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Handling the Inevitable Storm in our Life
The following quotations are from Charles R. Swindoll’s book, “Paul---A Man of Grace and Grit,” published in 2002.
I’ve never seen a bumper sticker that read, “I’d rather be shipwrecked.” I have seen a number of bumper stickers along the California coast that read, “I’d rather be sailing,” but never, “I’d rather be sinking.”
The adventure of sailing across the open seas carries a certain exhilarating thrill that can become almost addicting. But there’s nothing fun about plunging into the cold waters of the deep, certainly not while caught in a violent storm.
Experiencing shipwreck is not on my resumé, I am happy to report, though I have logged many hours at sea. I enjoy the ocean both as an avid fisherman and a fair-weather sailor (especially when someone else owns the boat). Thankfully, I’ve enjoyed all that while on the deep, not in the deep.
The closest I’ve come to shipwreck was while aboard a troop ship, along with 3,500 other Marines, traveling from San Diego to Japan. Though the ship seemed the size of a large office complex while in dock, after being at sea for four or five days, the immensity of the ocean put the ship’s size in proper perspective. Suddenly, it seemed tiny.
About five days into our seventeen-day voyage, we found ourselves in the center of a raging Pacific storm with waves reaching nearly fifty feet at their crest. Pause long enough to realize that’s five stories high. In fact, no one was allowed on deck during the worst of the storm, which lasted nearly three days. Days later, after the waters calmed, the skipper of the ship admitted that, at one point, he began to question our chances of survival.
Years later I had a similar experience while fishing several miles off the coast of Miami. After a few hours of pleasant deep-sea fishing, a nasty squall blew in, skies turned an ugly dark gray, and the sea twisted violently in the wind. The storm intensified with each passing minute to the point where water started crashing over the rails. The situation got dicey much too quickly. I prepared myself for the worst. You may wonder how.
Well, to begin with, I confessed every sin that I have ever committed. In fact, I believe I added a few that I hadn’t committed just to be sure I hadn’t missed one. I then reviewed every Bible verse I had learned since childhood as my fretting mind brought them to my attention. I also remember counting the life preservers and checking the size of the largest one I could find. I stayed close to it!
Eventually, I stumbled to the cabin where the skipper was very busy, Nervously, I asked him, “Do boats like this ever sink?”
“Sure, the whole bottom of this ocean area is strewn with boats like ours that never made it,” he answered without smiling.
Then I asked, “How long would it take for us to swim to Miami?”
That brought a sneering smile as he replied, “Are you kidding? We would be dismembered by sharks in less than an hour if we ended up in these waters.”
I tried to smile and act as if that was funny.
Frankly, the storm was no joke. No storm on the open sea is. Though we made it to shore safely, it was a treacherous experience for all on board. It was as if our lives hung on very thin wires that could have snapped at any moment. I’ll level with you, it was the truth of God’s Word that kept me sane and relatively calm during that terrifying ordeal. I deliberately prayed. I consciously remembered several pertinent promises. I leaned hard on them.
Paul knew that same feeling. Luke vividly records their shipwreck experience in Acts 27, especially Paul’s reaction to it. By now, you’d think the man had paid all his dues; surely his final ministry years would be smooth sailing the rest of the way. Right? Wrong.
STAYING AFLOAT WITH A REMARKABLE FAITH
Most likely, you’re reading this chapter free from the harsh elements of a raging sea. So, the challenge is to place ourselves in the scene as Luke hoped we would when he wrote it. Apart from the narrator’s spectacular memory of the details during that perilous voyage, we are left to rely on our imaginations to understand what Paul endured on his fateful journey by sea to Rome. Most remarkable is the courage and faith with which he braved those harrowing days on the Mediterranean.
Keep in mind, Luke is a physician, not a seasoned sailor. His account isn’t a ship’s log. It reads more like a journal. What begins very innocuously as a Mediterranean cruise, turns into one of the most frightening ordeals of Paul’s life. Luke, having endured the same death-defying adventure, gives us his eye-witness account.
Remember, only Paul has tucked away in his heart the promise of God that he would reach Rome alive. The remaining two hundred and seventy-five passengers knew none of that, so the panic effect is understandable. There’s nothing predictable about voyages on the open sea. Circumstances can change in a matter of minutes.
Let me pause here and say that too often our tendency is to focus on circumstances, especially in storms. God emphasizes the objective. At those times when life’s contrary winds blow hard, we tend to hear only the creaking of the hull and feel only the buckling of the deck. God desires that we cultivate an inner life of trust that ensures a more confident, reasoned response. As we voyage with Paul across the Great Sea, we’ll see with human eyes how such triumphant trust emerges.
A CLEAR AND PROMISED DESTINATION
The journey began with all the pleasant expectancy of a memorable ocean voyage as Luke writes, “We would sail for Italy.” Placed under the care and custody of a Roman centurion named Julius, Paul was joined by Luke, of course, and a Macedonian companion named Aristarchus. Together they embarked on the first leg of the long voyage to Rome.
Now would be an appropriate time to put your finger in this page and flip to the back of the book and view the map titled “Trip to Rome.” There you can trace the route of Paul’s voyage from Caesarea up around the island of Cyprus, through Myra (where they changed ships), past Rhodes, down south below Crete, across to the obscure island of Malta, then up through the strait past Sicily and to the harbor near Rome. Paul only knew the destination ahead of time—--Rome. He knew nothing of the circuitous, treacherous route that would bring them there.
Luke describes the two vessels Paul would take: One was a large vessel that had originated at Adramyttium, a harbor town on the western coast of what is now Turkey, southeast of Troas. It was a merchant ship that worked the southern coastline, eventually docking at Caesarea. They sailed on that vessel up the coast to Myra, where they disembarked, then boarded an Alexandrian cargo ship destined for Rome.
Having been on all three bodies of water in that part of the world—--the Adriatic, the Aegean, and the Mediterranean—--I’ve come to a simple conclusion. The deep-blue waters of those great seas look a lot more inviting on maps and in travel brochures than they do from the windswept deck of a ship in the middle of a storm.
The ships Paul sailed on, of course, were nothing like what I’ve enjoyed in my travels. Those ancient vessels were more like barges, shaped almost as squarely at the bow as they were at the stern. That, along with the single-mast outfitting rigged with one enormous sail, made the giant wooden crafts difficult to maneuver even on a clear day. Not that much wind would have caused the weathered timbers of those ancient ships to creak and groan and, if the seas got rough enough, to split and splinter at the seams.
Nothing about their crude design rendered them seaworthy by today’s standards. But none of that seemed to worry Paul as he and his companions embarked from Myra in Lycia and set sail for Italy.
They most likely launched in late August, but (as we shall see) the shipwreck caused a three-month delay at Malta, forcing the final leg of the journey to fall in the dead of winter. It was not a pleasant time to travel the seas and fight the cold winds and harsh currents of the Mediterranean. I’m told there are few more treacherous bodies of water than the route below the southern reaches of Greece. It was there the storm hit full force.
In many respects, the storm Paul and his companions encountered developed along the lines of what modern meteorologists consider a perfect storm. In recent history, such a storm occurred in the waters of the North Atlantic. In 1991, volatile fronts from the north, the east, the west, and the south converged off the coast of Massachusetts, creating such a threatening combination of hurricane-force winds and towering waves that the entire Last Coast went scrambling for cover. Numerous fishing vessels retreated to safer waters. Writer Sebastien Junger, in his book The Perfect Storm, tells the tale of that strange confluence of atmosphere and sea, and the ill-fated Andrea Gail, whose captain and crew vanished without a trace. Junger’s dramatic retelling of that freak convergence of elements in a single storm system eerily resembles what Luke describes in Acts 27.
The entire chapter is devoted to Luke’s dramatic retelling of Paul’s very own perfect storm.
“And when we had sailed slowly for a good many days, and with difficulty had arrived off Cnidus, since the wind did not permit us to go farther, we sailed under the shelter of Crete, off Salome; and with difficulty sailing past it we came to a certain place called Fair Havens, near which was the city of Lasea. And when considerable time was passed and the voyage was now dangerous, since even the fast was already over, Paul began to admonish them, and said, “Men, I perceive that the voyage will certainly be attended with damage and great loss, not only of cargo and the ship, but also of our lives. But the centurion was more persuaded by the pilot and the captain of the ship, than by what was being said by Paul. And because the harbor was not suitable for wintering, the majority reached a decision to put out to sea from there, if somehow they could reach Phoenix, a harbor of Crete, facing south west and northwest, and spend the winter there. And when a moderate south wind came up, supposing that they had gained their purpose, they weighed anchor and began sailing along Crete, close inshore.” (Acts 27:7—13, NASB)
When the centurion chose to go with the majority rather than heed Paul’s advice, he made a grave error in judgment. Leaving the calmer waters off Crete, the centurion put his men and everyone on board in harm’s way on the open sea. The voyage changed from difficult to dangerous almost overnight. The velocity of the winds increased as did the ocean swells. All on board knew there was trouble ahead. Luke later records the desperate turning point: “But before very long there rushed down from the land a violent wind, called Euraquilo; and when the ship was caught in it, and could not face the wind, we gave way to it, and let ourselves be driven along” (Acts 27:14—15).
“Euraquilo” is the equivalent of one of our northeasterns; the combination of gale-force winds and rough seas that rage along the eastern seaboard from south to north, dumping heavy rain, snow, and ice along the way. Such blizzard-like conditions can create grave hazards. Only what Paul experienced was not on land, but at sea.
The storm grew so violent in its intensity that, according to Luke, “They began to jettison cargo,” until eventually they were forced to heave overboard the ship’s tackle, rendering the vessel impossible to control.
To make matters worse, the thick canopy of dark clouds blocked any view of the constellations, which normally served as a reliable navigational guide. Hope waned. Survival was now in question, especially as the battle against the winds continued relentlessly for days.
Finally, the storm-weary crew caught a ray of hope. Luke writes, “When the fourteenth night had come, as we were being driven about in the Adriatic Sea, about midnight the sailors began to surmise they were approaching land” (27:27). That led to a series of soundings that alerted the men to the danger of running the ship aground. So, “They cast four anchors from the stern and wished for daybreak” (Acts 28:29b)
More than anything, they needed a compass—--a trustworthy instrument that, despite the howling winds and towering seas, in response to a fixed invisible force, could cut through the furious gale, and point them to safety. Without that, they hoped daylight would reveal their exact whereabouts. The waiting must have been maddening.
For most, a growing feeling of panic set in. Even the seasoned sailors were grim and quiet as they longed for the light of day. For now, their only hope was those four anchors thrown off the stern, resulting in a relentless tug-of-war against the powerful pull of the surging swells (27:29).
As we study Luke’s data of Paul’s perilous voyage to Rome, we want to look not only at what is recorded, but also between the lines. It is there we find more of the real story. It is there we witness the faithful God, who keeps His promises, and the humble servant, who clings to the anchors of His eternal Word.
It is in that story, hidden within the recorded story, we learn lessons for our lives. And it is from that unwritten account we draw the strength to face our own perfect storms head-on and stare down our own feelings of panic. The storms we endure may last for days, weeks, months, or even years. Perfect storms in life are largely unpredictable. They rage on with seemingly no end in sight. Often, they appear to be wildly out of control.
I will tell you I have been in storms like that. They are far worse than any storms I’ve ever known at sea. At times I questioned my own survival. I remember, during one particular storm in my life, being awake at night and awaking Cynthia to whisper, “I’m not sure we’re going to make it through this one.” I’ve been there. I know you have too. You may be there now. That intensifies your interest in this frightening story.
Where you find yourself is not the result of an accident, nor are you alone. God is neither absent nor indifferent. You are precisely where He planned for you to be at this very moment. He could have calmed your storm at any point, but He hasn’t. Your situation may appear as close to impossible to you as it can get. Like the sailors and passengers of Paul’s ill fated ship, you may be wringing your hands, waiting for the light of day. I repeat, that isn’t accidental.
Allow me to move from the stinging spray blasting its way across the deck of that ship mentioned in Acts 27 to the real-world storm you may now be facing. Questions emerge as fear grows within. Panic thoughts make you uneasy. How do you keep it together? What do you do, for example, when you’re in the hospital, and the lights have been turned out, and you’re trying to believe the news you were given? You lie there, alone. The family has left for the night. All is quiet, except for your thoughts. How do you face tomorrow’s fierce blast? Right now it’s just you and God. . .
and alien, unexpected waves of doubt are slamming relentlessly against your soul. How do you go on? More importantly, how do you replace sheer panic with simple trust?
What do you do when your mate walks out, and you’re left alone, and you’re living in the backwash of months, even years, of consequences you caused? What do you do when life grows that bleak?
Perhaps angry, threatening storm clouds have begun to roll in at the office. The once-clear skies of long-term success now look ominously dark. You sense the worst is yet to come. The possibilities are numerous. So what do you do? I’ll tell you what you do: Like the crew of Paul’s doomed vessel, you throw out the anchor. In fact, you throw four of them. These anchors are sure to hold you fast.
RELIABLE ANCHORS FOR YOUR STORM-TOSSED SOUL
I offer these four anchors to help stabilize you in the middle of your perfect storm. If you’re enjoying clear skies at the present, that’s great, but I can assure you, you’ll need these someday. Inevitably, storm clouds will roll in, and you’ll find yourself groping for dry land. You will need these anchors when the news comes that someone dear to you has died, or when your teenage son doesn’t show up one evening, or when you daughter runs away
again, or when the baby’s fever won’t break, or when the damage appears irreparable. You’ll need all four of these anchors to keep you from drifting into despair.
First, you’ll need the anchor of stability.
“Since neither sun nor stars appeared for many days, and no small storm was assailing us, from then on all hope for our being saved was gradually abandoned. And when they had gone a long time without food, then Paul stood up in their midst and said, “Men, you ought to have followed my advice and not to have set sail from Crete, and incurred this damage and loss. And yet now I urge you to keep up your courage, for there shall be no loss of life among you, but only of this ship. For this very night an angel of the God to whom I belong and whom I serve stood before me, saying, ‘Do not be afraid, Paul; you must stand before Caesar; and, behold, God has granted you all those who are sailing with you.’ Therefore, keep up your courage, men, for I believe God that it will turn out exactly as I have been told. But we must run aground on a certain island.” (Acts 27:20—26, NASB)
The anchor of stability holds firm when your navigation system fails. It’s easy to lose your bearings in the storm. You can’t find your way through the circumstances you face. Life rolls along fairly smoothly until suddenly the seas grow rough. Unseen problems occur. They were not in the fore cast. In Luke’s words, “All hope for being saved” is abandoned.
Those are treacherous moments when we reach the point of abandoning hope. At that difficult, gut-wrenching moment God says, “Don’t be afraid, I have a plan.”
In the very early years of ministry, to my dismay, I was unable to console a distraught husband, fresh out of the hospital, whose wife and kids had walked out on him. I met with him. I prayed for him. I tried to console him. Having eventually abandoned all hope, he committed suicide. It broke my heart, but the storm was too great. Like the doomed Andrea Gail, the man vanished in a sea of hopelessness.
Before Paul’s sailing companions reached that breaking point, he offered hope by exhorting them to “keep up your courage. The ship’s going down, but we’re going to make it!” That’s what I call throwing out the anchor of stability.
People facing intense adversity find it difficult to focus on anything other than the towering waves and stinging winds. Paul firmly announces, “Be of good cheer. . . We’ve heard from the Lord that none will be lost.”
We find stability in storms through what God has said. Your tendency will be to turn to another source for strength rather than the Word of God. Don’t go there! The only anchor of stability that will hold you firm, no matter how intense the gale-force winds, is God’s written Word.
All this reminds me of a statement made by one of the ancient Jewish prophets, which supports the reliability of God and His Word. The following words flow from the seasoned hand of Isaiah: “But now, thus says the Lord, your Creator, 0 Jacob, and He who formed you, 0 Israel, ‘Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name; you are Mine! When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they will not overflow you’ “ (Isaiah 43:1—2, NASB).
What encouraging words! “Do not fear, I have called you by name.” What a great thought!
Isaiah was not writing of literal waters or actual rivers. His figure of speech emphasized encroaching circumstances that threatened the stability of one’s faith. When the waters rise to dangerous depths, when difficulties reach maximum proportion, when your ship seems to be disintegrating board by board and starting to sink by life’s inevitable storms, God is faithful. He promises, “I will be with you.”
Less than five years ago I turned to that very promise. I placed my index finger on the biblical verses and said, “Lord, I want You to know I’m claiming this for my situation, right now. It’s the only way I’m going be able to make it. You know what You’re doing. All I see are waves, and the water is rising. It doesn’t make sense to me, but I know that with You onboard my ship won’t sink. I’m going to make it!”
Cynthia and I were seeking to relocate the ministry of Insight for Living from California to Texas, not only a massive logistical challenge, but an enormous financial responsibility. The odds were against us. There were several who questioned our need to make such a drastic move. Most of our faithful staff had told us they wouldn’t be moving if we followed through on our plans. The original cost estimation was so great it made our heads spin. Our board of directors, while supportive and convinced that relocation made sense, were naturally concerned, knowing how expensive and disruptive large and extensive relocation projects can be. We could feel the gale-force winds of pressure.
It was then that I got alone with the Lord, found and claimed this statement from Isaiah’s pen, and anchored myself to His promise.
I’ll save you another five pages of reading—--we are now completely relocated. We have secured and hired 90 percent new staff—like before, wonderful, servant-hearted men and women. We shall move into new facilities about the time this book is published, and the entire project cost less than one-fourth the amount originally estimated. We made it! The anchor of stability held us fast.
GOD IS FAITHFUL
Second, you’ll need the anchor of unity.
“But when the fourteenth night had come, as we were being driven about in the Adriatic Sea, about midnight the sailors began to surmise that they were approaching some land. And they took soundings, and found it to be twenty fathoms; and a little farther on they took an other sounding and found it to be fifteen fathoms. And fearing that we might run aground somewhere on the rocks, they cast four anchors from the stern and wished for daybreak. And as the sailors were trying to escape from the ship, and had let down the ship’s boat into the sea, on the pretense of intending to lay out anchors from the bow, Paul said to the centurion and the soldiers, “Unless these men remain in the ship, you yourselves cannot be saved.” Then the soldiers cut away the ropes of the ship’s boat, and let it fall away.” (Acts 27:27—32, NASB)
The scene breathed life-threatening fears. Imaginations ran wild. Paul knew that staying together was the secret to their survival. The temptation was strong to abandon ship and let each person fend for himself. That’s no way to survive a storm. As the water grew shallower, fear of shipwreck intensified. But Paul warned that allowing the men to escape meant certain death.
The spiritual application is obvious. Our tendency in dire straits is to cut and run. It’s easier at the moment to walk out of a troubled marriage than to face it and work toward restoration. Human nature wants to retreat to a place where each one of us can be all alone, lock the door, and pull the blinds. Alienated, we sink further into depression. Tragically, some turn to the bottle, to drugs, or worse, to a revolver.
If that in any way describes you, you need the support of family, friends, and especially God’s people. It’s easier to lower the dinghy and jump in all alone. I want to warn you against escaping. Instead, I urge you to stay with others aboard ship. Don’t leap and try to make it on your own. Lock arms. Stay in touch with those who love you the most, who will be with you no matter what. You need the presence of God’s people surrounding you when the bottom has dropped out of your life. Despite what you think, it’s doubtful you can make it on your own. In our case, we had a few close friends of the ministry praying and a unified board encouraging us. Relocating was a challenging experience, but not a lonely one. You and I are designed by God to make it together. The anchor of unity holds us close.
Third, you’ll need the anchor of renewal.
“And until the day was about to dawn, Paul was encouraging them all to take some food, saying, “Today is the fourteenth day that you have been constantly watching and going without eating, having taken nothing. Therefore I encourage you to take some food, for this is for your preservation; for not a hair from the head of any of you shall perish.” And having said this, he took bread and gave thanks to God in the presence of all; and he broke it and began to eat. And all of them were encouraged, and they themselves also took food.” (Acts 27:33—36,NASB)
Can you imagine fighting a storm for two weeks and getting virtually no nourishment? That’s what the men on Paul’s ship experienced. Even more amazing, that’s how most respond to life’s storms. We run our tanks dry fighting the battles on our own, and we end up physically weak, emotionally drained, and unable to sleep. The anchor of renewal guards against that sort of anatomical depletion. Instead, Paul encouraged the men to eat and be renewed. But first he prayed. They all prayed!
Can you imagine that scene? The storm raged about them, while almost three hundred men bowed in prayer as Paul gave thanks for the meager fare, then everybody on board joined together in the meal.
Your personal nourishment is crucial during times of storm. In panic moments, you’ll cut a corner on your meals. You’ll also fail to get sufficient sleep. It won’t be long before you will set aside prayer a1together and you’ll find yourself drained, spiritually. Increased emotional pain mixed with decreased spiritual renewal can be lethal to your faith.
Spiritual renewal comes primarily through prayer. Few disciplines are of greater importance when all seems bleak. Simply talk it out. Wrestle with the reason for the storm. Seek His direction. Don’t let up until you’re satisfied you’ve got the Lord’s mind. That’s what Paul modeled on the deck of that rugged ship.
For some of the men on board, I’m confident it was the first time in their lives they had prayed. Certainly, it was the first time they had prayed to Almighty God! It may have been the only time in their lives they’d ever heard a prayer offered for a meal. In the middle of a howling wind-and-rain storm, they paused and witnessed a reverent, humble man offering a prayer of gratitude to the Lord God, Maker of heaven and earth. Captain of the winds and waves. That encouraged them. It was simple, but its impact was profound.
Eventually, according to Luke’s account, the vessel did run aground. And though the soldiers wanted to murder the prisoners on the spot (In Rome, to lose a prisoner meant you would later lose your head.), the centurion offered a restraining voice of reason. He persuaded his men to spare the prisoners’ lives—--a great idea since that included Paul—--and allow everyone to abandon ship and swim to shore. Reality hit hard when their ship struck the reef.
That brings me to the fourth anchor. In the middle of your perfect storm, you’ll need the anchor of reality.
“But striking a reef where two seas met, they ran the vessel aground; and the prow struck fast and remained unmovable, but the stern began to be broken up by the force of the waves. And the soldiers’ plan was to kill the prisoners, that none of them should swim away and escape; but the centurion, wanting to bring Paul safely through, kept them from their intention, and commanded that those who could swim should jump overboard first and get to land, and the rest should follow, some on planks, and others on various things from the ship. And thus it happened that they all were brought safely to land.” (Acts 27:4I—44, NASB)
The anchor of reality says, “Jump right in. Get directly involved. Don’t be passive. Be engaged in the action!” The only way they were going to get out of this storm alive was that all of them got into the water and made their way to shore. The reality included a ship that began to break apart. There were no hovering helicopters summoned to rescue them from the sea. Reality compelled them to take action. And that’s precisely what they did.
Let’s pause long enough to do the math. How many started the voyage? Answer: 276. How many were promised they’d make it? Answer: 276. How many made it safely to shore? Answer: 276. As I said, God is faithful.
All those going through a storm need to be engaged in the process. No one is promised a magical escape clause. Passivity is faith’s enemy. It isn’t an acceptable option to fold our arms and wait for the storm to pass.
For you, it may mean some hard work. (It certainly did for us in the relocation project.) It may require humbling yourself before God and others. It might mean a season of counseling where a trained, compassionate individual helps you reorder your life. You may be required to admit several wrong actions and seek reconciliation as you make restitution. Whatever the case, you’ll need to be involved. Reality mandates that type of mature response. It’s part of throwing the anchor of reality and trusting God to bring you to shore.
Everybody who experienced deliverance from that ship on the reef had the same thing in common once they got to the island—--they were all soaking-wet.
IN CALMER WATERS
The best plan for surviving a storm is preparation. No seasoned fishermen or responsible ship captain sets across the open sea without a thorough knowledge of the vessel’s equipment and without making sure all is in proper working order. They rarely leave without having first spent sufficient time going over the navigation charts—--studying the weather patterns and acquainting themselves with dangerous passages.
And they never leave port without anchors. That’s for certain. No one wants to be shipwrecked. But the reality is, it happens, not only on the open sea, but also in life.
The secret of survival is what you do ahead of time in calmer waters. If your life is storm-free as you read this book, I urge you to take advantage of this peaceful lull. Spend time in God’s Word. Study the inspired charts He has given you for the journey of life. Deepen your walk with Him through prayer and personal worship.
Then, when the inevitable winds of adversity begin to blow, and they most certainly will blow, you’ll be ready to respond in faith, rather than fear. Don’t wait. Check those anchors while it’s smooth sailing. You’ll be glad you did.
And while you’re at it, pick out a specific God-given promise you’ll be able to cling to, put your index finger on it, and tell the Lord you’re anchoring yourself to it. I’m sure glad I did. (285-299)
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