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Jo 23Although there are only two of us in our household, I seem to spend so much time each week deciding what our main meals will be, shopping for the ingredients and finally cooking them. I also try to have a selection of things in the fridge and pantry to choose from for our lunches and often some cake or slice for my sweet-tooth husband—or any visitors who might drop by. All this takes planning and effort, doesn’t it? But I do it because, after all, we need to eat—although perhaps not quite as much or as often as we tend to!

Lately, however, it has dawned on me that, in focussing on all that physical nourishment, I may well be short-changing myself in other areas. I, like everyone else, need emotional nourishment—the love of family and friends, the fulfilment gained through writing, the enjoyment of reading or listening to music or watching an uplifting TV show or marvelling at the beauty of nature. I know the danger of ignoring such things and I know I cannot give out to others in any meaningful way if my own emotional ‘tank’ is empty. Yet when there is too much else to do, I can easily overlook such nourishment.

And what about that deepest part of us we call our soul? It too needs to be nourished, even more so than our physical bodies and our emotions. If our souls are dead, if that light has gone out inside us, if that firm connection with God is lost, then everything can become rather meaningless. We are not in a place of peace with God and with ourselves. And that is not a pleasant place to be.

Recently, I read the following beautiful invitation from Isaiah 55:1-3:

Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost. Why spend money on what is not bread, and your labour on what does not satisfy? Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good, and your soul will delight in the richest of fare. Give ear and come to me; hear me, that your soul may live.

Yes, I decided, I need to take time to come and enjoy that rich fare my soul needs. So, one morning, I headed for Lake Parramatta, not far from our home. I used to go there regularly to reflect, write, enjoy the beauty of nature and be with God. But somehow in the busyness of life, this had slipped from my agenda. How wonderful it was that morning to sit there quietly for a while in my car, with the sun warming me all over as I contemplated that lake again. The breeze ruffled the surface of the water so that it sparkled in the sun, while nearby, a family of ducks swam serenely along. I drank it all in, sensing God’s presence all around—and soon I could feel the peace of God deep inside me, bringing such refreshment and renewal, letting my soul live again.

May your soul too be nourished as you take time to come close to God, listen well and delight in that richest of fare only God can provide.

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Last night, I had the pleasure of playing a game of ‘I spy’ with our two granddaughters when they decided to keep me company in my study. Amy is eight, but Olivia is only five, so I wondered how she would go with working out which letters started some of the words. Much to my amazement, they both did brilliantly. And whenever I was allowed to have a turn at ‘spying’, in most cases I had no sooner said my letter than one or other of them would immediately pounce and guess it correctly.

As our game wore on, I found it increasingly harder to ‘spy’ something different in the room. Yet time after time, Amy and Olivia managed to come up with new ideas – objects I would never have thought of or that had completely escaped my notice, despite my spending hours each day writing in this same study. How did Amy think of ‘b’ for ‘building’ in a picture on my wall I had not looked closely at for ages, for example? And how did it occur to Olivia to try using ‘w’ for ‘words’ she had noticed typed on a sheet of paper and placed in a frame in one corner of the room? It was an amazing experience to see my study afresh through my granddaughters’ eyes. But even more amazing were the excellent observation skills they exhibited. They searched the whole room for something tricky – not one nook or cranny seemed to escape their notice.

Later as I reflected on this experience, it occurred to me that while my granddaughters’ ability to see so much truly amazed me, God’s powers of observation are so much more amazing still. There is not one thing I do, one place I go, one word I write that God does not notice. Nothing escapes God’s eyes. No corner of my heart is ever hidden from God. And nothing that befalls me escapes the one who sees all things. Yet this is by no means a scary thing for me. Instead, I find it so comforting that God can see at all times exactly what I am going through. And just as Hagar called the Lord ‘the God who sees me’ so long ago (see Genesis 16:13), so I am blessed to be able to give God that same title still today.

Jesus himself clearly showed us this all-seeing aspect of his Father in heaven. He notices Nathanael under the fig tree and knows all about him before Phillip calls him (John 1:48). He sees the man who was born blind sitting beside the roadside and heals him (John 9:1-7). He does not miss Zacchaeus way up in that sycamore tree and speedily invites himself for a visit (Luke 19:5). And even on the cross, he is aware of his mother nearby and makes sure she will be looked after (John 19:26-27).

I’m so glad I’m just as visible to God today as these people were to Jesus. I can be at peace, knowing God’s big, all-seeing eye is on me every moment of the day, watching over my welfare with loving concern. Right now, God is smiling at me and saying ‘I spy with my big eye, someone beginning with J’. And I know for sure that ‘J’ stands for Jo-Anne.

How about you? Can you hear God lovingly saying your initial too?

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Life often has some interesting twists and turns, doesn’t it? Just when we think we have the future all worked out, we may find ourselves needing to move in an entirely different direction. Is it just the way things pan out? Is it that we made some wrong decisions along the way? Or is it that God sometimes intervenes and allows things to happen in our lives, perhaps giving us challenges to overcome?

I believe God has clearly had a hand in the many changes and challenges in my life, taking me out of places that were not helpful for me or conducive to my growth and leading me on to explore new horizons. Sometimes the journey was painful, but God was always there, strengthening me and moulding me into more of the person I was created to be.

In recent weeks I have been reminded forcefully of this as I have had to read through my journals that I kept on and off during the last eighteen years. Believing it is what God wants, I have embarked on writing a work of non-fiction that involves my own personal spiritual journey and the strategic part my wonderful mentor or spiritual companion, as she prefers to be called, has played in that. At times, I turned the pages of these journals very slowly, stopping here and there to remember well and to allow myself space to feel the emotions described there. I had been through some huge changes in those years – I had left a job I enjoyed, studied fulltime at theological college, undertaken a busy ministry role in our church and then closed the door on that, knowing God was calling me out. I had floundered a little for a year – and then God clearly led me to begin my writing journey.

Some things I read in those journals were wonderful. I had written out many great verses of Scripture that had encouraged and comforted me. I had copied out significant sections of some excellent books that now impacted me again as I read. There were moments recorded too that were very significant milestones for me – happy and fulfilling occasions such as my college graduation or times when God gave me fresh insights or moved powerfully in my life.

But I noticed many challenging and sad occasions there too – times when I was overcome by the pressures of life or filled with grief or angry and confused. It was emotionally draining even to read about some of these, despite the intervening years. In many instances I saw a person crying out to God, yet at the same time wondering where God was and why such things were happening to her.

And that’s just it. Now I could see myself back then almost as another person altogether, someone whose pain I felt and whose joy I entered into – but someone else nevertheless. You see, God has moved me on since then, strengthening me, healing me, maturing me and hopefully growing me to be more Christ-like. I see now how those things have made me into the writer I am today – and I can honestly say I am thankful for them all, despite the pain and grief they brought at times.

So now my task is to press on, allowing these life experiences to bear fruit in what I write, so that others too can be drawn closer to God and know God’s presence with them in their own journeys.

But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus. (Phil 3:13-14)

Let’s hand our past over to God, enjoy God’s presence today and trust God with our future. One day in heaven we will see the whole picture – and then it won’t matter anymore!

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Sometimes writing can be a hazardous occupation. Yes, authors often suffer physically from sore backs, arms and eyes from sitting in front of that computer screen for too long, typing away without a break. But it’s a great occupation for doing ourselves in emotionally as well, if we’re not careful. Of course, the likelihood of this happening can wax and wane with what we are trying to write, how well our ideas are flowing and also how our already published books might be doing out there in the market. But when we’re stuck or when we’re unsure if what we’re writing is rubbish or not or when we’re discouraged about those book sales or lack of speaking opportunities out there, then that can be a dark and lonely place.

I’ve been there. In fact, it’s threatening me right now again. But it’s exactly at times like this I’m so thankful I’m a Christian author who, by God’s grace, still has a strong faith. I’m not alone in this crazy writing journey. I know God is with me. And I know God will show me the way forward.

Recently I began writing another book – my seventh. This time, however, it is non-fiction. I truly believe it’s what God wants me to write at this stage, but that doesn’t mean the project is without its challenges. Right now, one big challenge is how to walk a fine line between saying too much about something and not saying enough – and also between how much of myself I reveal and how much is best left unsaid!

This book has also forced me to look back on a period of my life that held some grief and pain for me. So as I write, I’m often back in the moment, feeling the emotion of it all again and almost aghast at what I know will happen next. I know I’ll pass through this period and soon be on safer ground. But it’s definitely an emotionally hazardous journey at the moment.

Yet I know for sure God understands where I’m at right now and still delights to surprise and encourage me in unique and wonderful ways. On opening my computer just this morning, I found that a college friend I have not seen for years but who contacted me again recently had written something especially for me. She thought of me last night and wrote quite a long poem she felt God wanted me to have ‘without delay’. Among other things, it talks about resting in God, letting God love me and spending time just ‘being’ in that loving Presence.

I quickly checked back to the last sentences I had written in my book before heading for bed last night. And there I found the following: … But above all, it reminded me all over again that God loved me completely, however perfect or imperfect I was. And I knew the best thing I could do was to rest in that love more fully and approach the challenges of ministry with confidence from that solid place of security in God.

 It’s not the first time God has ‘tricked’ me into writing things that speak to me first and foremost. But it is the first time it’s happened at exactly the same time someone else has been inspired to write a poem for me saying similar things!

Somehow I think God wants me to sit up and take note. Do you agree? Should you sit up and take note too?

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There are lots of ‘perks’ in writing novels, I’ve discovered. One is being able to decide the fate of my characters. I can have them live long and prosper or write them out of the picture altogether. Another is giving my characters my own and others’ experiences and having things turn out even better than they might have in real life. And yet another is actually naming my characters in the first place. Does that name really suit this character? Will he or she be confused with a previous character in one of my other novels – or perhaps even another character in the same novel? Is the name right for the particular time period in which the novel is set?

I have been known to get half way through a novel and decide a name definitely doesn’t suit one of my main characters. After all, when I started out, I didn’t expect he or she would say and do the things they now have. Characters evolve, I find. Some of them grow up and make up their own minds as to the way ahead. They might decide they want a much more exciting life than I had planned for them. So a nice, conservative, common name won’t do – they need something much more colourful and unusual. And thankfully, that can happen easily these days. I have lost track of the number of times I have been so grateful for the ‘Find and Replace’ function on my computer, where, with one click of my mouse, Andrew becomes Aidan or Angela can instantly become Amy several hundred times over!

In real life, however, I have discovered a name can be made beautiful and just right whether it’s old-fashioned or unusual or anything else, if it is spoken in a caring, respectful, loving way. Two examples from Scripture I noticed recently come to mind. In each case, Jesus speaks out someone’s name with such deep love and understanding that they must both have been shaken to the core. In John 20:15, Jesus simply says ‘Mary’ – and turns her world upside down. And in the following chapter (21:15), he speaks out Peter’s original name in a tone that must have been so full of forgiveness and grace – ‘Simon, son of John, do you truly love me more than these?

I have no trouble imagining the tone of Jesus’ voice as he addressed Mary and Simon Peter – or how they must have felt. Many years ago, at a particularly needy point in my life, I believe God gave me a wonderful picture of Jesus holding me as a baby and looking down at me with the most incredible, tender love. He was smiling and almost lost for words as he gazed at my face and marvelled. And the only words I heard him say were ‘Wow – Jo-Anne!’ But that was all I needed to hear to know in the very core of my being how much Jesus loved me and how delighted he was with me – before I had ever achieved anything in my life. He loved me just the way I was created – uniquely and in his image, with my own personality and gifts that he intended from the very beginning. I was – and still am – his precious child, perfect in his eyes and completely loved.

So as you read this today, may you hear Jesus speaking your name in just the same loving, gentle way in the very depths of your spirit. Your name is important to him, whoever you are. He knows you. He cares about you. He believes in you. He loves you. And that’s all that matters.

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There could be several answers to this question, come to think of it. Both words end in ‘ting’, for starters. And if I remember my parts of speech correctly, both are verbal nouns. As for the activities themselves, both can be accomplished much more easily, I’d say, if one is sitting down. Both also require the use of one’s hands – well usually anyway. And both, in my opinion, require much patience and perseverance.

Now I put knitting aside several years ago. I knew if I began another project, I would get ‘hooked’ and those novels I hoped to write would never be finished. Recently, however, a family member suggested I might like to start knitting again and in a weak moment, I acquiesced. I blithely chose a beautiful pattern and bought some wool, but after reading the instructions more closely, decided I should be more realistic. It would probably take me several years to complete what I had chosen, so I lowered my sights and selected a different one.

But then the fun began. I tried the first four rows several times without success – the lacy pattern was beyond me. Backwards and forwards I went, knitting a few rows, undoing them all and trying again. Eventually I worked out what the instructions actually meant and then I was off – at least for a while. But careless mistakes began occurring – and I soon lost count of the number of times I knitted several rows, only to pull them undone yet again.

And here is where the similarity between writing and knitting kicked in for me. There was something incredibly familiar about this moving forward and retreating, this creating and undoing. Six novels further down the track in my writing journey, this ebb and flow has become almost inevitable, something that is par for the course. When I first began writing, I could not handle the idea of throwing out large chunks of the masterpiece I had created and sweated over. Yet over time, I learnt it did not kill me to delete my pearls of wisdom. In fact, I came to see it often led to discovering even greater treasures than pearls.

So for me, both knitting and writing require large dollops of patience and perseverance. And last night, as I unravelled several rows of my knitting yet again, I was reminded that this is how God is constantly called on to deal with me. I forge ahead – and God is there beside me, guiding and encouraging. I mess up – and God is there, challenging me and comforting me. I go backwards, forgetting where I’m heading and losing the way – and God is there again, urging me on and strengthening me to run the race. As Psalm 103 reminds us:

The Lord is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love. … As a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him; for he knows how we are formed, he remembers that we are dust.

Yes, I will no doubt continue to make mistakes – and God, the author of all things, who knit me together even before I was born (Psalm 139), will graciously edit them out and patiently unpick them, as I allow him to.

And for that I will be forever grateful.

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One of our daughters is travelling in Europe at the moment. She recently left Romania and just arrived in Berlin. Already, she has emailed us from there and put photos up on Facebook – and already I have checked out where she is staying via Google maps. Now I can see clearly the places she is likely to visit and follow her emails and blogs better.

These days too, I regularly talk with friends overseas and even here in Sydney via skype. With one click of my mouse, I can dial up my friend in Turkey or another in the Netherlands and in a second, we can not only be talking freely but even see each other, if we choose to.

We in the developed world are becoming so used to instant communication, instant solutions, instant satisfying of our needs and desires. Why wait? Time is precious. And that’s the beauty of mobile phones. We can be contacted immediately wherever we are, so we can get on with arranging our lives, so we can do two things at once – like talking on the phone while driving.

In contrast, however, there is nothing instantaneous about writing novels. I am often asked how long it takes for me to write one and I always find this difficult to answer. Perhaps around a year, depending on what else I’m doing, but it is hard to quantify the many ‘bites’ needed to write and edit a novel, then re-write and re-edit, probably over and over again.

Then there is the small matter of finding a publisher. Sometimes that can take months, even years. And when one is found, it can take many more months before a book makes it through the editing process and into the publisher’s release schedule. And of course it usually takes a few years before authors can develop any sort of ongoing ‘fan base’ too. Writing books is, for most then, a very long term process.

I think God prepared me quite some time back for this aspect of writing novels. When I was nineteen and in my second year of my Arts degree, I enquired about combining a theology degree with it, but that turned out to be impossible. Almost thirty years later, however, after three years of fulltime study, I finally received that theology degree I had wanted to do so many years earlier.

So I’m convinced God is into long-term projects. What is thirty years to God? In 2 Pet 3:8-9, Peter writes:

Do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.

That’s God’s heart for us – patient, longsuffering, graciously walking with us, taking us at our own pace. One day, God will say ‘It is finished!’ yet again and wrap things up on this earth. But not yet – not until the time is right.

So I need to be patient too and hold on in faith. I need to keep writing those novels and other books, just as God guides, and not lose heart or become frustrated. God has a perfect time for everything. And I also need to relax so I can truly enjoy the journey of creating my next book, not seeing it as a task but as a privilege from God.

Now that’s something I’d miss out on if writing books were instantaneous!

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Do you ever have those days or weeks when you wonder if all the effort you’re putting into something is worth it? I’m sure this could apply in so many situations other than writing – we all get tired and discouraged at times, don’t we? But often authors seem to be a prime target in this regard. We pour ourselves into some novel or work of non-fiction, editing and rewriting and searching for a publisher. Yet even then, the journey is not over by a long shot. In Australia at least, and in Christian circles in particular, the author has to expend a lot of energy on promotional work and speaking. Publishers are too small and too under-resourced to help greatly in this regard. Book promotion can be a fascinating and fulfilling experience – but it can also contain considerable challenges and discouragement. After all, not everyone might be as enthusiastic about your book as you are and, in particular, grasp how it might be relevant or helpful or challenging for the kingdom of God.

Recently, someone asked me straight out whether my books were ‘selling well’. I smiled but stifled a sigh. Over the four years since my first novel was published, I have never been able to find a satisfactory answer to this question – and now my fifth novel Heléna’s Legacy has just been released, I am still no wiser. After all, where is the benchmark with which to compare my sales? I know how many I have sold myself of each title and have at least some idea how many the bookstores have purchased. But can I really compare those figures with sales of other Christian novels here in Australia, even if I knew them? After all, I write general fiction, while others might write romantic or historical fiction or both – one genre might well be more popular than another.

Now I understand such questions might be asked with my wellbeing in mind. Yet I wondered from this person’s facial expression and her slightly incredulous tone of voice whether she might not be such a fan of my books and was at a loss to know who could possibly enjoy them enough to continue buying them! Or was she coming from the same place as someone else who told me recently she was in the process of reading one of my novels and was enjoying it. However, she was having difficulty, she said, in reconciling herself to the fact that I had written it! Hmm.

But for all this, I know I’m doing what God wants me to at this stage of my life. And if I was in any doubt about that, some words of Jesus I read this morning in John 15:16 soon fixed that:

You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit – fruit that will last.

By God’s grace, these words reminded me yet again that this whole crazy writing journey isn’t just my idea. I know God clearly called me to begin writing almost eight years ago now and challenged me to ‘bear fruit’ through both writing and speaking. And I can still rest in that fact – even on days when I am a little low on energy. I can approach my current writing project at peace with God, myself and the world, knowing the ‘success’ or otherwise of my books is ultimately in God’s hands.

And that’s the best antidote for discouragement any author can have, don’t you think?

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I never cease to be amazed at the new discoveries I make each time I read the Gospels. Just when I least expect it, God kind of ‘ambushes’ me with some truth that leaves me almost breathless with its profound challenge.

One day this past week, I was happily wending my way through John’s Gospel when I came to the following words:

The evening meal was being served, and the devil had already prompted Judas Iscariot, son of Simon, to betray Jesus. Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God; so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him. (John 13:2-5)

My mouth fell open as I registered the massive contrast in these words. On the one hand, here is Jesus, knowing full well who he is and that he has all power and authority from his Father God. But on the other, here is the all-powerful Son of God choosing to strip down, wrap a towel around him and undertake the humble task of washing his disciples’ dusty feet. It is almost too shocking to take in, and I can well relate to Peter when he objects strongly (6-10).

Yet even as I am trying to register what this means for me, I find it clearly spelt out by Jesus himself:

I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. I tell you the truth, no servant is greater than his master, not is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them. (15-17)

But this is a slightly bitter pill for me to swallow. I’m not sure I want to negate myself and serve others. I want to do the interesting, exciting things in ministry. And that doesn’t include washing dirty feet or cleaning up after others or helping behind the scenes where my wonderful efforts will not be recognised. Yet Jesus says I will be blessed if I do these things. So how does that work?

And then, as God’s Spirit gently but firmly wrestles with my own rebellious spirit, I begin to understand. Jesus knew who he was, where he had come from and where he was going – no one could take those truths away from him. He also knew he was here to do his Father’s will. And right now, because of Jesus, I can live my life with this same sure knowledge. I know I am God’s precious child, totally loved, forgiven and accepted through Jesus. I know I was created in God’s image and have been recreated through faith in Jesus. And I also know that God has a place prepared for me in heaven that will last for eternity.

Is it really such a problem to choose the humble road, just as Jesus did? How does the highest honour in this world compare with the privilege of spending eternity with God in heaven? I may well, in theory at least, produce the greatest novel ever and be feted as the next Francine Rivers, but if I lose my servant heart, the heart that Jesus had, then it is all pretty meaningless.

So right now, I’m heading off to find that towel to wrap around my waist. How about you?

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I have been interviewed twice for radio in recent times. The first was for Jenny Baxter’s Sunday morning show on FM106Five in Hobart and the second for ‘Sunday Night with Kel Richards’ on 2CH in Sydney. Both were phone interviews and I was given prior warning when they would take place. All I had to do was be available, well prepared and as alert as possible.

My interviewers were wonderful. Jenny was warm and relaxed and quickly put me at my ease. And when I mixed up the date of a speaking engagement, I was reassured that would be edited out anyway. Kel Richards was equally warm and friendly, but I knew I could not mess up my answers, since I understand studio time for his popular show is at a premium and there would be minimal editing, if any. As our phone interview drew near, I spread out ‘prompt sheets’ around me with answers to questions I thought he might ask. I also had my novels nearby – just in case, in the heat of the moment, I forgot what I had written about!

Kel asked me around seven questions. I ‘um-ed’ and ‘ah-ed’ my way through the first couple a little, but there was no time even for a quick glance at my ‘prompt sheets’. This was ‘sudden death’ – and a very public death at that!!  I consoled myself, however, with the thought that at 11.10pm on a cold, wet Sunday evening, perhaps there would not be too many people wide awake enough to witness my demise.

But then I drew a deep breath and realised this was not the moment to be hesitant in any way. I knew what my novels were about. I knew why I wrote what I had and who I hoped would read my novels. I even knew how I would encourage young novelists in their writing journey. These were the sorts of questions that were unfolding as we talked. Besides, I wanted at least one person to phone in and win the copy of my latest novel ‘Helena’s Legacy’ Kel was offering as a prize for the listener who answered his bible quiz question correctly!

After our call finished, I thought about the responses I gave and how differently I would have answered the questions second time around. But in the end, I decided I had done my best – I had responded as honestly and promptly as possible. So all I had to do now was trust God with the outcome.

But the whole experience also made me think about how I need to be equally prepared on a daily basis to answer questions about my faith in God in that same eager, truthful, prompt way. In 1 Peter 3: 15-16 we read:

Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behaviour in Christ may be ashamed of their slander.

We have to be ready and willing at a moment’s notice – chances are there won’t be any prior warning or prompt sheets. But we will have God’s Spirit with us who will give us just the right words to say and all the grace and sensitivity we need.

Now that puts me much more at ease than even the best interviewer possibly could. How about you?

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