Are You Longing for More in Church?

Eventually, someone looking for a church home will ask some variation of this question:  “So, what kind of church are you?
—Kent Carlson

While signing books at a conference on spiritual formation a few years ago, a sharply-dressed, middle-aged woman approached who seemed to have no interest in purchasing a book. She marched right up to me and asked, “I have given up on church. Completely. What do you have to say to someone like me?”

All I could think to say was, “I don’t blame you. I get it.” Because the truth is, I do.

At that point I, too, had gotten to the end of my faith that churches could be communities where spiritual transformation takes place regularly and routinely… I, too, had gotten so desperate for spiritual transformation in community that I started something that I insisted was “not a church” … and yet, in all the ways that counts, it kind of is.

But even as I resonated with what she was saying, my heart broke one more time to acknowledge that the very thing that could and (I would argue) should be central to what the Church is all about—spiritual transformation together in Christ’s presence for the sake of others—is so absolutely missing in many people’s experience of church that they no longer even expect to find it there.

Telling the Truth About Church

Let’s be honest…these days when authentic community and real life change is what people are looking for, they routinely turn elsewhere—to a yoga class, a retreat or spirituality center, a runner’s club, or an informal gathering of like-minded friends who want to “go deeper” than what they think a church would offer. And who can blame them really? Today’s spiritually savvy seeker seems to know intuitively that calling something a church or letting it become a church has the potential to doom the whole endeavor from the get-go. We can judge the “spiritual but not religious” folks all we want, but spiritually-minded people today have no problem voting with their feet.

To be fair, churches are good for a great many things. But the church as a place where people are routinely experiencing spiritual transformation? Not so much.

Observing this one has to ask, “Does church really make a difference when it comes to the transformation of human beings into the image of Christ?”  Are good Christians even allowed to ask such questions?

Desperately Seeking Transformation

Truth is, I have experienced some transformation in the church. But I can also say that church has contributed to the care and feeding of my false self almost as effectively as it nurtured my true self. As I passed from the early stages of basic Christian discipleship into some of the more challenging stages of faith, there came a point when I had to admit that even though I’ve been in church all my life (both as a lay person and a pastor) there was something seriously missing. In times of greatest brokenness, awareness of sin, spiritual longing and questions, I have had to look outside the church (local, not universal) to discover next steps for my own spiritual transformation.

And that’s not even to mention the layers of Christian busyness that have, at times, contributed to a pace of life that is completely unmanageable. That fact alone has, at times, caused me to run from the church rather than run to it. This is disheartening, at best.

It’s Complicated

And that’s not all. Another layer of complexity got added a number of years ago when, as a leader in the church, I realized there was no place to go to attend to my own ongoing need for spiritual transformation. And yet I needed it so badly.

At that time, some of us who were leaders in a variety of churches were beginning to acknowledge that since there was a profound performance orientation attached to the “job” of working in the church it was simply not wise or safe to talk about what was or was not happening in our own spiritual lives. After all, a leader’s spirituality was a part of what was being evaluated as “successful” or not.  And that’s not even to mention what was going on in the lives of those to whom we ministered and whether or not real transformation was happening in their lives or not.

At one point this intrepid little group of leaders said to each other, “Ok, we love the church, we’re committed to serving in the church but we’re going to have to set up a community outside the church for attending to our spiritual transformation. Otherwise we will never ask the questions we need to ask, we will never be able to be honest about what’s really going on inside, we will never really take next steps on our own spiritual journey that require risk and vulnerability.”

We were spiritual seekers on a stealth mission to find that “pearl of great price”—real spiritual transformation—hidden in the field of our life together in Christ.

The Best Thing We Bring to Leadership

Taking it one step further, we also believed that if we as leaders could actually take some next steps spiritually—toward greater intimacy with God, toward real change in our trust structures and core motivations, toward an increasing capacity to really love and be present to people—it would be the best thing we could do for those around us as well. After all I had seen in churches, I was pretty well convinced that the best thing any of us can bring to leadership is our own transforming selves.

You may have already guessed that that little group of seekers who were also leaders became the Transforming Center. Since 2001, we have gathered on the basis of our shared desire to open to Christ’s transforming presence, we have actually experienced transformation together. Despite real losses (as in, we almost lost our faith in the very thing that had brought us together) and dark passages (where we almost lost our way), those pastors and leaders whom God brought together and kept together have become different and better people.

Our conviction that spiritual transformation for the sake of others is central to the message of the Gospel and therefore central to the mission of the Church has only deepened. And our dream that churches might somehow actually become centers of spiritual transformation has been purified and clarified.  Our shared experience has confirmed the great truth we knew on some level had to be true: that our transformation really is for the glory of God, for the abundance of our own lives, AND for the sake of others. How could it not be? If the heart of Christ is really being formed in us, how could it not result in a heart for the world that Jesus gave his life for?

For This We Toil and Struggle

And so it has been the most natural thing in the world for pastors and clergy who are on a transforming journey themselves to want to initiate transforming communities built upon and shaped by a commitment to spiritual transformation; without fail, that commitment to transformation increases our capacity to discern how we are called to be in God for the world. Those at the helm of already-existing churches have felt compelled to become more intentional about reorienting their life together around becoming communities of spiritual transformation that discern the will of God.  How could it be any other way?  For this we toil and struggle with all the energy he so powerfully inspires within us.

© Ruth Haley Barton, Becoming a Transforming Church, 2019.

Ruth Haley Barton

Ruth (Doctor of Divinity, Northern Seminary) is founder and chief essence officer of the Transforming Center. A teacher, seasoned spiritual director (Shalem Institute), and retreat leader, Ruth is the author of numerous books and resources on the spiritual life including Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership, Sacred Rhythms, Life Together in Christ, Pursuing God’s Will Together, Invitation to Solitude and Silence, Invitation to Retreat, and Embracing Rhythms of Work and Rest.
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Oh, how painfully the Church often fails its own. My heart was quite broken a little less than a year ago, in a church I’d been quite faithful to for 15 years, despite the harshness of its key leader. There’s so much story in that, so much of it redemptive, but I shall jump to this end of that story…

Several months ago, I sensed, in the middle of a service, that the Lord said to me, “You’re done here.” I hadn’t even been considering that possibility, but there it was. I found myself relieved and ready to walk out… but my love for the man preaching that day told me to wait until the end.

Jump ahead a few months of healing, I was hosting a spiritual retreat for ten friends (a few from my then “former” church), when the Lord all too clearly called me back to that place of spiritual non-transformation. At this point in my journey, I know Him so I stepped right back inside those doors the very next day, though with anger… I simply knew that He had called, and that He would help me through this. Friends greeted me, welcomed me back, and, for those who would understand, I told them I wasn’t happy to be back.

In the next few months, I skipped communion services altogether. I did not feel at home at all. I didn’t “belong here.” Then, I took that feeling to my spiritual director. She simply asked, “What would it take for you to feel at home?”

What a question. As we sat there in the silence, a couple very real things came to me… but I also realized / believed that church wouldn’t get to those places in forty years. So.. I sat with that question for a couple days.

Then, the Lord gave me this utterly simple thing that makes all the sense in the world to me–“You’ll have to carry Home with you.” I knew He had called me back to this place, these people… so there really was only one solution. Like Love and Forgiveness, somebody had to act first. He was calling ME to be the one who helps others to feel at home.

That was a breakthrough for me. In the weeks since, not only have I come to participate in the communion again, but I have had a number of deeper-than-Sunday-morning conversations right there in the foyer, or in the gymnasium/sanctuary before or after the services. As I walk deeper into this, it is so easy for me to remember that, when Jesus is with me, I am always Home.

This church has severely disappointed me, broken my heart… but my love for her is returning with a depth I didn’t possess before… and I’m at peace.



What a beautiful and tender story of encounter (with God) and transformation. Thank you for sharing something so precious with us.

Young pastor here. Ruth, these words resonate in my soul. Many of my young clergy colleagues have left ministry (or the institutional church) for these very reasons.

I’m wondering so many things.

Is the transformation of an institution possible? Can the work of decolonization cultivate space for silence, rest, and authentic community? Am I patient enough for the slow work of God? Do I believe in what I say I believe — resurrection, new life, mystery?

I’m also thinking about how hard spiritual transformation is and the emotional maturity it requires. Many people are not ready. How can the church till the soil and nurture the seeds? Are we willing to be faithful and wait for God’s harvest?

These are the questions we much wrestle with honestly in these days. Of course the institutionalized church and the body of Christ can be two very different things. I have wondered for a very long time if the institutionalized church (our current expression of church) is the seed that is going to need to fall into the ground and die in order for it to bring forth new fruit. The church of Christ will prevail but probably not in its current form. Are we humble enough to let the husk fall away so something new can emerge that actually does support and catalyze real transformation and emotional maturity?

I have wondered for a very long time if the institutionalized church (our current expression of church) is the seed that is going to need to fall into the ground and die in order for it to bring forth new fruit.”

I knew I wasn’t the only one. Oh, God, help.

Thank you for this article. My husband and I have been in ministry for 37 years. I think it would have been good to define what you mean by the words “the church.” I am wondering if we, “the church” are expecting our worship services and programs to do something they are unable to do, maybe even in New Testament Days, when they gathered to worship and read the Word. The “church” gathered in so many other places with so many different people. When you say you had to go to another place to get your needs met, was that not also the church? The body of christ? Your ministry you started is a group of believers, which is also the church. Our current culture has really separated the church to the point where we are not doing life together outside the building. We gain our wisdom about life from the internet, the podcast, rather than from the older believer in our neighborhood, who has known us since we were born.
The “not forsaking the gathering together” that scripture talks about must become more creative and meaningful than showing up for an hour on Sunday morning and not having true interaction with God and other believers throughout the other parts of our lives.

I could not agree more! I should have been clearer in saying that I had to go beyond my local church and even beyond the tradition I had been raised in to find what I needed next. There are several places in my writing and teaching where I am clear that when I talk about the Church, I am speaking in very broad terms about “the body of Christ on the earth now” and that whenever and wherever Christians gather, we are the body of Christ. Thank you for this important and clarifying comment!

Thank you for this article, Ruth. Eighteen years ago, after serving as a pastor for twenty years, I one day walked into a workshop in which people were doing something at a level I’d never seen, heard of, or experienced before. They were “speaking the truth in love.” And it was leading to evident transformation in one another’s lives, including mine.

I’d had some tastes of this before, in a very small group and in a few individual relationships. But I was able to experience healing and transformation like never before in such an environment.
Throughout my years as a pastor, my growth more and more focused on the spiritual priority of authenticity, and how intimate spiritual friendship draws us to authenticity and transformation. And, as a pastor in church, I found myself more and more like a fish out of water.

During my post-church leadership years, I wrestled a lot with the idea and reality of church, trying to figure out “what kind of animal is this?”. I even took a couple years off, my wife and I doing our own “church” at home. Eventually I came to perceive church in a way that allowed me to “take it off the hook.” I think of church now as “entry-level ministry.”

By that I don’t mean anything negative. I’ve realized how necessary that broad and (at its best) welcoming ministry is. But I’ve also realized that is not what my gifting and calling specifically emphasizes. And all of that is okay. Having returned to church, though I still struggle with how to be involved with that level of ministry, I strive to appreciate what it is and how God uses it. Because he does.

I don’t claim that my inner resolution regarding church is a right perspective for everyone. I still desire to see a deeper texture to relationships and growth processes in church. I’ve recently published a book that touches on that. I’m still seeking, never been through a TC, but am encouraged when I read the words of those–such as in this community–whose thirst is similar to mine.

Thank you for this honest and resonant reflection. I hope you can join a Transforming Community some day where you would both find and be a fellow pilgrim with others on a similar journey.

Fabulous discussion, Ruth. Thank you for opening the door for us to reflect and engage . As many have pointed out, people’s desire to be transformed is so important and transforming desire is often a long process even when others around us are bearing the fruits of transformation.

I’m curious in the note to this article about the resource “Becoming a Transforming Church, 2019” .. I’ve tried to find it on the site with no luck. Is this a series of messages or a TC program resource? I’d be keen to access it and am happy to pay for it.

Grace and peace,


Thanks. We periodically offer a Becoming a Transforming Church retreat for leaders and their leadership groups. You can visit the page and add your name to be notified when the next retreat date is announced.

Last edited 1 year ago by Jeffery James

If I had responded to this the first time I read it, you would have gotten a different response. The first part of this week my question to God was, “If I don’t get anything from going to church, why go?” I know that much of the time I have gone because I felt that “I had to go.” In God dealing with that part of me, He has shown me the answer to my question.

I have chosen to do what the desert fathers suggested, “Go sit in your cell and your cell will teach you everything.” If I look at the example of Christ, yes, He had His times of solitude and silence, but they were to prepare Him for those times of being with people. If He hadn’t been with people, then no one would have heard the Gospel message that He came to preach; no one would have been saved.

So, although the church is meant to be the place where we receive, learn and grow in our transformation, if the church we attend is not that, then what can we do to facilitate that for others. Yes, it means looking at church as something different than what it’s intended to be. However, until that time comes, can we take Jesus into the church so that others will see Him in us and want more of Him?

Yes, going into “my cell” this week has taught me a lot. However, I believe your “cell” is to prepare you to go into the world, and yes, even the church. If I remain in my cell and don’t go out into the world and the church, then what good is what I learned? I believe if I go to church with this change in my understanding, that God may surprise me with what could happen there. But it first had to come with a change in my own heart…the fruit of spiritual formation. Selah…

“For this, we continue to toil and struggle” has me feeling pretty verklempt.

Scott and I have been committed to transforming rhythms since TC1 for ourselves and the congregation we serve. We’ve offered congregational retreats in person and online (through covid) utilizing Transforming Resources. We’ve continued to transform Sunday mornings with contemplative practices. Sadly, people who have been a part of retreats, weekly communion, silence, Group Spiritual Direction, etc., may or may not want to do the intentional work of self-examination, confession, forgiveness, and reconciliation. Not everyone wants a church that is a transforming community. We’re not perfect, we keep practicing, and our conscience is clear.

As a leadership community, we’ve discerned our way through betrayal, death, addictions, divorce, moral failures, justice issues, the wild ride of covid, and all the political hubris. But, unfortunately, people we’ve loved and invested in have decided to criticize, polarize and go on their journey another way.

I’m sad, yet I still have hope; those rhythms we learned with the Transforming Center keep our leadership and smaller congregation on a transforming journey. We have a scaled-down and authentic group of individuals that believe “transformation is central to the Gospel and must be central to the church.” We may die on this hill but in the presence of the One who called us here. 

Thank you, Ruth, for giving your life to the relationships and resources of the Transforming Center. 

Last edited 1 year ago by Clare Loughrige

My heart aches, as I know to well that there are many people who go to church while being very threatened by the idea of a transforming community. I also know that Jesus is faithful and that He will remain close to you and Scott. Thank you for your ongoing witness to God’s transforming power. With you in longing for more!

You’re welcome! I feel the weight of grief and sadness in what you have written here. AND that last paragraph is full of real hope. It reminds of Mother Theresa saying, “I was never called to be successful; I was called to be faithful. And in my striving to be faithful, my life will be fruitful and because it is fruitful, you could say I was successful.” You all have been faithful to a clear calling to lead your church in becoming a transforming church. And I think what I hear you saying here is that, in the end, it is that faithfulness is most important. I agree and I bless you.

As an alumna of TC9, a part of the ministry team for TC13 & 15 and a participant of TC16, I’m deeply grateful for Ruth’s writings, teachings & modeling of what being transformed into Christ’s likeness for one’s own best life & the sake of others looks like. I’ve been frustrated & unfulfilled as an associate pastor even though my church has been a wonderful family & has done great things in our community. Before I became involved with the Transforming Center I couldn’t have articulated why but now I know it was because there’s so much more that God wants for & from us. Being part of a Transformating Community definitely helped my spiritual health & growth but more importantly it showed me how good church & Christian community can be. Now that our senior pastor is retiring, I’m hopeful that our next lead pastor will be more open to ours becoming a Transforming Church. For too long we have focused on growing our church numerically, having closer fellowship & serving our community — all good things — but not true spiritual transformation in Christ. Without this there’s not much difference between a church and any secular social organization or community service agency. I’m so blessed & inspired by the Transforming Center & all those who are committed to being & helping others be transformed in Christlikeness for the sake of others!

This is a great articulation of some important distinctions. Thanks, Maiya!

This is a beautiful dream, but it feels unrealistic in the world these days. How can we build an authentic community of transformation when there is so much division in the body of Christ along political and social ideologies. Do we just not talk about things like abortion, evolution, immigration, and all the differences between the left and the right. Can I really be in authentic relationships with people whose ideologies are so opposed my own.

Judy, I admire your honesty and I share your frustration with a Church that is, in fact, fractured and splintered, because of a continued refusal to engage each other with love and respect, as we have these discussions. Truth doesn’t have to be compromised in displaying love to those with whom we disagree, and the solution can’t be to avoid subjects of potential controversy if we are to affect the culture we live in.

While acknowledging this frustration, I personally try to take responsibility for my own circle of influence, where I can hopefully do a better job than what is happening in the larger arena. I truly believe that each encounter we have with another person, is providential, and an opportunity to respectfully engage another person made in the image of our Creator. If I can remember to prioritize my need to be right, or show someone the truth, or change their point of view, to be 2nd place in importance to showing them love and respect, then I will be moving things in the right direction; and they’ll usually be willing to have another conversation with me in the future. Judy, I am holding you in prayer tonight, because I am expecting God to give you a renewed hope for what he can accomplish through you as you continue to engage those in your life who need the love of God to touch them.

Judy, I really appreciate this question and I am sure you are not the only one asking it! The vision for transforming church does feel unrealistic–even to me on some days. But when I observe what Jesus came to be and to do and I witness the emphasis on formation and transformation in Paul’s writings — I know there is something there that is possible for us. Here’s what I/we have experienced in leading what we call Transforming Communities all these years: our communities are diverse in all the areas you describe above. But when we gather on the basis of our desire for and commitment to transformation in Christ’s presence and we keep transformation in Christ’s presence as our primary goal, we are able to be with all the other stuff humbly, respectfully, willing to learn from and be influenced by each other. We approach each other as brothers and sisters in Christ rather than as adversaries and foes, and are not so easily threatened by our differences. The other thing that is stunningly wonderful is that when we gather for the purpose of being transformed in Christ’s presence through spiritual practices (rather than gathering around dogmas and a set of beliefs) …when we gather as souls in Christ’s presence ready and willing to be guided by him on a journey of faith (rather than coming as defenders of the faith or protectors of the church as an institution), Jesus’ presence moves in and among us in the most unifying ways. Its very hard to explain how that happens but it does. We have just launched our 16th Transforming Community (!) and this is our consistent experience. Bless you, sister! Come join us if you can!

Thank you, Ruth and Larry, for speaking into this concern – and into my life. This isn’t an easy path and I will take some time to process what you’ve shared as it does give me some hope. Blessings.

Great essay – so very thankful for the TC and all the ways it has helped shape my life experience.

Ruth, I have found and continue to find your words are so ‘in season’ for the church more broadly and for each of us as followers of Christ. Many of us are so sick and tired of going through the motions of repetitive behaviours and forms that we have grown up with, that offer little to stimulate and change us. Oh that we can grasp what the gospel is meant to be for us, transforming life in all it’s fulness. There is such a void, especially in talking the real issues of the heart with others. And yet there is such a longing from so many for it. I too long for a place where people can go and seek God more fully and transparently, without the need to perform or DO. Thanks for being such a ray of hope in dark times. Love your ministry and work, it has been a gift to myself and my husband.

Thanks be to God (and you’re welcome!).

I see lots of pastors doing their utmost to lead and grow a church.
The first instinct is to be in charge, in control, take responsibility for everything.

Controlling a church is easy, but gifted people will leave.

Then a word bro.

Man’s way of maintaining order in the meeting of the local church is to stifle the brethren.

This works but it comes at a great price as you mentioned.

If they continue in this way, (I predict that they will) these churches will become extinct.

Praise God for the house church movement which is taking up the slack and is booming.

Yes, I really think that in order for the Church to flourish in the wake of all that’s broken, we will need to move beyond narrow definitions of Church to fresh and simpler expressions of the body of Christ now–like house churches. That will be good for the brethren and sister-en!

At the church where I am a member, transformation is taught by the pastor and modeled by the elders. In my opinion, the issue is that, broadly speaking, people don’t want to be transformed because of what they fear it will cost – giving up perceived control of their life. They want only 25 cents worth of Jesus in their life. They refuse to consider the freedom they would gain through spiritual transformation.

Ruth, thank you for this! It pierces me with painful longing. Like many, I’ve ached, lived (in spite of the church) and worked for decades for this vision. I’m currently in a leadership position (a lay pastor) who is seeking to introduce the other elders (and staff pastor) to these dynamics.

As Evangelicals, one of our biggest hurdles are wrong ideas about the purpose and function of God’s Word in growth in grace. We overestimate the Scriptures in a certain sense. We are often guilty of searching the Scriptures in a way that treats them as our source of eternal Life (John 5:39) but are not willing to go on the journey of self-awareness necessary to come to Christ as our Life. Most just assume that intense study will do it, not seeing that study is one aspect of a full orbed life in Christ.

The church in North America is dying (see Chuck DeGroat’s article linked below) and as we steward the process I hope and pray that what emerges will be the kind of communities you are describing. The current model cannot be sustained, and the high levels of pain associated with it are creating inroads for the Kingdom of God and a wider and deeper gospel (Acts 14:22).

Peace to you,
Scott Holman
Spokane Valley, WA

Great stuff! Thanks so much for sharing. “As we steward the process (of the church in North America dying) …” that is an idea worth pondering. We have such a hard time with the necessary dyings that are so essential to new life.

I am grateful. I found Spiritual Direction and it transformed my life so totally that I cannot imagine myself before. I am now pastoring a small church and we are transforming our mission to be outside ourselves. But I would like to become a place of intentional spiritual formation. I pray that you will continue your work, and your book, but remember to reach down to those to whom the path is new and instruction is lacking.

Ruth, I can’t tell you how much I appreciate your succinct way of expressing what so many are experiencing today. I recently left my church – strangely enough because I had “outgrown” it. The practices no longer held me, in fact, I felt constricted and hypocritical – as if I were going through the motions but not finding God in the practices anymore. I have no desire to join a church now, but have a strong sense that our Creator, who is always creating, is doing something new in the hearts and souls of men and women who are seeking Him in His fulness. Your insights, along with those of Richard Rohr from the Center for Action and Contemplation, have been feeding and sustaining me through this part of the journey. Thank you for following what God is showing you to bring to His body – broken as it may be. You are a blessing!

Ruth, I’m curious; do you see the typical practices of local churches to be inconsistent with creating transformation communities/churches?

Well, yes and no–some are and some aren’t! But the full answer to that would be a whole book–which happens to be the book I have been working on for awhile. 🙂

A new book with this focus! Sounds amazing!

Jim, I would also add that it is not just the “what” its the “how”–how we frame these practices, how we invite people in and the spirit in which we invite them to engage. A spirit of legalism, dogmatism, performance, subtle positioning as works righteousness rather than means of grace, anything that smacks of preserving the institution rather than welcoming the questions that lead to transformation and may unsettle the institution–all of these hidden dynamics can undermine the intent and the power of life-transforming practices. As you can imagine, I have many examples of all of the above!

Thank you for this reflection. I ceased attending and looking for a local church community some years back. I dread the thought of re-mingling among dogmatic and static groups of people who judge and criticise. I take pleasure in reading the works of Father Rohr and Phileena Heauertz and the writings here at the transforming centre. I guess that I had to take myself out of the local church dynamics to breathe …and God came with me ?

This has been a conversation amongst my peers in spiritual direction and in my prayer group for the last decade now. Most churches stay in the first half of life spirituality and often don’t know there’s anymore. But with people now coming to spiritual direction more frequently and becoming acquainted with transformation I believe there is hope as the transforming re-enter the church and share their journeys. Thanks, Ruth, as always, for your honesty and transparency and hope!

Yes, I, too, believe there is hope for transforming churches that are prepared to welcome and resource seekers at ALL stages of the journey, not just the first half of the journey. But that does mean that pastors and clergy must be willing to go on that journey themselves. In the meantime, grateful to know you are praying and doing spiritual direction!

Thank you.

Your words are always so compelling and helpful. Being able to resonate with them is energizing. Thank you for TC and its life transforming influence on me and so many others.

Thank you for not giving up on your search over 15 years ago. For letting Christ work in you for the sake of others. As I am one of the others! I do appreciate and learn from your work.

Thank you Ruth for your commitment to these truths. I’m an grateful to be with you on this journey! Praying for you!

Thank you, Kim! You are such a blessing on the journey.

Words of truth and beauty. I am so grateful for the learning and experience of TC.

You are such a faithful encourager, Michael. Thank you!

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