"As I mused, the fire burned"

Reflection on life as a person of faith.

Archive for March 2012

Post-Modern Bunk

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Just when you thought it was safe to wear your, “Kiss me I’m Irish Shirt”…although I’m not sure how “O’Green” is any less exclusive. The article does not mention the obvious faith connection, that both St Patrick’s and St Valentine’s days are both saint’s festivals (long before green beer, milkshakes and heart-shaped boxes of cheap chocolates became the cultural icon).

I’m glad the school system is teaching educators the critical thinking skills necessary to safely guide their students through the threatening waters of post-modernism.

In two weeks I’m look forward to celebrating, “Eggs laid by bunnies” day.

Massachusetts principal replaces ‘St. Patrick’s Day’ with ‘O’Green Day’
Published March 15, 2012 by FoxNews.com

A Massachusetts school principal is renaming “St. Patrick’s Day” with “O’Green Day” in an effort to be “inclusive and diverse,” while some parents are blasting the decision as “stupid” and illogical.

Lisa Curtin, principal of the Soule Road School in Wilbraham, Mass., decided to change the name to ease discomfort that some students might have in celebrating St. Patrick’s Day or Valentine’s Day — which last month was renamed to “Caring and Kindness Day,” according to parents with children in the school.

More here.

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Written by sameo416

March 18, 2012 at 9:35 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Death to Fig Trees!

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Preaching through Mark. 18 March 2012, Mark 11:20 to 12:40 Lent 4

We’re here at our next installment of our sermon series through Mark’s gospel, and today’s chunk of the Word brings to the forefront the direct challenge of Christ’s ministry and very presence toward the religious authorities of His day. Early on in Mark we heard the refrain of secrecy – tell no one what has happened. Now, since the triumphal entry to Jerusalem Jesus proclaims his mission directly, succinctly and issues challenge after challenge to the temple leaders. It is a proclamation that will lead to only one possible outcome. Rather than a walk through the entire reading for today, I’m going to focus on the first part – and mostly the fig tree with a bit on the wicked tenants.

The fig tree forms the real cornerstone of this overt proclamation of Christ’s mission, and it is also a source of considerable challenge for us. The bible commentator William Barclay called the fig tree account “…without exception, the most difficult one in the gospels.” This is also one of the accounts seized by atheists as demonstrating the inherent unreasonableness of the Bible. As I’ve said before, the unreasonableness is exactly the point. Sometimes this passage is preached apologetically, that Jesus really didn’t mean what he said, or didn’t actually curse this poor, innocent fig tree that was, after all, just being a fig tree out of season. Some academics call the account unreasonable, inconsistent and completely out of character, others label Jesus’ as irrational and revolting, and lacking any sort of moral motive or justification.

There is only one thing to say about that “For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” (1 Cor 18). As we’ve spoken of for the last weeks, one of the hallmarks of Jesus’ ministry is the unreasonableness of his approach. Jesus is not moral, at least as we understand human morality; Jesus is not rational, at least as we understand human rationality; and for many, including the Pharisees, Sadducees and Scribes Jesus’ behaviour is revolting…as the main character in the novel the Life of Pi exclaims: what kind of a God comes to save everyone by dying? Foolishness to the wise. What we see clearly through this reading is a distortion of the person of Jesus, of who he is, of who God is, by the Pharisees, Sadducees and the Scribes. This distortion is a particular stronghold in the lives of many Christians, including me, and I’ll speak directly at this point today.

I always laugh when I see a commentary that suggests Jesus was being irrational or immoral. There’s a principle used in the interpretation of the secular law, that basically says you should read every law as if it was written to make sense within the framework of laws – a presumption of harmony within legislation (“harmony, coherence, and consistency between statutes dealing with the same subject matter”). It’s based on the good assumption that people who write the laws would not deliberately create law that was irrational or immoral. That same principle is an important one to apply when you are reading Scripture – so if you read something in the bible that leads to the conclusion that God is irrational or immoral, it is time to go back and re-read it assuming that the image of God is harmonious, consistent and coherent with the entire canon of Scripture. The reason that approach is important is that we humans love to re-engineer God in our own image. So we easily accept Scripture that reinforces the life we wish to lead; we re-interpret Scripture that is marginally challenging to that life; and we call ‘irrational’ or ‘immoral’ those things that are directly contrary to the life we believe God owes us. The challenge of Scripture always points outward toward the reader.

The cursing of the fig tree is not capricious. Our first stop is to consider who it is that curses this tree, and to ask the very rhetorical question if the creator of all that is, visible and invisible, has the right to do with his creation as he wishes? Of course he does. Or perhaps we are caught on the conflict created in our minds by a distorted image of the person of Christ: if we believe that he is about nothing but human love and compassion, the idea that the ‘teddy bear’ Christ could curse anything (even a barren tree) will cause us discomfort. Perhaps the discomfort arises out of an image of a god who could never forgive someone like you, and so the distortion leads you to despair. If you have that distorted image of Christ, it is time to give it up, and to realize that the creator of all that is, is too great to be boxed into our personal concept of who he is. A distorted view of God distorts who we are and creates huge problems as that god begins to look a lot like we do, and act a lot like we do whether godly or not.

In Mark’s telling of the fig tree it falls on either side of Jesus clearing of the temple, like this: curse tree – clear temple – withered tree. If that does not make the linkage clear, the parable of the wicked tenants that comes immediately afterwards points us clearly to the religious authorities and their fruitless leadership of Israel. A word of caution – this sequence has been used to justify anti-Semitic thought in the past, but it is clear that the vineyard, that is the nation of Israel, is not under this curse, but rather the religious authorities that had been entrusted with the care of that vineyard, of God’s people. This is Jesus’ prophetic critique, not a condemnation of the Jews and the vineyard continues, even as those entrusted with it are destroyed. Jesus’ cursing of the tree, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again”, is His cursing of the religious leaders; and the withering of that tree, is the coming destruction of all that the leadership held dear: the temple, a complex system of tithes, sacrifices and offerings that made the religious rulers rich; and a structure that was designed to oppress and control – to devour widow’s estates. Rather than bringing new life (as God always does), it was a system that brought blindness and death. The withering right down to the roots tells us directly what is to happen to the fruitless religious system. As a fact of history, in a short 37 years, the great temple will be reduced to rubble by the Romans.

When Peter remarks on the withered tree, Jesus responds by saying, Have faith (or trust) in God. After pronouncing judgment on the religious leaders through the cursing of the fig tree God’s word is: trust in God. What follows, a mountain that can be thrown into the sea through prayer, is not a guide book about what perfect prayer may achieve. Rather, it is an emphasis on right relationship with God. Faith is not an attitude or a mindset or force of will, but a relationship with a personal God that makes possible the impossible. Our relationship with God in turn shapes our prayer. If we have no trust in God, our prayers will reflect a similarly limited view of his ability to intercede in any real way. That shaping helps us to cease asking for what it is that we want; but rather to pray for the things that God wants. In relationship, our prayer is shaped by the being of God, and becomes a perfect image of His will. Perfect prayer reflects perfectly the face of God, a perfect image of His will upon our lips.

Jesus is approached and asked the question by a cross-section of the religious elite, a very legal question, “By whose authority to you do these things, and who gave you authority to do them?” The question is a little silly, given that Jesus has done everything the prophets said would mark the coming of the Messiah: the blind see, the lame walk. The authority behind his actions is clear, but not if you see him as irrational, immoral and a threat to everything that you’ve got going for you. The Greek word used here for authority is exousia, and we heard the same word much earlier in Mark, as all the people who heard and saw Jesus marveled and said, he teaches with authority (exousia) unlike the scribes. This is an important bit of symmetry for while the religious leaders are blind to the reality of God incarnate, the people who Jesus came to minister to have already long since recognized that authority, along with all the demons. The authority of God. The encounter ends with a question from Jesus that the leaders refuse to answer out of fear for the crowd…he basically boxes them into to a no-win situation and so they take the coward’s path out by answering ‘we do not know’. Their response to Jesus comes out of fear and distrust…which contrasts nicely with the message of the fig tree: trust in God; while the religious leaders respond with distrust in God.

The message of judgment on the leaders of the nation of Israel is again made clear in the parable of the wicked tenants – the owner of the vineyard, that is God, has planted the vines, that is Israel, and leased the vineyard out to tenants to tend and harvest, these are the religious leaders of Israel. God sends his servants to collect his share of the harvests, but the tenants beat them and kill them, these are the prophets sent to be God’s voice to call his people back; ultimately the owner of the vineyard concludes that if he sends his son, the tenants will respect him. The tenants instead conclude that the killing of the son may result in their inheriting the vineyard – which in contrast to the holy rationality of Jesus, is a highly irrational thought. The end result? The owner of the vineyard returns to destroy the tenants and to give the vineyard to others.

What follows are more encounters with the religious authorities, and Jesus’ continued challenging of their authority, their understanding of God. This is nowhere clearer than in the question from the Sadducees about the wife of the seven brothers and the logic puzzle that they used to disprove the existence of the resurrection. This is worth a quick mention because of its cautionary word to us about the use of human reason as our only tool to understand God’s word. Jesus response to this logic puzzle: this only demonstrates that the Sadducees know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God. Jesus follows this with two tantalizing comments about the nature of death and heaven – one of the few times he speaks directly. Those who rise from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven (note that He said “like”, not “as”, for the popular notion that good people are reborn as angels). And this – that God is not the God of the dead, but of the living. Our God is of the living…which is another word of hope for all of us who have had our beloved ones die from this mortal life, that they dwell with the God of the living.

I am convinced that the reason the fig tree encounter is such a difficult reading is that it engages on a fundamental level the idolatrous aspects of our belief in God. This is uncomfortable. The distortion of God in the modern church reconceives of Jesus and the Father as a God of human love and nothing else. We would not think to curse an innocent fig tree, and we conclude that a God of love would not either, therefore the reading must be a mistake. Yet, by contrast, we have no problem in receiving that “loving, human God’s” condemnation of the leaders of Israel with happiness. Yeah, you go Jesus! We shout as Jesus gives it to those nasty Pharisees, Sadducees, Scribes and Herodians. But wait // if we see Jesus as that loving God who only wants to hug the world, why is it that his condemnation of the religious leaders does not fall on our ears with as much challenge as the death of this poor fig tree? // Ahh, that is where the real challenge of this Gospel comes into full fruit – we find it easy to hear the religious leaders condemned because we have no problem seeing them as bad and deserving of what they get, while we have even less trouble seeing ourselves as good right along with the innocent fig tree. This is a huge distortion in our understanding of God’s being. As Jesus responds, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.”

We could talk on this point for weeks – the nature of God, as it is a cornerstone of the faith, and also the quickest path to a hugely idolatrous understanding of God. Our hearts continually try to box God into a place where we are able to subsume the totality of his greatness into ourselves, to take ownership of Him and to re-make Him in our image, which is of course the core of idolatry. CS Lewis says at one point that a common image of God is the kindly old man sitting in the upper right hand corner of the room, nodding off, who is uninvolved but really wants nothing more than that we should all have a really good time. This is a tough teaching, and it is probably easier to attack it through fiction, and the un-tamed Jesus of Narnia, Aslan, the great golden lion. What is the reality of God versus our human need for Him to be safe, tame and loveable and completely distorted? What exactly does CS Lewis mean when he repeatedly asserts that Aslan is not a tame lion? Consider this exchange from “The Silver Chair”, where a young lady named Jill is perishing from thirst, but is very frightened by the Great Lion, Aslan.

“The wood was so still that it was not difficult to decide where the sound was coming from. It grew clearer every moment and, sooner than she expected, she came to an open glade and saw the stream, bright as glass, running across the turf a stone’s throw away from her. But although the sight of the water made her feel ten times thirstier than before, she didn’t rush forward and drink. She stood as still as if she had been turned into a stone, with her mouth wide open. And she had a very good reason: just on this side of the stream lay the Lion. It lay with its head raised and its two fore-paws out in front of it like the lions in Trafalgar Square. She knew at once that it had seen her, for its eyes looked straight into hers for a moment and then turned away—as if it knew her quite well and didn’t think much of her.

“If I run away, it’ll be after me in a moment,” thought Jill. “And if I go on, I shall run straight into its mouth.” Anyway, she couldn’t have moved if she had tried, and she couldn’t take eyes off it. How long this lasted she could not be sure; it seemed like hours. And the thirst became so bad that she almost felt she would not mind being eaten by the Lion if only she could be sure of getting a mouthful of water first. “If you’re thirsty, you may drink.”

They were the first words she had heard since Scrubb had spoken to her on the edge of the cliff. For a second she stared here and there, wondering who had spoken. Then the voice said again, “If you are thirsty, come and drink,” and of course she remembered what Scrubb had said about animals talking in that other world, and realised that it was the Lion speaking. Anyway, she had seen its lips move this time, and the voice was not like a man’s. It was deeper, wilder, and stronger; a sort of heavy, golden voice. It did not make her feel any less frightened than she had been before, but it made her frightened in rather a different way.

“Are you going to drink?” said the Lion.

“I’m dying of thirst,” said Jill.

“Then drink,” said the Lion.

“May I—could I—would you mind going away while I do?” said Jill.

The Lion answered this only by a look and a very low growl. And as Jill gazed at its motionless hulk, she realised that she might as well have asked the whole mountain to move aside for her convenience.

The delicious rippling noise of the stream was driving her nearly frantic. “Will you promise not to—do anything to me, if I do come?” said Jill. “I make no promise,” said the Lion.

Jill was so thirsty now that, without noticing it, she had come a step nearer.

“Do you eat girls?” she said.

“I have swallowed up girls and boys, women and men, kings and emperors, cities and realms,” said the Lion. It didn’t say this as if it were boasting, nor as if it were sorry, nor as if it were angry. It just said it.

“I daren’t come and drink,” said Jill.

“Then you will die of thirst,” said the Lion.

“Oh dear!” said Jill, coming another step nearer. “I supposed I must go and look for some other stream then.”

“There is no other stream,” said the Lion. .

There is only one stream that provides eternal refreshment, and that is Jesus, a very untamed God. Being in relationship is one of risk, which is one of the reasons we dislike the fate of the fig tree – it reminds us of God’s wildness, and of our fragility. If only he would retreat so we could drink in safety! But, it is not to be. The difficult message of the fig tree is one of trust in God, even while things are changing and uncertain, while we are wearied by the changes and chances of this world. Faith in Jesus, even in the midst of death, our death, will continue to turn that death into glorious resurrection. This is all ours, if we but dare to drink. So, while this story of a cursed fig tree challenges our understanding of God and the nature of his being, it is in the end a story of God’s great grace even in judgement – and the promise that if we but believe, we too will be brought to new life even in the death of all we are. Come to the stream of everlasting water and drink! Amen.
—–
An interesting commentary on fig husbandry and how this illustrates better what was going on in the account…written as an answer to an atheist’s argument. Jesus was searching for “breba” figs, the out-of-season figs which would be expected to be found on the tree. When he did not find any figs he concluded the tree was barren, like the Hebrew religious system.

On the matter of the modern approach to statutory interpretation: A case.
…and an article by Prof Ruth Sullivan.

——-  
Stuff that didn’t make it past the cutting room floor:

The message of trust will very quickly be overturned by the chief priests, the scribes and the elders – so hold that idea of trust in God for a moment.

As Augustine said of the Eucharist, the bread and the wine, I say to you: behold what you are, become what you receive. Merely believe in Christ, receive him into your heart, your soul, your mind, and he will conquer death in you personally, and bring you with Him into his glorious resurrection.

There is a parable in Luke’s gospel that helps us to see the meaning clearly: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard, and he came seeking fruit on it and found none. And he said to the vinedresser, ‘Look, for three years now I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and I find none. Cut it down. Why should it use up the ground?’ And he answered him, ‘Sir, let it alone this year also, until I dig around it and put on manure. Then if it should bear fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.” (Luke 13:6-9) God has had patience with his people Israel, but after all that patience they still have not born fruit. Now is the time to cut the barren tree down.

Prayer gives expression of one’s relationship with God and makes the impossible possible. If we have no trust in God, our prayers will reflect a similarly limited view of his ability to intercede in a real way. Faith is a relationship rather than an attitude. We forgive others, as God forgives us.

Prayer in relationship means an understanding of the person to whom we pray – so our prayer is shaped by the being of God. Perfect prayer reflects perfectly the face of God, a perfect image of His will on our lips.

Tenants is an answer to the question of authority and confirms the judgement of the religious rulers. This is Jesus’ prophetic critique, not a condemnation of the Jews. The vineyard continues, even as those entrusted with it are destroyed.

So this account of the fig tree does not reflect an immoral or irrational Jesus, but rather is one more illustration of God’s kingdom at work. For us, the destruction of the temple opened the way to God for all people, previously entrance to the inner precincts of the temple would bear a penalty of death for a Gentile. That penalty has been revoked. We are the wild shoot grafted onto the vine of Israel as Paul describes in Romans 11, reminding us that we are not to be arrogant toward the natural branches of Israel: “…remember it is not you who support the root, but the root that supports you. … do not become proud, but fear. For if God did not spare the natural branches, neither will he spare you. Note then the kindness and the severity of God: severity toward those who have fallen, but God’s kindness to you, provided you continue in his kindness.”

There is a parable in Luke’s gospel that helps us to see the meaning clearly:

“A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard, and he came seeking fruit on it and found none. And he said to the vinedresser, ‘Look, for three years now I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and I find none. Cut it down. Why should it use up the ground?’ And he answered him, ‘Sir, let it alone this year also, until I dig around it and put on manure. Then if it should bear fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.” (Luke 13:6-9)

God has had patience with his people Israel, but after all that patience they still have not born fruit. Now is the time to cut the barren tree down.

So this account of the fig tree does not reflect an immoral or irrational Jesus, but rather is one more illustration of God’s kingdom at work. It also has a specific importance for all of us, we Gentiles, who are the wild shoot grafted onto the vine of Israel. Paul describes this in Romans 11, provides a caution to us, and also says something interesting about the branches of Israel that have been broken off that we might be grafted on.

“But if some of the branches were broken off, and you, although a wild olive shoot, were grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing root of the olive tree, do not be arrogant toward the branches. If you are, remember it is not you who support the root, but the root that supports you. … do not become proud, but fear. For if God did not spare the natural branches, neither will he spare you. Note then the kindness and the severity of God: severity toward those who have fallen, but God’s kindness to you, provided you continue in his kindness. Otherwise you too will be cut off.”

Written by sameo416

March 18, 2012 at 12:01 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Situational Ethics

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Two stories in today’s Edmonton Sun caught my attention.

The first is Peter Worthington’s call to caution concerning the development of nuclear weapons by Iran, “World inaction on Iranian nukes may force Israel’s hand” Worthington correctly identifies this as one of the largest threats in the world today, and Israel’s likely first-strike decision if real action is not taken by the world.

I’m often amazed at the ability of “rational” people to critique Israel in these situations. If Israel does act pre-emptively, there will be no end of outrage in western media on their unnecessary use of violence. I find this almost unintelligible.

As Worthington points out, Israel is a nation that is particularly susceptible to nuclear strike, certainly as compared to Iran, a much larger state geographically. If a device could be delivered to a centre of population, the result would be catastrophic.

It also ignores the right of any nation to ensure the safety and security of its citizens against attack. The intense bias of western media comes clear when you consider recent reporting on an Israeli air strike – there is little mention of the 100’s of rockets that have been launched against Israel, but much mention of the injuries caused by the air strike. Some of the reports even neglect to mention that some of the “civilian” deaths were those launching the rockets (not civilian by any interpretation of the law of war).

Add to this the frequent, public declarations from the President of Iran that his goal is the destruction of the state of Israel, you can understand why they’re getting a little nervous.

The bias that allows otherwise reasonable people to suspend their reason and come to outrageous and illogical conclusions came through clearly in a second article.

In “Climate expert’s pants on fire”, Lorrie Goldstein describes how climate scientist Peter Gleick lied about his identity in order to obtain documents from an anti-climate change agency. What struck me in the article was this description,

Gleick apologized for what he called “a serious lapse of my own and professional judgment and ethics.”

But he’s also defended his actions by arguing he was driven to them by well-funded, co-ordinated and often anonymous attacks on climate science. He’s also thanked supporters in the ensuing controversy for their support, so his apology is a qualified one.

That rationalization is pure situational ethics, or if you prefer, an end-justifies-the-means argument. The anti-climate change organization needed to be stopped; therefore, falsifing my identity was justified.

That type of thinking is highly ethically suspect, and would cause me to re-examine all of that scientist’s past published work…it is too easy to supress important evidence in order to preserve a stronger conclusion, after all, the earth is at stake. How that type of reasoning leads to destruction, consider the case of Sally Clark and how suppressed medical evidence led to a false conviction for the murder of her two children (I came across this reading about the use of probabilities to establish causation-in-fact).

If the parallel there escapes you, the ethical suspension that underlies both situations is identical. We know A to be true, therefore it is acceptable to do B, even though we know it to be improper behaviour. In the case of Israel, it seems to be better for them to be nuked, than to claim a right of self-defence, something we would never permit if it was our country involved.

That’s the same reasoning that the US uses to support torture of terrorist prisoners in Gitmo…after all, the careful use of torture may save American lives.

On the Israel-Iran issue, I would expect to see a dramatic attack carried out in the next few months, unless the world takes equally dramatic steps to stop the production of a nuclear device by Iran.

Written by sameo416

March 12, 2012 at 7:29 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

I Believe, help my unbelief!

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One of my co-workers gave me a copy of a comment on a review that was published in the Times Literary Supplement on August 5, 2011. The reviewer comments on three recent books on atheism, theism and agnosticism (roughly, belief in no god; a God; some form of god). He comments that the reviewer (Anthony Kenny) points out that one of Aristotle’s errors was that of not treating intellectual virtues, such as faith, “…as having satisfactory midway positions akin to moral virtues. Just as generosity might be the desirable midpoint between profligacy and meanness, so faith, Kenny suggested, would be the midpoint between skepticism and credulity.”

Reasonable faith, approached in this way, as opposed to knowledge or certainty, would seem to fit the long-standing criterion of Christian orthodoxy. The Nicene creed hinges on a series of propositions about beliefs, not about knowledge. There is not a single sentence in the creed that requires any claim to knowledge or certainty. Might not the beliefs of many agnostics entitle at least some of them to be Christians malgre eux. (malgre eux = in spite of themselves)

There is some good truth in that analysis, and I might add that there are some Christians who might be agnostics malgre eux (and even some Christians who might be atheists malgre eux). I also have no problem seeing faith on a continuum, and I’m not sure how faith, like any other virtue, could not be considered to have a midpoint and extremes. That is an apparent truth even within communities of faith.

The creed hinging on statements of beliefs and not about knowledge is a bit trickier, as this involves a question of epistemology. That is, what do you consider to be “knowledge”? I suspect the writer (who I believe was a clergyperson with an advanced degree in ethics or poly sci) is using a scientific or naturalist perspective on knowledge: knowledge is that which can be demonstrated objectively from the natural creation. By that definition, I would have no problem agreeing, as there is no element of the creed which could be demonstrated empirically. It causes me a bit of trouble as there are sources of knowledge beyond the empirical, both within and without from the field of the hard sciences.

A simple example: prove to me empirically that the sun will rise tomorrow morning. Based on the repeatability of the natural world, science accepts such things as knowledge, without any real empirical ability to prove a given event will occur again. Science is full of such assumptions about the world. Here’s a second: All science is based on observation of phenomena, so demonstrate your ability to observe what you are watching (prove you can actually measure what you believe you are measuring). Science is also based on the fundamental assumption that we can observe and make empirical observations about the natural world. That too is an un-provable assumption that rests at the foundation of science. Without belabouring the point, there is knowledge present within the hard sciences which cannot be empirically demonstrated, which has no basis in repeatable observation. I would suggest it is that type of knowledge which is represented in the creed, admittedly alongside statements which are based primarily in belief.

I don’t want to proceed on an in-depth analysis of the creed, but a quick glimpse is possible. Large portions of the creed are based on evidence from the Scriptural record. If you discount that record merely because it is a book about God, there probably isn’t much more to talk about. The Bible (along with the Hebrew Tanach) are highly historically attested documents. We have no problem accepting other writings which have much less support (early works of philosophy and fiction). So to describe the life of Christ as ending in crucifixion under Pontius Pilate, has both a historic and spiritual implication. One could ‘know’ this as an event from the past, just as one could ‘know’ about Marie Curie’s discovery of Radium. It is a bit of a stretch to assert there is not a single sentence in the creed that requires any claim of knowledge.

Likewise, I would take some exception to the clause that immediately follows, that there is no statement that requires a claim to certainty. I think Rev Strain is falling into a similar trap here, in assigning to the word ‘certainty’ an purely empirical meaning. Does belief preclude certainty? In a post-modern sense, or in a scientific sense it probably does (unless you’re talking about global warming when there are far too many scientists who believe). I think that belief, that is, presumptions which are supported by no more than faith, can have equal certainty in the mind of the holder to an empirical assertion of a certain expectation from science. I can say this with a straight face because, as I’ve already noted, there are wide swaths of science which are based on nothing more than an assumption. The only places in recent history this seems to be untrue is biology and climate science (biology because some assert with a straight face that Darwinism describes everything including social evolution…which, if you want to discuss faith and belief is an assertion far closer to a Catholic dogma than a science). Climate science because I have grown weary listening to all the climate scientists tell me that “the science is decided”.

The problem with that last comment (and the biologist’s rigid dogma on Darwin) is that science is never decided. Science awakes each new morning (after that assumption the sun will rise is again demonstrated to be correct) with the expectation that what was believed before may be proven wrong. We have a word for science that does not awake that way each morning: religion (or to be specific, scientism). Science does not present the world with absolute truths. Rather, science presents the world with the results of repeated observation and multiple recursions of theory and hypothesis. The act of science is one of watching, formulating rules to explain what you’ve seen, and then watching to see if your rule is confirmed. If it is, then you see if the rule can predict, if it can’t, you go back to the drawing board.

Scientism is, in reality, a counter-rational movement that seeks to remove from science it’s heart – the ability to be proven wrong.

My epiphany on the limits of science came during graduate studies in microwave engineering. I was working out the equations to describe the distribution of electrical and magnetic fields inside a metal waveguide (a rectangular box-shaped pipe in use since WW II and very good at guiding electrical energy to and from an antenna). The only way the math works out nicely is when you can assume that the metal walls of the waveguide are perfect electrical and magnetic conductors (a state which does not exist in reality…maybe near absolute zero, but almost a practical impossibility). If you don’t make that assumption, even with a fleet of supercomputers, the best you can come up with is an approximation.

Now, if my science is unable to exactly depict what is happening inside a waveguide, an old technology (relatively speaking), how on earth could I believe that science serves to provide me with absolute truth? It doesn’t have that ability. It has the ability to send space probes to Mars (that usually make it), to build long bridges that (usually) don’t fall down, and to make sure the elevator in my building gets me safely to my office.

I’m a bit far afield from the starting point, so it is probably time to stop. I must admit that my own life is very much operated under the Rev Strain’s concept of “reasonable faith” in the sense that even those things I claim as knowledge are never cause to critique those who have belief, or even those who disbelieve. In many ways the cry of the man to Jesus, “I believe, help my unbelief” is a rally cry for my own faith.

Written by sameo416

March 11, 2012 at 3:41 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Legal Causation

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A snip from a case dealing with Workers’ Compensation matters. A main task is the assessment of causation, that is, did exposure to hazard A result in injury B? Sometimes that is straight-forward (a fall from height that results in broken bones), other times it is very challengine (small cell lung cancer after a past exposure to asbestos and a long history of smoking). The full decision is in the public domain at www.canlii.org. These are some of the hardest cases to hear and decide, as the injuries are almost always severe, and the consequences tragic.

The material is pretty dry, but I find such questions endlessly fascinating, as at their core is the question of truth.
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In order to decide this appeal, the panel must determine whether or not the worker’s development of lung cancer was the result, even in part, of his occupational exposure to asbestos. Specifically, did the worker’s occupational exposure to asbestos or other workplace factors cause or contribute to the development of the lung cancer from which the worker died in 2010? As this is fundamentally a question of causation, we will review the legal tests to assess if there is a causal linkage between the worker’s employment and his lung cancer.

Causation decisions are made using the common law standard known as the but for test on a balance of probabilities. That is, can it be shown that but for the accident, there would have been no injury or adverse effects. That the first assessment of causation is done by considering the but for test was reaffirmed by the Supreme Court of Canada in Resurfice Corp. v. Hanke, [2007] 1 S.C.R. 333, 2007 SCC 7. In that case, the court wrote,

Further, the Court of Appeal erred in holding that the trial judge should have applied the ‘material contribution’ test to determine causation. The basic test remains the ‘but for’ test. […] The ‘material contribution’ test only applies in exceptional cases where factors outside of the plaintiff’s control make it impossible for the plaintiff to prove that the defendant’s negligence caused the plaintiff’s injury using the ‘but for’ test…

This is not a situation where the panel is considering negligence; however, the use of causation tests for compensation matters is a similar application. The Alberta Court of Appeal has been clear in stating that, barring policy that specifically establishes different causation principles from those in tort law, tort causation principles should be considered. In Shuchuk v. Alberta (Workers’ Compensation Board), 2007 ABCA 213, the appellate court wrote,

[40] I conclude that the Commission unreasonably interpreted the Policy by finding the MVA to be a substantially diminished cause of Shuchuk’s condition, such that the predominant effect of the intervening events precluded it from having any causal relationship. There is no line of analysis that could reasonably have led to such an interpretation given the Policy’s entitlement criteria and the underlying purpose of workers’ compensation scheme to provide generous coverage.

[41] I agree that the WCB, as part of its policy-making function, may develop a policy whereby causation principles applicable to the provincial workers’ compensation scheme differ from those principles applied by tort law… However, the WCB has not done so here as there is nothing in the Policy’s entitlement criteria that requires anything beyond a de minimus connection between the underlying accident and the personal injury.
[…]
[43] This conclusion is in keeping with the overall purpose to provide generous coverage under workers’ compensation schemes and gives effect to coverage for a psychological/psychiatric disability where the condition results from an emotional reaction to an accident, injury, physical disability, and/or the treatment process.
[…]
[46] … Absent clear legislative direction to the contrary, the workers’ compensation scheme should, at a minimum, provide compensation to those situations that would result in compensation under traditional tort law. Any interpretation of the legislative and policy regime that does not give effect to this principle is unreasonable.

In Shuchuk the court established that the intent of the compensation system is to provide generous coverage to injured workers on grounds similar to that of the tort system, and that there is no requirement established beyond a de minimus level. The legislation and policy assessed by the Court of Appeal has remained relatively static since that decision was written. So, without alternate causation principles outlined in WCB policy, in weighing this appeal we will consider the legal tests for causation described in the two cited court cases.

Considering these two court decisions in harmony guides the panel in assessing causation. First, we attempt to apply the but for test to determine if there can be a clear finding of causation made on that basis. If we cannot make a finding on that basis, and the underlying facts of the case permit satisfying the criteria of Resurfice Corp. v. Hanke, we can proceed to consider material contribution as the test for causation.

It is appropriate to comment at this point on the differing standards of causation applied by medical specialists and the legal tests which the panel is obligated to apply. While physicians assess the relationship between an injury and resultant symptoms using a scientific model, the task before the panel is to apply the correct legal test to the entire body of evidence. This includes evidence not considered by the physicians, such as that submitted at the hearing, but also the application of WCB policy and the Act to that evidence. This final step is also not considered by the medical reporting.

The panel must use the medical opinions on causation to help develop their legal assessment of causation. There is a difference between the medical and legal approaches to causation. The American Medical Association Guides to the Evaluation of Permanent Impairment, Sixth Edition, (AMA Guides) provides this comparison between the legal and medical tests for causation (page 25):

Legal terminology defines the association between an event and an outcome as ‘probable’ if it is more likely than not – if the probability of a cause and effect relationship is greater than 50%. There is a ‘possible’ causal relationship between a putative cause and an event when the likelihood of a causal relationship is equal to or less than 50%.

This is in contrast to standards in the scientific and medical literature, which require the likelihood that an association between a potential cause and an effect to be greater than 95% for the relationship to be considered ‘probable.’ Everything else is only possible.

In the definitions section of page 610, the AMA guides provide this definition for a cause:

In general, anything that produces an effect. In medicine, cause refers to an identifiable factor (eg, genetic abnormality, toxic or infectious exposure, trauma) that results in injury or illness. The cause or causes must be scientifically probable following causation analysis.

Compared to the legal causation test that this panel must apply, the medical test requires a higher degree of causal relationship. This distinction was recognized by the Supreme Court of Canada decision in Snell v. Farrell, 1990, 70 (S.C.C.), [1990] 2 S.C.R. 311:

Causation need not be determined by scientific precision.
[…]
Medical experts ordinarily determine causation in terms of certainties whereas a lesser standard is demanded by the law. It is the function of the trier of fact, not the medical witnesses, to make a legal determination of the question of causation.

This differing standard of scientific versus legal causation was emphasized within the workers’ compensation context by the Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench in Alberta (Workers’ Compensation Board) v. Alberta (Appeals Commission for Alberta Workers’ Compensation), 2010 ABQB 368. The court wrote at paragraph 87:

…there is a distinction between scientific and legal findings…At law, causation need not be determined with precision, but must meet the appropriate burden of proof…Policy 01-03, Part 1 provides that a worker need only prove their claim on a balance of probabilities, and if the evidence for and against a decision is equally balanced, the issue will be resolved in the worker’s favour. On the other hand, scientific analysis of causation seeks a far higher degree of certainty to establish causation.

The legal tests we are applying do not ask if the worker’s asbestos exposure played a primary or essential role in the development of lung cancer or if it was, based on scientific certainty, the main or probable cause of the cancer. Our question is if, on a balance of probabilities, but for the asbestos exposure there would have been no lung cancer or alternately, if the asbestos exposure materially contributed (that is, was more than a negligible contributor) to the development of the lung cancer at greater than a de minimus level.

Written by sameo416

March 9, 2012 at 9:51 pm

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Book Review: Ascent from Darkness

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Ascent from Darkness Book Cover
Ascent from Darkness
How Satan’s Soldier Became God’s Warrior

By Michael Leehan
Published by Thomas Nelson

This interesting book was provided, in exchange for a fair review, by Booksneeze (www.booksneeze.com).

This was a fascinating book, essentially a first-hand account of an active satanist’s rejection of evil and embrace of Christian faith. It is a true story of redemption, deliverance and salvation. It is also, in several places, deeply disturbing and more than a little frightening.

As Michael Leehan becomes engaged with a Christian church, through a relationship with a woman, he speaks of how he was ordered to kill the pastor. He even goes so far as to set aside the bullet that he intends to use. Gradually, while sitting in the foyer of the church, glimmers of light are shone on his soul and he discovers another path, one out of the darkness into the light. He eventually presents the bullet to the pastor, which marks the real turning point in Leehan’s journey back to the light.

For Christians who are engaged in spiritual warfare in their ministry, this is one of the best instruction books concerning the activities of the enemy I have come across. I have not seen an account as useful since reading C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters. As this is a first person recounting of such warfare from the opposite side, it stands almost alone as an in-depth look into the strategies and tactics being used. If you are involved in leadership, prayer ministry or small-group ministry in a faith community, there are ample cautions in the book about the places you and your community may be attacked.

For Christians who find the idea of an active spiritual adversary absurd, this book might pose a real challenge. Do you really believe that what you believe is real? You may be able to argue with Michael Leehan’s interpretation of what he experienced, but it will be hard to dismiss him outright.

For non-believers, particularly those who come from a humanist or naturalist perspective, this book is likely an equally interesting perspective on faith and belief (and perhaps delusion). I will leave it to you to find your own path of truth in Leehan’s words, but his testimony is consistent with my own study and experience.

The book is written in a lucid, easy-reading format. This is not great literature, but rather a compelling, personal testimony to the darkness, chaos and destruction experienced by a man who was sworn to serve darkness. It is also an account of that same man’s rejection of that darkness, and his embrace of the light. I would not recommend this as light reading for entertainment, as that would not respect the deadly seriousness of the topic. I would highly recommend it for anyone engaged in ministry or active prayer ministry.

Written by sameo416

March 8, 2012 at 4:18 pm

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Unto to these shall be given the Kingdom…

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Preaching through Mark. 4 March 2012, Mark 9:30 to 10:31 Lent 2

We’re here at our next instalment of our sermon series through Mark’s gospel, and today’s chunk of the Word relates to the central theme of who it is exactly that will gain admittance to the Kingdom. This message is presented in the usual manner we have seen used by Jesus, kind of a back-handed or inverted approach to the way the world would have its saviour set the system up.

In our world, we would choose our Jesus to be like a superhero, compassionate and kind, but also able to bring the fight to those we see as sinful. If you’ve ever listened to Richard Dawkins on his anti-Christian rant, and you’re like me, there is some small part that just wishes the Holy Spirit would show up in a very real way…about 100,000 volts worth, or 10 tonnes like in the cartoons. Rather than one of the Justice League or the Fantastic Four, our Saviour instead comes into town riding on a baby donkey…with great power and authority for sure, but primarily with love for those who so desperately need saving. This is a back-handed response to the world’s right-handed expectations. Looking back at the last 10 chapters, we can sum up the kinds of people who have been saved by Jesus with five words (after Robert Capon):

The lost: Jesus came to bring salvation to the nation of Israel, but also to the lost nation of the Gentiles: the children’s food and crumbs for the dogs.

The least: Be the servant of all.

The little: the daughter of the ruler of the synagogue, children in general

The last: The Syrophoenician woman, the unclean, the lame, the blind, tax collectors, sinners.

The dead: the dead daughter of the ruler of the synagogue.

There is a clear and difficult message that comes across loud and clear in the gospel this week – if you seek a place in the Kingdom, you must be like one of these: the lost; the little; the least; the last; the dead. We see nowhere that Jesus has come for those who know they are alive, for those who know they are saved, for those who are first, and for those who are giants. It is the one lost sheep of 100 that receives His attention, the one lost coin, the one sinner who repents, over the 99 who know they are righteous people. Rather, he holds up for us a small child as the image of who we are to emulate. This theme is repeated several times throughout the reading:

Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all. (9:35)
Let the little children come to me…for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. (10:14)
Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it. (10:15)
The disciples said: who then can be saved? Jesus replied, for man it is impossible, but not for God, for God all things are possible. (10:26-27)
But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first. (10:30)

The important focus is to ask yourself, how is my life, my total life, informed by this teaching? Here’s a question to dwell on: why is it that we are told to confess our sins? If God is all-knowing, he certainly is aware of even the sins we commit without knowledge. Forgiveness is a gift from God, just for the asking, and not contingent on keeping an accurate listing of each transgression. Why then confess? Perhaps the real point in confession is not to tell God about our faults, but to remind ourselves that we are dead to our sin, and it is only in God that we may find life, and eternal life. Once we admit we are dead, once we admit we are lost, once we admit that we are children, is when God can begin His work.

Let’s walk through some of this rich pallet of Christ’s teaching. The theme of the disciple’s unknowing continues clearly. We begin with another anticipation of the crucifixion, which the disciples do not understand. They are beginning to learn to avoid rebuke, because we also hear they are afraid to ask Jesus any questions about it. On the way to Capernaum the disciples are debating: who will be the greatest when Christ takes the throne of Israel? They have no idea!

Jesus takes the teachable moment, sits down with the twelve, and says, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” This is a difficult teaching. When I started out in the military, I was eager to seek greater responsibilities and quick promotion. This was because, quite frankly, I loved the fancy clothes, having people salute me on the street, and the seats of importance at gatherings. Later, when I realized the responsibility for others that rested on me, that passage took on new meaning. What promotion really means is becoming an even greater servant to those in your care. Luke 12:48: “from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked” Jesus takes a little child and sets him in their midst and tells them: “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” There you have a hint of where we’re going: welcoming a child in the name of Christ, is welcoming the Father.

It is such a simple idea – we will hear in Mark 16:16, “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved” full stop. Welcome a child, you welcome God. Yet we seem to spend so much time making the message complex, creating a moral framework of tasks that we can complete to convince ourselves that we are progressing in goodness and approaching the Kingdom…to which Jesus says, no – just admit that you are dead, and then I will be able to bring you new life.

Seeking to change the subject at that point, John interjects – hey Lord, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, but he was not following us so we tried to stop him. It sounds to me like a bit of approval seeking by John. Jesus’ responds in an interesting manner, saying “Whoever is not against us is for us.” Which makes me immediately think of George Bush’s war on terror speech where he said something quite different – if you’re not with us, you’re against us. Jesus makes a rather profound comment, by stating that anyone that is not opposing his mission, is supporting it. I wonder in this if there is an answer for one those difficult questions – what about my friend, who is an atheist, but is the kindest and most caring person I know, and volunteers 3 days per week at the homeless shelter and makes most Christians look bad with her giving? How can she not be admitted to the Kingdom? What does Jesus’ comment, “Whoever is not against us is for us.” mean for your atheist friend?

CS Lewis provides an interesting commentary on that statement in the last book in the Narnia series, The Last Battle, when a Calormene named Emeth (which means truth in Hebrew) meets Aslan, the great golden lion of Narnia, and Lewis’ Jesus character. Emeth is confounded by this lion, when he has his whole life served the (demon) god Tash. Aslan replies:

“I take to me the services which thou hast done to Tash for I and he are of such different kinds that no service which is vile can be done to me, and none which is not vile can be done to him. Therefore if any man swear by him and keep his oath for the oath’s sake, it is by me [Christ] that he has truly sworn, though he know it not, and it is I who reward him.”[(C.S. Lewis, The Last Battle [London: Penguin Books, 1956], p. 149).

Lewis is oft accused of being a universalist (that is, everyone gets into heaven automatically) but this is not what he is saying in this dramatic encounter. Who you are is important, what is less important is who you thought you had been serving – in some ways this is a more challenging message that universal salvation, because Lewis is telling us that there can be servants of the Most High embedded even in organizations that do great evil. Lewis is reflecting the simple truth we hear repeatedly in this Gospel: receive this child in my name and you receive the Father; Who wants to be first, must be last of all. If you are not against God, you are for Him. It is also a caution for us believers to not be too quick to condemn those who in their own way forward the mission of God, even while being totally unaware this is what they are doing. All that does not work to oppose God is used by God to forward His work. (I would include Richard Dawkins in that crowd of those who inadvertantly serve God…and I expect he will be quite surprised some day!)

Now comes one of the most troubling passages for preachers but really for all of us, as there is a direct caution in Christ’s words for those who with some audacity presume to preach the Gospel. What follows is metaphor, to be sure, but a powerful statement about the choices we make in this life. It is better to lose an appendage or an eye and to find the kingdom, than to be whole in this life and lose the kingdom. Eugene Peterson in the Message sums it up beautifully: ‘You’re better off one-eyed and alive than exercising your twenty-twenty vision from inside the fire of hell.’ Peterson rewrites the salty ending in a clearer manner: ‘Everyone’s going through a refining fire sooner or later, but you’ll be well-preserved, protected from the eternal flames. Be preservatives yourselves. Preserve the peace.’

Next comes teaching on divorce and the commandments – this is particularly interesting as it is popular, if you are a modern, progressive Christian, to say things like, “Jesus came to bring love, and never speaks definitively about human relationship or behaviour.” Wrong, and here it is – Jesus runs right back to Genesis to talk about to normal state of human relationship between men and woman, followed by a hard teaching about divorce, that rewrites the Jewish tradition about divorce to effectively say you cannot divorce. Matthew and Luke soften this a bit by adding a condition, but in Mark we get it straight and impossible. Rather than hear this as a condemnation if you are the victim of the torment of divorce, hear it instead as the continuing re-writing of the Law, of Torah, from the merely difficult to the absolutely impossible. The Law says do not commit adultery, truly I tell you, if you look on a woman with desire in your heart you have committed adultery. Sell all you own and give it to the poor, and follow Me!

The point, throughout all of Jesus’ teaching, is to emphasize this one thought, which is brought to us through the child today. You can’t do it by human effort or force of will. If anyone says they are without sin, that is, they have achieved the state of absolutely impossible perfection set out by Jesus, then they are a liar. (1 John 1) If anyone says they are without sin, this makes Jesus a liar. Unless you can admit before God that you can’t do it on your own, then Jesus cannot come to bring you that forgiveness, that new life that we so desperately need.

This is yet another back-handed form of God’s salvation, and the problem we’re faced with is that the purpose of God, viewed through human eyes is completely unreasonable. This thought was brought out in some writings of Pastor Wurmbrand – Wurmbrand was a Christian pastor who was incarcerated in a communist prison for several years and later founded the organization ‘Voice of the Martyrs’ to witness to the persecuted church. Listen to what he wrote about God’s reasonableness,

“What intrigued us the most was that we did not obtain from heaven what it was obviously reasonable to expect: a slight improvement in our situation, food to quiet our hunger, and abatement of our cruel torture. We did not get what we expected because heaven is not – humanly speaking -reasonable. Jesus said, ‘There will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine just persons who need no repentance’ (Luke 15:7). This is surely not reasonable. Nowhere does the Bible speak about the ‘reasonableness’ of God, according to man’s reasoning, but rather about His foolishness (1 Corinthians 1:25). He is unreasonable as are the thoughts of little children. Christ became a child and recommended that we become as children too.”

Become like a little child and receive the kingdom of heaven. That is, become one of the least, become one of the little, become one of the last. Jesus looks at the rich man, who is a good Jew, he has kept Torah that here is endorsed by Jesus, but his heart is bound to possessions. He can’t give up those possessions, and still Jesus loves him. After all the hard teaching about impossible standards that we’ve heard, here is one more bit: “”Do you have any idea how difficult it is for people who ‘have it all’ to enter God’s kingdom?” The disciples couldn’t believe what they were hearing, but Jesus kept on:

“You can’t imagine how difficult. I’d say it’s easier for a camel to go through a needle’s eye than for the rich to get into God’s kingdom.” That set the disciples back on their heels. “Then who has any chance at all?” they asked. (and that’s the question!) Jesus was blunt: “No chance at all if you think you can pull it off by yourself. Every chance in the world if you let God do it.” (The Message)

The reason the disciples are stunned and amazed, is because of the common belief, as alive today as it was then, that the rich are obviously God’s favorites, or they wouldn’t be the rich. That is a worldly, right-handed way of thinking…and does not fit with God’s back-handed, inverted wisdom.

That last exchange is the summation of all the teaching about the Kingdom we have heard these past weeks…and it is a message of great hope and grace. We have heard repeatedly that to enter the kingdom we need to be dead, like the daughter of ruler of the synagogue; we need to be the least of all, slave to Christ; we need to be the lost, the dogs beneath the children’s table; the little, suffer the little children to come unto me; we need to be the last, the lame, the blind the unclean – or there is no hope we will enter the kingdom. Should we weep? Nope, because what is absolutely impossible for us in our broken, power-focused, right-handed way of doing business, that makes us cry out “Who has any chance at all?!?”…is entirely possible for God in His own back-handed, inverted way. We have ‘every chance in the world if [we] let God do it.’

So, let us rejoice that we are lost; let us sing that we are the least; let us dance because we are dead; let us become the servants of all; and let us become little, like the child who has no problem depending completely for her very life on her parents, because that is what children do. Let us turn as those little ones to our Father in heaven, and rejoice, and receive the Kingdom of Heaven. Amen

Written by sameo416

March 3, 2012 at 4:57 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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