We will Survive

Tomorrow is Sunday.

Ah, Sunday.

The Lord’s Sabbath Day – a day of rest, inviting us to appreciate our blessings by attending church service and offering praise to God for all of His wonder.

Ugh.

Rest? Are you kidding me?

Kids in Church - Sunday CalendarWhoever said Sunday mornings were restful clearly never brought little children to church.

For my wife and me, getting three kids under the age of four dressed, fed and into our mini-van so we can get to 9 a.m. Mass on time (which rarely happens) is a major feat in itself.

Having our kids behave through the church service and not bring us any shameful glares from others in attendance is an even greater miracle.

Looking back, there have been so many instances where I easily wonder, “What on earth were we thinking going to Mass?”

For starters, a dirty diaper at the most inopportune moment is a classic.

Of course, there was the time when Hugh (now two years of age) was just months old. After having just been breastfed and burped, he managed to vomit on the head of his unsuspecting older brother Isaac, who was standing below him, right beside me.

I kid you not, it was just as if a bird pooped on your shoulder as you were sitting on a park bench.

Thankfully, Isaac didn’t notice a thing and remained very calm as I brought him to the bathroom downstairs, rinsed his hair and dried it.

If only our kids were that calm today.

These days, it seems once we are seated after the opening prayer, Catherine and I must immediately dip into our bag of tricks to keep our boys occupied – and quiet.

Thankfully, our five-month-old baby girl Naomi has been supplying the quiet for the most part, remaining very tranquil and often sleeping cooperatively.

Her brothers, on the other hand, are another story.

Despite being fed a full breakfast at home, there are requests for snacks. So, you can be sure we have some options in our kids’ church bag to keep them satisfied.

Cut up cheese, granola bars, apple slices, yogurt tubes, Cheerios – you name it, we’ve given it (while also opting not to bring food).

After that, it’s a revolving door of toys, books and games to keep them busy.

Kids in Church - Good 2Of course, we’ve got to referee to ensure there’s no fighting over who gets what – and let’s not forget bothering people in front of or behind us to retrieve items thrown or dropped.

Oh yeah, and what about seating location?

Believe me, we’ve tried practically everything – in front, in back, near the music group, in the “family section,” up in the balcony, with friends, away from them.

Like everything else, it’ll work for a little while but then the novelty wears off.

My wife and I used to sit close together during the priest’s homily after intently listening to the Gospel reading. We used to give each other a kiss during the offering of peace and hold hands when reciting the Our Father.

Now, one of us will sarcastically ask the other, “So, how was Mass?” on the way home, since we will have taken turns spending much of the service with the boys out on the mezzanine.

Don’t get me wrong, part of me thinks it’s comical and I know we provide some entertainment for so many at church.

I mean, how could we not?

You can’t tell me a toddler calling out “Hi Mommy!” from the balcony to his mother on the main floor isn’t cute. And what about this same kid making a sprint to the altar to escape his Daddy (a few weeks in a row, I might add), only to laugh about it as his father carries him back to their seats?

Kids in Church - Good 3I suppose the moments of peace do indeed make all of these experiences bearable.

Seeing our boys drop money in the offertory basket and give the usher a high five or having them walk beside me holding my hand on the way to Holy Communion are two such examples.

Dipping their fingers in the holy water upon entering the church to make the sign of the cross and resting in my arms with their head on my shoulder as we sing a hymn are two others.

Yes, I recognize it is all worth it (and, honestly, it’s not as bad as this account might depict). I guess that’s what keeps us returning each week.

Sure, we can take the simple route and stay home because it’s easier with little kids. But what good comes from that?

Kids in Church - Bad 1No, we’re going to keep coming back, persevering with focus on the benefits of praising God in His house, joined in solidarity with our brothers and sisters in Christ. (1 Corinthians 9:24 & Hebrews 12:1)

Our faith is important and we wish to celebrate it, teaching it to our children and practicing it with them as a family – no matter how frustrating or challenging it may be at times.

As St. Paul teaches, we will fight the good fight, we will finish the race, and we will keep the faith. (2 Timothy 4:7)

So if you’re experiencing what we do on so many Sundays, take courage and know you’re not alone.

If, on the other hand, you’ve seen our family or one like ours in your church and have been tempted to judge, please, remember compassion could bring you one step closer to Heaven.

Now then, you’ll have to excuse me – my wife and I need to plan our strategy for tomorrow.

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Soft like a Sponge

My wife and I recently took our kids to a family camp for a summer holiday, looking to relax away from the city while creating new memories.

I should point out this was technically a faith-based retreat, as the families attending were all Catholic and seeking to grow in identity as families rooted in Christ’s love and teaching.

One of the activities at the camp was communal meal time. Families all ate together in the dining hall at their respective tables, while pitching in with clean-up chores afterwards.

Personally, I loved dishwashing duties.

With soap suds halfway up my arms and a sponge in hand, it was gratifying to help out after each meal while chatting with people about a wide variety of topics.

Sponge 1As the week progressed, I found myself more and more focused on the sponge when I was washing dishes – all thanks to a priest, believe it or not.

You see, during a morning Mass early in the week, the on-site priest made a comparison in his homily between a person’s heart and both a sponge and a rock.

As we were reminded, Jesus teaches our hearts are to be open, merciful and filled with love for everyone. In other words, they are to be soft like a sponge.

Conversely, people’s hearts can also be jaded, closed to those different from them in any way or scarred by unfortunate life experiences, thus making them extremely hard like a rock.

I was struck by the image of a sponge, as well as the Biblical passage which cautions us against hardening our hearts. (Hebrews 3:15)

Sponge 2Reaching for the sponge each day or night after a meal that week, I couldn’t help but think of that sermon, wondering what kind of heart mine was.

Now back home, I am still challenged to assess who I am inside each time I scrub some dishes in the kitchen.

Do I exhibit a hardened heart, irritated by those around me?

Is my heart open to others, willing to accept them and introduce them to who I am?

When dry, the sponge beside our sink is rough and crusty. Hard to bend, it features an abrasive side that scratches your skin.

Once immersed in warm water, however, the sponge immediately becomes squishy, so flexible that you can squeeze it into different forms when scrubbing dishware of various shapes and sizes.

I can appreciate how a lot of our hearts can be like this today.

On the surface – and for whatever reason – many of us can at first be firm or cold to others, giving an impression that can rub people the wrong way.

And yet, once comfortable enough to let down our guard, we allow people to get to know our true self, welcoming them to discover our wonderful personality.

Clearly, our hearts, much like a sponge, are most effective when soft.

Sponge 5And just as a sponge absorbs and retains water, a warm heart invites others to enter into our lives, allowing us to begin and nurture positive, meaningful relationships.

But let’s not forget a sponge soaks up water only to wring out the excess.

Similarly, we are called by God to fill our hearts with His grace, learning and living out Jesus’ Gospel, and then pour out our hearts to the world, enabling everyone to encounter God’s unconditional and eternal love. (Matthew 28:19-20)

So the next time you’re scrubbing a pot or swiping some cutlery with a soapy sponge, try to pause if only for a moment, and recognize how soft your heart can be, filled with love waiting to be given to the world.

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Craving the Good News

A friend and I were out not long ago to catch up over some wings and, as is always the case, we got to talking about sports.

This time, however, we weren’t discussing recent trades or exciting playoff matchups. We weren’t even quizzing each other on various sports trivia, which we typically do.

No, we were sharing thoughts about some recent human interest stories featuring athletes and their benevolent actions with fans.

A local professional hockey player had recently surprised some kids by hopping out of his vehicle after they had asked their dad to honk the horn as they passed him on the road. As if meeting one of their hockey idols wasn’t enough, the player proceeded to sign some sticks from his trunk and give them to the awed youngsters.

More still, the player insisted on bringing them and their father to the team’s arena, where they posed for pictures and he gave them even more team paraphernalia.

Athletes Doing KindnessIn an unrelated story, one of the player’s teammates had shocked a group of young hockey players with developmental disabilities by attending their season-end banquet – despite playing a game at the same time as the team’s festivities were being held.

After scoring the winning goal in overtime, the player hurried through post-game interviews and other commitments, showered and hustled over to the team’s banquet at a hotel elsewhere in the city.

While he could have celebrated his team’s dramatic victory in far more glorious style and with far more recognizable company, it was imperative for him and his wife that they attend this banquet. After all, for the last five years, he has proudly served as honorary captain for this team of kids with special needs and he wasn’t going to let them down.

The last example my friend and I marveled over detailed how a professional football player had desperately posted a request on his social media pages for a ride to his team’s stadium – located hours away from the airport where he had landed.

The player, needing to attend team training activities, had learned his connecting flight was delayed and no rental cars were available to transport him. After a pair of brothers generously answered the plea and made the four-hour drive in the middle of the night, the player not only covered gas expenses, but also insisted they come into the stadium for a tour, autographs and pictures with famous team memorabilia.

Reviewing these stories, my friend and I couldn’t help but comment on the rare media exposure of positive news.

While we grow so accustomed in society to learning about celebrities caught in scandal and watch news broadcasts fill with depressing negativity centered on violence, drugs and selfishness, it is so refreshing to have uplifting news garner so much attention.

Just as coverage of these stories illustrates, the practice of Jesus’ Gospel should be highlighted much more, in order that more people can be encouraged to live His Golden Rule, ensuring everyone is treated with love, dignity and respect.

My friend and I concluded today’s society seems to need these seeds of joy planted and promoted far more often than they generally are.

Not only that, when observing today’s world, one could suggest we crave the Lord’s Good News, as if we cannot survive without it.

St Augustine 2In his teachings, St. Augustine wrote and preached about humanity’s quest for God, a search for complete meaning and true happiness in life.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church, a summary of the Church’s beliefs and teachings, takes that concept one step further, identifying our desire for God as being written in our hearts, since we are made by God and for Him. (CCC # 27)

As God is the source of ultimate good and He never stops drawing us near to Him, only in God can we find the truth and happiness we constantly yearn for in our lives.

Put another way, it’s as if we have been wired like a computer, having a DNA chip of goodness and happiness planted within us.

Computer ChipAs creations of God in His image, we are programmed for joy, generosity, righteousness and love.

Think about it. When you were young, what did you want to be when you were older?

Many children name careers like doctor or astronaut, firefighter or ballerina. No matter the choice, they all tend to be positive and productive, healthy for one’s self and society.

It’s not by accident that no right-thinking person dreams of becoming a drug dealer, bank robber or murderer, because their heart fundamentally desires goodness, just as God designed.

Perhaps along life’s road, some people veer from God’s path, similar to a computer malfunctioning and needing wiring adjustment.

With this in mind, may we always model and share Jesus’ Good News, encouraging those around us to continue seeking the true desires of their heart so that we may all discover complete happiness and fulfillment.

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The Real Cake Boss

Every year, our school puts on a cake sale as a community fundraiser, raising money to benefit local, national and international organizations in need.

Each class is expected to provide a cake – either purchased or baked – which is to be auctioned off to the highest bidder, determined by money raised in each homeroom.

It’s an exciting tradition that helps rally the school together and boost spirit among students and staff alike. Really, it’s a win-win scenario; we all get to enjoy some delicious cake while doing a good deed and helping people who are underprivileged.

The timing of this year’s cake auction coincided perfectly with a particular unit of study in one of my Religious Education classes.

Discussing God’s mysterious ways and His master plan for us, I introduced the topic by sharing with my students a presentation about a mother’s famous cake.

In my demonstration, a daughter returns home from school very upset one day, having failed a math test while later learning her boyfriend had dumped her for her best friend.

Feeling her life as she knew it is over, the girl’s mother suggests baking a tasty dessert in order to cheer up her teenaged girl.

Cake 1First, the mom offers some vegetable oil for her daughter to taste, prompting instant disgust as a reaction.

Next, some raw eggs are presented, shocking the daughter all the more.

Then, the mom encourages her to eat some baking flour, at which point the girl rejects her in complete confusion.

The mother proceeds to show her daughter that, while all of the cake ingredients may not be very appetizing on their own, they combine to form a delicious masterpiece in the end.

Similarly, God shows us how life can be very much like a cake and its ingredients.

Cake 3While we may experience hardships and terrible disappointments, we do not always realize at the time how these can be stepping stones on the path to something great that God has in store for us.

We don’t necessarily appreciate how God is arranging everything together so that we can learn, grow and savor all the goodness He has planned in our future.

For instance, a failed test can spur modified study habits that eventually lead to honor roll status at the end of the semester. A relationship breakup can lead to ultimately meeting someone new with whom we can develop a beautiful romance.

You see, with God, any setback in our lives is merely a setup for a comeback.

As long as we call on the Lord and place our full trust in Him, life’s true master chef will take all of our difficulties and frustrations, our worries and our fears, and convert them into wonderful opportunities. (Proverbs 3:5-6)

But therein lies the rub.

For this to occur, God requires our complete faith in Him, asking us to give unconditional devotion – something we are not always prepared or willing to do.

Jesus teaches true happiness is obtained through loving God with our entire heart, soul, mind and strength, while loving all others as ourselves. (Luke 10:27)

This, it would appear, serves as the basis for a perfect recipe for a strong, healthy relationship with God and all of His children.

Mixing in elements such as the theological virtues of faith, hope and love, along with other key ingredients like patience, discipline, humility and wisdom, God shares with us another cake we would be smart to eat.

Following baking instructions such as the 10 Commandments, the Beatitudes and the Golden Rule, we are shown exactly how to live a life rooted in prosperity.

Cake 2So, the next time you attend a birthday party or some other celebration where cake is served, may you feel encouraged to dive right in and enjoy a big piece.

You can do so knowing God is at work, organizing all of your challenges and troubles so they may become blessings of promise.

And while you won’t gain any weight sampling God’s cake, you can be sure you will gain an abundance of joy – both in the short and long term.

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Go (Father) Figure

Like many other households, my wife and I post a bunch of stuff on the side of our fridge.

Pictures of our children and relatives, key reminder notes and many themed magnets can be found plastered along the fridge panel, nearly covering the entire surface.

One of the magnets features a man holding up his boy, with a declaration from American writer and theologian Frederick Buechner included underneath:

When a child is born, a father is born.

I can appreciate this statement first-hand, now for a third time, as my wife and I welcomed our daughter Naomi into the world three months ago today.

Love Quote Newborn Valentine DayNot only has God blessed me by bringing Catherine into my life and joining our hearts, but He has given me three jewels as fruits of our love together: our sons Isaac and Hugh, and now a baby girl.

While our kids certainly are true blessings at whom I marvel in wonder, they are also a giant responsibility and one I don’t take lightly whatsoever.

In an increasingly secular society, raising our kids the right way is not easy, nor will it ever be. In fact, nurturing them so they can come to know, love and follow God in a fast-paced environment filled with demands and distractions is likely going to be my greatest test in life.

Come to think of it, fatherhood will undoubtedly be the hardest job I ever have – and the most important one, also.

As our children’s father, I must model for and mentor them, showing and teaching the right way to live, assisting them on their way to realizing God’s will in their lives.

I find myself reflecting on this so often these days.

In the midst of this thought, I am reminded of how much our children are treasures to me.

Father 1It could be a point of pride when Isaac makes a basket while playing basketball in our driveway and says he wants me to coach him when he’s older. It could be a feeling of joy when Hugh takes me by the hand and marches me to the barbeque, wanting to make dinner together. Or, it could be a huge burst of fulfillment when Naomi reveals a smile from ear to ear when recognizing my voice and face as I pick her up.

Each day when I leave for school or arrive home from teaching, I am so inspired by our kids’ running to the door to give me a hug or their yelling “Daddy!” with such enthusiasm. Each time we read stories, take a neighborhood walk or watch a video, it is so gratifying to have them understand items pointed out, soaking up every bit of a life lesson passed on to them.

Hoisting them on to my shoulders, admiring a craft they made at daycare or preschool, or hearing them tell someone something with kindness and compassion, I experience some of my greatest happiness from our children.

Father 3Indeed, raising these gifts from God gives me indescribable energy and delight, and I have come to quickly appreciate the extreme privilege of parenthood over the last few years.

For this reason, I will often take a moment at Mass each Sunday just to admire our kids – their innocence, curiosity and enthusiasm.

I will also give thanks to God for my wife, to whom I am deeply grateful as she serves them completely and beautifully in her role as their mother.

But I’d be lying if I said I didn’t also feel tremendous pressure, as I experience a sense of worry and insecurity at times, too.

So, I will often look up and ask God for strength and guidance, knowing I am weak and fearing I am not up to the task of raising them how a father should or how they need me to do.

As the family is the foundation of a society, it is up to my wife and me to ensure our kids are properly taught and equipped to both navigate and flourish through the many challenges life will present.

Truly, this is an immense responsibility bestowed upon us in providing the very best for our children, and one we cannot handle on our own.

While we have a network of support around us in family and friends, who better for me to seek help from than God our Heavenly Father and Joseph, Jesus’ surrogate father?

Unconditional love, limitless patience, endless compassion, tireless and responsible work ethic, and honest, righteous living – all of their qualities are ones I strive to display in my marriage, my friendships, my teaching, and, especially, my fatherhood.

And so, in this month when we celebrate Father’s Day, I give praise to God for blessing me in becoming a father.

I ask God, in turn, to continue shaping me in my fatherhood, so that – with my wife – I can love and lead our children however they need, being the man and dad they can look to as an example for how to live their lives.

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Flexing our Muscles

I always get a kick out of when our boys flex their muscles.

The two of them, aged three years old and a year and a half, bring their arms close to their chest and let out this menacing growl while displaying a determined look on their face.

It is both hilarious and cute, really, but also very gratifying for me as their dad.

You see, when I was a youngster, you’d be hard pressed not to see me pose in a similar fashion each time someone would try to take my picture. So, I’m proud the custom is living on for another generation.

Hugh, the younger brother, likes to take matters one step further.

While playing in the basement, he will often ambitiously head over to where we keep our exercise equipment and, with both arms together, put all his might into lifting one of our 5-pound weights.

Watching him walk with the dumbbell, I observe carefully as Hugh grimaces and utters a few sounds of “oooh, oooh” while he carries the weight a few steps away.

Yes, they’re still so young and their bodies still understandably so frail, but our sons truly believe they are strong beyond measure.

And why shouldn’t they? After all, they’re children of God, made in the image and likeness of a perfect and omnipotent Creator.

In fact, sometimes when our eldest son Isaac flexes, I’ll ask him where he gets his strength.

His answer? “Jesus,” he’ll reply with no hesitation.

At church each week, Isaac will often remark our Lord on the cross and point out how Jesus has owies. So, after Mass, we’ll occasionally approach the altar to adore the crucifix.

Jesus Carrying ManThere, I assure him that Christ is super strong and that His owies don’t hurt Him anymore. I’ll also remind him that Jesus gives him – and all of us – His strength so that we can heal from our injuries and bounce back each time we get hurt.

Certainly, I don’t set out to misguide our kids into thinking they can do anything too risky or irresponsible, and I’m not meaning to paint a picture here that I have our young children on some obscene workout regimen.

I do, however, want our children growing up knowing God is their supreme force and motivator, and that He will lead them to achieve all kinds of heights in their lives, strengthening them during times of trial and helping them overcome when facing obstacles.

But while little kids such as ours learn that with God, all things are possible (Mark 10:27), how many of us believe this teaching and apply it in our daily living?

St. Paul encourages us to draw our strength from Jesus, who enables us to do all good things (Philippians 4:13).

Strength in God 3Yet, to whom do we turn when faced with adversity?

Do we soldier on confidently in prayer during the stressful times of studying for school final exams, or do we buckle under the pressure, in despair over our academic predicament?

If battling addiction, how many people turn to God for help in recovery, recognizing powerlessness and seeking assistance from a rehabilitation center, sponsor or support group?

In moments of feeling unworthy of an opportunity, do we call on Jesus to give us a boost?

When feeling anguished or exhausted going through life difficulties, how many people yield to God’s grace-filled presence to give them renewal or rejuvenation? (Isaiah 40:29-31)

Strength in God 1In God, we can find refuge and strength (Psalm 46:1), pushing us past our hardships.

By laying His life for each one of us, Jesus promises He will see us through any bout of weakness or storm of suffering. (Isaiah 53:5)

With such a guarantee for His children, may we all flex our muscles unabashedly and pose for pictures with ease.

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Who do we Follow?

When I was a kid, I loved watching cartoons after school and on Saturday mornings. Sitting in front of the TV with a snack, life couldn’t seem to be any better than when entertained by a bunch of animated creatures.

One of my favorite programs to watch was The Bugs Bunny & Tweety Show. Each of the characters had their own unique personality and I always enjoyed the various storylines, no matter who was featured.

Of course, for many people these days, any word similar to “tweet” can really only be associated with one thing: Twitter.

The social media juggernaut has built a worldwide presence and serves as a popular outlet for people to connect with one another or offer their opinions on virtually everything to anyone who will listen – or, rather, follow.

The subject of social networks like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat invariably pops up in my Religious Education classes when discussing the influence of social media and secular society on our world today.

The vast majority of my students in any given class will have an account for at least one – if not more – of these networks.

Twitter 1After tracking their popularity online, we will then rummage through various celebrities’ accounts, curious to learn how many people follow the lives of the rich and famous.

For example, Oprah Winfrey, a Twitter user since January 2009, has 37.2 million followers of her account, which includes 12,000 messages, or tweets.

Donald Trump has built a following of 31.4 million users and has tweeted 35,000 times since joining Twitter in March 2009.

Miley Cyrus has held an account for less time, joining Twitter in March 2011. Since then, she’s created a legion of 32.9 million followers, keeping them engaged with over 8,500 tweets.

My personal favorite – and one I use in class activities as a discussion point – is Justin Bieber. A user of Twitter since March 2009, he has tweeted roughly 30,600 times, with a whopping 96 million people following him across the globe, seemingly hanging on to every word or thought shared.

To contrast these celebrities with another well-known figure, I share with my students the Twitter account of Pope Francis.

Yes, the pope is on Twitter.

Jesus’ chief earthly representative has held an account since February 2012.

Using the moniker @Pontifex, Pope Francis has put out a total of just over 1,200 tweets with a following of 10.8 million people tracking his message on Twitter.

Twitter 2Doing the math, one could see how the pontiff has tweeted noticeably less frequently than his fellow celebrities, posting just a single idea almost every day, on average. Not only that, the nature of his tweets is far different, too.

While many people use Twitter as a valuable information tool (news media, for instance), many others – famous or not – often post for self-promotion purposes. Their accounts appear to exist for bragging in order to gain attention to themselves, while sharing senseless, superficial or crude content in their 140-character musings.

Pope Francis, on the other hand, shares thoughts that strive for the benefit and well-being of the entire world – especially the poor. His are notes of encouragement, feeding hope and serving the greater good through wholesome words of substance and prayer, while being both meaningful and inspirational.

Truly, as evidenced by his Twitter user name (a Latin term for “pope”), Pope Francis strives to live up to the translation of his title as a “bridge builder,” bringing people closer to God.

Indeed, much like the children’s game “Follow the leader,” I suppose the notion of Twitter followers can cause us to reflect on our own focus in life.

Who do we follow?

Do we invest our time and attention in false idols such as movie stars, professional athletes or even our personal friends, or do we focus on the life of the true leader – He who is the way, the truth and the life? (John 14:6)

What’s interesting to note about Twitter is not only how many people follow a person’s account, but also how many accounts that user follows.

To return to our sample of subjects mentioned above, Oprah Winfrey follows 279 accounts; Donald Trump follows 45; Miley Cyrus tunes into 372 other Twitter users and Justin Bieber tracks over 303,000 other accounts on Twitter.

Pope Francis? He follows a mere eight. Oh, and it should be noted those eight are simply his own Twitter account in different languages, allowing people of non-English backgrounds to receive God’s gospel message of love and encouragement.

Twitter 3Imagining Jesus had a Twitter account, I figure He would have 2.2 billion followers, or disciples, checking into His tweets of wisdom and direction.

In terms of who He would follow, I would guess He’d only link into the life of His Father and our Father in Heaven.

Then again, wanting to intimately know and be with all of us, maybe He’d have seven billion Twitter accounts He’d be following.

In the ever-changing and demanding society we find ourselves today, as Jesus calls us to follow Him (Matthew 4:19), we need only to ask ourselves if and how devotedly we actually do this.

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