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Henri J. M. NouwenMarch 15, 1980

During the last few months I have been grappling with the complex question of how the different ministries within the church are interrelated. Just when I was tempted to draw an intricate chart with red, purple and black lines, some exciting fold-outs and many arrows pointing this way and that, I came across a very simple story about a monk and a cripple:

“Going to town one day to sell some small articles, Abba Agathon (one of the Egyptian Fathers) met a cripple on the roadside, paralyzed in his legs, who asked him where he was going. Abba Agathon replied, 'To town, to sell some things.' The other said, 'Do me the favor of carrying me there. 'So he carried him to the town. The cripple said to him, 'Put me down 'here you sell your wares.' He did so. When he had sold an article, the cripple asked, 'What did you sell it for?' and he told him the price. The other said, 'Buy me a cake,' and he bought it. When Abba Agathon had sold a second article, the sick man asked, ‘How much did you sell it for?' and he told him the price of it. Then the other said, 'Buy me this,' and he bought it. When Agathon, having sold all wares, wanted to go, he said to him, 'Are you going back?' and he replied, ‘Yes.’ Then said he, 'Do me the favor of carrying me back to the place where you me.' Once more picking him up, he carried him back to that place. Then the cripple said, 'Agathon, you are filled with divine blessings, in heaven and on earth.' " Raising his eyes, Agathon saw no man; it was an angel of the Lord" (The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, trans. Benedicta Ward, Kalamazoo, Mich.: Cistercian Publications, 1975).

This simple story leads us right to the heart of the Christian ministry. It makes us realize that ministers are men and women without power who live in the name of their Lord and often see Him when they least expect it.

Without Power

Ministers are powerless. Abba Agathon did not have any great plans or projects. He wasn't even thinking about helping the sick, the poor and the oppressed. He was simply going to the market to sell some small articles, probably some baskets he had woven in his cell. Agathon was a man without power or influence and therefore a man without cares and worries. When he met the cripple, the cripple told him what to do. He made himself available to the cripple and obeyed him. He did not lead but was led, seemingly even misled.

At first I found the story of Agathon and the cripple irritating. This tale clearly shows how a sick person uses his illness to manipulate a naive minister who is still wet behind the ears. It proves that ministers need training so they won't become victims of the selfish purposes of parishioners and patients. How often have I been taken by beggars of all sorts who knew quite well my ministerial soft spot and did not hesitate to exploit it to the hilt! Yes, I had better prepare myself so I won't fall into such traps. If I really want a place in the world of the professionals, I had better know the difference between serving my neighbors and being manipulated by them. A little study in the area of human motivation won't hurt.

Agathon does not think in this way. He is telling us that real ministers, real servants, are powerless. They cannot even decide how they will be servants. If training and formation are valuable, it is not because they offer us some power, but because they lead us to a powerless availability. To be a minister is to be without power. Doctors have their stethoscopes, psychologists their diagnostic tools, city planners their blueprints and politicians their long-range plans, but ministers have nothing with which to exercise power or wield influence. Ministers do not even have the power of knowledge. Their years of study only lead them to the humble awareness of the inscrutable mystery of God and to the ever deepening realization that in God's presence they can only stutter, or better, remain silent.

When we begin to live out this powerlessness we discover what real ministry is. Why? Because one thing is certain: Beneath the surface of a very intimidating technological world, with its complex businesses, armies and hospitals, its imposing highrises, oil tankers and nuclear plants and its bewildering bureaucracies, there is a hidden but ever growing sense of powerlessness. Even those who push the buttons and pull the strings are more and more aware of how insecure and trembling they are behind impressive facades. Our time--a time after Hiroshima, Auschwitz, Watergate and Vietnam--has radically unmasked our illusions of efficiency and control and has left modern men and women with a new and often paralyzing sense of powerlessness. Our Western society is showing its technological muscles in ever more threatening ways, but the experience of fear, anxiety and even despair has increased in equal proportion. Indeed, the paradox is that the powerful giants feel as powerless as a new-born babe.

To be a minister means above all to become powerless, or in more precise terms, to speak with our powerlessness to the condition of powerlessness which is so keenly felt but so seldom expressed by the people of our age. The first gift a minister has to offer is solidarity in powerlessness. Through their powerlessness, ministers can enter into those fields of human experience which remain largely hidden from the public eye but continue to be the main source of human suffering. It is precisely the great discrepancy between the outer manifestation of power and the inner experience of powerlessness that has driven many "successful people" into deep depression and even suicide. It certainly is not surprising that an increasing number of men and women, yes, even boys and girls, find it easier to take their life than to live.

The empty-handed, vulnerable, powerless minister belongs to the few who can still journey into this fearful region of the self and offer hope. But before exploring what "giving hope" means, I would like to explore two ministerial temptations: the temptation to recapture power through Word and sacrament and the temptation to recapture power through individualism.

One of the most serious temptations of the minister is to say: "Professionals have their professional tools. My tools are the Word and the sacraments. That is where my real power is. I learned to use these spiritual tools in the seminary, and they give me my unique place in the circle of the professionals. I can do something that no doctor, no social worker, no psychologist, no businessman and no politician can do. When it comes to a real life crisis, people need me and I can speak and act in a powerful way. When people are born I baptize them, when they reach maturity I confirm them, when they want to build a home I marry them, when they are near death I offer them the sacred oil and all through life I strengthen them with the words of the Scriptures and nurture them with the sacred gifts of bread and wine. And so it is that in the Word and the sacrament my real power rests!"

Although few would use these words, many act according to them. It is our ever-present temptation to give up our powerlessness and use ministry, servanthood, as power. Whenever we use the Word and the sacraments to exercise power we betray our vocation. The Word is not intended to be used as a pep talk to make us feel better, but to make present to us the Man of sorrows who humbled Himself and became a slave for our sake. The sacramental gifts are not meant to be given as pills for spiritual healing, but as God's mysterious ways of connecting all of our life with the saving life of Him who emptied Himself on the Cross. The Word and the sacraments are concrete reminders that God revealed Himself to us as "a lamb led to the slaughterhouse, as a sheep that is dumb before its shearers" (Is. 53:7). If this could only be more deeply understood and lived out, the many power games between bishops, priests, religious and lay people could be seen for what they are.

If bishops and priests would be more deeply aware that Word and sacrament are God's way of revealing His voluntary powerlessness to us, they would no longer cling to them as privileges to be defended against women and lay people. If women and lay people could become more conscious that the call to preach the Word and to celebrate the sacraments is a call to powerlessness, they would no longer claim this call in the name of equal power and equal rights. If Word and sacrament could be removed from the shelf of professional tools and experienced as participation in the humbling way of Christ, lay men and women, sisters and brothers, deacons, priests and bishops might find it much easier to enter into a creative dialogue about the many ways in which the presence of the powerless Christ could be made visible in the daily life of the church.

There is, however, a second temptation in ministry: the temptation to give up powerlessness through spiritual pioneerism. One of the most conspicuous forms of faithlessness in the ministry is the blatant individualism. of the ministers. Seminaries often seem to be training grounds for individual stardom. But Jesus did not send His disciples out one by one. He ordered them to go out together. The powerlessness of the minister reveals itself when the ministry is perceived and lived out as a shared vocation. Much competition and rivalry within the ministry, as well as much of the loneliness and frustration of ministers, find their basis in this rugged individualism."

Most bishops had little experience, while they were priests, of working closely with men and women in the ministry, and priests seldom come together to explore their mutual ministries. Many rectories house lonely bachelors. And thus, powerlessness remains a theoretical concept because a real community of the weak in which Christ is present is seldom realized and given visibility. Still, as soon as powerlessness becomes a lived experience, it leads spontaneously to the formation of community. Voluntarily chosen powerlessness leads to the deep desire to enter with others into community and thus give visibility to a shared faith, a shared home and a shared love. When we have nothing to cling to as our own and cease thinking of ourselves as people who must defend privileges, we can open ourselves freely to others with the faithful expectation that our strength will manifest itself in our shared weakness.

The church suffers from a lack of creative ministry. Everywhere there are thousands of people searching for a comforting word, needing a hand or an embrace and hungering to hear the story that can give meaning to their existence. At the same time, there are thousands of lay men and women, sisters, brothers, priests and bishops who want to respond. But the rampant individualism and the overwhelming rivalry and competition between all those who want to be of service seem to be among the demon's most successful strategies for paralyzing the people of God during one of the most crucial periods of history.

The witness for Christ is a common witness in which those who want to be of service begin by serving each other, washing each other's feet and asking each other's constant forgiveness for any way by which they deny their powerlessness. We should never forget that the way we live and work together is the first and most important way of ministry because this is where the servanthood of Jesus Christ becomes visible. This raises the very question: "Who ministers to the minister?" I do not believe that a mature and healthy ministry is possible unless the ministers minister first of all to each other. Ministers are sinful, broken, fragile people. They can only care for the wounds of others if they allow their fellow ministers to pay careful attention to their own wounds.

The temptations to cling to the Word and the sacraments as privileges and to make ministry a form of individual stardom are the main obstacles to a shared ministry. To the degree that these temptations are fought and overcome, the servanthood of the powerless Christ can reveal itself to those who experience their powerlessness as a source of despair. Here we can see how solidarity in powerlessness offers hope. In shared powerlessness we can come to the realization that all powerlessness is rooted in our mortality, the mortality which God Himself wanted to share. In ministry we make ourselves and each other aware that through Jesus Christ, who dies with and for us, death has lost its final claim on us and has become the gate to the full knowledge of God's mercy. We now need to explore how to make a life of powerlessness a source of hope.

In the Name

Ministers are powerless, but they live in the name of their Lord. Abba Agathon, having followed all the directions of the cripple, was praised with the words: "Agathon, you are filled with divine blessings in heaven and on earth." Agathon was not a passive wanderer who simply went along with whatever happened to him on his journey, but a man who was actively following a divine call. Agathon was not a dropout living without purpose, but a man whose mind and heart were set on God's kingdom and His righteousness (Mt. 6:33). He was not empty of spiritual gifts, but filled with divine blessings, not without direction, but guided by his Lord, not nameless, but with the divine name written on his heart.

Here we touch the mystery of ministry. Ministers are powerless people who have nothing to boast of except their weaknesses. But when the Lord whom they serve fills them with His blessing they will move mountains and change the hearts of people wherever they go. The best way to express this is with the biblical words: "In the name." Ministers are those who think, speak and act not in their own name, but in the name of their Lord. Agathon lived in the name of the Lord. His whole being, "heart, soul and mind" (Mk. 12:30), had found a dwelling place in the name and had received divine blessings there. Agathon could be a wanderer in the Egypt of his day because he had found his home in the name. He could be led wherever the cripple wanted him to go precisely because he always remained at home. He never left the infinite space of the divine name.

Jesus calls His disciples to live in His name, to pray in His name (In. 15:10), to meet in His name (Mt. 18:20), to welcome little children in His name (Mt. 18:5), to cast out devils in His name (Mk. 9:38), to work miracles in His name (Mk. 9:39) and to preach repentance to all nations in His name (Lk. 24:47). Living in the name does not refer to a functional association in which one acts instead of another who cannot be present. Rather, it points to an affectionate, intimately personal relationship. To think, speak and act in the name of the Lord means that the divine name is the sacred space in which an ongoing encounter takes place that forms the basis of all ministry. It is there that we can hear with our own ears, see with our own eyes and touch with our own hands the Word who is life and the subject of our witness (1 In. 1). The name is our dwelling place, our abode, our tent, yes, our home, It is the place where we listen to our divine Lord and receive the Word which is to be spoken. The name is the place where the future world breaks into the present world.

Are we sufficiently aware that the name of Jesus Christ is the place where we really belong? Or do our thoughts, words and actions betray the, fact that this future yet already present world is no more for us than something vague, known only through inferences and analogies and experienced only as the imaginary other side of our frustrations, pains and disappointments? Only when the name of our Lord becomes our true home can we be free to let the cripples, the lame and the blind determine the course of our earthly journey, because only then will we understand fully that the love of God and the love of neighbor cannot be separated.

To live in the name of Jesus Christ means first of all to live in intimate communion with Jesus, and through Him with our divine Father. One of the most painful and tragic aspects of the Christian ministry is that many, if not most, ministers are in touch with numerous people but out of touch with their Lord, are involved in many things but isolated from divine "affairs" (Lk. 2:49). Yet only one thing is necessary: to keep our eyes on our Lord, to remain attentive to His will and to listen with care to His voice (Lk. 10:42). If it is true that only with, in and through Jesus Christ can our ministry bear fruits, then our first and only concern must be to live in ongoing communion with Him who has sent us out to witness in His name.

Prayer is the basis and the center of all our ministry. The minister must be first and foremost a man or woman of prayer. Without prayer, ministry quickly degenerates into a busy life in which our own needs for acceptance and affection start to dominate our actions and being busy becomes a way of convincing ourselves of our importance. It is a life in which we worry about "what we are to eat, what we are to drink and how we are to be clothed" (Mt. 6:31) and end up being so preoccupied with how we are doing that indeed our own name becomes the name that really counts. Only by deep, strong and persistent prayer can we escape the illusion of self-importance through a deepening knowledge that Jesus is our Lord, our Shepherd, our Refuge and our Stronghold, our Wisdom and our Strength.

This conviction calls for very concrete and specific expression. Many ministers say to themselves, and to others that prayer is important, even essential, but there is not one hour in their day in which they are attentive to their Lord and to Him alone. Some say: "Oh, I pray while walking to work, while driving through town, while waiting for a bus, a plane or a dentist." Others say: "My work is my prayer. Studying is praying, talking is praying, writing is praying. Raking leaves, painting the house and even washing the dishes are my prayer." And there are those who say: "I pray with my people when I lead my youth group in Bible study, when I visit the sick and the dying, when I instruct parents for the baptism of their child, when I prepare boys and girls for their first Communion and confirmation, when I counsel those who want to marry and when 1 assist the dying. Most of all, I pray when I call my parishioners around the table and celebrate the Eucharist."

Who will deny the importance of this kind of prayer? Yet such remarks frequently reveal the fact that our love for our Lord has become lukewarm, that our heart is no longer burning with desire to be with Him, that a real encounter with God and Him alone has become fearful, or at least uncomfortable. This situation is not unlike that of a husband and wife who have lost the desire to be together and keep busy with their children and their work so as to avoid the truth that they have become strangers to one another.

For the ministry to be a vital event in the midst of our contemporary society, it is of crucial importance that the minister be burning with love for the Lord. This requires a deep commitment to contemplative prayer in which we enter into our closet and spend "useless time" with our Lord and Him alone. In the solitude of this closet we will slowly rediscover our first love and recognize the voice calling us again and again to selfless service. Our prayer with others, whether it be devotional or sacramental, can only be real prayer when it is warmed by the furnace of our cell, where we present ourselves in all our powerlessness and vulnerability to the Lord.

There is more, however. To live in the name of Jesus Christ also leads us into close communion with our people. In the silence of our prayer we will soon experience the presence of all those to whom we are called to minister. We cannot encounter our Lord without encountering Him as the Lord of the poor, the oppressed, the lonely, the forgotten and the despised. Thus we come to realize that prayer never excludes anyone. On the contrary, it creates that unlimited space where all who are in need can be led into the healing presence of the Lord.

Indeed, prayer is ministry. To pray is to stand in the presence of the Lord with our arms around those in our care and to say: "Look, Lord, at all those you have entrusted to me and show them your mercy."

In prayer we discover that the seemingly heavy task of ministry is in fact the easy yoke and the light burden of our Lord. There we find that all the suffering that seemed like such an excruciating load to us has already been suffered by Jesus Christ and can therefore be put on our shoulders without crushing us. In prayer we indeed discover that our people are not just a series of problems that exhaust us by their complexity, but brothers and sisters who by their suffering continue to reveal to us the compassionate heart of our Lord.

It is sad to see how many ministers harbor negative feelings toward their own people. They often experience their parishioners as irritating, petty, complaintive and a pain in the neck. Sometimes such feelings of hostility and resentment reach the point where ministers think that what they most need is to get away from their people for a day, a week or a good long vacation. Here the absence of real prayer becomes dramatically visible, People have become the minister's private burden instead of the light, sweet burden of the crucified and risen Lord.

How different it would be if we would consider it our most precious form of ministry to keep leading all those with and for whom we work into the presence of the Lord. Then the expression, "I will pray for you," would have real significance. It would mean: "I will take you with me into my solitude and plead for you to our Lord, who has assured us that no prayer will remain unheard." Then we would slowly sense the all-embracing love of God and realize that in that mysterious, virginal point where our heart and God's heart speak to each other community finds its roots.

Thus to live in the name of Jesus Christ means to live in intimate communion with Him and with all those to whom we minister. I have often wondered if many of the conflicts between the different ministers within the Christian community--bishops, priests, deacons, brothers, sisters, lay men and women--could not be dealt with in a much more creative way if these ministers were deeply convinced of their common place in the name of Christ. If all ministers would be concerned above all else to dwell in the name and to lead there all those for whom they are responsible, wouldn't they then find each other, too, and so gather on a level much deeper than any human effort could attain? And if indeed prayer would be as natural as breathing to those who call Jesus their Lord, wouldn't the most spontaneous gesture of any meeting then be to lift up hands, minds and hearts in prayer? When all of us would perceive our coming together as the ideal opportunity to pray together, then any form of competition and rivalry could be unmasked as the strategy of the evil one, and community could grow through the mutual affirmation of our different ministries. Then, too, we could begin to see more clearly the common task that binds us together.

Seeing God

Powerless ministers who live in the name of their Lord are seers of God. This is what the story of Abba Agathon shows us. After he had brought the cripple back to the place where he had picked him up and the cripple had praised him as one filled with divine blessings, Agathon raised his eyes and saw no man, but an angel of the Lord. The powerless monk who had followed obediently the directions of a cripple was rewarded for his selfless giving by a vision, a vision of the Lord in whose name he had acted. The Lord had tested his patience, had found him a faithful servant and had allowed him to see His face.

The visionary conclusion of Abba Agahon's spiritual adventure leads us to the heart of the Christian ministry. Helping the cripple was Agathon's way of seeing. The question of where and how we see God has an unambiguous answer. We see Him in the hungry, the thirsty and the naked, we see Him wherever people are in need and cry out for help. Our God, who revealed Himself to us in the humbled and broken body of Jesus Christ, continues to reveal Himself .to us wherever and whenever human suffering becomes visible.

One of the most consistent features of the Bible is the call to open our eyes and see. Those who do not believe are admonished with the words: “You see and see again, but do not perceive," while those who follow Jesus are told: "Happy are your eyes because they see" (Mt. 13:14- 16). The whole ministry of Jesus can be described as the gradual cure of human blindness, and all ministry in His name is continuation of this healing task. Ministers are called to be seers who desire to others see. In the solitude of their heart they have already become aware of the presence of their Lord, and this awareness allows them to recognize Him in the course of their daily care for others. This is the secret of ministry: It is the ongoing discovery of God's presence in the midst of the human struggle and the joyful proclamation of that discovery. When ministers are no longer surprised by the various ways in which their Lord makes His presence known, when they are no longer filled with wonder at the manifestations of His divine beauty in the daily life of His people, when they no longer sing His praises in gratitude for His ongoing revelation in human history, then they have become like the blind leading the blind. It is sad to see how many ministers have lost sight of the spark of God's presence and behave like dull hirelings who have allowed their vocation to degenerate into a routine job. The church needs seers, men and women who reveal God to their people and affirm His presence in joyful celebration. Let me therefore explore a little more this ministry of revelation and celebration.

As a seer, the minister reveals a presence that had not been noticed before. The problems of life often overwhelm us. The disappointments and disillusionments in personal and professional life tend to narrow our vision and often blind us to anything beyond our own problems. The concreteness and immediacy of present misery seldom permit sufficient distance to see and experience a larger presence. Ministry is the spiritual act of seeing and helping others see the face of God even where nothing but darkness seems to be present.

This can happen in many ways. A simple, quiet presence can be enough to create a freeing distance that allows someone to discover an unexpected perspective on a seemingly hopeless situation. Sometimes a word spoken with serenity and love can remove blindfolds and open up new horizons. It can be a sermon delivered with conviction, a letter written with care or a lecture given with clarity. It can also be the simple gesture with water, oil, bread or wine by which a life can be liberated from the narrowing constraints of momentary stress and new connections made which change the whole landscape of our inner experience. But above all, it can be the concrete act of helping others in their need by which sadness is converted to joy and eyes are opened for a new vision.

All forms of ministry are meant to reveal the deep connections of our individual broken lives with the saving life of Jesus Christ. Every time we discover again that what seemed to isolate us, make us lonely and give us a sense of disconnectedness is in fact part of a great divine mystery, our paralysis is being healed. Whenever we realize again that God Himself has become part of our daily lives and reclaim the knowledge that in Jesus Christ He has become God with us, light shines into the darkness.

Ministers are men and women who enter into the struggles and pains of their people and help them see beyond the immediacy of their own problems so that they begin to recognize that the events of their fragmented and often scattered lives are indeed deeply connected with the great event of God's redemptive work in Jesus. Thus ministers are revealers of the great presence.

This has concrete implications for the (raining and formation of ministers in whatever capacity they will work, Ministry requires ability to help people discern the actions of the Spirit of Christ in their individual and communal lives, to offer ways of being obedient to those divine actions and to give support in life decisions which often result from this obedience.

To offer this kind of spiritual leadership, ministers must know the Word of God. But they must also develop keen insight into the psychodynamics of human motivation and the socioeconomic determinants of the contemporary political scene. To reveal the presence of God requires a well-trained eye. Thus, ministers could be called spiritual diagnosticians. They are people who know concretely and specifically the lives of those to whom they minister and are able to point to the active presence of God precisely in the very concreteness and specificity of these lives.

As seers, however, ministers make God's presence visible not only in the lives of individuals but also in the life of the community. As such they are celebrants. To celebrate belongs to the very nature of the Christian ministry. Celebration is the communal affirmation that God is with His people in all their struggles, in birth as well as death, in moments of great decision as well as the routines of everyday life, in the experience of success as well as the experience of failure. To celebrate is to come together and make visible in words, songs and gestures the great mystery of God's saving presence in our midst.

In recent years, there has been much emphasis on individual pastoral care. Excellent programs have been developed to prepare people for ministry to the sick and the dying, to the elderly and to people in special need. But we should never forget that God speaks first of all to us as a people. This was not only true in the days of the Old Covenant when God led Israel from Egypt to the promised land, but also in the days of the New Covenant when Jesus said: "Where two or three meet in My name, I shall be there with them" (Mt. 4:20). The minister is called not only to respond to the needs of individuals, but also to call people together in the name of Christ so that they can recognize each other as members of one spiritual family and thus bear witness to the unifying Spirit of God. I even dare to say that individual pastoral care is the preparatory step to communal celebration. The purpose of a healing ministry is precisely to set the individual free to become a creative member of a community that witnesses to Christ without fear. The primary task of the people of God is to celebrate God's presence in history and thus form together a visible sign of hope in the midst of the world. As a people, we are called to be the visible body of Christ, the ongoing incarnation of the living Christ in time and space. It is the great mystery of God's revelation in Christ that He not only came, lived, died and rose among us, but that He continues to come, to live, to die and rise in our midst. To be a minister, therefore, means to give concrete, tangible visibility to this Christ event as it becomes present in the daily celebration of the Eucharist, as it connects with our lives in the different sacraments and as it unfolds during the seasons of Advent, Christmas, Lent, Easter and Pentecost.

What is crucial here is to be aware of the fact that anyone who is a minister, whether a lay minister, religious, priest or bishop, is called to participate in this task of celebration. If celebration is indeed essential and in a certain sense the goal of all ministry, celebration cannot be reserved for a few. This does not mean that the roles that different ministers play in the communal celebration of God's presence must be the same for everyone. In fact, full and meaningful celebration requires a great variety of ministries so that the richness of the divine presence can be disclosed. But no one should be excluded from the title "celebrant," and every minister should be challenged to explore with at hers his or her own unique responsibility in the convening of the people of God for celebration.

Thus ministers are seers who reach out to their people to reveal to them God's presence in their lives and to call them together to make this divine presence manifest in communal celebration.

I started with the story of Agathon, who was powerless, but acted in the name of Christ and was rewarded with a vision of the angel of God. This simple desert story helped me to say a few things about a spirituality of ministry.

Whatever the different ministries are within the Christian community, they are all characterized by the three aspects of the Agathon story: They are all based on voluntary powerlessness, they are lived in the name of Christ and they all are ways to see and make visible the presence of Christ in the life of the individual and the community.

This common basis for all ministries, it is hoped, can help us to explore in more detail how all of us who want to minister according to our own unique vocations can work together so that the diversity of our ministries will give increasing visibility to the ongoing ministry of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

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