Archive for March, 2012

The Problem with Lent, Part 2

Well, I appreciated the feedback that I got with my last post, “The Problem with Lent.”  In it, I asked about spiritual droughts, and particularly, what you do when you are in one.  Do you press forward with spiritual practices, even when you seem to get nothing from them?  Or do you take a break and wait for some sort of desire to return?

Honestly, the only thing I really know how to do is to press forward.  And so I did.  I actually wrote that post in the middle of last week, and so enough time has passed for me that I am in somewhat of a different place.

I caught up on my One Year Bible, reading all seven days one afternoon, mostly sitting in the library while Anna played some of their games.  A lot of people died in Numbers.  The last story I read on “catch up” day was the one where the Israelites go and conquer a bunch of people and kill all the men.  They bring the women and children back alive, and God asks them why they did that.  He then tells them to kill all the women and boys, but to save the virgins for themselves.

To be honest, I didn’t take it well.

First, I imagined if a society did that today, and then I pictured that happening to my own family.  Poor Anna!  I imagined the scene, the tears, the begging.  I wondered about the God who would order such a thing.  I was tempted to just stop thinking about it, to run and hide behind Isaiah 55:8-9.  Like I mentioned in the comments of the last blog, that just seemed like a cop out to me, though.  I have this assumption that God can handle our questions.  So I asked Him about it.  And I talked to Greg about it.  We had a really good talk, in fact.  And my friend, Molly, and I discussed it.  And our talks really helped me.  They didn’t explain everything in the way I wanted, but they allowed me to really think out loud without having to worry about being thought of as a heretic.

And so I kept reading the Bible.  I’m in Deuteronomy now.

I also kept dragging myself out of bed, for the most part.  I went back to my trusty notebook and pen, and the prayers started flowing again.  My prayers are hardly models of beauty and devotion right now…but they are, um…there.  It especially helped that this past weekend I got roped into “prayer patrol” for a friend.  My impromptu praying responsibilities helped get me back on the right track.

As for serving, I went to serve dinner at Y.E.S. last Tuesday like I always do.  My enthusiasm level on the way there was rock bottom, and I was mentally whining about how hard it is to get to know the kids this time around.  It was so easy when I was a college student, but now that I have two kids of my own to keep up with while I’m there, it is so much more difficult.  I continued to think about my conundrum at the center, while sitting outside on a porch swing and comforting Anna, who had taken a tumble down the bleachers.  I had just sent her and Luke to play in my line of sight on the playground, when a sweet little 4th grader named Corina bounded up to me and asked if I could help her with her homework.  She acted like we were old friends as I helped her look up the definitions to her vocabulary words and explained to her what “parts of speech” were.  After a few minutes, her friend, Cassandra came and joined us on the swing, casually draping herself across my lap to talk to Corina and joke with me.  Then, at dinner, I sat by Nyana, Andrea, and Selena, three girls whom I didn’t know, but who were all extremely friendly and kind. It was the first week where I felt like I really got to know some kids.  And it came from no effort of my own.

Then last Friday, Greg left for a retreat, which always puts me in what I call “super” mode.  My disdain for cleaning and cooking melted away as I whipped the house back into shape in preparation for being a single parent.  For the first time in weeks, I enjoyed working.

I didn’t give up my Lenten fast, although I seriously considered it, and I cheated a few times (like last night).  I decided that as pathetic as my efforts have been, they are teaching me good lessons about denial and self-control.  And since then, God has given me several “boosts” to get through.  Twice in the last week, I have been completely ready to throw in the towel and on my way to get Oreos or ice cream or whatever it is I’ve been wanting…only to find when I get there that I have no desire for them.  None at all.  I had been craving them all day…until I gave up and went to eat them.  I really do not understand that.

But the moment I decided that my short-lived drought was officially over was on Monday, when I got home from school and realized that I had about half an hour to kill before I went and picked up Anna.  I thought about how to spend my half hour, and it occurred to me that I really wanted to spend it with God.  Wanted to.  It was a beautiful day and I took my Bible out to the swing…but I didn’t read it.  Instead, I just sat and looked at the beautiful nature all around me.  My eyes were especially drawn to all those amazing, bright green blades of grass.  So many of them…created by God.  I looked at them and all around me at God’s creation, and suddenly the stories of Numbers that didn’t make sense to me didn’t seem as important.  Even though I still didn’t understand them, I definitely understood the message of, “LOVELOVELOVE” that was coming from every blade of grass and every flower on every bush.  And I realized that I never doubted God’s love for the people He created.  I don’t understand His methods sometimes, but I don’t doubt His love.  I know that probably sounds weak (“I don’t understand the Bible, but the flowers tell me that God loves me, so I’m cool”), but what can I say?  It’s what works for me.

This week was supposed to be “drought” week on the blog.  Unfortunately for my well-laid plans, it rained.  That wasn’t so great for my blogging schedule, but it was good for my soul.

Top 3 on Tuesday: Rachel Held Evans

First of all, surely you have heard of Rachel Held Evans.  I mean, you have…right?  Because from what I understand, she’s kind of a big deal.  And her blog seems to be something of a hub, when it comes to young, evangelical thought and discussions.  She has written a couple of books, and this year on the blog, she features several series on the interpretation of Scripture.  The first one centered around The Bible Made Impossible, by Christian Smith.  Her current one is based on Scripture and the Authority of God, by N.T. Wright.

My husband says that this is a distinctly church-of-Christ quirk, but as always, I feel compelled to say, “Now, I don’t always agree with 100% of what she writes…”  He’s probably right about the quirk.  We c-of-C’ers are naturally distrustful of anything that is not pure Scripture, and so we always have to add that word of caution before recommending anything that is not a book of the Bible.  And so I will offer my usual caveat with RHE:  I certainly do not agree with many of her stances, but I love her willingness and ability to think deeply on a variety of topics that are dear to my heart.  Even her current focus on Biblical interpretation fits in perfectly with my own interests as I read through the Bible (or try to) this year.

Honestly, though, even if you find yourself at constant odds with her opinions, I think she is worth reading simply because she is so representative of an entire generation of evangelicals (or whatever they/we call them-/ourselves).  If nothing else, this blog will help you get inside of the heads of that group and hopefully understand them a bit better.

Here are my top 3:

1.  How to Follow Jesus…Without Being Shane Claiborne

I loved this one, and I tried to find a suitable excerpt, but the post is really too short to lift something out of it.  Just go read it.

2.  They Were Right (and Wrong) About the Slippery Slope

Another short, but good one.  The slippery slope fallacy is a pet peeve of mine, and so I really liked the way that she turned the idea on its head by showing the ways that it had proven true in her own life.

3.  Ask a Pacifist…(Response)

Rachel has a whole series called, “Ask a…”  Each week, she introduces a new “type”:  an atheist, a Unitarian, a Muslim, a libertarian, a progressive, etc.  Then, she gives readers a chance to leave questions for that person in the comments.  Next, she picks the most popular questions and gives them to the person to answer.  The answers are featured the next week.  The pacifist was her most recent one…and the question from Kim?  That’s me!  I had hoped that she would correct the typos (good grief–I REALLY need to proofread my comments), but she didn’t, and so I sort of sound like a moron.  But I thought he had an interesting response.

Alright, so those are my reading recommendations.  Do you have any good recommendations this week?

The Problem with Lent

The problem with Lent is that it is forty days long.  I mean, really.  I’m not sure if you are aware of this, but forty days is forever.  I have complained repeatedly of this absurd length to my Catholic friend and asked her earnestly why Catholics are so mean!  I was all fired up about Lent when it first started, but I can’t stay fired up about anything for forty days!

The problem with Lent is that I gave up dessert, and I don’t think I really realized how much I love dessert.  I want dessert so badly all the time now, and even though I’m abiding by the Catholic rule that you break your fast on Sundays, that blessed reprieve is definitely not enough.

The problem with Lent is that I hate denying myself.  I live in a culture where food is always at my fingertips.  I can eat whenever I’m hungry, and even when I’m not.  The idea that I would stop myself from eating something I really want to eat is simply ludicrous in such a privileged society.  Even my five-year-old doesn’t get it.  He says, “I just don’t know why you would do that.”  And he even asked, “How does that help God?”  The idea that denying myself would be helpful to me seems not to have occurred to him.  Frankly, I’m questioning the logic myself these days.

The problem with Lent is that appetites are like some cancers.  As long as you let them continue unabated, they won’t bother you much.  But if you try to fight them…ooooooh, boy.  Watch out!  Because they bite back.  And it’s not just with dessert.  I want to eat everything in sight right now.  I will probably be the first person in the history of observing Lent to end my fast weighing more than when I started.

The problem with Lent is that the problem is not really with Lent.  The problem is with my flesh.  It simply does not want to die.  And it seems like on all fronts now, I’m experiencing a bit of a spiritual drought.  For about two weeks, I have not had the desire to practice any spiritual discipline.  I don’t want to be silent.  I don’t want to pray.  I don’t want to read my Bible.  I don’t want to get up early to spend time with God.  I don’t want to do any work.  I don’t want to serve anyone.  My motivation level for each of those tasks has been hovering around 0%.

Now, it is not totally bleak.  Nature continues to draw me to God, and this is a wonderful time of year.  The world has been transformed into bright, beautiful shades of green, and flowers have been popping out everywhere.  There is this one particular type of cherry blossom tree that is currently in full bloom, and it is simply magnificent.  I can’t decide if its blossoms look more like popcorn popping, or a firework exploding; regardless, I’ve never seen a stationary plant seem more in motion.  Whenever I pass them, I just have to stop and stare at them in awe.  They just look like an explosion frozen in time.  Marvelous.

Other than through nature, however, I feel nothing spiritually.  My senses are deadened.  I feel no encouragement from reading Scripture, no inspiration from prayer, no insight from silence, no joy from service.  It kind of reminds me of Captain Barbossa as he rants to Elizabeth Swan about the curse’s effect on him (in Pirates of the Caribbean:  Curse of the Black Pearl.  I will cite that reference for the five people in this country who may not have seen that movie.)  “I feel nothin’!”  he exclaims.  Same deal here.  All I feel is my flesh raging against all forms of self-denial.  I have hit a wall.  And so I have had to ask myself:

Should I keep doing these disciplines, even though they don’t seem to be helping me at all?  Should I keep reading my One Year Bible, even though I’m getting nothing from it?  If anything, I think the book of Numbers is actually taking me farther from God.  Plus, I have gotten seven days behind.  Should I try to catch back up?  Should I force myself to get up early, even though it seems not to be helping me to live a Spirit-filled life?  Should I keep observing Lent?  

To paraphrase my son’s concerns, how do these motions help God?  Or me, for that matter?

Is this not all descending into legalism?

I have more, but I think I’ll stop here and ask what you think.  Basically, my options are to grit my teeth and force myself through, or to stop these motions until some desire returns.

I actually have chosen a course and experienced some results, but I’m genuinely interested in what my brothers and sisters think about this conundrum.    Do you ever experience spiritual droughts?  What are they like for you?  How long do they typically last?  What do you do during them, and what do you do to get out of them?  Also, have you ever tried to observe Lent?  How did it go for you?

Cheap Books

The other day, I wandered into Cokesbury, a Christian bookstore in our area about which I had heard lots of good things.  I wanted to check out their store, but I also was looking for a specific book:  Scripture and the Authority of God, by N.T. Wright.  I have been in a bit of a Bible-reading drought, and I’ve chalked some of it up to lack of communal discussion of Scripture.  Well, one of my favorite bloggers (whom I will feature this Tuesday) is hosting a series of discussions on Wright’s book, and so I thought I would buy it and jump in.  Greg loves N.T. Wright, and I love the subject matter of this latest book, so I thought it would be a good addition to our library.  However, when I finally found the book and took a look at the price tag, all my plans evaporated.

It was $25.99.

And Tennessee has high sales tax.

In short, there was no way I could buy this book.  Even if it were not financially irresponsible at this point in our lives, I think I would have had to put it back on the shelf on principle!

To wrap up this literary-themed week, I thought I would briefly discuss the cost of books.  Personally, I love to read, and I always have a list a mile long of books that I’d like to have.  Most of these books are Christian- or history-themed, and so I view them as edifying and, thus, worthy of my time and money.  That said, books can be expensive, and I do struggle with the idea of how much of my resources should go to buying books.  I wanted to share with you my top three ways to get cheap books.  Even though two out of the three seem super-obvious, it took me awhile to think of them, so  I thought I’d share them anyway, on the off chance that you are slow, too:).

1.  Half.com

My baseline price for books is $4.74.  That is how much a .75 book on half.com costs, plus the usual 3.99 shipping fee.  To me, getting a book I ‘ve been wanting shipped to me for less than $5 is a good deal.  What I have learned about books on half.com is that their price is not influenced by genre, or even popularity, but by age.  It appears that a book needs to be at least five years old before it goes into what I call “the .75 bin.”  On the plus side, you can get a lot of classics for dirt cheap.  On the negative side, you can’t buy N.T. Wright’s new book for much of a discount.  Or Richard Beck’s Unclean.  Or Half the Church.  Or several other books on my wish list.

However, I was able to get a highly recommended and well-reviewed book that I’ve been wanting, A History of the Jews, for my normal .75.

And I got another book on my wish list, The Blue Parakeet, for about $7, including shipping.  It was written in 2008, and thus has not reached the magic 5 year mark.  However, as I have wanted this book for months and have been unable to find it in any bookstore, I thought that was an okay price.

Thus, half.com has proven to be a good resource when trying to buy books that are slightly older.  However, for newer books (or for older books you don’t necessarily want to buy), I recently stumbled upon a grand solution.  Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you…

2.  The library

I know, I know.  Obvious, right?  ‘Cept here’s the thing:  I’ve been making weekly trips to the library ever since my kids were wee tots, and it just recently occurred to me that the library might be a resource for me, too!  Maybe it is because the books I usually want tend to be religious or devotional in nature because I rarely think of them being available at my local library.  However, I am now currently on the waiting list at my local library for an eBook version of Scripture and the Authority of God, as well as the physical version of Rachel Held Evans’ memoir, Evolving in Monkey Town.  Genius!

Lastly, the best way I’ve found to read books that I don’t want to spend the money to buy is to…

3.  Borrow them.

Again, it seems obvious, but I think that often, my consumer-oriented mindset causes me to overlook the free ways to enjoy books without having to own them.  And really, I don’t need to own most books I want to read.  In fact, it keeps my house from getting so cluttered if I can simply check out the book from the library or borrow it from a friend.  Borrowing, however, can be tricky because you need to have friends who 1) like the same books as you, and 2) are comfortable enough to let you borrow them.  To be honest, I haven’t gotten to the “Can I borrow that book?” level with my friends in Nashville yet; however, I did enjoy trading books back and forth with my friends in South Carolina.  At any given time, I probably had a couple of borrowed books in my possession, and had a few books lent out.  My friends and I were somewhat evangelical with our books: whenever we read a good one, our first thought was, “To whom can I pass this worthy message?”  I think that it’s worth cultivating such a community, and I hope to do so soon in Nashville.  At the very least, it will allow you to read good books without spending money that could be better used elsewhere.

Okay, so those are my three brilliant, revolutionary suggestions for obtaining cheap books.  Do you have any others?

The Berenstain Bears, Junie B. Jones, and Didacticism

In one of my college English classes,we once had a discussion about the purpose of art.  Our discussion boiled down to two camps:  the aesthetic and the didactic.  The aesthetic camp believed in “art for art’s sake”; in other words, art needs no justification.  It just is.  Or something like that.  I didn’t really buy it.

On the other side, there was the didactic camp.  The didactic camp believed that the point of art was to teach something.  Art needed a purpose, a worthy message.  Now, even those in the didactic camp admitted that art shouldn’t beat you over the head with that message, and that preachy art is generally not good art.  But at the same time, they argued that art that wasn’t trying to say something was pointless.  I am a practical person at heart; thus, I fell into the didactic camp.

I’m still there.

And yet, I’m often torn between these camps when I read books to my kids.  Even as a believer in didacticism, some books seem over the top to me.  For example, take this Berenstain Bears book we checked out a few weeks ago:  it was called The Trouble with Secrets.  Now, if you don’t have young kids, you might not know this about the Berenstain Bears, but they have seen the light.  I don’t remember the childhood BB stories I read being overtly Christian, but they sure are now.  Well, some of them are.  And others are just regular stories extolling good behavior.  Usually, the overtly Christian ones announce it to you in the title.  For example, we currently own a collection called, The Berenstain Bears Show God’s Love.  I love it.  It has stories about loving your neighbor and about prayer, and the kids love them.

But this book about secrets didn’t seem religious; indeed, neither the title nor the plot really lent themselves to religious application.  Instead, it was just a simple story about the trickiness of friendship. It was told from the perspective of Brother and Sister Bear’s friends, who were miffed that Brother and Sister were keeping a secret from them.  Thus, they followed the siblings to find out their secret.  Fair enough.  Throughout this narrative, however, the authors kept dropping non sequiturs about God, from out of nowhere.  It has been a few weeks since I read it, but if I recall, the comments were about God not wanting us to have secrets, or something (which, by the way, is not in the Bible).  Regardless, it seemed like the parts about God were superfluous, that they were shoe-horned into the plot without really fitting.  In a way, it seemed like the authors were playing the God card.  And I didn’t like it.

I think I was also put off by the “sneak-attack” element of the book’s Christian content.  Nothing about the book suggested that it was going to be religious; it just seemed like an ordinary Early Reader in a public library that services a religiously diverse area.  And then midway through the book, the reader is subjected to strained religious applications.  To be honest, I think the seeming subterfuge put me off as much as the heavy-handedness of the theme.

In short, I found The Trouble with Secrets to be too preachy, too didactic.

On the other end of that spectrum, we have the Junie B. Jones books.  I have heard wonderful things about this series, and especially how much kids love them.  Thus, I decided to give them a try.  In retrospect, perhaps the title of the first book should have been a red flag, as we don’t usually allow our kids to say the word, stupid.  But I didn’t want to judge a book by its title, and I do think there is wiggle room with language when it comes to books (and even movies).  Part of teaching our kids about language, after all, is to impress on them that we don’t repeat everything we hear.  Anyhow, I read the first book to the kids.  They loved it.  Then, I read the second book.  They loved that one, too.

And then I stopped.

Because I couldn’t do it anymore.

It wasn’t so much that Junie B. liberally used the word, “stupid.”  Or that she often remarked how she couldn’t stand people.  It was that the overall theme of the book had no element of the didactic.  Instead, I decided that Junie B. Jones is the Seinfeld of children’s literature:  the series seem to share the theme of “no hugging, no learning.”

It’s not just that Junie B. is selfish and hateful.  After all, lots of kid-friendly characters are selfish; the world of Thomas the Tank Engine, for example, is filled with unpleasant, petty engines.  What makes the Junie B. Jones series unique, though, is that everyone is selfish.  At least Thomas and his friends have Sir Topham Hatt as the voice of reason; Junie B. is not so fortunate.  Her parents and teacher hardly seem to care about her:  they certainly don’t listen to her, and they never take the time to teach her anything.  She basically acts like an untrained five year old, which is probably because no one takes the time to train her.  In the first book, Junie B. is terrified of riding the bus, but all the adults dismiss her fears without addressing them, and then force her to ride it anyway.  She is so scared to get back on the bus after school that she hides in the classroom.  Never at any point does she ponder the deception of her scheme or worry about what her mom or teacher will think.  Indeed, she never thinks about anything but her immediate desires.  Again, that’s normal for a five year old, I guess.  However, even at the end, everyone is exasperated with her, but no one takes the time to teach her why her actions were wrong.  Which means that I then have to explain to my own children why Junie B’s behavior is not acceptable.  In fact, throughout both the books, I had to stop repeatedly and ask my kids what they thought about Junie B’s current behavior.  Then we would talk about why she was being selfish.

To be honest, I really see the series as more of a satire of society…but my kids aren’t old enough to get satire.  Instead, they just get a bad example of a five year old (and bad examples of parents and teachers).  The books definitely didn’t scar my children or anything, but for me, they weren’t worth it.  I figure my kids have enough bad examples around them without me spending hours providing them with yet another one through the books we read.  If we read something, I want it to at least have a decent moral.  And it’s okay if the moral is subtle.  To me, even classics like Where the Wild Things Are or Ferdinand have decent morals, even though they are very understated.  But I could find no moral in Junie B. Jones.

So that’s where I stand on The Berenstain Bears and Junie B. Jones.  If you are a parent (and even if you’re not), I’m interested in how you decide what books to read to your kids.  Do you fall more into the didactic camp or the aesthetic camp?   Do you think I am overreacting at either (or both) of these books?  (After all, Greg said that this post mainly demonstrates how picky I am!)  And have you found any books that are both well-written and at least somewhat instructive?  Do a picky mom a favor, and pass those suggestions along!

[Updated to add:  This is in no way a moral judgment on anyone who has read, shared, or enjoyed this books.  It is strictly a matter of personal opinion and taste.  I am just walking through my thought process when deciding what books are worth reading to my kids, given my beliefs and goals for my children.]

My Life in the Kingdom Capitol: What I Learned from The Hunger Games


The movie, The Hunger Games, comes out in theaters this Friday.  It is the first installment based on a trilogy of Young Adult books of the same name.  I had been aware of the books for awhile, but since I have a thing against kids getting killed, I was naturally turned off by the bloody premise of a televised game show where kids must fight to the death.  However, then I saw the trailer for the movie and decided to give the books a shot.  And I’m really glad I did.

For those who aren’t familiar with the trilogy, the basic plot is set in a dystopian future, where an oppressive country called Panem rules ruthlessly over its twelve outlying districts.  As a sick and continued punishment for a long ago rebellion, each district is required to provide a yearly “tribute” of a young boy and girl to participate in a televised slaughter for the amusement of the citizens of “the Capitol.”   The Capitol is filled with wealthy, privileged citizens who benefit from the labor and the oppression of the districts.  Because they live in such an insulated, comfortable world, the populace of the Capitol are generally oblivious to the suffering around them.  Instead, they divert themselves with frivolity.  They focus an obscene amount of attention on their appearance, embracing over-the-top fashions such as skin-dyeing and elaborate make-up and hairstyles.  They spend their time attending parties full of every food one can imagine…and take vomit-inducing pills so that they don’t have to stop eating when they are full.  And they are so desensitized to the suffering around them that they divert themselves by watching children slaughter each other.

The genius of Collins is seen in the degree of difference she uses between the Capitol and today’s Western world.  Her descriptions of life in the Capitol are just foreign enough for Western readers to easily condemn them, and yet, they are similar enough to then give us pause.  For example, here is Katniss’ reaction while listening to her Capitol-dwelling make-up crew:

After they’ve exhausted the topic of the Quarter Quell, my prep team launches into a whole lot of stuff about their incomprehensibly silly lives.  Who said what about someone I’ve never heard of and what sort of shoes they just bought and a long story from Octavia about what a mistake it was to have everyone wear feathers to her birthday party (Catching Fire 37).

I thought of that specific passage while I read about the upcoming Hunger Games movie in Entertainment Weekly…and then turned the page and saw this:

Wow, can you see the irony?  Octavia can’t stop talking about feathers, and we can’t stop talking about oversized bows.  Really??  Really.  Were the editors of EW trying to be ironic, or do we truly live in a “Capitol-lite” society?  After all,

We don’t dye our entire skin, but we do tattoo and tan it mercilessly.

We may not have as outrageous fashions as they do, but we definitely focus a lot of attention on superficiality and appearances.

Vomit-inducing pills may not be en vogue, but gluttony certainly is.

And while we don’t watch shows where people die, we do love ones based on physical (Wipeout) or emotional (The Bachelor/Bachelorette) suffering.  Even though the contestants are volunteers, what does it say about us as a society that these shows are hits?

Plus, I get the feeling that sometimes we (I) are (am) often as oblivious as the citizens of Panem’s capitol.  Our lives of comfort can have the effect of insulating us from the suffering of others around the world.  The book highlights this obliviousness by forcing the privileged reader to see the world through a poor teenager’s eyes.  And that teen, Katniss, clearly sees the vast differences between her lifestyle and the Capitol lifestyle when she is taken there for the Games.  Through her eyes, we see the contrast between these privileged citizens and the rest of their world.  For me, those differences provided both a critique of my own society and a guide of how to use my privileged position to help others.  When looking at my life through the lens of The Hunger Games, I was made aware of two huge privileges I possess, and challenged to use them for God’s greater Kingdom, and not simply for my own personal gain:

1.  Time.

Interestingly, one of the biggest differences between Katniss’ life and the lives of the Capitol citizens is in regards to time.  She notices this difference when she views an elaborate meal that was prepared for her:

I try to imagine assembling this meal myself back home.  Chickens are too expensive, but I could make do with a wild turkey.  I’d need to shoot a second turkey to trade for an orange.  Goat’s milk would have to substitute for cream.  We can grow peas in the garden.  I’d have to get wild onions from the woods.  I don’t recognize the grain…Fancy rolls would mean another trade with the baker, perhaps for two or three squirrels.  As for the pudding, I can’t even guess what’s in it.  Days of hunting and gathering for this one meal and even then it would be a poor substitute for the Capitol version.

What must it be like, I wonder to live in a world where food appears at the press of a button?  How would I spend the hours I now commit to combing the woods for sustenance if it were so easy to come by?  What do they do all day, these people in the Capitol, besides decorating their bodies and waiting around for a new shipment of tributes to roll in and die for their entertainment? (The Hunger Games 65).

The question she wrestles with here is one that, paradoxically, I also wrestle with a lot, as a citizen who lives in a similarly privileged environment:  What do I do with my time? It’s funny because I don’t feel like I have a ton of time laying around.  And yet, Katniss’ thoughts here reminded me that I don’t have to go out and get firewood to start a fire over which to cook.  I don’t have to kill (or grow) my supper.  I have electricity.  I have running water that comes out hot and cold on command.  I have a washer and dryer and dishwasher.  I wonder how many hours a day these blessings give me, hours that others do not have.  What do I do with those precious hours?  Do I dedicate them to pursuits that are unworthy or meaningless?  Of course, a lot of my time on Facebook could easily qualify as unworthy, but even besides that, this book made me pause and consider the things that I normally don’t question as valuable.  It made me think that, in the grand scheme of things, some of my “worthwhile” pursuits are less valuable than I imagine.  For example, how clean does my house need to be in order to be healthy and functional?  Does it really need to be free of dust bunnies, or could I spend more time writing cards to the sick?  That’s just one example, but there are several things like that in my life.   Reading The Hunger Games, then, challenged me to use my privileged time to further God’s kingdom, instead of my own agenda.

2.  Passion.

After the Games, Katniss is required to learn some sort of talent.  It is comical because she has spent so much of her life trying to survive that she has come to see most hobbies and “talents” as frivolous.  She chooses clothing design, but never has the slightest interest in it.  In contrast, her stylist, Cinna, is passionate about design.  As a citizen of the Capitol, he has had opportunities to pursue skills that aren’t necessary for survival.  What is instructive for the reader is how Cinna chooses to use his privileged passion.  Without giving too much away, he uses his skill in order to help the cause of the oppressed around him.  He uses Capitol privilege to challenge Capitol culture.

Similarly, I have been privileged enough to pursue passions that are not necessary for survival.  For example, I like to write and to record things.  Had I been born into a third world culture, I probably would not have been able to exercise those passions, as I would have too few resources and would be spending too much time trying to stay alive.  But Cinna’s example challenges me to use my passions in a way that further God’s Kingdom.  It also opens my eyes to a truth I haven’t been able to see about Jesus and His call to us.  So often, I think that Jesus wants me to renounce my position of privilege and to become like the poor.  (To be fair, I tend to get this idea from the Man Himself, who seemed big on rich people selling their stuff to provide for the poor.)  But thinking of Cinna made me realize something about Jesus:  He did not renounce His God-given gifts.  Jesus had power.  He had the power to heal people and to know people’s thoughts.  The great majority of the world could not do that.  Even so, Jesus did not give those things up in order to become like everyone else.  Instead, He used His power in order to help those who could not heal themselves.  Maybe this is a false analogy, but to me, having privilege is like having power.  God placed me in this position, and I don’t glorify Him by turning my back on what He gave me.  Instead I glorify Him by using it to further His Kingdom.  

The Hunger Games really opened my eyes to these gifts of time and passion that I have been given.  They made me understand that my time and passion are part of life in a privileged culture.  And they challenged me to use my citizenship in the Capitol for the good of all the world’s citizens, not just my own.

That’s pretty good, for a young adult trilogy!

Have you read The Hunger Games?  What did you think of them?

The Stories We Tell Ourselves

 “In the future, when your son asks you, ‘What is the meaning of the stipulations, decrees and laws the LORD our God has commanded you?’  tell him: ‘We were slaves of Pharaoh in Egypt, but the LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand.”   Deut. 6:20-21

She was pretty.  She looked younger than I suspected she was, although her skin showed the effects of over-tanning.  Her eyes were an unearthly blue, aided, no doubt, by colored contacts.  Her already long lashes were accentuated by heavy mascara, and colorful tattoos snaked up and down her arms.  To be honest, I thought they were lovely and that they suited her personality well.

She came from a small town in Ohio, with very few non-White people and very low crime.  As she put it, if an ashtray was stolen off her grandma’s back porch, it would make the news.  Even though she had lived in Nashville for at least ten years, she still sometimes got culture shock from all of the different people.  It certainly wasn’t what she was expecting when she came down here at age 20, trying to break into the music business.  Unfortunately, her musical dreams fizzled out in a few years, but by then, there was a guy in the picture.  Here, she shook her head and laughed in disgust.  “Bad idea.”  Obviously, the guy fizzled out, too, but by that time, she had bought a house and now had  a mortgage to pay.  So she stayed in Nashville and worked at a job she enjoyed.  She is now dating another guy, a composer, and he is currently working on an album of reinvented covers.  He even asked her to sing vocals, which made her very excited.

I could probably have learned more, but by that time I had completed my blinds order and checked out at Lowe’s.

As I drove home pondering my chatty sales clerk, I noted how compulsive story-telling is for people.  You would think we would get tired of telling our own stories–but no.  Quite the contrary:  our own story is usually the one we hold most dear.  And we tell it again and again.  We tinker with it and tailor it to our current circumstances.  We constantly tweak it to reflect our current understanding and opinions.  But we still tell it, if only to ourselves.  The reason is simple:  we tell our story to remind ourselves who we are and why we’re here.  

Our story defines us.  We cast ourselves as the victim, the hero, the anti-hero, the saint, the sinner.  We have our allies and our villains, our plot twists and our slow parts.  Our stories take the random, chaotic events of our lives and give meaning to them.  They are able to give that meaning, b/c our stories have an overarching plot.  That plot tells us why we’re here (created by God?  an accident of evolution?  something in between?).  The plot tells us who the good guys are (Christians?  America?  A political party?  Some combination?) and who the bad guys are.  Our stories also have characterization.  Not only do we “flesh out” other characters through our personal judgments of them, our stories tend to characterize all of humanity.  Is humanity good?  Bad?  A combination?  Our stories will tell us.

I think that our propensity for storytelling is by design.  Either that, or God caters to our species’ idiosyncrasy, because He chooses to speak to us in the form of a story.  He could have simply given us a list of facts or rules; in fact, that seems a little more logical, if you ask me.  Less room to misunderstand. Less cause for confusion.  But no–He revealed Himself to us mostly through stories.  And within those stories (collected in the Bible), He told about His Son, who in turn preached largely through stories.

The story of Jesus is one of God’s big stories.  But before that, He had another biggie:  the story of the exodus from Egypt.  When God saved the Israelites from four hundred years of slavery, He made sure that they remembered that story and passed it down.  It is clear from reading the Pentateuch that God intended the exodus story to define His people.  From His insistence on that point, I learn two important things.

1.  Stories > Facts

In one of my college psychology classes, I learned that we tend to interpret data in a way that conforms to our own preconceptions.  For example, if you have a preconception that women are bad drivers, you will tend to remember the woman who absent-mindedly cut you off more than you will a man who did the same thing.  That’s because we make a clearer mental note of the behaviors that reinforce our stereotypes, while we are more likely to let conflicting data slide by unconsidered.  I think that phenomenon is an example of how our stories determine our reality.  If, in your story, women are bad drivers, then facts are at a considerable disadvantage.

On the flip side, our stories can convey truth to us in a way that facts simply cannot.  Perhaps that’s why God instructed His people to explain the “facts” of the Law to their children in the form of a story (see the verse at the top).  He knew that facts don’t stick unless they work into our personal story.  One application of that principle for me is that people are not going to be convinced of the reality of God or of Christ’s love simply by a presentation of the “facts.”  While there may be a place for apologetics in evangelism, the most important, powerful tool we have is the reality of our own story.  We must live a better story for the people around us, so that they will want it to be their story, as well.

And that brings me to my second point:

2.  Stories are meant to be lived, not just told.

When God gave the Israelites their Exodus story, He made clear that it was not simply to be a nice narrative that they shared and celebrated.  That story was supposed to affect their lives and their behavior.  Several times throughout the Law, He references their story.  Here is a sampling:

“Do not mistreat an alien or oppress him, for you were aliens in Egypt.”  Ex. 22:21

“Do not oppress an alien; you yourselves know how it feels to be aliens, because you were aliens in Egypt.”  Ex. 23:9

“When an alien lives with you in your land, do not mistreat him. The alien living with you must be treated as one of your native-born. Love him as yourself, for you were aliens in Egypt. I am the LORD your God.”  Lev. 19:33-34

Clearly, God expected the Israelites’ story to affect their behavior; I think the same is true for us today.  On an individual level, the different experiences God gives us should increase our empathy for others who share those experiences.  Our pain should make it easier to help others in pain; our joy should make it easier to rejoice with others who have joy.  Similarly, the Israelites were to use their experiences as aliens to help them sympathize with foreigners in their lands.

On a collective level, the story of the gospel, which casts us as sinners in need of redemption, should make us more empathetic to other sinners in need of redemption.  That empathy should, in turn, lead to action.  The Israelites were supposed to treat people more kindly and mercifully because of their common heritage.  Shouldn’t our common heritage as sinners cause us to treat others kindly and mercifully, as well?

Today, I want to remember that “my story” is not simply found in the pages of the Bible or in the narrative that exists in my own head.  On the contrary, my story is embodied and enlivened by all of my actions.  Today, I want to live in a way that reflects the truth of the story in my head.  I want to live in a way that points others to God.

(This post is linked up with Word-filled Wednesday and iFellowship.)

Top 3 on Tuesday: Rage Against the Minivan

You might not have

             definitely did not

probably didn’t notice this, but for the last four weeks, my blog has had weekly themes.  First, it was suffering.  Then it was the Spirit-filled life (or something like that).  Next, it was “Our Small World.”  This week, it’s a literary theme.  Yesterday’s post featured In the Lake of the Woods and Lord of the Flies.  I also have a post coming about The Berenstain Bears (yes, really).   Plus, there’s one where I gush about how The Hunger Games challenged me in the area of time management.  (Hmm…just trust me that these will be more riveting than they sound.)

In the meantime, I realized that I did not have a suitable Top 3 on Tuesday entry, as none of the blogs I read are literary-minded, and you know how I love thematic unity.  Well, then Kristen Howerton, over at Rage Against the Minivan, blogged about The Hunger Games, and I took that as my sign.   I decided that blogging about The Hunger Games qualified her as “literary minded” (ahem), and decided to feature her for this week’s Top 3 on Tuesday.

Plus, I love her blog, and was kind surprised to realize that I hadn’t featured her yet.

But really, her blog isn’t about literature, so much as it is about adoption, motherhood, and social issues.  She has adopted two children, one from foster care and one from Haiti.  She also has her graduate degree in psychology, and you know how I love psychology.  Plus, she is sarcastic and funny and deep and smart and in short, I like her.  And I’m tired, so that’s all you are going to get from me right now.

So let’s just jump right to my top 3 posts:

1.  here, let me ruin Halloween for you…

This is the one that got me interested in fair trade chocolate.  So yeah…you have her to thank for my current obsession.

2.  the lengths I will go to in order to avoid making a phone call

This is an example of one of her funny ones.  I loved it because I, too, hate making phone calls.  If you don’t hate making phone calls, maybe it won’t be so funny.  But the humor worked for me.

3.  faking it

This is a very sad one about how hard adoption is.  One thing that this blog has done is open my eyes to the emotional difficulty of adoption.  I guess that sounds pretty negative, but it has really helped me to have empathy for people who have adopted and to be a little more aware of some of their typical struggles.  Her descriptions of adoption have really been enlightening for me.

Okay, well, those are my offerings to you this week.

If you want to share anything interesting that you have read, I’m all ears!

My Participation in the My Lai Massacre

“Please,”  Sorcerer said again.  He felt very stupid.  Thirty meters up the trail he came across Conti and Meadlo and Rusty Calley.  Meadlo and the lieutenant were spraying gunfire into a crowd of villagers.  They stood side by side, taking turns.  Meadlo was crying.  Conti was watching.  The lieutenant shouted something and shot down a dozen women and kids and then reloaded and shot down more and then reloaded and shot down more and then reloaded again…Sorcerer was already sprinting away.  He ran past a smoking bamboo schoolhouse.  Behind him and in front of him, a brisk machine-gun wind pressed through Thuan Yen.  The wind stirred up a powdery red dust that sparkled in the morning sunshine, and the little village had now gone mostly violet.  He found someone stabbing people with a big silver knife.  Hutto was shooting corpses.  T’Souvas was shooting children.  Doherty and Terry were finishing off the wounded.  This was not madness, Sorcerer understood.  This was sin.

–from Tim O’Brien’s In the Lake of the Woods

How could someone do such a thing?

I used to ask that question a lot.

I still ask it sometimes.

But now, the question is really rhetorical.  Because I know how someone could do such a thing.

A lot of Christians view mankind as “depraved.”  That’s the word they use.  Depraved basically means, “bad to the bone.”  “Capable of no good.”  They say they learned this from the Bible.  But that’s not where I got my negative view of man.  I got it from the news.

And it wasn’t the Bible that helped me crystallize my theory of our potential for badness.  It was the book, Lord of the Flies.  I have only read that book one time, in high school.  But William Golding’s tale of a group of British school boys who descend into anarchy and violence when they are wrecked on a deserted island has stayed with me ever since.  Golding told me that civilization is a conch shell, fragile and easily broken.  Golding told me that when that conch shell shatters, all hell breaks loose.  Law and order fades away, and chaos reigns.  And when I finished reading his book, I cried.

I cried because I knew it was true.

I still know that it is true, and again, not just because of the news.  I know it is true because I know myself, and I know the potential that lies within.  I am painfully reminded of my predilection for depravity whenever my mask-that-is-n0t-a-mask, my Christianity, slides off as if it were a mask.  I know it when I pursue God with all my heart and try to live fully by His Spirit within me…and then the right combination of mild irritants comes along and causes my selfishness to roar forward with relish and gusto.  I get irritable and I snap at those around me, even if those around me are my own precious, little children.  And if I am having a moment of clarity, I draw back in horror, reeling from the quickness of my descent into sin.  And I think, “Wow.  If I can switch back that fast, if I can become selfish and hateful, even in the civilized culture in which I live, even with my loving and sheltered background, even with my earnest desire to serve Christ, then just imagine….”  Just imagine what I could be like without my Christian background.  Imagine what I could be like if I did not have the desire to do good.  And if mild irritants like a headache or the house being too hot can set me off on my own children, then what might I be capable of in an environment of heavy, sustained stress and fatigue?  What might I do in an environment where civilization has fallen away and barbarism reigns?

And that’s why, when I read about a crusading idealist masturbating in public and vandalizing cars, I am startled…but not really surprised.

That’s also why, when I read about a “solid soldier” snapping and massacring innocent civilians–women and children–I am startled…but not surprised.

When I hear about such things, they ring true to me.  They sound like something humans might do in that situation.  Something I might do in that situation.

And that realization does not ameliorate the horror of what happened.  On the contrary, it makes it all the more horrible.  It doesn’t make me want to let anyone off the hook; in fact, it reminds me just how important the “hook” is.  We have to have ways of limiting our own depravity, after all–of fighting back as a society against the worst impulses of the individual.

And yet, there is hope.

I said earlier that I do not get my view of human depravity from the Bible.  Instead, I get my hope from the Bible.  The news tells me that humanity is depraved.  My heart tells me that I am depraved.  But the Bible tells me something different:  it tells me that I was created in the very image of the almighty God.  It tells me that I was created to do good, not evil (Eph. 2:10).  And it tells me that even though I am capable of great evil, I am also capable of more good than I ever imagine.  That I can do all things through Christ (Phil. 4:13).  That God has given me everything I need for life and godliness (2 Pet. 1:3).  I even think that most Christians sell themselves short, compared to the Bible’s view of their potential.  We worship a Savior who set an example of love and self-sacrifice that He appeared to think we could follow.  We worship a Savior who told us to stop sinning and to be perfect.  We participate in a religion that teaches us that we are guided by the very Spirit of God, which works in us and uses us to accomplish God’s will.  That is amazing.  And I believe that it is true.  Sometimes I picture myself getting to heaven, all used up from a life trying to serve God, and God telling me, “You just scratched the very surface of what you could have done.  There was so much power in my Spirit that was available to you…but you were too scared to use it.”  I don’t picture Him punishing me for that or throwing me into hell or anything; I just picture Him shaking His head sadly.

My point is, sometimes I think that, as children of God, we are capable of more good than we can even dream (or ask or imagine).

And maybe that is a weird view, given my deep conviction of our potential for depravity.

As usual, C.S. Lewis helps my thoughts make sense in this regard (seriously, when I’m not rolling my eyes at him, I find him to be a great guy).  In Mere Christianity, he explains my seemingly contradictory thoughts this way:

When we have understood about free will, we shall see how silly it is to ask, as someone once asked me, ‘Why did God make a creature of such rotten stuff that it went wrong?’  The better stuff a creature is made of–the cleverer and stronger and freer it is–then the better it will be if it goes right, but also the worse it will be if it goes wrong.  A cow cannot be very good or very bad; a dog can be both better and worse; a child better and worse still; an ordinary man, still more so; a man of genius, still more so; a superhuman spirit best–or worst–of all” (49).

Drawing from the idea that Satan is a fallen angel, Lewis postulates that it is because we are created with such potential for good that we have such a potential for evil.  He reasons that the law of free will dictates that we can be as bad as we can be good, and vice versa.  Thus, one could argue that the more guttural the depths of depravity we see, the greater the heights of righteousness we know are possible.

It’s a scary theory.  But also a hopeful one.

It’s a theory that suggests that I am the type of person who could have participated in the My Lai massacre.

It’s also a theory that suggests that I am the type of person who can stop Kony.

The question is, how will I use my potential?

How will you use yours?

Teaching Our Children About Our Small World

Greg and I both see teaching our children as one of our most important jobs.  We think about what we want them to learn from us, what lessons we want them to come away with from their childhood.  One of the biggest questions we ask ourselves is, “How do we get this whole ‘love-God-go-to-church thing’ to be more than a routine or, at worst, a resentment?  How do we portray it in a way that is real and life-giving?”  With a husband in the ministry, I sometimes worry that my children will grow up surrounded by church, but will somehow miss the heart of what God wants for them.  Thus, we try our best to teach our kids about God, even apart from the “routines” of church.  Part of that teaching consists of our own examples and words, as well as the spiritual practices we try to incorporate into our family’s lives.  And part of that teaching comes in the form of educating them about the rest of the world that God loves so much.

I would love to get your ideas and suggestions of how to teach kids about the world, and how to show them to live outside themselves.  In return, I will show you what we have done so far that has worked for us.

Perhaps my favorite “teaching” experience so far has been our Compassion kids.  Greg and I first sponsored a Compassion child in 2003, when we first got married.  We have tried to get our kids interested in him, but with limited success.  It seems that, to them, Duvens is like a distant cousin they have never seen and will never meet.  And there is a very good chance that they will never meet him.  Duvens is from Haiti, and we really have no connections to that country besides him.  Thus, my children seemed pretty indifferent.

That all changed when we sponsored two more children this Christmas.  We had been wanting to try this for awhile, and the Advent season seemed like a good time to finally do it.  This time, I selected a country that we might actually visit one day, as we have missionary friends there.  I also explained the idea of sponsoring children to my kids and then let them each pick a child who was their same age and gender.  (By the way, Compassion’s website is wonderful.  You can go through the whole process of sponsoring a child online now, and it is so easy!)  The kids were really excited to get to pick “their” children.  Luke pored over the pictures of little boys his age before finally picking a boy named Andi.  In contrast, Anna marched up to the computer, gave the girls a quick glance, and then authoritatively chose Massiel.

I printed out information on our new kids, and that very afternoon, we got to work on some Christmas cards for them.  Unlike some of my less successful attempts to make my kids more “others-minded,” this one went over incredibly well, and the kids did not need any convincing to make their cards.

I let the kids write what they wanted in their cards, and I think that including pictures really helped.  I know it helped my kids, and I hope it helped Massiel and Andi, too.

Our cool experience with Compassion didn’t stop there, however.  The organization has honed their communication skills a lot since 2003, and soon, we received detailed information packets about Andi and Massiel, along with lots of well-presented information about their home country.  A few weeks later, we also received informational letters from both of them, detailing the makeup of their families, some facts about their lives, and even some of their favorite things.  We found out, for example, that Andi’s favorite food was “gallo pinto with cheese.”  We didn’t know what that was, so we looked it up online.  Turns out, it is rice and beans.  It occurred to me that Luke and Anna might also like gallo pinto with cheese, and that it would be good for them to see what their Compassion friend ate.  So I looked up how to make it, even finding a recipe from the kids’ country.  We had it for dinner one night:

Luke loved it.  His exact words were, “Andi is not crazy at all for liking this!”

The information sheets gave us fodder for things to write back to Andi and Massiel.  And with Compassion’s website, we found that writing back was super easy.  We do it online, and the kids can pick out their own stationery and easily include pictures.  Then Compassion prints out the letters and mails them.  We try to write them at least once a month and to always include pictures.  In Andi’s last letter, we shared pictures of Luke eating gallo pinto with cheese, as well as his positive review.  The whole process of writing both kids takes about 15-20 minutes.  It’s great.

An added bonus to sponsoring through Compassion is that they have a free, quarterly magazine just for kids.  It is called Compassion Explorer, and it is a wonderful resource for kids.  You can sign up for it online, and it comes with your regular Compassion magazine for adults.  The magazine is full of great photos and stories about the lives of kids around the world, and it also has stories of kids helping others.  Plus, there are craft ideas, recipes, and science experiments.  Both the kids and I were big fans of Compassion Explorer.

So far, we have loved having Andi and Massiel as part of our lives.  We have learned about their lives and their country, and it has given my kids a chance to think beyond themselves and their own world.  We also pray for Andi and Massiel each night, which brings me to our second teaching strategy.

We have always said nightly prayers with our children.  Their prayers go in phases.  For a long time, they prayed long prayers, thanking God for everything in their lines of vision:  ceiling fans, stuffed animals, furniture, and so forth.  Their most latest phase, however, has been to rattle off a quick, “Thank you, God, for this day.  In Jesus name, Amen.”  Usually, I just wait until the phase passes, but this one lasted so long that I decided to intervene.  I started by taking prayer requests before we prayed and then divvying the requests up among the three of us.  That worked okay, but the enthusiasm was still lacking.  I also realized that most of our requests are the same each night.  That’s when I hit on the idea of making prayer cards so that we could remember what we were supposed to pray for.  I made cards for the usual suspects:  our family, our sponsored children, and sick people.  Then I got the idea to make a card for “the world.”  It’s funny because at the end of last year, had the strong desire to learn how to pray for the whole world everyday.  I’m pretty sure I wasn’t picturing an index card with a globe on it at the time, but you have to start somewhere!  I also threw in some “question mark” cards where you could put in your own requests.

Amazingly, these cards have been a huge hit with the kids.  We have used them for almost two months now, and they love them.  We have talked about each card and what to pray for with each one (mainly because Anna’s prayer about sick people started out, “Thank you for sick people!”).  The kids love taking turns picking their cards, and it is kind of like a game to us at this point.  They have their favorites and sometimes even trade for certain ones they really want.  We are still miles away from anything resembling a serious prayer time, but their enthusiasm is definitely an improvement.  And I was very gratified last week when Luke hopped into the car after school and announced, “We need to add Mrs. ______ to our prayers.  She has missed two days of school!”  And he didn’t forget that night, either.  Small steps.

Lastly, Greg and I just try to highlight the diversity that is already around them.  To be honest, it’s really not that hard in our current environment.  Luke is one of two white kids in his class, after all, and his classmates hail from several different countries.  Luke’s teacher recently arranged a meeting with the principal, the counselor, the school psychologist, and me, to brainstorm how the school can continue to challenge Luke (because he is ‘wicked smaht,” but I digress).  Since Luke was not around to kill me, I concurred with the principal’s idea of special enrichment projects for him to complete.  I then suggested that he do projects on each of the countries represented by his class.  Inspired by our gallo pinto with cheese experiment, I thought I could even bring a dish for each country when I come volunteer.  We are currently working on a project about Burma, and at our super cool downtown library, I even found a Burmese fairy tale:

I’m doing all this in order to make the most of our current environment.  Even if you don’t live near a refugee population, like we do, I’m sure there are other ways to acknowledge the diversity of your environment and turn it into an opportunity to teach your kids about others.  In fact, I’m interested in hearing your ideas.

Okay, now it’s your turn.  I would love to hear how you teach your children to be more small-world-, missions-, others-minded.  Do you have any tips or experiences to share?

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