Archive for the “Politics” Category

I haven’t published a sermon for a long time.  They’re available on the St Ninian’s website but it felt like following the events of the last weeks and months this was something that needed said.  You can listen and the text is below.

A sermon on 1 John 1:1-4

1 John is a letter about the humanity of Jesus.

The community that grew up around John’s Gospel were profoundly influenced by the mysticism of it.  Jesus is the Messiah who performs signs and wonders and is so much more than just a mere mortal.  And they travelled down that route.  Christ is divine.  And they forgot about the other part, the part that is so important to the Gospel of John… Jesus was God incarnate.  God in the flesh.

The earliest arguments in the church were about who Jesus really was.

One line of thought, Docetism, was the belief that Jesus’ physical body was an illusion, as was his crucifixion; that is, Jesus only seemed to have a physical body and to physically die, but in reality he was incorporeal, a pure spirit, and hence could not physically die.

This first letter to John is countering the heresy of Docetism, the idea that Jesus was in effect God just pretending to be human.

These first sentences of this letter manage to balance those competing ideas beautifully.

The Message says it this way:

From the very first day, we were there, taking it all in—we heard it with our own ears, saw it with our own eyes, verified it with our own hands.  The Word of Life appeared right before our eyes; we saw it happen!  And now we’re telling you in most sober prose that what we witnessed was, incredibly, this: The infinite Life of God himself took shape before us.

We saw it, we heard it, and now we’re telling you so you can experience it along with us, this experience of communion with the Father and his Son, Jesus Christ.  Our motive for writing is simply this: We want you to enjoy this, too. Your joy will double our joy

The divine and the human… together in Jesus.

We have seen it!

We have heard it!

We have smelled it!

We have touched!

That Jesus is divine, the Son, part of the Trinity, is hugely important.  We don’t worship just a man.  We worship God… But we worship God revealed to us in human form.  Jesus shows us what God is like.

This letter starts with a reminder of the beginning… Genesis.  In the beginning God creates the humans and says “Let us make them in our image”.  

All of them.

Not just some of them.

Not just the men.  Not just the white people.  Not just the ones with blonde hair or who are heterosexual or who don’t have piercings and tattoos.  Not just the ones who call God by the name we use, in fact people who don’t even believe God exists at all.  

All of them.

All of them.

Over the centuries the Bible has been used to justify horrific things.

It has been used to justify war, and still is.

to justify slavery, and still is.

to justify the subjugation of women, and still is.

to justify beating children, and still is.

to promote racism, and still is.

to justify homophobia, and still is.

to promote greed, and still is.

This week we have seen the Bible used to promote the separation of children from their parents.  

This week we have seen the Bible used to justify the detention of children in camps.

It says in Romans that you should obey the law. 

Immigration isn’t just an issue in America.  It’s an issue here too.  It’s one of the biggest issues we face.  And it’s used as cover for all kinds of other things because it allows us to talk about ‘them’ as different to ‘us’.

But when the Bible is used to defend separating children from their families, it is time for all of us to decide…

When the Bible is used to give one group of people power over another, it is time for all of us to decide…

When the Bible is used to justify Empire, it is time for all of us to decide… what do we believe?  I mean really believe!

The first Christians lived in a brutal world ruled by dictators with cruel laws enforced by the biggest military power ever seen.  They lived in a world where they were persecuted and tortured and killed because they made a bold and faithful statement… Jesus is Lord, not Caesar.

But that statement was underpinned by a way of living that was different.  They didn’t just say that Caesar wasn’t lord, they acted like Jesus was lord.  They lived like it.

Because they had seen God.

They had heard God.

They had smelled God.

and they had touched God.

God incarnate.  God in the flesh.  The man called Jesus.

I think we make two mistakes with our faith.

The first is what we might call ‘social Christianity’.  We come to church to see our pals.  The rest of it is just the price of meeting up.  It’s ok, and sometimes it’s even good, but it’s not the main reason we are here.

The second is over spiritualising or intellectualising our faith where we live our faith in our head.  Or we spend all our time in prayer and study and never get beyond that.

Marcus Borg, the American writer puts it this way:

“The point is not that Jesus was a good guy who accepted everybody, and thus we should do the same (though that would be good).

Rather, his teachings and behaviour reflect an alternative social vision.

Jesus was not talking about how to be good and how to behave within the framework of a domination system.  He was a critic of the domination system itself.”

People who say that religion and politics don’t mix mystify me.  Unless they are politicians and then I totally get why they think that.  Jesus is dangerous.  Especially if you are trying to keep hold of power, especially power over other people.

People, voters, you and I, people like us who thing that religion and politics don’t mix, that I don’t get.  If faith in God isn’t the single most important thing in your life then what is?  Self interest?  Your bank balance?  Your own status?  Your house or car or clothes?  What else should influence our politics if not our faith?

What we believe matters.  What we do with what we believe, the way that affects our lives, that matters just as much.  If we don’t live out our faith then what’s the point of it?  It’s supposed to show.  We are meant to be changed by it.

The early church new that.  It matters that Jesus was both divine and human.  To recognise the humanity of Jesus is to recognise the responsibility we all share to each other.  It’s just not good enough for us to shrug and think that it’s ok because they are not like me.  

They are like you!

They are us because we are all humans, just like Jesus.

Ah… but charity begins at home.  The Bible says so.

Yes.  Yes it does.

That saying comes from a passage in 1 Timothy about our responsibility to each other.  It’s a passage about how the believers should behave and provide for those most in need in their community.  And it’s there because the early believers were just like us.  They were greedy and self interested and didn’t really want to share their stuff or their money or their food with others because they had bought into the same lie that we are told;

That money gives you status.

That to be poor is somehow your own fault.

That to be in need is someone else’s problem because I pay my taxes and the government should fix it.

Charity begins at home comes from Jesus’ teaching… ‘Love God, love your neighbour and yourself’.  If you can’t live that out in your own house what chance have we of living it out in the world where we discover that Jesus’ neighbour was the foreigner.  The enemy.  The outcast.  The person who you think is most unlike you, but who is exactly like you because God created humans and said “let us make them all in our image”.

I wanted to write that a time is coming when we need to decide.  But the reality is that the time is already here.  It’s been here for quite some time.  Right wing nationalism is on the rise.  And let’s not be lazy and conflate that with whatever side of the Scottish Independence debate you’re on.

Racism is on the rise.  It always happens when times are tough.  We look for people to blame.  People who are different from us.

It’s always a lie.  Every time we’ve seen it in history it has been a lie.  It was a lie then and it’s a lie now.

And it has to stop.

It has to stop!

It has to stop, not because I’m some kind of bleeding heart liberal snowflake who believes fake news and doesn’t understand how they come here and bring their different languages and food and customs and they undermine our society.  Scotland is full of immigrants.  The Scots came from Ireland.  And the Vikings.  The Normans.  The Anglo-Saxons.  The Indians and Pakistanis.  The Italians.  The Poles and the Syrians and the Somalis.  We all come from people who came here from somewhere else.

So this has to stop because they are us and we are them… and all of us, every single one of us are made in the image of God.

We know this because the disciples told us.  They writers of the Gospels told us.  The writers of the Epistles told us.

And they knew because they had seen God and heard God and smelled God and touched God.  They had met God and he was called Jesus…  And his message was one of love.

And God looks like us, and sounds like us and smells like us and feels like us… all of us.  Not some of us.  Not people like us… but all of us.

It’s time for us to decide what we believe because each one of them is us and could be us.  But more than that, each one of them is Christ.

And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”  Then he will say to those at his left hand, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.”  Then they also will answer, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?”  Then he will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.”

 

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saltire butterfly

I wrote this provocation paper a couple of days after the referendum for a conference called ‘Where Church and Kingdom Collide’.  I then presented a second version at the conference.  I’d love to hear your thoughts, not so much on the referendum, but on the lessons it might have for the church.

The Ripples of the Butterfly Revolution (Part 1)

The campaign for Scottish Independence has lessons for the church

On 18th September 2014 something remarkable happened. 84.15% of the people registered to vote in Scotland cast their vote in the referendum. I’m not about to rehearse the arguments for or against, or comment on the result. Rather, I will suggest that nothing will ever be the same again for UK politics. Things have changed, and this change has far reaching lessons, and perhaps consequences, for the church. This paper is a collection of thoughts and observations on what those lessons might be. They perhaps come too quick on the heels of a tumultuous event to be clear and in any way definitive so please take them in the spirit they are offered.

Big Beasts and Butterflies

As I made my way late in the afternoon on the day before the referendum from one meeting to another, I found myself in George Square in the heart of Glasgow among thousands of YES supporters who had gathered in an impromptu rally. I know it wasn’t planned because the person in charge of the PA system broadcast an appeal for someone to go for petrol as the generator was running out. Someone went on a bike. It felt a bit like it could be Tahir Square or the Brandenburg Gate. There was an excitement, an anticipation, a togetherness I’m not sure I’ve ever seen before. Children and pensioners danced and people dared to dream. Something was happening. Something had changed.

Robin McAlpine described the campaign for Scottish Independence as a ‘butterfly rebellion’[1], a term which paints a colourful picture of a collective of over 350 campaign groups and thousands of individuals pitted against the might of the ‘British Empire’. 97% of those eligible to vote registered. Turn out was 84.5%, compared to 33.5% for the recent European Elections. I wonder if revolution is a more appropriate term than rebellion?

Politics has changed in Scotland. More than that, Scotland has changed politics in the UK. The referendum has engaged and energized people from across the political spectrum and way beyond it, to read, discuss, debate, protest, party, canvas and care. The debate has been painted as a battle between a top down dictate and a bottom up rebellion, between Westminster’s big beasts and the colourful indy butterflies and blasting canon-balls at butterflies just doesn’t work.

It seems that the beats of those butterfly wings from the 1.6 million people who voted Yes and, perhaps also from the 2 million people who were persuaded to vote No on the promise of more powers, are being felt as a whirlwind in Westminster. The political agenda has shifted.

 

The Power of ‘Yes’

It turns out that lots of people are innately hopeful. Especially those who have no business being optimistic. The poor voted ‘Yes’. The rich voted ‘No’.

The chance to frame the Scottish referendum question was crucial to the shape of the campaign. ‘Yes’ is positive, ‘No’ is negative. ‘Yes’ is for, ‘No’ is against.

When you start from the positive everything feels positive. The Yes campaign felt energetic, vibrant and most of all creatively subversive.

When you start from ‘No’ it’s so much harder to frame it as a positive choice. You have to find a different way to say it, like ‘Better Together’. The problem then is disassociation with the answer you want people to choose, so Better Together became ‘No, thanks’, a ‘polite but firm refusal’ made from an ‘informed position’ to choose the union instead.

It would be easy to dismiss a No vote as a vote for the status quo, but it wasn’t that at all, despite the hugely negative campaign from No, labelled ‘Project Fear’ by its own architects.

The simplistic view is that the electorate responded in two ways, to the hope of change and to fear of change. That misses the complex and nuanced motivations, but the fact remains, the poor voted Yes. What do we do with that? Who stands with them? Is it us?

It’s not a huge jump to suggest that we, the church, are often the ‘No’ people. The old mantra of ‘we are all sinners’ is of course true but it stops short of the Good News, the ‘Yes’, the part where we have been forgiven and restored and enter into a story which is a never ending cycle of re-creation. There is no ‘No’ for us, no matter how much we might want there to be.

 

The Revolution Will Not Be Televised

It’s the perceived wisdom that the media wins elections. The Sunday Herald, with a circulation of just 24,000, was the sole media supporter of one side of the argument. Others, like the Guardian and The Herald had supportive content, but no other newspapers declared support for Yes. Most were openly hostile.

A couple of thousand people marched on the BBC last Sunday to protest about ‘biased coverage’ in favour of the No campaign. Poor old Auntie Beeb was caught trying to balance coverage of Cameron, Clegg and Miliband as well as between Yes and No. They chose the establishment… and the people noticed.

The polls showed the race too close to call. In the end it was a clear 55/45% win for No, but close enough from a no hope starting position for Yes. How does that happen? We’ve been told again and again that people are not interested in politics, voters are apathetic, and that politicians are disengaged from the people. Well, 84.5%% of those eligible to vote in Scotland proved that wrong.

Paul Mason wrote about the Arab Spring that “truth moves faster than lies, and propaganda becomes flammable”[2], especially true in our world of social media, and that “they all seem to know each other”. Networking, gathering, sharing information, challenging statements and lies are all at the heart of these networks.

Power was very quickly devolved. The Yes Campaign’s idea was to build a framework that supported grass-roots activism, the ground war, while the No Campaign focused on the media, the ‘air war’. It almost worked in terms of this campaign but the lasting legacy of thousands of politically engaged citizens might be the legacy of this campaign.

I wonder which campaign style the church adopts? I fear that often we choose the ‘air war’ even though our flat structure should be the very model of that ‘ground war’ organisation.

 

Shouting Louder Doesn’t Convince People. Being funny does.

Shouting, pointing, lecturing and bullying doesn’t convince people about anything other than they don’t like people shouting, pointing, lecturing and bullying, especially if they are on the receiving end.

People have not been convinced one way or the other by speeches and TV debates. They have been convinced by family members and friends in living rooms, coffee shops and bars, on buses and trains, in canteens and on shop floors. People, who have never engaged in any kind of political conversation, let alone campaign, have canvassed their neighbours. People have educated themselves, checked facts and formed opinions. When people have told them what to think they turn away and said we’ll make up our own mind, thanks.

The thing is, we, the church, know all that. But we still persist with a top down model which trains people to be ‘experts’ and who still too often stand at the front and dispense wisdom (and I do it too, but then I’m very wise and know more about theology than they do…). Theology is still a spectator sport for the church.

More information makes people more likely to vote but stories are just as important. Actually, stories are central. We have fallen into the trap of ignoring our stories; the stories of God and of our people and communities. Worse than that we divorce those stories and instead serve up platitudes. The Hebrew tradition is one of stories and criticism. The stories are there to wonder about, not to learn or explain, not to apply reason and logic to. They are fluid, living and accessible.

The real story of the referendum has been people’s stories, not the politics. The internet is awash with tales of people’s journeys from No to Yes and Yes to No, from Anarchist to registered voter, of 65 year old first time voters and 16 year olds given the chance to join their society.

The temptation to try to explain and rationalise these stories is far too great.

This whole independence debate has been one big meaning-making exercise. It has been a collective grappling, grasping, wrestle with the story of the land and it’s people and how that relates to us and our friends and our neighbours.

That’s what church should be.

And if it’s not that we should put off the lights and go home.

In fact, perhaps that’s what we should do anyway if we want to foster a ground-up movement rather than a top down institution. Perhaps that’s the real lesson here.

 

Standing on the Outside Looking In?

The churches in Scotland all decided not to take a position on independence, given the range of varying opinion across their membership. Instead they stood on the side-lines and spoke of the need for respect and reconciliation, a perfectly legitimate place to be. It was left to others to offer theological critique and insight and it feels as though that reticence to engage has made the debate poorer, robbing it of a crucial perspective.

Harry Burns, professor of Global Public Health, observed:

“The comfortable middle class voted to stay comfortable. So, who now speaks for the poor?”

It’s a fair question.

The polling analysis shows a direct correlation between poverty and voting Yes. It seems apparent then that the poor want change in the political system, but who stands with them? The church?

The ‘system’ is broken. Everyone knows it, but nobody has any idea how to start again. It may be ironic that one of the criticisms of the prospectus set out for independence was that ‘you can’t tell us what it will look like’.

For some, the opportunity of independence offered was a chance to press ‘reset’ on the political system, a chance just too good to pass up. As I have noted, the Yes vote was biggest in the poorest areas of Scotland. Perhaps when you have nothing to lose taking a chance might be easier?

For most of the last two years it feels like Scotland has been engaged in a great big church meeting. We know we need to change. We had two options before us but the thing the majority of people actually wanted, further devolution or a federalised settlement, wasn’t in the table because of some odd procedural quirk but it seems like constitutional change will be coming for the whole of the UK.

Where will the church stand in that conversation? On the side-lines, holding the jackets and murmuring about reconciliation when it’s all over? Or is there a more radical, creative place for the church right at the heart of this change?

Butterflies only live for a few days. They are caterpillars which changed into something with wings and flew. What’s the point of a few days as a butterfly? Without them plants and flowers would not be pollinated and nothing would grow.

So for us, does this mean that after a lot of work and struggle something beautiful might be born, but that this beautiful thing may not last long? Are we in a place where we, the church, could (and should) be ok with that kind of existence?

Could we put all our energy into collecting the sustenance we need and then allowing it to transform us, knowing that the outcome will be spectacular and beautiful, but short-lived, knowing that our transformation will transform the world?

Promises have been made. The Pandora’s box of constitutional reform has been opened on the steps of Downing Street and you can’t just put a lid back on something like that.

People across these islands are ready for change. The change people voted Yes for, and No for, was a fairer, more just society. A common weal. So questions now are asked, what next?

“What makes the difference between us keeping going and us drifting off? There are many things and you’ll have your own thoughts. But two factors are quite high up on the list. The first is the balance between the struggle to change our society and the struggle to keep going. We’re all pretty exhausted and campaigning and organising takes time. Even staying in contact and coordinating takes time and effort. And the importance of ‘the accidental’ is a well-known factor in successful social movements – the accidental meeting of people who came from different backgrounds and didn’t realise they had so much in common, the accidental realisation that two different campaigns are actually working in the same area, the accidental idea that comes from listening to someone not in your usual circle and so on.

So what we, The Common Weal, are trying to do is create infrastructure that makes keeping going as easy as possible. If there are places to meet, where accidental coming-together can be encouraged (and also somewhere attractive and pleasant to draw new people in), organising becomes easier.

This is about trying to provide infrastructure for others to use to make keeping going as easy as possible. We don’t want to control this – in fact, we couldn’t anyway. We are serious about providing infrastructure which supports others.”

Wow. Does that sound like anywhere we know?

But back to the butterflies…

The SNP now has 72,500 members (now over 80,000), up from 25,642 at 5pm on ‘Dependence Day’.

Butterflies only live for a few days. They are caterpillars which changed into something with wings, and flew. When it is time, the caterpillar creates a cocoon, a chrysalis, in which a metamorphosis happens. They change from one thing into something different, from a caterpillar into a butterfly. From something that eats plants into something without which plants and flowers would not be pollinated and could not grow.

So for us, the church, does this mean that after a lot of work and struggle something beautiful might be born, but that this beautiful thing may not last long?

Are we in a place where we, the church, could (and should) be ok with that kind of existence?

Is capturing the moment and institutionalising it not what we are warned about in the story of the transfiguration, that moment where the truth of Jesus is revealed and the disciples want to build places to keep it in and preserve it forever? How very like us.

An independent Scotland existed for a day. Between 7am and 10pm we held the destiny of our nation in our hands. It was short lived, and for the 45%, for the poor and the marginalised, it was beautiful. It felt like the last days of the Empire. There was a New Hope, but then the Empire Struck Back.

I wonder, could we put all our energy into collecting the sustenance we need and then allowing it to transform us completely, knowing that the outcome will be spectacular and beautiful, but short-lived. Knowing that our transformation will transform the world? On the morning after the riots in George Square in Glasgow people brought hundreds of bags of food for the city’s foodbanks.

Tackling the Empire is where I think we should be. A million butterflies spreading the pollen of hope and seeing what grows from it, because hope is a good thing. Maybe the best of things. And no good thing ever dies.

 

[1] http://bellacaledonia.org.uk/2014/09/14/the-butterfly-rebellion/

[2] http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/legacy/newsnight/paulmason/2011/02/twenty_reasons_why_its_kicking.html

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I’ve hit a few milestones in my training this week.

30 hours running

300km

25000 calories

This week I’ve run 33.4km in 3:21:04 burning 2694 calories.

I’m starting to enjoy the runs and Monday’s long run took me to 15km… only 6km to go!

Yesterday, while I was out running 15km in the sunshine, knowing that there was a fridge full of food and powerade waiting on my return, Christian Aid published a report about Palestinian Refugees on World Refugee Day.

Palestinians constitute one of the world’s largest refugee populations of recent times, with those displaced in 1948 and their descendants now numbering 4.82 million.

The report calls for an honest and meaningful dialogue about the Palestinian refugee crisis. It engages all stakeholders, together with the introduction of a process that can deliver peace with justice and security for all Palestinians and Israelis.

You can help Christian Aid with this vital work by sponsoring my run at JustGiving.com/stewartcutler.

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Today the Scottish National Party (SNP) have been returned to the Scottish Parliament with a majority.

As I write there are still 2 regional lists to be declared but the SNP have already 65 seats.

That is an astonishing result.  The electoral system in Scotland is a mixture of first past the post and a regional top up list which was designed to make it all but impossible for any party to win a majority.

The Liberal Democrat vote has disintegrated and almost all of it has gone to the SNP.  The SNP have won seats in some of Labour’s heartland constituencies in Lanarkshire and Glasgow.

There will now at some point in the next 5 years be a referendum on independence.  I wouldn’t be against it being in June 2014, the 700th anniversary of Bannockburn.

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I like questions.

I think that’s why I like process.

Rob Bell’s new book Love Wins: At the Heart of Life's Big Questions is out soon in the UK and the interwebs have been alive with comment, question and criticism.

Yesterday Rob did a question and answer session where he admitted that for him the questions are really important.  Perhaps more important than answers, especially as we won’t know the answers about heaven and hell until we’re dead!!

 

Watch live streaming video from lovewins at livestream.com

I wonder what spaces we give to big questions like this in our communities?

Questions inspire me.  I love hearing people talk about ideas and questions.

What’s your favourite question?

Does anyone want to run a one day conference filled with great speakers and big questions?

Seriously.  Actual answers (preferably ‘yes’) below.  Please.

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It’s been a while now since the General Election.

The ConDem coalition seems to have settled in and the world hasn’t come to an end, at least not yet.

What has been fascinating is the size, speed and range of political and economic reform that the new partnership wants to force through.

The criticism of the Tories before the election was that they didn’t have any policies.  Again and again we heard that ‘Call me Dave’ had no substance, that there was nothing behind the rhetoric but it seems that there was… they were just keeping it a secret!

So, now the excitment and hullabaloo of the election is over and the government has settled in, a question.

Is this what you voted for?

You see, I voted Lib Dem.  Mostly because I didn’t want to vote for the Labour candidate in our constituency.  I voted for them because of their manifesto, their history of trying to champion fairness and human rights, their opposition to Trident…

That’s not what I got in return for my vote.  But then those who voted Tory didn’t get what it said on the tin either.

And we all seem to be ok with this…

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We now have a coalition government.  To achieve this both parties had to compromise.

Compromise is one of those interesting words that can be both positive and negative, mostly depending on the person viewing or making the compromise’s opinion.  It can be a noun and a verb.

Compromise means:

a settlement of differences by mutual concessions; an agreement reached by adjustment of conflicting or opposing claims, principles

something intermediate between different things

an endangering

In some ways those definitions are a little odd.  The word comes from the joining of ‘com’, which means together, and ‘promise’.

A joint promise.

When I first heard that the Liberal Democrats had made a deal with the Tories I was angry.  When I heard that the Lib Dems had given up on some of their key policies I was even more angry.  What I didn’t see was that the Conservatives made the same moves.  They gave up some of their key policies too.

It would be easy to be cynical while watching David Cameron and Nick Clegg during their joint press conference today.  There were jokes about it looking like a wedding.  Cameron was asked about something harsh he had said about Clegg.  Clegg had to defend his party’s very involvement.  And all the time they stood together talking about hope, about change, about realising that working together means putting other people first.

I sneered.

But what if they are serious?

What if they really mean it?

What if they really do want to put the country before party politics?  What if they really will find a middle way?

Isn’t that at least worth giving a chance?

But then that would mean I’d have to compromise…

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