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Lenten Reflections 2021: Return to the Lord! What do you mean?

By Vinod John @johnvinod | February 20, 2021

We often hear the phrase “return to the Lord” especially during the Lent season. Unfortunately, it has become one of the phrases of Christianese that many people find meaningless and irrelevant today. Despite it coming across as a cliché, I invite you to read the book of Joel again (all three chapters in one sitting). I would like to share what returning to the Lord meant for Joel and his people in the midst of a locust plague that we have talked about and what it could represent for us amidst the current pandemic.

As we saw in the past two posts, “Return to the Lord” and “Calling all ministers of the Lord to Repentance,” prophet Joel was issuing this call to primarily three categories of people:

  1. The ordinary folks whom he calls “drunkards” (1:5),
  2. The group that suffered the most in terms of losing their crops, i.e., the “farmers” (1:11),
  3. And the clergy that could not sustain the liturgical worship at the temple, i.e., the “priests” or “ministers of the Lord” (1: 13).

Enjoying the prosperity and blessing of Israel, the people had become callous and were enticed into drinking excessively to the extent that prophet Hosea had to declare: “Wine and new wine take away the understanding” (Hosea 4:11 NRSV). Joel thundered:

Wake up, you drunkards, and weep; and wail, all you wine-drinkers,

over the sweet wine, for it is cut off from your mouth (Joel 1: 5 NRSV).

People did not limit their drinking just to the wine as the word “drunkards” does not refer to just ordinary wine drinkers; rather, in its original language, it refers to a strong or intoxicating drink. Drinking strong drinks and debauchery had become so widespread in those days that it constrained the prophet to call them “drunkards” even as he was calling them to return to the Lord. 

Joel calls “farmers” to return to the Lord mainly because they had slipped into practicing fertility cults prevalent around them.

Joel then calls the “priests” to return to the Lord, because they, too, had failed in their ministry of keeping the worship and liturgy holy to the Lord.

However, what does it entail to “return to the Lord?”

First of all, the call to return to the Lord indicates that the covenant is broken through people’s disobedience. It means the people of God have rebelled against Him and his law. For a detailed description of the sacrilegious rebellion, please see the book of Amos and Hosea.

Second, by inviting people to return to the Lord prophet Joel means turning away from their immoral and wayward life and walking back to their covenant God Jehovah! His call is precise. They must unambiguously make their way back to Jehovah, and not just to any god or any religious cult:

Yet even now, says the Lord,
    return to me with all your heart,
with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning;

rend your hearts and not your clothing.
Return to the Lord, your God,
    for he is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love,
    and relents from punishing. (Joel 1:12-13 NRSV)

Third, a genuine return to the Lord must be accompanied by distinguishable signs that everyone may be able to see.  Joel says, some of these signs are: fasting, weeping, and mourning over their sins and disobedience (Joel 2: 12).

Fourth, the result of returning to the Lord is a changed life. And it must be seen in one’s worship and service of God (2:14).

Fifth, a genuine return to the Lord implies abandoning not only our sinful ways, but also forsaking our idols, whatever they may be in either material or ideological form. It means acknowledging the covenant God as the only God to believe, worship, and serve. Joel stresses that the returning devotees must recognize what Jehovah says: “I am your God and there is none else” (2: 27 and 3:17). In fact, for this emphasis, in just three chapters of his book, Joel repeats the phrase “your God” seven times (indicating perfection in the Hebrew Bible)! In the aftermath of a locust plague this was a huge assurance that people needed that God has not abandoned them, despite their rebellion and sins; however, he is still their God if they would return to him in penitence.

Finally, a sincere return to the Lord would result in an unprecedented outpouring of the Spirit of God upon His people (2: 28-29) to declare that God loves the contrite hearts and would dwell in their midst through His Spirit, if they truly repent and return to Him. The gift of the Holy Spirit would be the greatest blessing to people.

In the midst of our current pandemic, I believe God has provided a unique opportunity to us, especially during Lent, to sincerely return to the Lord as Joel proclaimed to the covenant people. And in doing so, may we too receive the gift of the Holy Spirit to abide with us. I hear a great deal about revivals breaking out here and there all the time; however, let us be clear, there is no revival, no renewal, and no pouring out of the Holy Spirit without the genuine return to the Lord. Amen!

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Lenten Reflections 2021: Calling all ministers of the Lord to Repentance!

Photo by Nick Karvounis on Unsplash

By Vinod John @johnvinod | February 19, 2021

Joel is an atypical prophet in a long line of Old Testament prophets. He does not identify himself, his background, or the period of his ministry except that he is the son of Pethuel (Joel 1: 1) in order to distinguish himself from other Joels. He is entirely focused on his calling and ministry to the One who called him to prophecy. Interestingly, his name “Jo-el” means Jehovah is God! Therefore, Joel wants to divert our attention away from him to the message and His God who has commissioned him. Quite a contrast to many who call themselves “prophets” these days!

In the first chapter of Joel, the prophet describes a plague of locusts that ravaged through Israel damaging everything on its way. Joel refers in 1: 4 and 2: 25 to four species or four different stages of the insects (depending upon the translation that you read) that landed upon Israel:

  1. the gnawing/cutting/devouring locust/palmerworm;
  2. the swarming/great locust;
  3. the licking/hopping/young locust/cankerworm;
  4. the consuming/destroying locust/caterpillar;

In Joel 2: 25, the locusts are mentioned in reverse order compared to the order in 1: 4. These locusts, I think, were literally insects and the devastation they had caused was real. What Joel described has contemporary parallels of the swarm of locusts wrecking havoc in Africa and many parts of Asia. However, this plague is not just about the literal locusts destroying Israel’s crops. Rather, it figuratively represents the various invading armies of Assyrians, Babylonians, Medo-Persians, Greeks, and Romans who caused Israel’s successive destruction over the years. It is conceivable that Joel meant locusts both in its physical and figurative sense, as the ensuing devastation was substantially calamitous (1:6-7). However, the terms that Joel employs in describing this scourge definitely points to something worse than literal insects.

The grain offering and the drink offering are cut off  from the house of the Lord.
The priests mourn,  the ministers of the Lord.
The fields are destroyed,  the ground mourns, because the grain is destroyed,
the wine dries up, the oil languishes. (Joel 1: 9-10 ESV).

Besides the agricultural devastation, another major aftereffect of the plague was the cessation of continual offerings at the Temple.

The interruption of liturgical worship at the Temple was one of most tragic calamities for the worshippers of Jehovah God because it dramatically implied that their God has rejected his people, leading to a situation where “the priests mourn, the ministers of the Lord” (1:9). Alas! They were instead supposed to celebrate and delight in the presence and service of the Lord and bring encouragement to other worshippers.

Joel refers specifically to three staple crops of Israel that had failed—the (wheat/barley) grain, the (grape) wine, and the (olive) oil. They were not only staple on every dining table but were also crucial part of the failed grain and drink offerings at the Temple. Therefore, while Joel narrates how the farmers were dismayed and the vinedressers were ashamed and the tillers of the soil wailed; the prophet singles out the priests calling them to not just lament, rather he directs them to undertake a discipline of fasting, penitence with sack clothes, prayer, and consecration:

Put on sackcloth and lament, O priests;
    wail, O ministers of the altar.
Go in, pass the night in sackcloth,
    O ministers of my God!
Because grain offering and drink offering
    are withheld from the house of your God. Consecrate a fast;
    call a solemn assembly.
Gather the elders
    and all the inhabitants of the land
to the house of the Lord your God,
    and cry out to the Lord. (Joel 1: 13-14 ESV).

Therefore, I believe during the current pandemic, when our church finances have drastically suffered along with restrictions on our corporate in-person worship and fellowship, the priests, the pastors, “and ministers of the altar…[and] ministers of the Lord” have a specific need of repenting and sanctifying themselves. It is rather imperative today as scandals after scandals of the abuse of power and resources by pastors and Christian leaders are revealed almost everyday. Many pastors and Christian leaders have also been found spreading lies and conspiracy theories and unashamedly siding with the corrupt and immoral politicians during this pandemic. It is only after repentance that we would be qualified to assist our congregations and communities to return to the Lord in penitence this Lenten season. For prophet Joel, this is the only way to go through our current pandemic as we wait for the return and restoration of the Lord. May we be found faithful in obeying the Word. Amen!
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Lenten Devotions 2015: Repentance is the key.

Psalm 51There are more people found in the church for Ash Wednesday Service than for any other weekday services during the whole Lenten Season except for Good Friday and/or Maundy Thursday. However, we have a tendency to quickly forget the words and prayers we have said about ourselves during the Ash Wednesday service. For example, King David’s Psalm 51 is often part of that service and we readily say his words in our prayers. This Psalm highlights our acknowledgement of guilt and sinfulness:

“For I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me.

Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight;

So you are right in your verdict and justified when you judge.

Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me” (Psalm 51: 3-5).

However, by the end of that week we forget what we said about ourselves. We forget what we had repented about and asked God’s forgiveness for. We get busy with the Lenten activities of fasting, prayer, almsgiving, and so on, without realizing that the key element of the Lenten season—repentance—has been dropped somewhere along the way.

Soon after coming out of his forty days fast in the wilderness, Jesus Christ, began his ministry by calling people to repent:

“After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. 15 ‘The time has come,’ he said. ‘The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!’” (Mark 1: 14-15; cf. Matthew 3: 2).

After his earthly ministry, Jesus Christ sent his disciples out to evangelize the whole world and their commission was to preach repentance (Luke 24: 47).

At the inauguration of the Church and its mission, on the Day of Pentecost, the Apostle Peter concluded his message by exhorting people to repent:

“Peter replied, ‘Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call’ (Acts 2: 38-39).

In the parable of the so-called “Prodigal Son” (it’s actually about the “prodigal” Father!), when the younger son came to himself, he says,

“I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands’” (Luke 15: 18-19).

Most stories of heroes of faith in the Bible are largely the stories of those who learned to repent, who were able to say, “I will get up and go to my father!”

Thus, repentance is one of the key elements of a renewed life with God. The Lenten season gives us an opportunity to repent. It is at the point of our repentance that God finds a lost person and reaches out to him or her in love and grace. It is here that God embraces us as the father who patiently waited for his “lost son,” to forgive us, and to shower us with his extravagances. Repentance, therefore, is a demand laid upon a follower of Christ which goes beyond just one solemn service at the beginning of Lent. Let us admit, repentance is also one of the hardest things to do for anyone. It is very difficult to say sorry, to truly turn from our sins, and to truly change. However, if you and I are willing to pause, introspect and repent, we will enjoy God’s close fellowship better than anyone else who refuses to repent. Amen.

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Lenten Devotions 2015: The church is in need of repentance.

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“For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.”

In the last post, we learned the significance of repentance during Lent. Today, we would like to focus on the urgency of repentance for the church. The church as a whole today is in need of a season of repentance. The church is in need of prayer and penitence from its lethargy, lukewarmness, worldliness, and from shying away from the truth in order to be politically correct. Most importantly, the church is in need of repentance for abandoning its primary and essential calling of being a missionary church in the world. If the church fails in this respect, it ceases to be a church. The church may be inclusive in its approach and involved in a variety of activities and programs for the sake of the world. However, these do not make the church what it is as per its calling and essential nature.

The New Testament is very clear on the purpose of the church. The only ground of church’s existence, the only purpose for which its Lord, Jesus Christ, established it, is for the church to go, preach the gospel, and to make disciples of all nations. One of the gospels put it this way,

Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matthew 20: 18-20).

It is as simple as that and the church is guilty of making it complex to understand and complicated to follow. This season should be taken as a divine providence by the Lord for the church to pause its programs and look within to introspect its own calling. Only if the church is true to its calling and essential character of being missional, can this world be evangelized and God’s kingdom be established on earth as it is in heaven. It is for no reason that the seers of old longed for and prophesied about the kingdom of God. For example, Prophet Habakkuk wrote,

“Has not the Lord Almighty determined that the people’s labor is only fuel for the fire, that the nations exhaust themselves for nothing? For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.” (Habakkuk 2: 13-14)

Or, as Prophet Isaiah said,

“They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain, for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.” (Isaiah 11: 9)

Isaiah further prophesied,

“And the glory of the Lord will be revealed, and all people will see it together. For the mouth of the Lord has spoken” (Isaiah 40: 5)

Since God is going to fill the earth that He created with His knowledge, shouldn’t the church be the first one to pause and ponder what this knowledge is and for what purpose? Is your church doing it? How are you helping your church fulfill its mission of being salt and light in the world and bringing God’s kingdom on earth?

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Lenten Devotions 2015: Repentance during Lent

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In many church traditions, the Lenten season does not find an appropriate place. The argument is often that all days are equal and one can fast and pray every day of the year. Yes, it is true that daily sins call for daily repentance. It is also true that all days are the same and fasting/praying during Lent does not have any special merit. However, our experience convinces us of another truth no less certain that often the worries of this world take over our frail bodies and resolve and make us all enervated and negligent to the spiritual concerns. If this neglect is not dissipated and dispersed by frequent admonition, it would be sealed up within our souls, resulting in impenitence. If we leave the choice to our sinful nature to choose a convenient time to turn us from unrighteousness to repentance and holiness, that convenient time would actually never come. Thus, the lofty words of advice of keeping everyday holy alike turns out in reality to be keeping no day holy at all.

Therefore, if the Church provides us with a season of drawing closer to God through kneeling in prayer with fasting, we ought to make use of this opportunity. The cares as well as the fascinations of the world around are such that they will certainly choke the little seeds of the gospel in us. So, let us admit that our souls have become sluggish, careless, and indifferent to godliness. Let us admit that we are in need of reanimating our piety, increasing our spiritual fervor, and taking them to a higher level in the service of God as well as fellow human beings. If we confess, there is hope for us. If we repent, there is grace in abundance for us. The problem is not that we make mistakes and are prone to sinning; rather, the problem is not admitting that we are on the wrong path as Dieter F. Uchtdorf once said: “The heavens will not be filled with those who never made mistakes but with those who recognized that they were off course and who corrected their ways to get back in the light of gospel truth.” Let me therefore urge you to make use of the Lenten season to repent as I close with this meaningful quote:

“The church is not a theological classroom. It is a conversion, confession, repentance, reconciliation, forgiveness and sanctification center, where flawed people place their faith in Christ, gather to know and love him better, and learn to love others as he designed.”

― Paul David Tripp, Instruments in the Redeemer’s Hands: People in Need of Change Helping People in Need of Change.

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Advent: Going Beyond the Ordinary

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Advent: Going Beyond the Ordinary

Please read: Mark 1: 1-8

Advent is a preparation for the coming of the Lord Jesus. In the period before Jesus Christ, obviously, people had high expectations from the coming Messiah as they perceived him in a certain way. However, when the Messiah actually took birth through Virgin Mary, most Jews didn’t accept him as their Lord and Savior. Jesus lived for about thirty years before he started his earthly ministry. During this period, beyond the worship and adoration that the baby Jesus received at his birth, the Gospels don’t state any Jew accepting him as their God until John the Baptist comes on the scene. John tries his best to lead people to Jesus Christ. He did that in two ways.

First, John proclaimed the baptism of repentance and the need for the confession of sins for forgiveness (Mark 1: 1-8). This was a crucial step toward coming to Jesus Christ, the Messiah. The nation of Israel had sinned before the Lord. They had forgotten about their maker and savior. The Jewish nation had gone astray from their God. As Apostle Paul bluntly put it:

“There is no one who is righteous, not even one;

there is no one who has understanding, there is no one who seeks God.

All have turned aside, together they have become worthless;

there is no one who shows kindness, there is not even one.

Their throats are opened graves; they use their tongues to deceive.

The venom of vipers is under their lips. Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness.

Their feet are swift to shed blood; ruin and misery are in their paths, and the way of peace they have not known.

There is no fear of God before their eyes” (Romans 3: 10-18).

If Jesus Christ was to minister among his people, they needed to prepare their hearts by confession of sins and by baptism for the forgiveness of sins. This was an absolute necessity for anyone who wanted to follow Christ. The Gospels stress that when Jesus began his ministry he demanded repentance (Matthew 4: 17; 12: 41; Luke 5: 32). This was synonymous to Jesus’ command, “You must be born again” (John 3: 7 ESV). Moreover, Jesus proclaimed in no uncertain terms: “Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13: 5 ESV).

Secondly, John the Baptist tried his best to reinterpret Jesus for the Jews. He appealed to them to go beyond how they perceived Jesus—an ordinary young man, the son of a poor carpenter, who lived in a small village of Nazareth from where no Jew ever expected anything good. From this perception, John wanted to lead them to see Jesus Christ as their promised Messiah—God himself incarnated in flesh!

Friends, this Advent season, whatever your perception of and expectation from Jesus Christ may be, would you let the Holy Spirit to lead you to confess your sins? Would you also let the Holy Spirit to reveal afresh the divinity of Jesus Christ in your heart so you could try wrapping your mind around the full meaning of God’s manifestation in the flesh?

Come Lord Jesus!

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Lenten Reflection 2012: Retreating into the wilderness with Jesus, Day 13.


Day 13, Wednesday, March 7, 2012

We saw yesterday that Christ’s followers’ fasting is different from other fasting. It’s different in one more way: Lenten fasting requires not just giving up of food and stuff, but offering ourselves completely to the Lord. Repentance is a prerequisite when we fast from food. However, what is even more important during fasting is that we learn to offer ourselves, our sins, imperfections, shortcomings and all to God the Father. It is for the purpose of Him accepting us as we are and then working on us as a Master Craftsman according to His perfect will and use us for His glory. So, God desires that we present to Him our whole beings. However broken our lives may be, God can and will still work on it, as the Psalmist David wrote out of his experience: “My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart you, God, will not despise” (Psalm 51:17). 

When we are ready to give up ourselves completely at the feet of our Master, we will acknowledge our powerlessness. We will also give up our illusions that we are the masters of our own destiny and our world. This will help us give up control that we so strongly want to have over not just ourselves but also over others. Surrendering ourselves will bring us to the acknowledgement that we are not really the masters of this universe; rather, it is God, the Creator, who is the Lord of the universe. Such a realization is truly humbling because we resent so much being told that we are powerless and not in control. But when we are brought to this point, we too can say along with the Psalmist: “In you, O Lord, I take refuge; let me never be put to shame” (Psalm 71:1). Another Psalmist promises that, “No one who hopes in you will ever be put to shame” (Psalm 25:3). May God help us during this Lent to bring ourselves at His altar and give up our self, control, and possessiveness and to start believing that Jesus became powerless for our sake. And that it was through the surrender, weakness, and vulnerability of Jesus Christ that God worked out the salvation of humanity! He can fulfill His purposes when we give up ourselves at His feet. Amen.

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Lenten Reflection 2012: Retreating into the wilderness with Jesus, Day 13.


Day 13, Wednesday, March 7, 2012

We saw yesterday that Christ’s followers’ fasting is different from other fasting. It’s different in one more way: Lenten fasting requires not just giving up of food and stuff, but offering ourselves completely to the Lord. Repentance is a prerequisite when we fast from food. However, what is even more important during fasting is that we learn to offer ourselves, our sins, imperfections, shortcomings and all to God the Father. It is for the purpose of Him accepting us as we are and then working on us as a Master Craftsman according to His perfect will and use us for His glory. So, God desires that we present to Him our whole beings. However broken our lives may be, God can and will still work on it, as the Psalmist David wrote out of his experience: “My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart you, God, will not despise” (Psalm 51:17). 

When we are ready to give up ourselves completely at the feet of our Master, we will acknowledge our powerlessness. We will also give up our illusions that we are the masters of our own destiny and our world. This will help us give up control that we so strongly want to have over not just ourselves but also over others. Surrendering ourselves will bring us to the acknowledgement that we are not really the masters of this universe; rather, it is God, the Creator, who is the Lord of the universe. Such a realization is truly humbling because we resent so much being told that we are powerless and not in control. But when we are brought to this point, we too can say along with the Psalmist: “In you, O Lord, I take refuge; let me never be put to shame” (Psalm 71:1). Another Psalmist promises that, “No one who hopes in you will ever be put to shame” (Psalm 25:3). May God help us during this Lent to bring ourselves at His altar and give up our self, control, and possessiveness and to start believing that Jesus became powerless for our sake. And that it was through the surrender, weakness, and vulnerability of Jesus Christ that God worked out the salvation of humanity! He can fulfill His purposes when we give up ourselves at His feet. Amen.

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Lenten Reflection 2012: Retreating into the wilderness with Jesus, Day 12.

Day 12, Tuesday, March 6, 2012

 Fasting is part of almost all religions in all parts of the world. So, what makes Christian believers’ fasting any different from others? Usually fasting involves going without food for a certain period. Now, food is one of the greatest blessings we receive from God, but it may also become one of the most common hindrances between God and us. Lack of discipline may easily lead us to be guilty of the sin of gluttony. Apostle Paul talked about some people whose belly had become their god (see Philippians 3:19). In fact, anything that takes the place of God in our lives may become our idol. Fasting aids us in overcoming gluttony and strengthening our dependence on God. By fasting we regain control over our most basic need—food—by surrendering it to God so that He

People gathered to break fastingmay help us place it in its rightful place.

 However, Christian fasting is different from other fasting in that it’s not just about going without food, especially during the Lent. Rather, fasting in the Bible is associated with repentance. For example, read passages like: Leviticus 16:29-34; Numbers 29:7-11; I Samuel 7:6; Joel 1:14, and Jonah 3: 5-9. These biblical cases remind us that fasting that’s not accompanied by genuine penitence over our sins and an honest readiness to mend our ways is not of much spiritual value. Unlike other religions, Christian fasting is not a way of self-punishment. The act of denying us food or drink alone does not make us holy unless there is remorse over sin in our lives and seeking God’s forgiveness. The Bible doesn’t teach that you have to fast in order to be saved. God in Christ Jesus has already completed the work of our salvation. So, God does not want us to hate or destroy our bodies. He loves us, we are precious in His eyes; therefore, God wants the best for us. He will never be pleased with any self-inflicted pain to our bodies. In fact, the Bible says, “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? (I Corinthians 6:19). Therefore, God desires to purge His temple, that is, our souls and bodies, so that they become more suitable to worship the living God. Thus, let us introspect of our lives along with our fasting that we may benefit most from our fast this Lent. If we have no wish to repent and change after Easter, let us stop our Lenten fasting today. I promise God will not be angry with us! He desires mercy and honesty. Amen

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