waking from a troubled sleep, and seeing familiar surroundings that have been in shadow, cast in a new light for the first time. When I first bought a phone with a camera over a decade ago, I started looking at the world differently, eager to capture the subtle changes I witnessed throughout the time of day and seasonal progression. Sometimes I receive feedback that my photos look “all the same” – they are only two-dimensional versions of what I see around me. Indeed, how can a photo communicate the fresh feel of dew-dawn air, or the crunch of snow underfoot, or the scent of spring blossoms or the smell of badly needed rain? My photo becomes my hook back to a focused moment of heartfulness for me — my reminder of what ‘was’ and ‘is” and what ‘will be again.’

As I climb out of the relative safety of my dark “cave” – a place we all retreat to when life is simply too much – I stand astonished and heart-full, blinking at the sun, aware that I’m meant to witness all that is beyond me.

And simply to share and tell about it as best I can.

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