God and the Gay Christian’ Discussion, Week 6 & Conclusion

Over the past few weeks, on Wednesdays, we have been discussing Matthew Vines’ book, God and the Gay Christian: The Biblical Case in Support of Same-Sex Relationships. (See Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4, Part 5I chose this particular book because I think it provides the most accessible and personal introduction to the biblical and historical arguments in support of same-sex relationships, and because Matthew is a theologically conservative Christian who affirms the authority of Scripture and who is also gay. His research is sound and his story compelling, and he’s a friend—someone I like and respect and enjoy learning from. 

This week we wrap up our discussion with a look at Matthew’s argument in support of marriage equality in Chapter 8 and his concluding remarks in Chapters 9 and 10. 

The Biblical Argument for Marriage Equality

In Chapter 8, Matthew tackles a big question: can same-sex marriage fit a Christian basis for marriage? 

“Our question is not whether the Bible addresses the modern concepts of sexual orientation and same-sex marriage,” he writes. “We know it doesn’t. Instead, our question is: can we translate basic biblical principles about marriage to this new situation without losing something essential in the process?” 

That’s a complicated question for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is the reality that Christians themselves disagree on exactly what constitutes “biblical principles about marriage”! I know plenty of people who would describe my marriage with Dan as “unbiblical” because it functions as a partnership rather than a hierarchy, with our roles determined by gifting rather than gender. So we’re wading into tricky territory here, but Matthew handles it gracefully. 

He begins with Ephesians 5, where the apostle Paul describes marriage as a “profound mystery” pointing to the ultimate union between Christ and the Church. “In marriage,” writes Matthew, “we are called to reflect God’s love for us through our self-giving love for our spouse.” This is something same-sex couples can do just as well as heterosexual couples, he says. Matthew then goes on to address three common objections to same-sex marriage: procreation, gender hierarchy, and gender complementarity. 

Procreation

One of the most common reasons for opposing same-sex marriage cited by non-affirming Christians is that only a man and woman can biologically procreate. Appealing to Genesis 1:28 as a direct command rather than a creative blessing, they argue that the capacity to procreate is critical to a God-honoring union. 

While much of Hebrew Scripture focuses on God’s covenantal blessing to Israel through biological procreation, “the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus ushered in a host of transformative changes,” writes Matthew. “And one of the change is vital to our conversation: Biological procreation no longer determines membership in God’s Kingdom. Spiritual re-birth through faith in Christ does.” 

To support this, Matthew points to Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus in John 3, as well as his statement in Matthew 12:46-50 that “whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” This new emphasis on being “grafted in” to the family of God brought those who had traditionally been left out—eunuchs, for example—in.  Furthermore, despite the significance of procreation in the Old Testament, Matthew argues, infertile marriages were not considered illegitimate. Take Abraham and Sarah, for example, or Elkanah and Hannah. Song of Songs beautifully celebrates the joys of erotic love for their own pleasurable merits, not simply for the purpose of procreation.  And neither Jesus nor the apostle Paul suggest that non-procreative marriages are illegitimate or that procreation is the only purpose of sex.  “From a theological perspective,” Matthew concludes, “marriage primarily involves a covenant-keeping relationship of mutual self-giving that reflects God’s love for us….Marriage is only secondarily—and not necessarily at all—about having biological children.” 

Gender Hierarchy 

This, in my opinion, is the big one. Because some Christians interpret the New Testament household codes as prescribing hierarchal gender roles wherein wives function as subordinates to their husbands, their challenge to same-sex couples is, who’s in charge? 

We discuss the New Testament Household Codes here, and at length in our series on the subject, here, but in summary:  Just as the New Testament household codes assume a hierarchy between master and slave, they assume a hierarchy between men and women. It would be silly to expect anything else to emerge out of writings from the Greco-Roman culture. What makes the New Testament household codes powerful and countercultural is that they actually challenge those hierarchies by instructing all members of the household—even the masters, who in that culture held unilateral authority over their slaves, wives, and children— to imitate Jesus Christ in their relationships by modeling his self-sacrificing love. 

Matthew points out that in his letter to the Galatians, Paul wrote that three types of hierarchies would fade away in Christ. One was that of male and female. The others were distinctions between Jew and Gentile and distinctions between slave and free. “In opposing slavery,” writes Matthew, “Christians in the 19th century took that message to heart. Since there will not be a distinction in God’s kingdom of slave and free, Christians decided to abolish the inhumane institution of slavery in the West….Christians did not work for change so that slaves would be regarded as having equal value while maintaining a subordinate status and role in society. They chose to abolish the subordinate status altogether.” 

And yet many today continue to argue that Galatians 3:28 only refers to salvific status when it comes to women, that Paul is simply granting women access to salvation, not equal status with men. (This doesn’t make much sense since women were already regarded as having access to salvation.) But if this thinking were applied to slaves, who are mentioned in the very same verse, then Christians could not appeal to Galatians 3:28 for the abolition of slavery.   In other words, “neither slave nor free, Jew nor Greek, male nor female” has to mean something more than shared access to salvation. It has to mean something radical about how relationships among Christians in this patriarchal culture were to change. 

I’ve said it once, and I’ll say it a million times more: What makes a marriage holy and sacred isn’t the degree to which it reflects a rigid hierarchy, but rather the degree to which it reflects the self-giving, self-sacrificing love of Jesus.  It’s not about putting Jesus at the top of a flowchart, with the man next in line, and the woman at the bottom. It’s about putting Christ at the center.  That, I believe, is the truly radical message of the New Testament Household Codes that so often gets drowned out by advocates of Christian patriarchy. And I see no reason why the self-sacrificing love of Jesus cannot be modeled in a committed same-sex relationship as well as it can be modeled in a committed heterosexual relationship. (After all, if anatomical complementarity alone were what sanctified a marriage, then an abusive heterosexual marriage would be considered more “sanctified” than a loving homosexual one.)

[For more on the New Testament, check out our "Submit One To Another" series.]

Anatomical Complementarity 

A final argument against same-sex marriage is that two people cannot become “one flesh” if they do exhibit anatomical complementarity. Here Matthew cites Jim Brownson’s Bible, Gender Sexuality, where the Bible scholar argues that such an interpretation of Genesis 2:24 over-sexualizes the phrase “one flesh,” which in the Bible is used metaphorically to describe ties of kinship between all sorts of people. (In Genesis 29, Laban describes his son-in-law Jacob as “my bone and my flesh,” for example.)  “Becoming ‘one flesh,’” Matthew argues, “encompasses much more than the act of sex. It includes the entire covenantal context in which God intends for sex to take place.” 

In Ephesians 5:31-32, the phrase “one flesh” is said to be a mystery of marriage that relates to Christ and the Church. "Not only does Ephesians 5 never mention gender-determined anatomical differences, it focuses instead on the fact that husbands and wives are part of the same body…So according to Ephesians, gender difference is not necessary to become one flesh in the Bible’s understanding of those words.” 

Matthew concludes this chapter with a stirring call: “In God’s glorious, limitless love, he has imparted to us that most precious and humbling of gifts: our own capacity for love. Not all Christians are called to marriage, and the church must uphold the validity of celibacy for those who are called to it. But for those who do not sense a calling to celibacy, God’s gift of sexual love in marriage should be affirmed. There is no biblical reason to exclude the covenantal bonds of gay Christians from that affirmation.”

I suspect that as marriage equality continues to spread across the country, the Church’s conversation around LGBT inclusion will change. Will churches that oppose same-sex marriage encourage married couples to divorce? Will they turn away gay or lesbian couples when they bring their kids to Sunday school? Will they deny that Christ-imitating, self-sacrificing love is indeed present in many same-sex relationship and continue to advocate against ensuring gay couples can visit one another in the hospital? God has this strange habit of using “outsiders” to school the “insiders” on what it really means to love and serve. I suspect it will be no different in this case. 

The Image of God and LGBT Christians

In Chapter 9, Matthew makes a strong case that being created in the image of God cannot uniquely be tied to heterosexuality and points to the Trinity to show that part of being created in the image of God is longing for intimacy and relationship. It’s too much to reiterate in the limited space we have left, so I urge you to pick up God and the Gay Christian for the full argument.  I would simply add that, having had a conversation just yesterday with someone who is intersex, it is time we accept the reality God has not created a rigid, one-dimensional world when it comes to gender and sexuality. As someone put it the other day: Acknowledging the existence of twilight doesn’t require rejecting the existence of day and night. 

Matthew addresses the incredible damage done by Christians who teach LGBT people to hate their sexuality, which cannot so easily be separated from their very selves. “When we tell people that their every desire for intimate, sexual bonding is shameful and disordered,” he writes, “we encourage them to hate a core part of who they are. And when we reject the desires of gay Christians to express their sexuality within a lifelong covenant, we separate them from our covenantal God, and we tarnish their ability to bear his image.” 

Then Matthew concludes with this little truth bomb:  “Instead of asking whether it’s acceptable for the church to deny gay Christians the possibility of sexual fulfillment in marriage, we should ask a different question. Is it acceptable to deny gay Christians the opportunity to sanctify their sexual desires through a God-reflecting covenant.” 

Questions for Discussion: 

1.    Are there same-sex couples in your life whose relationships reflects the self-giving love of Jesus? Tell us about that. 

2.    As more states embrace marriage equality and civil rights for LGBT people, how do you think the conversation regarding their inclusion in the church will change? 

3. Finally, as we conclude this series, do you have any lingering questions, thoughts or ideas you would like to discuss? Has this conversation changed anything for you, and what would you like to see happen moving forward—both on the blog and in the wider Church?  

***

Finally: I'd like to issue a big thank-you to our friend, Matthew Vines, who not only wrote a great book for discussion, but who has jumped into the comment section several times to respond to your questions and ideas. I've gotten to know Matthew a little better over the course of the last few weeks and I have to say, his guy's stubborn sense of hope, joy, and commitment to Jesus continues to inspire and challenge me. Let's be in prayer for his efforts at The Reformation Project's Regional Training Conference this week. 

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See you in Ohio, Georgia, & Alabama….

I’ve been enjoying my travels significantly more this season, having scaled back a bit. Stewarding my time in this way has helped me feel more present and engaged with each group, and I’m so grateful for every opportunity I get to have real, in-the-flesh conversations with readers. My last three trips of the season will take me to Ohio Wesleyan University, Camp Glisson in Dahlonega, Georgia, and the great city of Birmingham, Alabama—my old “stomping ground.”  Here are the details, if you’re interested in joining us: 

Friday, November 7
Ohio Wesleyan University Love Across the Spectrum Event 
Delaware, Ohio
7 p.m. - “My Year of Biblical Womanhood” 
FREE & Open to Public  
More Info

Friday, November 14 – Saturday, November 15
Young Adult Retreat hosted by North Georgia UMC 
Glisson Camp and Retreat Center, Dahlonega, Georgia 
All weekend - “Keep the Church Weird” (material from the new book!) 
One-day rate available 
More Info

Sunday, November 16
Canterbury United Methodist Church
Birmingham, Alabama 
Sunday School hour: “My Year of Biblical Womanhood” 
6 p.m. -  “Keep the Church Weird” (material from the new book!) 
FREE & Open to the Public 
More Info 
 

Let me know if I’ll see you there! 

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Sunday Superlatives 11/2/14

Around the Blogosphere...

Wisest:
Efrem Smith with “The Privileged and The Poor” 

“To dismantle poverty in this way, we not only need multi-ethnic congregations, we need multi-class congregations. Poor people ought to have a voice in the Church. They ought to have the opportunity to serve as elders, deacons, preachers, and board members alongside the Privileged. Putting all Privileged People in power and places of influence may be the American way, but it’s not the Kingdom of God way.”

Bravest: 
Micha Boyett with “Deacons and Elders and Me” 

“This is not a story of rebellion. This is not the story of a girl who moved two thousand miles away and learned to take scripture less seriously. This is the story of how my love for scripture deepened and grew more technicolored, beautiful. This is the story of finding myself in a church where I was invited to use my gifts in order to love God faithfully. I will kneel before my church on Sunday in holy trembling, because of the men who led me as a child, because of the women who led me without titles. I will commit my weak-willed soul to the leadership of my church because of the deacons and their wives who gave me courage to travel all the way to these vows. On Sunday I will be ordained.”

Boldest:
Austin Channing Brown with “Bring Yourself” 

“I believe in the legacy of black women who refused to be satisfied with lies. I believe that I am fearfully and wonderfully made. I believe that I am created in the image of the Divine. I believe that I am at my best when I bring my wholeness to the table. I believe that the weight of racism and patriarchy can’t drown me. I believe that I am made for resistance, for freedom, for community.”

Truest: 
Jason Micheli at Jesus Creed with “If you can’t say it about Jesus, don’t say it about God” 

"We can’t say or think or act like God hates ‘sinners’ because we know Jesus didn’t. We can’t say or think or act like God doesn’t care about the poor because we know Jesus did. We can’t say or think or act as if God is against our enemies because we know Jesus loved them. We can’t scratch our heads and wonder if we need to forgive that person in our lives because know what Jesus said about it."

Coolest: 
Guerilla Mosaic Artist Now Filling Chicago Potholes with Flowers

Most Eye-Opening:
We’ve taken to listening to NPR’s “On the Media” on the 45-minute drive to church on Sundays, and this week’s episode—particularly the reports on money in politics and  “The Unseen World of Content Moderation”—certainly reinforced my conviction that sin is real (just in time for confession). Though some parts were kind of a downer, this episode is worth a listen. 

Most Challenging: 
Tanya Marlow with “What’s Her Name?”

“I understand that there are difficulties with accommodating the various needs of disabled people in churches and conferences. I know this is about pragmatism and budget. But that moment was a humiliating one. I fought back tears, and as people looked on, I smiled my biggest smile to show how fine I was with it. But as I was pushed into the sparsely populated, dimly-lit seating at the front, I wondered if we would tolerate any other minority group in church being segregated in such a blatant form.”

Best Insight: 
Larry Largent with “When We Doubt: The Wilderness Between Our Mountaintop Experiences”

“Our churches would do well to consider Elijah as they interact with those who are brave enough to give voice to their own dark nights of the soul. Not the Elijah on Carmel or Sinai, but the Elijah that was once alone in the Negev wilderness.”

Best Reflection(s)
Everything Richard Beck says about Halloween, Death, and All Saints 

Best Point: 
Caryn Rivadeneira with “School Prayer Doesn’t Need a Comeback” 

“I object to any mission to bring prayer “back” to school because I can’t support the faulty theology—downright heresy—of implying God is only around to hear our prayers when the building sanctions his presence. Prayer never left schools. And God never did either. To suggest otherwise should make us shudder. And yet, that’s what campaigns full of good God-fearing folks seem to be saying.”

[Reminds me of one of my first posts to ever go ‘viral’—“God Can’t Be Kept Out.”

On Facebook…

We have a really great conversation happening on Facebook this week regarding the reality of sin and the use of the word ‘broken.’ I have a feeling this will generate several posts. Feel free to weigh in. 

***

So, what caught your eye online this week? What's happening on your blog?

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Learning from LGBT Christians: 2 Upcoming Events (& a giveaway!)

This week I heard from a multitude of friends and readers who expressed frustration regarding Christian conferences that tend to speak about LGBT people as if they were an issue, removed from the Church, rather than speak with LGBT people who are in fact a part of the Church.  As important as it is to speak up about that negative trend, I think it’s even more important to support, encourage, and participate in the alternatives—gatherings led by LGBT Christians, two of which are currently registering participants. 

The first, The Reformation Project’s Regional Training Conference, happens next week in Washington, D.C.  Led by friend-of-the-blog and author of God and the Gay Christian Matthew Vines, the purpose of this event is twofold: 1) to provide training and resources on how to talk about the Bible and LGBT issues with non-LGBT-affirming Christians, and 2) to connect LGBT-affirming Christians with like-minded people for support and dialog. 

The speaker lineup this year is truly outstanding and one of the most diverse you’ll see in the Christian conference scene all year, featuring Gene Robinson, David Gushee, Danny Cortez, Rachel Murr, Oneida Chi, Bishop Yvette Flunder, Justin Lee, and more than 20 more. To learn more about the spirit and purpose of this event, check out AnaYelsi Sanchez’s piece, “Amidst Reformation: Our Chance to Change the Church” at Believe Out Loud. 

The second event—the annual Gay Christian Network Conference scheduled for January 8-11 in Portland—looks to be the largest since its inception with so many participants expected this year (more than 1300) they’ve had to move venues!  

I attended last year’s event, and I’m not exaggerating when I say it was absolutely life-changing for me. (See my post about it.) I’ve never attended a Christian conference so energized by the Spirit, so devoid of empty showmanship or preoccupation with image, so grounded in love and abounding in grace.  I dedicate quite a bit of space in my new book to describing what it was like to practice confession, communion,  worship, and healing with these brothers and sisters.  I came as an ally, but I left as a sister. 

With attendees from all over the world (12 countries and more than 40 states so far),  the annual GCN conference is a gathering place for people to  celebrate both their uniqueness and their unity. This year, hundreds of LGBT Christians, family members,  friends, ministers, and more will come together in Portland for the singular purpose of  transforming how we engage with both Side A Christians ( who support same-sex relationships/marriage) and B Christians (who pursue or encourage celibacy) across the church aisle. 

I’m partnering today with GCN to give away two tickets to the Portland event.  In order to be entered for a chance to win, just share this post on Twitter  or Facebook with the #GCNconf hashtag between November 1 and November 8 (but  make sure your post is public, or the GCN folks won’t see it). A GCN representative will contact you if you’ve won. 

Gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Christians are not outsiders or enemies of the Church. They are the Church. And they are leading Her to a more hopeful, inclusive, and gospel-centered future. Will you join me and follow their lead? 

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The Slaveowners and Me: On Nurturing Empathy for Oppressors

* Note: In hindsight, I think perhaps a better headline to this post would be: "The Slaveowners and Me: On Recognizing Complicity with Oppressors." As you will see in the post, I am not advocating sympathy or patience for oppressors of the past, but rather an acknowledgment that Christians today are capable of the same evil. I've since learned that the headline alone turned off a lot of folks, so forgive  me for not communicating more clearly from the get-go. 

 

I was baptized in Alabama, at a Bible-believing church less than 12 miles and 30 years away from where four little girls—Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, and Denise McNair—were killed in a church bombing during the Civil Rights movement.  I knew the starched white columns of old plantation homes just as well as I knew the spires of Cinderella’s storybook castle, and I’d seen with my own eyes how, just before a harvest, Georgia’s cotton fields could look like a fresh-fallen snow.   

My ancestors were not slave owners, but they fought a war to protect their neighbors who were. I learned the n-word from my great-grandmother, a sweet, churchgoing lady who loved Jesus and read her Bible and, in the remote mountains of Appalachia, regarded the black man we saw at the ice cream shop that day as a fearful curiosity. 

When I was a teenager, my family moved to Dayton, Tennessee, a town famous for prosecuting and convicting a science professor for teaching evolution in 1925, and which sits right on the path of the old Trail of Tears. I took a German reporter through the Scopes Trial museum a few weeks ago, where she paused at the tiny glass case in the back dedicated to Cherokee memorabilia and said, “In Germany, they do not let us forget. Reminders of the Holocaust are everywhere, not just our museums.” 

An insatiable reader, I grew up reading Southern writers: Mark Twain, Eudora Welty, Zora Neale Hurston, Harper Lee, William Faulker, Walker Percy, Flannery O’Connor. In addition, my mother brought home armfuls of historical fiction novels from garage sales and let me stay up long past my bedtime so I could see what happened next on the Oregon Trail, at the Alamo, at Sand Creek. In the midst of all this reading, I learned not only to empathize with the suffering and the oppressed, but also to empathize with the oppressors, who - let's face it - often shared my skin tone, my geography, my language, and my faith. I didn’t learn about America’s history of oppression from the Church. I learned it from Huck Finn. My church, like so many, focused on sins of the present, not sins of the past. 

I was thinking about this recently after our conversation on Monday about corporate confession and lament and after this week’s controversial conference on homosexuality hosted by the Ethics & Religious Liberty Foundation of the Southern Baptist Convention.  Given the SBC’s troubling history of supporting slavery and opposing civil rights for African Americans, I was dismayed to see an attendee brag about the event’s good attendance by posting a picture of a crowded conference room with the caption: “So this is what the wrong side of history looks like.” Later in the event, a speaker declared he would “rather be on the wrong side of history than on the wrong side of a holy God.”

While comparing the suffering of slaves and people of color to the marginalization of LGBT people is irresponsible and does a disservice to both, I am often surprised by Christians’ complete lack of interest in exploring exactly why their predecessors might have supported oppression in the past.  It seems like such information might be critical for assessing whether similar oppression is occurring in the present. Yes, the SBC formally apologized for its racist origins in 1995, but I wonder how many Southern Baptists have taken the time to really study the sermons and speeches of their predecessors to learn what rhetorical devices and hermeneutical approaches were employed to make so many Christian people so comfortable with that oppression that they formed an entire denomination around it. 

The fact is, most of the defenses of American slavery were written by clergy who quoted Scripture generously and appealed to a “clear, plain, and common-sense reading” of biblical passages like Genesis 17:2, Deuteronomy 20:10-11, 1 Corinthians 7:21, Ephesians 6:1-5, Colossians 3:18-25; 4:1, and I Timothy 6:1-2.  Many Bible-believing Christians, including those who were uncomfortable with slavery and encouraged masters to treat their slaves with “Christian kindness,”just weren’t buying the abolitionist argument that placed the “spirit of the law” over the “letter of the law." As Connecticut Congregationalist Leonard Bacon put it, “The evidence that there were both slaves and masters of slaves in churches founded and directed by the apostles, cannot be got rid of without resorting to methods of interpretation that will get rid of everything.”  [For more on this, check out my post about Mark Noll’s excellent and illuminating book, The Civil War as a Theological Crisis.] 

When I raised this point on Twitter (not the best place to raise it, I realize), my remarks were met with incredulity: 

How dare you bring up past sins that are totally unrelated to the present issue!? 

Southern slave-owners were just racist and greedy people who purposefully abused Scripture to their own ends!  

Christians were on the abolitionist side, not the pro-slavery side! 

These responses  reveal a lack of empathy—not so much for those who have been oppressed, but for the oppressors. By characterizing oppressive people from the past as one-dimensionally evil, as hateful racist intentionally using the Bible to their own ends, we're able to distance ourselves from their way of thinking, and say "well we would never do that."  We "other" them so we don't have to consider how we might be the same. 

The truth is, there were Christians on both sides of the American slavery debate. It's an uncomfortable reality, but whether we describe people as submitting to the Bible or as using the Bible depends largely on hindsight. I have no doubt that many of the people who opposed abolition, interracial marriage, protection of indigenous people, black civil rights, women’s suffrage, etc. believed wholeheartedly that God was on their side and they were simply being faithful to God’s Word.  While blatant hate and racism certainly motivated plenty of our country’s past oppressors, blatant hate and racism aren't nearly as effective at sustaining oppressive systems as uncritical acceptance of the way things are. 

In this sense, the question, what were they thinking? need not be a rhetorical one. Rather, it’s a crucial one. As we read and explore and study our history, white Christians in particular would do well to ask of our grandparents, great-grandparents, and great-great grandparents:  What were they thinking? How did they justify their actions? What convinced them that they were doing right?  Whether our ancestors were complicit in oppression or whether they bravely stood up against it, it’s worth nurturing the curiosity and introspection it takes to wonder why

And lest you think this post is about finger-pointing, I have no doubt in my mind that if my own assumptions and prejudices go totally unchecked, if I never stop for a moment to consider the other side and wonder if I might be wrong, I too am capable of using the Bible to my own ends, of convincing myself that God is on my side

We are often told to nurture empathy for those who are unlike us or those who suffer. But Scripture’s powerful emphasis on prophetic lament calls us to also nurture empathy for those we’d like to think are unlike us, those whose sins we assume we would never commit ourselves.  Because the degree to which we take sin seriously isn’t so much in how good were are at spotting it in others, but rather in how good were are at spotting it in ourselves. And sometimes that means combing through our shared history and flinching a little at how quickly those dusty pages can transform into mirrors. 

***
See also, Christ and the Greco Roman Household Codes, which shows how the very same passages used to support slavery are still used today to support gender hierarchy. 

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