The Problem of Faith

"All religions, arts and sciences are branches of the same tree." ~ Albert Einstein

"I find it quite improbable that such order came out of chaos. There has to be some organizing principle. God to me is a mystery, but is the explanation for the miracle of existence, why there is something instead of nothing." ~ Allan Sandage

There seems to be a war between the God of the Universe and the God of Science. There’s nothing knew about this. We humans are obsessed with finding every conceivable reason to argue and separate ourselves from one another.

Many people in this modern age who consider themselves to be “educated” presume that science and faith are incompatible. The new refrain is “follow the science.” But some of our greatest scientists found that the more they studied science the more it affirmed the existence of God, or call him, her, it what you will.

Albert Einstein said, "All religions, arts and sciences are branches of the same tree."

We would do well to consider this. We would do well to stop the division on all fronts and realize that beneath the bluster, we share the same unanswered questions.

Such as “what is the meaning of life” and “what happens when we die?” Okay, asking such questions makes people roll their eyes and yawn. How many times have we heard that before? And yet, deep within ourselves, we know these are the real questions.

Imagine if we really knew the answers? Imagine if we knew that when we died, that was it, we were gone forever. Or, what if we knew there really was a heaven and a hell? If we actually knew these things, how would it change the way we lived day to day?

But for some mysterious reason, the answers to these important questions are kept from us. We are destined to live by faith.

As anyone who has read my piece At the Gates of Hell and of Heaven knows, I grew up in a conservative Christian family. I was told that by the age of nine—the age of reason where I would understand right from wrong—I would have to confess my sins and ask Jesus into my heart. It would be very concerning if I didn’t. Why would I wait, didn’t I want to be saved? There was a lot of pressure on me to do this. And so, at the age of nine, I prayed the sinner’s prayer.

I opened my eyes. And then the doubts began. I had believed, surely I had believed. But had it been enough? How did I know it was enough? How did I feel, could I tell by my feelings? I tried to imagine that I felt different. But I didn’t. Nothing had changed, that I could tell, from the moment before I prayed to the moment after.

If I didn’t feel any different how could I know I had changed?

It isn’t about feelings, I was told. It’s about faith and now you should know because you believed. The truth shall set you free!

But how do I know that I know? Whether I felt something or not, how could I be sure?

And that was the problem I always had with faith vs truth, or at least what I was told about it. Somehow, when I believed Jesus was my savior I had to magically make the leap from faith to knowledge. I had to know I was saved. But it’s impossible to make that leap. It’s impossible for faith to turn into knowledge. Or it wouldn’t be faith. If there was this absolute knowledge that we all had, well, we would all agree on everything.

If we understand this basic principle, we will be much more tolerant of each other. Much more humble. I don’t know, you don’t know, we can agree to respect each other’s beliefs.

On the other hand, how can humans not be screwed up when we have just enough knowledge to drive ourselves crazy? When all we can be sure of is that from the moment we are born we are marching towards annihilation and we don’t even understand what that means? It’s bizarre. It’s terrifying. Did God create this big disaster that is the human race, in the middle of all this cosmic order?

Or, did it just happen out of nothing and we are going nowhere?

We go about our daily lives, trying somehow to live just a little bit better today than we did yesterday. We lie awake at night, wondering about those gnawing questions that we were able to forget about during our busy days. We want some validation that we are here for a reason. We want to know that, if we, personally, don’t have it all figured out, at least there’s someone over there in that church or that educational institution, who is further along on their way to reaching some sort of knowledge about something. We search out those leaders who fit best with our personalities, our backgrounds, our general philosophy and we align with them. We become part of a team. Our team knows. And okay, maybe not everyone is on the same team but that’s okay. We can respect each other and be friends or colleagues.  

But not anymore. Now, if you aren’t on my team, you are dangerous. You are my enemy. Not only is my team right and your team is wrong, but your team is doing things that can hurt, even kill my team. It is justifiable to silence you. Shun you.

What is next? Refuse you entrance in a store, a restaurant. Refuse you a job. Take your children away. Imprison you.

In 1440, Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press. The printing press was like the internet today. Suddenly, those in power—except then it was the church—lost control of information. Whereas before, only church leaders could read the Bible and interpret it, now, anyone could read for themselves and reach their own conclusions. Those who claimed they could have direct access to God (information) without going through the intermediary experts were tortured and killed as heretics. This is personal for me. As I write in A Dangerous Woman, The Power of Words, I’m a Mennonite, and one of my ancestors was tortured and died in prison for refusing to deny that he could have direct access to God.

Information is now being censored on a massive scale. There is a battle over the control of information. This battle extends into our very minds, for control over our thoughts in ways we couldn’t have anticipated except in a science fiction novel. Now, it isn’t the church but it’s science that must be followed unquestioningly—the accepted science, because there are plenty of highly regarded dissenters whose voices have been silenced. If you follow anything but the State version, you are labeled a conspiracy theorists. This is no different from being labeled a heretic. Of course, some people are conspiracy theorists, on both sides. Words are used in clever ways, repeated across platforms to solidify theories into facts.

It’s been said that 20% of people are easy to manipulate, 20% are impossible to manipulate, and 60% are a little bit difficult to manipulate but it can be managed. This is necessary in a stable society, actually. But we are entering the world of totalitarianism and that might go well for a time, but it never ends well.

Most people will go the path of least resistance. At least in the beginning, out of fear or a desire to be virtuous and on the right team.

As Alexander Solzhenitsyn said in One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich: “Shukhov had figured it all out. If he didn’t sign he’d be shot. If he signed he’d still get a chance to live. So he signed.”

It’s human nature to want to live with as little torment as possible.

People talk about the similarities between what is happening today and the rise of communism (and it’s another discussion how similar communism and fascism actually are). Many people laugh and don’t see a problem. But I do. Those who fought for communism in Russia in the early 1900s believed they were creating a better world. With the best of intentions, they tried to eradicate the horrific inequities. But there are problems on the other side. How do you force everyone into the same box? Fear and intimidation, the same tools always used by those in power, were used again. Churches were closed, books were banned. Faith must be replaced with reason. Art and Science must serve the State. All for the good of the masses over the rights of the individual. As a result, oppression and terror reigned supreme. Stalin alone killed between 20 and 60 million.

You cannot deny people faith. Everything is faith. There are things that have happened in my life that I cannot explain. Incredible things. Is there a God? I don’t know. Is science leading us to a better world? I don’t know. Is Dr. Fauci right? I don’t know. Will this vaccine save us? I don’t know. Will it lead to something worse? I don’t know.

If anyone reading the questions I just asked has an answer to any of them, please let me know.

It’s easy to get people to believe lies when truth is so confusing.

Those in power didn’t get there by telling the truth. They got there by manipulating stories.

I would like to talk about my experiences with communism. In 1966, my dad heard the voice of God telling him to give up his successful business career and become a writer. As a result our family of six packed our bags and headed off into the world so my dad could gain inspiration for his books. We had many adventures. One of them was smuggling Bibles behind the Iron Curtain, as it was called back then.

I grew up bombarded by the evils of communism, to the point of hysteria. I’d heard rumors that when you crossed the border into a communist country, even the air turned red. Would that be true? Would I see it for myself?

As we passed from the West into the East, I strained hard to see if there was even the slightest hint of red and I thought that maybe there was, sort of, but honestly, I couldn’t be sure.

When my family braced itself to enter the Communist Block we knew exactly who we were and why we did it. We were God’s servants standing against the forces of Satan. We were the righteous ones. They were the evil ones. It was all very simple. By faith we would prevail. The Bibles we carried were more precious than food in a famine. They would feed a people hungering for God’s Word.

I wanted fervently to believe but something always made me doubt, even at the age of ten. How could we be absolutely sure we were right?

We’d been given the Bibles by Brother Andrew, whose book God’s Smuggler went on to sell over 10 million copies. Brother Andrew was from the Netherlands, just like my mom’s Mennonite ancestors.

Earlier in the year, we’d traveled to the Netherlands and spent time with Brother Andrew. He and my dad hit it off immediately. Both men loved nothing more than to court adventure and controversy. In fact, they laughed together about how they’d dreamed of being spies in their youth. By the end of our stay with Brother Andrew, my dad had committed our family to smuggling a suitcase full of Bibles into Romania.

And that was how we found ourselves about to embark on our dangerous mission. If caught, my parents faced prison.

“They’re in the brown suitcase.” Dad pointed to a nondescript suitcase that looked like it had seen better days. “At every border crossing we’ll pray and God will answer our prayers. This is a wonderful opportunity to learn to trust in Him.”

Dad patted the drab and well-used suitcase, packed into the middle of all the others. He gave each of us kids a good, long stare. “You see? Here it is, plain as day. We aren’t smuggling anything. But just to be on the safe side, don’t talk about the Bibles or the suitcase, not even in our hotel rooms. Understand?”

I nodded my head along with everyone else when, in fact, I wanted to scream, that’s not making me feel any better, saying we’re not smuggling and then telling us we can’t talk about the Bibles—not even in private!

As we approached the first border crossing into Bulgaria, Dad stopped the car and prayed, just as he said he would, that the Lord would blind the eyes of the guards. This became a ritual before each crossing and checkpoint. At once border, we drove up to it unexpectedly and my dad actually backed the car up and parked so he could pray. This did not help my stress level. Surely this looked suspicious. But we made it through without difficulty.

Once passed the checkpoints, relief always drenched me in an exaggerated feeling of well-being. It was great to be alive, it was great to be here, I loved this country, I would never doubt again. Glory hallelujah!

As I calmed down, I forgot about the possibility of red tinted air and looked around me, pleasantly surprised to see that the communist countryside was as lovely as any place we had been in the West, with forests just as lush and green, fields covered in wildflowers, and friendly people, the women dressed in long skirts and kerchiefs.

When we reached the towns, we began to see reminders of the people's “liberation” with the ever present monument to the Soviet Soldier. We came to expect the many check points where we had to show our papers, or sometimes simply a man standing on a street corner who jotted down our license plate and time of passing. In every hotel and even in private homes, we were automatically registered with the police.

As we neared the border crossing into Romania, my fears grew in magnitude. The dour guards made the familiar and dreaded demand that we all get out. They searched our van from top to bottom and as they did, I became increasingly nervous. My stomach was in knots and it took all my self-control not to throw up.

Just look normal, I kept telling myself.

Normal?

They brought a special device to check in the tires, for what, I couldn’t imagine. Once, I’m not sure where, a guard asked for my mom’s purse, shook out everything and tore out the lining of her purse. What he was looking for was a mystery. Then came the worst moment, the moment we always dreaded. A guard demanded that Dad open the back of the van. He did.

The guard motioned for my dad to take out all of our luggage. Then, to my intense horror, the guard proceeded to systematically open each one.

That was it. I knew I was going to die. I looked at my older sister, Janna. She didn’t look back but continued to watch bravely as the guard threw clothes onto the ground.

 Then, the worst thing happened. My younger brother Jon, who was only seven, ran up to Dad and demanded in his loudest voice, “Did he look in the brown suitcase yet?”

We all froze.

The guard stopped his searching. “What brown suitcase?”

The guard then turned to the pile of suitcases and reached down to pull one out. That moment of reaching was an eternity. And then, it was all I could not to sigh in relief, scream and cry. He had grabbed the other brown suitcase, the one that didn’t have Bibles. He proceeded to inspect every item in the suitcase before discarding it in disgust.

The guard nodded at us to put the suitcases back and we hurried to clean up the mess and replace them. Nobody said a word until we were through the checkpoint and into Romania.

Then, the interior of the van erupted into whoops of happiness and relief. Dad smiled and laughed. I hadn’t seen him happy since we’d entered Bulgaria. Now, he could relax a bit. We had made it into the country where he was to meet his contact. We didn’t have to cross any more borders. But I must say the incredible thing was that not once at any of the border crossing did a guard ever look in that brown suitcase. At some point, they looked in all of the others. Coincidence? Who can really say for sure?

This didn’t mean I felt any better about our situation. I still hated the fact that we were carrying Bibles.

“Can’t we just drop them by the side of the road?” I blurted out and immediately regretted my big mouth.

Nobody said anything. Dad didn’t even respond. We continued to drive in silence, the euphoria fading.

Romania seemed somehow darker and more oppressive than the other countries. Mom commented in the journal she kept that the people were the dourest we had ever encountered. The fact that the sunny skies grew dark with rain might have affected our perception. The rain quickly turned into a driving thunderstorm and Dad carefully navigated the slippery road, where we saw a terrible accident, a truck that had crashed over a steep embankment. Passing through the villages we noticed the houses were all set in perfectly symmetrical rows, each front richly carved and painted, while the other sides were drab and bare. It was like a creepy movie set, not real somehow.

The deeper we progressed into the country, the more oppressive our feelings grew. As usual, there were occasional check points to ensure that we were on the right road. Once, we got lost out in the middle of nowhere and immediately there was an official car to lead us back to where we should be. Traveling off the main highway was forbidden.

It was horrible to think that these people lived like this every day of their lives. They could never fully trust their friends and family. At any moment, they might be betrayed by someone who claimed to love them. 

What made one person rise above depravity while most others sank into it? What gave one person courage when most succumbed to fear? I wanted to be that one person. But I didn’t think I ever would. I was weak. I was faithless. I would surely buckle under the slightest torture. I would betray my friends and family for a piece of bread. These thoughts haunted me.

Late one at night we finally found a private home to stay near to Count Dracula’s castle. We hadn’t eaten any supper and the couple made us some tea. Mom passed out pieces of Swiss chocolate and I miserably thought that I just might die of starvation.

Appropriately, the next day we visited the castle of Vlad Tepes, of Count Dracula fame, imagining the thousands of stakes driven into the ground and the bodies impaled upon them. Vlad might have inspired modern stories of vampires, but to the people of this land he was a hero who had fought for their independence from the Turks. One person’s hell can well be another’s heaven. 

“And then, everything’s so beautiful,” I said.

“Yeah, but in a devil way,” said Janna, her green eyes large and hypnotic. “Just watch out for vampires. They’re here, I can feel it.”

I shivered. My sister loved to frighten me. She was such a good story-teller and I was such a good listener.

The legends of Count Dracula cast a spell upon us as we drove through the Carpathian Alps, the forests forbidding and mysterious, the grassy valleys so shining green it almost hurt my eyes to look at them.

 Ceausescu happened to be making a tour through the towns and villages just as we were heading through the countryside, along a narrow road. He and his entourage were right in front of us and it was slow going, as traffic was held back. Each village we entered, we saw evidence of the great leader’s passage, flowers trampled in the streets, banners hanging in disarray, the decorations on houses being removed. We continually arrived at the end of the show. It was an eerie feeling. 

At last, we made it to Bucharest. We drove in dreaded silence along the wide empty boulevards past Palace Square. I pressed my face against the glass of the car window, looking out at the austere, authoritarian buildings made of cold stone. It was impossible to anticipate that over twenty years later, on December 21, 1989, Ceausescu would stand on the balcony of the Central Committee of the Romanian Communist Party and give his fateful speech, initiating a mass revolt.

Today, it is May 8, 2021. We are being told what to believe and what not to believe. The evil Donald Trump has been silenced and now it’s time to come after his followers. Apparently, over 80 million people are idiots blinded by faith and they need to either be silenced or forcibly changed in their mentality. It doesn’t bode well for the future.  

We all know now what would happen to Ceausescu. He and his wife would escape by helicopter, never to return. On December 25th they would be executed.

But in those days, as my family drove along the wide boulevards, the powerful couple basked in glory, with no premonition that one day their greed and corruption would unleash a bloody revolution and they would die in disgrace.

Those future events were but whispers beneath the surface. All seemed solid and built to last forever. Monuments of vengeful soldiers towered over us, celebrating the Glorious Deliverance. We passed few cars on the wide avenues or pedestrians on the sidewalks. It was all so foreboding, so constrictive, making me feel as if I could not breathe but there was no obvious illness or object blocking my airways. This was a futuristic city straight out of a dystopian novel but it was right now, right here.

This was where Dad would meet his contact and it seemed fitting that it should be such a soulless and imposing metropolis.

Dad had memorized the street number of his contact as it was too dangerous to have anything written down.

“That’s in case he gets captured and they torture him,” explained Janna. “I think they like to pull off fingernails, but I’m not sure, that could be China.”

Davy, the oldest and destined to become a philosophy professor, overheard this remark and rebuked Janna sharply. “You always think everything’s a game.”

“That’s how I deal with it,” she snapped back.

I’m not sure Davy said this, but someone in the van did, and it wasn’t any of us younger ones. I imagine he whipped around in his seat. “A journalist wrote an article in an American magazine about a Christian leader’s activities here, didn’t even name the guy, but it didn't matter. The leader was picked up and disappeared. So, yes, Dad has to be careful, and you shouldn’t make jokes about it.”

With that, we became even more subdued.

My parents had asked on several occasions for a map of the city and found that there were no maps available to tourists. In fact, our asking was treated with suspicion, as if we must be planning some kind of covert operation. Which I guess we were. Several times Dad got out of the car to seek help from pedestrians. Each of them looked shocked at being approached, darting furtive looks left and right as they scurried silently on. One or two paused long enough to give short, mumbled responses that meant nothing to us, before rushing away.

We began to feel desperate. Because the streets were so empty of vehicles, we stood out as if we were under a spotlight on center stage. We might as well have had neon lights flashing on our van and a loudspeaker blaring: Subversive activity happening here; come and arrest us! We didn’t dare keep driving around and around, attracting attention to ourselves.

Finally, I don’t remember how, we found the drop off location, the street lamps casting a cold light on the falling rain. We watched with trepidation as Dad walked down the sidewalk, the brown suitcase in hand. Perhaps it would be the last time I’d ever see my father. I imprinted an image in my brain of him disappearing into the gloom of the night, hunched over in the interminable rain, his trench coat slick with water, that horrible brown suitcase held tightly in his hand. Then Mom drove us off for some “sightseeing,” which was a joke since it was now a miserable, rainy night and there was nothing much to see anyway.

Tears stung my eyes. I was angry with my dad for doing such a crazy thing. He didn’t need to. It was just one suitcase of Bibles. How could it possibly make a difference anyway? What would happen if my dad disappeared? Our family couldn’t survive without him. I felt terrible for all the bad thoughts I’d had. I loved my dad. I practically idolized him. I prayed as best I could for his safety.

We came back an hour later to find Dad waiting for us. I was so relieved, I didn’t immediately realize that he was still holding the suitcase. I could feel anxiety emanating from my dad, but no one dared ask why he still had the suitcase. He put it back in the car, climbed into the driver’s seat and took off, looking this way and that.

“No one was there,” he said tersely. “We could be under surveillance. I’m afraid someone was following me.”

He would say nothing more.

Once we returned to Austria, we discovered that just days before our arrival in Romania, my dad’s contact had been bought out of the country for $7,000. This man had been a pastor and the director of a Romanian seminary. When the communists took over he'd been demoted to janitor. The teachers at the seminary had been fired, some of them imprisoned. They'd been replaced by government workers who had tormented and abused the newly appointed janitor on a daily basis. The situation had become increasingly dangerous for him.

As we drove away, we knew none of this. For all we knew, the pastor had been imprisoned. I should have been concerned about him. Instead, all I could think of was that we were still stuck with the blasted Bibles. So much for God’s will! We'd traveled such a long distance, braved so many searches and interrogations. It was like God was playing a joke on us. Why would he do that?

I can’t think of many experiences in my life that were more anticlimactic than that night in Bucharest.

Now, my dad had to come up with a plan of how to dispose of the Bibles. He decided that we would hand them out randomly to people who might want them. God would lead us to give them to the right people. I hated this idea, but of course I couldn’t object. I would have ditched them by the side of the road.

Once my dad had a plan of action, his spirits rallied. “This must have been God’s will all along,” he said. “We can’t see the big picture. But God can. He knows exactly where these Bibles need to be.”

Handing out the Bibles opened doors to a world we wouldn’t have otherwise seen. One man cried when we gave him a Bible. He didn't speak English, but he didn’t need to. Words weren't necessary to convey his feelings of gratitude and joy.

Another family led us to a secret meeting place and we joined a worship service.  When we revealed the Bibles, it was as if we had opened a treasure chest of gold and jewels. We were invited to the home of the pastor and shared a meal with his family. These people lived in drab apartment buildings, in dark, tiny spaces, yet they seemed so happy with every little joy that came their way.

My dad decided to give the rest of the Bibles to the pastor of that church. At last, the Bibles were gone. That horrible brown suitcase was empty. 

We were relieved to make it into Yugoslavia, a place that seemed much freer than the other communist countries we had visited. And once we made it to Austria that sense of freedom was magnified. But the futility that I had felt in Romania did not leave me. How could it have been God’s will that we should go to all that trouble to distribute Bibles? How could my dad’s faith remain so strong and unwavering?

On the other hand, I had witnessed with my own eyes the oppression, the heaviness of those countries. The fear. And I had seen the joy in people’s eyes as we gave them Bibles. I couldn’t imagine living in a place where I couldn’t read what I wanted

American had its problems, but not like that. At least in America, if you didn’t agree with something you could stand up and say so. You could even make fun of the president if you wanted to.

I have recently returned to the United States after having lived in Luxor, Egypt, off and on for almost three years. I was stuck there for four months during the pandemic. I loved my time there, I learned so much. Yet, I have been told outright by my Egyptian friends, if a person denies Islam, they will be killed. A swift punishment, and one they take as just. Inside a person’s head, one can think whatever one wants. But in Egypt, where religion rules every aspect of people’s lives, down to the call to prayer five times a day, outward expressions of rebellion are rare. Freedom of expression does not exist in Egypt.

So, we can see that faith is used by people in power, religion and science is used to keep people under control.

Good citizens the world, down through history, have followed the orders of their pundits and politicians, no matter the culture, no matter the religion. Those who opposed the status quo were dangerous deviants. Successful leaders played off of the underlying fear that everyone felt about the unknown. And no one was more filled with fear than the leaders themselves, just as Ceausescu and his wife had been. Leaders rose and fell, perceived as good or evil, depending on which side of the wall you stood. What happened to the evil when communism lost its hold? Did we destroy it? No. It moved on. It reinvented itself. It became the Taliban and ISIS. It is even possible in the United States that everything will twist around so that the Christians become the evil ones. We keep doing this to each other. We keep falling for the same old tricks of our leaders.

We should rise up and say, enough. We are all one. That’s the end of it.  

I often think of President Lincoln’s words on the matter. Now, even he is being vilified. We must despise our history, reinvent it. What a load of rubbish. It is hard to see in the middle of this pain and anger what will unfold. But we can look back and see that although a civil war victory could have afforded Lincoln the opportunity to rouse the nation with anthems of “God’s Justice,” and “God is on our side,” he instead chose words we would do well to embed into our minds today:

“Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes his aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged.”

We should acknowledge that we walk by faith, not by sight. Live your life and I will live mine. If history has taught us anything, it’s that we don’t pay enough attention to it. We keep right on climbing over each other in our frantic quest to feel a little better about who we are as opposed to who they are. To feel a little bit more like we belong to the right team.

We don’t know anything. Not really.

Judge not, that we be not judged. We are none of us better or more deserving than the others.

And what about that brown suitcase? Did God blind the eyes of the guards? I don’t know. But I believe that maybe he did.

I give special thanks to my mom for keeping a journal of our travels. She loved history and because of her accurate journal, I am able to give dates and details I wouldn’t otherwise remember. I’ve recreated conversations based on my memories.

I’ve added this addendum—there always seems to be something to add:

A comment below suggests guards back then didn’t speak English so how could he have understood my brother saying brown suitcase. There was often a main guard or officer, I have no idea their title, who did speak some English. They were always telling people to take out suitcases, so of course he understood the word “suitcase,” and the word “brown,” isn’t a hard one to understand, especially when my brother yelled at the top of his lungs. At any rate, this guard or officer was very suspicious so however he did it, he made sure he was going to understand and he did. I’ve always been amazed and impressed with how well non-English speakers learn English when it’s so difficult for us to learn their languages—at least difficult for me. I lived in Yugoslavia during the 1980s and certainly less people spoke English in those days than they do now, but they knew many more English words than I knew Slovenian or Croatian. It was difficult for me to learn because I was living in a village and my mother-in-law, who knew no English and was old enough to be my grandmother so had no interest in learning anything new, was supposed to teach me. However, she spoke a dialect, so when I proudly repeated the words I picked up from her, everyone laughed and said, no, no, you can’t say that! And I’d have to learn the proper word, which was very frustrating. There’s a reason why English became the global language, it’s adaptable and easy to write and learn. I taught online in China and was always amazed how children as young as four years old were speaking English better than a lot of four year old’s back home. Thanks for reading!

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