"PICTURE THIS!" from Bishop Kusserow 

October 18, 2019

Today I am with a handful of our pastors at Trinity Seminary.  We’re attending an Anchor Church training and learning about new models of shared ministry that are working to sustain and revitalize congregations across our church.  The event just happens to be held where I went to seminary, so for me it’s a reminder of my first experience of training for the Gospel ministry.

That was 30 years ago.  Since then a lot has changed in me, in the church and in the seminary itself.  

Being here, and hearing stories of shared ministry models reminds me of my first call.  It was a cooperative ministry that spanned four counties and brought pastors and interns and lay leaders together in sharing the leadership of 17 congregations.  The shape of that ministry benefited from the collective insights of pastoral experience, recent seminary education and the daily vocation of lay leaders.

The world has changed; and the church has changed, and it’s time once again to go back to school.  Our small group is here to learn together how to be faithful in our synod in a new time.  It could be that some of the old ways of being church together may be our best shape for ministry today and tomorrow.

June 27, 2019

How simple a solution. 
How obvious. 
How personal. 
How direct: “Just ask!”
Friday evening of Synod Assembly, after a day’s discussion of budget shortfalls and funding our mission, a member of our synod said to me, “If the synod’s ministry is something worth supporting, then ask people to support it.  If you need $180,000, just ask for it.  I’m sure there are 180 people in our synod ready to give $1,000 to help support our work.  In fact, you’ll have mine tomorrow.”
The next day, good as her word, she handed me a check for $1,000; no strings attached, just personal and joyful support of our synod’s mission.  And the thing is, I hadn’t even asked!
I shared this story with our Synod Council at its meeting later that same day.  The story so moved one of our Synod Council members that she handed me a check for $1,000 the very next day.  Imagine that!  I still hadn’t asked!
In our plans to balance the budget, we will ask for personal financial support for our synod’s mission.  Our Synod Council is moving forward to establish an Annual Fund as a first step toward alternate funding streams for our important work.  We plan to do that work carefully and well.
But it is the simple beauty of this story that I wanted to share with you today.  See how a story of joyful generosity spontaneously motivates others to help support our mission – to serve, connect and equip our congregations to tell the story of Jesus so that our synod and our neighbors may know God’s love for them!

April 16, 2019

The first spring flowers to appear after winter’s long gray dormancy always surprise me.  Knowing that they will appear, even having experienced spring before, does not make the experience any less astounding.  Suddenly, life abounds!  I find gathering a bunch of spring flowers to bring inside almost irresistible.

Today I would like to offer you a bouquet of flowers that are a few of the highlights of our synod’s life together so that you can delight in them with me. 

Why today?  Because today I am in Harrisburg, presenting the LAMPa Serve.Pray.Speak. award for advocacy to our synod’s Church in Society Committee.  Their creative application of a global concern about single use plastics provided our synod with a Lenten discipline that was both challenging and memorable.

Just last Wednesday, our Health and Wellness Ministry appreciation program said a hearty “Thank You” to the 160 volunteers that touch the lives of many people and communities in partnership with Lutheran SeniorLife.  Blessing their hands was a real joy for me, for their work brings God’s love within reach for many.

I am also grateful for the slow and steady work of our Synod Council and synod staff to guide and sustain our mission.  Like the soil of a flower bed, their love for the people of God is expressed in service that connects and equips the flowering of the ministry we share, and I find that just as beautiful as the bluebells pictured above.

Thank you for the flowers that your life of discipleship adds to your congregation, your community, and your synod this spring!

April 1, 2019

Last Saturday, our Synod Council met at Prince of Peace, Latrobe.  Our agenda included 30 items.  We began at 9:30, and by 3:45 we were all tired and ready for item #30, “Adjournment.”  We were close, but we weren’t quite there.  

It was during item #27, the treasurer’s report that suddenly one of the very many attachments sent ahead to our Synod Council members, the expense report, showed up sideways on the projection screen.

Now Pr. Schaefer is a computer wizard, and he immediately began searching for the right tool to rotate the image 90° right, but it was taking time, and at that moment, every further expense of time was a drain on our corporate energy.  In a burst of creative response, he reached over and turned the slide projector on its side.  Seeing this, Pr. Stoller stepped forward to steady the thing.  We all cheered!

The first thing that came to my mind was our Strategic Initiative #4, to “foster creativity and openness to change.”  Here was a visible example of collegial creativity serving our shared work, so I took a picture.

Hold this picture in your head and heart this week (sideways if you need to) as inspiration for your own use of creativity in solving the challenges that face you in your ministry.  And send me a picture if you can!  It’ll make my day.

February 8, 2019

Last Wednesday evening, on the Gettysburg Campus of United Lutheran Seminary, the bishops of regions 7 and 8 were invited to join the seminary community in “Beer and Hymns.”  For two hours students and faculty and visiting bishops gathered around the piano and sang hymns.

All kinds of hymns:  19th Century favorites like Leaning on the Everlasting Arms (ELW 774); contemporary curiosities like Unexpected and Mysterious (ELW 258); spirituals like Give Me Jesus (ELW 770); and even national songs like O Canada (ELW 892) – we stood for that one!  Although I did not formally request a hymn, I was particularly pleased when the stirring 17th Century Slovak hymn, God, My Lord, My Strength, (ELW 795) was sung.

Looking around, I saw young “pipeline” students and older “second career” students.  Some belonged to families with generations of Lutheran pastors in their ancestry; others were new to the Christian faith.  But this community was rehearsing together a repertoire of music much, much wider and more varied than their own gathering.  Hundreds of years of history and a geography that spans the globe, distilled into song, was forming the faith of these people.

They say our theology is formed by how we pray.  This is true.  And by how we sing.  If this is so, our seminarians are being formed in a theology that is deep and wide.   Thanks be to God!

December 7, 2018

Most probably you have heard the phrase, “The pen is mightier than the sword.” You may even know that the memorable quip was first penned in 1839 by Edward Bulwer-Lytton. But can you identify this pen?

This pen commemorates the signing of Senate Bill 554, the Safe Harbor Bill, which provides for “special relief to restore victim’s dignity and autonomy and for safe harbor for sexually exploited children.” This pen was given to Lutheran Advocacy Ministry in Pennsylvania for its five-year labor of patient and creative persistence in speaking up for those without a voice.

Learn more about how this bill cares for vulnerable children, or to say a word of thanks to your legislator for this work here. 

Thank you for your support of LAMPa through your personal engagement in advocacy, and through your gifts of mission support. As St. James teaches us, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress.” (James 1:27)  

With you in Christ,

November 14, 2018

On the wall of the main entrance to the dining hall at the Capital Retreat Center in Waynesboro, PA, is this saying from Rabbi Tarfon (c. 70 to 135 CE):  “You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.”

What work, exactly?  The Hebrew title above the quotation, “Tikun Olam,” answers that question.  The phrase (sometimes spelled “Tikkun Olam”) is used in contemporary American Judaism to mean the repair of the world.  

But Rabbi Tarfon was neither contemporary nor American; this phrase clearly has a larger resonance than our immediate context.  The world, after all, is a bigger place than what we can see from our daily commutes.  And the work of repair truly belongs to God, not to us.  Scripture declares (Isaiah 61:1-4) that God is about the repair of ruined cities, and that God’s people are invited to participate in that work as stewards.  In every time and place, God’s people comfort the bereaved, put out fires, participate in the political process, raise children, tend the earth, and teach the faith, neither expecting to come to the end of their work, nor believing God would do it if they sat idly by.

Here is the truth of the mystery of stewardship, as I see it:  people discover meaning and purpose in their lives as they participate in God’s healing work in their own time and place.  Our joy is not reduced to those few times we get to do the victory dance, and our freedom is seldom gained by walking away from a challenge.  But both joy and freedom do result from being engaged in God’s work in our time and place, for as long as we draw breath.  For that work is truly divine and that work is truly eternal – which is to say, worth it!

With you in Christ,

October 29, 2018

Suddenly, the Tree of Life has found its way into our daily conversation. Saturday morning’s violent crime at the Tree of Life Synagogue drove the greater Pittsburgh community into a shared grief. Within that space, momentarily closer to our neighbors than we had been before the trauma, we found and raised a common voice: how can we find peace in our day?

This is the longing of every generation. And in every generation, the image of the Tree of Life suggests an answer. Our hymn, There in God’s Garden (ELW 342) uses this image to proclaim the gospel of hope: that life grows out of suffering.

Thorns not its own are tangled in its foliage;
our greed has starved it,
our despite has choked it.
Yet, look! it lives!
its grief has not destroyed it
nor fire consumed it.

It is life that overcomes death, not further destruction. It is reconciliation that ends hate, not further polarization. Love displaces anger. Hope takes despair into itself and fashions peace. The Gospel we proclaim turns the tomb into a womb.

With you in Christ,

October 24, 2018

It seems to me that classified ads starting with “Free to good home,” offer something inherently too valuable to dispose of, but contextually not a high enough priority to keep any longer. Have I got that about right?

It could be a baby grand piano, or a collection of “collectibles.”  Sadly, it’s often a pet that has suffered the traumatic change from being a once-beloved member of the household to something now too much in the way.

We are already some distance into a new era of the history of the Church.  In this new era, collections of reference books, the once-treasured staple of an institution, have been replaced by digital search engines.  In this new era, the ever- pressing mission of living and sharing the Good News of Jesus’ death and resurrection person-to-person needs a different kind of resource to thrive.

At the synod office, we are refreshing our shared workplace to prepare for a Synod Communicator to join the staff.  We are also seeking to live out the Synod Council strategic initiative to foster creativity and openness to change.  Martin Luther is still important to us, of course, as is sharing the Good News that he proclaimed so boldly.  It just seems that Latin block letters on a plaster bust and 110 pounds of paper may not be our best tool to do that right now.

(By the way, this actually was a real offer, but the books and Luther bust have already gone to a good home.)


July 9, 2018

When you think of William Passavant, do you think of him as an editor? Probably not.

William Passavant is remembered among us with a blend of local pride and holy reverence for founding congregations, social ministry organizations and institutions of learning in Western Pennsylvania, and in several other states as well. But look: in a stained-glass window that graces the nave of St. James, Emsworth, “Wm. A. Passavant” is celebrated first and foremost as an “Editor.”

William Passavant founded and edited “The Missionary” and “The Workman” journals, and was on the staff of “The Lutheran Observer” as well.

I am blessed to have a photocopy of the November 22, 1894 issue of “The Workman” in my office, an issue dedicated to William Passavant’s life and work not quite six months after his death. That historical artifact, when held together with the witness of this stained glass window, helps me see in a new way the profound role that communication holds in the growth and vitality of the Church’s mission.

Improved communication was identified in the Landscape survey as our synod’s most pressing need, and is named by the Synod Council as the first of our strategic initiatives. This “new” direction, it would seem, is taking us back to our roots!


July 2, 2018

Sometimes pictures communicate more than words can say. But at other times, it’s just not possible to capture the wonder and energy of an event in a picture. The ELCA Youth Gathering was one of those times.

About 31,000 youth and adults from all across our church assembled in Houston under the theme, This Changes Everything. When we were all together every evening, the wonder and energy of the event was nearly overwhelming. Half of the NRG Stadium was filled, floor to ceiling, with Lutherans celebrating the grace of God. Sometimes the place was deafening; and sometimes it was still, with thousands of cell-phone flashlights creating the look of the night sky indoors.

Pictured above is our synod Eucharist, a crowd of about 300, (or 1% of the whole group). Even this more manageable picture does not do justice to the lively and moving experience of being with the youth of our synod and of the Northwestern Pennsylvania Synod for worship. But at least it’s a glimpse. It was a real blessing to church together for this once-every-three-years assembly.

Thank you for your prayers for our group. Thank you for your financial support that made it possible for youth from our synod to go. And be encouraged that our church is filled with young people eager to bear witness to the gospel in their lives, and with adults who planned and staffed this astounding event!


June 18, 2018

This spring our church elected six new bishops: Patricia Davenport, Vivianne Thomas-Breitfeld, Sue Briner, Laurie Skow-Anderson, Deborah Hutterer, and Idalia Negrón. This is the first all-female incoming class of bishops that our church has been blessed to receive. And this class welcomes the first two African American women to the Conference of Bishops.
I am thrilled, because I believe the Conference of Bishops serves our church best when our collective voice includes a wide range of insights and perspectives.

Our six bishops-elect will gather in Chicago for the summer formation event in July. While the Lutheran Center on Higgins Road will already be familiar to those who served as Directors for Evangelical Mission before being elected bishop, the office they are being called into requires learning how to carry new and different responsibilities. The Formation Committee seeks to share two powerful words with all our new bishops: You have been called. You are not alone.

Please do remember each of these new bishops in prayer, and the synods that have elected them. We are not alone; and together we all pray for the strength and compassion to answer God’s call.


May 14, 2018

This picture is not posed. By which I mean to say, it is a snapshot of real life and not a few things staged in order to create a dramatic picture. I was simply cutting grass, came inside for a break, and left my gloves where I usually leave them – on the handle of the lawn mower.

It was only when I came back out of the house and saw this from a distance that I was struck by what I saw. These gloves, from use, had been formed into the shape of my hands.

When they were new, these gloves were flat and smooth. But through much use, by the dust and sweat and scrapes that come with work, they have taken on the shape of my hands, and they now retain that shape even when they are at rest.

I wonder ... when we do God’s work with our hands ...


May 9, 2018

It was immediately obvious to me, and at the same time beyond my capacity to comprehend, when I saw this picture in the Panera Bread in Irwin, and suddenly realized, that the very means by which our Lord Jesus had promised to be present to the Church required human labor to bring into being.

Bread does not naturally occur. Obviously! But how can I possibly comprehend the mystery that our God has promised to be present to us in something that remains entirely in our power to create? Does our Lord’s sacramental presence depend on our labor? Of course not – and clearly yes! What a tremendous mystery!

The Incarnation itself bears witness to the truth of this incomprehensibly obvious situation. The baby Jesus did not fall from heaven intact, but was born of the Virgin Mary. And in this child, the product of human labor (pardon the pun), as Colossians declares, “all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.” (Col. 1:19)

Popular theology would presume to teach us that anything of God that is mediated by human labor is tainted, sullied, less than authentically divine. The Holy Gospels tell a different story. God has chosen to be most present to us in things only humans can make: a human person, bread, wine, the mutual conversation and consolation of the community of saints. Imagine that!



April 16, 2018

So it was the first really nice weekend of the year, and 150 people had signed up to attend the Synod Resource Center mission event, “Heading into Uncharted Territory without Google Maps.” What do you suppose happened? They showed up!

They really did! Almost all 150 of them. And they spent all day in a church, thinking about church. Which led presenter Dave Daubert to conclude that we were all a little odd.

Actually, his point was that since so small a percentage of Americans attend services of worship any given week, those who do are already outside the norm. And those who are interested enough to spend the first really nice weekend of the year inside talking about how to make church a more inviting and meaningful community are an even rarer group. But there we were, all the same.

Church matters. And why is that? Because church not only declares, but demonstrates that Jesus is here with us. And where Jesus is, the promise of life and peace and reconciliation is close at hand, actually within reach.

Nice days beg to have you make the most of them. Turns out, we did!


March 22, 2018

Look closely, and you’ll see William Passavant photo-bombing this group picture of Glade Run’s senior staff.

On Tuesday I was invited to come and install the Vice Presidents of Glade Run – again! I was glad to do it. It’s generally a low-profile event, just a few of us in the conference room, but it notes an important reality: we are partners in ministry.

So, for the record, from left to right:
• Pastor Christina Hough, Director of Spiritual Care and Community Liaison
• Sheila Talarico, Executive Director of the Glade Run Foundation
• Amy Richert, Vice President of Education
• Christopher Phillips, Chief Operation Officer
• Michelle Herr, Coordinator of Executive Offices
• Dr. Charles Lockwood, Executive Director
• Alexandra Salcido, Vice President of Clinical Services

On my way out I asked, “What would you like to share with your ministry partners in the synod?” “That we are alive and well!” came the immediate answer. Here are people actively pursuing the care of children in today’s world, building on the foundation of faith with hope and courage. Thanks for your work!


February 22, 2018

Isaiah’s vision of the Peaceable Kingdom is well known for its description of a world in which the wolf and the lamb live together, a community of peace where “they shall not hurt or destroy.” (Isaiah 11:6-9)

The image comes across as entirely passive: the leopard lies down with the kid. The cow and the bear graze together. The nursing child plays over the den of the adder without suffering any harm. Lovely, but not much to pay attention to, really.

But the events of this week compel us to look again. Look again! (1)  There, in Isaiah’s ancient text, is an active image as well. “And a little child shall lead them.”

I confess that I have given little thought in my study and use of this text to the leadership of this child. I suppose it’s fair to say that my general impression has been that Isaiah’s vision describes a community of such pervasive peace that leadership itself amounts to nothing more than child’s play.

I think I have missed something important. Today, in our country, litttle children are leading, and in a remarkably active way. We would do well to pay attention.

(1)  https://www.cbsnews.com/news/fort-lauderdale-anti-gun-rally-today-02-17-2018-live-stream/

February 15, 2018

Having suffered 18 school shootings in 45 days this year (1) , we hardly needed to be reminded on Ash Wednesday that we are dust, and to dust we shall return. We get the point, thank you. In fact we live it. Daily.

Can the Ash Wednesday liturgy still strengthen our people these days? Or is it the liturgical equivalent of adding insult to injury? The answer lies in the dismissal. (ELW p. 255) These words call the Church to be a people of hope and courage, even while our baptism into Christ draws the very sign of death on our faces:

Go forth into the world to serve God with gladness;
be of good courage;
hold fast to that which is good;
render to no one evil for evil;
strengthen the fainthearted;
support the weak;
help the afflicted;
honor all people;
love and serve God, rejoicing in the power of the Holy Spirit.


(1) http://abcnews.go.com/US/18-school-shootings-us-year-group/story?id=53091125

January 18, 2018

On my office wall hangs a heavy bronze crucifix. It is the art work of Rick Maas, a gift given to my predecessor when he was called into episcopal office, and it depicts Christ’s body as the earth. Christ’s head is visible, as are his hands and feet, but only these extend beyond the globe.

I Peter 2:24 teaches us that “Christ himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed.” In this work of art, we can see clearly both the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, and the world God loved so much as to give his only son up to death for its salvation.

A closer look at this globe reveals the continent of Africa, and that the wound Christ suffered in his side has left a scar across Algeria, Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso and Benin. There is a profound sharing of identity suggested by this mark.

The Christian vocation is not to wound further the Body of Christ, or the world which he loves enough to die for, but being freed from sins and healed by his wounds, to live for righteousness. When we consider others around the world, may our speech and our actions resemble more the love of Christ, than the point of a spear.


January 10, 2018

I finally had to ask the front desk, “What does this mean?”

In bold, brass letters, on carefully matched panels of wood veneer, the words “NO VIEW POINT” appeared just to the left of the hotel elevators. For three days I had pondered what in the world these words could mean.

During the same three days, the bishops of our church and of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada listened to three excellent presentations on the First Nations Peoples, the Native Americans of our two countries. Ms. Prairie Rose Seminole addressed spirituality; Dr. Martin Brokenleg addressed theology, and Bishop Mark MacDonald addressed reconciliation. It was because their view points were so gloriously enlightening that I had to ask why in the world the hotel announced that it had “NO VIEW POINT.”

I learned that while some buildings in Vancouver have roof-top observation decks open to the public, this hotel does not. So, no point from which to view the city.

OK; fine. But now I wonder, does our church have a view point? Does my congregation? Do I? Are we, individually and together, people and places where the general public can find a view point? And I don’t mean a political or social opinion, not a point-of-view, per se, but a view point?

What would it look like for us to construct observation decks open to the public, where God’s mission in the world can be seen plainly, in all its splendor and grace? “Come on in,” we might say, “we have a terrific view point!”


December 20, 2017

They say that optimists see this glass as half-full, while pessimists see it as half-empty. That could be; I don’t know for sure. But it seems to me that if that is the case, they share the same perspective – that the glass ought to be filled to the brim.

Another perspective might assert that this glass is already filled to the brim. Partly with water, partly with air.

I wonder if this perspective might lead us to think in new ways about the Church. St. John the Baptist confessed that while he baptized with water, the One coming after him would baptize with the Spirit (Mark 1:8). In the Biblical languages, one word can mean air or spirit or breath or wind. Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus (John, chapter 3) provides an familiar example of the several meanings that one word can have. In that chapter, Jesus says to Nicodemus, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and the Spirit,” but he goes on to admit that it is impossible to see the wind. “You hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.”

In the days and weeks to come, if you find yourself wondering if your church is half-full or half-empty, think about this glass, and about the essential and elusive presence of the Spirit among the people of God. Can you hear the sound of it, filling spaces that appear empty at first glance?


November 16, 2017

You may find this picture familiar: a team of intrepid church basement women who have given generously of their time and effort to serve one more meal in the fellowship hall. Here’s what you can’t see: these women are not in their own church kitchen!

For the 100th anniversary of Bethany, Dormont, women from Trinity, Sheraden; Trinity, Mt. Oliver; and St. Andrew, East Carnegie staffed the kitchen, making it possible for the women of Bethany to attend their anniversary liturgy.

The words of Tertullian (a 2nd Century North African Theologian) came to my mind as soon as these women opened my eyes so that I could see what I was looking at, “See how they love one another!” As I see it, the love went both ways – it is no small thing to open your own church kitchen to others. But here they all were, women from several congregations of the 12-congregation cooperative, Pittsburgh Lutheran United Ministries, giving and receiving the kind of love for which the Church was once famous!


November 3, 2017

I found this pair of Greek words in a balcony window of Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Lancaster. Above them is a picture of St. Paul, preaching. The event is recounted in Acts 17, especially verse 23, “What you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.” The Greek words in the window say “To an unknown god.”

It’s hard to know if the piety of the people of Athens at the time of Paul was so humble that they truly sought to learn about anything they did not already know for themselves, or if they were so self-assured that they figured they had covered all their religious bases by building an altar to an unknown god. Either way, Paul found an opportunity to preach Christ, and so he did.

As we seek opportunities to preach Christ in our time and place, revealing the unknown can only serve our common cause. It is in this spirit that a survey called "Landscape" will very soon be sent from our synod office to hundreds of people in leadership roles throughout our synod. Along with the ministerium, members of Synod Council and Congregation Councils will be among those invited to respond. The goal is to listen to the hearts and minds of our people in leadership roles, so that together we may better accomplish our mission.

Our shared mission is to steward the gospel and care for our neighbors. If revealing the unknown will help us do that well, I’m all for it!


October 27, 2017

A single picture can communicate many ideas and emotions – even mutually exclusive ideas and emotions – in a moment. And, somewhat miraculously, it can tell a single story that holds all these things together.

The Word of God is like this. It is one word that we encounter as Law and as Gospel. The Word of God is one person who is fully divine and fully human. The Word of God is our judge and our savior. The Word of God kills and makes alive.

This cherry tree stump bears witness to a story of collateral damage. This tree once stood close between two very large sassafras trees that had died. In the process of removing them, the living cherry tree also had to go.

I still grieve that unnecessary loss – but also rejoice in the unexpected flourish of new growth that pressed the cause of life forward in spite of the unjust loss!

Can you relate to this? Do you suffer because of actions and events beyond your control? Do you also harbor the sacred hope that love is eternal, that God does bring life out of death itself? If so, perhaps II Corinthians 4:7-12 can be the motto for your life and ministry. I find myself turning to these verses all the time!


October 20, 2017

Water pressure is good; but too much causes problems for every part of the system. I learned this the other day by listening to a plumber as he installed a new pressure regulator at my house.

Social pressure is just like this  – productive up to a certain point, but damaging to relationships and communities and institutions when it gets too high.

The last “Picture This” I prepared was a response to Charlottesville. But I never sent it, because the social pressure seemed too great for a medium that rested to some degree on whimsy. And the weeks and months that followed brought new calamities with such regularity that our society was pressured into reacting with outrage to every public word.

So this is a test. Let me know what you think. Is the social pressure still too high for this kind of communication? Or would you like to see, now and then, how I picture our life and ministry these days, and how I imagine it could look in the future?


August 9, 2017

I am not a fan of taking pictures during worship, but I wanted you to see this: the first of our church’s Rostered Ministers Gatherings. About 800 pastors and deacons from across the ELCA are in Atlanta this week, gathered for worship, Bible study, educational workshops, fellowship, and service projects. Eight colleagues from our synod are here.

Bishop Eaton addressed us this morning, calling us forward together in Christ. I trust that her four identity statements are becoming familiar to you: We are Church; We are Lutheran; We are Church Together; We are Church for the Sake of the World. Each of these statements provides an important declaration and insight into who we are, or yearn to be. This snapshot is a glimpse of our church’s pursuit of being Church Together.

In a world wounded by division, there is something hopeful, and perhaps even healing, about any intentional effort to gather together. I wonder if it is not too bold to say that one of the marks of being orthodox is to remain tireless in seeking opportunities to assemble with other believers. Is this what Hebrews 10:24-25 means to teach us?


July 27, 2017


Is this a boat? (This is a trick question.) Of course it is a boat. Just look at it; what else could it be?

So, ... (and here comes the “trick” part) ... is something a boat by virtue of its form and appearance, or is something a boat by virtue of its function? I mean, is a boat that does not float still a boat?

I saw this, ... um, ... thing on a beach near Boston at low tide. At high tide it is completely covered with water. It’s been here long enough, stuck in the mud, covered by water twice a day, that is has barnacles growing all over it. There’s no question that it was a boat, once. But is it now?

You know that the large, central part of our church buildings, where all the people gather in their pews, is called a nave, right? That word comes from the Latin word for boat: navis.

Next time you go to church, stop for just a moment, there among the pews, and ask: “Is this a boat?”


July 19, 2017


Here’s something that may be too dangerous even to talk about. Right? The “third rail” is a label we give topics of conversation that are better left untouched.

Here’s where the metaphor comes from: a public transportation system like the Boston Subway uses high-voltage electricity to power its vehicles. The trains ride on wheels that follow two rails. The third rail provides the electric power source. A person who closes the circuit between the third rail and the ground by touching it in some way likely will not survive the experience.

We use this metaphor in our shared community of faith by saying that it is safer not even to get close to those “third rail” conversations: like the building, or the endowment, or the flags in the chancel.

But consider this: if the subway train never touches the third rail it goes nowhere. So I wonder, can we identify the critical power source that motivates our shared mission? And if so, can we appropriately turn our attention toward making sure that connection is made in an intentional and sustainable way? I believe we can; and I’d like to hear your thoughts about this as well.


June 9, 2017


It’s not everyone who actually does have their name on their pew! But then, this park bench isn’t exactly a pew. Or is it?

In today’s picture-perfect dedication of the Passavant Gardens, I accepted Pastor Dutch Weber’s invitation to join him for a while on the park bench given by his family. In our conversation, it became clear to me that his pastoral heart thinks of the whole Passavant community as a parish, a community of God’s beloved people, and that every place in the living space they share qualifies as a place where God may be praised, where sorrows may be shared, and where comfort may be given.

What happens when we expand our imaginations to think of “church” being all around us all the time? We find the same struggles and opportunities about providing welcome that congregations face in their church buildings during the worship time.

Are there ways in which we communicate an unwelcoming, “Hey, that’s my pew,” message in our daily lives? How might we learn to say, “Come and join me for a while, in a place where we both belong?”


May 12, 2017


Thiel College is 150 years old, and still learning.

Are you?

This year’s commencement weekend included the particular joy of the inauguration of President Susan Traverso. In her inaugural address she taught us about William Passavant. Afterwards she asked me if I thought she had got the story right. I said that I thought she nailed it. The story of William Passavant was a story she needed to learn well enough to tell, so that as Thiel’s 20th President, she could appropriately honor the college’s past and celebrate its future.

What joy or duty or challenge are you facing today? And what must you learn well enough to nail it?

Let me know; I’d like to learn about it.
With you in Christ,


May 4, 2017


Perhaps it is a bad habit, but I will often keep my dinner roll until the very end of my meal. I find that if it is broken apart, a dinner roll is without peer for soaking up the last bits of sauce left on my plate.

I am often profoundly aware that breaking apart a dinner roll for this purpose is just like the action of breaking and distributing the Eucharistic bread. I mentioned this to Pastor Bill Diehm last Friday, at the Lutheran SeniorLife Gala, and since at that moment I held a piece of broken bread in one hand and a glass of wine in the other, he could not resist taking a picture of the curious glimpse of our Lord’s gift of himself to us that suddenly appeared before our eyes.

His devotional Invocation that night had been about the powerful and mutual gift of meaning that the Eucharist and our daily meals and fancy feasts give to each other, so we were in a sense primed to see that bit of bread and that cup of wine sitting on that table in that assembly as a sort of “under cover church.” What neither of us saw at the moment was the hand of the woman at the next table, that in this picture is apparently raised in blessing exactly above the cup.

Let me invite you to see in curious glimpses like this, the presence of our Risen Lord, of whom we sing in the Sanctus, “heaven and earth are full of your glory.”


April 27, 2017


This bird was built to fish in shallow water. Is that a fair description of what every feature of the Great Blue Heron is obviously made to do?

From the stilt legs and patient gait, to the harpoon beak and spring-loaded neck, this bird is built to fish – and specifically in still water a couple of feet deep.

What is the single purpose for which you were built? I use the word “built” because it has a note of intention to it, rather than haphazard coincidence. And the word, “purpose,” too, is by design. It’s not just a matter of what you can do, but what you were made to do; not just who you happen to have turned out to be, but who you were meant to be.

Do you have answers for questions like these? Purpose questions are worth spending time pondering, I believe. For the more we know our purpose, the more every part of our life falls into place. When Simeon saw the baby Jesus, he declared his purpose fulfilled (Luke 2:29). When Mary sat at the feet of Jesus, her purpose was clear enough to Jesus that he pointed it out to Martha (Luke 10:42). When Jesus finally did answer Pontius Pilate, it was with his own statement of purpose (John 18:37).

What say you? What’s the single purpose for which you are perfectly built?


April 13, 2017



Tomorrow we tip into the Three Holy Days, the Triduum. In the holy observance of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and the Easter Vigil we celebrate with solemn joy that which is most central to our shared faith: God’s self-giving love for our salvation. Nothing binds us closer to each other than our life together in Christian community that is created by this Gospel Word.

Today the called synod staff gathered to keep you in prayer. By name. Every congregation and ministry site of our synod; every pastor, every deacon. Those under call, and those retired. Those on-leave and those with a continuing disability. We remembered our synod support staff, our widows, and our ecumenical partners. We rejoiced with you in prayer for the joy you find in the Gospel, and we grieved with you in prayer for the heavy burdens you carry.

We began our day of prayer with Conferences One and Two, inside the fellowship hall of St. Paul, North Park. As the morning warmed, we found ourselves on the front steps of the church praying through Conference Three. We spent the afternoon in North Park itself, just a stone’s throw from the boat house, where we prayed through Conferences Four, Five and Six. Ending our discipline of prayer for you with the last several yellow pages of our Bulletin of Reports, we found that we had modeled an appropriate pattern of Christian life: moving from the church building, out the front doors, and into the public square.

The events we celebrate in the Triduum began in an upper room, but quickly moved outside and into the general view. May our faith ever move us in this direction: inside-out for the sake of the world God loves so much.


March 31, 2017


In joyful commemoration of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, Pastor Scott Bryte has finished an oil painting of Dr. Martin Luther in his study in the Wartburg. The painting is on permanent loan at the synod office. It hangs on the wall that you see when you come in the front door, in that space we fondly call “Carol’s living room.” Come and see it.

And while you’re here, come in a little farther, take a right, and stroll down towards my office. There is a framed collection of Luther stamps on your left that is really quite remarkable. Around behind Sandy’s work station to your right is a picture of a young Luther – not as familiar as the Cranach depiction of Luther that has become something of the standard image of the great Reformer.

Pastor Bryte’s portrait of Luther presents another unique view – Luther as the Augustinian monk who found such joy in the discovery that the righteous shall live by faith.

Come by the synod office and see these fine works of art. And if you are inclined to lend us a Luther portrait you could part with for this anniversary year, we’ll put together a timely collection under the title, “Luther is in the house!”


February 27, 2017

Rejoice! You who keep the discipline of praying weekly for our companion synod’s president by name will be glad to know that he goes by “Modeste,” and not by his family name, RAZAFIMAHATRATRA!

Our small delegation has returned home from a challenging visit. I will share more as time allows, but for now, please do keep the Tulear Synod of the Malagasy Lutheran Church in your prayers, and their new Synod President Modeste (the accent is on the second syllable, so it rhymes with “request”). The synod is very poor, and seeks genuine self-reliance – a challenge made all the greater because of a long history of transactional charity from European and American partners.

Our synod faces similar challenges of sustainable ministry, even though by comparison to Madagascar, we are very wealthy. Faithful stewardship may well be the way forward for us, and for our national and international partners, as we seek together in this 500th anniversary of the Reformation to proclaim the Gospel and care for our neighbors.


February 16, 2017


We are in Madagascar visiting our companion synod. Although our companion synod is in Tulear, Pastor Heather Lubold, Pastor Brandon Johns, and I have begun our visit in the capital, Antananarivo. We are joined by small visiting groups from three other ELCA synods, who together with us are attending to the wider relationship of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America with the Malagasy Lutheran Church as part of our observations of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.

Today we toured the Women’s Center. When we were introduced to the current and past General Secretaries of the Women’s Association (like the national expression of the Women of the ELCA), and the current and future directors of the Women’s Center (not unlike a social ministry agency of our synod), it struck me that these four Malagasy Women reflect the face of the Lutheran reformation movement as it exists globally, 500 years after Wittenberg.

We may feel like we have more in common with people named Luther and Melanchthon than with people named Mananeto Toromare, Rabaonirene Esther, Ralivero Helene and Myriam, but to hear these women articulate the faith and mission of the church that is so familiar to us, we could well be mistaken. They confessed that the Word of God drives all their work, and that it has two wings, like a bird: preaching the Gospel and attending to human need. We say we are about stewarding the Gospel and caring for our neighbors. Our shared faith clearly speaks the same language.

The 500 year-old revival that began in Germany finds full expression these days in the global south. This anniversary year calls us to widen our imaginations, and to spread our wings with everyone formed by the Word of God, that the Gospel may preached with authority, and that people of every place may be made whole.


January 31, 2107

“No matter where you are from, we’re glad you’re our neighbor.”

Who might say something like this? And why?

I found this sign stuck into the front yard of the campus of Philadelphia Seminary on Monday. Close readers of the Post Gazette may also have seen this sign on the front page of Monday’s paper, where it showed up among the crowd that gathered at the baggage claim of Pittsburgh International Airport. In both of these settings, it seems likely that people who enjoy positions of power and privilege have chosen to say this so that people who don’t may hear a word of welcome.

For a completely different angle on this same phrase of welcome, consider Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:29-37). In this story, these words seem to fit particularly well in the mouth of “the man who fell into the hands of robbers.” Left for dead by the side of the road, he was glad for a neighbor, no matter where that neighbor might have come from (even Samaria!).

The Gospel that we preach calls us always to see ourselves as the ones in need of God’s grace and mercy. Can we speak words of welcome to all our neighbors as equally from a position of need as from a position of power?


January 12, 2017

You can’t see all the words on this worship bulletin clearly enough in this picture, so I’ll write them out for you:

at the Close of the Last Meeting
of the Board of Directors
of the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg

It was Tuesday of this week. On Wednesday, the Board of Directors of United Lutheran Seminary held its first meeting. Rev. Mark Oldenburg, dean of chapel and a member of our ministerium, reminded us that for ages, Christians have sung Evening Prayer at the close of the day. And also that the Hebrew Scriptures understand evening as the start of the new day.

And so it was, like so many significant moments in our lives turn out to be, that Tuesday evening was both a solemn farewell to what lies behind us and an expectant welcome of what lies ahead.

Stay with us, Lord, for it is evening!


January 3, 2017

Deacons exercise a threshold vocation: one foot planted firmly in the Church, one foot stepping out into the world.

On Sunday, January 1, five of our synod’s sixteen deacons gathered together with me for worship at Bethlehem, Glenshaw, to mark the day on which our church brought Associates in Ministry, Diaconal Ministers and Deaconesses into one Word and Service Roster with the title of Deacon.

I believe the future into which our church is moving will be blessed by the active ministry of deacons, serving alongside ministers of Word and Sacrament, keeping our congregations connected to their communities. In a Post-Christendom world, the Church will look more and more like it did in its earliest years: people of Word and Sacrament and Service serving as salt and light in the places they live.

See you there!


December 1, 2016


Over the last two or three weeks I have been asked by a number of people if I will provide a public word about the election.  I have been reluctant to do so, thinking that the public proclamation of the Church is at its best when it points to Christ rather than when it provides opinions about matters of the kingdom on the left.

 But the texts of Advent II, on which I preached at today’s Ministerial Eucharist, so lent themselves to such a word as some in our ministerium had waited to hear, that at their request I have decided to post the sermon and quote it ever so briefly here:

 “Paul, leaning on the Septuagint and interpreting ever so slightly declares:  The root of Jesse shall come, the one who rises to rule the Gentiles; in him the Gentiles shall hope.  (Romans 15:12) ...  The stump of Jesse, a hope lying between root and branch, has endured through the rise and fall of [many] earthly kingdoms ... that have come and gone. ...

 How might we prepare the way of the Lord? ... [Perhaps] by refusing to give any earthly kingdom the ultimacy that it desires.  No earthly kingdom can save the world, or separate the world from the saving love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord, for that matter.  Preparing the way ... might well be a refusal to be either enthralled or deflated by any earthly kingdom!”  The whole sermon may be found below (or you may wish to download the document).

 Perhaps as important a public witness to Christ is the gracious hospitality that our ministerium received from the Sisters of Divine Providence, making the chapel of the Kearns Spirituality Center available for our use.  My hope would be to add our voices to all those in the Body of Christ who cry every Advent, “Come, Lord Jesus!”



Ministerial Eucharist with Region 7 and 8 DEMs – December 1, 2016 (Sermon)

The grace and peace of our Lord Jesus be with you all.

Listen to this. Listen to this! This is what the coming administration will be like:
Defending the cause of the poor,
giving deliverance from oppression. (Ps 72:4)
Judging with righteousness and equity. (Isaiah 11:4)
Bringing back the abundant prosperity of the earth. (Ps 72:3)
Delighting in the fear and knowledge of the Lord. (Isaiah 11:3)
Ending all hurt and destruction. (Isaiah 11:9)
Bringing world peace through diplomacy. (Isaiah 11:6-8, 10)

The Isaiah text is all about this coming administration. The Psalm is all about this coming administration. Even the Epistle is about this. Paul, leaning on the Septuagint and interpreting ever so slightly declares:
The root of Jesse shall come,
the one who rises to rule the Gentiles;
in him the Gentiles shall hope. (Romans 15:12)

Now, I realize that my vote on November 8 was not about this coming administration. Neither has any American presidential election held the promise of establishing this coming administration. This is because this coming administration is bigger than what happens in America.

The root of this coming administration is deeper than the civilization that built the pyramids in Egypt. And its promised branch reaches out to the end of time itself. Between root and branch sits the stump of Jesse, the picture of a hope that seems clearly to have failed.

And yet, a hope that has remained active in the hearts and minds of people for a very long time. A hope that has been taught and learned, treasured and handed on, while empires have come and gone.
Listen to this! The stump of Jesse, a hope lying between root and branch, has endured through the rise and fall of the Late Assyrian Empire, the Babylonian Empire, the Greek Empire, the Roman Empire, the Holy Roman Empire, the Ottoman Empire, the British Empire, and the Third Reich, just to name a few of those earthly kingdoms most familiar to us that have come and gone.

And all the while, the root held its place, and the branch held its promise, and the stump sat there, a sign of what had been, and what was not, now. But also a sign of hope, a sign of what is yet to be.

Because for those who have eyes to see, there is already a shoot growing out of that stump. A tender sprout there, in the very place and from the very form that most clearly bears witness to failure, to an ending. That promised shoot sprouted long ago, in the incarnation of the Son of God.

So, leaving aside metaphors for the moment, and turning to the purely historical, the reign of the sons of Jesse, King David and his son, King Solomon, was just like every other earthly kingdom. Glorious for a moment. And in that moment human civilization flourished in a particular time and place, and also real people in the same time and place suffered in very real ways. The kingdoms of this earth are like that. Their glory comes at a price paid by the poor and by the outsider.

So also, when the kingdom of David and Solomon weakened and divided and grew weary and fell, it was just like every other earthly kingdom. A catastrophe. A terrific loss of good and beautiful things, and a deep sorrow for real people, living in a particular place and time. But also a victory and a new day for another people, from a different place, whose national glory found a timely occasion to rise in the untimely falling of another earthly kingdom.

This is the pattern of earthly kingdoms. They rise and fall, and each, in turn, glorifies its own people, its own way of life, at the expense of the other.

But there is something different about the stump of Jesse. There’s something eternally compelling about the residual memory of this particular earthly kingdom. And that is that it bears within itself a character and a nature that belong to God, the eternal, the heavenly, that which rises and does not fall, a day after which no night follows.

The thing to which the Church bears witness is the curious claim that within the historical narrative of a certain people and their particular way of life is embedded an eternal, heavenly story that belongs to all people of every time and place. The Christ was born to Israel. That’s our curious claim. And the long-cherished metaphor for this confession is the stump of Jesse with a new shoot growing out of it.

What makes this heavenly reign different from all the earthly Empires that have risen and fallen around it?

For one thing, its character. Listen to the language of the Scriptural witness to this coming administration: this is a kingdom of righteousness, of equity, care for the poor, welcome for the stranger, delight in the fear of the Lord, and peace among those as different as wolves and lambs are.

Earthly kingdoms reach for these things, sometimes, or claim that they do, but in the end they cannot manage them. Earthly kingdoms, in the end, serve “our way of life” at the expense of the other. This coming administration is not like that. It is different. Its holy character sets it apart.

And secondly, it is an administration that belongs to all nations. Earthly empires extend the influence of one people over many others. This heavenly reign draws all peoples together into one community of peace. And inasmuch as the coming administration can be epitomized by the suffering and death of Jesus on the cross, it is a heavenly reign that offers the self for the other, a new kind of life that finds its own life in the life of the other, springing up precisely from the place where the life of the self was brought to an end by wickedness of the other.

This is the polar opposite of childish bullying or adolescent dominance or a subtle and polished exertion of power over the other. This coming administration gives the self for the sake of the other, and from that gift springs life from the very stump of wrongful death.

Advent is a celebration of this coming administration. And it is an invitation to participate in preparing the way for its coming. How might we do that? How might we prepare the way of the Lord?

John the Baptist tells us: “Bear fruit worthy of repentance.” So, we might understand that to mean that we should pursue righteousness, equity, care for the poor, welcome for the stranger, delight in the fear of the lord, and peace among people as different as wolves are from lambs. Who could argue with that?

Or, we might prepare the way for the coming administration by refusing to give any earthly kingdom the ultimacy that it desires. No earthly kingdom can save the world, or separate the world from the saving love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord, for that matter. Preparing the way for the coming administration might well be a refusal to be either enthralled or deflated by any earthly kingdom!

But I think there is another bit of wisdom that John teaches us, that we might take home with us today. John declares, “God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.” (MT 3:9) Just as surely as God can bring forth a living shoot from the age-old stump of Jesse, so also from subjects as unlikely as stones can God provide children to Abraham. Preparing the way of the coming administration may best be accomplished by confessing that we are, by our own wisdom and strength, no more likely than stones to usher in world peace! And then in faith suitable to those redeemed by Christ, to live and work firmly convinced that even in and through a people such as us God’s purpose may yet be fulfilled.

In our day, and in our time, as the Empire to which we belong rises or falls, we teach and learn the hope that is embodied in the metaphor of the stump of Jesse. We treasure it and we hand it on, so that the hope of all the ages may find faithful stewards in us, in this place and in our time, until that shoot branches out to all the world, to the end of time, to bring to all people that peace which the world cannot give.

This is our prayer and our confession of faith. A shoot shall rise from the stump of Jesse, and all people shall find in it their hope and their peace.


Downloadable document: 

Bishop Kusserow Sermon from Ministerial Eucharist Dec 1 Bishop Kusserow Sermon from Ministerial Eucharist Dec 1 (48 KB)

November 17, 2016


Yesterday’s newsflash reads: “The Rev. Elizabeth A. Eaton, presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, participated in a ceremony Nov. 15 at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago at which the seminary returned a rare 9th century Greek manuscript of the complete New Testament to the Greek Orthodox Church. ... His Eminence Archbishop Demetrios, Exarch of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in the United States, received the manuscript from the Rev. James Nieman, president of LSTC.” Our Bishop Emeritus, Don McCoid, on the far left, provided me with this picture of the event.

Think with me about where the world was in the 9th century, when this Greek New Testament was written! Rome had fallen about 400 years before, and Germany was only just being evangelized. It was a time we now call the Dark Ages.

And yet, even in dark ages, the witness to Jesus Christ, the light of the world, was proclaimed and preserved for future ages. 1,200 years later, living members of the same Body of Christ gather around an icon of their Lord Jesus in a context of joyous light. Our faith teaches us that in the long view, Dark Ages have no staying power!


October 20, 2016


Ah, Donegal Lake! When Wednesday morning’s chilly rain gave way to a warm and sunny day, my hopes to kayak on the way home from the Theological Convocation looked to become a certain reality. But then I saw that the lake had been drained, and my hopes dried up too. Oh, Donegal Lake!

I got out of the car and stood on the dry gravel of the boat launch ramp to get a closer look. But instead, my mind flooded with thoughts about people whose dashed hopes are so much more profound than a lost afternoon. When a lifetime of hopes and dreams suddenly or slowly turns into a dry lake bed, human spirits experience a dry and weary longing of Biblical proportions.

I know individuals, families, and whole communities who live with faint hearts of the kind that Psalm 63 describes: “O God, you are my God, I seek you, my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.” What refreshes this kind of thirst?

The psalmist calls this thirst a yearning for God, but I wonder if we do well to think of the thirst also as the yearning of God. The One who is true, eternal refreshment, took on our nature and our lot and cried out from the cross with us and for us, “I thirst!” Perhaps genuine refreshment is only ever found in the joyful reunion of God and humanity.


October 13, 2016


If Church bells ring, and there is no one there to hear them, do they make a sound?

Sorry, I couldn’t resist! The weather was so perfect yesterday on the campus of Gettysburg Seminary that I had to take this picture on my way into chapel. Looking at the picture later, I saw that there were no people in it! That made me think about the classic “tree falling in the woods” conundrum. (Ten minutes later, the yard was filled with a grade-school class listening to a Civil War interpreter.)

The book of Ecclesiastes tackles the perplexing questions and curious realities of life. I don’t think it takes up the question of whether trees falling or bells ringing make a sound when there is no one present to hear, but there is an insight in chapter 9 that provides a reliable compass to guide our lives of faith, even in the most perplexing times:

          “The quiet words of the wise are more to be heeded than the shouting of a ruler among fools.” Ecclesiastes 9:17

How might your congregation change lives by speaking quiet words to those ready to hear them?


October 10, 2016


Behold the Praying Mantis, who “preys” without ceasing! Can this intriguing insect teach us about our faith?

I Thessalonians is likely the oldest of Paul’s letters. In chapter 5 we find his exhortation, “Pray without ceasing.” This instruction comes in a string of imperatives that give primal shape to the Christian life. They can feel like a heavy burden of obligation. But what if we imagined our praying to be as critical to our survival as this mantis’ “preying” is to its survival? Would these commands then sound inviting to us? Delicious even?

What is prayer, after all, but joining our life to God’s coming kingdom in hope and faith? We pray for God’s kingdom to come. Let us do so without ceasing.


September 22, 2016


“The wall,” a year later. And to my astonishment, there is a very large toad rather completely at home on a little shelf of the wall that results from each higher course of stones being set back just a bit from the course below it for strength and longevity. Who’d have thought? I built more than a wall last summer: I created an ecosystem.

Suddenly, it became clear that we probably do this all the time, whether we mean to or not. We set about to build one thing, and it becomes an environment for things we could not have imagined. This insight is probably true both literally (as in the case of this wall), and as a metaphor for relationships within a community.

Which makes me wonder about our life together in the Church. What are we working hard to build together? Communities of safety and faith? Places of welcome? Mission centers where the name of Jesus is at home? I think so. As we do so, I wonder what else finds a home in the things we build. It might be worth looking closely once in a while to see.


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