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Thursday, June 14, 2007

Ask the Matriarch — On Starting Discernment

I completely sympathize with the person who submitted this question, because I could ask the same thing. And the best part is that the second part of her question needs your input, because we focused on the first.

As a single woman who has my own household, bills, etc. I am finding the idea of uprooting all that and becoming a student again rather frightening.

(a) How does one do this? I need practical advice on selling a house, paying off a car, saving, wrapping up all the regular life financial stuff so I can go back to school. Heck what do I do with my lawn mower, my furniture, my CATS! I'm not even entirely sure what the question is, it's so large!

(b)If you could recommend one (and only one) book to a youngish woman starting her discernment what would it be?

OK, everyone, we're opening part B (and a good chunk of part A) up to all of you; please recommend one book for our questioner. After all, if all of you do, she'll have to read more than four books a week to get through all of them in one year.

But as for part A, let me start by reassuring you it can be done. It's not easy, and you may have to make some sacrifices—I know this because I've looked into it as well, and wound up taking a slightly different route for the time being since I'm still raising kids and the primary breadwinner for my family. But even with that the case, I've found something that works for me. I'll share that in a moment, but first, hear what our matriarchs have to say.

First off, it's hard to give specific information without an idea of which denomination you're in and what options you have. That said, says Peripatetic Polar Bear, "If you are from a denomination that allows you to choose your own seminary, I'd encourage you to start out your seminary experience near home. There are intensive courses at various seminaries (check out Marie at Loud, Brash and Dramatic--she's done this a couple times) or commute. This would allow you to stay in your home longer."

PPB continues, "If you must or wish to move to go to seminary, remember you will most likely live in an apartment there, too--the cats can come, some of the furniture will be needed! You'll have to weigh out what to do with the rest--remember it's a relatively short time and you may want all that furniture later! You might look into storing it."

Abi adds, "If you can't afford storage and your family can't keep things for you, have a major yard sale, and then whatever you don't sell, give away. Except for the cats! Try to live somewhere that allows cats. They are your family in a way, take them with you if you can, you will need them and they will need you."

A big undertaking
More from Abi: "It is huge what you are doing. Take a deep breath, and take it step by step and one day at a time. Make a list of what you don't need and what you will need, what you can do with out, and then go from there." At the same time, there is the question of how you will maintain yourself in the meantime. Do you have a financial advisor? As it happens, I presently work for the National Association of Insurance and Financial Advisors, and I know quite a few. Or, as Abi notes, there might be someone at your church you can talk to, or perhaps your minister or someone from diocese/conference/etc. office could recommend someone.

Also, says PPB, "Sit down with the financial aid officer at a few of the schools that you are considering. Find out if selling your house is going to help or hurt you. (You may be better off keeping it and renting it out.) My experience has been that most financial aid officers are a wealth of a information about the ins and outs of financial aid. They are on your side, remember! Lots of seminary students are still paying on cars. Pay it off if you possibly can, but it's not an entrance requirement!

And while PPB adds that she's no financial expert, "the financial and logistical stuff will resolve itself. There are lots of people who can and will help you with that stuff. I'm guessing that seminary in and of itself is probably freaking you out a bit. I'd spend some time with that question--do some visiting of schools, meet with students similar in age and life-circumstance to you--ask how they did it--not just financially, but major change of life-wise! Sit with the discernment questions. Sit with the what would it be like to go back to school again questions--money is scary but it is probably the easiest piece of it. My sister always says that any problem you can throw money at is not really a problem. That's easy for her wealthy self to say, but my poor self has figured out that there is some truth in it. When I'm most freaked out about money and logistics--it's usually not about the money or the logistics."

Jan shares a story on how far some people have gone to make it work, and you can consider this a cautionary tale. "We have supported several seminarians through the years and all have been single women. Unfortunately, one seminarian left with the expectation that our congregation would support her in ways that we found difficult to manage. She wrote letters to the church newsletter and to individual members which almost always 1) reminded us that she had sold all she had and this was really hard, and 2) we, as her congregation were responsible for her now. Well, yes . . . and no. We have a fund to support seminarians, but she also sent us bills for other expenses from plane tickets to groceries. Over-the-top stuff. She expected members to pay for hair cuts when she was home, for example. She sent us her papers, her sermons, her tests, her schedules saying that because she was going to seminary, 'we were all going to seminary.'

"This is an extreme example, but I share it because your relationship with your home church will be important," Jan continues. "Appreciate them. Let them know how things are going. Share details as they seem interested. But remember that this is your decision (with God's prodding, and I hope with your congregation's encouragement) and there are certain things they will not be able to do for you or with you . . . just like the congregation you will one day serve.It's important to establish good boundaries now, while also figuring out where to get the variety of support (financial, spiritual, emotional) you'll need. God-speed to you!"

Your input?
Our matriarchs note that this is one area where their experience fails them, because, as Abi puts it, "Its been too long ago for me. And I went right out of college with nothing to Seminary.I hope some of you who have done this will speak out. And I hope some of you who are presently students will speak out too." Again, audience participation is a key on this AtM!


  1. As for me, I figured out that I couldn't pursue ordained ministry while trying to juggle my many responsibilities. Not yet, anyway. So let me just give a plug for what I did choose to do: I enrolled in Education for Ministry, a four-year continuing education program administered by the Sewanee School of Theology at the University of the South. It's done a lot to enhance the things I wanted to do and given me a firmer foundation should I choose to pursue ordination later. So as you continue to hear what the spirit is saying to you, if you become discouraged, remember that whatever the status of the door, there are also myriad windows. And best of luck to you as you find your path, and may God guide your footsteps true!

  2. I found that even alumni of a particular seminary don't always accurately remember the way things work, so I definitely want to reiterate that talking to the financial aid people early on is a good idea!

    My book plug is Eugene Peterson's Under the Unpredictable Plant. Our diocese does a year-long, one-Saturday-a-month "Exploring Your Ministry" class, and I remember this being a big favorite from the reading list.

  3. The book I would recommend is Parker Palmer "Let Your Life Speak".

    I am single, second career, and just graduated from seminary. The four seminaries I visited the financial people were great.

    Definately take the cats...they are great listeners.

    If you decided to rent your home: who will be taking care of the maintenance and/or repairs (I am waiting for the AC people as I write this).

    A financial advisor was also an important person as we mapped out a financial strategy for four years.

    Know that seminaries are just as dysfunctional (if not more) than a parish is.

    "The Audience"

  4. I am starting my second year of classes, about 1/3 of the way to my M.A. I am doing it mostly on-line, with about one intensive a semester on campus. The biggest change in my life has been the change in time management and self-discipline. I can't do everything I would love to do at church. I can't go out at the drop of hat because there might be a paper do, or a Greek vocabulary quiz the next day.

    So - if you were at all able to keep your home and study where you are living now, at least for the first year, I would encourage you to look into that.

    There is also much to be said for having a "cadre" of fellow travelers on this journey. Seek our a max of three or four people who will care for you, encourage you and pray for you. Even if you are miles away from them, their "atta girls/boys" will light up the darkest day.

    As far as "getting it all figured out" -- I have to tell you that just when I *thought* I had my game plan all figured out, God allowed me to experience some major challenges and fears... so remember how you were called, trust in that and take the next step ahead of you.

    It won't surprise me (personally) if I end up in a different place than I thought I would be in 2 years when I finish...

    My personal favorite is by Henri Nouwen, and is called "The Road to Daybreak". It is his accounting of the time when he left teaching seminary and went to pastor at L'Arche. The process of God's guidance, his humble following and the blessings that poured down still encourage me... You can find it here...

    Joy in the journey...


  5. I second the recommendation for Parker Palmer's "Let Your Life Speak." I have been fortunate enough to be able to continue working part-time in my old career while exploring my new and attending seminary. I'm at the point where I'm beginning to ease out of the old. I have a couple of friends who gave up everything (except their cats and/or dogs) in order to attend seminary full-time and far from home. One was an architect. One was an attorney and a CPA. Both sold houses and have now graduated and moved on into their ministries. The CPA/attorney has since bought another house. The architect just started her new job yesterday after graduating in May. They have been an inspiration.

    God bless you, whatever you decide.

  6. I am much older than you -- mortgages, utilities, car payments, tuition payments (mine and one child still in college) are all non-negotiables. (We would happily sell the house, but the gutter/soffit/flashing/plumbing/plastering disasters stand between us and that happy goal.) But I second the Parker Palmer motion -- in fact, I think I'll pull it out of the bookshelf tonight.

    Gotta love the woman who wanted her haircutts paid for. Major chutzpah!

  7. I want to add that we have student appointments in our conference that allow for going to school, while preaching on the weekends. Some have really liked going to Memphis Theological Seminary because it caters to 2nd career. Some have opted for Asbury Seminary due to its online courses, and we are allowing more online credits these days. As suggested before you leap totally check it out.

    I'll say it again, the one book I would recommend if I have to just suggest one, is the Bible, and if one book in it, is the Psalms. Having said that I have alot of other books, but you asked for one. (There's that Baptist Upbrining showing again.)

  8. I worked for the church part time and attended seminary part time, commuting to the local campus (6 years instead of 3) And, I agree ~ keep the cats ... they are family and much good comfort along the way, as you have very little time for social outings with friends, movies, etc. Parker and Nouwen books are as good as it gets.

  9. okay, I went to seminary right out of college, but Parker Palmer's book would top my list as well. A close second would be Girl Meets God and that book about the woman's first year at the Episcopal Seminary in New York (the title escapes me at the moment and I don't see it on my shelf--I think I loaned it to a friend who was thinking about seminary!).

    I think the follow up to this question is from those of us who are new to the ministry: how do you juggle the finances of setting up a new house (including closing costs and furniture and appliances and whatever other moving costs aren't really covered by the church), making sure you have an appropriate wardrobe for your job/climate, and general day-to-day life while still attempting to save money?

  10. This isn't about discernment generally, but Barbara Brown Taylor's The Preaching Life was a great insight into one person's call to ministry and life in the pulpit.

    And yes, you can never go wrong with Parker Palmer.

  11. I will "out" myself as the question asker. ;)

    I'm Episcopal if that helps. There are no local seminaries, closest is in Chicago which is still a good 6 hours away at least. I live in the middle of nowhere Michigan.

    The practical stuff has always been what occupies me. I love the idea of being back in school full time (loved it the first time around), I'm scared to death, very excited, all the stuff I've been told to expect.

    The house is a problem, its ~140 years old and needs expensive maintenance. I couldn't rent it for enough to cover the mortgage & repairs. :( With the housing market, who knows if I can sell it. *arg*

    I think after calming down and thinking about what you all have said: what's driving me nuts is impatience. I want to do this. I want to GO and it feels like there are all these mundane things getting in the way. (How does one make car payments when one isn't working? I don't get that?)

    (I can't really expect any financial help from my congregation. I'll be lucky if the parish still exists by the time I hit seminary.)

    Thank you for the advice to see a financial planner, I think that's step one. Someone who can tell me what's really a problem and what's not!

  12. When I served on our presbytery's
    Committee on Preparation for Ministry, I gave my candidates Nora Gallagher's book Practicing Resurrection. It's an account of her personal journey during her discernment process (in the Episcopal church, but I think everyone in the midst of discernment could relate to it).

  13. Hi I left a job teaching college (at the ripe age of 51). But I had a safety net (some money from 25 years of teaching college.) I lived in the dorm and loved it (instant community, even though I was at least two decades older than everyone-- and it was coed!!!) I have never regreted doing this-- the last l6 years have been up and down (when aren't they). Seminary was more awful and more wonderful than I could have imagined. There is great finanical aid--honest but ask the financial aid folks and a financial adviser (and do not depend on your home congregation even if they weren't on the edge of demise). No books come to mind, so go with the other suggestions...and if you have half the great time I did, you will be a joyful pastor (priest? vicar? rector...I'm Lutheran and don't speak Episcopalian very well.) Shalom friend. (and do take your cats) Gail in California

  14. As a just out of seminary student, I can tell you that cars are a "qualified educational expense" if you need it to get to school or a field education placement. Therefore, worst case scenario is that you get a student loan to pay off the car, and defer interest until you graduate. (same goes for housing expenses and daycare!)

    Also, as someone who went to two different seminaries, one as a resident and one as a commuter, I highly recommend the resident experience because of a greater sense of community, collegiality, and support from other students (plus study groups).

  15. I started seminary as a second-career student. At first I continued working full-time and attending night classes, which just didn't work for me. So I sold my condo, stored most of my possesions including my car at my parents and moved across country to attend seminary full-time. I also had two cats, but I couldn't take them with me because the single student housing at seminary didn't allow pets (but the married housing did - how backwards is that?). If I ever wondered about God's love for all creatures, it disappeared, because after much prayer I found two wonderful homes for my kitties. Seriously, it couldn't have worked out better, and though it was heart-breaking to say good-bye to them, I knew I had to do it (and the people I gave them to still send me pictures). I'm not saying that's what I think you should do, it's just part of my story.

    I echo what one of the matriarchs said about alot of stuff working itself out. It may sound trite, but I can look back and see God's hand in my journey from beginning to end, even when it didn't seem like it. I look back at my journal from that time and the prayers I lifted up, and it still astounds me at how God answered them.

    I second Reverend Mother's recommendation for Barbara Brown Taylor's book "The Preaching Life." I still pull it out when I'm questioning and need a little inspiration.

    Oh, and the book that Teri may be thinking of is "The Close" by Chloe Bryer, I think.

  16. I quit my job, sold my house and went off to seminary, so it can be done. And since you are not tied down by family responsibilities, I highly recommend going to a residential seminary--yes, they can be dysfunctional but the community aspect can be very important.

    I echo the recommendation of BBT's Preaching Life, and Parker Palmer and add Listening Hearts by Suzanne Farnham. Don't read Chloe Breyer's book about GTS (someone mentioned it w/o title-it's The Close)--it is interesting in some ways but it BADLY portrays what seminary is really like and what that particular seminary (my alma mater) is really like.

    Really, good luck on your journey. It's exciting! Enjoy it! It is stressful, but also wonderful. You may be surprised by how all the pieces fall into place as time goes by.

  17. I left a good paying job, sold my car and house as a 28 yo single woman to head to Seminary. I moved to another city with a borrowed car and no job. It scared me to pieces to do it, but in another way, it was the most freeing thing I had done in a very long time. Unencumbered by debt (but relying heavily on financial aid), I was able to work at a job very part-time to support myself in order to have time to pursue ministry opportunities in addition to my studies.

    I also was privileged and blessed to find a family associated with the Seminary (he was a professor) and the church with whom I was an associate and I lived with them... joined their family. THey are still so much a part of my life and helped me make decisions (including the decision to marry, frightening indeed).

    I relied on the wisdom of those whose experiences I trusted. Often, that wisdom was found in the place you least expect it.

    That was now, almost 11 years ago. And I have to say, just starting down that journey relying solely

    For me, I can't really recommend a book per se, although during that time in my life I found Oswald Chambers to be a true source for me, alongside my daily rituals of Scripture reading and meditation (and now that I write that, I long for those simpler days of complete trust, although they didn't seem simple then... long for them). What I can see now is that I simply learned discernment by walking through the doors that opened for me. One at a time. It was exhilarating alongside the frightening. But even now, as I face frequent decisions in times when I feel like I'm grasping at air, not grounded in God, I still can look back and know that He indeed has me by the ankles and won't let me go.

  18. Fellow Episcopalian - attending a Methodist seminary with Bishop's approval - allows me to stay in home with family, but tacks an extra year onto the education/expenses because of an internship requirement. It's a trade-off but may be an option for you as well. My home parish is very high Anglo-Catholic, so I don;t feel as though I am missing out on the Liturgics - I take GOEs this January so those will tell!!

  19. my call to ministry was not - in the end - confirmed by our local church. It has been awful and pretty hard to cope with. I'd like to know of some books that could help in that area. That said,when I look at the theology that is being preached in our pulpit right now (God is not a God of love, and democracy is from satan!)- yeah you read right.

    I have come to realise that I couldn't have stayed on as a preacher anyway - because the line our pastor is taking isn't the God I know from the Bible - and to fight this from the pulpit would have been too much for me personally and confusing for our church too.

    Right now he and the other leadership have more or less cut off all communication -from me and anyone else who dares to question what's being said and done - and I'm seriously and prayerfully considering handing in my resignation as a member.

    I'd appreciate your prayers. I have one year left of seminary studies.


  20. Ok. I'll jump in. The seminary in Chicago (Seabury-Western) is a good seminary. Lot's of folks come in for just one year, taking their other courses elsewhere. I don't know (and I doubt) if they will take on-line courses and give you credit. They are changing the curriculum for the fall. Talk to them and see what they say. But also, community formation is important at SWTS, you make friends for a lifetime.

    The financial aid person will be able to give you lots of advice and leads to scholarship money and/or low interest student loans. You can bring your cats and car if you live in the apartments rather than the "dorms."

    Houses sell in all kinds of conditions, especially nice old ones even if they need some repair work. All you can do is try and see what happens.

    Oh. And if you come to Chicago, let me know. I'm not far away and know the city well. How exciting! I sold my house and moved a family of two kids, two cats, a dog, two birds, and a husband to SWTS 11 years ago - hard to believe it's been that long.

    In terms of books. Oh too many to choose from...

  21. Too late, I've already read "The Close". It was interesting but I found her entirely too whinny and entirely clueless about the church. (Come on she didn't get acolyting or altar guild??? OK those are my two big ministries right now so I'm biased.)

    Ah, had no idea I could use student loans to pay off the car/housing. Exactly the sort of thing I need to know. Thanks again guys for lots of really good practical "don't panic" advice. You know I could use a copy of THAT book. ;)

    stf it sounds like you are caught in a very bad parish situation. No idea what denom you are in but at least in the Episcopal church there ARE options. Our parish (a few years ago when we were more healthy) went through the discernment process with a lovely young lady who had run something that sounds similar to your issue. She's now ordained and serving the church well! Sometimes you have to get out of a bad situation and take care of yourself. I am emotionally slowly divorcing myself from my congregation. Just like families congregations (and the priests that lead them) can be sick and dysfunctional. It has taken me a long time to realize that it may not be my job to fix them... (HARD to say because I grew up in this parish, but has to be said for my sanity.)

  22. Gail, thank you for posting -- I am moving into a dorm at the age of 54 and my college-age dd and her friends and older brothers can hardly stop laughing.

  23. it's been many years now since I read The Close (thanks for the title!) and don't remember not liking it...but then I also don't remember what I had for breakfast yesterday. Thanks for tipping me off that my memories are colored (probably significantly by Girl Meets God).

  24. Perhaps you won't have to move even to go 6 hours away. My seminary had a commuter house. Students from all over would "commute" to campus for 3 days a week, then go back to their homes and home churches the rest of the week. The plus for commuting that way is that they were part of the "resident" community and had an even closer one with their fellow commuters because of sharing meals and common areas in the house.

    I had to pack up and move across country to start college at 44, then move halfway back for seminary. Being "old" was scary, serving God as a minister was scary, and "how am I going to pay for all this?" was terrifying! Turns out the money was the easy part. :-)

    I soon learned that student loans can be used to pay for anything at all, and my seminary gave full tuition scholarships to members of our denomination, so the finances aren't quite as scary as they might otherwise have been. You can probably also apply for grants and other scholarships at whatever seminary you attend - you'll be amazed at how much financial aid is available. Our churches need ministers - they do their best to help us get the education we need.

    I enthusiastically echo the recommendations for Parker Palmer.

  25. thanks tandaina :) appreciate your comments

  26. Be careful, because different seminaries will handle finances VERY differently. VTS doesn't allow student loans as an option, and don't consider car payments/insurance as an educational expense.

  27. mrs. M and others,
    I should clarify what I mean by "qualified expenses"--that is the federal government term, and so it is federal education loans (stafford, perkins, etc.) that can be used for those things. I'm sure that if the school itself gives loans, those things vary from place to place.

    stf--sounds like a tough and disheartening situation. You will be in my prayers. Do you have the option of joining a different, healthier congregation in your denomination, one that could serve as a sponsoring/confirming congregation? It sounds like you may want to connect with a denominational official to see what your options are. Blessings.

  28. Such good advice from so many quarters! I loved what gallycat said, "whatever the status of the door, there are also myriad windows." I didn't do the "late in life go to school thing" for sem but for a doc program. It involved a lot of sacrifice, and loans...which via a long path brought me to the place where there was a church that trained and ordained people here I am a priest, too! The dream that seemed as if it could NEVER be....God always finds a way! My two cents would be to notice the things that seem to be opening before you, even if they seem odd or strange...remember that business about God working in mysterious ways! Prayers and blessings on the journey.

  29. Now that I know your denomination and location, it helps.

    First, you should definitely take a look at Brash, Dramatic, etc. She is in your area, commutes to Detroit for some seminary classes and takes some intensives in the summer---but of course, this all depends on whether or not your bishop will let you. (She will eventually go full time to seminary, too--both worlds type of a deal.)

    VTS is one of the handful of seminaries that doesn't participate in the federal financial aid program (unless VTS has changed their stance, that is), which means student loans aren't an option. If your bishop gives you the option of choosing your seminary, definitely choose one with federal financial aid--which means not just student loans, but also federal work-study eligibility.Speaking as someone who is STILL paying on student loans 14 years later, though, do be cautious about borrowing too much money. Paying it back while on a pastor's salary is no picnic. And while I loved, loved, loved being a full time residential student, I guess the reason that I'm urging a little restraint there is the financial fallout for paying back loans.

    I would second suggestions for The Preaching Life and Practicing Resurrection, especially given your denomination.

  30. Thank you for all who commented. I wish I had this knowledge and people to gain insight from when I went to seminary. If i wrote a book about going to seminary, it would be titled; "Clueless before and during seminary, but not after."

    Prayers for all who are discerning their call, preparing to go to seminary, are in seminary, and are finishing seminary, and starting first Pastorates.

    stf, prayers for you for what you are going through.

    One more book to recommend, consider Barbara Taylor Brown's book that we read for our book discussion, "Leaving Church".
    You can find the link in the sidebar. I'll be glad to pass it on to anyone who can't afford it and wants to read it.

  31. Hey Tandaina... I'm an almost-30 Episcopal priest here in Michigan (Lansing) - and graudated from Seabury two years ago. There are lots of great folks who have done just what you're talking about, and I'd be super happy to connect you with some of them! I don't know which diocese you're in (I'm from Ann Arbor, so "nowhere Michigan" seems like an awful big chunk of the state to me...), but if you're in the lower peninsula, I know a recent seabury grad in every diocese :)

    On some of that practical stuff... so much depends on where you end up. Seabury absolutely does student loans. Lots of 'em. Having a car is nice, but not really a requirement. I agree that if possible, residential seminary is great for all the reasons stated above.

    My book recommendation would be Frederick Buechner's Telling Secrets, I read it during my CPE summer and love it.

    If you want to talk more, let me know: susie_shaefer at yahoo dot com

  32. Yes, seven years after earning my BS I'm still paying off THOSE loans. This makes me rather dubious of more debt but it doesn't really seem as if there is necessarily any way around that.

    Very good to know about VTS, that probably counts them out as an option.

    (Susie thank you! Copied down your email, I'll send you a note tonight.)

  33. I feel sorry for the church where Jan's seminarian may have eventually landed! YIKES!

    I too liked "Under the Unpredicatable Plant" by Peterson.

    And I am loudly applauding gannet girl for having the adventuresome spirit to live in a residentail situation at age 54! Let 'em laugh!

  34. this has been fascinating reading, as everything is just so different in UK.
    For e.g., once you're over 30, the C of E encourages you to train part time over 3 years, rather than 2 years residentially...Your training is sponsored by the diocese which sends you, so they do at least ensure you can keep body and soul together (though they are very hot on oustanding loans from previous life)...And if the church agrees to your training, then 99% of the time, you can be certain of at least your first job (as a curate - like me at the moment). Here, too, the housing market is such that if you have a home it would be madness to sell it....come retirement (which I know seems ludicrously distant) you'll need a roof, once the clergy house is behind you....
    But none of that helps at all, really...So I ought to throw in a book recommendation...Called or Collared by Francis Dewar is pretty splendid...and I too found and find Under the Unpredicatble Plant hugely helpful. Blessings on your journey. AND your cats!

  35. My understanding is that VTS has generous grants unless you come in with financial resources. Mibi would be the one to ask about VTS.

    As for student loans...well, I'll be paying mine off til I retire, but if that's what it takes....if I had only done those things which I could afford, I never would've gone to grad school or seminary. I wish there had been another way to pay for it, but there wasn't.

    Despite the expense, I think the time living in community is valuable. Many bishops will require at least one year in residence at an Episcopal seminary even if you do courses elsewhere.

    And look at all the Episcopal seminaries...this may be your one chance to live somewhere new and different for a few years, to experience church in a different setting.


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