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Quakers and Christmas

As I write this, Christmas is about 3 weeks away. Stores in our area have been playing Christmas music for at least 2 months now, and cable TV is in non-stop Christmas special mode, as they pull out every Christmas movie in their libraries, no matter how good or bad it is.

Quakers have not always celebrated Christmas. Actually, this wasn’t just a Quaker thing; many of the Puritans in the mid-1600’s in England were also strongly opposed to the holiday. Under Oliver Cromwell’s government, Christmas celebrations of any kind were forbidden by law. The Puritans thought that Christmas was really a pagan holiday, adapted and adopted by the Catholic church. The Puritans thought that Christmas, along with saints, stained glass, most of the sacraments, and over a thousand years of celebration, should be swept away.

Preachers were arrested in the middle of worship services for preaching about Christmas. Shopkeepers were required by law to keep their businesses open. A poster in Boston, a Puritan stronghold, will give you the idea:

PUBLICK NOTICE

The Observation of CHRISTMAS having been deemed
a Sacrilege, the exchanging of Gifts and Greetings,
dressing in fine Clothing, Feasting and similar
Satanical practices are hereby
FORBIDDEN
with the Offender liable to a fine of FIVE SHILLINGS

(OK, tell us what you really think about this!)

Quakers disagreed with Puritans on a lot of issues, but Christmas was one they agreed on. Well into the mid-1800’s, Quaker books of Faith and Practice admonished Friends not to observe what they called “Days and Times”, since all days were equally holy. Quakers were also cautioned against “those tumultuous demonstrations of joy, and nightly illuminations, which are generally attended with rioting, drunkenness, and many other excesses incompatible with the Christian name.”

In the 1700’s, Friends were even advised not to attend performances of music such as Handel’s Messiah, on the grounds that it “artificially stimulated the passions” and was therefore not relying on the leading of the Holy Spirit.

I remember, early in my work as a Quaker pastor, a dear elderly Friend who had lived for many years in Philadelphia scolding me because I had set up an Advent wreath and invited the children to come and light another candle each week.

Not all Quakers still think this way. Last weekend, the Young Friends of our meeting put on a hilarious Christmas dinner theater production. This year, our meeting is having a Christmas “memory tree” and hanging ornaments with the names of loved ones written on them in silver, gold and red glitter glue. At worship, everyone in the meeting came down to hang them on the tree together.

For many years, Springfield Friends has had a special “White Christmas” collection from individuals and Sunday School classes. This year, the offering will be divided between the local food pantry which we support all year, and scholarships for kids to attend Quaker Lake Camp.

A tradition at our meeting going back several generations is handing out “treat bags” after worship on one of the Sundays close to Christmas. Each bag has a couple of oranges, some nuts, a candy bar and a peppermint stick. Older members of the meeting can recall years during the Depression when the brown paper bags were the only special Christmas treat they received.

Me, I’m a sucker for Christmas – I have a whole shelf filled with Christmas stories, and our family has Christmas ornaments which we’ve treasured for several generations. I’ve collected dozens of carols and give programs of Christmas music. I’ve written a Christmas devotional book (What Does An Angel Look Like?), and even now that our children are adults, we still hang Christmas stockings every year.

This afternoon I spent an hour unpacking and setting up two Nativity creches here at the meetinghouse. We have several more at home – a carved ebony Nativity from Kenya, where Joseph and Mary have African faces and are seated under an acacia tree; a Bolivian Nativity where all the members of the Holy Family are singing out the windows of a bright yellow bus; a tiny porcelain French Nativity from Normandy with figures 3/4 of an inch tall; a Baroque-style Italian Nativity from my childhood; a terracotta Nativity made by a group of Catholic nuns who live with the poorest of the poor.

In my thinking, there’s nothing wrong with trying to understand how and why Jesus came into the world. And it’s worth remembering that when Jesus told us to care for “the least of these”, he was including himself.

For those of you who are troubled by the commercialism, the overconsumption, and all of the ridiculous things which have been added on to the Christmas story, from the Little Drummer Boy to the endless Hallmark Christmas drivel romances – I get it! I share your concern, and I reject the same things you do. But I don’t think that the cure is to do away with Christmas. I think we would do better to re-read the gospel stories about the birth of Jesus in Matthew and Luke, and to re-discover the Light in the gospel of John.

So, if you’re not offended, let me wish you all a blessed and merry Christmas, in Jesus’ name.

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Straight talk on preventing child abuse

The news this week reported that a grand jury has found evidence that over 300 Roman Catholic priests and workers in 6 dioceses in Pennsylvania molested over 1,000 children during a period going back decades. The news has re-opened a major wound in the Catholic church and in the hearts and minds of churches around the world.

Not only did these horrible things take place, but the church did not deal effectively with the perpetrators. In many cases, they were simply transferred to other places, where they very probably did the same things again to other children. The leaders who oversaw them were promoted, even as they failed in one of the most basic responsibilities of the church: to protect the youngest and the least.

In one of his clearest commandments in the entire gospel, Jesus said: “If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.” (Matthew 18:6)

I have a personal stake in this issue. I am a former Catholic. Although I left the Catholic church many years ago for other reasons, many of my family still belong. I have many Catholic friends. My book shelves include many Catholic devotionals. When I go on retreat, I often spend a few days in a Trappist community. So, the news this week shakes me. My mother, who died a year ago, was a devout Catholic all her life. But for the last 10 years or more, she didn’t go to Mass, because at least 3 of her parish priests – people she trusted – were dismissed or transferred because of sexual offenses.

Quakers and other Protestants shouldn’t think that this problem is confined to the Catholic branch of the Christian family. During my own career as a pastor, I have had to intervene twice in situations where we found out that members or attenders of the meeting were major league sexual offenders. The shock and conflict of the discovery dominated the life of the meeting for months.

Most yearly meetings recommend that everyone who works with young people should have a background check. Most local meetings I have been a part of resist this, saying that “But we know that person – they have belonged here for years!” Requiring a background check feels to some Friends like an invasion of privacy, or that it goes against the openness and trust which they value in a Quaker meeting. Why should we do a background check on a beloved grandmother who has been teaching Sunday School for 40 years? Why should we check out a popular youth leader in their 20’s?

There are compelling reasons why we need background checks, though. Many people who prey on children like to hide in church communities. The invisibility, the access to children, the many rooms and small spaces in church buildings and meetinghouses, all provide cover and camouflage for their activities. Even worse, things that take place in a religious atmosphere let predators intimidate children by saying that God will punish them if they tell their parents or speak to anyone.

When the meeting I served was wavering on this issue, I went first and had a criminal record check done on myself. The Young Friends leaders volunteered next, and soon all the meeting staff and all of the First Day School teachers agreed. In today’s world, parents need to know that this kind of “due diligence” check has been made. It tells them that we are actively looking out for the safety of their children.

Part of my annual routine with committee clerks and other leaders, as well as with all meeting staff, is having “the Talk” – what we do when we hear any complaints or rumors about sexual offenses, unwanted physical contact, harassment, inappropriate e-mails or offensive language. They are encouraged to contact the pastor, the clerk, or the clerk of Ministry and Counsel immediately, and we let them know that any such behavior is not acceptable in our meeting, will be dealt with. We will respect their privacy as much as they ask, but the meeting will not tolerate such behavior or enable it by our inaction or silence.

Background checks and leader awareness will never guarantee that we won’t have problems, of course. But for many Friends meetings, these are important first steps, and we need to be able to assure visitors, newcomers and families that we have taken them.

I’m sure that this post will trigger a lot of bad memories in some readers. Some of you may have other suggestions about how to prevent or how to handle these situations. Let me repeat: they can happen anywhere, even in a Friends meeting, and we need more open discussion and practical steps.

Cherry blossoms

I’ve got a thing for cherry trees. As I write this, a big cherry tree is in full bloom right outside my office window. It looks like daylight fireworks – tens of thousands of pale pink blossoms exploding exuberantly, about 30 feet from my desk.

The Japanese have an enormous nation-wide cultural thing for cherry blossoms. During cherry blossom season, huge crowds of people go to the parks to enjoy them. Every night on national TV there are reports of how the season is progressing in different parts of the country. Pictures of cherry blossoms are on everything from kimonos to corporate logos. Every school child in Japan knows the cherry blossom song – Sakura, sakura.

Part of the Japanese love for cherry blossoms is simply that they’re so beautiful – something beyond our human ability to make or build. It’s a beauty which stretches our sense of the divine, which connects us directly to God without any words or explanation being necessary.

The other side of cherry blossoms, of course, is that they are fragile and only last a few days. A high wind or a late frost can wipe them away. This year we had a long spell of unseasonably cool weather (for North Carolina) which made the cherry blossom season last longer than usual. We had a sleet storm last weekend and I thought they would all be gone, but it warmed up the next day and they bloomed more beautifully than ever before.

For the Japanese, cherry blossoms are a symbol of life – how brief a time we have here on earth, how important it is to stop and appreciate moments of beauty, how much our souls yearn to connect with God.

Sometimes I think that Quakers have it right, when we stop to listen or wait until God speaks, remembering the advice of London Yearly Meeting: “Take heed, dear Friends, to the promptings of love and truth in your hearts, which are the leadings of God.” At our best, Quakers are experts at noticing those “cherry blossom moments” in our individual lives and in our life together.

In our not-so-good times, though, we forget that time is flying past, that a whole generation can come and go without our trying to really listen to them. We live in the past so much that we can completely miss the present, and do nothing to build for the future.

Yesterday evening I was walking home from our midweek Bible study and happened to look up and saw the full moon nestled in the top branches of the cherry tree. If I’d been walking along as usual with my nose to the ground I would have completely missed this transcendent moment, which brought me to a stop for at least ten minutes. It was a blessing beyond words.

Even though the tree outside my office is still in full bloom, a few petals are already falling. There’s a beauty in that, too, when a light breeze makes the petals fall like rain, and children from the neighborhood go dancing through them with their hands reaching up toward the sky. There’s a beauty in old things (and older people) who have filled their lives with beauty and know the right time to fall to the ground.

Yesterday when I went to open up for Bible study, a couple of dozen cherry petals blew in through the door to rest on the mat. Even in our indoor lives, God has a way of invading our space with beauty and with reminders to stop and enjoy.

Trash talk

Every now and then, when I’ve got a free half hour and need a break, I grab a couple of big black garbage bags and a set of nabbers and walk along the roads that bound our meeting’s property. It still amazes me, the things people throw out.

Today I filled two large bags in no time at all. Dozens and dozens of bottles – North Carolina doesn’t have a bottle and can deposit law. Hard liquor, malt liquor, soft drinks, go cups, soda cans, bottled water, baby food, energy drinks, you name it. I know every fast food place in this part of town, and I could probably tell them all what their customers’ favorites are. I picked up soda straws, empty cigarette and cigar packages (Newport Menthol appears to be the favorite around here), snuff containers, paper bags, styrofoam trays and lottery tickets.

Some things were too big to pick up or drag back, and will have to wait till our meeting’s Clean Up Day next month – a shopping cart, old tires, a TV set, old window frames. Down at the corner by the cemetery, this week somebody abandoned a Chevy 3500 van in the ditch. Whoever did it left the license plate on, so when I called it in the police will have something to go on. Maybe it was stolen or taken for a joyride.

As a Christian, I know I’m supposed to be non-judgmental, but picking up hundreds of pounds of other people’s litter every year gets to be kind of old. I mentioned this to the head of our House and Grounds committee, a native of the area famous for his bluntness, who said, “Hell, they don’t care! They just drivin’ on down the road and phwtt! out the window she goes!”

Quakers are supposed to be advocates for world peace and non-violence, and I don’t think I would actually do any physical harm to these jerks. But it’s depressing to think that there is simply no way anyone on earth could reason with people who throw their trash by the roadside. They really don’t care, and I doubt that anyone will ever make them care.

There are much worse sins than littering, but in a way it’s symptomatic of the way human beings are broken. How could people who are made in God’s image, who were formed for the garden of Eden, who were told by God to be stewards of this earth, act this way?

Could be that their parents didn’t teach them. Could be that they’re so poor that they don’t feel any sense of ownership or belonging or responsibility for the community they live in. But I have a feeling that until people care enough to quit littering, we won’t have peace in this part of North Carolina. And if we keep filling up the world with garbage and don’t care who has to deal with it, we may not have peace with our neighbors, or with the world.

Meanwhile, I’ll keep on picking up trash in our neighborhood.

Happy New Year!

Quakers, of all people, recognize that whatever we call “worship” doesn’t have to follow any set guidelines. Even in Quaker meetings where the worship is programmed or semi-programmed, most don’t have a lectionary (a regular schedule of Scripture readings used by many churches).

We have customs, and many of our customs can get pretty set in stone – there’s the time-worn joke, all too true, about a visitor being told by an old-timer, “You’re sitting in my seat!” Quaker prayers and sermons can start sounding pretty much the same from one week to the next – or from one year or decade to the next.

Entering a worship space can be very daunting. Newcomers may be impressed by our plain and simple architecture, but they may also be wondering, “Where’s the cross?” Or, if they walk in during open worship, they may be wondering, “Why isn’t anybody saying anything?” Even lifelong members and attenders may not know the reasons why Quakers do some things (and don’t do others).

It’s nice when we can shake things up and let everyone recapture the sense of wonder, of worship, of friendship and joy.

Last Sunday, on New Year’s Eve, we were expecting record low temperatures and a correspondingly low turnout for worship. The big room where we worship most Sundays was likely going to be three-quarters empty, and it was going to take a LOT of fuel oil to bring it up to a comfortable level of warmth.

So we asked around to see if anyone would mind if we moved worship into the chapel, a smaller, seldom-used room which was built in the 1950’s to accommodate the large number of weddings we held during the Baby Boom years. We sent out a mass e-mail, and put up some signs re-directing people to the chapel on Sunday morning.

One other factor was that most of us were feeling pretty “Christmased out”. The avalanche of Christmas specials on TV, the carols in the stores that started playing this year back in September, the sales, the decorations, the parties, the whole nine yards of American hyper-celebration. Our meeting didn’t stand aside from all this, either – our young people put on a creative and hugely successful Christmas dinner theater. Our choir had a wonderful Christmas music Sunday. We packed the worship room for our Christmas Eve candlelight service. We were “all in” for Christmas this year, but by New Year’s Eve we all felt a little trashed – the pastor included.

So, we moved into a different and slightly unfamiliar space for worship. We still had about a dozen poinsettias left (most of them had gone home the week before), so we put them on the windowsills. I thought some people might be chilly – people in North Carolina get cold any time the outdoor temperature drops below 30 degrees – so I put a bunch of shawls and blankets up on the railing of the facing bench. Best of all, I brought in a couple of rocking chairs from my office.

No one really wanted yet another sermon about the meaning of Christmas, so we ditched the sermon. Instead, I read the story of the wise people who came seeking the newborn baby Jesus, and played a bunch of carols which were new to most of the people at worship that day – the Holly Tree Carol, The Friendly Beasts and the ancient carol, The Miraculous Harvest. They were surprised when I told them that I Wonder As I Wander was collected in nearby Murphy, North Carolina, by the pioneering folklorist, John Jacob Niles.

One of my deepest convictions is that Christ came not just for Christians in America, but for people everywhere in the world, so we sang Silent Night in several languages. I shared the new carol I wrote this year, A Christmas Blessing. And we all joined in singing O Come, All Ye Faithful.

Instead of being spread out thinly in a chilly room, we were just a little bit crowded in the chapel, and it felt great. Two of our older members beamed at everyone from the rocking chairs – it felt more like a family get-together in a living room than like a church. Or is church supposed to feel that way?

Altogether, it was a wonderful morning, and people lingered after meeting longer than usual to ask about each others’ families and to wish each other a happy New Year.

Answering

One of the most popular phrases in the Quaker grab bag is “answering that of God in everyone”. It dates back to George Fox and the first generation of Friends in the 1650’s. The idea is that wherever we go, we have opportunities to speak to people and listen to their hearts. Whatever our differences, we will find something in common – a spark of God – which is similar to the fire in our own hearts.

Last month I had several experiences of this. The first was when I found a serious leak in one of the drain lines in the basement at the parsonage. Somehow, when the building was being renovated last year, one of the workers must have cut off the line and instead of closing up the cutoff end, just left it and went on to some other task. Every time we took a shower, the water was coming out in a little waterfall down in the crawl space.

I called the plumber and he came the next day. It wasn’t a difficult repair, maybe 10 or 15 minutes. I sat on the basement steps and talked with him while he fixed the drain. He knew that I’m a Quaker pastor, and he talked about a conflict which had left him deeply shaken – so much so that while he still believed in God, he could no longer pray or go to his church.

He talked, and I listened. I said a few things which seemed to help. He asked me to pray for him, so we prayed together down in the basement – maybe that’s where the best prayers need to take place. When he left, his heart seemed a lot lighter. I want to call him in a few days and see how he’s doing.

Last Sunday morning, my wife called me just before Sunday School was about to start. She said she thought she saw someone standing under the tree in our back yard. Our neighborhood has a lot of good people in it, but it also has a lot of crime and other bad things, so she didn’t want to check it out herself.

I walked over, and saw a woman huddled down on the ground under our tree. Many of the families in our neighborhood are immigrants from Pakistan, who came here to work in the factories in our area. This woman was dressed in traditional clothing, and she was crying uncontrollably – the kind of wracking, heart-stopping grief that you read about but seldom see.

I walked up slowly, and got down on the ground a few feet away. I didn’t want her to be scared, and most Muslim women in this area are careful not to speak to men. I spoke as gently as I could and said, “My sister, what is the matter? Can I help?”

She shook her head and kept crying. After a minute, she said, “My English not so good. I cannot explain.”

I said, “Is someone ill? Has someone died?”

She sobbed some more and said, “No. It is my oldest son. He. . .it is not good with him. He is smoking.”

I asked, “Is it tobacco? Or something else? Is it drugs?” She nodded hard. Her son, in his 20’s, has started using drugs, and she was heartbroken.

I couldn’t help much because of the language barrier, but I said that God is merciful (one of the shared beliefs in both Christianity and Islam), and perhaps God will help. She clung to that like a life preserver and said, “Pray for me.”

People in our community are often afraid of our Pakistani neighbors, but when I told folks at meeting for worship that morning, they all agreed to pray. Another opportunity, another opening.

After meeting was over, I went out to see if she was still there, and she had gone. But two people came strolling out of the meeting cemetery, looking around with interest. I walked up to them and introduced myself. One was a middle-aged African-American woman who said she lived just down the street, and the other was a friend of hers from Connecticut who was visiting. They had seen the old buildings and wanted to know what went on here.

I gave them the two-minute elevator speech about Friends that I’ve given so many times, and they asked more questions. I offered to give them a tour of the meetinghouse, and they were excited – neither of them had ever been in a Quaker place of worship. They asked more and more questions – about the Underground Railroad, about women’s rights, about discernment and Quaker migrations and peace and quiet prayer. Not bad for a casual encounter.

One way for Friends to grow again is for us to be more open to the opportunities to reach out and listen, to be ready and willing to pray, to have prepared ourselves with basic information for people who want to know about us, to share the love of God on a simple human level.

As George put it so well, so many years ago:

“Be patterns, be examples in all countries, places, islands, nations wherever you come; that your carriage and life may preach among all sorts of people, and to them; then you will come to walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in everyone; whereby in them you may be a blessing, and make the witness of God in them to bless you.”

P.S. – the plumber never sent me a bill.

What do Quaker pastors do?

To a lot of people, the words “pastor” and “Quaker” don’t belong in the same sentence. I don’t know how many times in the last 40 years I’ve been told, “Quakers don’t have pastors!” Even though many Quaker meetings have had pastors since the 1870’s, and even though more than 2/3 of the Quaker meetings in the world are programmed, there’s still a great deal of ignorance about what Quaker pastors do.

We don’t do sacraments like baptism or communion — or at least, the great majority of us don’t. On the other hand, a lot of pastoral work is sacramental, using the classic definition that a sacrament is an “outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible reality”. Pastors and ministers try to help people see that God is real, that God is very near, and that the same love, grace and healing which it talks about in the Bible are available to everyone today.

Most pastors preach — trying to share a full range of Scripture, sharing accurately what the Bible says, bringing God’s word alive for people today. Good pastors preach in such a way that other people will be drawn to speak. Good messages  give permission for people to ask honest questions, and good pastors respect sincere doubt.

Pastors make calls and visits in an unimaginably varied range of circumstances. I visit people in homes, hospitals, at their place of work, anywhere I can find them. I’ve done pastoral calls in prison cells, crawling in the basement carrying a flashlight with service techs, in supermarket aisles, on roof tops, in class rooms, in law offices and banks, sitting on the dock by the lake, eating watermelon on the back porch. Go where the people are.

Pastors teach – sometimes to people who aren’t interested in learning. I teach Bible studies, Quaker history, how to run committees, prayer classes, marriage clearness groups, all kinds of interesting subjects. If I wasn’t a full-time pastor, I’d probably be a teacher.

Pastors listen  a lot — to people, to the Holy Spirit, to oneself, to the world, to the meeting. Most of the mistakes I’ve made in pastoral work happened when I wasn’t listening enough.

Even though it’s not sacramental in the traditional sense, pastors hear a lot of confessions and carry all sorts of confidences.

Pastors pray — pray often, pray deeply, pray for ourselves and for others. Sometimes my prayers “work” (what I prayed for happens), but a lot of the time prayer is more about just being there and asking God to be here with us. My prayers aren’t better than anyone else’s, but I do try to pray a lot.

Pastors need to study, long after whatever training program they take is “completed”. Even a master’s-level program is just the beginning of all pastors need to read, learn, reflect, and write about. The learning really never ends, since the world keeps changing (and keeps staying the same).

Depending on their personal gifts and calling, Quaker pastors can be involved with peacemaking, truth telling, reconciliation, counseling and referral, writing, chaplaincy, prison ministry, youth work, evangelism and missions, ministry with the poor, retreats and conferences, motivational speaking, translation, historic preservation, ecumenical ministry, pilgrimage, hospice, mental health and addiction, agriculture, environmental concerns, and a few dozen other things. Just about every Quaker pastor I know covers the “main things” (worship, pastoral care, organization) but also has some kind of special schtick that God has called them to. Really good pastors work to support the ministries of others in the meeting.

Representing the meeting to the community and to other Friends — we’re the ones they turn to for information about Friends,and for the “Quaker position” on all kinds of subjects we know nothing about. We get tapped to serve on community boards, ministerial associations, charity events, and historical tours. We spend hundreds of butt-numbing hours on boards and committees.

Many pastors spend a lot more time than they want to on maintenance. It’s always demanding, it’s often neglected, and it can easily take over our time and define our ministry in ways we’d rather not spend so many hours on. I’ve overseen the installation of roofs and elevators, pumped out flooded basements, fixed sound systems, done janitorial work, painted every room in the meetinghouse and the parsonage, dealt with mice and cockroaches in the meetinghouse kitchen, sealed leaks, planted flowers, and cleaned gutters, usually because there was no money, it really needed to be done and no one else was available to deal with it.  Personally, I like to fix things — things that are broken, things that don’t work well, things that could bring beauty and life to the meeting.

 

Pastors are supposed to understand and uphold Quaker beliefs, be the local experts on Quaker history, know where to find things in Faith and Practice, have memorized all the major Quaker journals and be able to quote from them at a moment’s notice. The pastor is frequently the contact person, educator and fund raiser for Quaker missions; I’ve been lucky enough to go and see a few mission sites for myself.

Some Quaker pastors evangelize — preach in public and try to convert people (yes, there are Quaker evangelists!). Nearly all Quaker pastors try to share the good news, help save people who are lost or confused, and encourage people to grow in faith, hope and love.

Pastors are often called on to give thanks for old ministries and meetings, and help with gracefully laying them down when their day is done. Much more fun, we’re called to be midwives and assist at the birth of new ones.

Even though there are many pastoral Quaker meetings, there are fewer people who are willing to spend their working lives as pastors. I often wonder if Quaker pastors are a dying breed. Fewer meetings have the financial resources to support a full-time pastor, and a lot of young potential Quaker pastors have or want to have a family. Most Quaker pastors need things like a home, a car, health insurance, retirement savings, and income to pay off their educational loans.

Still, it’s an interesting and (mostly) rewarding calling, and I encourage readers to ask questions or suggest new ways that Quaker pastoral work can be done in today’s world.

 

 


Disclaimer

All of the posts on this blog are my own personal opinion. They do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the members and attenders of the meeting where I belong or any organization of Friends. For more information, click on the "About Me" tab above.

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