by Al Maxey

Issue #250 ------- May 21, 2006
Doubt is the vestibule through
which all must pass before they can
enter into the temple of wisdom.

C. C. Colton (1780-1832)

Help Thou Mine Unbelief
Evolution from Doubt to Faith

Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-1892) once wrote, "There lives more faith in honest doubt, believe me, than in half the creeds." There is great truth to be found in those words! Far too frequently we find that one's formal, written creeds are little more than excuses to regurgitate rather than reflect; little more than mindless recitation of religious convictions of long-deceased disciples. Unless one passes through the purifying fires of genuine, honest doubt and questioning, one's faith will never truly be one's own, but rather a hand-me-down "faith" at best, and such is unworthy of the term.

Shortly after our Lord's transfiguration, Jesus, along with Peter, James and John, returned to the other disciples, at which time they discovered a rather large crowd surrounding these disciples watching an argument that was taking place between them and a group of Jewish scribes (Mark 9:14). Jesus enquired as to the nature of the heated debate (vs. 16), and was informed that it had to do with a request for assistance that His disciples had been unable to fulfill. Specifically, a man had brought his son, who was demon-possessed, unto them for restoration, and these other members of The Twelve had not been able to cast this demon out of the man's son. As might be expected, this led to a confrontation between these disciples and their detractors (the scribes), who were just waiting for such an opportune occasion to discredit them and their Master.

This account is found in all three of the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke), but Mark's account is, by far, the most enlightening, providing details not even mentioned in the other two. The father of the still afflicted son approaches Jesus and says, "Teacher, I brought You my son, possessed with a spirit which makes him mute; and whenever it seizes him, it dashes him to the ground and he foams at the mouth, and grinds his teeth, and stiffens out. And I told Your disciples to cast it out, and they could not do it" (Mark 9:17-18). Matthew presents the appeal of this man as far more emotional -- "a man came up to Him, falling on his knees before Him, saying, 'Lord, have mercy on my son, for he is a lunatic, and is very ill; for he often falls into the fire, and often into the water. And I brought him to Your disciples, and they could not cure him'" (Matt. 17:14-16). Luke, the physician, describes it this way -- "And behold, a man from the multitude shouted out, saying, 'Teacher, I beg You to look at my son, for he is my only boy, and behold, a spirit seizes him, and he suddenly screams, and it throws him into a convulsion with foaming at the mouth, and as it mauls him, it scarcely leaves him. And I begged Your disciples to cast it out, and they could not'" (Luke 9:38-40).

The response of Jesus to this situation that presented itself before Him that day was multi-dimensional and -directional. For His own disciples there was an expression of disappointment in their inability to deal successfully with the man's son. He bemoaned their lack of faith. "O unbelieving generation, how long shall I be with you? How long shall I put up with you?" (Mark 9:19). Matthew and Luke both amend the account somewhat, adding: "O unbelieving and perverted generation" (Matt. 17:17; Luke 9:41). Although some feel Jesus may have been directing His remarks to the crowds assembled that day, most scholars feel the more likely interpretation is that He was rebuking the other members of The Twelve. This view, in the minds of many, is given some credibility when His disciples later question Him in private, asking, "Why could we not cast it out?" (Mark 9:28; Matt. 17:19). Mark records a very brief, non-judgmental response: "This kind cannot come out by anything but prayer" (vs. 29 ... to this passage some manuscripts add: "...and fasting"). Matthew records a more pointed response: "Because of the littleness of your faith; for truly I say to you, if you have faith as a mustard seed, you shall say to this mountain, 'Move from here to there,' and it shall move; and nothing shall be impossible to you" (Matt. 17:20). Some manuscripts then repeat the statement found in Mark 9:29, although most omit it, regarding it as a scribal addition. Luke does not record any dialogue between Jesus and His disciples following the incident.

We know that these disciples should have been able to cast out this demon from the boy. After all, Mark 6:7 informs us that Jesus gave these twelve men "authority over the unclean spirits" (see also Mark 3:15), and Mark 6:13 tells us that "they were casting out many demons." Bro. C. E. W. Dorris, in his Commentary on the Gospel of Mark, says, "From this we ought to learn a lesson; namely, not to undertake to do a work for which we are not prepared" (p. 211). These disciples had been equipped to cast out demons, however, and were doing so. Jesus Himself had equipped and commissioned them. Thus, I must emphatically disagree with the assessment of Bro. Dorris. The problem was not that they were unprepared; the problem was that their faith, for whatever reason, was not able to rise to the task before them. Had these men truly not been prepared to perform this task, Jesus could hardly have expressed disappointment in them. The fact that He did suggests they should have been able to deal with the matter.

So, why did they fail? Some suggest that, in the absence of Jesus and His three closest disciples (Peter, James and John), the other nine lacked confidence. This is certainly a possibility, given the tendencies of human nature. If one relies heavily upon a particular charismatic leader, and upon his or her key representatives, and then is unexpectedly faced with a major challenge in their absence, one will at times have a tendency to "choke." That this might have been part of the problem might be implied in the Lord's rebuke to them, "How long shall I be with you?" In other words, will they completely fall apart when He is no longer there with them? At some point they are going to have to develop faith sufficient to the task before them; a faith sufficient to accomplish that task in His absence. They obviously weren't there yet. Jesus also suggests to them that not every situation is an "easy fix" -- some situations require much more from those who would seek to bring resolution or restoration. Prayer and fasting were necessary, which some scholars feel implies that in the absence of Jesus, Peter, James and John, the other nine may have been neglecting these things, thus allowing their daily communion with God to diminish in fervor somewhat. This may very well have lessened their faith and confidence just enough to render them incapable of casting out this rather stubborn demon. Dr. Van der Loos notes, "It is not too bold to presume that during the absence of Jesus and His three intimates, a spirit of unbelief and laxity had overcome the disciples ... leading to their impotence" (Miracles of Jesus, p. 399).

In the gospel of Mark, however, the central focus of the account is the exchange between Jesus and the demon-possessed boy's father (Mark 9:20-27), a dialogue entirely missing from the other two gospel records. Jesus commands, with respect to the boy, "Bring him to Me!" (vs. 19). When the demon saw that the boy was in the presence of the Lord, it attacked the lad violently. "And they brought the boy to Him. And when he saw Him, immediately the spirit threw him into a convulsion, and, falling to the ground, he began rolling about and foaming at the mouth" (vs. 20). Jesus then asked the father, "How long has this been happening to him?" The father responds, "From childhood" (vs. 21). This might imply that the man's son is at least in his teen years, or even into young adulthood. Whatever his age, it is clear he had been afflicted for quite some time. "Our Lord's question was intended, not of course for His own information, but to inspire the father with hope and confidence" (The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 16). Dr. Charles Ellicott, in his commentary, suggests the question was asked "as if to bring into strong relief the chronic, and therefore seemingly hopeless, character of the possession" (vol. 6, p. 213). Although either is possible, more likely, in my view, is that this detail in the account is designed simply to demonstrate "Jesus' sympathetic concern" (The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 8, p. 703). This was not just a problem to be solved, but a person to be spared. The father needed to see that Jesus cared. He didn't just wave His hand over the boy and move on to His next challenge, He took time to interact with the father on a personal level. He got involved in the circumstances and history of the son's affliction.

The father immediately seeks to impress upon Jesus the obvious seriousness of this affliction, saying, "It has often thrown him both into the fire and into the water to destroy him. But if You can do anything, take pity on us and help us!" (vs. 22). This demon frequently sought to kill this man's son, but to this point the boy had been spared. Some feel, however, that on this occasion the demon may have succeeded. Later, when Jesus ordered the demon out, it attacked the boy so severely that the crowds shouted out, "He is dead!" (vs. 26), but Jesus "took him by the hand and raised him; and he got up" (vs. 27). The Greek word translated "raise" here is egeiro, which is used frequently in the NT writings to refer to one being raised from the dead (John 12:1; Matt. 27:52; John 5:21; 2 Cor. 4:14; etc.). It is interesting, and perhaps more than coincidental, that immediately after this event, Jesus tells His disciples, "The Son of Man is to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill Him; and when He has been killed, He will rise three days later" (Mark 9:31; Matt. 17:22-23). Perhaps with this raising up of the suffering son of a man fresh in their minds, Jesus sought to convey that the Son of Man, after suffering and being cast down, would be raised up by the power of God. Yes, the evil one may have the power to afflict and even kill, but the Lord has the power to restore and raise up!!

The failures of the Lord's disciples, however, both then and now, can quickly result in a wavering faith, or even unbelief, in the Lord Himself. When seekers see His spiritual leaders falter, doubts quickly fill their minds. If His closest disciples fail, can one have confidence in their Master whom they profess to serve?! This doubt had taken hold in the heart of the boy's father, and it is evidenced in the statement he made to Jesus -- "Have mercy on us and do something if You can" (Mark 9:22; Living Bible). "It was a qualification that had no business in such a request, and it showed how poor was the spiritual life or power of the man" (The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 16). "He doubts Christ's power to save" (ibid). "The words are spoken almost in the accents of despair. Could He, the Master, prevail where the disciples had failed?" (Ellicott's Commentary on the Whole Bible, vol. 6, p. 213). "Probably the failure of the disciples to cure the boy served to weaken the faith he originally had. This is true with us today. When one doctor fails to cure, it lessens our faith in the efforts of another" (C. E. W. Dorris, A Commentary on the Gospel by Mark, p. 212-213).

Jesus immediately addressed this expression of doubt, even delaying His compassionate action on behalf of the boy so as to focus on the father's faltering faith. He responded emphatically, casting the man's words right back at him, "IF You can?!" It was as if to say, "What do you mean 'IF I can!' ... Of course I can!" Jesus then says, "All things are possible to him who believes" (Mark 9:23). "And straightway the father of the child cried out, and said with tears, 'Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief'" (vs. 24, KJV). Although the phrase "with tears" (as found in the KJV) is missing from most translations (most scholars regarding it as a scribal addition), nevertheless one can certainly feel the intensity of the plea of this anguished father. Realizing that his own faltering faith may be standing in the way of his son's healing, he declares to Jesus he does believe, but he also honestly acknowledges that he struggles with doubts. More importantly, he seeks the Lord's aid in increasing his faith.

Let's be honest with ourselves! Who among us has not needed to make the same appeal to our Lord? Indeed, some may need to make it even now! Doubt is not necessarily a sin, or even a bad thing, if it brings about greater reflection upon the nature of Truth. However, doubt can be deadly when it devolves into despair and ultimately denial of our Lord. In a similar vein, the apostle Paul admitted to being "perplexed, but not despairing ... struck down, but not destroyed" (2 Cor. 4:8-9). We've all been there! Nathanael doubted whether "any good thing can come out of Nazareth" (John 1:46). John the Baptist was also having doubts when he sent a couple of his disciples to ask Jesus, "Are You the Coming One, or do we look for someone else?" (Luke 7:19). Thomas, one of The Twelve, also had doubts as to the resurrection of Jesus when the others told him they had seen the risen Lord --- "Unless I shall see in His hands the imprint of the nails, and put my finger into the place of the nails, and put my hand into His side, I will not believe" (John 20:25).

Yes, the father of the demon-possessed boy was struggling with his faith, but in his heart he had a longing for greater conviction. "Hating his unbelief, he struggles against it" (The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 16). His words to Jesus are thus "half-believing, half-despairing" (Ellicott's Commentary on the Whole Bible, vol. 6, p. 213). Again, who among us has not experienced the same on occasion? "As in the heart of all Christians, belief and unbelief were battling in his heart" (Dr. Paul Kretzmann, Popular Commentary of the Bible: The New Testament, vol. 1, p. 215). "There are degrees of faith even in the faithful. Where is perfect faith in Jesus? Who has not had reason to cry, 'Help thou mine unbelief ... increase my faith'?" (The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 16). "He recognized that his faith was far from perfect. It was still mixed with unbelief. So in a beautiful display of honesty, he asked Jesus to help him overcome his unbelief. John Calvin comments: 'He declares that he believes and yet acknowledges himself to have unbelief. These two statements may appear to contradict each other but there is none of us that does not experience both of them in himself'" (The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 8, p. 703).

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Readers' Reflections

From an Author/Minister in Tennessee:

Bro. Al, This is to sincerely commend your essay "Thirty Years on the Firing Line." While you and I have our differences (and from my perspective some of them are quite serious -- at least in their implications), I nevertheless appreciate the insights you shared regarding ministry. All of them were so true, and I had to learn many of the lessons the same way you learned them -- by experience! They are not things one can learn in a college classroom! I have been "on the firing line" for over 50 years. I spent 42+ years in full-time ministry (1958-2000) before "retiring" (a terrible misnomer). Since retiring, I have not had too many Sundays out of the pulpit, and am currently serving as interim minister of a large church here in Tennessee. I read Bro. Brewer's autobiography the summer after I graduated from high school (1955) and thoroughly enjoyed it. He was a great preacher and possessed a marvelous insight into the undenominational nature of the church. Again, thanks for sharing your most recent essay with your readers. I hope a number of younger preachers will read it and profit from it.

From a Reader in Texas:

Al, Congratulations on 30 years of ministry! Your Reflections have been a blessing to me. My daughter in Florida introduced me to your writings. I am grateful!! I appreciate the fact that you are willing to follow God's lead in your life! There must be times when it is uncomfortable to say what you feel needs to be said, but Jesus spent His whole life doing that very thing -- unsettling the status quo for the sake of the souls around Him. You have encouraged me to continue growing. You have said great things in simple enough ways that I can understand them. Your writings reflect your love for your brothers and sisters on this journey through life. Thank you! Give your dear wife an extra hug and kiss for me! She must be a great woman!!

From a New Reader in California:

Al, I just read "Thirty Years on the Firing Line" and was blessed by your transparency and irenic spirit. I too have been in ministry for 30 years, and serve the First Christian Church here in -------, California. One of the great ladies in our congregation (who was a long-time Church of Christ person) has been forwarding your Reflections to me regularly. Each issue is both a blessing and a challenge! I admire and appreciate your courage and grace in pursuing a ministry of reform. I have long hoped for the day when Restoration Movement brethren could live in harmony and mutual respect, and could get on with fighting the real enemy ... together. I'm thrilled to see recent movement toward that end, more than has happened previously in my 57 years. Please subscribe me to your Reflections, and may God richly bless your writing ministry as you seek to bring harmony and mutual respect back into our brotherhood.

From a Minister in California:

Dear Al, I am in my 14th year with this present church family (which is a wonderful family), and appreciated you sharing your personal reflections back over 30 years. Next year will be my 30th year in ministry. I have only served three churches, so my average tenure is "above average." Much of what you wrote helped me to reflect on my own life, and my own future. God's blessings on your future years in the kingdom. As I've told you often, your writings are a blessing to me!

From a Student at Oklahoma Christian University:

Bro. Maxey, you had written in your last Reflections, "I think one will be very hard-pressed to find a single, solitary passage in either OT or NT Scripture where God's disapproval of instrumental accompaniment is ever stated. If any of my readers know of such a passage -- a passage where divine disapproval is even remotely hinted at, please provide that passage. I will print it in the next Reflections." The scriptures that I have been given to justify such instrumental condemnation are Amos 5:23 and Amos 6:5. The claim is that David added the accompaniment of instruments without God's approval. That is the only "hint" that anyone has provided me with.

From a Reader in Florida:

Al, I remember Amos 6:5 being used to state what could be construed as a negative comment about instruments of music. From that passage it could be said that God was indicating that David had invented instruments of music presumptuously, but God allowed it, much like He allowed divorce.

From a Reader in Nevada:

Al, Your last Reflections was really good. Thank you! It is really interesting to know more of your personal history. And the way you explained that we should all do what we are best at doing, and let others do some of the work in the areas we are not as strong, really hit home with me. May the Lord bless and keep you. You are one of God's rewards and blessings to us!

From an Elder in Louisiana:

Al, You often bring in the practices of other cultures to show how our legalistic tendencies and patternistic practices are often just the following of cultural mores, which is natural enough, but that they are not mandatory ... and certainly not biblical. I worshipped with a Church of Christ one time where the sisters "stood up" and served the Lord's Supper. Since this city was in the North, I commented that we Southerners love our ladies more because we let them "sit down" to pass the elements!! Well, changes in churches come slowly. Al, thanks for your great work in helping us along the way. You are a special servant of the Most High. I not only enjoy your messages, but they are also very helpful in my daily walk with the Lord and my service as an elder. God bless you in your labors for Jesus Christ.

From a Ministry Leader in California:

Brother Al, Congratulations on 30 years of serving our Lord! It think it is very clear that the Master still has a few more tasks for you, and a few more Reflections to pen! In regards to the church autonomy issue, I know some folks believe that the early church practice of "autonomy" is a doctrine that should be enshrined. My study of the Scriptures, as well as history, has shown me that while the church was indeed most often locally governed, it was nevertheless highly interactive. If there is any characteristic that the early church had which we could really benefit from today, it would be increased interaction among the churches. Just as unity among two people is promoted by face-to-face dialogue, so can unity among the churches be advanced by increased interaction. Instead of aspiring to be a Paul (his kind only show up every two to three thousand years), I've decided to be an Epaphroditus -- an excellent representative of my local congregation.

From an Elder in Alabama:

Al, I greatly appreciated your 30 years Reflections message. It contains some excellent and very practical advice for those who've chosen church ministry as their primary vocation, as well as for all Christians. Your transparency and candor are always very refreshing in this politically-charged religious world we have created. Blessings, and keep up the good work!

From a Reader in North Carolina:

Dear Al, I am still enjoying and learning from your weekly Reflections articles. My in-laws subscribe now, as well. Each time we visit them we see your articles printed out -- one on the sofa table, one on the computer table, one on the bar, one on the bedside table, etc. Al, I find myself enlightened and/or full of new questions whenever I read one of your articles. Thanks for all you do for those of us who are confused, questioning, unsure, hurt, etc. Blessings, and much love!

From an Elder in Missouri:

Brother Al, Thank you for continuing to be the best you can be in His service! Although I knew firsthand some of what you wrote about, it was great to have a fuller view into who you are! I am thankful unto the Lord that you are doing the work you do. I appreciate your efforts and your thoughts, especially when they go counter to what I have "always known" to be "right." They challenge me to search and dig deeper into the well of God's Word. Not surprisingly, I find myself agreeing with much of what you express in your writings. As I strive to understand the Lord's will more clearly, I find myself realizing more often than not that I don't know as much as I once thought I did. I also appreciate the humble spirit with which you express all of your ideas, especially in this most recent article about your 30 years on the "firing line." I am sure that some will see it as nothing but self-aggrandizement, but such people will attack you no matter what you write. I continue to await each article with anticipation, and read each one with a certain level of joy and with pride for you. May the Lord bless you and yours in His service.

From a Minister in California:

Bro. Al, There is another minister here [who is also on your mailing list] with whom I have a standing Monday evening study where we go over your most recent issue of your Reflections. Tonight is our next study. He and I would like to set up a meeting with you. We would come there to Alamogordo and worship and visit with you, and enjoy fellowship together. We have both come a long way in our journey toward freedom, and could benefit from a personal meeting with you so as to grow even more. I appreciate so much your faithfulness to the work of God. Thirty years!! I just hope that I can have even a portion of the impact that you are having upon the church! God bless you, Al.

From a Reader in Washington:

My dear brother-in-Christ, Thirty years in the military and one receives a nice pension. Thirty years in the Lord's service and you are just getting started! Congrats for the thirty years! Having served in the 27th Infantry Regiment in Korea [at Heartbreak Ridge], being shot at and missed [thank God!], I really know somewhat of your Vietnam service. But the bullets of the Viet Cong or the Chinese or the North Koreans are nothing compared to those fired at you from those who are "supposedly" fellow Christians!! May God continue to bless your work.

From a Reader in Texas:

Al, I just finished your article and appreciate your efforts very much. You mentioned your expertise with a rifle, and I must say that your Reflections are evidence of your "sharp shooting" ability with the pen!! Congratulations on your 30 years, and I look forward to more from you in the days to come. I definitely get a much better view of our target when reading your thoughts. May God continue to bless you in His service.

From a Reader in Texas:

Dear Al, Just thought I'd tell you that we pass by the Gen. Samuel Bell Maxey House State Historic Site in Paris, Texas at least once or twice a week. We live about 20 minutes away from Paris. In the very back kitchen in the Maxey House, there is a little nook with a small fireplace. There is a wonderful little "ode" to the fire painted on the wall, or perhaps on the tiles, which I have always found interesting and captivating. As always, I enjoy your Reflections.

From a Reader in Oklahoma:

Al, I really enjoyed learning a little more about your background in your latest Reflections. I feel that I know you a little better now. Thanks for sharing that with us. If you are ever in Tulsa, let me know ... I will buy you lunch!

From a Reader in Texas:

Dear Al, Just finished reading your Reflections on your 30 years. Good advice not only for preachers, but for everybody. Why do we think we have to put 20 or 30 years experience on the "shelf" to rust away?! It is wrong to set any time limit on productive work. Let the experienced worker remain on the job for as long as he wants to remain active. As for you, I think you are right to want to stay at a location as long as possible. "Stay put," doing what God has provided for you to do ... and, I might add, you do it well. Soldier on, good brother!! I know in my case, these 88 years have produced a lot of mistakes, but I keep on trying to better myself and pray to God for guidance! Also, I have one thing to say about all the conflict within the One Body --- GRRRRRRRRRRR!! Dear brother, keep it up ... I pray for you and your work often!

From a New Reader in Georgia:

Dear Brother Maxey, A fellow brother-in-Christ recently forwarded one of your Reflections on to me, and since then I have been reading them as a "subscribed member" of your mailing list. First, let me say Thank You for your ministry. Also, please do not let what some might say influence you to quit this work!! You are doing a great service for the Lord!!

From a Reader in Oklahoma:

Al, Regarding the statement by the brother in Oklahoma who commented about you not being able to find "the bottom of the barrel" yet in your writings ... well, when Jesus turned the water into wine at Cana, there's no record in the text that a shortage of wine was repeated during that celebration. The wine Jesus made was the "good stuff." There is NO bottom of the barrel when we are teaching and preaching and writing the "good stuff." Just keep on keepin' on, brother!!

From a Reader in Alabama:

Al, I remember Bro. G. C. Brewer. I live in northern Alabama, and he used to preach here, and other places close to here, when I was a kid. I have his book that he gave my Dad, and he even signed it for my Dad. I have read it many times. I don't know much about him except he was the first preacher that advocated using individual cups and individual pieces of bread for the Lord's Supper. Just thought I'd let you know.

From a Reader in [Unknown]:

Al, Your cousin G. C. Brewer brought individual communion cups into the Churches of Christ, didn't he?! Then he bragged about it!

From a Minister/Elder in Missouri:

Bro. Al, "30 Years on the Firing Line" was a great article! I have concluded much the same as you when it comes to trying to please everybody. I can't do it! I must admit I tried for a few years, but I finally concluded I was killing myself. The funny thing is -- I'm still overworked and find myself at times drowning in all the stress of a local ministry. Add to this the strain of being a shepherd, and at times it is overwhelming (of which you also are very much aware). I started here one month after you started in Alamogordo, NM. Longevity certainly does help, as I am involved in community events and I'm also chaplain for the VFW and the American Legion. One suggestion I might make to other ministers is to get involved with the Ministerial Alliance in their communities. The pastors and ministers of other fellowships are not monsters! They are in ministry for the same reason we (in Churches of Christ) are. Keep up the great work, Al. Your articles make me think, and then think some more. Take care, my brother.

From a Reader in West Virginia:

Al, I enjoyed so much your 30 year Reflections. You covered a lot of ground we all are dealing with. As I get my eyes off myself, and onto Jesus and what He values, I see an area that really needs to be addressed. Our sisters in Christ have been laboring under a system that, if I was in it, would have caused me to leave years ago! We all talk about doctrine and "church matters" so much that we tend to forget our Father is interested in every second of our lives, not just the "worship services." Our sisters have kept the church and the world going, and my hat is off to all the female believers who are simply not getting the acknowledgement and respect they deserve. Al, you and Shelly are in my prayers, and I pray God will give you both 30 more years! You guys are a light in a dark world.

From a Minister in Tennessee:

Al, I just finished reading your "Thirty Years on the Firing Line." Thank you, brother, for that well-timed, appropriate article. In our small group class last week we used your article "People of Purpose" [Issue #244]. The group thought it was a great study. I am going to use some of your other Reflections in another one of my classes. Keep up the great work, brother. You have found your niche!

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