Becoming a Living Witness: The Oxford Group Way of Life

Jesus commissioned his disciples to “Go forth to all nations and make them my disciples” (Matthew 28: 19).  The Oxford Groups of the early 20th century attempted to recreate First Century Christianity and discipleship.  From the New Testament texts, they developed a way of life based on changing one’s life and helping others have deep and effective spiritual experiences that would in turn change their lives.  Each member bore witness throughout their daily affairs to the transformation Christ made in their lives.  It is an approach based not on eventual rewards in heaven, but in finding a more fulfilling and exciting life in service to God here and now.  The Oxford Groups found in the Scriptures the good news, the Gospel that changes lives and sends “a woman hatless and coatless to her neighbor’s house: ‘The most wonderful thing has happened!’” (Winn 23)

The primary sources for this essay are What is the Oxford Group? (WITOG) and How to Listen to God: A Guide for Successful Living through the Practice of Two Way PrayerWhat is the Oxford Group? was written in 1933 by an anonymous member of the Group as ‘the Layman with a Notebook’, and served as the practical handbook for Group members.  In addition, it was the normative theological document of the Oxford Group, similar in use to the Presbyterian Book of ConfessionsHow To Listen To God is primarily based on the first hand recollections of James Houck, 94 at the time of publication in 2000, who was a member of the original Oxford Group.  Houck joined the Oxford Group in December of 1934.  In this book, Wally Paton records Houck’s understanding of the Four Steps and Four Standards, the primary principles of the Oxford Group, as well as oral traditions not recorded in WITOG, including the three assumptions and the five C’s.

The Oxford Group was the basis for all Twelve-Step Groups, and much of the early Alcoholics Anonymous literature is based directly on Oxford Group teachings.  In fact all of the AA authors were or had been members of the Oxford Groups.  The AA writings reflect the shift in purpose from redemption from sin to recovery from alcoholism.  Nevertheless, these secondary sources illustrate the Oxford Group principles in action.

The Oxford Group program was a simple plan for living based on four basic sets of principles.  In 1921, a Lutheran minister, Frank Buchman, founded the Group after emigrating from America to England.  He was disenchanted with the Church’s governing committee when “he caught a vision of a Christ-led world untrammeled by Sin”.  He devoted his life to making his vision a “practical reality”.  He developed the basis for a nondenominational first century Christian movement based on his understanding of Scripture and tradition.  The vision and the pragmatic principles were passed person to person throughout Britain and later in the United States (WITOG 11).  Members gathered together for informal house parties in addition to their duties within their own congregations.  At the house parties, they studied the Bible with an eye for modern application, sought God’s direct guidance for individual and world concerns, and shared their sins openly with one another for confession and for witness (WITOG 9). 

They flourished throughout the 1920s, and reached America in 1931.  Although they still referred to themselves as the Oxford Group, publicly Buchman renamed the Group  “The Moral Rearmament” in 1938, to forward his new agenda of social reform (Clark 79).  He began to lose track of the early Oxford Group ideals of personal reform.    However, due to a number of bad decisions on Buchman’s part in the years leading up to WWII and a great deal of bad publicity during the war, the Group fell into decline.  In the post war years, the Group traded its centered program of individual conversion for a sweeping political agenda.  This lack of focus led to the eventual erosion of Oxford Group principles.  As Clark says in The Oxford Group: Its History and Significance, “The Oxford Group’s aims have been narrow, yet we must remember that from this narrowness has come power as well as defeat” (93). 

The true spiritual successors of the Oxford Group can be found in the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous and similar Twelve Step Groups.  These groups still hold to the tenet that by developing a personal relationship with God by means of certain tangible actions, any person can change his or her life for the better.  Over 200 different groups addressing worldly compulsions ranging from drug addiction to overeating have successfully adapted the Twelve Steps to their use simply by changing the name of the malady to be overcome.

The purpose of this essay is to briefly examine the life changing ideas and practices of the early Oxford Group.  It is hoped that from this study, we can glean means of deepening our own spirituality and of ministering to those around us.  The “soul surgery” as designed by Buchman is as applicable to the life of one who has never heard of Jesus Christ as to one who has spent a lifetime in the Church.

First of the Group’s principles are the three assumptions upon which everything else is based.  Next, the Four Absolutes and their opposites, the Four Standards, are the means by which one could tell one’s self will from God’s will.  The Four Steps are the design for personal living that gets and keeps one free of whatever separates one from God.  Finally, the Five C’s of Life Changing are the framework one uses to help others achieve the life change he or she has received.  From the Group’s simple program, one receives a different conception of one’s relationship with God, a standard by which to live and practical suggestions in how to do so.

The author of the Oxford Group states:

The aims of the Oxford Group are to bring into the world the realization of the power of the Holy Spirit as a force for spiritual and material stability and betterment of the world; to awaken in us as individuals the knowledge that we are dissipating our spiritual inheritance and that Sin is the frustration of God’s plan for us all (WITOG 5).

These aims presuppose the most basic of Christian doctrines.  There is a problem, Sin, and the solution is God.  The goal of the Oxford Group is to bring the world and each individual into an understanding of the problem and the solution. The Group’s motto was “Changing the world – one life at a time.”

The Oxford Group had a very definite idea as to the nature of sin.  “ ‘Sin’ the Oxford Group puts it bluntly, “is anything that keeps us from God or from one another” (WITOG 17).  The Oxford Group believes that all people are caught in the internal struggle between flesh and spirit.  We are constantly torn between the voices within of God and of self.  The voice of Self “separates us from God and keeps us in total darkness” (Paton 114).  The voice of God seeks to guide us toward the ultimate good both for ourselves and for those around us.  It is ultimately this voice that leads one into the promised life-change.  The ultimate goal of the Oxford Group program is to learn to listen to and follow the direction of this voice.  In this way, the Oxford Group believes we come in line with God’s will for us and fulfill our purpose in God’s plan.

The Oxford Group believes that to live in God’s will is life’s ultimate joy.  “True Happiness is a life without Sin; a life founded on trust in God; the life of the disciple of Christ” (WITOG 20).  The Group believes that by moving from sin and toward God we come ever closer to genuine satisfaction in this world.

The three assumptions lay this out for us.  First, we assume that God speaks.  Then we presuppose that God has a plan for us.  Finally, we believe that God will reveal His plan for us if we are willing to listen and follow directions.  If God is what we say He is, then surely His plan for us is better than our own designs.   As some members of the Oxford Group put it, “When we look back, we realize that the things which came to us when we put ourselves in God’s hands were better than anything we could have planned” (AA 100).

God has always spoken to his faithful whether through the living Word, intuitive insight or revelations in the world around us.  The Church has always tried to interpret God for believers, but so often leaders get lost in talking about what God said.  The Oxford Group asks, “What is God saying to each of us today?”  The Oxford Group believes that God reveals himself directly to each believer by the voice within.  Some would like to say that the voice within is simply the conscience.  However, James Houck counters, “Your conscience can tell you the difference between right and wrong, but only the voice of God can show you the difference between two rights….  When we listen to God and test our thoughts, we find that God directs us toward the path that is of maximum benefit to every one” (Paton, 21-22).

The second assumption tells us that not only is God still speaking, but that what he has to say is relevant to each of us.  He has a plan for each of us, a best path we can choose to travel.  They aver that an infinite, all-powerful God certainly has the capacity for individual regard for every person, and each decision within that person’s life.  Christianity believes that God has a purpose for the world.  The Oxford Group simply states that each of us can make decisions that move toward or away from that goal.

The final assumption is that God will reveal Himself to us, if we learn how to listen.  We cannot follow God’s will through our own action.  We must depend on the Group to teach us how to listen and depend on God to give us the direction.  We are doubly helpless.  We cannot know God’s purpose for us unless He reveals it to us, and we do not know how to find this revelation.  We need to remove the impediments between us and God, so that we can learn what He wills for us. Finding that plan is the goal of the rest of the program.

The heart of the Oxford Group program is the Four Absolutes.  These attributes are the lodestone members use to point the way toward Christ.  The life-change begins when one devotes oneself to striving for these ideals, which they believed epitomized Jesus’ actions in Scripture.  One deepens one’s Christianity by continuing to strive for them.  Rather than a catalogue of “Thou shalt not’s”, the Group hoped to condense the Jesus Teachings into a manageable and universally applicable set of values.  “Jesus kept to these four points in their fullness…  The nearer we live to the Absolute in these four points the nearer we are to Christ” (WITOG 6).

Clark describes the Absolutes saying:

The ethical program of the Group is epitomized in the counsel of moral perfection defined by the Four Absolutes of perfect honesty, purity, unselfishness, and love.  These standard not only serve to provide control for the concept of  guidance, but they serve as a means whereby the individual may test his life and develop a program for individual or public improvement. (30)

The application of these ideals seems to require one to be perfect.  Lest the reader be discouraged, the Layman is quick to reassure us that it is the striving that is important, not necessarily achieving the paradigms. He writes:

We have not the knowledge which would enable us to judge if any man or woman has been able to live a life absolutely as Christ would have him or her live it; but the Oxford Group do know that placing these necessary four points for a Christian life as absolute ones is placing Christ as the absolute example to which, by the help of God, we can aspire. (6-7)

Although the Absolutes deserve a much deeper treatment, only a brief word can be said here about what each of these principles meant to the members of the Oxford Group.  It is important to note that after a brief description of the Group, the Absolutes are the first of the principles of the program that the Layman introduces.  The Layman devotes almost a quarter of WITOG to the description of the Absolutes individually, more consideration than any other subject receives (65-93).  He offers a wealth of information about how each of these standards can be applied in real life circumstance and what the rewards of that application may be. The author clearly understood the Absolutes to be the core of the Oxford Group plan.

Honesty is the first value discussed.  Although many people believe themselves to be honest when they do not steal or lie outright, both Paton and the Layman emphasize that Absolute Honesty is more than just so-called “cash register honesty”.  It is the relentless pursuit of the truth. “When we are not actively seeking truth, we are in danger of letting falsehood control our thoughts” (Paton 135).  However, “brutal honesty” is no more acceptable to the Group, than nominal honesty. “Under God’s guidance absolute truthfulness is tempered with common sense and kindliness” (WITOG 68).  We are to aim for perfect candor with ourselves and with others, but not at the expense of others.

Absolute Purity is honesty in action.  “Purity is being honest to the best side of our natures, mental, physical, and spiritual” (WITOG 77).  We strive to be clean in thought and deed, to stand as an example to others.

Absolute Unselfishness is the necessary response to Absolute Love.  It is a two-fold endeavor.  We must first learn to put God’s will ahead of our self-will.  We then discover that we are putting others’ interests ahead of our own.  It is through Absolute Unselfishness that we demonstrate Christ’s love in the world.

Absolute Love stands as the essence of all of the other Absolutes, and is the very substance of the Oxford Group program.  The Layman explains the centrality of Absolute Love, saying:

Absolute Love is the motive power for Absolute Honesty, Purity, and Unselfishness.  We can have none of these qualities in their absolute without Absolute Love.  If we have Absolute Love for God we have all of those qualities for the world.  We can be paragons of righteousness, but if we have not Love we are spiritually lifeless.  Love begets love…Love uplifts us more than any other quality; it is the colour in the pattern of earthly existence. (95)

If we ever hope to live by these Absolutes, we need to clear away the rubbish that keeps us from God.  It is clear that we cannot live the life the Absolutes indicate of our own accord.  We need help.  God will help us, if we will let Him.  He has a plan for each of us that He is seeking to reveal to us.  If we do not hear Him, the fault must lie with us.

We live in a world of countless temptations, and each of us is consumed with addictions, obsessions, worldly compulsions, fears and self-destructive behaviors of all types. The Layman says that, “Individual self interest is the causation of world sin” (21).  With the Four Steps a person faces his self-centeredness and his sins, and ultimately through following God’s direction is freed of them.  The purpose of the Four Steps is to produce “a life-changing alteration in perception” that will allow us to “live a God directed life of purpose and meaning beyond your wildest dreams” (Paton, 153-154).  It is with the steps that one begins to learn the life-changing actions that enable one to struggle toward the Absolutes.  The Four Steps are surrender, sharing, restitution and guidance.  Each one is a stride on the path toward God.

The first step of the program is to surrender to God’s will.  The Layman lists sharing first, but every later writer including all Twelve-step groups, begin with surrender.  They feel that surrender is necessary in order to have strength to begin sharing honestly.  The order however is not of paramount importance because surrender is not a single event, but an ongoing process.

Even if we only surrendered to God yesterday our sin of today does not cancel that surrender.  God knows and waits.  He waits to see if we will Surrender that sin of today to Him with as much sincerity as we surrendered our lives yesterday. (WITOG 41-42)

When we first come to understand that we are the problem to which God is the solution, we have begun to surrender.  However, the surrender must deepen.  “Surrender is our complete severance from our old self and an endeavoring to live by God’s Guidance as one with Christ” (WITOG 37).  We must acknowledge that we have lived lives of self-sufficiency and that life has proven unsatisfying.  We have bowed down before false idols of “alcohol, drugs, fame, food and fortune” (Paton, 156).  To that list we could add fun, sex, work, exercise, academia, and countless other worldly distractions.

  Yet however much of our particular vice we have had, it has never been enough to satisfy us.    We suffer from a spiritual malady.  There is a spiritual hole in our lives that no worldly commodity can fill.  We need to concede that only God can solve our problem and fill our hearts.  We have to believe that he will satisfy that inner yearning we have been trying to quiet, if we will only let him.  Finally, we need to commit ourselves to seeking God’s will in our lives. We must be willing to give up control of our lives, and let God direct our activities.

  The Layman describes surrender by quoting Paul.  “I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, therein to be content” (WITOG 44)  This surrender to God is not simply a mental process, a changing of one’s mind.  It must be accompanied by the willingness to take the actions outlined in the next steps.  “ ‘Faith apart from works’, said St. James, ‘is barren’” (WITOG 32).  The rewards are vast, if are steadfast in this journey.  We find ourselves where we do not even want the things we thought before that we could not live without.  Augustine described the inevitable failure of self-reliance and the fruits of surrender to God:

Behold, man relied upon himself, he attempted to fight, he could not get the better, he was conquered, prostrated, subjugated, led captive. He learnt to rely upon God, and it remaineth that him whom the Law alarmed while he relied upon himself, grace should assist now that he trusteth in God (SERMON XCV).

The Group suggests that a prayer to symbolize the person’s commitment to go on with the program accompany the act of surrender.  One such prayer is Victor’s Surrender Prayer:

I surrender my life to Thee, O God.  Living in self has separated me from your Divine guidance and grace.  Take my life and run it for me, according to Your will and Your plan.  Thy will, not mine be done. (Paton, 172)

Now that we have acknowledged the problem and understand that God is the only solution, we must go about taking the actions necessary to free us from our sin.  The next step is sharing. In this process we begin to see how sin manifests itself particularly in our lives.  In conjunction with someone that has already taken the steps and had the shift in perception, we examine our lives for those things that separate us from God.  By working with another person who has already acknowledged his or her own faults, we learn to see our lives through a different lens.  We start to see all of the ways we are driven by self-will.  “To put [our sins] into words, before Christ with another Christian, as a witness, is the only healthy way of making sure that the spiritual system is virtually cleansed” (WITOG 29)

We scour our lives for the Four Standards of dishonesty, impurity of thought and deed, selfishness and fear.  These attributes are the opposites of the Four Absolutes of honesty, purity unselfishness and love, used to test for God’s will.  Each of these defects of character can manifest itself in innumerable ways.  Fear may look like hatred, resentment or anger.  Selfishness can seem to be ambition, laziness or jealousy.  The Oxford Group believed that when thoroughly investigated all of our faults could be attributed to one or more of the Four Standards.  Conversely, all right action demonstrates the Four Absolutes.  By applying the Standards or the Absolutes, we can tell if we are listening to the voice of self or the voice of God.

We share all of our faults with another person.  “Confessions shared become the property of God, not man” (WITOG 30).  That person helps us to see where we have missed our sins.  We struggle to see ourselves honestly, and by sharing with another person we can get a clearer view of who and what we really are.  Left to our own devices we tend to either gloss over those sins we are still fond of, or to exaggerate those things that are causing us pain.  The truth usually lies between self-serving minimization and overly dramatic remorse.  We need someone else to help us to clearly see ourselves.  By confessing our shortcomings to another, we become convicted of our sin.  By sharing with someone who has been through the process and has overcome many of their own handicaps, we take hope from their experience.  This is the moment when it is truly darkest before the dawn.  We are finally able to truly see the hopelessness of our case, and really grasp how desperately we need God’s help.  Only through God’s action can we move from the life we have been living into the promised life of freedom and purpose.

The guilt and shame of the lives we have led burden us.  In order to be free of that pain we must make efforts to right the wrongs we have done.  We must not only repent, but we must demonstrate our repentance in our willingness to do things differently than we always have.  The third step in the Oxford Group program is restitution.  Through this step, we begin to lay aside our selfishness and begin to be of service to others.  We put their needs first.  The only benefit we hope for is to be free of the wrongs we have done, to quiet our troubled souls.  For that peace of mind, we become willing to sacrifice anything.  It is only through restitution that we can be free of our past in order to move into the future God has prepared for us.

In the restitution process we make a list of all the persons we have harmed, and ask God to show us how to make it right.  By doing so, we clear away the things that keep us from God, and we begin to enter into true discipleship.  We learn to forgive ourselves so that we can truly accept God’s infinite forgiveness.  From Him we learn the true lesson of the restitution process: how to forgive others. By making right our own wrongs, we become more sympathetic to the failings of others.  We begin to feel a true fellowship with all of humankind and begin to see God working in our lives.  By seeking God’s guidance in this definite process of amends, we become convinced that God is truly working in our lives and guiding us to a richer and more satisfying world.  Through this process of faith in action, we start to truly heal.  Layman describes the restitution process saying:

Restitution is openly cutting the cord of sin which has bound us to the life of wrong we have lived in the past, and the only way of doing this is by acknowledging our faults to the people concerned and to pay back by apology or in kind that which we have taken from them.  What ever it is, important or seemingly unimportant, we are debtors and must pay now that our lives are God’s.  (WITOG 50)

The final step is the process of guidance, of seeking God’s will throughout our lives.  Oxford Group members held daily Quiet Times with the Holy Spirit, both individually and communally.  The Layman says, “These early morning Quiet Times in which God impresses on our minds His counsel become living spots in the routine of ordinary life” (WITOG 60).  John Batterson anonymously wrote a pamphlet called “How to Listen to God” which members used as a blueprint for Quiet Time.  Batterson said that the conditions to receive guidance were:

-To be quiet and still

-To listen

-To be honest about every thought that comes

-To test thoughts to be sure they come from God

-To obey (Batterson 1)

The basic process was to become quiet, pray for guidance, write whatever came to mind and test what was written with the Four Absolutes.  Whatever conformed to the Absolutes was believed to be from God and needed to be obeyed.  “If we faithfully surrendered our lives to Him, God is our Pilot and knows our every movement and thought.  When we listen for his guidance during our Quiet Times all requests asked or unasked are answered” (WITOG 61).  Guidance was the primary means for the Group members to keep God at the forefront of their lives.

Once one has surrendered to God’s will, confessed one’s sins to God and another Christian, commenced making restitution for one’s wrongs, and begun seeking God’s guidance in one’s life, a person is changed.  It imperative for a Changed person in the Oxford Group to help others to have the same kind of life change.  Naturally, once the Change has occurred one wants to share what one has been freely given.  Only one whose life has changed can do witness in the Oxford Group.  “You cannot transmit something you haven’t got” (AA 164).

Witness is paramount in every aspect of the Oxford Group program.  By taking the Steps and by living by the Christ-like example of the Four Absolutes, each member attempted to spread the good news in every aspect of their lives.  “It is those of us who are Christians who must demonstrate what Absolute Christ Love is before the world will accept it” (WITOG 99).  Witness is implicit in each of the Steps.  No part of the process is done in isolation as each step brings one closer into community with God’s people.  Each person is drawn to do for someone else what was done for him or her.

The Layman says of surrender, “A witness is a help to us to make our surrender complete in the sight of God and man” (WITOG 41).  Sharing is imperative to witness.  “By talking over with a sin-burdened soul their own difficulties and compensations of living in Christ, he or she would be able to bring that soul into communion with God” (WITOG 29).  One stands as no stronger witness to God’s glory than when one humbles oneself in the process of restitution.  “For often during our restitution to others God speaks to them about themselves” (WITOG 51).  God’s action in the form of guidance is the primary impetus behind any effort to witness.  “Guidance of God shows the best way of approach, what is best for witnesses to testify from their own lives, and when and how to bring the unchanged to God” (WITOG 32).

Buchman created the Five C’s of Life-changing in 1917.  They served as the original framework for sharing the curriculum of the Oxford Group  (Paton 253).  Later they fell into disuse in favor of the Step and Absolutes as outlined in WITOG

The Steps focus on what one must do to have a life change, whereas the Five C’s focus on the changed trying to help one who is unchanged. The Five C’s are confidence, confession, conviction, conversion, and continuance.  Each of these steps represents some aspect of the relationship between God,  the Changed and the unchanged he or she is trying to help.  Clark summarizes the Five C’s very succinctly:

‘Confidence’ involves the establishment of rapport by the life-changer with the sinner, or the person to be changed; practically speaking, any person outside the group.  ‘Confession’, or ‘sharing for witness’ is the admission of faults that the ‘changed’ person has long since overcome for the purpose of encouraging prospective converts.  ‘Conviction’ was that mental process by which the unchanged became aware of his sinfulness.  ‘Conversion’ is the change itself, that act of will in which one definitely promised oneself, God or another person that he would forsake his sins and follow God’s Guidance.  ‘Continuance’ involved the activity, which strengthened and confirmed conversion.  (28, edited)

Richmond Walker, an Oxford Group member turned AA member, anonymously published a meditation book, 24 Hours a Day, in 1954 (P., Bill xix).  He summarizes how, through the use of this process, one can help another change the way they think and help them to change their lives.  Although they were writing at around the same time, Walker has a different understanding of the C’s than Clark.

Walker believes one gains the prospect’s confidence by sharing.  “He will realize that he’s not alone and that others have had experiences as bad or worse than his.  This gives him the confidence that he can be helped”.  Walker believes that this confidence will inspire him or her to talk about his or her own experience.  Walker characterizes this sharing of the unchanged with the changed as “confession” stage.  This sharing creates the opportunity for the changed to point out the need for change in the prospect's life, which in turn leads to “conviction”.  The change in the “conversion” stage is a change in the prospect’s way of thinking.  “Continuance means our staying with the prospect after he has started on a new way of living” (146-150).

Whichever manner of breaking down the Five C’s one might choose, they serve as a pathway one might use in helping another closer to God.  This highly adaptable approach can help one gauge where the relationship between the changed and the unchanged stands and what might be an appropriate next step.  It also encourages the changed to take the responsibility continue to help someone newly changed to grow towards God.  The Group would also caution that the power to change lives comes from God, so listen to His guidance throughout the process.

The purpose of the Oxford Group program was to help people experience a life changing conversion.  Dawn Devries offers as a definition of conversion within the Reformed tradition, “the transformation of a person or community that arises from the discovery or deepening of beliefs about God, self, and world” (32).  The Oxford Group offered the means by which that transformation can take place, and the means by which one can discover God or deepen one’s experience of Him.  They taught that the transformation must take place within a community, one person guiding another into the change.  They directed members to stay involved in the lives of those they assisted in.  They sought to live by Christ’s example, and to help others do the same.  They used their own sins and shortcomings to bear witness to Christ’s redemptive power, and to show that He lives and acts even in the modern world.  In short, by seeking to follow the Oxford Group principles, we come closer to living by the ideals of our own tradition.

Works Cited

24 Hours A Day.  St. Paul:  Hazelden, 1954.

Alcoholics Anonymous.  4th ed. NY: Alcoholics Anonymous, 2001

St. Augustine of Hippo.  Sermons on Selected Lessons of the New Testament.

Batterson, John. “How To Listen To God”. unpublished, n.d.

Clark, W.H. The Oxford Group – Its History and Significance.  NY: Bookman Associates, 1951.

Coalter, Miton J. , Virgil Cruz, ed.  How Shall We Witness?  Faithful Evangelism in a Reformed Tradition.  Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 1995.

DeVries, Dawn.  “What is Conversion?”  Coalter 27-45.

P., Bill.  Introduction.  Practice These Principles and What Is The Oxford Group? Center City:  Hazelden,1997.

Paton, Wally.  How to Listen to God: A Guide for Successful Living through the Practice of Two Way Prayer.  Tuscon: Faith With Works, 2000.

The Layman with a Notebook.  What Is The Oxford Group? 1933.  Center City:  Hazelden, 1997.

Winn, Albert Curry.  “What is the Gospel?”  Coalter 3-26.

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