Does having faith mean I have to pretend to be happy?

Bible, Christian Living, Thinking About

 

A friend of mine recently asked “are you for real? Do you really feel the way you’re saying you do online?” With my recent surgery and cancer diagnosis, he was asking, as a good friend would, how I was really doing. I’ve wondered that myself.

I can honestly say I have more of a sense of God’s presence in my life than I ever have. I am more confident than ever that He loves me and is trustworthy; that He will work any circumstance for my good. I have a greater conviction that the most important thing in my life and everyone else’s is a relationship with God and receiving the grace of God through Jesus.

Is it possible to say all that and still have negative emotions? Still be scared, or anxious, or unsettled? Absolutely. It’s like courage: unless you’re scared, you can’t be brave. Some fear and anxiety opens the door to you actually trusting God. Here are a couple of my thoughts on the topic.

Contentment doesn’t require you to pretend your problems don’t exist.

If contentment is a kind of peace, calm, and even joy – can you have it while acknowledging you have very real, very difficult problems? Absolutely!

Thomas Watson, in his fantastic book The Art of Divine Contentment, writes this (being “sensible” of your condition means acknowledging the reality of your struggle):

[Can] a Christian…be sensible of his condition, and yet be contented?   Yes; for else he is not a saint, but a stoic. Rachel did well to weep for her children, there was nature; but her fault was, she refused to be comforted, there was discontent. Christ himself was sensible, when he sweat great drops of blood, and said, “Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me;” yet he was contented, and sweetly submitted his will: “nevertheless, not as I will, but as thou wilt.” The apostle bids us humble ourselves “under the mighty hand of God,” (1 Pe. 5. 6) which we cannot do unless we are sensible of it.

You can be content and mindful of the thing you wish weren’t happening. You can still humble yourself to say “God I trust you, even in this.” I’m finding it is the reality of pain and problems that unlocks the door to greater trust in God.

 

I can be honest with God about how I’m feeling – the good and the bad.

You can still be faithful and trust God while lamenting your situation. Many of the Psalms are “laments,” where the author basically complains to God about their circumstances. Most laments end with an expression of trust in God, too. Throughout Scripture we see it is possible to be a person of faith and have a heavy heart. Watson writes about it this way (emphasis mine):

Whether a Christian may not lay open his grievances to God, and yet be contented?   Yes: “unto thee have I opened my cause;” (Jer. 20. 12) and David poured out his complaint before the Lord. (Ps. 142. 2) We may cry to God, and desire him to write down all our injuries: shall not the child complain to his father? When any burden is upon the spirit, prayer gives vent, it easeth the heart. Hannah’s spirit was burdened; “I am” says she, “a woman of a sorrowful spirit.” Now having prayed, and wept, she went away, and was no more sad; only here is the difference between a holy complaint and a discontented complaint; in the one we complain to God, in the other we complain of God.


foggydayGod hears our prayers and our complaints. We are invited to complain to Him. Complaining of Him shows we don’t understand the Gospel. But if we are in Christ – that is, if we’ve submitted our hearts to Jesus and received His grace through faith in Him – then God is our good Father. He loves and cares for us; we can talk to Him in the most honest and intimate ways. (He knows it all anyway.) But He is there for us to talk to in the midst of grief and struggle. He calls us to pray, to cast our anxieties on Him because He cares for us (1 Peter 5:7). That’s how intimacy and real relationship is built. Not just by reciting truths to yourself, but engaging personally with God.

Ask Him to help you believe the truth. Share your fears and uncertainties with Him. This isn’t just “allowed” but it is the path we must walk if we want intimacy with God. If we want to know God.

Faith doesn’t mean we have to be fake. We can be simultaneously content and aware that our circumstances are not what we want. We can trust God with our life and at the same time express our fear or disappointment to Him.

This is where I am as I get closer to my cancer treatment, and the reality of my diagnosis settles in. I’m thinking more about what I might miss out on, both because of the treatment and if the treatment doesn’t work. I would rather not be going through this. I would rather not be wondering if I’m going to see my daughters graduate from high school, or if I’m going to be able to grow old with my wife.

I know none of us are guaranteed those things. Any number of things could take those pictures of the future away without warning. I know in a way it’s a gift that I have this awareness of my mortality, and I’ve written about that.

But emotions are tricky things.  You can’t just bludgeon them with facts. (I’ve learned this from trying to do that my whole life.)

Yes, I am getting more of God than ever before. I feel His presence and love in ways I never have. I can already see how He is using all this to grow me and reveal my sin so He can burn it away. I believe He is refining me into a better disciple of Jesus, husband, father, pastor, man. But that doesn’t mean I like having brain surgery or cancer. And I don’t have to pretend to like it to be a good Christian.

Yet even in the face of not liking my circumstances, and being a bit afraid, I can cling to truths like these, and find, for real, peace, comfort, and joy:

And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.

What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written,

“For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Romans 8:28-39 (ESV)

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C.S. Lewis on faith as a habit

Christian Living

Last week I posted some of my thoughts about faith. C.S. Lewis, in his seminal work Mere Christianity, had this to say about faith, which I think sort of corrects or contradicts what I wrote before. I’ve added emphasis in a few places to help you see what I’m talking about:

Faith seems to be used by Christians in two senses or on two levels….In the first sense it means simply Believe – accepting or regarding as true the doctrines of Christianity.  That is fairly simple.  But what does puzzle people – at least it used to puzzle me – is the fact that Christians regard faith in this sense as a virtue.  I used to ask how on earth it can be a virtue – what is there moral or immoral about believing or not believing a set of statements?…What I did not see then – and a good many people do not see still – was this.  I was assuming that if the human mind once accepts a things as true it will automatically go on regarding it as true, until some real reason for reconsidering it turns up.  In fact, I was assuming that the human mind is completely ruled by reason.  But that is not so….

Faith, in the sense in which I am here using the word, is the art of holding on to things your reason has once accepted, in spite of your changing moods.  For moods will change, whatever view your reason takes.  I know that by experience.  Now that I am a Christian I do have moods in which Christianity looks very improbably; but when I was an atheist I had moods in which Christianity looked terribly probable.  This rebellion of your moods against your real self is going to come anyway.  That is why Faith is such a necessary virtue:  unless you teach your moods “where they get off,” you can never be either a sound Christian or even a sound atheist, but just a creature dithering to and fro, with its beliefs really dependent on the weather and the state of its digestion.  Consequently one must train the habit of Faith.

In my last post I said that if what I believe is true, it would essentially be stupid for me to be stressed out and fearful at what’s been happening in my life lately. But as Lewis points out, that would only be true if my heart and mind were completely ruled by reason. And as much as I might want that to be true, it isn’t.

Lewis’ definition of faith is great: the art of holding on to things your reason has once accepted, in spite of your changing moods. We all have changing moods; we must train ourselves to not be ruled by those moods. So in a sense, faith is a habit; it is the habit of trusting what we believe to be true in spite of the temptation not to.

Hiking LandscapeThe temptation not to could come in the form of a hardship that causes us to “give up” on God. It more commonly comes in the form of “I don’t want to do this thing God wants” or “I want to do this thing God doesn’t want.” Living by faith is trusting that God’s way is better, that God Himself is better. It’s not just trusting God is going to take care of you during hard times, it’s trusting that God is better during normal times. Developing the habit of faith is choosing, regularly, to act as if what God says is true. To believe Him, to believe His Word, rather than yourself. To act as if knowing Jesus is better than life itself. As if the path to joy comes not from avoiding God, but submitting to Him.

The more you do it, the easier it becomes. And then when the storm hits, you might find it easier to exercise faith that God is in control, that He loves you and is working for good in your life.

A storm is coming. Day by normal day, are you training the habit of faith, or the habit of following your moods?

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Friday Five – 11-27-15

Check This Out, Miscellaneous

On most Fridays, I will share five articles I came across during the week that I think are worth your time to check out. Here’s the first edition.

    1. Paul Tautges – The Most Encouraging and Comforting Promise in the Bible. “I will never leave you or forsake you” is such a simple, but rich promise.
    2. David Powlison – Brother, Where is Your Identity? Who are you? What are you building your sense of self on? While written as if to a man, this article is equally fantastic for men or women, pointing us to the what and why of finding our identity in our connection to God.
    3. Matt Smethurst – 10 Skills Every Husband Needs. Pastor Darrin Patrick and his wife Amie have a new book, “The Dude’s Guide To Marriage.” This short article where they’re interviewed can give you some good info on its own and help you decide if you want to pick up the book.
    4. Jeremy Pierre – The Sin of Insecurity. If you, like me, struggle with insecurity, this is a fantastic read. It’s not just going to make you feel guilty for insecurity (which the title sort of suggests), but rather it will help you see the nature of insecurity more clearly and address it with the Gospel.
    5. Vaneetha Rendall – When God Does the Miracle We Didn’t Ask For. Written by a woman who has gone through suffering, about the miracles God has done in her through that suffering.
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How the Gospel is giving me hope for today and tomorrow.

Bible, Christian Living, Thinking About

Over the last month several people have commented on my “strong faith” and complimented me on the way I have been handling the news and developments about my health. Many have told me that they’re challenged and encouraged by the way Janelle and I are responding to everything. I usually respond by saying “thank you” and adding something to deflect the praise away from me and point to God. But in the moment that’s hard to do, and it can sound like false humility. Today I want to take a minute to explain what I would if it weren’t rude to launch into a monologue when someone tries to compliment you.

I would try to communicate a few main truths that I think best explain why Janelle and I have been able to respond with whatever strength, faith, peace, and perspective we have.

It’s not the strength of my faith, but the object of my faith, that gives me peace.

Wooden BridgeImagine you need to cross a rushing river about twenty feet wide with a current that would carry you away if you fell into it. You could try to jump in and swim across, but you know the current is too strong. There’s an inflatable raft you could use sitting on the bank. There’s a rickety old rope bridge that looks pretty unsteady. Next to that is a solid, wide, paved bridge that completely crosses the span. Sitting waiting for you with the keys in the ignition is a brand new pickup truck with all the bells and whistles, and a professional driver who will take you across. How would you cross the river?

Like me, you’d probably hop in the truck.

Is the river a difficult obstacle? Absolutely! Is it dangerous? No question. Would it be brave of you to try to paddle across on the raft, or take the rickety bridge? Maybe. But with the truck sitting there, I might say it’s reckless or stupid. And I’m not sure I’d praise you for your bravery or faith in the truck. I’d say, given the information you had, you made a smart choice. And I really wouldn’t expect you to do any different.

This is how I see the situation I’ve been put in with my brain tumor. Given the options in front of me and what I believe to be true, it makes the most sense to put my trust in Jesus and receive His comfort and peace. It’s not about my strength of character, it’s about me having Someone of limitless strength carrying me. The Gospel – the good news of Jesus Christ – is like a tank, not a truck, ready to go.

The Gospel teaches me Jesus can and will carry me.

At Resonate we talk about the Gospel as a massive diamond with countless facets. It is beautiful to behold, and in one sense you know what you are looking at. But every time you turn the diamond, the light strikes it differently, and you see a new facet, a new dimension, of its magnificence.

When it comes to giving us peace when we face bad news, I’m finding a few Gospel truths to be particularly glorious.

My eternity is secure: I have a future resurrection and restoration coming.

The Gospel means my eternity is secure. As I look death closer in the face than I ever have, I receive a comfort I’ve never needed. Contemplating my mortality isn’t terrifying the way it could be. I don’t have to worry whether I’ve lived a good enough life to get to Heaven or enjoy what comes after death. I don’t have to wonder if God will accept me or condemn me. I don’t have to stress about turning my life around and becoming a good person in order for God to approve of me. I don’t have to hope there’s some cosmic loophole that will force God to forgive me. I don’t have to count up my good deeds and convince myself I’ve earned a good afterlife. If I did, I would be a wreck.

Instead, I can have a peaceful, grateful joy because of Jesus. There’s no way I could possibly be good enough to demand Heaven from a righteous, holy God. God knew that, and He loved me (and you) – so He sent Jesus to live a perfect life on my behalf. Jesus lived this perfect life and obeyed in my place; then He, the only innocent person ever, died on the cross in my place. The wrath I deserve – that wrath I so clearly know now more than ever that I deserve for my hypocritical, selfish, rebellious, God-dismissing life – was completely absorbed by Jesus.

Every ounce of it. There is no condemnation left for me, because He who knew no sin became sin for me on the cross. And then He rose from the dead to show He has power over sin and death. So I know that because of Jesus I am forgiven for all my sin, and will spend eternity in a new, perfected body, on a restored Earth.

I cannot imagine facing the spectre of cancer and death without this. And if I believe this to be true – it completely changes the nature of what’s in front of me. But it doesn’t just give me hope for my future. Believing this is true changes my experience right now.

I have joy in my present because of the hope I have for the future.

To contemplate my absolute spiritual poverty, and God’s absolute love and pursuit of me in spite of it, can bring me nothing but joy. Not the kind of joy that makes me smile and jump around. But it creates this bedrock of joy, that when I drill all the way down through the feelings and fears – where I land in the end – is love, and peace, and comfort. Where I land in the end is that even though I have nothing to offer God, He has given me all things in Jesus. And if that is true – I can hang on to that when I’m feeling lost, fearful, angry, anxious. I can look to Him instead of just hoping that somehow things will turn around.

If God is real and the Gospel is true, there can be no greater news. If there is a god but I’m wrong about him/her/it/xe/ze/they – I may be in trouble. Or not. If there is no god and we are in a completely materialistic universe, then what’s in front of me is oblivion, the best is behind me, and it’s a very sad story. I happen to believe, more strongly now than ever, that the best explanation for our universe, is the one offered by historic, orthodox Christianity. It is not pie-in-the-sky wishful thinking; I believe there are very good reasons to believe it’s true.

I believe Christianity (and the Gospel, its core message) provide the resources to face evil head-on knowing that in the end it will not win. In the end God is going to make the sad things come untrue, and the glory of eternity will be greater for every bit of suffering we endure here.

Everybody faces suffering and pain. At some point, or many points, all of us will face the loss of the things that give us comfort, meaning, value…the things that make us forget we are mortal.

If these words from 2 Corinthians 4 are true – and I believe they are – then in the face of cancer I can do nothing but thank God over and over and ask Him to help me cling to these truths:

But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you.

Since we have the same spirit of faith according to what has been written, “I believed, and so I spoke,” we also believe, and so we also speak, knowing that he who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and bring us with you into his presence. For it is all for your sake, so that as grace extends to more and more people it may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God.

So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.

2 Corinthians 4:7-18 (ESV)

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Mourning is better than feasting: this world is broken.

Bible, Thinking About

Would you rather go to a birthday party or a funeral? Visit someone in the hospital, or bring a gift to celebrate their new status as homeowners? Wait in line to get a good seat at a movie’s opening night or sit in a waiting room while someone is in surgery? Go to a home where they are mourning, or one where they’re celebrating?

Desert BusThese may seem like no-brainers, and I guess they are if you just ask “what would I rather do?” What if we were to ask – “what is better for me?” Which do you think is better for you? One school of thought says you need to maximize your positive influences and thinking…don’t let life drag you down, be around people and things that “make you happy.” That train of thought could lead you to avoid the difficult options listed above. But I think if you are pursuing your maximum joy, peace, and wisdom, you will head straight for the house of mourning.

Obviously I didn’t think of this myself. This concept comes from Ecclesiastes, a piece of wisdom literature from the Old Testament. Ecclesiastes tackles some of the big questions of life and its meaning. It points out how futile much of life is, the fact that working hard and doing the right thing doesn’t guarantee you anything…that everybody dies in the end, rich or poor…that throughout the Earth there is injustice and oppression…it’s one of the most raw books in Scripture. I specifically want to look at Ecclesiastes 7:2-5 today, which has been on my mind lately:

It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting, for this is the end of all mankind, and the living will lay it to heart. Sorrow is better than laughter, for by sadness of face the heart is made glad. The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth. It is better for a man to hear the rebuke of the wise than to hear the song of fools.

Ecclesiastes 7:2-5 (ESV)

Rather than go through this passage verse by verse and try to teach it out, I’ll share a few of my reflections from these words and my own experiences and observations recently.  Read the rest

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Health Update – Biopsy Results

Health Updates

familypicAs many of you know, it’s been a crazy few weeks for my family and I. On Friday October 23rd we learned from an MRI that I had a large tumor in my brain. On Monday November 2nd, I had surgery to get a biopsy of the tumor and excise as much of it as possible. Since then I have been recovering from the surgery and waiting for the biopsy results.

My family and I have also been overwhelmed by love. It is impossible for me to describe the outpouring we’ve received. Aside from being so diligently prayed for by so many people I don’t even know, from all around the world…aside from dozens of people descending on our house before the surgery to fix things, clean things, set stuff up for me to be out of commission…aside from the jaw-dropping generosity of people contributing money to pay for our expenses…aside from helping with and loving on our kids…aside from the practical time-intensive help…there is just more, and more, and more.

Never in my life have I felt so loved and cared for by God and the people around me. Some of you have heard me say thanks and some of you haven’t…I know there are so many of you that I don’t even know to thank, but you have served me. Please know that not only am I grateful for my sake, but I am grateful to see how God has worked in so many of your hearts. I did nothing to earn or deserve any of this love, yet here you are sacrificing to give it. To me this is evidence of God at work in you, which to me is the greatest thing. Please know He is also at work in my heart, and my family’s. 

Because I know so many of you care and are praying, I want to share what we’ve learned so you can be aware, and pray if you are doing that for me.  Continue Reading

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Book Review: A Godward Heart by John Piper

Book Review

Godward Heart CoverI have this ideal vision of winding down before I go to sleep by reading a book. This goal is often defeated by my children or myself. Sometimes I’m actually in the position to lay down and read a book, but I can’t decide what to read. I know I’m too tired to think incredibly deeply or for very long…I find myself cycling through the books on my Kindle app, not wanting to read any of them…but recently I came across one book that works perfectly for this situation.

John Piper’s A Godward Heart consists of several short chapters, each a few pages, with meditations on God and Scripture. They range in topics, from dealing with loss to meditations on God’s character to how to talk to different kinds of people. Each chapter finds it origin and inspiration in a passage of Scripture that Piper shares his reflections on. In general I’ve enjoyed and been enriched by what I read in this book. Piper has a way of expressing his adoration of God in poetic but understandable prose that brings me to a place of worship. He’s also able to express the implications of the gospel in ways that make complete sense, yet haven’t occurred to me. This book is a great assemblage of his writings and thoughts, and a perfect resident for your nightstand.

In describing his design for this book, Piper writes:

“Perhaps some evening your soul is hungry. Not for anything in particular, just a soul-hunger. A longing. Something is needed beyond what television is going to give. Something about God, or about the meaning of your life, or about eternity. You’re tired and you know you probably can’t stay awake to read twenty pages. So you pick up a book that you know focuses on eternal things, a Godward book. And three minutes later you have seen something, and you will never be the same again.”

If you can read that paragraph and identify with what he’s talking about, this book will scratch that itch.

Full disclosure: I received a copy of this book for reviewing purposes.

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Want this Christmas season to be different?

Create a Rhythm, Family

The season leading up to Christmas can be really stressful, and many times I find myself sitting there the day after Christmas wishing I’d actually enjoyed the season.  I’d told myself that this would be the year I actually made Christmas about Jesus and family and enjoying blessings and giving instead of parties and presents and stress.  Maybe you can relate.

I still haven’t found the secret sauce to getting it right, but one thing I’ve found helpful is trying to live within the rhythm of the traditional Christian calendar and embracing the Advent Season.  Advent is the season on the Church Calendar that precedes Christmas, like Lent precedes Easter.  The focus of Advent is the eager expectation of God’s intervention, of God bringing the promised Messiah to set things right (which is what Christmas is about).  But we still live in a world where there are plenty of situations where we await God’s intervention to set things right…so as we celebrate Advent we can look back to the first Christmas, and look forward, and celebrate the reality that God is still working.

I wanted to pass along some resources to you, that you may want to use personally or with your family, throughout this season to help you focus on God and let the gospel work on your heart instead of the stress of gifts.  I know Thanksgiving is tomorrow and it seems like there’s a lot of time left before Christmas – but we are going to blink and it’s going to be December 26th.  So here are a few ways for you to celebrate Advent and try to make this season an exercise in grace and peace:

Use an Advent Devotional.

There are a number of Advent Devotionals out there.  These are books with readings to do each day (or in some cases each week).  You can do these individually or with your family at dinner time, bed time, or some other time that works for you.  Here are a couple you can use:

An Advent Wreath

We have a small wreath with spots for four candles on the perimeter and space for one big candle in the middle.  You can buy one at a store or make one yourself easily.  (This could be a fun craft to do with kids!) Each candle represents a different theme related to Advent.  I’ve found different meanings for the four candles from different sources; I’d say you should have the candles represent whatever the theme of the week is for the Advent Devotional resource you’re using.  That way it’s coherent with whatever else you’re doing for Advent.

Every Sunday marks the beginning of a new week of Advent, with this next Sunday (December 1st, 2013) being the first. Each Sunday we add a candle and light it as we go through the devotional materials, pray, have dinner, etc.  The rest of the week we have the wreath as the cenerpiece of the table, light the candle(s), and when we pray for dinner we keep that week’s theme (love, or peace, or expectancy, or hope, for example) in mind and talk about how we experienced it or need it that day.

The missing candles throughout the month also help drive home the theme of Advent, which is expectancy, looking forward to God’s intervention.  The missing candles and empty space remind us that there is more to come.

It will be messy, but you can do something!

This may seem daunting to you – but it’s not that difficult.  If you aim for perfect you won’t get it.  If you want your little kids to sit down peacefully at the dinner table and discuss how they need hope in the face of the struggles they’re facing in their life, or for them to not mess up the wreath, or for your entire family to be together for dinner every day…you’re going to be disappointed.  It’s not going to be perfect.  You’ll try some stuff, you’ll have some good days and some bad days.  Some days you’ll give in to the stress and other days you won’t.

But as we struggle to include Jesus in the everyday rhythms of our lives, and our family’s lives, we will find ourselves being influenced and shaped by Him.  Perfection can never be the goal.  It can be yet another reminder that though we are messy and imperfect, though we get easily distracted and discouraged by other things, God still loves us and pursues us, and one day He will come to set all things right, including our crooked hearts.  But for now, we can live in hope and expectation that through the mess God loves us and is gracious toward us.

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