Trust in God, Not Conspiracy Theories

King Ahaz of Judah was faced with a dilemma: join an alliance with Israel and Syria to face the menace of the Assyrian Empire, or submit to the Assyrians and incur the wrath of Syria and Israel. As 2 Kings 16:5-9 explains, he chose the latter, prompting an invasion by Syria and Israel. These were perilous times.

Political intrigue, tenuous alliances, war. These factors provided the perfect backdrop for conspiracy theories. And this is precisely why the Lord told the prophet Isaiah:

Do not call conspiracy all that this people calls conspiracy, and do not fear what they fear, nor be in dread. But the Lord of hosts, him you shall honor as holy. Let him be your fear, and let him be your dread. And he will become a sanctuary and a stone of offense and a rock of stumbling to both houses of Israel, a trap and a snare to the inhabitants of Jerusalem. And many shall stumble on it. They shall fall and be broken; they shall be snared and taken.

Isaiah 8:12-15

As this account demonstrates, conspiracy theories are not a new phenomenon. They are as old as Scripture. The only novel aspect of such theories is the ease with which they can be spread today. In previous generations, conspiracies about the Masons, or the JFK assassination, or UFOs, could only be spread in books or magazines or conventions. Now, thanks to the internet and social media, they can be spread instantly and disseminated broadly.

But while the media have changed, the basis of conspiracy theories remains the same – fear.  “Do not call conspiracy all that this people calls conspiracy, and do not fear what they fear, nor be in dread.” They arise when painful and shocking events happen that create a sense of the loss of control, which in turn creates fear. Whether it was the Assyrian crisis in the eighth century BC, or the 9/11 attack in the 21st century AD, conspiracy theories provide a sense of comfort by assuaging the fear that such terrible things can happen outside of our power to manage. “We can’t possibly be so sinful as to incur God’s wrath – it must be an international conspiracy!” “A handful of terrorists couldn’t cause the scope of damage that occurred on 9/11 – it must have been an inside government job!”

And in a day when technology and innovation seem limitless, it is only natural to be deceived by the illusion of our power to control what happens. A simple virus can spread so virulently and kill so many? Impossible! My favorite candidate lost an election? That couldn’t have happened! It must be a conspiracy!

The Bible presents no such illusion.

Again I saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to those with knowledge, but time and chance happen to them all. For man does not know his time. Like fish that are taken in an evil net, and like birds that are caught in a snare, so the children of man are snared at an evil time, when it suddenly falls upon them.

Ecclesiastes 9:11-12

The real world is filled with uncertainty. Our ability to control what happens is a mirage. Where we think we see an oasis of predictability, there is instead the desert of time and chance. Children get cancer; innocent people are randomly murdered; an evil time falls suddenly.

No one wants reality to be like this. The wise man who wrote Ecclesiastes certainly didn’t. But much of what happens in this world is totally out of our control, regardless of our personal feelings. If I don’t accept this hard truth, I may end up substituting my personal wishes for reality, my “hope so” for hard proof.

In other words, a conspiracy theory.

And because such theories are not grounded in evidence, when they are examined in a court of law on the basis of evidence offered under oath, they collapse. Alex Jones touted the theory that the Sandy Hook school shooting was a “false flag” operation on his show and never had to face cross-examination, but when he was taken to court, he had to admit that he is a “performance artist” and concede that children did in fact tragically die. Of course, by the time this charlatan admitted he was merely performing, the number of people who heard and believed and propagated his macabre “performance” piece had multiplied exponentially.

I am not suggesting that conspiracies never occur. Indeed, I think a healthy dose of skepticism toward all politicians and political parties is vital to preserving our identity as citizens of heaven first and foremost (Philippians 3:20). But an obsession with conspiracies reflects fear rather than faith, and it can lead Christians to fixate on purveyors of conspiracies rather than the word of God. This is why Isaiah went on to warn the people:

Bind up the testimony; seal the teaching among my disciples. I will wait for the Lord, who is hiding his face from the house of Jacob, and I will hope in him. Behold, I and the children whom the Lord has given me are signs and portents in Israel from the Lord of hosts, who dwells on Mount Zion. And when they say to you, “Inquire of the mediums and the necromancers who chirp and mutter,” should not a people inquire of their God? Should they inquire of the dead on behalf of the living? To the teaching and to the testimony! If they will not speak according to this word, it is because they have no dawn.

Isaiah 8:16-20

In Isaiah’s day, the conspiracies were spread by mediums and necromancers. In our day, they are disseminated through blogs, YouTube, and social media. But regardless of the century or the mechanism, those who churn out fanciful theories do nothing more than “chirp and mutter,” and the proper response for God’s people is to turn away from them and “to the teaching and to the testimony!”

Otherwise, it is easy to become addicted to the chirp and mutter. Because conspiracy theories are rooted in emotion rather than reality, once someone falls down the rabbit hole, it is very hard to climb out. Early in the pandemic last year I happened to see the social media account of someone (who I do not know) touting the theory that the lockdown was actually a cover for the President to clear the streets to begin a massive manhunt of a Hollywood cabal of celebrities who kidnap children to use their blood to extract material to make them younger (I’m not kidding). This person repeatedly posted that this operation was about to happen. And when it did not, rather than admit that he was wildly off base, he immediately pivoted to another conspiracy theory. Since there is no mooring in reality, one wish is as good as another.

This is why conspiracy theories are such an obsession. Evidence never gets in the way, so there is no intellectual speedbump to slow them down. Those obsessed with conspiracies either spiral into deeper levels of irrationality or else they tragically crash. It has been heartbreaking to read reports of the “QAnon” community response to the inauguration of President Biden. This community spent years convincing itself that this could never happen. Now that it has, some of its members are devastated to realize they fell for a lie. Others…well, you’ll never believe this, but electing Biden was all part of the master plan!

In the case of King Ahaz, the conspiracies floating around the ancient world led him to forge an alliance with a pagan king who would someday invade his own country. Similarly, Christians who become obsessed with conspiracies may find themselves feeling as though they have more in common with those who share their conspiracies rather than those who share in Christ – and lose their faith in the process. And as the riot in the capitol building demonstrated, many of those who are enmeshed in the world of such theories are anti-Christian in their thoughts and actions.

There’s another consequence of an obsession with conspiracies. If you are prone to share fanciful theories that are routinely proven false, what impact do you think this has on your influence for Christ? Credibility with non-believers is a precious commodity. How tragic it is to waste that credibility on bizarre conspiracy theories that undermine the truths you may share from the word of God. The “boy who cried wolf” is a story of lost credibility. The stakes are even higher when it comes to the “roaring lion,” and they call for us to be “sober-minded” (1 Peter 5:7).

Besides, there is plenty of evil on full display in broad daylight to occupy our attention and energy. We don’t need outlandish conspiracy theories to know we are in a serious spiritual conflict. The first century Roman world was filled with court intrigue, plots, even assassinations. And that was just among the imperial family! Christians also faced scrutiny and scorn from their unbelieving neighbors. That’s precisely why Paul exhorted Christians to walk wisely and use their time redemptively. “Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil” (Ephesians 5:15-16). The reality right before our eyes is more than sufficient to summon all the conviction, wisdom, and love we can bring to bear upon it. God calls us to take part in a conflict that is indeed much bigger than we can see, a struggle “against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12). But engage this unseen enemy not with a fixation on speculative rumors, but with the “whole armor of God” (Ephesians 6:11).

The Value of a Christian Liberal Arts Education

(Last week I participated in a forum at my alma mater, Florida College, on the value of a liberal arts education. Here is a revised version of my remarks).

“Page-turners they are not” – but great books, they are

My interest in our topic tonight was ignited metaphorically and literally by a fire. A fire that occurs in a movie I otherwise refuse to acknowledge – The Last Jedi. My firm conviction is that Episodes 7-9 bear the same relation to the Star Wars canon that the Gnostic gospels do to the biblical canon: they have a few of the same characters, lots of new weird ones, and they completely depart from the original plot!

But on this one occasion, I will acknowledge it because of the scene involving Luke, Yoda, and the sacred Jedi library. If you’ve seen the movie, you know that Luke decides it is time for the Jedi order to end. To ensure its destruction, he grabs a torch to burn the tree where the ancient Jedi books are hidden. But at the last moment, he hesitates – and then Yoda appears, summoning lightning with the Force to do what Luke could not and destroy the tree.

Luke is horrified, but Yoda explains that it is time for him to “look past a pile of old books.” When Luke objects, Yoda responds, “So…read them, have you?” He hadn’t. Yoda wrily acknowledges their dryness: “Page turners they were not.” But Luke’s old master assures him that his Padawan, Rey, already possesses what was contained in that library. Perhaps Yoda is cheekily referring to the fact that Rey had already grabbed the books. Or, maybe this is just one of an endless number of non-sequiturs and plot-holes that sullied the greatest franchise in movie history!

BUT – when I watched that scene, I was unexpectedly moved by the visual of a body of knowledge that served a noble purpose suddenly vanishing, either ignored by neglect or destroyed with intent. I was moved because that is happening in our society, and someone needs to salvage the best of that heritage.

That heritage is devoted to what is True, Good, and Beautiful. Knowing what is true, doing what is good, and loving what is beautiful, is what a liberal arts education under the Lordship of Jesus Christ is all about. “Liberal arts” refers to the study of subjects like literature, history, philosophy, mathematics, and music – as opposed to vocational or technical training. For some people, “liberal” is a dirty word. But its root means free. And it is through this sort of education that we can be free as individuals, free from slavery to mere instinct or turbulent passion to be what makes us fully human (the capacities to know, do, and love). And it is through the liberal arts that we can be free as citizens in a civil society, solving problems with the wisdom of the ages rather than the passions of the moment. 

And this is why it is crucial that the liberal arts are central to every degree here. What is the point of being a teacher or a nurse or a preacher if you don’t believe that there exists what is objectively true, universally good, and inherently beautiful? Without these values, we are reduced to the status of a commodity, at the cost of our humanity. That is why tonight we want to invite you to be a part of the rebellion against the imperial powers of our decadent age. 

And you don’t need a college degree to join the rebellion. Read an old book. Practice a noble virtue. Enjoy a beautiful piece of music. Do these things, and you are already a part of the fight!

Faith, Fear, and Folly During a Pandemic

And our enemies said, “They will not know or see till we come among them and kill them and stop the work.” At that time the Jews who lived near them came from all directions and said to us ten times, “You must return to us.” So in the lowest parts of the space behind the wall, in open places, I stationed the people by their clans, with their swords, their spears, and their bows. And I looked and arose and said to the nobles and to the officials and to the rest of the people, “Do not be afraid of them. Remember the Lord, who is great and awesome, and fight for your brothers, your sons, your daughters, your wives, and your homes.” When our enemies heard that it was known to us and that God had frustrated their plan, we all returned to the wall, each to his work (Nehemiah 4:11-15).

Faith primarily refers to our trust in God. It is a response to and a product of God’s faithfulness. This trust in God’s trustworthiness fortifies our heart to remain faithful even when we have reasons to be afraid. But faith is not to be confused with folly, with reckless abandon, with a presumption that no matter how foolish our actions may be, so long as we have faith, God will protect us. That has more in common with Satan’s twisted version of faith expressed in the temptation of Christ (“if you are the Son of God, throw yourself down”) than it does with genuine trust.

But how do we determine when faith becomes folly, or when what seems to be prudence is really thinly disguised fear? These are not easy questions to answer – even in the best of times. And they are doubly difficult to answer in the midst of the stress of a deadly pandemic. In such a time we should steer away from simplistic answers that tend to press complex questions into crude caricatures of faith, fear, and folly.

The people of Jerusalem faced multiple crises in the time of Nehemiah. The city walls were in ruins, and in that time a city without walls was a city without security. The massive project to rebuild the walls presented a crushing burden to those few Jews who were committed to the task. This task was made almost impossible by the threat of violence from Israel’s enemies, a threat taken so seriously by the Jews in the countryside that they insisted their countrymen abandon the work and come home.

There was every reason for the Jews in Jerusalem to be afraid of these adversaries, which is why Nehemiah exhorted, “Do not be afraid of them.” And the key to managing this fear was faith – “Remember the Lord, who is great and awesome.” But notice that this faith in God did not absolve the people from taking steps to secure their own safety. Nehemiah stationed armed guards at the most vulnerable points of the wall, “with their swords, their spears, and their bows,” and charged them to fight for their families. The faith of the people prompted them to faithfulness as they took up arms to defend their city.

So, how was the city saved? By faith in God’s power, or by taking up weapons and standing guard? The answer is – YES. As the text explains, the enemy realized that “God had frustrated their plan.” GOD frustrated it, but he did so working through Nehemiah and the people.

Suppose that upon hearing the threats of their hostile neighbors, Nehemiah had told the people, “God brought us here and promised us success. So, don’t worry about defending yourselves. Just keep right on working, and trust God to protect us.” Faith or folly? The answer is obvious.

Faith trusts that God is at work, but faith also recognizes that God often works through people. God provides our daily bread through our labor (Matthew 6:11; 2 Thessalonians 3:10). God heals the sick through the prayer of elders and the anointing of oil (James 5:14-15). God comforts us through our brothers (2 Corinthians 7:6).

And God works through creation. He “waters the mountains” and causes “the grass to grow” and feeds the “young lions” through the natural processes which he made and governs (Psalm 104:13, 14, 21). Creation receives its existence and energy from God, so its power is secondary while God’s is primary. But God operates through these secondary causes to accomplish his will.

As my wife fought against cancer, we prayed fervently for God to heal her. We also met with oncologists to arrange for radiation, chemotherapy, and surgery – and we did so precisely because we were praying for God to heal her. We knew that God heals, but we also knew that one way he heals is through medicine. His power isn’t limited to medicine, but it is surely at work in medicine. To ignore God’s use of secondary causes is like asking whether Hezekiah was healed by God or by the cake of figs applied to his boil (Isaiah 38:21). For people of faith, the answer is YES.

These same principles are true when it comes to the COVID-19 virus. Relying on God’s protection against the virus includes taking steps like wearing a mask to prevent inadvertently spreading it, and receiving a vaccine to keep from getting it, and receiving medical treatment while having it. Such measures reflect the consistent and abundant biblical testimony that God works through people and nature to bring about his purposes. We work because we trust that God works (Philippians 2:12-13).

Above all, we trust in God’s promises that this body, this creation, and this life, are not all there is. Through the death and resurrection of Christ we have the hope of a resurrected body, a new heavens and earth, and eternal life. This is why the apostle Paul could pray in view of his impending death, “The Lord will rescue me from every evil deed and bring me safely into his heavenly kingdom. To him be the glory forever and ever. Amen” (2 Timothy 4:18). Paul knew that his death was inevitable, but it was not final. And the same is true for us as we face the reality of a deadly pandemic. Many of us have already lost brothers and sisters in Christ to this virus, and while we sorrow, we also rejoice in view of our hope. That is faith.

At the same time, while Paul did not waver in his faith when death was unavoidable, he nevertheless frequently evaded death when it was possible, from escaping in a basket let down over a wall (Acts 9:25) to laying low in Tarsus (Acts 9:29-30) to appealing to Caesar (Acts 25:11-12). In the course of his life Paul willingly suffered more than we can imagine (2 Corinthians 11:23-28), but there were also times when he sidestepped grave harm. And I could make the same point about churches. When Saul instigated his persecution of Christians in Acts 8, the entire Jerusalem church save for the apostles fled the city (Acts 8:1). And as their evangelistic efforts around Judea, Samaria, and beyond testified, this wasn’t because of faltering faith. As they scattered, they spread the word (Acts 8:4), but they did so fleeing for their lives.

And that’s because living out our faith in an uncertain world means making tough judgment calls that navigate between faithlessness on one extreme and foolishness on the other. For Paul, sometimes this meant nearly being murdered – and returning to the same city a short time later (Acts 14:19-22). Other times it meant escaping at night with an armed guard (Acts 23:21-31). On the surface these look like diametrically opposite choices. But in real time, these choices reflected Paul’s best judgment in pursuit of a single purpose – faithfulness to God’s mission.

The great diversity in Paul’s responses to potential danger suggests that there is not a “one size fits all” approach for people of faith in dangerous circumstances. And while it is simple to caricature those who are more cautious as faithless, or those who are less cautious as foolish, reality is much more complicated. Paul made his best judgment as he sought to be faithful to God, and so must we.

Most Christians I know agree that faith in God’s protection is not mutually exclusive with taking precautions, just as Nehemiah and the people took extreme measures while at the same time trusting in God’s protection. By the same principle, lots of churches arrange for security from law enforcement and/or trained members. This doesn’t reflect a lack of faith; it displays a desire to be faithful to protect the flock.

Likewise, most Christians I know agree that sometimes it is not safe for Christians to try to assemble. The leaders of every church I’ve been a part of have at times cancelled, postponed, or abbreviated the assemblies when weather-related events such as ice storms or hurricanes made it physically dangerous to gather. These decisions were never taken lightly, but sometimes they were necessary in balancing faithfulness against foolishness.

In principle then, this virus is nothing new in its demand for taking precautions – especially when it comes to our assemblies. What is unprecedented is the ongoing nature of it. Nehemiah’s wall was finished in 52 days! (Nehemiah 6:15). Ice storms and hurricanes last only a short while. But we are a year into this pandemic. It has understandably tested the collective patience of all of us.

But if we disagree with each other, it is not because of faithlessness or foolishness; it is because we are making different (and difficult) judgments about the relative scale of danger involved. And in such matters of judgment, above all else, charity toward one another should prevail.

For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” But if you bite and devour one another, watch out that you are not consumed by one another (Galatians 5:13-15).

Perhaps your judgment puts you on the less cautious end of the spectrum in responding to the virus. Resist the temptation to assume that those who disagree with you just don’t have enough faith. Perhaps your judgment puts you on the more cautious end of the spectrum. Resist the temptation to assume that those who disagree with you are foolish and presumptuous. Instead, “decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother” (Romans 14:13); “pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding” (Romans 14:19); and “welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God” (Romans 15:7).

Sometimes It’s As Bad As They Say

It’s been over two years since I last posted here. After Kristi’s passing, I haven’t felt like writing, even though Kristi was adamant that I keep doing so. I’m sure part of my reluctance has been the memory of my last post, the eulogy I wrote for her. Actually, Kristi casts a shadow over all that I have written here. She was my favorite editor and my favorite subject. So much of what I wrote here previously was inspired by what I learned from her as she dealt with cancer. When I lost her, I lost the motivation to write.

It’s common for widows to lose interest in that which they once enjoyed. It’s a part of the grief process. And we knew this process would last a long time for me. Kristi and I talked about it a lot. She knew that I would struggle, and knowing what her loss would mean for me broke her heart. I must confess that all that we dreaded about my life post-Kristi has been realized. It is every bit as bad as we anticipated.

Even though those conversations with Kristi were gut-wrenching, I’m so grateful that we had them. They helped prepare me for what life has been like without her. Or maybe I should say, she helped prepare me for life without her. Through all of the consultations, treatments, and surgeries, Kristi taught me the importance of facing adversity with unflinching honesty.

When she was first diagnosed with rectal cancer, among our initial consultations was an appointment with a surgeon, Dr. Bill Polk. His job was to remove the tumor, install a temporary ileostomy, and then reverse the ileostomy some months later. Dr. Polk was the stereotypical brash and blunt surgeon, and when we asked him what the ileostomy would be like, he said, “It’s disgusting. It’s a bag of poo. And you’ll never have a satisfying bowel movement again.”

He was right on all three counts. But we were grateful that he was so honest with us. Dealing with that ileostomy was the most difficult emotional challenge Kristi faced in her initial bout with cancer. It was degrading to a woman of such elegance and style to have that apparatus hanging from her side. Knowing exactly how bad it was going to be because of Dr. Polk’s straightforward description was vital to her emotional survival. But it was tough.

No matter how much she hated that bag, she knew that it was crucial to her recovery. That’s reality. Some problems don’t have solutions, only tradeoffs, and whatever we may feel about the tradeoff, reality is still reality. As it turned out, Kristi adjusted to the bag after a couple of months. It was a blessing for her to be able to eat whatever she wanted after a year of pain and discomfort due to the tumor. And, without getting too explicit, we did not let the bag prevent us from enjoying the full blessings of married life. We even began to joke about her new reality. After the ileostomy was reversed, and – true to Dr. Polk’s prediction – her bathroom habits were never the same, whenever she did have a satisfying bowel movement, we called it a “Dr. Polk,” in his honor!

Mrs. Scott and I during our last Christmas together

This mix of unvarnished realism and good humor is how Kristi approached her entire experience with cancer. Rectal cancer is a difficult cancer to treat when it is discovered as late as hers was. And when it metastasizes, as hers eventually did, it is extraordinarily challenging. No amount of naïve optimism (to which I am so prone) can change that. When her cancer returned and spread, we knew that the prognosis was grim, and that our reality was a ruthlessly simple equation – a bit more time together in exchange for the side-effects of chemo. No solutions, only tradeoffs. And we knew there would come a time when that tradeoff was no longer worth it, or even possible.

Sometimes it’s as bad as they say.

That lesson, that acutely painful lesson, is hard to accept. Which is why I think COVID-19 has presented such a challenge.

One of my dear friends in the ministry of the word, David Thomley, has for many years done extensive preaching in Italy. When the virus hit Italy earlier this year, I read his Facebook updates with increasing sorrow. Each day as he posted the number of cases in Italy, the mounting deaths, the terrible toll among the Christians he knew there, my heart broke. But at the same time, each day I would see posts from friends here in America discounting the severity of the virus (which had not erupted here by that point). The juxtaposition between the two was bracing.

Even now, this late into the virus, I still see people I dearly love claim that COVID-19 is no worse than the flu, or that masks don’t really work, or that this is part of a conspiracy, or….I strongly disagree with these views, but I think I understand them. Some of my friends have political convictions about the role of government that make them leery about government intrusion and overreach, and for them, a pandemic presents the perfect opportunity for the government to gobble up individual liberty. I’m sympathetic with these concerns.

In addition to these ideological factors, I think another reason so many friends do not accept the severity of the virus is emotional fatigue. Businesses are tired of adapting to codes and guidelines. Families are tired of postponing plans to gather. Churches are tired of adjusting arrangements to assemble. And individuals are tired of physical, social, and emotional distancing. I am exhausted and frustrated as well.

But sometimes it’s as bad as they say, and ideology and emotion must give way to reality. The reality is that COVID-19 is extraordinarily contagious and unusually lethal. “But it’s only serious for those with underlying conditions!” That’s generally the case – and that’s precisely why it has killed so many people, since so many of us have the very co-morbidities that make the virus deadly. “But it’s no worse than the flu!” I’ve had the flu – in fact, a particularly nasty bout with it put me in the hospital with pneumonia once. But I don’t recall knowing anyone who has died from the flu or flu-related illness, or who has lost loved ones to it. But I do know many people who have died from COVID or COVID-related illness, or who have lost loved ones to it. So do you.

It’s been a long year, and just when we all are emotionally ready to be done with the pandemic, we are facing the darkest period of it. But our emotional fatigue doesn’t alter the medical reality, as much as I wish it could. There were many times Kristi and I grew weary facing the reality of her illness. I’ve even known of people who have been diagnosed with cancer but refused to accept the stark reality of the matter. I get it. And emotionally, I understand why this difficult virus, combined with certain deeply-held beliefs, leads some people to accept any other view than that this is a serious problem that requires costly tradeoffs to manage.

And COVID-19 presents a problem with no solutions, only tradeoffs, just as Kristi and I experienced with cancer. It is also true that some of the policies proposed by the medical community have changed. This should not be surprising since we are dealing with a novel virus. The learning curve is steep for new viruses, and it would be irresponsible if the medical community did not adapt its recommendations as it learns more. In the face of an unprecedented virus, the last thing we should desire from the medical community is unyielding dogmatism. Besides, this virus is supremely indifferent toward dogma. It kills Democrats and Republicans, progressives and conservatives, the very religious and the very unreligious.

And until a safe and effective vaccine becomes widely available (and hopefully that will be very soon), the best way to adjust to the awful reality of this virus is by wearing a mask to prevent spreading respiratory droplets that might contain the virus, and by maintaining physical distance from others out of the range of those droplets. But these are not solutions; these are tradeoffs, and some tradeoffs are easier than others. Although I hate wearing a mask, I am glad to trade off my personal discomfort – the foggy glasses, the profuse sweating, the sensation of smothering – for the safety of others. The social distancing, on the other hand, has been a painful tradeoff. Choosing months of seclusion, just when I was climbing out of my grief in losing Kristi, was one of the most mentally and emotionally challenging things I have ever done. It almost made getting the virus back in September a relief. As concerned as I was as a heavy guy with sleep apnea (the COVID stats are pretty grim for those conditions), I was comforted in knowing that my options were either recovery and some months of immunity and relative freedom, or death. By that point, either option seemed like a better tradeoff than solitary confinement.

These tradeoffs are needed, but they are costly. Physical distancing means lost jobs, missed doctor’s appointments, acute mental illness, isolated senior citizens, and hungry children – just to name a few costs. Extensive testing and tracing can mitigate some of these costs if people are willing to cooperate, but they cannot mitigate all of them. To put it bluntly, it is surely the case that there are people like Kristi whose cancer will go undiscovered until it is too late because of the lockdowns instituted this year. Tradeoffs are not solutions, and their cost can be steep. My heart goes out to anyone who feels like the time has come when the tradeoff is no longer worth it, as it did for Kristi.

This has been a pretty uplifting post, huh!

Well, I actually hope you will find it uplifting. You can feel really good when you get a donut-induced sugar high, but a sugar crash will rapidly follow. Or, you can feel really good by eating brussels sprouts, which taste bitter at the moment, but in the long term will make you healthy. Consider this post a serving of roasted brussels sprouts!

Kristi was uplifted in the long term by Dr. Polk’s brutally honest assessment of the ileostomy because it prepared her for reality. The same was true of our entire experience with cancer. I think this is the major reason that my friends who have cancer or other irreversible medical conditions have been fairly unanimous in their appraisal of how bad COVID really is. They know from personal experience that reality can be cruel in the tradeoffs it demands. But they also know that we must accept that sometimes it’s as bad as they say in order to adjust to reality, and then (and only then) we may flourish in the face of it.

Lately, I’ve realized that I’ve spent too much time in this pandemic feeling sorry for myself and wishing things were different. That is not the path to flourishing in the midst of adversity. As it turns out, returning to this blog and reflecting on my eulogy for Kristi has prompted me to think about her example. As I wrote two years ago, “She was so strong, so determined, so courageous. Throughout all the treatments and surgeries, in the face of almost constant diarrhea and the other indignities rectal cancer brings, an even on the brink of death, Kristi’s mantra was simple: ‘You do whatcha gotta do.’”

If Kristi was here, she would tell me that yes, the virus is bad, and yes, the tradeoffs have costs, but this is reality, so “Shane, do whatcha gotta do.” But she would also remind me of how we sought joy in the midst of doing what we had to do, and that such joy is accessible for me even now if only I will seek it. And finally, she would remind me that even though it’s as bad as they say, what they say isn’t all there is to say. Kristi would recall the (unanticipated) blessings we experienced in her illness, and that I have experienced in this pandemic. And these blessings, Kristi would say, are signposts pointing toward the eternal blessings that will flow from the Fountain of Joy, “joy that is inexpressible” (1 Peter 1:8).

In other words, Kristi would assure me that sometimes it’s even better than we can say.

“A Crown of Beauty in the Hand of the Lord” – A Eulogy for Kristi

(Note from Shane: This is the eulogy I wrote for Kristi, which my friend Max Shearer read for me at Kristi’s memorial service)

Mrs. Scott

Kristi and I first met in an inauspicious way. I was a sophomore at Florida College, and was asked to be part of a service club that helped incoming freshmen move into the dormitories. I was assigned to a lady’s dorm, Sutton Hall, where I saw an enormous van from Illinois pull in. Little did I have any idea how profoundly my life would be changed by the gorgeous woman who stepped out of that van. Of course, it took a few years for that story to get going, but believe me, it was worth the wait.

Years later, after we were married, my friends who had never met Kristi would ask to see her picture, and their reaction was universal and unanimous. They would exclaim, “Your wife is beautiful!?!?” with an equal mix of admiration and astonishment! I couldn’t blame them – I was amazed as well. Continue reading

Life Isn’t Fair – and We’re Glad

Over the last few days, Kristi and I have been reading a wonderful book called A Grace Disguised. A good friend of mine recommended it to me years ago, and I promptly purchased it, only to leave it untouched on the shelf ever since. But Kristi suggested that we read something encouraging and that book popped into my mind. We have been immensely blessed by it so far.

The author, Jerry Sittser, faced sudden and catastrophic loss when a drunk driver hit the van he was driving, killing his wife, his youngest daughter, and his mother. Three generations – wiped out in an instant. Making matters worse, when the case went to trial, the drunk driver’s attorney managed to get him off. Can you imagine experiencing the nightmare of such a tragedy and then a miscarriage of justice?

It isn’t fair!

There isn’t anything fair about a father losing a daughter, or husband losing a wife, or a son losing a mother. There isn’t anything fair about Kristi’s battle with rectal cancer at such a young age and less than a year into our marriage. And you have your stories to share that painfully illustrate the unfairness of life.

But as Sittser described his own frustration with the unfairness of his loss, he made a point that really resonated with us. Just as it is the case that we experience many tragic losses that are unfair, we also enjoy many gifts in life that we do not deserve. Life, love, joy, beauty. Merit has nothing to do with any of these things. They are displays of God’s grace. As Sittser writes:

So, God spare us a life of fairness! To live in a world of grace is better by far than to live in a world of absolute fairness. A fair world may make life nice for us, but only as nice as we are. We may get what we deserve, but I wonder how much that is and whether or not we would really be satisfied. A world with grace will give us more than we deserve. It will give us life, even in our suffering.

We read that paragraph Tuesday night. The next morning, Kristi had an appointment with a chiropractor. As we started to load up, we noticed that our garage door was broken – one of the rollers was mangled. I had tried to fix it, but in a display of my typical mechanical ability, I failed. In the midst of all our stress, it doesn’t take much of a straw to break the camel’s back, and when I saw that the door was broken, I became unhinged (!).

After Kristi’s adjustment, we decided to pop by a Krispy Kreme donut shop because they were giving out free pumpkin spice donuts. But when we pulled into the drive-thru, we learned that the giveaway was the day before. The person on the other end of the speaker then said, “But I’ll go ahead and give it to you anyway.” And then when we pulled up to the window, she decided to give us several more for no charge (Kristi had a neck brace on from the adjustment, so we joked later that we got the free donuts because she looked so puny!).

I realize a few free donuts isn’t much in the scheme of things, but that day, at that moment, it was a blessing. And it got us to thinking about how many blessings we received that day that were totally undeserved. Earlier in the morning, we obtained a coupon to reduce our copay for a new drug to zero – and the pharmacy took the initiative to make sure we knew about it. Kristi’s adjustment was free because our chiropractor is a dear friend from church who had employed Kristi part-time for the last four years. And last night another great friend from church gave us some delicious mini-bunt cakes (we ate well yesterday!).

Life indeed is not fair. Sometimes we face that which is cruel and heartbreaking. But sometimes we receive generous and uplifting gifts that remind us of the good we do not deserve. This is why it is so important to “give thanks in all circumstances” (1 Thessalonians 5:18), to see that our lives are not totally defined by loss and pain, and that to ask “Why me?” is not only appropriate when we suffer, but also when we are blessed.

 

 

 

“But I O Lord Cry to You”

(Today I was privileged to speak in the chapel service of my alma mater, Florida College. Here are my remarks.)

I’ll be reading from the end of Psalm 88:

13 But I, O Lord, cry to you;
    in the morning my prayer comes before you.
14 Lord, why do you cast my soul away?
    Why do you hide your face from me?
15 Afflicted and close to death from my youth up,
    I suffer your terrors; I am helpless.
16 Your wrath has swept over me;
    your dreadful assaults destroy me.
17 They surround me like a flood all day long;
    they close in on me together.
18 You have caused my beloved and my friend to shun me;
    my companions have become darkness.

Since the time that I was a student here, more and more of our hymnals have incorporated actual psalms from the Old Testament, which I think is wonderful. But there is a category of psalms that – so far as I know – our hymnals never include. Psalms like this one – songs of deep mourning and anguish, called psalms of lament. I’ve never sung a hymn in church that concludes, “Darkness is my only friend – period.”

And yet when God gave his people a book of praises to use in worship, he filled that book with psalms like this one. And remember, these were primarily used in Israel’s collective worship in the temple. Even the psalms that sound personal, like Psalm 88, were designed to be sung with those gathered at the house of God, just like we typically sing songs that are individualistic – like “I am Resolved” – in the assembly with other Christians.

But even as our hymn editors have added more and more selections straight out of the Book of Psalms, they seem to have deliberately avoided using songs of mourning like the ones God gave to Israel.

My guess is that we just aren’t very comfortable with talking to God like these psalmists did, or like Job did. It is easy for us to delude ourselves into thinking that church is for people who are just blissfully traipsing through life, and that worship is only for those who sing a joyful noise to the Lord.

This is just not true, however, and more importantly, it is insidiously dangerous. Because real life is filled with pain, with loss, guilt, sorrow. And if I imagine that in order to worship I can’t be in this kind of inescapable anguish, then what I have to do is try to tuck away that grief in a corner of my heart where God won’t see it. And once we start to imagine we can hide things from God, we are on the road to catastrophic spiritual failure.

Job’s Despair, by William Blake

God gave his people psalms like this one because he wants us – all of us – all of what we are going through – including our hurts and fears. And he is big enough to allow us to speak to him with complete transparency. In the case of Israel, he wanted them to come and do this in the place where his presence was most immediate and accessible – the very temple itself. And through Christ, he invites us to come boldly to the throne of grace and cry out to him with the honesty of our broken-heartedness.

And God wants us to do this together. He wants us to “weep with those who weep,” as Israel did when it sang these psalms. He wants us to realize that we are not isolated in our despair, but that right alongside us are many others who are traveling the same road.

When you read or pray or sing a psalm like this one, you are being reminded that other children of God have faced what you face, have felt what you feel. And just that realization – that you are not suffering alone – is itself a comfort.

Several years ago when I was still single, one of my best friends invited me to be part of his wedding. I was thrilled for him, but I knew that when I went I would face the inevitable barrage of questions from our friends – “So when are you gonna get married?” On top of that, I had come to know a wonderful young lady, who was beautiful in every way, but who I knew would never see me as anything other than a friend. And sure enough, I got a bunch of the “so when are you gonna get married” questions, and each time it only made me sadder as I thought about the girl who I couldn’t have.

I had a long drive home, and as this frustration ate away at me, a song came to mind that I had to find. So I pulled off the road and went into a music store to find it. I picked up a Michael Buble cd, put it in the car, and heard these words:

You give your hand to me
And then you say hello
And I can hardly speak
My heart is beating so…

Oh I am just a friend
That’s all I’ve ever been
Cause you don’t know me

Now, the version I really wanted was by Ray Charles, because – no offense to Michael Buble – that white boy hadn’t suffered enough! I needed the voice of someone whose life-time experience of oppression and injustice gave his voice the sound of a wail!

Why did I need that song? Because it reminded me that I’m not alone, that others have felt the same frustration – and if he could sing about it, then maybe somehow he got through it.

God wants us to know that the darkness is not our only friend, and that we are not alone, because we can be honest with each other, and most of all, with him.

 

 

Power vs Principle

So the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered the council and said, “What are we to do? For this man performs many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation.” But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing at all. Nor do you understand that it is better for you that one man should die for the people, not that the whole nation should perish.” (John 11:47-50)

The Catholic Church is facing yet another major sex abuse scandal, and the response of the church’s leadership has been profoundly disappointing. While many Catholic lay members, priests, and bishops have called for full disclosure, the Pope and his allies have circled the wagons. Indeed, the upper-level leadership of the Catholic Church has displayed far more interest in attacking those within the church calling for transparency than in addressing the issue of gross immorality.

Even though I am not a Catholic, my heart is broken over this crisis, for several reasons. First and foremost, any time children and young adults are exploited by those who should be protecting them, a profound evil has taken place. Second, I have many devout Catholic friends who are deeply grieved over this fresh wave of scandals, and who feel frustrated that the Pope is stonewalling. Third, I know that many people in the secular world essentially equate the Catholic Church with Christianity, and in their minds, anything that undermines the credibility of the church also discredits Christianity – period.

There is an underlying issue behind this particular scandal that has implications far beyond the parochial concerns of the Catholic Church, however. That issue is the perennial temptation to sacrifice principle for the sake of power.  The survival instinct of institutions is so compelling that it seduces even the most sincerely intentioned into betraying the very principles the institution was founded to preserve. That is what is happening in the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, and it is what is happening all across our cultural landscape.

It is especially easy to see this taking place in the realm of politics. I vividly remember the outrage that many high-profile evangelicals (Robertson, Dobson, Falwell) expressed about Bill Clinton’s lack of character during the Lewinsky scandal in 1998. Less than twenty years later, many of those same outspoken critics of Clinton’s “character deficit” were full-throated supporters of Donald Trump. Why such a dramatic about-face? The answer is simple – power. Bill Clinton did not offer evangelicals political power, while Trump has. And so, with a few exceptions, the Robertsons/Dobsons/Falwells of the world have traded their birthright of principle for a pottage of power.

The same is true in reverse, of course. The vast majority of those on the Left, including many feminists, defended Bill Clinton during the Lewinsky affair (one went so far as to say she would happily service the president so long as he kept abortion legal) even though he clearly exploited his position to garner sexual favors from a young female staffer. But when Donald Trump ran for president, many on the left suddenly had a change of heart regarding Bill Clinton’s behavior.

The lack of principled conviction is not exactly a recent development in the realm of politics. But I do fear that we have seen the near-total erosion of truth-tellers in American politics. There are a few people in public life who are willing to critique their own party and those who share their own ideology (during the Clinton scandal the liberal law professor Jonathan Turley was a shining light of conviction, and during the Trump candidacy Baptist seminary president Al Mohler was unwavering in his criticisms). But the ranks of people like the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan or Howard Baker in politics are thinning rapidly.

We expect the unprincipled pursuit of power in the realm of politics. When it happens in the name of Christianity, the betrayal of truth for power is grotesque. Over the weekend, Pope Francis preached a homily in which he obliquely justified his refusal to answer questions or produce documents related to the sex abuse scandal by referring to Christ’s silence in the face of his accusers. This is a repugnant defense, and it should be an outrage to everyone who loves the name of Jesus. The Lord was not silent in the face of genuine inquiries into the possible abuse of children. To the contrary, he warned:

Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea. (Matthew 18:5-6)

To be sure, using the name of Christ to cloak the scandalous is not unique to Catholicism. It happens in evangelicalism all the time (for Exhibit A, check out Creflo Dollar), even in hundreds of small churches with two-bit dictators who act more like Diotrephes than disciples (see Third John 9-10). Power corrupts nowhere with a more corrosive effect on the soul than in churches.

This was the issue in John 11. The Jewish leadership faced the choice of power vs principle when they heard of Jesus’ miracles – especially the raising of Lazarus. When the Sanhedrin convened at the end of John 11, the Jewish court was in a dilemma. It could accept the truth of Jesus’ kingship, potentially incurring the wrath of Rome and the subsequent loss of power, or it could cover up the truth by eliminating Jesus, thus pacifying the Romans and preserving their own place of power. The Jewish leaders chose power.

Ironically, this power did not last very long. The Romans came and took away their place and nation just a few years later. Power corrupts, and what is corrupt does not survive. Institutions that sacrifice conviction for prosperity ultimately lose both.

When the psalmist asked who would be among those who would enjoy the presence of God, the answer came back: one who “who swears to his own hurt and does not change” (Psalm 15:4). The one who will dwell on God’s holy hill possesses an integrity that remains uncorrupted even when prosperity, status, or life itself may be the price. It’s the person who puts principle ahead of power,  who loves God more than anything else, who will, in the end, be with the One they love forever. And eternity with God is worth any price.

 

Children Need Parents Who Are Parents, Not Friends

As most of my friends know, I am a lifelong fan of the sophisticated and erudite sport known as professional wrestling. I love the combination of athleticism and performance that it offers, especially the style that was popular during my childhood. When I was a kid, wrestling was primarily a regional rather than national business. There were various “territories” around the country, each with its own championship and superstar. In my case, I lived in the part of Kentucky included in the Memphis territory, and the top dog in that promotion was Jerry “the King” Lawler.

The Memphis territory was in the opinion of many old-school fans the most exciting and entertaining of the regional promotions. As of right now, there are four separate podcasts that focus on the golden years in Memphis, a testimony to its popularity. One of those is a podcast called Dinner with the King, featuring “the King” himself! It is always a fun show.

Until this morning.

This morning, the podcast was about the tragic and untimely passing of Lawler’s son, Brian. On July 29, Brian died after apparently taking his own life in a prison cell in west Tennessee. He had been arrested for DUI for the third time, leading to mandatory jail time. The plan was for him to cool off in prison and then enter rehab, but instead, he was found unconscious, and eventually pronounced dead. On the podcast this morning Lawler indicated that there were several irregularities in the case, and a further investigation is being made. But none of this will change the fact that the King had to bury his own son.

There is a part of me that feels very guilty about my obsession with professional wrestling because of the tremendous toll the sport has taken on the superstars I’ve enjoyed so much through the years. Many of the wrestlers that entertained me as a child are crippled, broke, or dead. Between the physical rigors of the work in the ring and the lifestyle on the road outside of the ring, professional wrestlers (especially from my generation) paid a steep price for their line of work.

And frequently, this cost was passed on to their families. The world of professional wrestling is filled with broken marriages and troubled children. Some of you may have watched the excellent 30 for 30 on another childhood favorite of mine, the “Nature Boy” Ric Flair, in which he talked about the death of his son, Reid, from a drug overdose. In a poignant scene from the documentary, Flair said this:

“I say it every day: ‘God, I wish you were here. I had so much fun with you. And I regret the fact that I sometimes was your best friend instead of your dad.’ 

A best friend instead of a dad.

Lawler said much the same thing in his autobiography published several years ago. He acknowledged that he permitted life on the road to interfere with his commitment to his family, and admitted that he spent more time with Brian as a colleague than as a parent.

“It’s more like we’re a couple of boys in the business together rather than father and son.” (It’s Good to be the King…Sometimes, p. 96).

And now, both men – at the time in life when the relationship between a father and son should indeed blossom into a special sort of friendship – are instead grieving their sons.

“Whoever spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is diligent to discipline him.” (Proverbs 13:24)

Parents, your children need you to be parents, not friends, so that someday you will reach that sweet spot in life where you can be best friends. But you cannot short-circuit this process. If you try to be a friend rather than a parent, your child will end up having neither.

In my lifetime I believe I have witnessed a profound shift in the way parents (at least in America) view their role as parents. I am old enough that I remember a time when if a child got in trouble at school, the child got in bigger trouble at home. Now, if a child gets reprimanded by a teacher (or a coach or a Scout leader or preacher), the reflexive impulse of parents is to defend their child and attack the disciplinarian. I recently met a retired high school teacher who told me she knew it was time to leave the English classroom because her administration told her she could no longer grade papers in red ink since it hurt the children’s feelings.

Seriously!

All of this is part of a much broader societal shift toward emotionalism and away from rationalism. How a person feels trumps the rational pursuit of objective truth. Applied to parental discipline, this mindset is toxic. And it is ultimately heartbreaking.

Children need limits. They need encouraging discipline. They need someone to teach them that how they feel is secondary to what is right. They need parents to do this, not friends. But when parents avoid or abandon this responsibility out of some ill-conceived desire to be their child’s best friend, they are causing harm to their child and robbing themselves of the unique blessing of friendship that mature children truly do offer.

Parents, don’t make excuses for your kids because you want to be a “buddy.” Don’t be afraid to discipline them because you fear you may lose them if you do. And don’t avoid the hard work of patient correction just because your child gets upset. Be a parent first, not a friend first. Too many grieving mothers and fathers have learned the truth of this ancient proverb the hard way.

Discipline your son, for there is hope;
    do not set your heart on putting him to death. (Proverbs 19:18)

God Is Our Origin and Destination

For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen. (Romans 11:36)

Every worldview has to answer these questions:
-Where did we come from?
-Why are we here?
-Where are we going?

Christianity has a very simple answer to all three questions – GOD. Where did we come from? We came from God, “from whom are all things” (1 Corinthians 8:6). Why are we here? We are here “for him” (Colossians 1:16), since he is the one “for whom we exist” (1 Corinthians 8:6). And our ultimate destination, the final goal of our existence, is God, “for from him and through him and to him are all things” (Romans 11:36).

It is this last point that I think is especially worth serious reflection – at least, I need to think about it more. It is the truth I have most neglected in my own view of the world. The question of origins is so fundamental that I – like many Christians – have placed great emphasis on the role of God as Creator and on the serious weaknesses of a purely naturalistic view of the origin of the universe, life, and consciousness. And early in my preaching I encountered several authors who helped me see the crucial purpose for our lives as revealed in Scripture – to glorify God (as Jesus taught in Matthew 5:16).

But the answer to that third question – “where are we going” – is the one that I have failed to grasp for far too long. And yet, the Bible could not be clearer. Just as surely as God is the origin of our story, he is also the destination of our story. “To him are all things.” The end of the story for a child of God is God.

When the Bible speaks of heaven, it uses language like “many mansions” (John 14:2, KJV) and “streets of gold” (Revelation 21:21). And if our vision of eternity is not properly God-centered, then it is easy for these portraits to distract us, or even to mislead us, away from the true meaning of eternity. Heaven is not a celestial Disneyworld, where we can ride all the rides we want without waiting in line or have an endless supply of Mickey Mouse ice cream bars. For many years, if you had asked me if I would be satisfied to go to such a “heaven” even if God wasn’t there, I would have said, “YES!”

But what those biblical images are designed to convey is the much deeper truth that in heaven we will be reunited with God. The streets are said to be made of gold because heaven is the new and eternal temple of God – the dwelling place of God – and the most holy place of the temple in the Bible is always decorated with gold. This emphasis is found all throughout the glorious picture of heaven in Revelation 21-22. “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man” (21:3). Indeed, in this vision, there is no separate temple because the entire heavenly city is itself one enormous Holy of Holies, and “its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb” (21:22). When this reunion is realized, we “will see his face” (22:4).

The same God-centeredness is true with the “many mansions” of John 14. Jesus was not promising that everyone in heaven gets their own personal Biltmore House! The word translated “mansions” in the King James Version is better rendered “many rooms,” which is how modern translations express the point. And the point of the many rooms is that there will be plenty of room for all of Christ’s disciples to abide with him. “And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also” (John 14:3).

In the Christian tradition, the final goal of dwelling with God and seeing his face is called the “beatific vision.” But I am sad to say my own grasp of such a vision has been seriously impaired through the years. And there really is no excuse, since Scripture and reason so clearly point to this truth.

Why do I say that even reason pushes us to this conclusion? Because it speaks to universal human realities, such as truth, goodness, and beauty. Human beings have an innate desire for truth, fueled by the unique human capacity for reason. And we also have a yearning for goodness, and for its derivatives like justice and compassion. And we have a longing for beauty, that which is intrinsically deserving of adoration. And where can we find truth, goodness, and beauty? In the final and complete sense, only in the One who is Truth, Goodness, and Beauty.

This to me explains the restless longing of those who do not seek God and therefore face frustration and disillusionment. In the words of Isaiah, they “labor for that which does not satisfy” (Isaiah 55:2). Even worse, those who accept the atheistic dogma of materialism undermine the very concepts of truth, goodness, and beauty by reducing human consciousness and rationality to purely physical processes.

But I am primarily writing this for fellow Christians who, like myself, need reminding that the goal is God, that the one ambition that counts is “the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:14). This longing will indeed be completely and eternally fulfilled by the one who made us.

One thing have I asked of the Lord,
that will I seek after:
that I may dwell in the house of the Lord
all the days of my life,
to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord
and to inquire in his temple. (Psalm 27:4)

Or as a more recent psalmist put it –

Riches I heed not, nor man’s empty praise
Thou mine inheritance, now and always
Thou and Thou only, first in my heart
High King of Heaven, my Treasure Thou art

(“Be Thou My Vision,” Eleonore Hull 1912)

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