Saturday, December 31, 2011

becoming "dad"

photo: Raj Lulla Photography

I've been thinking a lot about my dad lately.

About two months ago, I wrote a letter to our soon-to-be-born daughter, and I signed it "love, Dad" when I reached the end.  As I typed that paternal palindrome, I realized that the word had instantly taken on an entirely new meaning in my life.

For 27 years, Dad was the salt-and-pepper-haired man who smelled of Aramis cologne every morning as he left for work. He returned around dinner time each night, often tricking us into looking another direction so he could steal a bite of the food his paycheck had put on the table.  He was the man who left a lucrative job to help his brother start a small business because family was more important than money.

Until I signed that letter, Dad was always him in my mind, not me.

I have never been disposed to the type of feelings that lead men to say asinine things like, "Mr. Lulla's my dad, call me Raj."  When I was a teacher, I insisted that my students address my position with the respect it deserved, for both my benefit and theirs, so I never expressed that particular piece of drivel.

Eight years ago, when my sister had her firstborn, who was also the first grandchild in our family, I remember practically squealing with delight (in the manliest way possible) each time I jabbed my parents with their newly minted "grandma" and "grandpa" titles.  Though I understood the transition that was happening in their world, it had not yet arrived in mine.

"Grandma" and "grandpa" were additional titles, like those letters doctors put after their names to show they're qualified to hack off your gangrenous foot or insist you drop your pants for a more thorough examination.  They were still my mom and dad, even to the degree that I still lived under their roof and ate their food on my frequent visits home from college.

This shift in my life feels both inauspicious and monumental at the same time.  I was alone when I wrote that letter, so it feels like I was alone when I realized this new identity.  Yet, in many other ways, I feel as though I am sitting on my dad's shoulders, making good on the advantages he worked so hard to provide for me.

When I look at myself in a mirror these days, I often wonder if my dad ran the same gamut of emotions from excited to nervous to insecure to eager to panicked to elated and back again before my eldest sister was born.

My dad had emigrated and made homes in new countries twice before meeting and marrying my mom, and he knew five languages fluently, having learned nearly a dozen.  He had gained respect internationally in business and jet-setted between New York, Hong Kong, and San Francisco long before my siblings or I had been conceived of or conceived.

Somehow, I feel like he must have been more confident than me as he considered impending fatherhood. His engineering degree must have made crib assembly look like child's play, and teaching us to talk must have only raised the question of which language to start with.

It's hard to imagine my dad with the baited breath of nervous anticipation that now resides in my chest.  Fatherhood just looks so natural on him.

Whenever my dad tells stories about how he used to fly planes before we were born or what life was like in India and Hong Kong before he met my mom and settled down in the States, the stories seem like legends.  They feel as though they are based in some shadow of reality, but the far-fetched nature of them reveals that significant embellishment has accrued throughout the years of retelling.  This is not because my dad is incapable of factual retelling but more because I am unable to imagine him as a jet-setting, black-haired, young, and carefree bachelor.  To me, his identity is a domestic, white-haired, mature, and stable father of four, as though he has eternally existed in this state, somehow immune to the passage of time.

I suppose it is perhaps the highest compliment to him as a father that I cannot imagine him as anything else.  Never once did I fear his departure because I knew it would always be soon followed by his return.  He has never seemed to long for anything but our best, even at great cost to himself.

I wonder how my daughter will see me.  Hopefully, I am cut of the same cloth as my dad.  It would be my single most praiseworthy attribute.

Thanks, Dad!  I love you.

Friday, November 4, 2011

up with the birds

I've been thinking a lot about birds lately.

A couple of weeks ago, I was driving just outside the city, and hundreds of small birds sprung up from the fields on either side of the highway and flew in formation over my car.  The formation was not elegant or functional like that of geese.  These sparrows flew like an impressionist painting, seemingly random spots against a giant blue canvas that all made sense when put together.

It struck me in that moment that birds are not incredibly energy efficient.  I am not talking about their metabolism, which surely accommodates the intake of their sustenance and the energy required to fly.  What I mean is that they often seem to be flying for no particular reason at all, almost as if they fly just to beautify the skies.

If I had wings, I suppose I would fly all the time too, but I doubt the birds really know what a marvel it is to cast off gravity release the bonds of earth.  They do not seem to comprehend the physics required for their wings to take to the wind.  They just fly.  I wonder if they could speak, when asked why they fly, if their answer might be, "Because we're birds."

I have never seen a lazy bird, and I find that kind of odd.  Presumably, one must exist but apparently not in the same abundant supplies as drowsy dogs or quiescent cats.  Sure, birds sit atop telephone wires, but there has to be an easier way to unwind.  If I watched television perched on a balance beam, I would be able to brush my teeth in the morning without my middle jiggling along in rhythm.

That drive made me think about when Jesus said, "Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows." (Matthew 10:29-31, ESV)

I am not one of those people who thinks God opens up parking spots in front of Costco for us to remind us that He loves us, but I do wonder why He made birds the way He did.  Did Jesus look around and see birds as a relevant example to what he was teaching, or did God create birds to be a perfect example of His unending providence?

I don't know, but I'll bet the next time you see a bird, you might look at it a little bit differently.

Monday, October 17, 2011


photo: Raj Lulla Photography
If you ever want to know how much you truly believe what you say you believe, move somewhere where virtually no one agrees with you.

Fewer than two percent of people in Utah would identify themselves as Christians who only believe in the Bible (shortened as simply "Christians" for the rest of this post).  I expected this statistic to be revealing about our new friends, neighbors, and city, but I did not expect it to be revealing about me.

In many ways, I have thoroughly enjoyed seeing that I do not live up to the ugly stereotypes that many irreligious people and people of other faiths have of Christians.  I am not a homophobic bigot, there are no anti-abortion protest signs in the trunk of my car, and as long as you're not drunk and belligerent, I would love to sit next to you and talk over a beer.

This subversion of stereotypes does have a downside.  Most everyone out here thinks I agree with them significantly more or significantly less than I actually do.  No, I won't protest abortion clinics, but the termination of pregnancies still makes me incredibly sad to the point that I oppose it in nearly every case.  Yes, I'm a person of faith, but I still believe that our beliefs must be historically accurate.

Perhaps the biggest test of my faith out here has been in regards to God's provision.  I've been a saver, not a spender, since I was a child.  I would stretch my Christmas money until my birthday in March as often as I could.  But last month got ugly financially.

Between the costs of living out here, minimal income, trying to start a business, and unexpected expenses, our checking account almost laid an egg (that's a zero if you didn't catch my cleverness).  Thankfully, the credit card bill (accrued from car repairs and a computer failure) was due a week after rent, or else we would've had to open the spigot to let the measly remainder of our once modest savings account trickle to the rescue.

The situation felt desperately bleak as the clock continued to tick away towards the imminent birth of our first child.

What does this have to do with Utah?  For the first time in my life, I'm not geographically surrounded by thousands of Christians whom I could count on if things ever got really desperate.  Sure, I've gotten to know several pastors in the area and build solid relationships with them, but nearly all of them are supported from out of state because their churches are either too new or too disenchanted with religion to be financially viable.  All of them would have the heart to help, but few would have the cash.

After sending out an e-mail to friends asking them to pray for us, praying, and fasting, four generous donations came in from out of state.  The PayPal notifications in my inbox felt eerily reminiscent of stories  about receiving checks in the mailbox I would hear from people serving on foreign mission fields growing up.

The missionaries must have left out the part about the nauseating panic that preceded those checks.  Either that, or they were better Christians than I am.  Or both.

In the past, it has been easy for me to replace believing in God with believing in church.  It is dangerous and always leads to catastrophic disappointment.  Moving out here has showed me how small my faith in God actually is sometimes.

What is the last thing you did that showed you how much you actually believe?

P.S.  This post was not a plea for donations.  We are incredibly grateful when people support us and wouldn't insult them or you by being passive-aggressive about our needs.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

when sharing good news is scary

photo: Raj Lulla

We announced on facebook this week that Lindsey is pregnant, and it was hard.

Despite the statistics which overwhelmingly suggest that a pregnancy this far along will most likely result in a healthy baby, after two miscarriages, it is difficult not to feel foolish about getting excited and sharing our joy with others.

Perhaps it is the inherent sense of disconnected connectivity facebook produces.  After the first pregnancy, though we scrubbed facebook of notifications, we still got some delayed messages several months post-miscarriage inquiring about the status of the pregnancy.  We never announced the miscarriage on facebook, as it seemed an oddly intimate thing to post between peoples' complaints about the government and pictures of their breakfast foods.  Still, many caught on and expressed their sympathies, and a few even brought food.

We were wiser and didn't announce the second pregnancy online, but that was only marginally better.  Sure, we avoided the awkward and painful questions, but we also lacked the outpouring of support followed the first miscarriage.  Lindsey's aunt graciously and swiftly came down and cared for us, but other than that, it was a lonely and private grieving.

I think, however, it was neither the uncomfortable publicity of the first nor the isolating loneliness of the second that made this announcement difficult.  Rather, it was the vulnerability of believing that we will meet this baby this side of heaven.  It is exactly like believing in love after heartbreak.  Part of you feels an extreme fool for risking heartache, having been once (or more) bitten and twice shy, but another part of you dreads even the idea of an existence so numb and guardedly self-preserving that even joy must be hidden from view.

I believed wrongly that only sharing bad news was difficult until I was reminded twice in the past year that even our blessings are only held tenderly and by a string.  There are many who have endured much worse than I, and so I don't claim to be a martyr.  Rather, I hope that they find solidarity in someone willing to admit that shadows and silver linings are sometimes uncomfortably close to each other.

Having been a pastor for some time now, it is no surprise to me that people turn to faith in matters of life and death.  Those moments crystallize reality, helping us realize that it is unlikely we are alone in this universe.  They also show us that death is unnatural, a predator to be resisted at all costs.  When there is a story as powerful as the gospel of the Bible, people are irresistibly drawn to the hope that God has found a way for us to conquer death.

It is because of that hope that we shudder to conceive of an life so secure that it lacks both joy and pain.  So it is with a vulnerable yet defiant joy that I announce to you: we're having a baby!

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

saying goodbye to socal, part three: food

I wrote this a few weeks ago before we left SoCal.
photo: yelp

I'm a bad friend when it comes to food.

When it comes to my friends, I will only tell them about my favorite restaurants if we're actually close enough that I want to eat there with them.  Call me cold-hearted if you must, but I fear that restaurants I love will become exponentially more popular if I play the role of taste-maker among my friends.  I worry my small group of friends will tell their friends who will, in turn, tell their friends ad infinitum until everyone in the whole world knows and my favorite restaurant either becomes so crowded I cannot get a table or it becomes a popular franchise that inevitably loses the qualities that initially attracted me to it and becomes yet another disappointment in life like taxes, death, traffic, and comedies starring Patrick Dempsey.

Because we're leaving, I will spill my guts below about our local favorites for a few different metropolitan areas in SoCal.

Simple Simon's: pretty much everything is awesome
Baker's: bean and cheese burrito w/two hot sauce packets (more for dipping if you'd like), fries w/spicy ketchup (fries are mediocre but spicy ketchup is brilliant)
Campus Pizza: the works
Cherry on Top: froyo, get it done
Yard House: yes, it's a chain, but we tried it in Riverside first - turkey burger or bbq chicken pizza during regular dinner time, chicken nachos during happy hour

Public House: get. the. fries.  I won't talk to you if you don't.  Also, the macaroni and cheese will make you cry real tears.  It's like eating a piece of Beethoven's 5th in a good way.
Mr. Kabob: chicken shwarma wrap (not the plate), regular hummus (not spicy)
Rosa's Cantina: chicken tacos, get the guacamole, the mild salsa.  seriously, the mild.  Lindsey and I would fill a swimming pool with it if we could.  I would help you move a piano for their salsa.
Mangoz: four words . . . carrot cake frozen yogurt.  It tastes like chai, or dreams.

San Diego:
Cafe 222: peanut butter and banana stuffed french toast - recommended by Bobby Flay on The Best Thing I Ever Ate.  The curry turkey sandwich was delicious also.

Some places were omitted because we can get them in SLC (i.e. In N Out, which is also a bit overrated compared to Nebraska beef like the hamburgers at Runza).

SoCal friends, what are your favorites?
Former SoCal friends, what do you miss?

Thursday, June 16, 2011

saying goodbye to socal, part two: music

photo: Sung

One of the things I will miss most about Southern California is the fantastic concerts available down here.

Perhaps the only thing worse than the astronomical rent in Southern California is having to make the decision between a stellar show and paying your astronomical rent.

Radio is ironically terrible in SoCal - as in "Are they serious with this?" kind of bad.  The quality of music on Los Angeles radio clarifies how pieces of trash like Made of Honor get greenlighted.  A city that thrives on creativity sometimes just has to put stuff out, whether it is any good or not.

Fortunately, unlike radio, venues in Southern California are fantastic and plentiful.  With wonderful venues come top shelf musical acts on a regular basis.

By far, one of my favorite memories during my time down here is when Lindsey and I saw Damien Rice at the Greek Theatre.

The Greek is gorgeous and intimate anyway, but the below face-value ninth row tickets I scored off of StubHub compounded the perfection of the environment.

Unfortunately, a loud, intoxicated Latina woman sat down directly behind us in the tenth row.  After three beautiful Irish ballads featured her additional constant solo of, "Ohhhh, Damien Riiiiice, he's so sexyyyy!", I couldn't take it anymore.  Thankfully, some tragic souls failed to redeem the tickets for their fourth row seats, so Lindsey and I upgraded out of earshot of Damien's inebriated admirer.

Damien captured our attention for the rest of the show with magically crafted songs that featured instrumentation so thick it seemed palpable.  His stories amused and connected the pieces to their emotional origin as though Damien was sitting around a living room sharing his new work with close friends.

That night taught me to shoot photos on multiple SD cards because the files became corrupted and left us without any evidence of the evening, but thankfully, it was unforgettable in many better ways.

Lindsey and I got engaged about six weeks after the concert, which meant I would never have to tell another, "It was great, except I was dating _________ at the time" story ever again.  We were madly in love, heard incredible music under a canopy of stars, were surrounded by the lush beauty of Griffith park, and would soon agree to spend the rest of our lives together.  It was by far the best date I've ever been on.

I only ever set foot in the Greek Theatre once, but I will miss it when I'm gone.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

saying goodbye to socal, part one: movies

photo: Carmen

Let's be clear about one thing: I hate L.A.

Shakespeare himself did not write a tragedy so horrendous that it compares to my grief at even the idea of picking up a friend at LAX.  Hollywood is dirty and smelly, and L.A.'s beaches are the spawn of ashtrays and garbage dumps whose only evidence of the Coppertone baby is the soiled diapers left behind.

That said, as I think about leaving Southern California, I am struck with a bit of unexpected nostalgia.

For everything I don't understand about the surf, bro, thug, socialite, or hippie cultures out here, there are a few things I will miss.  Over the next few days, I will feature some of them.

Today's thing that I will miss about SoCal:
People who really appreciate movies.  From the building-sized billboards advertising new films to limited releases and occasional star-sightings at church (yes, it sometimes happens), SoCal bleeds movies.

One of the best cinematic experiences in Souther California can be had at ArcLight Cinemas.

My sister introduced us to ArcLight Cinemas during one of my first visits to see her in L.A.  ArcLight actually has rules (and enforces them) about how to watch a movie.  You can even reserve your seat when you buy tickets online, as though you were buying an airplane ticket.  They frequently have props in the lobby, including the "all spark" from Transformers:Revenge of the Fallen and the red stroller from Away We Go.

Audience members stay to the end of the credits for most movies, not waiting for bonus footage, presumably because they are looking for their friends' names.

Despite this utterly proper ambience for movie watching, perhaps my favorite movie experience there was sneaking Chipotle burritos into the theater and watching 500 Days of Summer with Lindsey and Azina.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

30 days that will change my life

In 30 days, I'm going to do the craziest thing I've ever done.

One year ago, I was reeling from an emotionally exhausting month.  At the beginning of May 2010, we found out that Lindsey was pregnant for the first time.  We were ecstatic, and had been anticipating this moment since we decided to stop using birth control earlier that year.  My teaching job at a Christian school provided a modest, stable salary, and the health benefits were top tier.

Two weeks into May, I had my contract meeting before school.  I expected another year without a raise, noting all the "tough economy" talk that had been going around.  But I knew my job was safe because I was responsible for teaching Bible to every single sophomore and every single senior - half the high school.  Or so I thought.  My stomach sank the second I walked into the principal's office and saw her not sitting alone, as last year, but with the human resources representative.  HR doesn't get called in for good or even normal news.  "Restructuring" in that tough economy had claimed my job - last in, first out.

The layoff was a shock, but Lindsey and I were still thrilled about our immanent bundle of joy, so I purposed about finding a new job to support our growing family.

We went to the doctor expecting our first picture of the baby and the first sound of the heartbeat.  The urine test, numerous questions, and archaic dial-a-date prediction all seemed to take hours before we got to the good part.  Finally, the doctor fired up the machine and wielded the instrument, and he got everything into position on the screen for the big reveal.

Where there was supposed to be a fuzzy, black and white image of our progeny was a clearly discernible hole, an blank space, an empty canvas.  The silence that was supposed to be shattered by the drumbeat of our baby's pounding pulse remained too long and would not be broken.

Doctors rarely speak in definitive statements like they do in the movies, and that day was no exception.  He told us he didn't have good news for us, but he couldn't confirm the bad without further tests.  At 4:55pm on Friday of Memorial Day weekend, we walked into the laboratory sample collections office on feet that felt like stone.

Anxiety replaced the joy that was supposed to fill our anniversary weekend and within a week was transformed into grief.  The baby had miscarried.

Husbands like to fix things, and I am no exception.  I was more determined than ever to find work so we could have health insurance so we could figure out what went wrong.  I applied all over and found myself particularly drawn to a church plant in Kansas.

The church plant job fell through, as did everything else, and I was left broken, face-to-face with my own powerlessness.

Shortly after this depth, I began to feel myself drawn to the idea of planting a church myself, not waiting for some guys in Kansas or anywhere else to adore my résumé and flatter my interviewing skills.  If God had called me to serve Him, He would use me wherever I went.

We gave strongest consideration and preference to places near family, but we found those places either saturated with churches or a poor fit for our personalities.  But late one night, Salt Lake City, UT, blipped across my radar screen as a place in need of a good church.

After some weird spiritual experiences - bad dreams, confusion, and despair - confirmation came.  We had told no one of this idea, yet the monthly prayer service at church happened to fall during that week.  During prayer time, our associate pastor blurted out during his prayer that he believed God was calling someone in the room at that moment to plant a church.  Nothing like this had happened in the year that we had attended this church.  People don't fall down or bark like dogs.  It was a normal church.

We accepted what seemed to be a direct call from God, and we started plotting a course for moving to and starting a church in Salt Lake City, UT.

After a year of training, another miscarriage, losing our team to a different project, and going different directions from our church, we're moving to Salt Lake City in 30 days from today.

P.S. If you would like to subscribe to the e-mail updates for our church planting work, please fill out the form here.
P.P.S. If you would like to donate to help us start our work, please contact me at raj [at] (with an @ and no spaces) or on facebook if we're friends.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

don't tell me how to live. tell me how I'm alive.

photo: Hugh MacLeod

We often settle for people telling us how to improve our lives, especially at church.

Alistair Begg once said that we buy magazines that tell us how to get a better body, more bucks, and increased brains, then we turn around and expect the church to give us more of the same.

On the one hand, it makes sense.  Why would we get involved with something if it didn't make our lives better?  But on the other hand, if all we needed was a little self-help, is the Church really the best place to get it?

Wouldn't it make more sense to pool investment money with our neighbors and flip a house than to give 10% of our income to a place that just gives it away to people and holds free services every week?  Or shouldn't we just join a gym or a book club?

True orthodox Christianity calls out alone with the bizarre idea that nothing can be added to our lives to make them right.  We must admit that our whole lives are on a crash course with destruction and abandon our very right to our lives in order to begin the redemption process.

Some churches even unwittingly contribute to this error.  They present the basic gospel message and repeatedly offer altar calls, but they stop there.  If that was sufficient, the New Testament would have stopped with the gospels.  Instead, it didn't stop at what happened during Jesus' life, death, and resurrection, but rather it delved into what it meant.

It's about a new identity in Jesus, not a one-time religious experience or an ongoing moral therapy session.

According to your church, what is the point of Christianity?

Saturday, May 28, 2011

strawberries: the hateful fruit

photo: Chiot's Run

Strawberries are the worst fruit ever.

Sure, they taste delicious, but other than that, what do they have going for them?

The charges against strawberries are as follows:
1. Strawberries rot too quickly.  Looking into the refrigerator for a strawberry is setting yourself up for the sight of either a nice, plump, red, and juicy treat or a hideous green-bearded monster that must first be slain and then expelled from the refrigerator before it releases its gaseous odor.

2. Strawberries come with inedible green hats.  Apparently, if ingested, partially dry or wilted strawberry leaves will induce nausea or vomiting.  Any fruit you must decapitate in order to avoid booting on the bathroom floor is untrustworthy.

Don't even think about leaving these tops in the sink for a day or two.  They turn gray and grow fuzz like they aspire to be tennis balls in the next life.

3. Strawberries are overly delicate.  Ignoring that rhubarb defies logic and decency as a pie ingredient, if you ever have the misfortune of eating strawberry rhubarb pie, just set the plate down and back away slowly.  Normally, I would never recommend anyone abandon pie for any reason, even in the case of a fire (walk in a single-file line, protect the pie, etc.).  Strawberry rhubarb pie, however, contains a minefield of overripe strawberries that implode in your mouth like a squeezed pimple instead of exploding like a delicious firework.

4. When strawberries grow too large, the begin to look like severely sunburned tushies.

As far as I am concerned, the only redeeming things about strawberries either come in the form of smoothies or milkshakes, or they come next to angel food cake, which means Lindsey's homemade whip cream is not far behind.

Which foods offend you in principle but not in taste?

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

photo: Aaron Fuhrman

I have two friends in Joplin, MO, the town where a mile-wide EF 5 tornado killed over 100 people on Sunday.  They and their families survived the tornado, and their homes were unharmed.

Both of my friends in Joplin are Christians.  I write this only because it provides an important backdrop for the rest of this post, not because I typically divide my friends by religion.  I occasionally do make this distinction but only when relevant, i.e. if the sentence ends with "at church the other day" or "was sacrificing a goat."

My friend Mark is the director of operations at the Tri-State Business Journal, and he is an active real estate investor and developer.  Recently, he has focused on renovating older properties in Joplin and encouraging artistic and entrepreneurial efforts to fill those spaces.  Mark has invested the last several years of his life into reviving and restoring a distinct and vibrant culture in Joplin.

My friend Brad is a pastor and church planter.  He has lived in Joplin for a total of one month, having moved from San Diego because he felt God was calling him to minister there.  His church was open, coordinating rescue efforts, and receiving volunteers before the sun had even set in the aftermath of Sunday's storm.

Both men have already taken active roles in rescuing, restoring, and rebuilding Joplin.

Their courage reminds me of a story of fourth century Christians who attended to the dying and impoverished when the plague ravaged an already war-torn and famished Caesarea.  City bishop and church historian Eusebius wrote:
All day long some of them would diligently persevere in performing the last offices for the dying and burying them (for there were countless numbers, and no one to look after them). While others [ie. Christians] gathered together in a single assemblage all who were afflicted by famine throughout the whole city, and would distribute bread to them all. When this became known, people glorified the God of the Christians, and, convinced by the deeds themselves, confessed the Christians alone were truly pious and God-fearing.  
-  Eusebius, The Church History, trans. Paul L. Meier (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2007), 293 (quote accessed via Chris Castaldo)
Now, I know that the entire country, Christian and non-Christian, is pouring out tons of support for Joplin, so my intention is not to idolize Mark and Brad and claim they have done more to help than any others.  Instead, I simply admire their courage in staying a devastated town when they could easily flee to the open arms of friends and relatives in serene places not ravaged by destruction.

I picture the steadfastness of these two men against the prayers that most Christians pray.  We pray for safety, security, and wealth/blessing as if God were our push-over genie.  We bow down to idols of comfort and materialism and then ask God to bless our apostasy as though He approved of it.

I wonder if such character grew slowly out of lives being changed by Jesus or if they ever actually prayed that God would give them the strength to stand up even when it felt like the world was coming to an end.  I wonder why we spend so much time praying for the world not to end when it might serve us better to pray that God would make us the kind of people everyone could count on when the sky begins to fall.

Tonight, I am thankful for men I can look up to, hoping I am made from the same substance as them.

Godspeed, Joplin, MO.  God bless, Mark and Brad.

If you want to donate to the relief efforts, you can send checks to:
Calvary Baptist Church
600 East 50th Street
Joplin, MO 64804

Monday, May 16, 2011

Friday, May 13, 2011

blood:water mission and our wedding

Those of you who were at our wedding three years ago might remember that instead of giving you cheap trinkets to remember our special day (i.e. be thrown in the trash on the way out of the reception hall), we donated $1.00 for everyone who attended to the blood:water mission.

If you ever wondered where that money went, here's what it did . . .

Thank you for celebrating with us and for being a part of giving clean water to over 600,000 people.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

the king's speech

photo: David Barrie

If you haven't seen The King's Speech, stop reading my blog and go rent it.  (Or buy it here and support my blog.)

I thought I was going to hate the movie for two reasons: it had been really hyped by nearly everyone I knew, and  a best picture win at the Academy Awards nearly guarantees I'll either hate or love the film.  (Proof: Gladiator - love.  American Beauty - hate -- I still don't care about the stupid plastic bag.)

Curiosity drove me to queue The King's Speech on Netflix, but I assumed it would end up a tiresome way to score husband points by enduring a period drama.

I was pleasantly shocked to discover that The King's Speech quickly endeared itself to me.  Here are some quick hits about why I enjoyed the film:
Casting - perfect
Script - brilliant
Acting - believable
Cinematography - visually arresting
Direction - keen
Score - beautiful
Story - engaging and inspiring

Initially, I dreaded most the idea of another historical piece with completely inaccessible characters - after all, I find myself having very little in common with Mr. Darcy.  I was pleasantly shocked, however, to find myself understanding and identifying with the plight of a stuttering, would-be British noble.

The King's Speech compelled me most in its humanity: aspiring beyond one's station in life, a fiercely loyal friend to help push forward through seemingly insurmountable obstacles, and a wife whose hope selflessly surpassed her husband's hope for himself.

Don't watch it with kids because long strains of profanity play a delightful role in the Duke of York's recovery, but definitely watch it as soon as humanly possible.

Have you seen it?  What did you think?

Monday, May 9, 2011


photo: State Records NSW

An old Scottish proverb says: "open confession is good for the soul."  Who am I to do anything otherwise?  That said . . .

- When I take an "important phone call" outside/look for office supplies in the storage room/pretend I can't find something that is really visible, I'm usually farting.  I'd rather be seen as aloof than flatulent.

- I hate Dora the Explorer.  She's bossy and loud.  This makes Maraka and Mittens hilarious to me.

- When I get woken up by a telephone call and the caller asks, "Did I wake you up?", I almost always lie.  This has caused close friends to think that I'm always sleeping when they call.

- Even though science suggests there is no link between a person's ability to spell and their overall intelligence, I still have a hard time not judging peoples' intelligence based on their spelling and grammar.

- I investigate potential disasters and deadly pests before considering moving somewhere.  Salt Lake City's last tornado was in 1999.  Here's a video (tell my wife not to watch it):

- Finally, I love cookies, especially peanut butter-chocolate chip ones.  They are dangerous.

What do you need to confess today?

Thursday, May 5, 2011

John Piper, dinosaur annoyer: est. 1986

photo: Lucas Madar

John Piper has been annoying dinosaurs since 1986.

As I continue to reflect on the Desiring God 2011 regional conference, it sticks out to me that Piper is still defending his book 25 years later.

I was probably still mastering the art of using toilets in 1986 and reveling in the prospects of wearing "big-boy pants", so I don't really know what the climate surrounding the book's initial launch was.  It seems, however, that he caught a lot of flack for using the phrase "Christian hedonism."

The controversy makes sense.  For centuries, people have been trying to marry following Jesus and pleasure seeking.  These days we call them "prosperity" teachers, but the struggle dates to the origins of Christianity.  A rich young ruler balked at Jesus' command that he sell his possessions and give away the proceeds in order to enter heaven.  Paul warned not to even speak of some of the shameful things others do in secret.

Piper's "Christian hedonism", however, extrapolates Psalm 37:4 to its natural end: "Delight yourself in the Lord, and He will give you the desires of your heart."

If this Psalm is true, then the whole point of our existence is to do that which would bring us unending amounts of joy.

A lazy reading of this texts yields that God wants to grant us the desires of our heart, but this could not be further from the truth.

Jeremiah 17:9 reminds us that: "The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately sick."  If God were truly a vengeful God, He would just give us what we want.

In order for God to remain a loving God and still give us the desires of our hearts, our hearts must be completely broken from our twisted desires and reformed to match God's character.  Then, God can give us what we want, and it would actually be good for us and pleasing to us.

So the premise of Piper's book/conference/ministry actually boils down to: "Give up everything you want, truly love who God is - which will change everything that you want, and then God will give you everything that you want.  By the way, this might mean wanting to serve God so well that it leads you to a painful and humiliating death, and you will thoroughly enjoy it."  Suddenly, this Jesus brand of hedonism sounds quite dangerous.

Jesus said, "If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel's will save it."

Piper said, "God is most glorified in you when you are most satisfied in Him."

Both of them sound like, "Hey, want to buy a meteor?  It will kill you, but it will be totally worth it."

What impressed me most about the conference was the idea that if I let God help me desire Him, following Him to the ends of the earth will be the fulfillment of my deepest desires.  That takes a lot of pressure off of me to perform, and it sounds quite freeing.

It also sits down all those martyr-syndrome Christians who believe that serving God well means constantly suffering.  Many of these people are also Jesus Jukers.

While following Jesus means giving up my claim over autonomy and consequently being subject to humbling and difficult personal change in my life, it comforts me to know that I will never find a greater joy, high, relief, or satisfaction than in following Jesus.

Thanks, JP.  Keep on annoying the dinosaurs.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

smokers and Jesus Jukes

photo: J. Annie Wang

I often sit in my apartment and think of ways to retaliate against smokers.

My wife and I live in one of the most temperate and beautiful parts of the United States: Southern California.  Our average temperatures range from 50 to 75 degrees Fahrenheit, and we receive just over a foot of rain each year.  Friends and relatives in Nebraska often break one of the ten commandments when considering the disparity between our climate and theirs.

This idyllic climate allows me the joy of being incredibly frugal on our utility bills.  We ran our heater twice all winter, and we can usually open our windows in the summer to avoid using the air conditioner too much.

Unfortunately, when we have our windows open, one of the vexations of apartment living becomes apparent: smokers.

Because I am a God-fearing man (ignoring the fact that I sit and plot revenge on smokers), I believe my retaliation should be proportional and not physically harmful.  Rather it should be annoying and inconvenient.

My first and only idea was to find a way to fart in a jar, seal it, and then place it on a smoking neighbor's window sill whenever they open their windows.  I can imagine the stench lines wafting into their home a la aroma lines from pies in cartoons that turn animals into pastry-seeking zombies.

I fully intended to end this post asking for other tongue-in-cheek suggestions about possible forms of redress from cancer-stick huffing tenants.  But then I realized that would make me a prime candidate for a Jesus Juke*.

If you're unfamiliar with Jon Acuff's concept called "The Jesus Juke," let me explain by example.  In this case, a Jesus Juker would respond to a request for smoker-castigation techniques with something like the following: "Raj, I expected more of you.  You should love your smoking neighbors like Jesus does and show them his love because you don't want them to be eternally smoking . . . in hell."

Jesus Juking makes me want to cuss.  It always assumes the worst about the other person and the best about yourself, and it always seeks to publicly and pharisaically display this disparity in discipline.

Instead of jumping into the rich experience full of humor, nuance, and subtext that is human interaction, Jesus Juking makes people into targets and stepping stools on the way to [ironic] feelings of self-righteousness.

Like I don't know that my neighbors need loved and that loving them might one day inspire them to break their filthy habit. Like I desire for them to burn in hell and am so vindictive about having to Febreze my apartment free from their carcinogenic stench that I would willingly withhold the gospel from them, knowing full well that it is the power of salvation.

The truth is, it's exhausting enough to live up to our own consciences, let alone to actual God-honoring correction.  None of us really needs hackneyed, legalistic pontification aimed at belittling us.  Jesus never corrected people this way.  You shouldn't either.

The real issue comes down to: in a dark world, anybody got a light?

*Acuff does a marvelous job explaining characteristics of Jesus Juking, so please read his post if you want to learn more about it.

Monday, May 2, 2011


photo*: Martin Beek

I never thought I was a fan of John Piper.

To be honest, all I ever knew of Piper before this weekend was his self-proclaimed status as a "seven-point Calvinist" and that I would rather be confined in a small space with a rabid raccoon than with one of his more devoted fanboys.

But this weekend I heard him speak about joy at a Desiring God 2011 regional conference.

I'm not sure if it was the year sabbatical which granted us this kinder, gentler Piper or if I had simply made him a grotesque and angry monster in my mind on account of all the controversy he has caused over the years.

Nevertheless, I was blessed by what he had to say.

Desiring God** centers around a call to Christian Hedonism, a phrase coined by Piper. The basic idea is: "God is most glorified in me when I am most satisfied in Him."

Piper got called to task in his younger days for this idea, more because of his use of the word "Hedonism" than for the content of his idea. Still, some Christians can't help proclaiming that the kingdom of heaven must be entered into wearing a frown or else you're doing something wrong, and they love decrying anyone who dare preaches otherwise. Though, they will, of course, claim that it pains them greatly to do so.

As I'm still processing this weekend, one particular gem sticks out: to glorify God, we should enjoy the things that we enjoy in such a way that shows we enjoy something else much more. How can I glorify God while eating pizza? Eat less.

So many Christians secretly despise God because they consider Him a task-master holding the reward of heaven continually out of reach like a carrot in front of a horse, ever contingent on jumping yet one more hurdle.  I know I have.

What would happen if we actually believed that God loves us?  If we believed that God's call away from sin is toward greater joy, not toward grumpy self-righteousness?  If we believed that God is good and that allowing ourselves to be destroyed in order to be built up into His image might be the happiest thing that ever happened to us?

*Apparently there was a British painter named John Piper who painted churches but is not the same as the pastor from Minnesota about whom this post is written.
**Disclaimer for my non-reformed friends out there: I've never read Desiring God, but based on what Piper presented at the conference, it would be a beneficial read for every Christian, especially those mature enough to appreciate authors who have different theological perspectives.  That said, Piper's theological stances are not necessarily reflective of mine or that of the church where I am currently employed, blah, blah, blah.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Why I Stopped Watching Glenn Beck

photo: TalkMediaNews

After we got our DVR through our cable service in July 2009, I started recording Glenn Beck's daily show on Fox News.

I know my liberal friends are all rolling their eyes at this admission, but I had a good reason.  Beck presented more information about certain issues and in a more consumable fashion than any other news/commentary source at the time.  This was especially true in regard to the amount of unchecked power the president was amassing through the appointment of czars.

Beck's show taught me a lot that I hadn't known or remembered before.  It prompted me to do my own research into subjects like socialism and communism.  His show challenged my own opinions of government size and scope.  As far as TV goes, Beck's show exceeded my expectations for news and commentary.

Then the preaching began.

At first he waxed philosophical in a weepy, general, and benign way.  Life.  Liberty.  Honor.  I could get on board with that.

When he started talking about eliminating government programs I like - such as the FDA, I got nervous.

I'm no fan of over-regulation, but I like opening a jar of peanut butter or a carton of eggs knowing someone is paying attention to whether or not I get salmonella from it.

Beck argued that the market would take care of unscrupulous manufacturers, and little collateral damage would result.  I get the feeling the people eating sawdust sausages in the early 20th century would respectfully disagree.

When he started talking about Jesus, I got sick.

Traditional Christian theology states that Jesus came to earth fully God and fully human to serve in the role of a substitutionary sacrifice for the sins of the human race.  This sacrifice was necessary because our sin (departure from the attributes of God's character) had separated us from God.  God had established the sacrificial system millenia before Jesus' arrival as a foreshadowing of the ultimate sacrifice that would be given in His Son.

Christianity believes "the heart is deceitful above all thing and desperately sick" and that a savior was not only beneficial but necessary.  Beck believes "man can rule himself."

Beck believes that "enlightenment, education, empowerment, and entrepreneurship" are the answers to society's ills.  If only the Biblical writers had considered alliteration, perhaps they would have stumbled upon the vast troves of wisdom available to Beck.

Why didn't the prophets and scribes consider man being inherently good as a solution to world problems?  It's not like "all we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned - every one - to his own way."

Though Beck, as a Mormon, considers himself a Christian, his theology is deeply errant and leads him to conclusions about life, liberty, and government that are often popular but are ultimately inviable.

Marvin Olasky has an interesting article about his experience on Glenn Beck's show.

This post was prompted, in part, by Beck's attacks on Mike Huckabee this week.  Don't trust Beck on Huckabee, read Huckabee's own positions in Do the Right Thing or A Simple Government.  He is definitely not a progressive.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

lest ye be judged: an open letter to Ugandan pastors about homosexuality

An open letter to pastors in Uganda regarding the recent rise in anti-gay rhetoric and violence in their country.  If you would like to gather some background first, please read a news article like this one about the death of homosexual activist David Kato and the subsequent national reaction in Uganda.

Dear Fellow Pastors in Uganda,

Let me first begin by saying I am a Christian who truly believes that the Bible is the inerrant, inspired Word of God.  Though I am far from perfect, the Bible is the final authority on everything in my life.

I understand your consternation about homosexuality in your country.  The free exercise and outright promotion of sexual immorality in my country troubles me too.

But I must plead with you to show grace from those who struggle with sins that you do not.  Please stop supporting legislation that would force family, friends, and neighbors to report homosexuals to police and proposed punishments of imprisonment or execution for homosexuals.

In fact, I would ask you to oppose it.

Romans 1 tells us that God allows people to get lost in the folly of their own sin, and it specifically mentions homosexuality as an example of this.  My brothers, if God permits this sin to exist in the world, who are you to condemn it as punishable by death?

You might argue that the Old Testament prescribes punishment of sexual sins by stoning, but you should remember that those sins include adultery.  Furthermore, Jesus himself equated all lustful thoughts with adultery in one's heart.  If you believe the words of Jesus and want to practice Old Testament justice, then you have just condemned every human being with an active sex drive, presumably including yourselves.

Please do not mistake my voice as that of a man who condones homosexuality or advocates its codification in law through marriage.  As far as I believe, you are not obliged to ignore this practice in your church or incentivize it in government, nor should you.

But you are a light on a dark continent.  You stand with our brave brothers in South Sudan, representing Jesus, though you are a small, thoroughly surrounded minority.  The world watches you with curiosity about what Jesus can do on a war-scarred and spiritually-confused continent.  Please represent him well, better than this hateful grandstanding does.

David Kato was a man whom God loved regardless of his relationship with Him.  His brutal death is a tragedy, not something to which God-fearing people should ever lend approval or encouragement.  You should mourn, not rejoice.  You should pray, not persecute.

I hope that Martin Ssempa is the Ugandan equivalent of America's own incredibly embarrassing Westboro Baptist Church and that he, like Fred Phelps, is reviled by Christians and non-Christians alike in your country.  I know he allegedly even showed gay pornography in his church in support of his twisted agenda.  I hope that he is a loudmouth whose inflammatory rhetoric has gotten far more press than he deserves.

I hope that you, the real Christians of Uganda, find a way to love, protect, and serve your homosexual countrymen in a way that draws them toward Jesus rather than forever disgusts them about him.

My prayers are with you tonight.  May your light shine in Africa tomorrow.

God bless,
Raj Lulla

Monday, February 14, 2011

a fool's errand

photo: Thomas Hawk

Apparently my mom reads my blog.  She may be the only one.

Her most recent critique was that she thought I came off as arrogant in previous posts.  I get that.

Whenever you challenge the way things are, the natural reaction from people is, "What, you think you know better?"

At my age and with my level of experience, odds are that I don't know any better than anyone else.  But that's where I win, I guess.

In 1 Corinthians 1:26-31 tells us that God chooses the foolish ones of the world to accomplish his plans, and this in turn shames those who are considered wise by the world.

My earlier posts emit a sense of frustration and hurt by a systematized church that routinely excludes the foolish, weak, unimpressive, etc. opting instead for the educated, polished, eloquent, etc.

Moses stuttered, and God used him to deliver His chosen people.  The disciples were rabbinical school rejects, and Jesus chose them to make sure the rest of the world knew about him.  When's the last time you saw a new Christian musician or author who didn't look like they belonged on the cover of a magazine?

If I'm onto anything here, with my critique of the Church and desire to do something new, then it only means that I've climbed my way to the top of the pile of fools.  If I take any pride in that, it's that I am proof that God has a great sense of humor.

Friday, February 4, 2011

why does it annoy US?

photo: Kevin Steele

I've mentioned before that giving up traditions, personal habits, and even our preferences can feel like killing off a part of our identity.

There are times when we want change, when we get a new hairstyle or clothes, we vacation to a new place, or we try a new restaurant.

In reality, these times show us that we don't like change that much after all.

We want to be a little bit more attractive, to change the scenery with people we already know and love, or to feel a little more satisfied after a meal.

We don't want to change from eating tacos to eating gravel. We just want better tacos.

In most every area where we seek change, we're really just looking for mild improvements over what is otherwise an already pretty pleasant existence.

Even when we're miserable, we sometimes prefer misery we know to anything we don't know, no matter the promise for improvement. If you don't believe me, watch The Biggest Loser.  People don't get to weighing a quarter of a ton because change comes easy.

The real changes, the ones that are "all in" potentially life-altering changes, we mostly avoid until life pushes them on us or until staying the same threatens to kill us or make us feel like dying.

We daydream about those ideas, but it nauseates us to even consider actually taking a step toward them.

A job change. A career change. A major move. A new relationship. Ending a relationship.

When the potential is high enough for something to be truly great in our lives, then it's also high enough to truly crush us if we fail.

What's the last great thing you tried?

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

how i learned to annoy dinosaurs

photo: Property#1
I came by my subversive tendencies honestly, and ironically they began in the church.

The world has enough blogs and books where young men bash the church from an ivory tower of either religious or academic superiority.  I don't ever intend to do that here.

The truth is: despite her faults, I love the Church.  Most of my best friendships revolve around church in one way or another.

Nevertheless, as all married people know, the longer you love someone (or something), the easier it is to see their faults.

The way my mom tells the story, I've been in church nearly every Sunday since the week after I was born, except those few where I was too sick to attend or a couple of weeks in college where I became a member of Bedside Baptist Church (not a real church - I slept in, sorry mom).

My home church growing up was pastored by a church planter who had grown up in rural Missouri.  He used words like "swimming hole", and he told us stories of his early days in ministry where farm folk would sometimes pay his salary in freshly butchered meat.

Yet, he was eloquent - incredibly so.  He started teaching adjunct classes at my Bible College while I was still attending, and I suddenly became self-conscious when talking around him.  I knew that my penchant for swear words and dirty jokes sounded cheap against his memorized quotes of Scripture, Lewis, Lincoln, Tolkien, Bonhoeffer, Wormbrand and countless others.

His was not a mouth trained by noble birth or impressive education.  Rather, it was that of a man who clearly believed that his life was precious and that his words were as numbered as his days.

This man taught me that ordinary men could be extraordinary if they followed Jesus as he did.  He knew this because Jesus chose 12 ordinary men to start with, and they changed the world.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

who am I?

photo: Craig Allen

So, who am I?

What gives me the right to talk about who is a dinosaur and who is not?

I'm a church planter, and by that I mean I am training to plant a church, not that I've ever actually done it yet.

I became a Christian at the age of 12 in a fairly typical suburban church in Omaha, NE.

My mother is a Christian, and my father was and is still a practicing Hindu.

In high school, I developed a close friendship with a girl from our church.  She modeled Christian perfection: youth group leader, served in children's ministry, sang on the worship team.

During her senior year, she tried to commit suicide.

I encountered a crisis of faith when the very same religion that supposedly offered eternal life couldn't even sustain her temporal life.

God called me to ministry that same year, so I went to Bible college after high school and graduated with a four year degree in pastoral ministry.

That degree has so far accomplished very little for me.  Most churches I would want to work at require something north of five years experience and a master's degree.  How you get either without being independently wealthy, being a well-known pastor's son, or having a lot of "stage presence", I have no idea.

It would be easy for that last part to sound bitter.  I promise it's not.

To be honest, God had to show me how impossible it was to just make a job out of ministry.  You see, the churches that are worth working for are too hard to get into unless God gives you the raw talent or right last name to impress an organization that's already at the top of its game.

And the churches not worth working for are a dead end.  Trust me, I got fired from one . . . twice.

I always dreamed of planting a church, but I listened to the established churches that said I needed those elusive five years experience and that expensive master's degree.

God shook me free from that conventional wisdom through heartache, job loss, and tragedy.

Now I'm a man on a mission.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

age is just a number

photo: flickr

I want to be very clear that being a "dinosaur" has nothing to do with age.

In churches, dinosaurs can be old, young, rich, poor, skinny, fat, etc.  They can often be us.

This blog will perpetually run the danger of overextending the metaphor, but with that risk in mind . . .

The dinosaur is that part of us that values tradition over truth.  It likes being comfortable more than it likes being genuine.  It makes us cause conflict when having peace would mean that we have to change.

"Never try to sell a meteor to a dinosaur.  It wastes your time and annoys the dinosaur." is a play on a similar proverb: "Never try to teach a pig to sing.  It wastes your time and annoys the pig."

I like Hugh's update of the proverb.  The dinosaur has something to lose.  The pig doesn't.

I'm sure that the dinosaur exists in all organizations, but I think it dwells more prevalently in the church.

In businesses, dinosaurs stand to lose jobs or positions of status because of technological innovations or cultural shifts, but the losses are confined almost entirely to the material or social realm.

In churches, dinosaurs feel their very identity threatened; not just in a "no one will know who I am" kind of way but also in a "I won't even know who I am" way.  

In some ways I sympathize with the dinosaurs, but I also know that they must change.

Whenever the gospel gets in the way of my preferences, I need to let go of anything outside of Jesus that I've made part of my identity.  It very often feels like dying, or at least what I imagine dying to feel like.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

being light vs. being annoying.

Christians often mistake being annoying for being a witness to non-Christians.

Around Christmas, this manifests itself in the "Christmas wars", the annual debate over whether retail workers should say, "Merry Christmas," "Happy holidays," or "Seasons greetings."  Many Christians passive-aggressively or even hostilely assault these unsuspecting clerks with their frustrated Christmas greeting, showing neither merriment nor joy in doing so.

If the story of Christianity is true, as I believe it is, then the God of the universe humbled Himself and became like one of His creatures, descending into a dark, chaotic, and violent world bent on a self-sacrificing path toward the redemption of all mankind.

Assuming that actually happened, I highly doubt God much cares whether or not a retail worker who may or may not even believe in Him greets Christians with "Merry Christmas" as they buy presents for other people.

Last Sunday, I had the chance to preach at our church, and I asked the question, "What does it really look like to show Jesus to the world?"

You can find it online on the Reliance Church website.

(The download link is in blue hyperlink text next to the audio player.)

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

never try to sell a meteor


A few years ago, I saw the above cartoon on Hugh McLeod's

I don't know why, but it meant something to me at the time.  Perhaps it was the combination of this cartoon and another that said: "If you talked to people the way that advertisers talk to people, they'd punch you in the face."

I was finishing Bible college at the time and preparing to work in a church full-time, but I had this lingering sense that churches talked to people like advertisers, and I wanted to stop that.

The only problem was that this strategy, the mass-marketing, polished ad campaign, easy-access Sunday service kind of church was incredibly effective at attracting people.  Bill Hybels, the inventor of this consumer-oriented church strategy, now admits that it has been largely ineffective at deeply affecting very many lives, but even that admission hasn't stopped the madness.

See, big crowds equal big dollars if you're doing it right.  The right songs, plus the right message, plus the right lighting and ambiance can open virtually any miser's pocketbook for at least a few bucks.  Pastors can then build big buildings, support mission trips, speak to thousands each week, and be backed by an adult-contemporary quality band.  It's the dream: ministry without the barrier of resources.

So selling the opposite isn't very popular.  It feels a little bit like trying to sell a meteor to a dinosaur.  Nobody wants to buy in to something that they feel could very well kill them, unless they're crazy, reckless, or able to see some bigger purpose behind it.

On that note, welcome to Annoys the Dinosaur.

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