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“Grasping the Gospel” (In an Age of Discount Discipleship)

October 28,2018

Part Two: “Boasting About Knowing God”

Jeremiah 9:23-24 (NIV) “This is what the LORD says: ‘Let not the wise man boast of his wisdom or the strong man boast of his strength or the rich man boast of his riches, but let him who boasts boast about this: that he understands and knows me, that I am the LORD, who exercises kindness, justice and righteousness on earth, for in these I delight,’ declares the LORD.”

Part Two: “A Story About Rembrandt”

In our previous study, we looked at the words of our Lord when he said: Matthew 16:24-25 (NIV) “‘If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it.’” One might ask what the thoughts of Jeremiah the Prophet have to do with our topic…and how can any of this be connected to Rembrandt? Does this statement touch on the matter of discount discipleship? I think so. Ok … let me see if we can piece this together. Consider that God said through Jeremiah that the greatest blessing in life is to KNOW and UNDERSTAND HIM … for us to know God as far as possible.

“That he understands and knows me!” What a marvelous thought! Theologians through the ages have tried to capture in words the nature of God. From Augustine and Aquinas to Luther and Calvin and right up until today, their words have sought to reveal God’s ways and expectations. In doing that, they necessarily touch on the matter of discipleship. They suggest that we want to be whole-hearted disciples … not those who came in on a discounted faith…as if genuine faith can be acquired with a twenty per cent off coupon! An easy faith. A cheap faith. What Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace.” But how would God lead us to truly die to self? Let’s consider a few thoughts about God … and then us.

In about 1669, the Dutch painter Rembrandt created a theological masterpiece without words. In oil paint. “The Return of the Prodigal Son” was based on Luke Chapter Fifteen. Here we read how the son demanded that his father give him his anticipated share of the estate. Parables are not allegories; not every detail is analogous to something specific but obviously the father represents God and his son represents the sinner who does not want to know God. He wants the benefits God can give him, but he would be pleased if God was dead! I say that because, in effect, the prodigal son was saying to his father “I wish you were dead, so I could have that money!” Rembrandt captured the return of the son beautifully and, in doing so, taught much about the nature of God.

Remember that Jeremiah said the greatest possible blessing in life is to know God. Remember also that the prodigal son rejected his father the way we reject God in our natural state. So, surely, we could expect God to be offended and hurt and even angry. But the parable does not teach that. It teaches that while God is just and strong to punish, He is filled with grace for the penitent sinner. How would Rembrandt have taught that great truth about God’s strength and God’s grace? Ok. Look at the father’s hands in the painting. Look closely.

The left one is strong and muscular as it holds the broken son. The right hand is more tender and gentler. He wants his son back but he, the son, must understand God’s nature before he can truly be his son. God is both just and firm and all-powerful … and tender and compassionate and all loving. God is nothing except Holy and good.

His son had come to the “end of himself” and returned to his father weeping and broken and sorry. Please note: the text says this literally: “he came to himself” giving us a word picture of someone who got clobbered and suddenly came to his senses! Now? He is truly penitent. In that state, what kind of father (God) did he return to? One who leaned down and embraced him! One who saw him coming and ran to him! That alone is an amazing statement from Jesus because in the ancient world fathers did not run to their children!

God is tender and compassionate towards everyone, but He will allow us to suffer until we die to self, as the prodigal son did. But even so, why did God even let his combative and headstrong son wander off, waste the money and suffer so much? Why did God not stand in the way and stop his son from such folly? Because the son had to learn for himself that being a true son (or a true disciple) requires a very real dying to self! Again, the text tells us:

“‘If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it.’” How do we do that? How do we deny ourselves? By just not coveting or gossiping or lusting when the temptation arises? By being miserable doing without things we’d really like? No. That would just be a change in behavior. What is needed is a change in the inner person. Almost always, we must go our own headstrong way before we “come to the end of ourselves.” Rembrandt captured it perfectly. The penitent son is on his knees before his father. One shoe is missing. He is dressed in rags. Those standing around do not embrace him, including his older brother. The penitent son does not care. He has tried to live his life HIS way. Now he has left that life behind.

 Have we left an old life behind?
 What can we retain from our old lives that is good?
 And are we holding on to anything that is not?

Psalm 139:23-24 (ESV) “Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!”

Next: A story about Van Gogh

Blessings! Pastor Alberta


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“Grasping the Gospel” (In and Age of Discount Discipleship)

Part One: Losing Our Lives

October 23, 2018

Matthew 16:24-25 (NIV) “Then Jesus said to his disciples, ‘If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it.’”

When did we last hear that being a genuine disciple, a follower of Jesus … has anything to do with losing our lives? I thought it was about being free from condemnation for my sins? I thought it was about the abundant life? I thought it was about no longer fearing death. Isn’t it about “accepting Jesus” so we get to go to Heaven instead of Hell? Isn’t being a Christian “absolutely free” and no cost to us? We can’t earn our salvation so why this talk about losing our lives? Is that some kind of “works theology?” If faith is enough, as in Ephesians 2:8-9 … why can’t I hold onto my life and enjoy it and look forward to Heaven? And if this “losing my life” idea is important, why do I get the impression from most churches that it is not a concern? Good questions? I think so.

All those things a few lines above are true and wonderful. Forgiveness and abundance and Heaven. Of course. But again …we don’t hear much about losing our lives. Is it possible … that we really have not heard anything about that? This might get confusing. It might even challenge our certainties about what makes a great church a Christ-pleasing church. And what makes great preaching not just engaging and clever but Christ-centered? Hmm… again … is this idea popular: “For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it.” What does Jesus mean “lose his life for me?”

At this point, I want to offer a polite criticism about some approaches to church growth in many, not all, but many … modern churches. But first this statement is remarkably important to me: I am a Pastor by training who supports the local church and has served in several of them for forty years. I love the church! I believe whole-heartedly with the ancient maxim attributed to Cyprian in the fourth century: “He who would have God as his Father must have the church as his mother!” For the true disciple, the church is essential. But … what is the church supposed to do? What one thing did Jesus tell them they MUST do? Make disciples! Make disciples! That metric alone will be the measurement used by Jesus on judgment Day. He will ask: “Did your church make disciples?”

So…is the modern church, with all of its appeals, doing that? Consider this concern that I have … is the appeal of the church that it offers the opportunity to become a disciple? For what reason are people attracted to our churches? For the chance to “lose your life for Christ?” Really? I doubt it. I know that sounds sour and off-putting. I know it can be particularly obnoxious when people like me, who have retired from full-time pastoral ministry, even hint at any fault in today’s churches. Some may read this blog and simply blow me off as a pastoral Neanderthal crank. Perhaps. But consider this …

What do we read in the way of church advertisements lately?

Professional Music
Exciting Children’s Programs
Family Life Center with Gym and Climbing Wall
Marriage and Family Seminars
Plenty of Parking
Available Daycare
Life-Relevant Preaching
Free Music Lessons and …
A Great Coffee bar!

Well … those things are very nice. Really. And I guess they “bring people in.” Helps with church growth. But the first century church that exploded with massive crowds had none of them. No screens or climbing walls or even coffee? What did they have that drew people in? The Gospel! Not eclipsed by anything else. In fact, Paul and the other original church planters would not recognize much of what takes place on our Sundays. And apparently, those things were not needed to get the church started. But maybe that’s ok. Or … maybe it is not.

The real question is what are we saying to the lost? Think with me … are we inviting them to Christ who often spoke with very unappealing and troubling invitations? Or are we inviting them to church…which may not be the same thing? In short, do we go to church because we really like “our church” with all that it has to offer (see above.) Or do we go to church because we want to die to self and pick up our cross, etc.?

Imagine another church advertisement that says this:

Hear about the new life available in Christ
Learn how to put your sinful life to death
Ask the Holy Spirit to change your values about love, money, success and life
Every visitor will receive a cross to wear daily reminding them of their calling

I could go on. But …which church ad really appeals to you? To me? Let’s explore this idea that maybe we have discounted discipleship in the way we do evangelism. Perhaps the reason for so much sin in the church, worldliness and unforgiveness and sexual sin and shallowness is because we have not told them the whole story? Have we told them what Jesus wants? What his expectations are if we really come to him?

My colleague Pastor Winans from Cornerstone preached a sermon recently about the sin of pride. I thought “Good! When did we last speak of that?” I recalled that years ago, in a sermon, I mentioned a Puritan writer named John Owen and his book “The Mortification of Sin.” After the message someone gently asked me what that meant … “The mortification of sin?” I said “Ya’ know… putting sin to death in your Christian life.” Her response was something like “Really?” She seemed totally puzzled. And I thought “Well … that’s on me. I’ve preached to this person for twenty years, but this concept is completely unknown to her?! My bad?”

Let’s think about these things:

 Do we really want to follow Jesus to the Cross?
 Do we love our natural lives more than the Kingdom of God?
 Is it possible that genuine discipleship is first about dying and then about living?

Can we memorize Psalm 139: 23-24?

Next: A Story about Rembrandt

Blessings! Pastor Alberta

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“Grasping the Gospel” (In an age of “Discount Discipleship”)

Monday October 22, 2018

Hello Blog Friends,

I am considering a new series called “Grasping the Gospel” … it would be a frequent offering in writing on this blog site designed to examined what being a Christian REALLY IS.  What genuine discipleship requires of us. Not to get saved, but because we are saved.  Put another way, is the Gospel being presented the way Jesus presented it?

Put yet another way … did we read the spiritual “fine print” when we came to jesus?  Is it overlooked?  Would Paul and the other Biblical writers recognize what is being  preached in our church growth-driven culture?  Is it what they called for?

Anyway … your thoughts on this new study?  If you are “in” or interested … please advise.  Right or wrong, my motivation levels increase when I am certain that someone is finding my articles profitable.  So … that’s a little neurotic …:) … but I’d like to hear from you.  Even a simple “Thumbs Up!” would do.  I’d start this week.

In any case, God be praised and Blessings!

Peace. Pastor Alberta


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“Sixty Million Accusers Before the Throne of God”

Genesis 4:10 (NIV) The LORD said, “What have you done? Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground!”

Sometimes I think that I can see them. All gathered together since Roe v. Wade in 1973. They are small little spirits seated in front of the Maker of Heaven and Earth. They are no longer terrified. Now, they are pointing their tiny fingers at America. At the politicians who have been blinded and are doing the devil’s work unknowing …but doing it nonetheless. And at the know-everything elite journalists who fill the collective American mind with messages about a woman’s right to choose. Smart people with absolutely no idea how they are being used to promote evil. Smart people who are still stuttering and stammering and even frothing at the tongue trying to explain one simple thing. Namely, how in the world did Mr. Donald Trump ever get elected?

I cannot apologize for my certainty in this. Two words explain Mr. Trump’s election. Gorsuch. Kavanaugh. It was God’s good pleasure to place the unexpected Trump in the White House. The odds were so overwhelmingly against him that only a Divine decision made it possible. Isn’t it almost amusing? That God would use this earthy and disreputable man to do His will? Now, he has appointed two Supreme Court Justices. I pray daily that he gets to appoint at least two more. I hope you will join me.

Back to the unborn. The Kavanaugh hearings were simply a charade of disingenuity. The real issue for the Devil was to oppose Judge Kavanaugh because of Roe v. Wade. If Mr. Kavanaugh had been pro-choice, we would never have heard of his accuser. But the evil one loves death and the pro-abortion community are pawns in his hands. Hence … wait until the next hearings for the highest court to come upon us. We can expect nothing short of a raging meltdown and violence even worse than the vulgar nonsense we have been seeing. The screaming protestors interrupting the senators. The shrill yelling at leaders in hallways and elevators. Interrupting them at dinner. The politician who said that’s what they should do. Raise hell! So filled with fury they should all be issued free medications. I’d be embarrassed to be near them. And they think … they are right! If they yelled “Shame!” at me I’d take it as an honor.

If God was incensed at the death of innocent Abel at the hands of his brother Cain, what judgement does He have for America for its wholesale slaughter of the innocent unborn? For the politicians who sold their souls for votes and power? For the medical community that has gotten wealthy by baby genocide? For the complicit media who turns their gaze away from the holocaust in the womb? Are they pointing at the church that is more interested in flashing lights and large screens and winsome preachers than speaking up against evil?

Go see the movie “Gosnell.” The case that even the liberal press had to cover. About a “doctor” who slaughtered innumerable babies after their birth. Think about it. Please. Begin to pray as never before for America. And yes, for our president. And yes, for more courts who will do God’s will. He … indeed God Himself …in my view … has shown us a great act of mercy in allowing a president to serve who is hands down the most pro-life president ever. Yes, he is despised by many. Understood. Many who could not discern God’s will if they received it in a text directly from Heaven. We must pray for Mr. Trump’s conversion and his safety and wellbeing.

America’s biggest problem? It’s not a president of indelicate speech and off-putting behaviors. It’s not that those who would kill the unborn might take back the House. It’s not the Fed and possible rate hikes. It’s not too much carbon in the air. It’s not even terrorism and the endlessly fractious Middle east. It’s not any of the things we are hearing about that have America on the sharp edge of judgement. It’s murder. Crushing the skulls of unborn babies and tearing off their arms and burning off their skin. And we see no signs of repentance. Not yet.

We who are Christians should see thru the vail that has blinded most of our elite thinkers and commentators and writers. For we are living in a world like that of Abraham when he visited the darkened land of Gerar and observed “Surely there is no fear of God in this place!”

Blog friends: go see the “Gosnell” movie and then pray as never before. I’ll do it with you. Sixty million little souls are crying out at this moment.

Peace. Pastor Alberta

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Coming Down From the Mountainside

Friday October 12, 2018

Blog Friends,

Well, we’ve done it!  We’ve sat on the mountainside with the Lord Jesus for 44 days!  Now … what?  I’ve enjoyed interacting with all of you as we listened and thought about what Jesus was saying to us.

At this moment, I’m not sure if we should press on and consider more of our Lord’s marvelous teachings.  I need to give this some thought and prayer as I am also contemplating some other commitments.  But … what are your thoughts?  I’d really like to hear from many of you.  Should we consider another set of truths from our Lord?  If we do, would you be agreeable if they were not daily but frequently?  Do you have any  suggestions as to what we might study?

I’m always glad to hear from you.  This has been fun and challenging with over 300 readers.  And I learned much from my blog friends. So … think about it and share your ideas with me.  OK?

Blessings!  Pastor Alberta

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Sitting on the Mountainside-Studies in The Sermon on the Mount

Day 44: “Wise and Foolish Builders” October 11, 2018

Matthew 7:24-29 (NIV) “Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.”

“When Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were amazed at his teaching, because he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law.”

A few years ago, one of our sons and his wife lived in an attractive house in the Phoenix area. Unknown to them, there was a water leak underneath the building. As in most cases in that state, the structure was built upon a slab and not a full foundation. Not long after they moved out, a great crack appeared requiring expensive repairs before anyone could live in it. It didn’t experience quite the crash of which Jesus spoke in his word picture. But the point is the same. The residents did not realize that the structure was compromised.
In speaking of a crashing house, Jesus was really pointing towards a deeper question. Namely, “Have you checked on your spiritual foundation? Are you building on a safe and sturdy platform? Will it stand up well and safely if some terrible storms descend upon it? In speaking this way, Jesus was echoing the words of Psalm 127:

Psalm 127:1 (NIV) “Unless the LORD builds the house, its builders labor in vain. Unless the LORD watches over the city, the watchmen stand guard in vain.”

Why would Jesus paint this word picture as he closed his Sermon on the Mount? Allow me to suggest that this was a perfectly sensible summary statement that followed all that he had been teaching them in Matthew Chapters Five, Six and Seven. We have spent forty-four days looking closely at the entire text. Just to review how Jesus portrays someone who wants to build their life on a genuine spiritual foundation … that person:

Desires a spiritual way of living that seeks to know God

Mourns the broken world but is waiting for God to ultimately renew it

Is merciful towards other people

Understands that following Christ will bring persecution

Understands that sin is a heart issue and not just a matter of behavior

Is willing even eager to love his/her enemies

Understands that relationship with God is first a secret matter and not for show

Is eager to store up treasures in heaven with less focus on here and now

Is prepared to be judged with the same standards that he/she judges others

Realizes what Jesus means when he speaks of the narrow gate or path

Jesus describes as “wise” the person who lives their life according to his teaching. Salvation is by faith and not by our good works … so no one should think “Well, if I act this way I can know God and have eternal life.” Not so! We must come to Christ by faith and receive him as Savior and then the ways described will characterize our lives. I want to live that way because I know God thru Jesus Christ … not to get to know God but because I know Him! The life that Jesus describes in Matthew Five, Six and Seven is a life showing the fruit of the God-centered life.

Our Lord then goes on to offer an ominous thought to those who live without regard to God and with no care for what He requires:

“But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.”

In forty years of ministry, I have heard every reason imaginable for turning away from Jesus. Things like God allows evil and if he was any kind of a loving God, He would not. Forgetting that God took on flesh and allowed the ultimate unjust evil to come down upon Himself in the person of Jesus on the Cross. Things like anger at God for allowing pain and heartache into one’s life. In the end, it is as C.S. Lewis said, “We want to put God in the dock!” We want to cross-examine Him and insist that he explain Himself for allowing evil and not doing things as we think He should do them.

I understand. I’ve seen enough heartbreak and have often thought “Why Lord? Why?” But because I cannot understand God does not mean I cannot love Him as I should. In the end, it’s always the same decision: “Will I love God unconditionally or only if He explains Himself and starts doing things as I think He should do them?” Actually, in the end, a God who could be fully understood by us could not be God.

We started out picturing ourselves as sitting on the mountainside listening to Jesus. Now he has finished, and we turn to each other in a mild state of shock. All the other teachers we have heard in first century Jerusalem have quoted the great writers and Rabbis. Not Jesus. He has spoken very differently. And so, we read:

“When Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were amazed at his teaching, because he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law.”

Of course, if Jesus was who he said he was, he would speak as the one who had the authority. Having left unbelief many years ago, I believe he was that one, and that he had the authority. In closing, consider:

Mark 8:27-29 (NIV) “Jesus and his disciples went on to the villages around Caesarea Philippi. On the way he asked them, ‘Who do people say I am?’ They replied, ‘Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.’ ‘But what about you?’ he asked. ‘Who do you say I am?’ Peter answered, ‘You are the Christ.’”

Thus….Jesus has only one question for all of us: “Who do you say that I am?”

Blessings! Pastor Alberta

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Sitting on the Mountainside-Studies in The Sermon on the Mount

Day 43: “I Never Knew You!” October 10, 2018

Matthew 7:21-23 (NIV) “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’”

I have known a dozen people over the years who expressed worry, even fear … that on Judgment Day, they might hear Jesus say, “I never knew you!” They had ruminated too long on this passage forgetting that if Jesus never knew them … then they never knew Jesus and they would not be concerned about what he might say to them. We know if we know the Lord! Such people who never knew him have thought their good works would save them. But they did not know him, no matter what they did. They never sought the Lord. They sought only “achievements” in his name. They are not expecting to be rejected. They will be surprised. In other words, we who know Jesus do not need to fear that he will reject us. Fear of that rejection is a sign that we DO know him, and he knows us. This is subtle.

Like the person who worries that they might have blasphemed the Holy Spirit most likely never has … or they would not be worried about it. So, what to do with this puzzling passage? Let’s remember that it was preceded by these words from Jesus about works and “fruit” …

Matthew 7:18-20 (NIV) “A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.”

At first, this seems to confuse things even further. After all, the people that Jesus rejects in our text were claiming to have done all kinds of “good” things. They prophesied, and they drove out demons and they did miracles. Those were not only “good” but great things, right? So, how come Jesus is rejecting these people? Because he never knew them! That is, they may have done things in his name and God may have allowed those things to actually “work” but we forget: false prophets are active and the evil one plays games with spirits. Charlatans have performed miracles! Just ask Moses about his experience with the magicians who served Pharaoh. So, whatever ‘fruit” they bore, it was not of the Lord. Let’s go back to the key here …

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.”

We can glean several interesting points from this text. Everyone will say “Lord, Lord.” Everyone! This is asserted in Paul’s letter to the Philippians. Speaking of Jesus, he writes:

Philippians 2:8-11 (NIV) “And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death– even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

This is why it is unnecessary to become frustrated with friends and family who reject the Gospel. I’ve said to many people who insist they will never receive Christ and that he is only a myth … “Well, you will know otherwise eventually. Perhaps you will remember this conversation. Every knee will bow!”

The Lord Jesus Christ almost gives us a word picture of people lining up for entrance. He will be at the gate and will know his own and welcome them into the capital of the Kingdom of God in the presence of the Father. Jesus will know who has done the Father’s will. But … if the “good works” are not his will, what then does Jesus mean?

God’s will can be discerned. It is different for every believer. It might be preaching the Gospel and being known for great pulpit power. Or preaching the Gospel as a missionary or a teacher or one who tends to the poor. But it might also be the man who quietly paints the hallway and tends to the parking lot. The person who drives the van down to the city to bring food to the needy. And it is interesting that as we are called, we must do what He has given US to do. In other words, the greatest preacher should not be driving the van because God has given that job to another person. We must seek His will at all times as to how we serve him. The people in the parable did some good things but they were not the will of God. Thus, we saw our Lord teach us earlier:

Matthew 6:9-10 (NIV) “This, then, is how you should pray: ‘Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

This should not be mistaken for salvation by works. Rather, we who have been born of the Holy Spirit will demonstrate that re-birth by doing His will. And he will make that will clear to us. How? Consider Paul once again:

Romans 12:2 (NIV) “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is–his good, pleasing and perfect will.”

And who are those who no longer conform to the patterns of this world? Simple. They are described in Matthew 5 thru 7! Jesus might say “This is what they look like. And this is how they live, according to the Father’s will.”

Next: “Wise and Foolish Builders”

Blessings! Pastor Alberta

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