Preaching Holiness – part 4

Holiness2This week we have been pondering the preacher and the theme of holiness.  There is so much more that could be said about each point, but hopefully we have had something to think and pray about.

15. Every sliver of unholiness will be judged and purged.  We really have no clue of how good that will be!  (That includes the unholiness of “older brother” religiosity . . . which means more of our lives will get there “as through fire” than we probably realize.  Nevertheless, what an utter relief the purging of all sin will bring to ransomed souls.)

16. When we make holiness sound like sour pickled vegetables we don’t motivate anyone to think beyond this life.  The New Creation will be wonderful in many respects, not least because of the total absence of sin and pain and tears, as well as the presence of Christ Himself.  Too many in our churches still have lingering images of sterility and fun-free hymnathons.  The Bible gives a lot of future glimpses to motivate us in the present.

17. Jesus was holy and magnetic, often our version of holiness is anything but.  The truly holy person is fully alive.  At the same time that person will be profoundly attractive and deeply offensive.  (And if the Gospels are an indicator, then such Christlikeness will be attractive to needy people, and offensive to religious people.)

18. The great threat to holiness in the church is not just the worldliness of culture, but also the pseudo-holiness of church culture.  Just as a weekend of binge behavior in a degraded society is horribly empty, so too is a relationally empty performance devoid of meaningful engagement with God and others (sometimes polite conversation can be empty too).

19. Preaching for holiness cannot be restricted to applications of conduct, nor even of conforming the mind…it must seek to engage and stir the heart.  It is not what goes in from the outside that defiles a person (i.e. religious duties and traditions), but what spews forth from the heart.  So preach in such a way as to engage the heart.  Informing the mind and pressuring the conduct will never suffice when the heart of the problem is the, uh, heart.

20. The overwhelming use of the term “Holy” in the New Testament is in reference to the Spirit of God.  Let’s be sure that our preaching is pursued with a thoroughly biblical and growing understanding of the role of the Holy Spirit in respect to our sanctification.  Too much Christianity still ignores the Spirit or turns Him into some sort of battery pack (either highly visible or highly invisible).  It is by the Spirit that we are united to Christ.  True relationally rich holiness is our privilege in the Gospel!

21. If you long for greater holiness in the lives of people in your church, don’t preach for “holiness.”  Instead, pray and preach for spiritual vitality in their relationship with Christ.  If we, and they, will love God, then what we want to do will be profoundly holy.  The Gospel does a work on our wants!
So much more could be said, but let’s pray for the beauty of God’s holiness to pervade our lives, our ministry and our churches . . .

Preaching Holiness – part 3

Holiness2This week we are chewing on matters of preaching and true godly holiness.  I won’t review where we have been already, but please do go back to the first posts if you missed them.

10. People need instructing in holiness, but never in a sermon severed from the glorious good news of the Gospel.  There are plenty of instructional sections in the New Testament epistles, for example.  Don’t go joyriding in an Imperative Harvester, but instead keep the instructions firmly planted in the rich soil of Gospel content within the context of their own Bible book.  We might take weeks to preach an epistle, but the original hearers heard them in one sitting.  So make sure you aren’t plucking instruction and losing the rich theological setting for them.

11. The preacher’s personal holiness matters beyond words.  This is more than conformity to high standards of integrity.  It also shows in your love, your joy, your peace, your patience, your kindness . . . oh wait, I see what is going on here (it’s back to the tangible reality of the Holy Spirit again!)

12. Holiness is not merely movement away from something, it is movement towards someone.  False holiness will come across as a sour reaction against everything, whereas true holiness involves movement toward God, and out of ourselves toward others.  Christlikeness involves being like Christ, who was no sour hermit.

13. We must think root and not just fruit in respect to holiness.  If we ignore the appetites deep within, then we can give the impression that holiness is something people should pretend to like (while really only obeying through gritted teeth because they would much rather be sinning).  The new inner relish given by the Spirit results in genuine hatred of sin and delight in God’s holiness.

14. The world should not be allowed to define holiness … neither contemporary culture, nor your parents’ culture.  While some let contemporary cultural values shape their own, others let the cultural values of a previous generation do the shaping. Be Bible soaked so that it shows in your life, your personality, your attitude, etc.

(Probably) the final part of the series will go live tomorrow…

Preaching Holiness

Holiness2Holiness is a huge theme in the Bible.  It should be a huge theme in our preaching.  Sadly, what is often preached about holiness seems to fall woefully short of the richness of the biblical reality.

I remember hearing one preacher say confidently that what our nation needs is to be moralized.  I suspect he didn’t understand what he was saying.  Moralizing is a danger in preaching, not because we don’t want to see society transformed, but precisely because moralizing won’t do the job.  Pressuring people to conform to certain standards won’t generate holiness in our churches or our land any more than pressuring a tone deaf choir to sing in tune will lead to sweet music.

Here are a few key thoughts to ponder on holiness and preaching:

1. People don’t make themselves holy, God’s Holy Spirit makes people holy.  It is so tempting to pressure people to conform to some standard, but we must preach out of a conviction that God changes lives.  The clue is in His title, the Holy Spirit.  This reality should influence our pre-preaching prayer, our content and our manner in the pulpit.

2. When we only present holiness as being “set apart from” something, it can sound so sour and empty.  What passes for holiness in many churches is so sour and strange that it seems a million miles from the wholeness of life and love we see in Jesus as we read the Gospels.  True holiness is not pinched, it is fully alive.  True holiness is not a barrel of vinegar, it is a feast of true and abundant life.

3. God’s holiness is not sour, it is infinitely beautiful and attractive.  When we present God as a celestial killjoy, we misrepresent the God whose abundant heart created and infinite generosity created unfettered joy and vibrant life.  God’s holiness is not the sterile hygiene of an operating theatre, it is the fullness of the rich loyal love He enjoys within the Godhead…

4. God’s holiness is not balanced against His love – it is the reality of His loving Triunity.  Too often we offer strange balancing acts that seem somewhat foreign to the presentation of Scripture.  God is not infinitely loving, but only 50% that way.  It is not true that He is love (but also something else, with the “but” being an adversative).  God is love.  And that love is perfectly faithful, loyal, pure, just, righteous and holy.

The list continues tomorrow…

Biggest Big Ideas – 7. Community

Woven through the warp and woof of Scripture’s great landscape are themes so glorious and rich that we can barely put them into words.  I’m trying.  What are the ten big ideas of the Bible?  God, creation, sin, grace, faith, redemption.  Where next?  I suppose it is obvious if we pause to consider what kind of God we have:

7. The glorious tri-unity of God reaches out to both create community, and to draw us into the community of His love.

God’s passion for beautiful unity in diversity brings the unlikely into unexplainable unity to reflect the good and pleasant bond of God’s fellowship.

In the very beginning, the conversation of God led to the creation of two creatures made in His image.  Male and female.  United to each other and to God by His Spirit.  Diversity, yet beautiful other-centred unity.  The image of God.  A wedding to start the story, but nothing like the wedding that will end it.

Sin drove distance like a wedge into the Edenic marriage, and the relationship with God.  The apparent freedom of self-love is a destructive prison of competition, fear, hatred, as well as the deafening silence and dark terror of living as the dead, alone in the coffin of our self-defined worlds.

So God has continually moved toward His creation, promising to create community beyond our wildest dreams.  He promised to bless all families through one man’s seed.  He promised to establish a kingdom of righteousness, even though his holy nation resisted the privilege of priesthood.

He is now calling out a bride for the Son He loves – the church, a temple of stones united in one God-inhabited structure of worship, a body of diverse yet valued parts united under one head, a bride of diverse peoples bound together by the captivating love of the beloved and longing for His return.

As God brought together Jew and Gentile into one body, His multi-coloured wisdom has quite literally been presented to a watching world and spiritual realm.  Where else can there be true unity between people long divided?  Where else can a world be taken aback by the mutual love of people so different and naturally opposed?  (Consequently where else is racism, or hatred, or political power-mongering, or falsity so unspeakably hideous?)

Unity among God’s people is not just a pragmatic idea – a means by which we can avoid losing energy for our greater mission of reaching the world.  Unity among God’s people is our greatest testimony in reaching the world.  Our unity speaks of His character and nature.  Our disunity screams a lie about God to a watching world.

So we long for the day when all the tribes of Israel and all the tribes and tongues and nations and languages of the church will reflect God’s unity and diversity in our eternal reflections on His worthiness around the throne and the Lamb.  This will be no cacophony.  This will be the most harmonious symphony of voices, of languages, of stories, of peoples…of one people, united in the world of God’s love.

There are not a few passages that address issues of unity among God’s people – from narratives of brotherly disunity to psalms celebrating the refreshing nature of brotherly unity.  From Jesus’ foundational instruction of squabbling disciples, to epistles extolling the glorious potential implicit in the gospel applied.

Let’s not preach unity as some pragmatic ideal for the sake of some other goal.  Let’s not preach unity as independent creatures tolerating each other.  Let’s recognize that God’s passion for unity flows from who He is, and what He’s making us to be.

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10 Biggest Big Ideas – 4. Grace

This week I have been pondering what might be the overarching, biggest of big ideas in the Bible.  These ideas pervade so much of the canon and are reflected in the specific main ideas of individual passages.

So far we have pondered God, creation and sin.  Now to the continual surprise of the Bible:

4. God’s solution to great sin is the greater power of His glorious grace.

God’s right to rule has been profoundly challenged by the rebellion of Lucifer and humanity.  Surely if God is God then the response from above must be the crashing fist of divine judgment?

Surprisingly, yet unsurprisingly, God’s solution is grace.  Surprisingly because in our power-hungry corruption of the divine image, we naturally would judge all sin in a self-serving display of divine wrath.   Unsurprisingly God is not like the fallen us, but He is just like Himself – that is, self-giving, generous, the God who is love.

Yet surely this is to deny another side of God, another mood of His?  Surely we must balance God’s love with God’s wrath?

No, we do not honour God by offering a schizophrenic portrait of a two-sided God.  Nor do we help by making the Father angry and the Son kind. We must instead seek to present God as He does in His Word.  God’s love spurned leads to wrath, but this shows the fullness of His love, not the reining in of love.

The holiness of God is His perfect, untainted, uncorrupted love.  This profoundly loving God has a purity about all He is and all He does.  So the prophets presented both the muscly arm of divine recompense, right alongside the arm that tenderly cares for the sheep that have young.  And the climax of that prophetic vision is not the crashing down of the fist of divine judgment on sinners, but the outstretched arms of the Lamb upon whom that fist would fall.  All sin will be judged, the wonder is that mine is judged already.

We should always be surprised by grace since it is by definition undeserved.  We should never be surprised by grace since it comes from the core of who God is.

There are glimpses of grace in every corner of the canon, whispers of love when screams of vengeance would fit.  Threaded from the fall in one garden to the rising in another garden is the ribbon of God’s great promise:

In a fallen world there is hope in the coming seed.  There is to be blessing for all the families on earth through the seed of one man.   There is hope for the firm and forever establishment of the kingdom of the seed of another man in the same line.  The ribbon of God’s great promise threads through sinning kings and trusting prostitutes, through flawed heroes and unknowns, showing grace on its journey to grace made flesh in the single seed of the woman, of Abraham, of David.  The seed that must fall into the ground and die, yet in humiliating death demonstrate the depth of God’s glory.

The great corruption of sin marks every passage, and the super-abounding solution is not raw justice, but unjust grace.  God in His goodness moves toward his harlot creation in love, giving of Himself, so that the greatest of sins pale before the greater glory of God’s goodness and grace.

If we preach the Bible with a pounding fist of self-righteous indignation, what are we doing?  Surely the Bible preached should lead to a pounding of the hearts of those captivated by God’s extravagant grace.

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10 Biggest Big Ideas – 3. Sin

The 10 biggest ideas in the Bible?  We’ve considered God and His creation.  Now we need to probe the problem.

3. Our profound capacity for love has been perverted into a self-love that drives a charade of independent divine status, in mockery of and in sickening rebellion against the loving leadership of our good God.

Within three biblical chapters God’s perfect creation is corrupted to the core.  It is corrupted from the core.  And the story of God’s resolution to our relational rebellion takes the whole canon to fully resolve, leaving only two chapters for the briefest glimpse of a post-fall new creation.  This is the great tension in the grandest of meta-narratives.

Lovingly created for relational interdependence and trusting dependence, the human race is marred by love perverted and trust destroyed.  The manifestation of the fall, the fruit, if you will, was in the eating of the forbidden fruit.  Yet the core of the event was at the level of the heart, not merely a matter of rule-breaking.  The corruption was caused by a love turned inwards, by a rebellious spurning of God’s right to rule in love, and by a fatal distrust of His good Word.

A God-given capacity to love another, delight in another, live for another, trust in another and give to another was twisted, perverted and corrupted.  It became the horrific reorientation of the power of divine love into a love of divine power – shamefully manifesting in a love for self, delight in self, living for self, trusting in self and giving to self.

Now the god of a human heart is the perceived good of that same human heart.  Instead of lovingly trusting a loving and trustworthy self-giving God, the default wiring of humanity is to hate and despise Him, performing the charade of god-hood as if that is really about self-concern, independence and power.  Even the pathetic performance shows a profound corruption of God’s true nature.

Believing the lie, we present a lie.  Every person a theologian by birth, and every person profoundly wrong.  God is not self-concerned and power-obsessed – it’s not just the “who is God?” question we answer so badly, but also the “what is God like?” question.

Sin re-orients the heart, taints the mind and manifests in broken behavior.  Some shake their fist at heaven in acts of overt rebellion, demonstrating the horrific and grotesque nature of sin by the evil that they do.  Others shake their fist at heaven in an act of apparent goodness, diligently demonstrating their ability to do good in a self-loving independence from the God who alone is good.   Even righteous deeds are as filthy rags.  Whatever is of independent un-faith is sin.

Sin is the tension in every biblical narrative, and every personal narrative.  It isn’t a question about whether we can do good, or whether we can be empowered to do good.  It is a question about what or who can ever recapture our hearts and draw our incurved souls from addiction to self, to gaze on the truly lovely, the genuinely loving and the profoundly trustworthy God who made us for participation in His love.

So as we preach the Bible we must never miss the fallen condition focus of every passage, the context of sin in which every text swims.  Neither must we offer any sense of instruction for independent goodness, for that was the root of the issue.  Sin is pervasive and profound, and God’s solution is glorious beyond words.  Yet we preach.  We preach . . . you finish the sentence: “we preach . . . and Him . . . .”

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10 Biggest Big Ideas – 2. Creation

I am slowly offering what I think might be the ten biggest ideas in the Bible.  I encourage you to write your own list, the process is a real joy.  Yesterday I wrote about God and His self-giving goodness.  I need to develop one aspect from that post:

2. Even in its current corrupted state, God’s creation reflects God’s heart and nature.

Those who start with a generic God born of human speculation will tend to emphasize the power of God.  Often this truth grows so loud that other truths are drowned out.  Yet the God of the Bible doesn’t seem as passionate about His own power as some might suggest.  He is all-powerful, of course, but that is defined and driven by the loving relationality of the unity of the three – Father, Son and Spirit.

The giving and overflowing love of the Three-in-One speaks a word, and an abundantly diverse and beautifully united creation into existence.  His eternal power is seen in the stunning reflection of His divine nature – with its vibrant, abundant, giving, creative, procreating, beauty.

Yet the beauty of creation is merely a stage for the most powerful beauty of all – the wonder of loving relationship.  Creation is the stage for the relationships of creatures made in the image of a relational God.  So every field, every mountain, every sunset, every vista, is a delight best experienced alongside another with whom God’s creation might be enjoyed.

We live in a broken, corrupted and perverted creation.  Even through the death and the brokenness, we still see overwhelming beauty – from the abiding grandeur of the milky way, to the unique features of an individual leaf.  Yet it is not only the lingering beauty that captivates, it is also the smothered whisper of what could be and should be.

The greatest pain is not that felt in a dying body, or that of a marred creation, but the deepest agony of broken relationship.  Sadly we may experience the worst of fallenness in our bodies, or see the most grotesque disfigurement of creation, but every human inherently feels the deepest agony of all in the context of broken relationships: with friends, with family, with God.

Creation stirs us, yet creation itself groans.  It groans to be the stage of what could be and should be, and by God’s grace and power, one day will be.

The Bible repeatedly returns to the relationship of creation to God – He made it, He owns it, He stamped it with His imprimatur, and He will pour out life to overcome death.  Our hope is the new creation, the stage for a greater joy than could ever have been known in Eden.

So we preach a Bible that is earthed, quite literally.  Both the past stories, our present experience, and our shared future hope, is well earthed in a world that reflects more about God than we usually even begin to notice.  One day we will.

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10 Biggest Big Ideas – 1. God

Every passage has a unique main idea.  But are there thousands of completely different main ideas in the Bible?  Haddon Robinson said several times that there are basically variations on roughly ten big Big Ideas in the Bible.  We students kept trying to get a list out of him, but to no avail.

So I’ve decided to suggest my own ten.  As you read through the Bible you may come up with a different list, but I suspect these macro main ideas are recognizable to all who are reading the Scriptures.

1. Everything is defined in relation to the triune God whose relational nature overflows into all that He has made.

The Bible doesn’t argue for the existence of some generic divine being, but assumes the existence of the one true God.  He is a God who exists in the loving communion of Father and Son and Spirit.   God is not only inherently good, His loving bond is the very measure of goodness.

It is out of this relationship that creation comes, the unrequired but unsurprising act of a loving and giving God.  Creation reflects His creative artistry, His generous power, and His delight in blending diversity in beautiful unity.  Even creation in its present corruption demonstrates the pervasive power of relationship.

Yet creation is not all God gives to enable us to know Him.  His nature and character is revealed definitively by the Son who always reveals the unseen Father to us, and His Spirit who points us to the Son.  Both the Son and the Spirit are given into a fallen world in an act of deep generosity.

It is out of God’s nature that the whole human story makes sense.  Created as loving responders, humanity has a wondrous capacity for love and joy and delight and response.  Equally, as true heart-driven beings, humans have an equally profound capacity for hate and grief and sadness and diverted affection.

It is not possible to make sense of creation without seeing it in the context of God’s goodness and the profound impact of creaturely rebellion.  It is not possible to make sense of any human without seeing him or her in the context of their relationships, especially the pre-eminent relationship with God himself.

Not only is every aspect of creation, and every human, defined by their response to God, so is every event only understood in light of God’s role.  So every narrative in Scripture is primarily a narrative about God, even when He is not mentioned.  Every character is either trusting Him or not.

Consequently every biblical sermon has to be, above all else, a sermon about God.  Technically this is called Theocentric preaching.  The term doesn’t matter.  God does. And not just any God, or even some assumed generic God of human speculation, it must be the triune, covenant making and keeping, self-giving God who is love.

Let’s be sure to preach every passage with a profound prayerful awareness of the God whose Scripture it is.

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Review: The Good God, by Mike Reeves

Whatever else we may be or do, we present God to others.  We present God in our preaching of the Bible, and we present God as we live our lives.  A critical question, then, has to be this: which God do we present?

Mike Reeves’ new book, The Good God, from Paternoster, is exactly what the doctor ordered for the church today.  And not one of those miserable doctors that prescribes some yucky fluid in a plastic bottle.  I mean one of those doctors that suggests a break in the sun and a feast of good food to help you feel better from all that ails you.  The church today needs to bask in the sun and feast on the truth offered so gloriously and accessibly in this little book.

Mike introduces the reader to the God who is loving, giving, overflowing, relational.  With his light and accessible manner, Mike shares a profound taster of just how good God is.  Clearly Mike loves God and it shows throughout.  Some books on the Trinity can come across as a technical manual of heresies to avoid.  Others as an exercise in premeditated obfuscation.  This little book sizzles with energy, addresses the issues with clear insight rather than excessive technicality, and stirs the reader’s heart to worship, to delight, and sometimes even to laugh in sheer joy.

Mike’s biblical references scattered throughout don’t come across as a defensive attempt to prove a point, nor as a theological citation method that distracts the reader.  Rather they subconsciously stir the reader to want to get back into the Bible and see this good God afresh.  As you’d expect from a Reeves book, there are also enjoyable windows into church history as key voices from folks famous, and not so, pop up to share a thought along the way.

The book is shaped, well, um, trinitarianly.  An introductory chapter invites the reader into the pre-creation love relationship that is the Trinity.  Then the book looks at creation, redemption and the Christian life (as in, Father, Son, Spirit, although brick walls can’t be built between the roles of each in each chapter).  The book closes with a chapter that asks who among the gods is like you, O LORD?  I won’t give away the end of the book by sharing Mike’s answer, but I know if you start, you’ll want to read to the end anyway!

I will say this though, the advance of anti-theist “new atheism” gets a clear response in the final chapter.  Oh, and for one final twist, just when you feel like there’s nothing left to add, he also addresses three of the big issues that Christians sometimes throw out in opposition to an emphasis on God’s loving relationality. Superb.

This book is a must read and a must share.  As you read it you will think of others you wish would read it – from atheists to strident single-author-reading Christians. But most of all, I think you will be thankful that you read it. I am genuinely excited about how God will use this book in the years ahead!

To pre-order your copy in the UK, click here or the book image above.  Note – the book will be released in the USA later in 2012 by IVP under the title, Delighting in the Trinity: An Introduction to the Christian Faith.

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How to Preach the One True God – Part Two

So do we have to thoroughly define terms every time we mention God?  That is, will every sermon be thwarted by a systematics lecture within moments of setting sail from the introduction?  Not at all.  Here are four suggestions that I think will have cumulative power without disrupting every sermon completely.  Remember the first suggestion from yesterday though . . . you need to know the difference between the God defined by philosophy and the one true God who has revealed Himself in the Son and through the Spirit.

2. Repetition of “which God” question – by repeatedly pointing out that not every assumed description of the “one true God” is biblically true of the “one true God.”  Some assumptions are true of Him, but not primary in His self-revelation.  Just as it can be powerful in an evangelistic setting to ask someone who doesn’t believe in God which God they don’t believe in, so it can be powerful to open the subject up to Christians and ask which God they do believe in.  It is a dangerous assumption that all who refer to God mean the same being, or even are clear on who He is.  Sadly too many end up assuming a sort of impersonal ultimate force rather than the feeling, thinking, personal, loving creator God of the Bible.  Let’s chip away at the naive assumption that everyone basically knows who God is.

3. Emphasis of particular text in light of its context – just as we can overlay a certain set of divine assumptions on the Bible as a whole, so we can easily do that with particular texts.  Try to be more nuanced in making clear what a text is offering us as it reveals God.  For example, Yahweh high and lifted up in Isaiah 6, holy holy holy . . . needs to be preached in light of Isaiah 1-5, where His heart for the whoring faithless nation who don’t draw near in loving devotion is made clear.  Sovereign and holy?  Absolutely.  Distant, cold, rule-obsessed and uninvolved?  Never!  Without seeing how God reveals Himself and His heart in chapters 1-5, the sixth chapter can be preached with wrong emphasis, and the last five verses can really end up preaching that other philosophically-driven view of God.

4. Emphasis of particular text in light of complete revelation – that is to say, don’t give the impression that “God” in the Old Testament is just “Father” in New Testament terms.  How easy it is to give the mistaken impression that God becomes a trinity when the Son is incarnated.  The God of the Old Testament is trinity, even if each particular instance doesn’t make that clear.  Was it the Father than spoke face to face with Abraham, that wrestled with Jacob, that spoke to the elders of Israel, etc.?  What about the Spirit in the Old Testament?  Any time we see “God” referenced in the Bible, we must be sensitive to the content and the informing theology at that point in the progress of revelation, but we shouldn’t forget what we now know more clearly about the one true God being trinity!

5. Since God is trinity, repetition of trinitarian hints are worthwhile – just to reinforce the previous point, don’t feel you have to fully explain the Trinity every time you mention it.  Why not intrigue people with a sense of the beautiful attractive wonder of who God really and personally is through trinitarian hints as you preach the Bible.  Don’t wait for the overt trinitarian formula to refer to trinity.  Don’t miss the Father/Son language and turn that into a generic one-size-fits-all “God” reference as some preachers and authors do (almost giving the impression that the Son is somehow less than God).  Don’t ignore the trinity in the Old Testament where there is a hint, and even where there isn’t.  After all, we want to preach the one true trinitarian God of the Bible!

Ok, two posts over the daily limit . . . I need to stop, but feel free to comment.

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