wrath AND mercy

In our both-and series, this will be the most challenging pair to reconcile and perhaps the most important to our practical spiritual lives in Christ. One of the most important both-ands of the Christian faith is the wrath AND mercy of God.

If there is a pairing that can cause confusion or provide stunning clarity regarding how to interpret certain Biblical ideas and themes, and also how to interpret God’s providence in our lives, it is this pairing. So friends, my big admonition here is this: please embrace a God that has both the characteristic of wrath and mercy in his divine attributes! If you do not, if you will not, you will not have a true picture of God. You will end up with a god of your making. If you have a god only of mercy (and love) and no wrath (and judgment), you will have a permissive, uncle of a god. He may be displeased at times but he will chuckle your sin and brokeness away and leave it for someone else to deal with, if at all. If you only have a god of wrath, you will serve a tyrant, a capricious Zues-like creation that will make you disdain authority and any concept of law.

Start with the Bible. All of it. Both OT and NT. First, note that both testaments are full of wrath and mercy. In fact, there is more intense language of judgment in the NT, and on the lips of Jesus, than the OT. Go ahead and check me on that. The NT is the testament that emphasizes wrath, for in it the temporal and geographically limited wrath spoken of the in the OT becomes eternal and universal, starting with Jesus’ proclamations (Matt 5:29; Luke 12:5). Jesus was far more intense than any OT prophet! Paul is quite gentle compared with Jesus. The end of the Bible, the part we really like, because it points us to heaven, is all about the culmination of God’s wrath up evil, sin, and sinners, and his mercy and redemption toward those he saved through Jesus. Rev 19 is a beautiful chapter, like a painting by Jackson Pollack, intense, brooding, full of fire, yet also light, beautiful light, with a celebration, yet a celebration premised on that burning lake of fire. The storyline of the Bible has the two chords of wrath and mercy, braided, and clear.

It is quite clear. But is it compelling? Yes. The wrath of God is always connected to his mercy. God hates sin, for he is holy and dwells in unapproachable light (1 Tim 6:16). We cower at this truth. But, we must realize it is this truth that assures us that evil will be dealt with, the evil that so burdens us on this earth – genocide, the human sex trade, the abuse of children, war crimes, and the like. We do not want a God who will not deal with these. No human definition of love is that big or rationale to justify that kind of god. So, we accept God judges evil, and he is good for it. The part we don’t like is that we fall under this condemnation, too, because, well, we like to see ourselves as so very different. We are first world, white collar sinners, so our sin is more a mistake or mild foolishness. And yet, God is infinitely holy and even the smallest stain of unholiness against that backdrop is an infinite stain. That is Biblical reality. We need a God who hates wrongdoing and sin, and we must embrace that we are part of a rebellion against him. We are sinners. We deserve his wrath.

And yet – and yet – God is infinitely merciful. That mercy always attend to the judgment. That mercy will get the last word. Did you know in the OT, the stipulations in the covenant of Sinai, while severe, were nothing compared to the covenants of the other nations during the time of Moses? And, the covenant of Sinai had one very big condition, that of repentance. If Israel repented, God would relent and he would forgive and he would bless again. No other foreign covenant treaty came close to that. In the intensity of God’s anger against sin, especially the sin of his own people, God’s love and faithfulness persisted and he knew that one day, for he had planned it from the beginning, he would send his Son to be the greatest and final expression of mercy. Only the God of the Bible was a God who offered to forgive, because he would himself absorb his own wrath. Something needed to pay. Jesus was that something, that someone. Think about it. Without wrath AND mercy the cross would be emptied of it’s glory and power. But, the cross is a both-and. The cross is where Jesus, our Lord, took the wrath we deserved in order to show the mercy of God to us! And how we love and worship him for it!

In our day, these two characteristics are assumed to be at odds. No friend, they are part of a beautiful whole, and they both kiss at the cross. If you do not have both, you have no place for the cross.

It may be a journey. It may take a lot of Biblical study and conversation with Biblically minded friends to come to grips with this, and we are all in the process of growing in our knowledge of these things, but please stop running from this both-and. Please accept that wrath AND mercy go together, and that the God who makes most sense, is most awesome, is most glorious, is most winsome, is the God of wrath AND mercy. It will make the Bible come to life and make sense in a new way! It will cause you to fall on your knees again at the wonder of the gospel – the good news that God saves sinners – and salvation and sin only make sense as categories if you have a God of wrath AND mercy.

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The Both-Ands of Discipleship Part 1: Word and Spirit

ampersandThere are a few really important ingredients to consistent perseverance and growth in our walks with Jesus. One, which I want to blog on for a while, is the ability to hold two seemingly dichotomous realities in tension and, not only that, to realize that those two things are essential and complementary to a holistic, growing, eternity long, walk with God. The believers I know that choose not to hold things in balance to a person have struggled in their faith, for they eventually end up having their faith hurt by a half-the-story Christianity. So, if you feel like wrath and mercy are incompatible, you will not know what to do with the wrath of God in the Bible or you’ll be confused about how there are still moral rules that govern us (especially ones you don’t like), OR you will be all about truth and judgment and have no room for compassion and grace. In fact, our summer series at the  Bible Church will be dedicated to this theme, and we will call it “Both And”. Today, we begin with the both-and of the Word and Spirit – living by the Bible AND living by the Spirit.

Too often many believers put themselves in an either or camp of: I am a Bible-driven Christian OR I am a Spirit led Christian. The Bible people believe God leads primarily through in-depth, nuanced, and systematic study of the Bible. All we need to know about God is through understanding his self revelation in Scripture. These people and churches have strong pulpits, are theologically deep, promote and protect good doctrine, and are great at producing high level training and teaching for their people. Most of the evangelical movement has historically comprised this group.

Then there are the Spirit led Christians. It’s not that the Bible is unimportant, but the driving force of the Christian life is the active and highly relational, quite emotional, experience of the Spirit. For them, the Spirit is always speaking and explicitly leading, often in very tangible ways. The Bible is normative and defines the boundaries, but the full Christian life is about the Spirit. These folks comprise the range of pentecostal, charismatic, contemplative, and, quite frankly, many every day believers who can’t quite figure out how the Bible is a living and active book.

Well, both are true and both must be part of the Christian life. The Spirit inspired the Bible to begin with. But too many Bible-alone Christians leave it there. The truth of the matter is the Spirit has attached himself to the Word today. The Spirit’s main role is, in fact, to illuminate our hearts and minds to understand, submit to, and obey the Word. The Spirit is working when the Word is preached, studied, read, understood, believed, and obeyed. So, the basis of all truth is revelation and the all that is revealed about God is revealed in the Bible. Even our specific knowledge of the Living Word, Jesus, is only found in the written Word.

Now, does the Spirit still speak? I like to say he works in us, illumines our hearts, he reminds us of Biblical promises, he sustains our faith, he empowers us constantly, he draws us to prayer, and yes, at times, he can give us clear, grammatically correct, word-like notions. Hey, if he wants to, he can speak audibly, and has.

Here is another important truth. The Spirit will never contradict his own inspired Word. Never. Also, the Spirit will never promise you anything that he has not promised in writing in the Bible. Please don’t get your hopes up on something your imagination hoped for and put the Spirit’s signature on it. That will lead to dashed expectations and depression. The Spirit might nudge you toward something but that is not a signed promise. But, he has promised you thousands of things…in the Bible. Also, when you get into the words, grammar, syntax, structure, history, literary context, and storyline of the Bible, you are actually hearing from the Spirit and getting into the mind of the Spirit! Isn’t that RAD!

The Spirit gives us experienced knowledge of God, yes! But, don’t forget that even in the mundane the Spirit is working and often does his best work in that season. Don’t assume that the big, hairy experiences that give you liver shivers are real or truly Spirit led moments. If you hunger to know God and to hear from him, ask for the Spirit AND go to where the Spirit promises to hang out, the Bible.

So believer, don’t fall off either side. Be a both-and Christian with the Spirit and the Word. The Bible is the final authority over belief and life. It is sufficient. It is inerrant, infallible, authoritative, potent, clear, AND is filled with the Spirit, both in its inspired writing and its power for today. Be open to how the Spirit will bring about what is in the Word, like your personal transformation into Christ-likeness, like converting the lost, like changing someone’s mind who believes falsehood, like urging you to an act of love, like giving you the fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5:22-24), like guiding the events of history perfectly, like rooting out sin in us, like preventing us from saying something stupid, etc.

The Spirit of God is at work through the Word and also personally in our lives and in the world.

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A Video that Helps Me See the Glory of Christ

Here is a link to that video that I watch, and worship with, that helps me see the glory of Christ. I often watch this before or during a sermon prep. I highly recommend having worship music on during your day, even if just in the background. It is a means of getting in the way of Christ’s glory.

As a pastor, one of my biggest prayers is that my people will see the glory of Christ. That really is the goal of it all…the glory of the Lord Jesus Christ!

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A Biblical Understanding of Depression and Anxiety

What a bold title! Well, at least I got your attention. But really, I hope to briefly unpack what I think will be a helpful set of four things to consider if/when you are struggling with depression and anxiety and/or trying to help someone else who is in the midst of such a crisis.

The evangelical church has struggled to get on the same page and to hold a Biblically robust view of depression and anxiety (DA). Therefore, how to diagnose it, treat it, and persevere in it is a debate and often argument among different Christians, professional, pastoral, and laity. One of the reasons for this is that certain schools of thought or theological dispositions tend to focus on only a part of the issue. As I have thought about this, as a pastor that counsels many with DA, who has had my own bouts with DA, and who comes from a family that has a history of DA, I think it would do us well to have a multidimensional understanding and approach to diagnosis, treatment, and also the notion of what it means to suffer well in something that may never go away this side of heaven. What I want to propose is that there are four things to consider in the realm of DA. If we have a theology and psychological method that does not take these four into account, my sense is that the understanding, treatment, and pastoral approach will be less than helpful.  Not all four factors will be a part of every crisis or longterm situation, but all four must factor into our theology and practice in the big picture.

Circumstance/Victimization

Everyone will struggle with DA at some point. Everyone is going to feel the pangs of loss, disappointment, relational hurt, etc. Most DA is short term and a result of a painful experience. DA in such cases is a natural response to living in a fallen world with fallen circumstances. If losing a job, losing a loved one, losing a dream, losing financial stability, or losing reputation does not lead to some form of DA, you are probably not actually alive anymore. DA is natural in these situations and is not necessarily a sign of something deep in the soul or longterm. Most of the DA I experience is this kind. When something hard happens to me, extrinsically, and I react with DA – God’s psychological nerve ending of pain kicks in, if you will.

Victimization is like circumstance in that causality is outside of us, but what I have in mind here is affliction at the hands of a person, or group of people, or situation, that was long term, very powerful, and the affects are long lasting. An example is physical or sexual abuse. That kind of an experience can permanently scar someone with longterm DA. To some degree, all of us are victims in this way. It may have been a parent who was chronically distant, or we had a childhood within financial poverty, or we got picked on a lot as a kid. It may not have been fraught with deeply troubling sin or pathology, but it was scarring nonetheless. Many people carry around a residual DA because of that. In other cases, where the sin was horrendous and vicious, the scar is massive and the DA is debilitating.

Understanding and treatment in this area must factor in moving out of being defined by those experiences, finding healing in the Gospel, and often the work of grace to enable us to forgive our brutalizer. New thought patterns have to be formed. And, we must not try to relive our lives by our present efforts or through someone else in order to find healing. Healing is with Jesus, regardless of what specific method is used to help.

Bio-chemistry

This is the one area we conservative Christians have not paid enough attention to, or seen to be in accord with the Bible. This is a hard one because it may not have a circumstantial cause. Some people are chronically depressed and not because of their bad decisions or someone else’s, or a moment of affliction, but just because. What’s going on? Some people are born with a disability, and that disability is a bio-chemistry that causes them to experience DA, frequently. Now, life still happens, hard circumstance and victimization can still happen, but those tend to reinforce and worsen the affects of bio-chemistry, so there is a double whammy for many who experience bio-chemical depression. I have a history of this in my family. It is hard and scary. But, it must be accepted as a reality for some people.

In this case, medication may be a good idea. The decision to take meds is not a sign of punting, or slacking, or not living by faith. It can be a wise stewardship of technology to help you with a physical disability. My only caution is not to make it all about the meds. There is still a spiritual reality that your life is ultimately a part of, so Jesus is still the centerpiece of dealing with bio chemical DA.

Spiritual Warfare

Do not neglect that we are in a battle not of flesh and blood. Satan is assailing our hearts with lies. That can cause DA. Often after a sermon, one that seemed especially Spirit filled and effective, I feel afflicted. I can struggle the rest of Sunday with anxiety, self loathing, and questions as to my call and effectiveness as a preacher and pastor. Many, many pastors have experienced that in church history. Why? The servant of God is an afflicted creature. Satan is going to go after those who glorify the Son of God. You better believe that some forms of DA are a result of spiritual attacks. The key in treatment then is to do what the Bible says to do: put on the full armor of God, rest in the protection of Jesus, assail Satan back with the Word of God, and do not trust the feelings you have since they are lies from the pit of hell. You must at that point believe what the Gospel says about you: you are loved, accepted, and have an eternal hope and reward with God because of Jesus.

Personal Sin

There are Christian counseling camps that say DA is always a result of personal sin and that treatment then is about repenting of that sin and believing truth about God. We have to be more nuanced than that, because the Bible is. Sin is not necessarily the reason for DA. Often it is not. Sometimes it is. We have to study each situation.

But, we cannot overreact to the sin-only school and throw sin out as a part of every form of DA. It is a part of all DA. Am I contradicting myself? No. The issue is causality. The Bible does not require that DA is caused by sin. In many cases, personal sin is not the reason we are depressed. But, because of Adam’s sin in Genesis 3, because we live in a fallen world, and because our personal sin commingles with all our feelings, decisions, actions, and words, we have to factor in how sin can worsen all forms of DA and that our application of the Gospel to our hearts is the most foundational means of growth, healing, and perseverance. So, DA may be bio-chemically caused, but sin can reinforce it, strengthen it, and delay its resolution. And, fighting with faith in God’s promises by the power of the Spirit can lessen its impact, hasten resolution, and allow us to experience a vision of Jesus we could not otherwise have. In other words, while causes may vary, the core of treatment must always incorporate Biblical truth, Gospel belief, and walking in step with the Spirit. Psychology can help us in some methods of treatment, but not at the expense of a Biblical understanding of our hearts, our minds, and our souls.

 

In conclusion, each form and experience of DA is unique but all four of the above should be considered with the last one being the aspect that is the common thread in each. So, for me, when I struggle with DA, while I may be experiencing a short term sense of loss, or a longterm brain chemistry thing, or feel attacked by Satan, I must always seek Jesus in prayer and Word and have him meet me in my brokenness. He may not fully make it go away. He often does not. But, he can be present, and he often brings joy and purpose. In fact, I have grown more spiritually and in my vision of God during times that produced DA or were defined by DA than any other time. God hammers us into beautiful objects on the anvil of affliction. Remember that.

Whether you want to understand your own DA, or you want to help others, or you are a professional counselor, please think about these four parts of depression and anxiety.

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Chuck Smith, Now With the Lord

imagesThis afternoon I found out that Chuck Smith, founder of Calvary Chapel Costa Mesa and the network of Calvary Chapel Churches, died early this morning at 3AM, at the age of 86, due to cancer.

I never met Chuck. But I know several people, not least pastors, who have been indelibly marked by either Chuck himself or the church planting and disciple-making network he helped launch. Chuck was a key figure in the Jesus-people movement of the late 60′s and early 70′s in Southern CA. It was that ethos and movement of the Spirit that the Chapel Hill Bible Church was influenced by, albeit across the nation. And so, though I have not met Chuck, I felt sad this afternoon. Though we disagreed on some secondary matters (how the spiritual gifts normally operate, the nature of God’s sovereignty, eschatology), he stood strong on the essentials of theology and ministry life, not least the primacy of faithful expository preaching. If there is one thing that has made many of the Calvary Chapels strong and healthy, and often quite influential, it is the fact that they have been nurtured by the week to week unpacking of God’s very words. The evangelical church has lost a major figure.

Here is what I value about Chuck Smith:

1. He believed that God’s word should be preached systematically, carefully, in context, often going through whole books. And, he preached his love for Jesus.

2. He had a passion for the lost. Thousands of young people came to know the Lord through the clarity and explicitness of the Gospel in the teaching and discipleship of Calvary Chapel.

3. He did not separate evangelism and discipleship in worship services.

4. He believed that churches should multiply. Calvary Chapel was and is one of the most significant church planting networks, outside of a denomination.

5. He was not afraid to create a definite culture, and to replicate that, knowing God would raise up other leaders and cultures that would meet other types of people.

6. He led a life above reproach. Was he perfect? No. But He finished well. Many men start well, build a huge ministry by their mid life, but crash and burn at the end. Chuck finished well.

This afternoon, shortly after I found out the news, I briefly watched a clip of him preaching just this past year. Still preaching at 86! He even had the church stand for the reading of the text! He referenced a youth camp he reluctantly attended as a junior higher. As he began to recall it, he stopped and began to weep. He could not make it through the recollection, for it was that camp at which the Lord pressed on Him and called him to pastoral service. At 86 Chuck was still in awe that God called him to the sublime task of pastoring. He still remembered the force, yet grace, of God pressing on him, setting him aside for service. That shows his heart. I hope to be like him. I hope to end like him.

Thank you Lord for putting Chuck Smith in this world and for using him the way you did!

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A Letter From a Judaizer

This past Sunday I preached through Galatians 1.6-10. Paul is confronting the Galatian church because they are turning from the true Gospel, of a Jesus alone life, to a false gospel which was being commended by Judaizing false teachers. I made the point that we all face voices that are like Judaizers, even if not actual Judaizers who are trying to get us to be Jewish first, then Christian. So, I wrote a fictional letter from a dad to his son, who is about to be a college freshman. In this letter are the principles of a legalistic worldview and lifestyle. This letter bears the spirit of the Judaizer. It is not unlike literal or figurative letters we read or hear in our hearts everyday, tugging at us to live a Jesus + life. I was asked to post it. Here it is:

Dear Ben,

Your mother and I are thrilled that you are beginning your college career. We had a wonderful time during our days of university, and as you know, that is where we first met. What days of fun and exploration, and also learning.

Now, I know that you met Jesus this past year through your friendship with David and his very religious family. I have noticed that you are a better person in some ways. I am very glad that religion seems to be helping you with self esteem and emotional stability, but may I take a moment to remind you that at the end of the day you still have to live in this world and abide by its rules.

First, we are paying a lot of money for you to go to school. You need to be disciplined. When you do your best, you get A’s. We expect your best. Also, part of succeeding is making a good impression on your professors. Make sure you see them in office hours regularly, even if you don’t necessarily need to. It will also be good for your resume to become a part of a good fraternity. Those connections will help in the future. Any campus clubs that have a strong social agenda and also social standing will only help, too.

Now, I know that you feel like you want to put a lot of time into your new found faith, and you are already planning on getting involved in that church in Chapel Hill that David’s parents went to when they went to school there, but try and make it on Sundays only. If this God you are talking to us about is so loving and patient, then surely all he needs is a prayer now and then and doesn’t require you to throw your college days away in hours spent in a church building and in service projects that may hinder your resume. So, mom and I are glad you found religion, but make sure you keep your feet on the ground and get it done still in this world. Also, please be open to other forms of spirituality. Christianity is just one of the many ways people explore their spirits and their hunger for existential meaning. College can be an invigorating time of exploration. I fear that your beliefs may cut you off from healthy exploration.

Well, I just needed to be honest, but I am hopeful. College has a way of pulling you into the middle on it’s own, but I felt like I needed to say something, too. In fact, as you know, I grew up in a religious home, and it was in college that I had to come to my own conclusion that this Jesus stuff was fine for some people, fine for grandpa and gram, and uncle Rob, but wasn’t enough for me. It’s interesting how I drifted and you are coming back to it, isn’t it?

With affection,

Dad

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Reverence Embodied

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So, we’ve covered some ground in terms of the controversies and customs with regard to reverence in our worship services. We have taken a quick Biblical tour of what reverence is in terms of a principle in Scripture. To sum up, reverence is essential, and it is essentially the posture of the human heart, with appropriate attendant actions, that make much of God and His promises. Reverence is the exaltation, exultation, meditation, and glorious satisfaction in all that God if for us in Jesus in the power of the Holy Spirit.

What does that look like in a worship gathering? Well, here are some suggestions.

Intent and Planning

Worship begins with the motives and the design of a worship service. What you think of worship crafts how you design it. Therefore, worship planning teams should have a priority that the service be highly reverential. Once they do, you will see that in the service itself, in structure, song selection, song orchestration, the sermon, the prayers, etc.

While many forms can capture reverence, I do want to suggest that chosen moments of stillness, silence, and contemplation do serve to establish reverence. The absence of these does not necessarily take away reverence, but their presence is helpful and a gift. Many churches today do not allow for enough stillness, silence, and contemplation, which in turn make it challenging for people to really think about and own the truth and power of God’s work in worship.

From Start to Finish

A tone is set in how a service begins. Whether it is a verbal call to worship, a prayer, or a song, the worship leader sets the tone of reverence in how he or she speaks of God and why we are gathered to worship. The beginning of the service should get our eyes on God, how big He is, how glorious He is, and the gratitude we should have in being in his presence to worship him.

Likewise, the closing of a service should set a tone of reverence as we bless and commission the congregation in their service to God in the week ahead. Often the benediction/closing is the moment that seals the sense of wonder and awe that was gained during the service and it should be considered as another important means of conveying reverence.

The Appearance of the Worship Leaders

I do not think that reverence is exemplified in a narrow range of clothing genres. But, I also think that if the worship team looks like clowns, or are obviously trying to draw attention to themselves in how they dress, then that takes esteem away from God, and thus is not reverent. The worship leaders can be stylish, no doubt, but should not be distracting. Women should be careful not to wear anything that is designed to be alluring or provocative. Please take into account fit, length, and such. Men, don’t be a peacock. Be comfortable, be sartorial, but don’t draw attention to yourself. Give the focus to Jesus. In other words, be excellent but not distracting. That helps the atmosphere be reverent.

Song Selection

Some songs exude celebration, and therefore will be upbeat and elicit clapping, body movement, and overall gladness. But, some songs should be selected to elicit a sober reflection on the mercies of God, on the basic truths of the gospel, upon the majesty of Christ, the reality of our sin and yet the glory of the Savior. There should definitely be a priority to select songs that create a unified story in worship and also a balance of joy and reverence. Many genres, from traditional hymns to contemporary choruses, to solos, choirs, and congregational songs can do this. Even instrumental pieces can and should exude reverence.

The Preaching

The way the preacher deports himself as he preaches creates an atmosphere. If he is glib, always light, rarely gravitational, you will not have a sense of reverence. The preacher must carry himself, speak in such a way, and of course deliver the message of a Biblical text in such a way that he leads others in reverent worship of God even during the sermon. Preachers can definitely use humor, and they surely must also balance the sermon with the other Biblically important attitudes of celebration, conviction, peace, freedom, and such, but he must be reverent, too. This will include how he uses humor, how he handles controversial topics, his clearness when it comes to sin, his boldness in proclaiming a big Jesus, and how his communication is unapologetically God centered. If the preacher is reverent in his preaching, he will shape a reverent people.

Thoughtfulness and Excellence

Two simple principles seem to make it or break it when it comes to reverence in worship. Is the service thoughtful, and Biblically so? And is it excellent, and humbly so? You can tell. You can always tell. When a service is thought through, it shows. When it is thought through, it is often excellent. When it is excellent, it leads to focus on Jesus, not on foibles or eccentricities. One friend calls this undistracting excellence. From invocations, songs, Scripture readings, prayers, the sacraments, to the sermon, testimonies, media, and all the other bits, if there is a clear thoughtfulness and excellence, and a clear Biblicality to it all, the service will be highly reverent.

 

These principles can be expressed in a very formal, high church service with business suits or even black robes abounding, or it can happen in a converted wear house, painted in matte black, with work shirts and jeans and an indie rock worship band. Both can he very, even equally, reverent.

Given who God is, we must be reverent. Period.

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