A Perfectly-Ordered Life

2004--Jan, Feb 085

It was 13 years ago when I ducked into the tar paper-clad shack of Jorge and Cristobal. A chicken defecated on the dirt floor to no horror or fanfare. Billboards–vinyl political propaganda–draped over the pallet-framed walls. The saccharine smiles and empty promises of last year’s mayoral candidate feigned angelic vigil over a newborn brother. Flies swarmed around his encrusted eyes, the air stale and thick with poverty.  My friend Melody and I looked at each other in disbelief.  My dad wouldn’t have kept his own pigs there. 

That was the beginning of the end for me. The first Jenga block tapped out of my carefully stacked, perfectly ordered life. The same world I’d considered good and fair was shown to be cruel for others. My life up to that point had been rather magical. Even when I explain how life was to people outside northwest Iowa, it always strikes them as mythical. And maybe memory has a way of making it into the Mayberry it never was, but by and large, life worked for us. We gathered together as a community nursing cups of cheap coffee and lemonade in the church narthex, around family tables with cousins and overcooked roast, we voted midterms on straight-party tickets, we took in the harvests of neighbors battling cancer, police asked who your parents were and with a nod, gave a warning to slow down. This is the stuff of community. I’ll never be thankful enough for it. Life just worked. And then there I was in Jorge and Cristobal’s shack, a thousand miles away by land and ten thousand miles by quality of life. Life, unquestionably, didn’t work for them nor for many in Croc. It was that moment that my life began to be torn in two. For the past 13 years I’ve ceaselessly tried to reconcile these two, starkly different realities.

Lately, it seems those claims of two different realities are coming up a whole lot more. Something seems to be happening right now. It’s like the ground is heaving beneath us— things that once seemed so foundational are suddenly questioned and up for grabs. It’s threatening to be confronted with the question that maybe the world is not as we thought or hoped it to be. We don’t want to believe that life could be so harsh and unfair. It’s hard for us to allow what we’ve considered good to be spoken of as evil. But what if? What if our experiences of the world and others’ very different experiences of the world are both true at the same time? Could we create the space for one another, extend the benefit of the doubt and just listen?

Friends, I can’t tell you how filled with hope I am right now. I believe God is birthing something new in the world. Like the incarnation two thousand years ago, I believe God is inviting us to the most unexpected places with the most unexpected cast to bear witness to God’s action. Today’s manger scenes seem as laughable and implausible as the ones before–messengers with stories as improbable as those of the uneducated, toothless shepherds; cracked sidewalks transformed into stables; each revealing a piece of the puzzle we’d never known. Heavenly hosts are all around us, singing, calling God’s people to have eyes to see and ears to hear that in spite of what some are saying, God’s kingdom is actually at hand.

For the last 13 years, God has been turning our family’s world upside down. By living life among the poor in Mexico, among immigrants and people of color in Argentine, God has wrecked our neatly stacked world in the best way possible. What first brought us fear and anxiety, when we thought our tower couldn’t handle one more Jenga block being pulled, God gave us a new foundation upon which we could construct our world and new insight to his Kingdom. Over the years we’ve brought you and others into this world through Youthfront’s Missional Journeys, Something to Eat meal packing events, housing investments, carne asadas, backyard Bible studies, and even this newsletter. Together, we’ve been caught up in God’s dream of a new heaven and a new earth, bending our lives toward that future. This has been our work—to pull back the curtain on our world, to face whatever we find and to not turn away, to listen for God’s voice in that place, and to shape our lives and our desires towards God’s new reality.

Thank you so much for going on this journey with us. Thank you so much for your courage to face hard, unsettling questions and to not turn away. Thank you for creating space in your lives for Emily and I and for others. Thank you for your generosity and grace as together we stumble and fall together in the dark, surrendering ourselves to a God we trust will show us the way.

It might be cliché to say we couldn’t do it without you (still true), but we don’t want to do it without you. At the close of this year, maybe some of you are considering a financial gift because this work we’re doing together means something to you. Please do. We understand there are so many worthy things to give your money towards and we too, really need your financial gifts. But your partnership means more to us than money and some of you can’t anyway. It would be a true gift to hear from you what this work means to you and why you continue to follow us. Maybe you’ve had a nagging question or doubt and you’ve always wanted to ask. Maybe we haven’t talked in quite some time and this is the only communication between us. We’d love to hear from you. E-mail us at krietema@youthfront.com.  Again, thank you so much for your partnership and have a very Merry Christmas!

Preaching Peace

“For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one, new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near.” Eph. 2:14-17

A week ago I stepped out onto our front porch looking for a change of scenery with Leo. Armando was across the street stirring a kettle over a makeshift grill built of broken concrete blocks and found stones, an air of grilled meat signaled a possible and very welcomed invitation. He spotted me on the porch, “Kuuurt! Vente para acá!” Confirmation. Leo and I went over while the other boys ran circles with the neighbor kids. As I sat among old friends with tacos laden with meat worthy of a Levitical sacrifice and my baby in the arms of eager Mexican mothers, I took deep pleasure in watching Armando at his craft. Through smoke and burned fingers, it was as if he was conjuring up memories of the old country. He had this look of derangement and delight, this rudimentary fire, an exile’s protest to stainless steel and liquid propane. He looked at home in his new home for the first time in a long time and it gave me great satisfaction.

A little while later, Alejandro from next door showed up and I overheard their conversation. Armando told him, “You know Kurt and Emily, they’re from a different class, but you wouldn’t know it. They’re educated. They’ve got some money. But they’re here with us, you know? They’re not like other güeros. They could be living in other places among different people, but they’re here with us. That’s why I like them. They’re one of us.” It was a moment that validated our efforts of downward mobility. The immigrant experience is often marked by feelings of being unwanted, second-class, and perpetually catering to someone else’s desires. It’s lonely, alienating, isolating and anti-shalom. But here, Armando was seeing the temporary rules of the world suspended as together in our neighborhood we’ve put aside what divides us, we preach peace to one another, and taste a new kind of humanity.

The week after Mike Brown was shot in Ferguson, Missouri, I was fixated on social media. The protests and marches had become about so much more than taking sides on Mike Brown’s presumed innocence or his guilt. It became the epicenter of racial pain in the US. On social media, I heard the pain and the raw emotion pour out, unedited from people of color in a way that I never had experienced before. And some of the most recurring, frustrated cries were the ones that wondered why their white brothers and sisters were so silent, echoing Dr. King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail, a generation before. One reporter asked someone how he felt about Mike Brown’s death being a young, black man himself. His response cut right to the very alienation that was embedded and invisible within the question itself. “I don’t know, how do you feel about it as a human?” At their core, the marches and protests were about people of color looking for validation, emotional bids burdened by a desire to know they’re not alone. They wanted someone to acknowledge that their pain is real; to tell them they’re not crazy and that their frustration is not unwarranted. The Sunday after Mike Brown was shot, I called up a few friends and we went to Ferguson, not to take sides but to walk with them and tell them they weren’t alone.

When we walked up Florissant Avenue for the first time, we were the ones who felt alone. It seemed the only other white people were either cops or the media. Soon, we stopped to talk to a few people—friends of the Brown family as it so happened. They welcomed us in and shared some of their stories. They found out we were from Kansas City and they thanked us for coming down and joining them. They took away our anxiety and displacement and, from their response, it seemed their sense of alienation subsided as well by standing with them. If only for a moment and if only among a handful of people, the normal dividing wall of hostility was set aside and we experienced the new humanity that Jesus came to bring.

A few months ago, Sarah Bessey, a Christian writer and blogger wrote a brave piece about how the world traffics in fear of the other and the unknown and how evil and hatred is propagated by fear. “Be afraid, the world tells us. And now, sadly, it seems many of our [Christian] media outlets and leaders are telling us the same thing. Be afraid. Be afraid of money, be afraid of losing “the fire”, be afraid of education, be afraid of theology, be afraid of growth and change…be afraid of the news, be afraid of Islam, be afraid of the President, be afraid of the UN, be afraid of immigrant children, be afraid of other churches, be afraid of the Pope, be afraid of socialism, be afraid of the government, be afraid of the world, be afraid be afraid be afraid.” Yet we know that there is no fear in love, forperfect love casts out fear. Throughout scripture, it seems that every angelic or divine encounter is prefaced by one message–don’t be afraid. And when Israel lived in terror in Egypt, they cried out andGod listened. When scared and helpless during the period of the judges, God didn’t abandon them. When living in fear under Roman occupation, God did not remain distant. Instead God took on flesh and moved into the neighborhood. When the world ran from the lepers, Jesus ran toward them. When the Jews flanked Samaria, Jesus cut through it. When the Temple cordoned off the Gentiles, Jesus took them for dinner. Do not be anxious about tomorrow and do not be afraid, says Jesus, for there is not one square inch of creation that is not mine.

God has given some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, pastors and teachers. Sometimes I’m not sure if I fit any one of those categories as cleanly as I, or others, might like. But it seems that one constant message that God keeps surprising us with is that the world is not such a scary place after all. Preaching peace both to those whose life is very different from me and to those who are like me is one thing I can’t keep silent about. For it is Jesus who casted off fear like he casted off demons, showing the world for the first time what it means to truly be human, what it really means to live, what it really means to love. Without fear, one new humanity.

When We Learned to Live

On Sunday we baptized Leo.  This month, I decided I’d share with you a blessing I wrote for him that also speaks to my time in Croc last week. 

      Leo, I spent some time last week in Mexico with both of your namesakes, Leo and Josefina.  These two people have meant a lot in our lives.  Leo was one of my best friends in Croc.  I could trust him with anything.  Maybe more than anything, I could count on Leo for a joke.  He was always telling me some story about Pepito, a crass character who makes a cameo appearance in every reputable Mexican joke worth its frijoles.  It was in those days that I became particularly astute at reading the punch line on Leo’s face because I hadn’t the slightest chance in actually understanding it.  But I laughed along riotously anyway just from the sheer mischievous delight I found in him telling it.  Leo was in a bad car accident last year.  Before, Leo was a strong man, a man with fingers so think and calloused by concrete block that he could fling a rock from his finger and it would audibly zing through the air.  Then last year, I saw him shrunken down to a wheelchair, unsure of when or if he’d ever get back to work again.  But last week, he was back in true form, turning over reams of steak on his grill with the speed and dexterity of a textile factory worker, masterfully rolling and cutting yards of beef to exact specifications.  Meat, a good carne asada, is Leo’s love language.  In a male, machista culture in Mexico, there aren’t many ways to tell someone that you appreciate and love them.  But meat is the one safe way to tell another man you love them without having to use words.  Or without getting punched in the face in return.  Inviting someone to eat carne asada with you is a kind of way of taking these very real, but invisible sentiments that have no shape and no form and making them tactile and substantive.  Something you can sink your teeth into and consume.  For Leo, that’s what love tastes like.  

      Josefina is a wise, irascible, but likable old woman.  She’s the only person I’ve ever met whose spiritual gift is scolding.  Leo, if your brothers are any indication of your own future, you’ll easily live up to the receiving end of that name as well.  Josefina has lived a difficult and hard life, but one in which she has learned–as the Apostle Paul spoke of–the secrets of being content no matter the circumstances.  The lives of your mother and I have been up to this point marked by blessing after blessing.  Our experience of the world has been so starkly different from that of Josefina’s. While we too were sprinkled and splashed with the water of baptism as we cooed and kicked as you do today, our lives have been shaped by nothing less than a full immersion in the gospel, a forward, 2 ½ pike dive off of a 3 meter springboard into a pool of God’s grace.  So sometimes we forget, as you might lapse a time or two as well, just what it is that makes Jesus so special.  So I asked Josefina what it meant for her to come to know Jesus.  What was it about Jesus that so profoundly changed her life?  Josefina responded by recounting a conversation with her son.  He had been snidely deriding her and all of this churchgoing that she had been attending to.  “Ever since you started going to church”, he began to sneer.   He was swiftly and summarily interrupted by his mother who responded quite unshaken. “No.  This isn’t about ‘when we started going to church’, this is about when we learned to live.  Don’t talk to me about religion, because religion has nothing to do with it.”  Josefina’s response silenced me with its simple, plainspoken elegance.  Her words sunk me even deeper into her wire rocker.  When we learned to live.  

      Josefina’s words carried the unmistakable echoes of a confession that Peter one day gave to Jesus.  On that day crowds of people were gathered around Jesus.  It was a circus really.  Jesus was talking to the crowds about what it meant to really live and to not just survive one more day content with handouts in a breadline.  He wasn’t there to perform magic tricks nor to offer an opiate that pinned their hopes in the ever after.  Jesus was offering them a life so real, so embodied, so fully human that the only words he could find to invite them into this life that was so real, but invisible was to give them something they could sink their teeth into and consume.  Something tactile and substantive.  A taste of real life.  ‘For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink.’  But the metaphor came off like an invitation to a carne asada gone cannibal.  And upon hearing it, his disciples said in proper Galilean dialect, “ ‘sta loco”.  Like Josefina’s son, they’d had it with religious quacks.  This just proved Jesus was another.  As Jesus watched them go, he turned to his twelve friends and said, “Are you going to leave me too?”  And Peter in a moment of rare brilliance says, “To whom shall we go?  You have the words of eternal life.”  Go?  Are you kidding me?  When we started following you, that’s when we learned to really live.

      Leo, this baptism that we’re celebrating today is no mere ritual devoid of any real, earthy substance.  We don’t sprinkle water on you today out of religious rite.  Today, we celebrate as a covenant people when we learned to live.  Following Jesus isn’t about coming to terms with an angry God who is distant and formless and lives in this other place called heaven that is so far away that we can only hope that one day we’ll leave all of this to be with him.  No, following Jesus is about receiving a life and learning to live a life so rich, so deep and so filled with wonder that it can only be called “eternal”.  It’s a life of such weight, such substance and permanence that what Jesus has begun in you and in us here on this earth will carry on and be completed in all eternity. This baptism, this water that we mark you with is that place where the space between heaven and earth becomes thin and blurry, where the physical and spiritual are wedded to one another. We use these symbols of water and bread and wine–we touch, we eat, we drink–because God is a God who comes close, a God who himself was baptized, who himself asked for food, who himself asked for a drink, a God who walked among us in the world he himself created and called ‘good’.  And it is this water by which you enter this promise yourself.  In this water, God takes this very real, eternal life and makes it tactile and substantive.  Something we can touch.  This water is what real life feels like.  It’s a symbol of when you and we learned to really live.  Leo, remember your baptism.  Remember when you learned to live.  

 

To Suffer

“What people don’t realize is how much religion costs.   They think faith is a big electric blanket when of course it is the cross.” Flannery O’Connor

      Jim Stigler, a UCLA psychology professor who studies teaching and learning around the world recounted a poignant moment in his research in a 4th grade classroom in Japan. Stigler watched as the teacher invited a student who was having a particularly difficult time to come up to the chalkboard to put his work on the board for the whole class to see.  This was interesting to him because in American classrooms, the teacher would have asked the best student up front.  The student came up to the board and started drawing and every few minutes the teacher would ask the class if he had it right and the class would shake their heads “no”. Stigler noticed that he himself was perspiring and becoming anxious that the kid was going to burst into tears.  But it never happened. By the end of the class, the student continued to work at it until finally the teacher asked the class if he’d gotten it right and the class broke out into applause.  The kid smiled and sat down, proud of himself.  Stigler and other researchers have noted differences between education in the East and the West.  In the West, we generally tend to believe that intelligence and success in the classroom is something inside of us.  We have “gifted and talented” programs–we either have it or we don’t.  Struggle is a weakness, a sign of a lack of something innate.  But in Eastern cultures, struggle is seen as an integral part of the learning process.  They’ve been taught that suffering can be a good thing.  It shows they have the emotional resolve to persist through the struggle.

      Last week at our Wednesday night community Bible study, the scripture passage we read from was John 20. Jesus revealed himself to the disciples after his resurrection.  I was fixated on the phrase, “the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews.”  The disciples wanted to follow Jesus, that’s for sure.  They thought they knew what they were getting into.  They thought he was the Messiah, the Son of God.  They wanted a piece of the glory.  But then Jesus started talking about suffering, and Peter wouldn’t hear of it.  Then Jesus got arrested, and they kept their distance.  And then he got killed, and they abandoned him.  This wasn’t how the story was supposed to go in their minds.  God doesn’t suffer.  God is a winner, not a loser.  And their supposed Messiah lost.  This wasn’t what they’d signed up for.  So they locked the door in fear, hoping to escape the same fate of their master and friend.

      Last week I locked myself in the house like a scared disciple.  Earlier that day I’d shared with a group some scripture verses that spoke about God’s concern for the immigrant and the possible implications it might have for us today.  I knew that this group might not be particularly sympathetic to the issue, but I felt that coming to serve in an immigrant neighborhood might give me some kind of permission to help them consider ways of understanding God and the “other” in ways they may not have considered before.  I was wrong.  I came home feeling pretty beat up.  

      Just then I looked out the window and saw the owner who had purchased the house across the street from us. He bought it just 3 days before we were going to submit an offer on behalf of our friend, Armando.  Weeks earlier, I had met with the owner and offered him $5k over his $18k closing price.  He was a super-nice guy from a small town in Iowa.  Moreover, he was a Cyclone!  I felt good about our prospects.  He declined our offer and said he’d purchased it as a long-term investment and countered with a lease-to-own offer that would have accrued $130k in payments over 15 years.  I knew I needed to talk to him. I didn’t want to give up both for Armando’s sake and to help a really nice guy from Iowa realize what it means to be nice in markets and contracts too.   

      Yet at the same time, I didn’t want to speak up. I didn’t have to speak up.  By the rules of the market, Armando couldn’t come up with the money.  Sure, he might be more deserving, but that’s not the way it works.  He missed his shot. Game over. But more than anything, I didn’t want to face the owner with this because just as Jesus found out preaching in the synagogue in Nazareth, sometimes proclaiming God’s good news to the poor and marginalized seems like bad news to those of us who are rich and comfortable.  And my desire to be liked and to be accepted is often greater than my desire to witness to God’s kingdom and to stand alongside my friends who don’t share those privileges.  I’d already felt an icy rejection once that day, I didn’t want to suffer humiliation again.  I was afraid.

      The logic of my culture tells me to just take the path of least resistance.  Find the quickest escape route from pain. Don’t speak up. Just be nice. Don’t rock the boat. You’ll just end up alienating people you love.  This logic has such a strong pull on me.  Too often the church is simply a hollow, angelic echo of the same.  We can become a refuge that merely serves to baptize the status quo.  Our prayers become about keeping so and so safe, providing  comfort, asking for hedges of protection and making life easier for those we love.  When we do that, we act like the researcher who just wants to rescue the 4th grader from struggle, from public humiliation, and from tears.  You shouldn’t have to struggle.  You don’t need to suffer.  It was right then that I realized how badly I needed the church.  But I needed a church who prayed a different kind of prayer–not one that would rescue and keep me from that discomfort, but one like that of my friend, Isaac, who said he now prays that God would give strength to endure, courage in the face of fear, patience to not bail out at a critical juncture, and resolve in the face of opposition.  

      The first thing Jesus told his scared disciples, hunkered up behind locked doors was, “Peace be with you.”  Peace.  Don’t be afraid.  You’re not alone.  I am with you.  And the very next words are, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”  As the Father has sent me with a message of such hope and such aching beauty that only those with nothing to lose dare to accept, so I send you.  I send you into a world that chooses to secure its future on its own, that fiercely protects and will quite literally kill to protect its interests.  Of course you’re scared.  Of course you don’t want to speak up.  Of course you don’t want to suffer.  Of course you don’t feel like you have those gifts and you’ll never have it in you.  But take heart, I am with you.  Jesus was teaching them and us the way of the cross–not so that they or we might earn anything–but rather that we might learn that it is the only path to dismantling the powers of death and the only way to witness the power of the resurrection.  

      The very next day I got a taste of it.  The owner of the house across the street gave us an offer even lower than we’d first asked–a more than $100k change from his last!  It doesn’t happen every time.  More often than not, participating in the sufferings of Christ with others feels fruitless.  Pointless.  A bit like death.  But every now and then Easter breaks through.

Getting the Glory

    

“It’s the church’s job to take care of the poor!”

“Letting the market work unfettered from government regulations is the best way to raise the standard of living for everyone, including the poor.”

“Foreign aid works!” 

“Government entitlement programs, while not perfect, have kept millions of people out of poverty.”  

I’ve heard variations of each one of these soundbites numerous times over the past couple of months.  It’s like the modern day mashup of the Corinthian argument of following Paul or Cephas or Apollos.  “I follow the church!”  “I follow the market!”  “I follow the government!”  And so we bitterly defend our ideological ground, create alliances with the lesser of the two evils, and demonize the third.  The church thinks the government has appropriated its job, the market looks at both government and non-profit initiatives and thinks they’re largely irrelevant, and the government trusts neither individuals nor the marketplace to regulate themselves enough to ensure that no one is left behind.  Everyone is looking to make sure that their team and their hero gets the credit and all the glory.

In the 4th century, Emperor Julian had a similar predicament.  In a letter to a Hellenist high priest, Julian was incensed at the generosity of the Christians.  “The impious Galileans support not only their own poor, but ours as well.”  There was no logic in their religion to account for such behavior.  No one takes care of anyone else other than their own people.  The radical sacrifice, hospitality, and inclusivity of the early Christians were shaming their Greek gods.  The way these Christians were taking care of the poor was taking away the glory that was due to his gods.  So Julian ordered his government and his priests to out-do the generosity and hospitality of the Christians.

A couple of years ago I was reading about the low poverty rate of Denmark and the high levels of services and support that were offered to all.  But this low poverty rate came at a high price tag with some of the highest rates of taxation in the world.  Nevertheless, the Danes also enjoy one of the highest standards of living in the world.  And I thought to myself: “Is Jesus disappointed by this?  Is Jesus saddened that the Danish government has taken away the ‘church’s job’ and nearly eliminated poverty?”  I was suddenly convicted with the realization that I was more concerned with the church’s reputation and with God’s glory than the well-being of God’s own children.

I was confronted with this again recently when I was asked to join an initiative of 30 prominent evangelical leaders in Kansas City who are working with city and school officials to help young children improve reading skills.  Studies are showing that if students aren’t proficient in reading by 3rd grade, they’re likely never to catch up and will fall further and further behind in all subjects.  So there it was: start a reading program.  No strings attached.  No Bible lessons.  Not to save them.  Just read with them.  Will you do it?  And I got to thinking about it.  No, reading with kids isn’t saving them in the cosmic, eternal sense we’re used to talking about.  But yeah, just reading with kids is saving them.  It’s saving them from the unclear instructions on the standardized tests.  It’s saving them from having to act out in class because its the only way they know how to draw attention to themselves and away from their educational incompetence.  It’s saving them from having to drop out of school for some dead-end, minimum wage, clerical work.  ‘Just reading’ is saving them from the fine print of a payday loan agreement.  It’s saving them from the cheerless visits of renewing their Section 8 status.  Is ‘just reading’ with kids saving them?  Would God be pleased with this even though it isn’t overtly Christian?  Does God get the glory regardless of how his children are taken care of?  I think so.

Emperor Julian was concerned about his gods’ reputation because there was nothing within their character that would compel their followers to such acts of love and compassion.  So he had to appropriate Christian practices simply to prop up a story about their gods’ so-called glory.  The emperor’s gods had no clothes.  The early Christians on the other hand didn’t take care of the poor as some kind of publicity stunt for God.  They took care of the left out and forgotten of the empire because it is an outflow of the very generous, hospitable, and inclusive character of Jesus Christ himself.  But neither did they give up preaching of God’s word because they knew that it was life.  It was the only story that could animate and resurrect life eternal among broken religious, economic, and political institutions.

Out of exasperation for their jealousy and quarreling, Paul finally says to the Corinthians, “What, after all, is Apollos?  And what is Paul?  Only servants through whom you came to believe–as the Lord has assigned to each his task.”  We might ask the same.  What after all is the church?  What is the market?  What is the government?  Only God’s servants through whom God takes care of each of his children.  I came across this piece of church doctrine that captures these sentiments well.  “It is undoubtedly an act of love, the work of mercy by which one responds here and now to a real and impelling need of one’s neighbor, but it is an equally indispensable act of love to strive to organize and structure society so that one’s neighbor will not find himself in poverty.”  Whether the poor are fed through a volunteer church soup kitchen, through food stamps, or through a decent paying job–God is glorified.  Whether children learn to read through Bible stories, in a supplemental summer reading program or public school kindergarten–God is glorified.  In all things, God is glorified.

It’s not the church’s job to take care of the poor.  It’s the church’s job to tell a story about a generous, hospitable God who is gathering up the whole world to himself and doesn’t want anyone to be left out of this community of divine love.  It’s our job to enact that love in the world through the church and through markets and governments and to celebrate when someone takes our job away from us.  I think if we take a good look around the world we’ll find that there’s plenty more good news to tell and plenty more jobs to do.  So let’s read with some kids, shall we?

 

God in Diapers

I’m pretty sure I offended him.  Eliazar tried to explain to me why he didn’t want the money.  I understood him, but I wasn’t really listening to him.  Eliazar, a bit rebuffed, turned to Emily and said, “Kurt’s trying to pay me for this but I never did it so that you guys would give me money for the work.  I just did it.”  In my defense, this wasn’t “hey, let me watch your dog while you’re away for the weekend” or “anytime you need something out of my garage just grab it” kind of neighborliness.  This was, “hey, I just quarried this limestone while excavating a basement, loaded it up into my truck by hand, and by the way, how about the next 3 weekends I use it to rebuild that crumbling, 100-year old retaining wall in front of your house?”  You know, chattel slavery kind of neighborliness.  He did amazing work on it, so I wanted to give him at least something for it.  And I knew he needed the money.  We’d helped him buy the house next door to us and we’d sold him our old car and he was a bit behind.  I acted like I was bantering with friends, seeing who was going to be the big man to pick up the bill at Applebee’s and I, the victor, wrestled it from his hands and unilaterally settled on writing down some of his car loan.  Emily gave me this look of bewilderment and said, “Kurt, let him do this for us.”  Finally I got it.  Building this wall was certainly about Eliazar’s generous spirit.  But it was also about a man standing up and asserting his own agency and maintaining his own dignity.  This wasn’t just dinner between friends, between “equals”.  It was about me not being the benevolent benefactor for once, and he not being the gracious recipient.  It was his chance to level the playing field to make us equals, and make way for true friendship.  And I doltishly tried to take it away from him.

    Last week in my Economics of Development class, one of my classmates noted that India refuses most international aid even in the face of catastrophic events like the 2006 tsunami and in the face of much poverty.  Others chimed in with suggestions as to why this was the case.  My friend, Jeff, reminded us that even after Hurricane Katrina, the US accepted foreign aid remembering the Mexican army convoys that delivered food, water, and medical supplies.  It was the first time Mexican troops had been in US borders since 1846.  Even the United States.  I was so struck by that phrase.  It doesn’t fit our story.  That isn’t really the image we want the rest of the world to remember about us.  Everybody knows we’re the ones who help out everybody else.  We’re the generous ones, the ones who step in and save the day.  We don’t need Mexico’s help, we have all of their people climbing our fences because they’re such a disaster over there and can’t get their stuff together.  When everybody else is whining for some kind of bailout here and another civil war is breaking out there, at least the world has someone who can be counted on to be stable and dependable.  How disarming and equalizing to see the US receive aid from Mexico!  If only for a moment, the power dynamics were reversed and the typical roles of benefactor and recipient were subverted.

    While it might be true that it’s better to give than to receive, it’s a whole lot more difficult to receive than to give.  While gifts can infuse a relationship with unanticipated new energies and can strengthen and nourish relational bonds, gifts can have the opposite effect when the roles of benefactor and recipient are cemented and sustained for too long.  Gifts have power.  They make a claim on the recipient.  That sense of indebtedness that a recipient feels can, in the short run, draw us closer to the gift-giver for their generosity.  But in the long-run, when we’re constantly reminded that we’re dependent on another, those claims can make our lives bitter and resentful.

    I used to be enamored with images of a self-sufficient, omnipotent, glory-hungry God who was intent on making sure the rest of creation knew exactly how great he was too.  A God who called all of the shots, a God who was demanding, no doubt, but also generous enough to let us in on a piece of himself too.  I think I used to be enamored with a glory-hungry God because I was enamored with power myself.  It said more about my own ambitions than it said about God’s.  And then came Christmas.

    The irony of Christmas is that in a world where we amass more and more power, where we strive to be self-sufficient and independent so we can be generous and benevolent–more “like God”, at Christmas we see a God who becomes as utterly dependent on another as a creature can possibly be.  At Christmas we celebrate a God who found his home, sucking his thumb in the fetal position, bathed by the warm, amniotic fluid of his mother, soothed by the sway and the sweet lullabies of Mary.  By what divine invention do we find a God so desperate for human union that for 9 months he tethers himself via umbilical cord to a teenage girl whose own being is upheld every moment by God’s own?  By what comedy do we see a God who is so willing to give of himself to humanity that he’s willing to let us change his sodden and soiled diapers?

    I don’t think God’s advent was about changing tactics with humanity.  It’s not as if that first go at connecting with humanity was a flop–that being the tough, demanding father wasn’t working.  The advent of Christ was conceived before it all began, the mystery itself, held within the Triune womb of God, waiting in long expectation for humanity to receive the gift that has always been ours.  Immanuel.  God with us.  This is the secret “that we have to whisper because it is so beautiful, it should get stuck in our throats while we say it”.  God doesn’t want to be our benefactor.  Christ’s coming doesn’t change the fact that we are utterly and helplessly dependent upon God or that he is deserving of all glory.  But it’s precisely the fact that God himself, out of a desire to be with us, became so utterly helpless and dependent upon us and made a way that we too might give God a gift.  It’s because of this that we can say with no hesitation that God is indeed deserving of all glory, all of our love, and all of our affections.

Being Led

It could have been some kind of teleportation.  It was almost as if the security guards at the door knew it too.  They guarded their portal with a quick appraisal of me, a head-to-toe assessment that told me that I was in the wrong place.  Maybe out of compassion they would have said something to me, but I think they wanted to see how long it would take this poor sap to realize this wasn’t the Miller’s 60th anniversary celebration. They wanted to see me swim like a scared fish in a current of belt buckles, tossed and turned by the accordion’s norteño twang, confused by the heedless consumption of carnitas and Coronas only to be spit back out onto the parking lot like Jonah’s hungover whale.  If ever there was a profile for the consummate quinceañera crasher, I had neither the hair color nor the dance floor finesse to flow with 15 year-old Mexican-Americans and their uncles from Juarez.  After a few minutes of scanning the ballroom for my neighbors and chastising myself for being so woefully and so gringo-ly underdressed, I saw Nancy in her billowing gown and her mother, Martha, fretting about like her biblical namesake.  I soon settled in with a plate full of mole, sidling up next to the speakers filling the hall with songs steeped in wistful, but energetic memory of the motherland.  And a smile grew in me as I sat back in a deep sense of gratitude and wonder.  How did I ever get to this place?

It had been a long weekend already.  Two nights prior, I’d stayed up until 3am finishing a final paper for grad school.  The night before I was facilitating a service retreat in Argentine for 100 students from a suburban church in Kansas City.  And then there was the Franklin Center Fall Festival.  All morning long, I was busy with the youth in spiritual formation exercises and then I pulled up to the Franklin Center parking lot.  It was full of tents with vendors preparing skewers of pastor, wannabe carnies peddling the promise of a 10-cent goldfish on a dollar and a ping pong ball, live music echoing all the way down Metropolitan Avenue, and the students from the church readying carnival games that Emily and Amber had prepared.  I walked up to a second floor window and peering out over the parking lot through broken glass I thought to myself, “How did this ever happen? This is amazing. I don’t deserve any credit for this.”  At the center of it all was Ruperto.

Ruperto is a guy who I’d run into on another Argentine committee a couple of years ago.  I knew there was something special in him when he came to our meeting with a scale mockup of the stage and judging procedure for the menudo contest at Silver City Day.  Ruperto is a larger than life character who grew up in Kansas City, lived under a bridge, homeless in Chicago, went off to the military and spent many years of his life as a building engineer for Marriott before retirement where now he gets about 4 hours of sleep a night between writing homespun novels where the line between his own story and fantasy bleeds seamlessly into one another.  Ruperto lives right behind the Franklin Center and now he spends much of his day scheming with others about what we can do next for the Franklin Center.  This Fall Festival was his work, his passion, his crazy dreams that brought a glimpse of a better future for our neighborhood.

Ruperto and I were talking to a TV reporter when Kelly came up to us.  Kelly is an electrician who lives a couple of blocks from the Franklin Center.  In his own words, Kelly is ‘blue collar all the way’–the kind of guy that doesn’t have time for talk or bureaucracy, he wants to just get stuff done.  That day he had one thing on his mind–getting electricity to the Franklin Center.  Kelly begged Ruperto and I, spouting off his credentials and his contacts in City Hall.  Getting a temporary permit to get us electrical service was routine business for him.  Three days later, Kelly kept his word.  Cars were stopping by the side of the road as they saw lights shining out of the cafe windows for the first time in more than 3 years.  By the end of the week, he had nearly the entire building rewired and reconnected.  And the question hit me once again, “How did this happen?”

In some way, I think each of these stories are connected to one another and I think it comes down to the difference of leading and being led.  We do so much to control our lives, to be the architects of our own destinies, and to maintain appearances of being in charge.  There’s undoubtedly an element in these very letters where I attempt to communicate to each one of you that we’re competent, that we’ve got things under control here in Argentine and that we’re “leading” something really special.  But the more that I look back on big milestones on our life in Argentine, the more I realize that we had nothing to do with them.  The greatest gifts that we’ve received here have been exactly that–gifts.  If it had been up to me, the fall festival would have been a couple of teenagers in the parking lot with a handful of kids carving pumpkins.  Or more likely, it wouldn’t have happened at all.  By our own efforts, getting the Franklin Center reconnected with electricity had seen nothing but red tape.  And that night at the quinceañera, I didn’t want to go at all.  With all of the activity that weekend, I hadn’t seen much of Emily or the kids over the past 48 hours and they’d already come back from the party.  But I knew I had to go for our neighbors’ sakes to share in those significant life moments with them.  It was there, at the moment I least expected, where I experienced a profound gift.  I had walked into another world.  Part of it was the wonder of being found in a place of deep, cultural dislocation–a rare invitation to be a spectator of a beautiful, intimate, human liturgy.  But I think the real gift was walking into a world where I was not in control.  I never would have scripted the life that we live.  And if I had, I would never have received this.  I never would have gotten involved.  I never would have stuck out my neck.  I never would take on any project that I didn’t think I could handle.  And because of it, I never would have experienced the miraculous, I’d never know that gift was more than reciprocal exchange, and I never would have experienced true grace.

I’ve always been taught that growing up meant dressing myself, being a leader, and going wherever I wanted.  But Jesus overturns my logic again and again teaching me that growing up isn’t about leading.  It’s about stretching out your hands and letting someone else guide you to places you don’t want to go.  It’s then, and only then, will you experience the miraculous.

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Let’s write new stories together this year.

We all seek out stories–people, businesses, ministries, and products–that resonate with us in some way.  Sometimes those stories reassure us.  They tell us we’re not alone, or crazy.  Sometimes they disturb us and unsettle the status quo.  Yet somehow we can’t walk away.  Sometimes they bring a glimpse of the future we ache for.  And we want to be a part of it.  The ministry that we have here in Argentine is not our own, but it is the collective work, the desire, the imagination, and the frustration of hundreds of us.  If there’s something that resonates with you in the stories that we are creating here, please consider a tax-deductible, year-end donation or becoming a regular contributor to this work.  You can contribute online at youthfront.com/staffsupport.  We need you!

Default

IMG_2230Zaira was born in Mexico, Eh Dho in Burma, and Mleh in Liberia.  Add to the mix, Rhiannon, a white, middle school girl who I just witnessed give a beatdown to a Justin Bieber piñata.  And Deanna, a young, African-American girl who is shy with words but not shy with selfies.  A more  improbable or diverse group we couldn’t have engineered even if we tried.  Their lives have somehow collided with ours in Argentine around projects we’ve done through our Youthfront Missional Journeys, our efforts to rehab the abandoned Franklin Center, neighborhood barbecues and Bible studies, and a little something called Something to Eat.  Something to Eat is Youthfront’s crisis response meal packaging program that we began a little over 3 years ago as a way for youth to bridge the gap between their privilege and the world’s poor.  And now, with these 5 youth with histories and hormones that by all accounts should have cemented their isolation from one another, we’re finding out that the global gap isn’t the only one being bridged through this program.

These five youth are what we like to call Youthfront’s Something to Eat “interns”.  All teenagers like to burrow black tunnels from our ears to our souls with their incessant whines of boredom, but maybe in Argentine, there’s just cause.  Extracurriculars are underfunded and require alternative modes of transportation which aren’t easy to come by when cash is tight and your mom’s second shift is the same time as football practice.  And as far as jobs go, they oftentimes find themselves competing with their parents for the few minimum wage jobs out there.  There really aren’t many constructive ways to channel adolescents’ desires to participate in something bigger than themselves.

In Stephen Chbosky’s powerful, coming-of-age novel and film, The Perks of Being a Wallflowera lonely introvert named Charlie gets swept up in generous friendships and in a journey of adolescent experimentation.  In Charlie’s profound experience of belonging he says a phrase that poignantly captures and distills adolescent desire, “And in this moment, I swear, we are infinite”.  There is a deep, pregnant, aching yearning in adolescents to unshackle themselves from human limitations and to experience the transcendent.  So they often give themselves to those things that hold out a promise for ecstasy.  These promises are manifest in the usual suspects of violence, drugs, and sex that offer immediate sensory experiences of the infinite, but also through seemingly more innocent means, like ecstatic worship experiences and serving the poor.  All of these things may at their heart be a desire to be found in God, yet can simultaneously be destructively enacted.

For these youth in Argentine, maybe between the mind-numbing, lose-lose choice of Wii or weed, hanging out and serving with us might be considered “settling”.  There’s nothing about us that is glamorous, we offer little to satisfy these sensory cravings.  So maybe we’re default.  But in the adolescent experience, aren’t most things of virtue and substance (including and especially parents) pushed onto the peripheries of their lives as they search for the infinite?  And doesn’t being a parent of a teenager oftentimes feel like default?  A kind of last resort, a fall back plan?  I guess the temptation for all of us is to meet that felt need on their terms.  It’s a temptation to be the parent who goes away for the weekend and leaves their kids at home with a wink and a case of beer in the fridge.  It’s the temptation to be the youth worker who will one-up their antics, be the one to keep all the milk down in the chugging “gallon challenge”, or to escalate the adrenaline and emotion in worship experiences?  Indulging adolescents in these ways, we risk losing our own identities and convictions on the chaotic waves of their identity exploration.

But what if we’re not really default?  What if these kids actually want to be with us?  What if the infinite becomes somehow tangible as they wrap plastic around boxes of Something to Eat meals destined for the hungry?  What if God becomes present to them, not through finding acceptance through others most similar to them, but by finding belonging in radical difference?  Maybe this becomes a witness to God’s future as they bend their lives to what will surely come.

We’ve short-changed adolescents in America.  In spite of their professed boredom, in spite of their insatiable desire for stimulation, to be free from limitations, they’re still looking for something sturdy.  They’ve seen the tired ways of youth in America.  They’ve seen the violence, drugs, teen pregnancies and they’ve found them empty.  They’ve felt that existential numbness and they’re looking for a new way of being an adolescent, a new way of being human.  Maybe they’re finding some of that here.  Maybe even through the simple act of naming them “interns” they’re getting a dose of dignity and nobility that they can’t find anywhere else.  Maybe through prayer and reading of scripture, they’re finding themselves in a gospel story that has the power to bring all of their stories together.  Yet it’s rarely confessed that way.  It’s spoken with the same kind of resigned exasperation that we see from Peter when everyone was running away from Jesus in John 6.  “To whom shall we go?  You have the words of eternal life”.  Jesus was their default.  And oftentimes is mine.  I don’t know what you want us to say, Jesus.  We really don’t have anywhere else to go.  But you. You seem to be the only one who might possibly put us and our world back together again. They’re flirting with the Kingdom of God in all the awkward ways that adolescents flirt, and finding that there might actually be something and someone worth giving their lives to.

The Impossible

kc race map

Here’s my image of impossibility.  Or at least one of them.  It’s an image that taunts me– a kind of demonic affront to my belief that the resurrection is real and its implications are cosmic.  It speaks to me with a smiling, satanic, self-assurance that pauses for a moment, adjusts its shirt cuffs and says, “You know what?  Fine.  Have your church services if that humors you.  Speak in all of the platitudes that you want about Jesus changing peoples’ lives.  It’s precious.  But this?  This is mine.”  It’s an image of Kansas City mapped by race.  Every dot represents 25 people, red being white, blue is black, orange is Latino, and green is Asian.  The most arresting feature of this map is a stark, crisp line running north and south along Troost Avenue dividing red and blue with scalpel precision.  Smaller blocks of color appear, but all in all, there’s little bleeding.  Last week on the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech we were reminded just how far we’ve come.  And then again, we have this–convincing in its immovability.  An obstinate fixture of American life and, regrettably, of the church.

Another impossibility that has confronted our life and our work here in Argentine is the Franklin Center.  It started off with this small, naive group of Christians in Argentine who figured that the hundred or so odd dollars that the scrappers stole of copper is nothing too insurmountable.  But their hundred dollars is now tallying over two million dollars after red tape requirements are escalating the renovation costs.  I’ve felt the weight of impossibility.

Yet another impossibility has been the broken immigration system that cheapens life for our immigrant friends and neighbors.  You know that loving our neighbors has led us to bible studies, backyard carne asadas, securing just housing, swapping childcare and securing jobs.  But no decision to follow Jesus, none of our charity, no English classes, nor any of our efforts at community development could change the one thing that has felt most threatening and terrifying of all–their compromised legal status.


I’ve been at this place where I’ve felt like I’ve been confronted with the absolute impossible.  We’re confronted with forces, realities, institutions and powers that seem beyond my ability to affect.  Here it is.  I feel it, I hear it saying, ‘this is the end.’  The last stop.  Now go on back, boy.  Go on back before you get hurt.  Why don’t you go share some of those ripe, juicy tomatoes you’ve been growing with some of your neighbors?  Why don’t you go start another Bible study somewhere or get some of those nice church people you know to pick up trash on Metropolitan or better yet, go buy that house that’s coming up for foreclosure?  Those would be some nice things for the church to do.  Silly to believe Jesus would have anything to say about racial isolation, abandoned buildings, and immigration policies anyway now, isn’t it?  Go on now.

There is something comfortable about keeping things local, simple, and manageable.  It’s romantic, quaint and makes for good storytelling.  I’ve been living and operating at this level for the past ten years partially because it’s something I could handle and maybe because it feels like ministry.  Ministry on a human scale feels gritty, real, and right.  I don’t have any intentions of abandoning this.  Maybe that’s why this update is so late.  I’ve been dragging my heels on writing this because most months, I’ve got some kind of personal story to share, some revelatory conversation to bring you into.  But this month, nothing.  Developing a website, meeting with architectsflying to DC, preparing sermons, scheming with youth workers about alternative local missions, and sitting through grant meetings don’t happen to feellike I’ve come to believe ministry should feel like.  But I think there’s more to it.

I think more than anything, I’ve feared facing the impossible.  I’ve feared wading into the waters of racial isolation because it is too complex and runs too deep.  I’m nothing but a white kid from northwest Iowa.  What can I do?  I’ve feared bringing on architects and construction estimates because what I really feared was that one extra zero behind the final number.  I’m just an idea guy, a quasi-theologian, pop sociologist, pseudo community developer.  I can’t raise that kind of money.  I’ve avoided as James K.A. Smith says, “treading on the terrain of law and policy as if that were all too ‘big’, too ‘fast’, too macro”  because I don’t do politics.  But what I’ve come to find out really diminishes and prevents the vulnerable and marginalized from living a full, flourishing life that God desires for all oftentimes resides precisely within the fallen structures, institutions, and powers that I’ve refused to engage because I feel so hopelessly naked and so wholly ill-prepared to affect.  In short, I’ve feared growing up.

What is beginning to take root in me is yielding to the notion that engaging the powers is an act of love.  Maybe it’s because I’ve sentimentalized love and by extension, sentimentalized ministry.  As parents, loving our kids doesn’t always mean sitting on the hardwood playing with them eye to glimmering eye all day long, somehow trying to get them to understand how much they’re loved.  Sometimes it does.  But sometimes it means getting off our butts, walking out the door, leaving the family we love and punching a time card in a job we despise day after interminable day because love also means hamburgers, green beans, doctor’s visits, and thermostats set to 72.  Maybe expressing the unfathomable love of Christ isn’t all Bible studies, prayer, spiritual conversations, and mission trips either.  Maybe it too requires growing up.  Maybe it means walking out the door from the people we love to confront the impossible. Maybe it means dissecting the worldviews and patterns that allow racial isolation to remain the norm, to suggest alternatives, and to fail.  Maybe it means investing a million dollars in a neighborhood that’s seen nothing but disinvestment for decades because nowhere is a place of beauty that can remind someone of their infinite value more needed than right here.  And maybe it means bringing a moral voice to dysfunctional, polarized Congress that is more interested in political posturing than compromise and maintaining status quo more than making the lives of 11 million people instantly more bearable.

Prayer for the Dislocated

Three weeks gone.  My heart is full.
Archipelago of ice caps jam the Atlantic.
Singing from the rear of the cabin.
A tenor and a bass walk forward. Smiling.
A stewardess serenade.
Originators of an operatic, mile-high club.
Even the proffering of water
Mundane as the day it was taught
Seems to levitate.  Sacred.
I don’t deserve this.  

I cowered at their complaints.
My gift felt heavy. 
Burdensome at the thought of exclusion.
Chicago streets harder than hogs.
African American studies lands debt.
Not jobs.  Not my life.
I don’t deserve this.

Loneliness was my mirror.
Notice me. Played in a thousand ways.
Crown me king in a game where only
Ego wins.
Snake oil scams.  Substitutes for 
Knowing and being known.
I didn’t know like I know now.
Home.

My wife.  The rise and fall of my child’s chest.
Hands stained by blood and berries.
Prayer.  Fixed.  Neighbors near.
I am found.

Perhaps it’s no more than this.


For those who enjoy poetry, I apologize.  This is my first attempt at free verse poetry since Mrs. De Jong’s, 10th grade, creative writing class.  But I had some time to kill on an 8-hour flight back from Italy.  The gratefulness and longing I felt while writing this poem happened before Air Canada benevolently turned it into a 29-hour journey home.  I might have revised it or included a sarcastic addendum set to the tune of Oh Canada had I been able to catch my breath after a 7am sprint down the jetway at Dulles International.  So for those who ‘get’ poetry and are okay with allowing it to speak for itself, read no further.  That’s a reflection of my time in Italy however embryonic and ungainly my prose.  But for those who like me, find poetry mostly inaccessible, I’ll provide a few footnotes.

There were so many moments when I sat back in sheer gratefulness.  There were moments where I just smiled and felt the warmth of God’s grace on my life.  I felt this so many times like when we were in class talking about the roots of social justice embedded in the Biblical imagination of shalom or enjoying a long lunch al frescowith new friends in Rome or climbing up Mount Subasio to the retreat outside of Assisi where Francis and his friends saved the soul of the church by calling them back to prayer and to the poor.  The entire experience was such a gift that I felt overwhelmed by God’s generosity.

And I also questioned the locus of that generosity.   There were other very intelligent students who came from hard-scrabble neighborhoods who worked and paid their way through undergrad, racked up ungodly levels of debt and didn’t get a full scholarship like I did.  Before I left to Italy, my neighbor Pureza, no stranger herself to difficult, economic circumstances sat with me in my doubt, affirmed that there might have been others who needed it more economically than I did, but that God had his reasons.  There’s truth in that, but it seems too easy of an answer.  I don’t want to discount the generous intentions of God, but neither do I dare theologize the ways of privilege.

The one thing that would have made this experience even more amazing was if Emily was with me.  I did feel lonely without her, without the kids, without the regularity and rhythm and practices that keep us located and grounded.  And feeling dislocated from them, I felt and noticed ways that I subtly drew attention to myself.  I felt renewed compassion for those who experience chronic dislocation–for refugees, for immigrants, for single mothers, for truck drivers, for nursing home residents.

We long for home.  We long for shalom.  We long to be found in relationship, in practices like prayer and picking black raspberries from abandoned alleys that ground us.  We long for these things because ultimately we long to participate in the very life of God.  And sometimes that life of God gets loose and ruptures from the invisible realms and takes up its home in our own homes, the image of God once hidden, makes itself known in the sheer joy on the face of my son on a backyard swing crying, “Daddy, push me higher!”  It’s there I meet God’s love rhythmically assaulting all intuition saying, “You deserve this.  You deserve this. You deserve this.”

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