Setting the Stage for Worship

Richard W. O'Ffill

I remember when I was a filling out the application blank to go to Mount Vernon Academy . Among the questions was one that asked if the applicant had attended the theater within the last year. Students were suspended and even expelled from school for going to the theater. When a person went to an Adventist school they agreed that they would not attend the theater. Those who broke their promise were disciplined.

Times have changed. No one that I have heard of in recent years is disciplined for going to the theater. On the contrary, students are sometimes assigned to go and see a certain movie. It is not uncommon for office parties in Adventist institutions to occasionally decide to go to a dinner theater for some special social event.

This turn-around can probably be laid at the foot of television. How could we prohibit going to movies and the theater when the majority is, in fact, watching the same shows in the comfort of their own homes?

I suppose that would have been bad enough, but in recent years there is a new phenomena that, not only is it no longer an issue in most places to go to the theater, there is now a tendency to incorporate theater into the worship service on Sabbath.

It is called drama. The youth ministries have been leading the way in forming church drama teams. Not only that, there are now puppet ministries that regularly perform in some places. The rationalization is that this is necessary if we are going to save our youth, and the Scripture is even being used to justify what is going on.

There is no doubt that our greatest burden as parents is the salvation of our youth. When I pray it is not a crown that I look forward to receiving in heaven, but I pray that God will give me my children as my reward. God used us to help Him create our children. He is the Father of us all. The issue is not, do we want our children to be saved or not; the issue is, do we believe that God can save our children without us taking matters into our own hands.

Many speak of salvation by faith, and so it is. If we really believe that it is God who saves us, then why is there a trend to craft the terms of salvation around our own ideas and not the explicit instructions that God has given us?

To say that our children must be saved is right. To say that the only way that they can be saved is by using the ways of the world of which they are familiar is not only wrong, but it demonstrates a lack of faith in our Savior who has committed Himself to save us -- but on His terms and not ours.

This being the case, those who are demonstrating this lack of faith are having to give a scriptural rationale to justify what is going on. Please mark what I am about to say next: Any deception that is worth the trouble in the church will have a Biblical justification for doing so, and in certain cases a justification from the Spirit of Prophecy. I might say, however, that the Spirit of Prophecy is being more and more trashed as worldly ideas and philosophies are being introduced into the church.

To others the Spirit of Prophecy is being treated as an icon. A better illustration would be that it is like a stuffed animal in a museum of natural history. It looks like the real thing, but it has no life. To put it plainly, in many places the Spirit of Prophecy has been "taxidermied."

Remember, I said that in order to introduce worldly customs and practices into the church, the strategy is to try to put up some kind of scriptural "smoke screen." It will sound logical and maybe even right. But stop and examine it closely and it is not what it appears to be.

Don't forget that truth and error are locked in mortal combat. In the battle against error we must start with the premise on which it is based. You will lose the battle with error unless you identify and examine the foundation on which it is based.

When someone begins to try to persuade you of something that you know in your heart can't be right, but they are quoting Scripture and all the rest, look deeper. You know something is wrong. Discover the basic premise. In other words, don't discuss a subject with someone unless you know that you are talking about the same thing; otherwise you could find yourself confused and actually deceived into believing something that isn't true.

The title of this sermon is Setting the Stage for Worship. It is unthinkable that the time would ever come in which we would be mixing theater with what is claimed to be worship of our Holy God. But then we shouldn't have been surprised, because the Bible tells that the last days would be dangerous. That means not only physical danger but primarily spiritual danger as well.

Those who are advocating and implementing drama in the worship services claim there is biblical justification for doing so. We are going to examine their premise, and when we are done you will be able to draw your own conclusions.

In order for us to be able to see what the Bible has to teach about drama, and not be comparing apples with oranges, it is necessary for us to define what drama is. I am going to do that now. This is essential because the premise upon which the current movement to bring drama into the worship service is that it has its roots in the Bible.

What is the definition of drama? Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary brings us a helpful definition: "A composition in verse or prose intended to portray life or character or tell a story usually involving conflicts and emotions through action and dialogue and typically designed for theatrical performance." I would prefer to add "or mime" after the word "prose" and the words "and/or" between "action...dialogue." Otherwise it will do as an anvil on which we can hammer out a working definition.

There are two key words for a production to be drama. The first word is "representation." This means that the actors represent persons who are either real or imaginary. Even when the actor is representing himself, it is still a representation.

Drama is never a live action; at best it is a "replay." By the way, the origin of the word for "hypocrisy" is the Greek word hypocrites. In Greek theater the actor who played a part and pretended to be someone else was called the hypocrite.

The second ingredient of drama is found in the word "conflict." No one is interested in either acting or watching a string of unrelated events portrayed on stage. A dramatic presentation always involves a theme, which consists of characters involved with each other in such a way that there is a development of a plot or story line.

The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary brings in this element in its third description of drama. It says that drama is "a series of actions or course of events having dramatic unity, and leading to a final catastrophe." This plot or storyline, or "course of events" may be the intense conflict of characters in the thriller, the humorous interrelationships of the comedy or the absurdly futile development of the farce. It may simply involve reenacting a biblical event or parable. However, drama will always have a plan and purpose. It has a plot that develops throughout the presentation. A possible exception to this is the use of simulation and role-play in an educational setting. But even in role-playing there is a form of conflict, as the person is made to "feel" the theme of their playacting. So there we have the dictionary definitions of drama.

The whole thing can become confusing though, because these days many people describe drama in such a broad way that it makes its definition meaningless. We are being told that we all use drama in everyday life: the raised voice in anger, the scowl of disapproval, the cringe of fear, the smile of welcome, and so on. But, if all this is "drama," we will have to find another word to describe what goes on the stage.

Our emotional and physical responses to life are spontaneous and personal. They are an unplanned reflection of our own feelings. Our smiles and frowns and so on are not drama; they are real life. We must be true to the definition. But the word is being stretched beyond its true meaning. Nowadays we talk of the "drama" as the police close in on the gunman, and of "dramatic" interludes in the otherwise boring routine of life. We even speak of the dramatic rebirth of the butterfly from the chrysalis. Though we are using the word drama, this doesn't really fit the definition. Most of the time when we use the word "dramatic" we really mean nothing more than "thrilling, gripping, fascinating."

If we are going to discuss whether or not drama can be a legitimate part of worship, we must agree on what we are talking about. For the record let me repeat the definition. Drama is "a play in verse, prose or mime of a story which develops a theme. It is performed by actors who represent other people, real or imagined." So then this brief definition contains all the essentials of what constitutes a play. It is not essential to have scenery and costumes.

If defining drama as a representation of other people is correct, then it narrows the field. That would mean that a public testimony (such as the story of my life) is not drama. A dialogue between two people who are not representing anyone other than themselves is not drama. Publicly reading a poem is no more a dramatic act than the preacher reading out the verse of a hymn. People will speak about a "dramatic reading of Scripture" when all they really mean is that the reader put expression into his voice! Even retelling a story in the form of reported speech ("John said...Anne replied...Bill interrupted...") is not drama either. Drama involves representing and impersonating others. But drama is not merely impersonating.

The preacher is not using drama if he reports the words of the disciple Peter, not even if he briefly speaks as if he is Peter. There must be the development of a theme or story or plot for the action to be drama. You see, we must always distinguish between the dramatic play and the common ways of communicating. A gossipy neighbor, who mimics the voice and gestures of the lady across the road, is not presenting drama. If she is, then the word has lost all useful meaning.

Drama is not the use of a flannel graph board or overhead projectors or the computer PowerPoint program, or every university lecture would be a dramatic presentation! Drama is not the use of objects as illustrations or else every medical school pathology professor is involved in drama! Drama is the representation of other people in the context of a play to develop a story or theme.

Remember the definition. Drama is "a play in verse, prose or mime of a story which develops a theme. It is performed by actors who represent other people, real or imagined."

Earlier I mentioned that some people are trying to prove that the Bible justifies the use of drama to communicate the gospel. The greatest danger in trying to establish biblical roots of drama is that exaggerated claims are being made which are based on a small amount of evidence. Those who try to justify drama in the church make large statements, whither in ignorance of the facts or in the hope that no one will take the trouble of check up on them.

Another problem is that in order to make the shoe fit, many are tampering with the definition as to what is drama in order to make it seem that the Bible justifies what is going on.

Even those who believe in drama must agree that there is no parallel to modern theatrical performance anywhere in the Bible. Because of this fact, they have steadily reduced the meaning of the word until it fits something that is found in Scripture. For example, it is claimed that Ezekiel was "a master of street theater." It is also claimed that symbolic mime or drama was an integral part of his ministry. Some claim that Ezekiel regularly used drama and that it was one of his most common methods of communicating his message.

Others claim that Jesus "relied heavily on the visual." To rely heavily must mean that the visual had a large place in our Lord's preaching. Others will say that there is plenty of justification for drama in the Bible if we only had time to find it. It occurs to me that if drama was so much a part of the Bible, it should not take much time to find. It would not be implied in a text here or a text there, but would be easy to see and apply.

But don't be surprised. Remember there is a lot of tinkering going on with the definition of what drama is. That is why I began by clearly defining what drama is. Once a person takes the liberty to define for themselves what drama is, then just about everything is drama.

It is being said that the Old Testament prophets can be characterized by their use of dramatic techniques. Some are even saying that God Himself used dramatic action. The word "drama" is being redefined to mean any action which is used to symbolize a certain truth or even an incident which is used to make a certain point. This would make the Lord's Supper an example of drama. According to this definition even the preacher's gestures during a sermon is drama.

Another definition going around is that drama is "imaginative communication of significant experience." Some are even going so far as to say that Christ's whole life was an acted out drama because His life was scripted beforehand.

Friends, if drama is to be defined as "action symbolizing a truth," or "imaginative communication of significant experience," or an action "scripted beforehand," then we are hopelessly at sea. Anything goes for drama. Please, let's think rationally. The Bible is free in its use of symbolism but not in its use of drama.

Remember, the definition of drama is "a play in verse, prose or mime, of a story which develops a theme. It is performed by actors who represent other people, real or imagined." What this is talking about is generally what is understood by the word "play." In normal conversation drama is a play. It is a misuse of the word to say that the miracles and parables of the Bible are examples of drama.

Miracles are not playacting; they are real life. Parables are not drama either. When Nathan's parable of a rich man, a poor man and a lamb forced King David to condemn his own adultery, (2 Samuel 12) this was not by definition drama. Neither were the parables of our Lord. To confuse parables which are figures of speech is to make nonsense of language.

In the same way the visions and dreams given to people in the Bible are not drama. To say that our Lord relied heavily on the visual is not accurate. Jesus used vivid language and plenty of parables, but never did He use a single act or "play." His life was real. To describe his whole life as an acted out drama as some people are doing is to totally confuse terms. Of course, his life was "dramatic" in the sense that it was "thrilling, gripping, and fascinating." But "dramatic" and "drama" are not the same thing. Often, people try to justify drama in the church by saying that Jesus' sermons were "dramatic." Jesus preaching was dramatic, but it was not drama either.

Some say that Jesus' miracles were dramatic representations of the kingdom of God . Friends, the accounts of His miracles are not dramatic representations of the kingdom of God; they are the kingdom of God . The miracles were not representations or dramatic pictures of Christ's glory; they were His glory (John 2:11). Nothing in Christ's life and teaching was playacting; it was all reality. When He healed the sick and raised the dead, it was the kingdom of God in action. To say otherwise is to suggest that any kind word or loving activity by the Christian is really only playacting.

Let's be honest. Drama as "the play" is not found, even by implication, in the New Testament.

I mentioned earlier, some have said that dramatic techniques characterized the ministry of the Old Testament prophets. There is some reason to support the fact that some of the prophets on occasion used dramatic techniques, but is it fair to say that dramatic techniques characterized their ministry? We are going to look at three prophets: Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel.

Isaiah is the Old Testament prophet who preached the most as far as what is written down in the Bible is concerned. There are approximately 1,225 verses in the book of Isaiah that are his preaching. Isaiah's preaching was vivid. He used figurative language, metaphors, similes and allegories. But these are not drama. This is only using vivid, pictorial language. Isaiah was a preacher. He declared the message God had given him and his voice was his only method. He had no supporting cast. Only at one point was Isaiah commanded to do anything other than preach.

In Isaiah 1:4 the prophet wrote a symbolic name on a large stone tablet and then gave his newborn son that name. We are not told whether anyone else saw the tablet. But let's assume the prophet placed it at the corner of Main Street , and so that makes it a little piece of "street theater." But that is really not in keeping with the definition of what drama is all about, and even if it were, his ratio of drama to preaching in verses is 1 to 612! The use of drama hardly could be said to characterize his ministry.

Jeremiah was more active doing symbolic things. He was involved in wearing and hiding a linen waistband (13:1-7), in buying and breaking an earthen pot (19:1,2,10,11), in possibly wearing a yoke (28:10), in purchasing a field (32:7-14), and hiding stones in Pharaoh's palace (43:9) -- 21 verses in all. These were all simply symbolic actions. They do not fit the definition of drama. Smashing the potter's flask was little more than the equivalent of a preacher bringing his fist down heavily on the pulpit to punch home the anger of God. In the entire book of Jeremiah there are five symbolic actions recorded in 21 verses. The whole book of Jeremiah contains well over one thousand verses of preaching. The ratio of so-called drama to preaching in verses is 1 to 50. But what he did was pure symbolism and by no means a play.

In all of the Bible, Ezekiel comes the closest to doing drama. The people who believe we should use drama in church use Ezekiel as their justification for doing so. In one place God ordered him to portray the siege of Jerusalem . The prophet had no supporting cast, but he did act the part of a man under siege. He gave a vivid portrayal of the sufferings of famine. This enactment has been compared with street theater and that is a reasonably fair comparison.

Another time God told Ezekiel to act the part of a man driven into exile. So then only twice in Ezekiel do we have anything that could be called acting, but even then we should notice that there were three significant components.

In the first place, his representations were always direct prophecies from God of something that was soon to take place. Secondly, the prophet never represented other people; he acted out what he himself had already been through. He himself later was sent into exile which fulfilled his prophecy. In the third place, Ezekiel actually won no converts by his acting! He was generally hated and despised.

So, if a person insists, Ezekiel to a small extent and Jeremiah to a smaller extent may be used as examples in Scripture of what might be called "street theater." The rest of the prophets didn't use symbolic actions to illustrate their prophecies; they used symbolic language, but they were first and foremost preachers.

The visions of Zechariah, for example, were visions and the prophet never acted them, he simply retold them to the people. It was the same with the earlier prophets. Moses did a few symbolic actions, but Samuel, Elijah and Elisha did nothing but preaching and occasional miracles. It is stretching the point to say that Ezekiel was a master of street theater or for that matter that drama was an important part of the ministry of the Old Testament prophets.

The Scripture is full of symbolism, but to call Biblical symbolism drama and put it on the same level as theater and the plays of Shakespeare is to make the word "drama" a meaningless jumble of letters.

The point is that drama in the proper sense of the word is not found in the Bible, with the single exception of the very brief excursion into street theater by Ezekiel (twice) and Jeremiah (once). If we are going to use the facts, we cannot say that religious drama is biblical. To say that the Scripture justifies drama is not true.

I am going to give you some reasons why I believe drama has no place in our worship to God. In the first place, drama generally reflects the worst of society's standards.

I don't need to tell you that the problem with our generation is that our consciences have in many instances been cauterized by television. Many Christians are spending 24 hours a week watching television. Before the '50s a person had to make a conscious effort to go to a play or a movie. Now it is piped into the home and many are watching what our Christian forefathers from the 14th to the 19th centuries utterly condemned.

Cyprian was an early church father. I believe he was right when he said that Scripture has forbidden gazing upon what it forbids to be done. It is no wonder he said this. In the early centuries after Christ, the stage in Greece and Rome became more and more explicit. Immorality and violence were common on the stage. The early church was against drama. The apostles would not allow the gospel to be associated with a medium that was so evil. I believe that we should think twice before we use a method that is generally used to convey evil to convey the greatest message in the world.

In this regard I believe in guilt by association. You might be interested to know that the Jews and Christians of the first century reacted against the flute because in the Roman world the flute was associated with erotic behavior. The flute is a legitimate instrument today because we don't associate it with eroticism. We can understand then that, for the early Christians, the flute was lawful but not expedient. The point is that the medium that we use to communicate the gospel must always be consistent with the message. Frankly, I can't see why this isn't clear to all of us.

Don't we care about what we use to represent the gospel of Jesus Christ? When the American ambassador presents his credentials to the head of state in a foreign country, he does it with serious dignity. If he did it with a slapstick sketch, it would bring instant dishonor to his credibility and his government.

A big problem these days is that modern Christians don't seem to mind mixing the sacred with the profane. I once attended a prayer conference that was led by a person who is famous in this country in the area of church growth. This person would use off-color illustrations one minute and then be preparing us for a season of prayer the next. It used to be said that fools rush in where angels fear to tread. Now this can be said practically of this whole generation.

Another reason why drama has no place in worship is that it lends itself to trivializing what is meant to be serious. More and more churches are organizing what they call puppet and clown ministries. You may think that I am against the whole human race and don't believe in having fun, or that I don't have a good sense of humor. But I do have fun and I do have a sense of humor. Nevertheless, I object to using puppet creatures to handle a message that is holy. I also do not think that it is appropriate to dress up like clowns and in a squeaky voice try to tell about how Jesus died for them on the cross.

Some people use the argument that we learn best when we are enjoying ourselves. This is not always true and it is not always appropriate. You cannot teach the sufferings of the cross by enjoyment.

To speak of clowns again. I don't need to tell you that a clown is a presentation of someone who is, in fact, created in the image of God. We would not think of purposely imitating the physically and mentally disabled, but that is precisely what clowns represent. To use a clown medium to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ is irreverent and inappropriate and disrespectful to the disabled.

This generation has made a joke of everything. We are not talking about a generation here that has a sense of humor, but rather of a generation which is irreverent, and to which not even God will command our reverence and respect.

I have heard people say that God has sense of humor. I have often wondered though. If you could see what God sees, would you be telling jokes and doing clown ministries? If we could see as He does this very moment the millions who are starving to death--those other millions who are right this moment dying of incurable diseases with insupportable pain--if we could see the millions of little children who are being abused by their parents, husbands abusing wives and wives abusing husbands, if we could see the sexual perversion, the drug and other addictions, as He does, how far would our sense of humor go? We might have gotten used to all of this, but He has never gotten used to it. This is no time for laughter, but rather for weeping.

You may say, "But, Pastor O'Ffill, I have heard you laugh," and so I do. We must laugh at ourselves. We do this because we believe that, in our pain and in the pain of others, there is hope for all of us, but we must not laugh at others or make light of that which is unacceptable and misrepresents our Holy God.

It could be that this generation is trivializing the holy for a reason. That reason is that it knows that it is sinning against the Almighty and should repent. The trivial attitude then is a substitute for repentance. We figure that as long as we keep laughing, everything is all right when nothing could be further from the truth.

Another flaw in using drama to convey the gospel is that drama avoids direct and personal confrontation. The early church had no interest in using the stage for the preaching of the gospel. The method of evangelizing in the New Testament was first preaching, and second testimony, personal witness and debate.

All of these methods were immediate and personal. In drama the performer is remote and concealed behind an image. The performer is always pretending to be someone or something other than themselves. This is not deceit, because there is an understanding between the actor and the audience, but the actor is nevertheless remote. In a play the audience never makes contact with a real Christian as they do in a sermon or a testimony. An actor can only speak for the character he is acting; he is not speaking for himself. That is exactly why the early church and many Christians today are not interested in drama.

The words of the good news of the gospel are supposed to be conveyed in the real life of a real Christian. When God conveyed the gospel to this world, it didn't come by an angel masquerading as the Son of God, but by the Son of God Himself. The incarnation was not a play but real life. For the first century Christians, the idea of acting was contrary to their whole understanding of God's revelation in Christ. They wanted to face the unbeliever; they wanted an immediate response, and not simply leave something to be interpreted later. In the early church the gospel was always presented so that it could be accepted at once. The early Christians expected a response to Christ.

One great limitation to drama is its inability to "respond" to the congregation, and even less to the Spirit. An actor is tied to his script. On the other hand, preaching and personal witness are able to react to the leading of the Spirit and the circumstances of the moment. Drama is rigid compared to preaching.

One day I was talking to a pastor who has been one of the first to incorporate drama into his worship structure. I asked him what purpose the skits had. Were they not so that people could learn from them and that actually people's lives could be changed? He admitted that was the purpose. I asked him if the purpose of the skits about marriage was not really to strengthen marriage and even save marriages from being broken up? He said that was indeed the case. I then said to him, "You have been doing play-acting now for a couple of years. Isn't it about time that you be able to bring forward some couples who could testify that their marriages had been strengthen and saved by the make-believe?"

I think that is a fair question, because life is not make-believe. It is real. What we do in make- believe should result in improving the real. The pastor confessed to me that he had no success stories to bring forward. Friends, drama is fantasy. The gospel is to be real.

Another problem in using drama to communicate the gospel is that it generally has to be interpreted. Because drama has to be interpreted, it just would not do for the first Christians. They had no time to act a piece which then required an explanation. Preaching was direct and immediate; it needed no further explanation. Preaching says it like it is. Our Lord never asked His disciples to act His parables either before or after His preaching. To have done so would have been an admission of an inadequate sermon.

A play with a Christian theme may be obvious to a Christian, but it may be totally lost or misinterpreted by the rest. A play leaves a message that must be interpreted. A person can enjoy a play and miss what it was all about. If the message has to be interpreted, there is always a danger of the spectators misinterpreting it. A person who is spiritually blind may misunderstand the plain words of a sermon. If that is the case, we should not make it even more difficult for them by having them decode a drama.

Another problem with drama is that it is not the most effective method of communication. The word spoken clearly and to the point is the way that the gospel was to be communicated. From Enoch and Noah early on, to the message of the three angels in the Book of Revelation, the method of spreading the gospel is through preaching. From the preaching of John the Baptist, and Jesus Himself, to Peter and Paul, down through the great revivals of the ages. It was always about preaching. I firmly believe that it will be preaching and not acting and fantasy that will be used to prepare a holy people to meet a Holy God.

This to me is one of the greatest flaws in using drama: we are perpetuating the concept that the Christian life is make-believe. As a minister I am aware that we worship an invisible God and that the call to forsake sin and live a holy life goes against all of the reality that surrounds our five senses.

It is easier for the senses to believe in the reality of sin than the reality of holiness. For us to portray the gospel in drama to me perpetuates the concept that religion is just that -- a fantasy, an unattainable goal for the average person.

To me the Word of God is clear as to how we are to communicate the good news of salvation. It says in Revelation 12:11, "And they overcame him (that is the devil) by the blood of the Lamb, and by the word of their testimony; and they loved not their lives unto the death."

I wish that we could bring into our worship services the actual testimonies of men and women who would tell of what God is doing in their lives to set them free from sin, and how the Holy Spirit is actually filling their hearts and giving them a new start.

It is not politically correct in the 21 st century to oppose drama in the worship service of the church. But it has not always been this way. During the years of the early church, during the years of the Reformers, the Puritans, and even the majority of Christians during the revival years of the 18 th century opposed drama. The reasons that our forefathers opposed drama were valid and I believe are still valid. The only time that drama was widely used in the church was during the Dark Ages. Do I need to say more?

You might say, "Pastor O'Ffill, so what was this sermon for?" Let me tell you:

In the first place, this sermon made it clear that those who say that the Bible used drama and so should we are not telling us the truth. We have defined drama and what the Bible used was real, though it uses much symbolism. Only in the case of Ezekiel and Jeremiah could it be said that on a couple of occasions was there, what might be called by today's definitions, a form of street theater, and then that would be stretching the point.

Drama is play-acting; the gospel of Jesus Christ is real. Therefore, to use acting to communicate what is real has no place in our worship services. The Scripture teaches that Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. God has commanded that the gospel is to be communicated through preaching. The great revivals of history were the result of preaching.

We are living in a time in which we are mixing the sacred with the profane with impunity. The result is that we have lost the ability to distinguish right from wrong, good from evil, and light from darkness. The result is a fulfillment of the scripture where it says that the days would come in which darkness would cover the earth and gross darkness the people. Using drama, which is predominantly a medium used to communicate evil, is an unthinkable compromise, and blurs the ability of our minds to separate the things of the world from the things of God.

The bottom line is that, in our lives and particularly in our homes, we will tend to live in a fantasy world. God is not calling for make-believe Christians, but real ones. We must not concentrate on preaching the gospel with puppets and clowns and actors, but pray that the Word may once again become flesh -- this time in our own hearts and lives, and then in our homes and in the church.

(Prayer -- asking for forgiveness and renewal of real Christian experience.)


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