Ministry in Mark, part 2

I visited, several years after having left, the first congregation I served. They asked me to preach, and so I did, a sermon from the gospel of Mark. The congregation was generous in their praise afterward. The young preacher had gone off and gotten better! One woman, though, was a little less sure. She offered, “That was a beautiful sermon. What in the world did it mean?” The stress of her comment in my hearing seemed to be on the second sentence, and not the first. I felt rebuked.

But having spent a few days again with Mark for the writing of these blogs, I think Mark might have encouraged me to consider it a compliment and respond to her, “If anyone has ears to hear, let them hear” (Mk 4:23). In the search engine age we live in, the allure of instant understanding has eclipsed our capacity to ponder a mystery. Preachers in this age are tempted to spoon feed easily digestible portions of immediately practical advice to hopelessly hurried consumers, and in so doing guarantee that they do not develop ears to hear the mystery of the gospel of Jesus Christ, Son of God.

The rhetoric of Mark, the rhetoric of ministry. As I noted in the previous blog, Mark is long on narrative and short on explanation. Only rarely does he look up from the details of the story to give the reader a wink or a nod or a scriptural citation. This is in keeping with the story being told. The life of Jesus is an apocalyptic parable, turning the world as we know it upside down and changing all of our definitions of “Christ,” “Son of David,” “Son of Man,” and “Son of God” along the way. The risk for Mark would be turning the story over to our preexisting categories and expectations. This is a story intended to tear open the heavens and call us into something totally new for the sake of our salvation.

I love Rowan Williams characterization of Mark’s treatment of Jesus: “Throughout Mark’s gospel, Jesus holds back from revealing who he is because, it seems, he cannot believe there are words that will tell the truth about him in the mouths of others” (Christ on Trial, 127). Richard Hays builds on this insight by insisting that Mark speaks through the stories and symbols of Israel’s scripture intermingled with the stories of Jesus. “If it is misleading, or careless of the mystery to say ‘Jesus is the God of Israel’–just as it is not permitted to speak the ineffable name of God figured in the Tetragrammaton–there is still a way of narrating who Jesus is by telling stories in which he has the authority to forgive sins, to still storms, to walk on the sea…” (Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels, 102).

I am following the lead of Williams and Hays simply to say that we should be more careful with the reputation of Jesus. What we say about him and the titles we attribute to him, will be measured against how we act in the world. Even our own understandings of words like “lord,” or “king,” or “Son of God” are waterlogged with wrongheaded understandings of authority and power, both God’s and ours. Mark’s gospel is a collective “get behind me Satan” to those who misunderstand Jesus’ mission and ours in the world. I think Mark would tell us to take great care with our speech about God, and instead let the fact that we live as if the last are first, and the least are the greatest, to represent the identity of Jesus into the world.

God, church, world in Mark. The condition of the world (irredeemable) and the agency of God (the coming One), dominate Mark’s perspective related to mission. Again, Mark’s view of the world is apocalyptic. There is no hope for the world within history (things will get worse before they get better), but will only come through God’s direction intervention, bringing both judgment on the old age and the possibility of a new future–the kingdom of God. Whatever role the people of God play in all of this is worked out in relation to this apocalyptic framework.

As with all things in Mark, the “church” is not an explicit theme. The word ecclesia never appears in Mark. Still, this is a story of renewal for God’s people, Israel. The selection of twelve disciples reveals Jesus’ own belief that God’s work of renewal includes a restored Israel–a community embracing the way of life indicated by the kingdom of God.

This is God’s work, and doesn’t come through human initiative. There’s nothing the people of God can do to establish the kingdom of God. There is no path of progress or restoration that can bring the kingdom or restore Israel’g glory. It is the apocalyptic work of God. The people of God, therefore, live in anticipation of what is coming, discerning the presence of and joining in the coming of the kingdom. For those with eyes to see, the evidence of God’s work in the world is discernible. There are signs to be read and directions to follow. The skills, then, necessary for following Jesus are interpretative, being attentive to the world through the lens of the self-giving life of Jesus.

Mark’s world is full of powers hostile to those who would follow Jesus. There are demons and scheming ruling authorities and menacing crowds. In keeping with this, the parable of the soils seems to emphasize the rocky soil, indicating those who at first receive the word with joy, but when “trouble and persecution arises on account of the word, immediately they fall away” (4:16-17). This mirrors the story of the twelve in Mark, who follow enthusiastically early in the gospel only to scatter during the trouble surrounding the crucifixion. By placing the cross at the heart of the gospel, Mark reminds his readers of the very nature of the story. The kingdom of God does not arrive with flowers and rainbows, but with suffering and a death that leads to resurrection.

This is hard stuff to hear. It’s hard to preach. But Mark sets the condition of the world so deeply against the grain of God’s kingdom that the only path to something different, to something newsworthy, is death and resurrection. We should be clear eyed about what story we’re joining. Jesus invites his followers to “repent and believe the good news” (1:15), and the shape of that repentance is to take up our cross daily and follow Jesus.

The good news is that if we scatter and lose sight of our Lord, we can always find him again in Galilee. The story begins and ends there. Jesus comes out of Galilee with the good news of God. In Peter’s denial of Jesus in Mark 14, the slave girl near the fire identifies him as a Galilean, which Peter vigorously denies. Before his death, Jesus tells his disciples to meet him in Galilee, unlike Luke where they are told to wait in Jerusalem. And the women at the tomb are told to fell his followers that Jesus has gone before them to Galilee.

Galilee indicates an unlikely place for the home base of the kingdom of God, away from traditional centers of power and associated with ill-conceived insurrection. This, in Mark, is the natural habitat for the kingdom of God. An unlikely Messiah, with an unlikely mission (death and resurrection), from an unlikely location. Mark’s story with Jesus always begins here and in other places like Galilee.

The word “missional” refers principally to the church’s location in society. The end of Christendom in the West has been met with much hand wringing in churches more accustomed to Jerusalem, or even Rome, than Galilee. In my neighborhood, multi-campus churches are more likely to franchise in affluent communities than they are in places like Detroit, Pontiac, or Flint. Churches attuned to new missional era, in contrast, would find the move away from cultural centers of power to the margins an invitation to meet Jesus again in Galilee. Let those with ears to hear…

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The heavens were torn asunder: ministry in Mark, part one

In my estimation, there is no more beautifully crafted, enigmatic treatment of the life of Jesus than the gospel of Mark. From the packed introduction, to the passion predictions occupying the middle of the gospel, to the abrupt ending that leaves the reader with fear and trembling and not rejoicing, there is no wasted effort. The reader is moved briskly through the life of Jesus and with very little editorial help from the author along the way.

There are clues to Mark’s understanding of Jesus along the way, but only for those with eyes to see. Scriptural citations or allusions, though many, are rarely cited. The amount of space given to Jesus’ teaching is spare in comparison to the other gospels, and what teaching we do have is often enigmatic and puzzling. This is significant because other gospel writers use teaching in unique combinations to editorialize on the actions of Jesus. Not so here. We’re on our own. Mark won’t spoon feed us.

And so the readers, like the twelve, start the gospel following Jesus enthusiastically only to identify with them later in their confusion over who he is and what he’s doing.

So, what is Jesus doing in the gospel of Mark? The clues are there from the beginning. After providing a statement related to Jesus’ identity in 1:1, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ (messiah), Son of God,” Mark quotes Isaiah 40, along with some scraps from Malachi and Exodus. The Isaiah 40 text, which ends with “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,” announces the long awaited end of the exile for Israel. From a highway in the dessert, the Lord will lead his people in a second Exodus and establish the rule of God again over his people in the presence of the nations of the earth. From his baptism in the wilderness, through Galilee, and eventually to Jerusalem, Jesus enters hostile territory (demons and human opposition) to establish again God’s rule over his people. Jesus, as Christ and Son of God, has come to end the exile, bringing both judgment and hope for God’s people, Israel.

At Jesus’ baptism, only Mark tells us that the heavens were “torn apart” as the Spirit in the from of a dove descends on Jesus and a voice from heaven rightly identifies him, “You are my Son, the beloved; with you I am well pleased” (1:10-11). Richard Hays sees the phrase “torn apart” as a reference to Isaiah 64:1, in which the prophet beseeches the Lord to “tear apart the heavens” and act to at long last deliver Israel from the rule of others. (Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels, 16-17). Jesus is an eschatological figure, the Son of Man, long promised to restore the kingdom to Israel in the final age. The opening of the gospel ends with a brief summary, “Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe the good news” (1:14-15).

While the voice from heaven at Jesus’ baptism identifies him rightly, both here and at his transfiguration (9:7), other human voices consistently misidentify him. The most notable occurrence of this is after Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” (8:27). Peter gets the titles half right and the meaning all wrong when he confesses Jesus to be the Christ, but not the Son of God, and then rebukes Jesus when he explains that being the Christ entails suffering, rejection, and death. “Get behind me, Satan,” is Jesus’ pointed rejoinder.

In contrast to Peter, the rest of the twelve, and the religious leaders (“He is of Beelzebul”), the demons consistently confess Jesus rightly as do outsiders to Israel. In fact, the demons obey Jesus and are subject to his authority. Humans, on the other hand, are disobedient and testify to his actions even though he forbids them to speak of them. In fact, in the scene in which Peter confesses Jesus to be Israel’s messiah, Mark reports that Jesus “sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him” (8:30).

This is often referred to by Markan scholars as the “messianic secret.” Unlike other gospels, notably John, Jesus is coy, not openly confessing his identity. It appears that this has something to do with the centrality of the death of Jesus in Mark. Chapters 8-10 function as a thematic center to the gospel, featuring three passion predictions (8:31-9:1, 9:33-37, 10:32-45). Each story features Jesus predicting his own death and resurrection, the disciples demonstrating their lack of comprehension, and Jesus teaching on the nature of being a disciple.

We have already seen that Peter misunderstands Jesus’ mission when he takes him aside and rebukes him (8:32). We haven’t yet noticed in that account the teaching on what it means to follow Jesus: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake and the sake of the gospel will save it” (8:34-35). This pattern repeats two more times as the disciples argue about who is the greatest or seek positions of power in the coming kingdom of God, to which Jesus says things like “those who would be great, must be the least,” and “those who would be first, must be last.”

The death of Jesus in Mark is not principally about the forgiveness of sins in Mark. Jesus has the authority to forgive sins apart from his death. Rather, Jesus’ death is the outcome of a particular way of life, and invites the same in those who would follow him. The blood of Christ is tied in Mark, not to the levitical codes or to the cult of sacrifice, but to the Exodus story in which Moses sprinkles blood on the people as a sign of covenant (Ex 24:8). Jesus offers his blood in the last supper in Mark as the blood of the new covenant (Mk 14:24), reaffirming the theme of a second Exodus we saw in the opening lines of the gospel.

The trial and death of Jesus also occupy the end of the gospel. Unlike the other gospels, there are no resurrection appearances, only an empty tomb and the appearance of a young man in white robes who tells the women who have come to anoint Jesus’ body that the crucified one, Jesus of Nazareth, has been raised. Peter and the others are to meet him in Galilee, where our story began. Again this differs from other gospel accounts, notably Luke, where the disciples are told to wait in Jerusalem. The gospel ends with the women saying nothing to anyone “for terror and amazement seized them” and “they were afraid” (16:1-8, which I take as the original ending of the gospel).

But I’ve skipped an important detail. The only human voice in the gospel to confess Jesus to be the Son of God was a Roman centurion, who when he saw Jesus die said, “Truly this man was God’s Son!” (15:39). Jesus has come as the one to reestablish God’s rule over Israel, to end the time of exile and lead God’s people from a wilderness and into the kingdom of God. At the heart of that mission, however, is the shocking story of a crucified messiah. Moreover, it is precisely the death of Jesus that manifests the nature of this new Exodus. God has indeed torn open the heavens and introduced a shocking new story of deliverance. Mark is protective of the identity of Jesus as Son of God, refusing it to be attached to any reality other than the death of Jesus, withholding that confession until the very end of the story. Let those with ears to hear…

One last story detail. Indeed, there are many that I could add, particularly to build out the notion of Jesus’ coming as the end of exile and the beginning of a second Exodus. I want, however, to tie the beginning and end of the gospel together in one more way. Jesus’ ministry begins in Galilee. The opening announcement of his ministry is surprising. Mark reminds us that the setting for this “gospel of God” comes after John has been put in prison, and that its origins are not in Jerusalem or even Judea, but Galilee. It begins outside of officially sanctioned religious authority. It begins in the precincts of exile, in a wilderness, and moves toward Jerusalem. And as we have seen, the disciples are instructed at the end to meet the risen Jesus who has gone before them to Galilee.

Now given the poor performance of the twelve in Mark, it is good news that the story can always begin again. But I think of greater significance is the fact that the origin of the story, which indicate something of its character, is located outside of the realm of religious and imperial authority. It is the only fitting beginning and ending for a story that would tear open the heavens and name a crucified Nazarene as the Son of God, Israel’s Messiah.

So, this is something of a way to brief summary. In the next post, I will offer some ministry implications.

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The gospels, the practice of theology, and the tasks of ministry

If you will allow me an overly general observation, there are fundamentally two kinds of theology with two corresponding ways of thinking about ministry. One is a theology from above which moves from revelation to experience, context being secondary and sometimes irrelevant to the overall task of constructing an internally coherent web of ideas. Theology then, is a task completed before ministry. Ministry in this approach is an application of an already settled content. The questions about God are answered in the pastor’s office and subsequently conveyed to the congregation as the authoritative results of theological investigation.

The second is a theology from below which moves from experience to revelation and back to experience. Here, the congregation and its environment is more than a place to apply the settled results of previously determined theology, but is actually a source for theology, proceeding on the assumption that a living God is active in the circumstances of our lives. Ministry, then, is a practice of discernment, attending to the life of the congregation and its environment while living in the historical practices of the church. While the first kind of theology looks for complete statements about God, tying one idea necessarily to another, the second is confessional, carrying its claims about God more provisionally, subject to further review.

Again, these are massively simplistic renderings of what in practice are complex realities. Gadamer and others have taught us that all knowledge is circular. Theory is always informed by experience, and our experience is always being interpreted in light of traditions passed down to us. These things are always happening simultaneously, even though we might be able to distinguish between theory and practice in the various moments of coming to understanding. For Gadamer, the issue is not whether or not there is a “hermeneutical circle,” but how we enter it.

I will also say that both kinds of theology are important and have their place. While I fashion myself as doing the second kind, practitioners of the first kind populate by book shelves and help me check my work.

Ok, with these caveats and apologies offered, I want to say that the Bible is fundamentally doing the second kind of theology. There are no big summations of theological ideas, no systematic treatments of topics like the Trinity, Christology, soteriology (salvation), or ecclesiology (the church). Instead, every writing is responsive to an occasion. The impetus for writing is related to the facts on the ground and the need to say something meaningful about God’s involvement in the circumstances confronting churches. And that is still what ministers attempt to do everyday. This, in my estimation, is the first vocation of the theologian/pastor.

As I’ve been pointing out in the last few blogs, this is just as true for the gospels as it is for Galatians or Titus. Jesus, in the case of the gospels, is not reduced to an abstract set of principles, as is the case with atonement theories and the like, but rather the details of the narrative elements of Jesus’ life find their importance for the writer in light of the challenges facing actual congregations. It’s not enough to say that God became flesh in Jesus, but to place the event of Jesus’ birth in a lowly place surrounded by lowly people in Luke’s case, or to put Jesus’ birth in the context of Herod’s political machinations reminiscent of Pharaoh to underscore that God is with his people (Immanuel) even to the end of the age. Jesus’ death is not simply a way for sins to be forgiven for Luke, but happened in a certain way to unmask the injustice of keeping the peace through violence, through the state sanctioned power of violence as opposed to the kingdom of God’s reliance only on the power of the Holy Spirit. My point here, is that the details of Jesus’ life are important, not just in some general sense, but in relation to the pastoral needs of congregations.

Going forward, I hope to suggest how the big themes in each gospel seem to correspond to an occasion. Some of this will be working backwards, the occasions being reconstructed by the identification of the themes. This has the disadvantage of being hypothetical work. But I proceed on the premise that the church consistently affirmed the importance of the diversity of the gospels, of having four gospel, and not just one big gospel that rules them all. I hope to show that this diversity is related to the ongoing need for discernment related to a living God, a risen Christ, and a Holy Spirit.

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Music, and then theology

I’ve had the opportunity over the last few years to make several presentations on the intersection of popular music and theology. I’ve decided to write an introduction that explains the “what” and “why” of what I do and to collect the various pieces in one place. The following paragraphs are a window into the music side of the music and theology relationship in my life.

I have two enduring loves in my life–music and theology, in that order. And I should clarify that I’m not a musician. I wish I could play an instrument well enough to belt out my favorite songs. I do, however, know a little about music. I grew up in a religious tradition that sang acapella. Everyone knew their part and I learned to read music as my mother traced the alto part with her finger in the hymnal on Sundays. My mom and dad sang duets sometimes in church, and my dad’s head would vibrate along with his voice as they sang in pleasing and soothing tones. All the women in my mom’s family sang alto, not a soprano in the bunch. My grandfather sang a way too loud tenor, which would become my part and which I’m sure I sang way too loud.

I played trumpet in school and was in both the marching and jazz bands in high school. I picked the trumpet because I listened to a few Maynard Ferguson albums at Jeff Van Horn’s house, loved Tommy Loy playing the national anthem at the beginning of Cowboys’ games, and revered Doc Severnson because he was from Oregon, my heart’s home. Truth be told, however, I would have traded all my trumpet playing for piano and guitar lessons. To this day it mystifies me that I never learned to play either. I have a guitar now and play around. I have an essential tremor, though, and so playing is difficult with the way my hands shake. I can move between chords and finger pick decently, but I can’t strum well and so will never really be able to play the way I’d like. I can get through a few Dylan songs and some Tom Petty, but I will never be James Taylor. This mildly frustrates me because I would love nothing more than to play rhythm guitar and sing backing vocals in a band.

Music came to my house the Christmas or 1969. My dad bought a cheap record player and three albums for the family that year. Ed Ames, Mingo from the Daniel Boone tv show, Gentleman Jim Reeves, and the crowning selection, Johnny Cash, Ring of Fire. I listened to them over and over, especially Reeves and Cash. And I would look at the album covers and the dust jackets for hours, soaking in every detail. This would become my way of life.

I started to listen to pop music a few years later. I bought a k-tel collection of hits that included Rod Stewart, the Hollies, the Raspberries, Argent and other bands of this ilk. Around this time, my dad upgraded to a component stereo system and my world expanded. The first album I bought to run through its paces on this fine sound system was Credence Clearwater’s, Suzy Q, which I bought from my cousin Lydia. Her grin at the time of the transaction said she thought she had got over on me with an exorbitant price price, and I probably did overpay for a used album. But I still have that album today. Who’s smiling now, Lydia?

Occasionally my parents would go on trips and leave us in the hands of students from the college where my dad was an adjunct professor. It was the early 70’s, and Phil and Connie were legitimate hippies. Phil had an incredible music collection and would bring albums and his Martin guitar when they would come to stay. They would let my brother and me stay up late and watch the Midnight Special with Wolfman Jack. Phil gave me about a dozen albums to start my collection off in the right way. I don’t remember everything he gave me, but the Three Dog Night and Chicago albums were my favorites.

Those albums began my infatuation with listening to music. My allowance the next few years went toward nothing but baseball cards and albums. Led Zeppelin II awakened me to things musically. Though I couldn’t name it, I knew their music was of a completely different order. Chicago, mixing horns and rock and roll, gave me a familiar touch point to the music I was making playing the trumpet in the school band. Elton John’s, Don’t Shoot Me, I’m Only the Piano Player and Yellowbrick Road thrilled me. I would listen to them and other albums while lying on the living room floor, reading and memorizing the liner notes the way I did the backs of baseball cards. Liner notes, for the non-initiated, include the names of all the musicians who received writing credits or who played on the album, along with production notes like the studio where things were recorded and mixed and who produced or engineered the album. To some, this is like reading Leviticus. To me, it was the album as epic tale.

Over time, I began to make connections between bands from what I found in the liner notes. Jeff “Skunk” Baxter played guitar on Steely Dan albums, but also played on the Michael McDonald version of the Doobie Brothers (not to be confused with the Tom Johnston version). Jackson Browne, Linda Ronstadt, James Taylor, The Eagles, and Poco had this long intertwined relationship of musicians moving in and out of bands and playing on each other’s albums. Waddy Wachtel, Russ Kunkel, Leland Sklar, and Jeff Porcoro were names that I knew, session musicians who appeared on favorite albums of mine with regularity. I began paying attention to the archaeology of bands, their sedimentations over time. I knew the difference between the Bernie Leadon version of the Eagles and the Joe Walsh version. Similarly, I knew the Randy Meisner songs on those albums as well as the Poco connection of Timothy B. Schmidt who eventually replaced Meisner. I can tell a Greg Rollie Journey song from a Jonathan Cain Journey song, the successive keyboardists for the band. I could go on and on, but the point is I was hungry for every morsel of information I could gather from the bands whose music I loved. I wanted to live as much as I could in the world those albums created.

During this time, certain albums marked me deeply. Boston’s debut album was like nothing I’d ever heard before, a wall of sound that filled every inch of my listening capacity. The successive Steely Dan albums, Aja and Gaucho, blended jazz and rock in ways that just made me feel cool for just listening to it. They made me feel sophisticated, a connoisseur of fine music. Hotel California, Rumors, Frampton Comes Alive, Physical Graffiti, Songs in the Key of Life, The Dark Side of the Moon, all came out on top of each other and my world was full of music.  

This kind of relationship with albums continues today. I still have the turntable my parents gave me when I graduated from college and most of the albums I bought in those early years of listening. I’ve started buying vinyl again, filling in my Dylan and Tom Petty collections, and buying newer stuff like Spoon, Gary Clark Jr., Margret Glaspy, Leon Bridges and The Avett Brothers. My kids all like music and I pride myself on being able to find new artists before they do. 

Beyond albums, however, there are two other factors that deepened my relationship with music. Exploring the novels and essays by Nick Hornby, which prominently feature music, provided new possibilities for exploring my obsessive relationship with music. Music plays a prominent role in a novel like High Fidelity or Juliet, Naked, but as a way to carry other themes, like making meaning and commitments in a world in the absence of authoritative cultural narratives. Hornby’s essays are about songs or albums, but they’re not about them really at all. The music  serves as prompts for cultural commentary, ways to enter a discussion about things that matter, like love and death and joy and regret on familiar terms, terms most of us have spinning on a loop somewhere in our collective soundtrack. 

High Fidelity is a great novel, but it’s absolutely my favorite movie of all time. The setting is a record store (in Chicago in the movie version) owned by an aimless and commitment challenged character named Rob, played by John Cusack, and his two slacker “employees,” Barry and Dick, played brilliantly by Jack Black and Todd Louiso. I’ll spare you the movie review, but want to highlight two features of the film. To underscore the point I made in the previous paragraph, the soundtrack is phenomenal and music is the vehicle that carries the movie, but the movie is about what it means to be human in a world where external sources of authority no longer provide norms for things like relationships. In that kind of world, we’re all on our own to find some kind of meaningful line between the serial episodes of our lives. Which brings me to the second feature of the movie. Meaning is made throughout the movie by way of the playlist. It is a way to structure our experience, like the musical score of our life. Playlists are expressive of identity, both our own, and the identities of the ones we share them with.

A good part of my life is spent in the pursuit of making the sublime playlist. Spotify and other music services have made the possibilities endless. I make playlists for the different moods my life might take on a given day. I have joy playlists and mellow playlists and sad playlists. I have genre playlists. I have playlists that remind me of certain places or events in my life. I have more than 100 playlists in my Spotify library, and in comparison to the prolific-ness of some of my friends, I don’t consider this obsessive in the least. While albums are about the band, the playlist is about me.

One last piece about my relationship with music. When I was preaching regularly, I made it a habit to always have a novel and a biography going. Many of the biographies I have read have been about musicians. I love knowing their stories and their influences. I love the name dropping and the behind the scenes details on the making of an album. I’ve read biographies about the Beatles, Tom Petty, Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, Marvin Gaye, and others. But I like the autobiographies more. Springsteen’s is nothing short of brilliant. I love Dylan’s genre busting Chronicles, Part I. I’ve read Clapton’s and Elvis Costello’s. Hearing the artist’s voice in prose amplifies their songs, making the connections more immediate and vivid. A good biography finds a life’s voice by turning the events of a life into a meaningful plot. It renders a world, the world of a person’s life. In the same way, I love music documentaries, an obsession more readily satisfied with the growth of services like Netflix and Amazon Prime.

All of this is allows me to have a sense of the “world” of the artist. I know titles like “the gospel according to…” are en vogue, but I find it more accurate and useful to say that I’m after the rhetorical world an artist’s music makes. And those worlds have been life giving.

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Ministry in the shape of a story

“We tell stories to live.” So begins the great book, Mighty Stories, Dangerous Rituals (Anderson and Foley). I feel like I don’t even need to explain this statement because it’s so self-evident to us. We are a story telling, story living people.

So, it is not surprising that much of Scripture comes to us in narrative form. Even the books of the law in the OT come to us primarily as narratives. Still, we expect instruction on how things should go with church to come to us in a form other than a story.

Imagine my excitement when apostle-con was announced for Detroit to be held at the MGM-Grand Casino. All the big biblical writers will be there. And just in time, because ministry has gotten hairy and I’m in over my head. I could use some wise counsel.

When I arrive there’s a long line. I have brought my autograph copy of Galatians and I’m hoping to get Paul to sign it. I’m hoping my place in line coincides with an opening in front of Paul, or even Peter. Imagine my disappointment when I get Matthew. And he senses it and asks me, “Why the long face?” “Well,” I explain, “things are tough at church and I came today hoping to get a little practical help.” He nods knowingly and says, “I’ve been there. I was serving a church in the midst of some pretty significant transition. All the labels had been changed and we were lost. Let me tell you a story. The birth of Jesus took place in this way… .”

It wasn’t what I expected, but it’s my favorite all-time apostle-con.

So, the question is, what is it in the form of a story that makes it an effective way of addressing ministry concerns. What is a gospel trying to do? How does it accomplish this? What are the rhetorics of a gospel? What are the rhetorics of ministry? What does ministry look like in narrative form? Or, maybe better put, what are the rhetorics of “gospel” and what can they tell us about ministry?

Here are some initial observations.

  1. The narrative form allows Jesus to speak directly to the church even in their current circumstances. While the gospel writer is mediating this encounter through the choices made in story selection, story order, and editorial liberty (redaction), still it is Jesus’ voice the church is to hear. This is more than a parlor trick or a passive aggressive way of getting Jesus to sponsor your agenda. I am convinced that these writers made the choices they did and took certain liberties under the conviction that the risen Lord was still present to his people. While I think we should be careful today to respect our double mediation, gospel writer to me, me with the church, I think it is incumbent on leaders to let Jesus speak in the present tense to the church. It is Christ’s church, not our own.
  2. A story is both a direct and indirect way of engaging an audience. The features of character and plot draw us both through what’s familiar and unfamiliar. We identify with the story intensely, but a distant. It is about us, but at a distance. We can identify the rich young man, but we are not the rich young man. We recognize Peter and Mary, but we are not Peter and Mary. This intense identification at a distance allows people the space they need to consider how their own lives are implicated by the story without being scolded or reprimanded. I have become convinced the hard way that the way to make sure you don’t get what you want is to preach about it. That kind of direct action is rightly, in my opinion, resisted by the congregation.
  3. The gospel writers all lift the veil from time to time to leave no doubt that the situations confronting their life have been anticipated in the life of Jesus. When Jesus says in Matthew, “I have come not to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law…whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me… “(10:34-38), he is not speaking in the abstract, but to Christians who have been excommunicated from synagogues and divided from their families. When Jesus says to his disciples in Luke, “they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name,” (21:12) we know that these things happen in the book of Acts. We could repeat examples like these from Mark and John, but I am simply making the point that the audience would have no trouble knowing that this is a story told for them in their concrete circumstances.
  4. The narrative form allows multiple things to be happening at once. They are porous and possess a surplus of meaning. For instance, the gospel stories function in relation to a literary audience, e.g. scribes and pharisees and the twelve, but also to a public audience, churches or seekers, both ancient and modern. They also are spacious enough to carry forward echoes and allusions from both Scripture and the contemporary situation. We hear Isaiah in the speeches of character and notice elements from the Exodus story being repeated. As we noticed in the point above, these narrative can also carry allusions to our lives. They can speak to multiple realities at once without having to break character or suspend the story for the sake of an extended editorial. The gospels are densely articulated worlds, the narrative form allowing multiple things to be accomplished at once. The applications here to ministry are perhaps less direct, though I have written elsewhere of how these features of NT writings might be applied to preaching. Here, I can say that in comparison, we typically use forms of rhetoric that are flatter, thinner, and less spacious because we are trying to get our agenda accomplished.

Well, this is a start. I know I need to explain more fully what I mean be each of these. That’s what a book is for.

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The Gospels and Ministry

I took Theology of Ministry from my father while working on my MDiv at Pepperdine University. He taught the course completely from the gospels. While Paul and other NT writers undoubtedly have some very important things to say about ministry, dad felt like the gospels were sorely neglected in this regard and that an entire semester would be well spent reading deeply in each with a theology of ministry in mind.

I not only benefitted greatly from his approach then, but it has launched my own deep interests in how ministry is being presented alongside the ministry of Jesus.

It’s easy to see why the epistles and even Acts would be considered before the gospels in defining ministry, especially for those from my tribe, Churches of Christ. Some in our movement actually taught that the gospels belonged to a prior dispensation and, therefore, didn’t apply directly to the church. Only things subsequent to Pentecost should serve as a guide for the pattern of the church today. And there are things discussed in the epistles that seem to make this a straighter line to how we view the church today. We have more advice being made directly to first century churches about matters ranging from church organization to discipline to worship. We have direct descriptions, for instance, of what it might require to be an evangelist or elder or deacon. We have enough concrete description to make the business of duplicating “New Testament Christianity” seem tangible.

There are, of course, major problems with this way of thinking. First, it assumes a uniformity of practice among NT churches and, therefore, downplays the evident diversity. Second, it assumes that this is the right use of documents written thousand of years ago. We wrongly read these writings as instruction manuals for our time, which would make those provided by IKEA clear by contrast. Third, and more importantly, it fails to see the purpose of the writing of the gospels. They weren’t written primarily to set the record straight. Taken together, they refuse harmonization in terms of details, ordering of events, and even portrayals of the significance of Jesus. Instead, they were written to set churches straight. They are attempts to let the risen and living Christ speak again to churches as they encounter the challenges of the living out their faith. All of the gospels were written after Pentecost, some much, much later, and so all assumed real life churches as their audience. Put another way, they were written to shape how we think about ministry, and with direct reference to the life of Jesus. Put that in your pipe, Paul.

My odometer hit sixty this year. That changes how you think about your life. I’m on the back nine of life and have less than a decade left before I retire, hopefully (though I will greet you warmly at Walmart after that). My life’s interests are just different now. My top three interests are granddaughters, Autumn, Mya, and Clara. I find myself caring less and less about sports. I have no ambitions to have a higher position or take on more responsibility. Rather, I want to devote as much time as I can reflecting and writing on the things that have been at the heart of my life for the past forty years.

I’ve got one manuscript complete and two more in the works. And this is a third one I have in mind. Ministry from the gospels. Other have written already in this area. I think specifically of David Bartlett’s fine book, Ministry in the New Testament, which devotes a chapter to each gospel. But I think there’s still room for a deeper dive, specifically as we think about ministry in a new missional era.

So, I’m going to be devoting a lot of my blog space in the next few weeks framing out some perspectives on ministry from the gospels. I know I have ideas. I don’t know if I have a book. But at the very least, thinking about these things will occasion rich conversations with my dad.

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Waiting and the Shape of the Kingdom of God

The gospel texts for the last two Sundays have been parables from Matthew that have to do with waiting. The first is the parable of the ten virgins who are waiting with their lamps for the arrival of the bridegroom. The second is the parable of the harsh landowner who leaves three of his servants with money to invest in anticipation of his return. The setting for both is the coming day of the Lord, with the destruction of Jerusalem foretold as a sign of the end of the age which precedes these parables, and the dividing of the sheep from the goats in the judgement immediately following them. Taken together, this section of Matthew seems to be saying things are not as they will be. Wait as a wise person would wait. Live in keeping with these outcomes in mind. Be ready (cf. Matthew 24-25).

Those who have enough oil to keep their lamps trimmed will be wise in light of the realities of the coming age. The one who buries money in the ground out of fear rather than investing it in anticipation of the return of the master is foolish. These seem to be parables that correspond to Jesus’ saying at the end of the Sermon on the Mount about wise and foolish persons. While you wait, be wise and not foolish. Choose rock, not sand. You know the nature of what is coming. You know it will get worse before it gets better. You know that care for the prisoner, the hungry, and the naked will make you either a sheep and not a goat. Be wise as you wait. (For a great sermon on the ten virigns, check out my colleague, Natalie Magnusson’s, sermon

None of this mitigates the fact that we live our Christian existence in a time of waiting. We’ve tasted what’s coming. We know who Jesus is and are confident that his being lord in relation to the kingdom of God by virtue of the resurrection will bring all death-dealing powers to an end. We have the first fruits of the Holy Spirit, God’s pledge to us that all things will one day be transformed according to the purposes of God. We live in these tangible signs of hope now, but we are still waiting. We are waiting for justice. We are waiting for our bodies to be redeemed. We are waiting for the meek to inherit the earth. We are waiting for the powerful to be brought down from their thrones. We are waiting for swords to be beaten into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks, and for the lion to lie down with the lamb. We are waiting on God.

And this is the crucial thing. We are waiting on God. If we trust God’s coming future, and if we have tasted that the Lord is good, then our prayer is for God to work in the world for the sake of his reputation. Hallow your name. Bring your kingdom. Make it on earth as it is in heaven.

Too often we are waiting on something else, and not God. We are waiting on election results. We are waiting for power. We wait putting our trust in princes and rulers. We are waiting on a cure. We are waiting on others to live up to our expectations. We wait for the job that will make us feel whole. We wait while building on the sand. We spend our oil waiting on the wrong things. We bury hope, like so many talents, in the ground. We wait foolishly.

I have to say, that I’m uneasy with where this line of argumentation could lead. This sounds like resignation. But elections do matter. The details and circumstances of our lives matter. Black lives matter. Isn’t Matthew just giving us permission to say “God has this, I’ll just sing praise songs about how great my God is and do what’s best for me and mine.”

Here’s our problem. We think of waiting as doing nothing, as resignation. But this is not the view from Matthew. There is nothing to be done about whether or not we will wait. It’s baked in to what it means to be human in time and space. We are all waiting for one thing or another. And we are all doing things while we wait. The question from Matthew’s gospel is, are we wise or are we foolish as we wait?

Foolish waiting would be striving after things not related to God’s promised future. Here, we fill up our waiting with anxiety about our place in the world, and so act to preserve our power or ability to control our own destinies. “You fool, who can add a single day to his life by feeding this anxiety” (Rough translation). It is a world built on fear and self-dealing, not a world built on trust and self-giving. This is neurotic waiting and it creates a world of winners and losers, of privileged and not privileged, of have’s and have-not’s.

The followers of Jesus, in contrast, seek first the kingdom of God, trusting that all else will take care of itself. Waiting in this case, is not filled with protecting your treasure out of fear and burying it in the ground. But waiting here is investing in what will endure in the age to come. It includes feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and visiting those in prison, activity which makes little sense in terms of return on investment unless you believe that this in keeping with God’s promised future related to the kingdom of God. This, in the words of my friend Natalie, is the oil in our lamps that let’s us see the return of the bridegroom. This waiting is not anxious or neurotic, because we have learned not to be worried about what we will eat or wear. We have learned to be like the birds of the air and the flowers in the field. This is wise waiting because it is filled with activity related to God’s interests in the world. It is waiting in trust. It is waiting that prays, “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven,” and then it is the waiting that is busy with anticipation of the realization of that kingdom. It is the waiting that lives as if God’s promised future is real.

In my estimation, much of American Christianity, particularly among the culturally privileged, is characterized by foolish waiting. We have spent our oil in pursuits not in keeping with the outcomes of the kingdom of God, namely those related to preserving our own power and wellbeing. We have waited in fear, anxious and neurotic, airing our grievances and attacking those we perceive as threats to our way of life. And to the extent that this is true, we have missed the opportunity to find Jesus in the hungry, in the naked, in the prisoner. We might very well find that we have buried our treasure in the ground.

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Discovering Luke’s Story of the Ascension

Yesterday, one of the lectionary readings was from Acts 1:6-11. My worshipping community typically practices Dwelling in the Word instead of having a sermon, and so Acts 1 was the text we all shared around. It’s Luke’s longer account (he has a brief account at the end of the gospel) of the ascension of Jesus.

The text stopped all of us at two points, both questions. “Is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” And, “Why do you stand looking into heaven?” I think this demonstrates both Luke’s narrative artistry and the good reading instincts of my worshipping community. Both questions focus your attention, and for us created puzzles we wanted solved.

The question about the kingdom tended to throw people around the inclusion of the word “Israel.” This seemed to some to be a nationalistic question by the disciples, a political rather than a spiritual reading. However, if you read Luke-Acts closely, this is just the right question. Lots of evidence to cite here. I’ll just give two examples, one from this very verse.

When Simeon takes the infant Jesus into his arms in the temple, Luke tells us he has been looking for the “consolation of Israel,” a reference to Isaiah 40 (and other texts in Is), in which the prophet imagines the end of exile and the direct rule of the Lord over a restored Israel. The coming of the Lord, Simeon proclaims, will be a “a light of revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel” (Luke 1:32). A few verses later we meet Anna, a devout prophet who “began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem” (1:38). Restoring the kingdom to Israel under the reign of the Lord is what this story has been about from the very beginning.

Acts 1:8 provides the second clue: “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Luke gives us more than a travelogue here. This is a geography of the kingdom restored to Israel. Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, give us a picture of a restored kingdom, north and south brought together again. To “the ends of the earth” restores to Israel the divine calling of being a blessing to all nations. The apostles have asked the right question. Jesus resists the question of time, but is responsive to the question of restoring the kingdom to Israel by showing the apostles how their being witnesses serves that very end.

This part of 1:6-11 I had already discovered. The text surprised me in putting together the puzzle of verses 10-11. Two men in white suddenly appear as Jesus is taken up into heaven and ask the apostles, “Men of Galilee, why do you stare up looking into heaven?” The detail of the two men in white grabbed my curiosity. There are plenty of angels in Luke’s gospel and they are named as such. They typically frighten those who see them, which doesn’t happen here. Instead, we have two men dressed in white, yet who seem to have heavenly insight into the story. Is there anywhere else in Luke featuring two men dressed in white?

Why yes, it turns out there is another place: the story of the transfiguration in Luke 9. As you remember, Jesus’ appearance is changed and “his clothes became dazzling white.” Two men appear, Moses and Elijah, and they too “appeared in glory.” Here’s the kicker though. While Matthew and Mark also have an account of the transfiguration, only Luke tells us that they were speaking to Jesus “of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.” This story clearly foreshadows the ascension story in Acts, where we have Jesus’ departure and two men dressed in white. While the two men in white remain anonymous in Acts 1, the reader is clearly meant to recall the appearance of Moses and Elijah in Luke 9. I’m still thinking through the implications of this game changer.

Ok, let me just make a few observations here. First, each gospel is its own literary world. There are literary clues that tie episodes together in ways that don’t transfer between gospels. Don’t use Matthew and Mark to interpret Luke. Second, when we read with the historical question, “what happened?”, we often miss the literary world being created by the author. Third, a puzzling detail to us is 1) an invitation to get out our concordances and look for connections between texts, and 2) an invitation to suspend our assumptions for the sake of something new appearing.

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Weeping and Rejoicing Together as the Body of Christ

I had a conversation with a pastor friend the other day about intercessory prayer. Don’t get excited, I don’t know what it’s all about or how it “works” either. To quote another friend of mine, my batting average is pretty low in terms of success to request ratio. I do have friends whose success rate does appear higher than mine. In uncanny and specific ways, their prayers seem to have an affect on their world. I can say that I pray more than I used to, and I think prayer does more than make me a more attentive person. It’s more than just thinking good thoughts. But, honestly, it’s a mystery to me.

Yesterday, I was blogging about the pandemic and the assurance of God’s presence in our suffering given Jesus’ own suffering on the cross. And this problem of prayer came back around. There is no guarantee that Christ’s presence on the cross will make a material difference on the circumstances of a person’s suffering. And when it’s suffering we’re talking about, “spiritual” victories don’t count for that much. I’d rather skip the upgrade in character and have the suffering come to an end.

I always lead in conversations like this with Jesus’ own words, “it rains on the just and unjust alike.” God’s not sitting back picking winners in life, collecting prayer tokens and awarding prizes. Christians aren’t exempt from the Coronavirus or the “invisible hand” of the market (sounds like a principality and power to me) that determines whether or not you get to keep your job or your health insurance. I’m also convinced that while some suffering is wasteful and useless, other suffering is noble and gives meaning to life. So why would Christians think they are immune?

I also consider that too often our views of God’s sovereignty are just wrong. God is not sovereign over creation in the sense of control or micromanagement. There is not a proximate divine cause for everything in life. God would order the world, not through control (like the Gentiles do), but through self-giving love which refuses to lord it over anything. So, the question of God’s presence in any given circumstance is as complex and mysterious as love.

Still, why do some people experience suffering as God’s forsakenness and others as God’s abiding presence? I’m convinced it’s not because of their theology or the strength of their faith. And I should add at this point that I’ve seen remarkable things, remarkable answers to prayer and instantaneous healing. And I’ve seen prayerful, godly people wither on the vine of suffering.

Yesterday, however, a new angle of perspective hit me as I pondered all of this. It may be old ground for others, but for me it was a fresh perspective. I think I’m right, but I might not be. I don’t even know if it’s mature enough reflection to say it well. But I think it has promise, so here goes.

Christ is the location of God’s response to the trouble of the world. God may be any number of places in the world, but with regard to the world’s trouble, God is where Christ is. And we know Christ in relation to the world, primarily in the paradigmatic event of the death and resurrection. There, in Christ, suffering and joy are held together. None of us, individually, are Christ’s presence in the world. Our individual lives are insufficient to encompass the whole experience of Christ in the world. I am not the body of Christ. We are the body of Christ. And collectively, we bear the sorrow and joy of the world as Christ does.

We can’t validate the presence or absence of God in relation to a single human life, neither in the experience of abject sorrow or unbridled joy. We can’t say to the one who rejoices, “here is the evidence of God’s presence in your life,” just as we can’t say to the sufferer, “you have been abandoned by God.” Instead, we bear all things together as a community, as the body of Christ in the world. The blessing is not in the joy or the sorrow, but in being “in Christ.” And I don’t mean this in a “I get to go to heaven in the end” kind of way. The blessing is the way of life we learn in Christ that holds the entire world together in the love of God, which is ours in Christ Jesus. We do not live to ourselves or die to ourselves, but we live and die for him who died and was raised for us (2 Cor 5). The only blessing is learning to live this way in the wide presence of God in Christ, where we learn to weep with those who weep and rejoice with those who rejoice.

One last thought for now. This is not simply a way of brave resignation to whatever comes our way in life. Resurrection says that life always overcomes death. We want suffering alleviated. We should pray for it without ceasing, every single time. And we should live to alleviate where we can. We want to celebrate life and give ourselves to the things that are life-giving. But God does not woo us through reward, but through love. And his love is demonstrated to us and to the world by being present to us in the most abject of circumstances. So, we long for the day when God will be all in all, and we give ourselves now to the well being of others as a testimony to the resurrection. But together, we also live as a sign of God’s suffering presence in the world, in Christ, in the body of Christ broken for the world, in sorrow and in joy. To him be glory in the church.

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Pandemics, Death and Resurrection, and Wailing Walls

I’ve been thinking a lot about the tasks of congregational leadership in a pandemic. My impression is that my friends who are in full-time ministry are busier now with fewer tasks. I think there’s something to learn from all of that. Making our lists smaller is always a good thing. The pandemic may be teaching us what is truly essential to being a church.

But I’ve been thinking more about a leadership skill that might get swallowed up in the urgent business of keeping the trains running on time. I am convinced that effective leaders have the capacity to narrate the congregation’s life in such a way that God is a credible actor in the activity of the congregation. This is different than casting vision, which can come from the private imagination of the leader or a group of leaders and might have little to do with God as an actor in the congregation’s life. I think naming God as a credible actor comes primarily through the experience of the congregation, not the imagination of the leader(s). Leaders is cultivate the environment in which the experiences of members can be articulated, curated, reflected upon, and given back to the congregation as a confession of what God has been up to.

So, how do you do this in the midst of a pandemic? In a time of social distancing and sheltering at home, I’ve been struck by how strong the desire is for people to make meaningful contact with one another. People are “zoom”-ing to connect and share their lives with one another. Many of them have time they’ve never had before (unfortunately), and all seem to crave connection. This has to be a time for collecting stories from the pandemic. One way my worshipping community is doing this is through the practice of examen. We simply share the places where we are finding life and where life is being taken from us. It is alternately joyful and painful to hear stories of unexpected blessing and real, heartbreaking loss.

The stories of loss, I fear, are still largely out in front of us. While hopefully the infection rate and numbers of deaths will decline in the next few months, life will never be normal again. The economic and social dislocations will be real, painful, and full of grief.

I cringe every time I hear leaders try to answer the question of why God would cause something like this. This is simply the wrong question. The God who is revealed in Jesus Christ, and paradigmatically in his death and resurrection, is known in a love that goes to the very depths of human experience. The reality of God on a cross says that there is no circumstance in all of creation that can separate us from the love of God which is our in Christ Jesus: not nakedness or famine or peril or pandemic or sword. The cross has no answer for the “why” of the pandemic. But the cross does point to the question of “where.” God, in Christ, is with the most vulnerable.

So, if we’re to recognize God in our own lives, the death of Jesus suggests that God will be present to us in our loss. And perhaps in ways that are more dramatic and recognizable. This does not mean that the things we lose will be recovered or regained somehow. How can they be? It doesn’t mean things will necessarily get better. They might not. But God will be present to us in the suffering body of Christ, and this includes his body, the church. I’ve come to realize that no single life bears fully the life of Christ, especially this side of the eschaton. What we experience of Christ, we experience collectively in his body, in the variety of our experiences. Which is why to know the fullness of Christ requires that we weep with those who are weeping and rejoice with those who rejoice.

Of course, the cross is not the last word for those in Christ. There is also resurrection. There will be life beyond our loss, and even in the midst of it. There will be opportunities to rejoice together, not just in new jobs or recovery from illness, but in the inexhaustible stores of life we will discover through our shared life in Christ. There will be surprising things, things that surpass what we can imagine, and they should be celebrated.

We can celebrate without too much difficulty, but our death denying culture has robbed us of the capacity to grieve without shame. We can’t lament.

So, if you can’t tell, I think leaders should be collecting and curating stories of death and resurrection, of loss and unexpected life. I was talking about this last week with one of my students who leads a church in Atlanta, and we talked about the need for a wailing wall in the church. A physical location that bears our wounds, that names them and recognizes them. I got this text today: “In my sermon Sunday I talked about having a “Wailing Wall” in the lobby. The response has been overwhelming. One member, who struggles with faith because of suffering in the world, said he felt himself thinking about turning to joy. So, we are going to build a “Wall of Lament” for our lobby! Thought you’d like to know”


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