Learning to Float

learn-to-floatJesus said, “Truly I tell you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you” (Matt. 17:20).

If I were making a list of all the things I wish Jesus had never said, this saying would certainly be on the list. Not because it’s so bad, or so hard, but because it makes people think of faith as a quantity, as something you can have more or less of.  Usually people assume they have less and wish they had more. If they had more they could move mountains, right?

And sometimes there are mountains to be moved.

In Luke 17 the disciples beg Jesus, “Increase our faith!” but he says to them there essentially what he says to them here: “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.” And I don’t know that I’ve heard it this way before but when I read that passage this time around it almost sounded as if Jesus were saying, “Increase your faith? You don’t need more faith. You only need the tiniest little speck. No, it’s not about having more faith, it’s about putting your faith in the right place, or more specifically, in the right person.”

And that’s what I want to talk about today.

In a book called The Heart of Christianity New Testament scholar Marcus Borg devotes an entire chapter to faith. He claims that in Western Christianity faith has come to mean holding a certain set of “beliefs,” or “believing” a set of statements to be true. For most people, being a Christian means believing that there is a God, believing that the Bible is the revelation of God, and believing that Jesus is the Son of God, and that he died for our sins.

Borg (who grew up Lutheran in North Dakota) acknowledges that “for some Christians the list would be longer: believing that the Bible is the inerrant Word of God; believing in Genesis rather than evolution; believing that Jesus was born of a virgin, that he walked on water, that he raised the dead, that he himself was raised from the dead in a physical bodily form, and that he will come again someday. Sometimes the beliefs become very specific, Borg writes: believing in infant baptism instead of adult baptism (or vice versa); believing in “the Rapture”; believing (or not believing) in Purgatory. The list goes on and on, but as you have probably experienced for yourself believing “the right things” is very important to Christians.

But here’s the problem:

All this emphasis on belief can quickly turn faith into a matter of the head rather than the heart. And Marcus Borg would insist that it has happened rather quickly.

Back in the Middle Ages the word orthodoxy meant “right worship” (in fact, that is the literal meaning of the word). But during the Protestant Reformation it came to mean “right belief,” partly because all those Baptists, and Methodists, and Presbyterians were still figuring out what they believed. Should we baptize infants or adults? Is communion a sacrament or an ordinance?

And then there was this other thing, the Enlightenment, that changed the way we understood truth. In the Middle Ages no one questioned the story of Jonah and the Whale. It was in the Bible: of course it was true! But during the Enlightenment people began to ask: Could there really be a fish big enough to swallow a man? And could a man really live after three days in its belly? The only truth that counted was that which could be verified scientifically; in other words, truth was replaced with fact (which is a much smaller word).

And so, after being run through the wringer of the Reformation and the Enlightenment, faith has come to mean believing the right things, and believing them no matter what, even if they are not scientifically verifiable.  But it was not always so.  Marcus Borg helps us by looking back to the Middle Ages, and four different Latin words for faith:

1. The first is assensus, from which we get the English word assent, and it means pretty much what you would expect it to mean: giving one’s intellectual assent to a claim or proposition, that is, believing that it is true. The opposite of this kind of faith is “doubt” in its milder form and “disbelief” in its stronger form. For example: you might go from doubting that a fish could swallow a man to disbelieving it altogether. Marcus Borg says that when he was a teenager he had those kinds of doubts and prayed, “Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief!” Since then he has wondered, “Is this really what God wants from us: our intellectual assent to a long list of theological propositions? Our heads rather than our hearts?” He also notes that you can believe all the right things and still be in bondage, still be miserable, still be unchanged—that faith as assensus doesn’t have much transformative power. And yet there are some things we can and should affirm. At the bare minimum being Christian means a) affirming the reality of God, b) the utter centrality of Jesus, and c) the centrality of the Bible.

2. The second Latin word for faith is fiducia, and the closest English equivalent is fiduciary, which may mean something to the bankers and lawyers in the room, but doesn’t mean much to me. A better word would be trust, or the phrase “radical trust.” As Soren Kierkegaard might have said, “Fiducia is like floating in an ocean of God’s grace.” Borg says that once, when his wife was teaching an adult Sunday school class, she asked if anyone had ever tried to teach a child to swim. Several hands went up. She asked, “What was the hardest thing about it?” And they all agreed: getting the child to relax and float, to trust the buoyancy of the water. Fiducia is learning to trust the buoyancy of God, and the opposite of this kind of faith is not doubt but anxiety, or worry. In the middle of that storm on the Sea of Galilee, when they were afraid their boat was going to sink, Jesus asked his disciples, “Why are you so afraid? Where is your faith?” A few chapters later he says, “If God so clothes the grass of the field, will he not clothe you, you of little faith?” In both cases he is talking about faith as fiducia: radical trust.

3. The third Latin word is fidelitas, which can be translated as fidelity, or faithfulness, specifically, faithfulness in our relationship to God. It means what faithfulness does in a marriage—being faithful to God in the same way you might be faithful to a spouse. The opposite of this kind of faith is not doubt or disbelief, but unfaithfulness or adultery. Another biblical word for this kind of unfaithfulness is idolatry—giving one’s ultimate loyalty and allegiance to something other than God. Borg says, “As the opposite of idolatry, [this kind of] faith means being loyal to God and not to the many would-be gods that present themselves to us. Christian faith means loyalty to Jesus as Lord, and not to the seductive would-be lords of our lives, whether the nation, or affluence, or achievement, or family, or desire.”

4. The fourth Latin word for faith is visio, and this one is fascinating. As you might guess, visio is a way of seeing “the whole,” a way of seeing “what is.” And there are three ways of seeing it.

a. One is to see reality as essentially hostile, as if everyone and everything really were out to get you. It may not surprise you to learn that there have been some forms of popular Christianity through the centuries that have viewed reality this way, as if God himself were out to get us, and that—unless we offered the right sacrifices, or said the right prayers, or did the right things—he would.

b. In the second way of looking at reality it is essentially indifferent. Someone with this view might say, “The universe is made up of swirling force fields of matter and energy, but is neither hostile to nor supportive of our lives and dreams.” And if God is the one who brought it all into being, he has long since stopped intervening or even caring. If you look at reality this way, you might not be as defensive as in that other view, but you might become rather selfish, looking out only for yourself and those you love, since obviously no one else is.

c. In the third way of looking at reality it is essentially nourishing and life-giving. It has brought us and everything else into existence. It is filled with wonder and beauty. It loves us and cares about us. This is the reality Jesus was talking about when he said, “Look at the birds of the air, the flowers of the field.” God feeds them. God clothes them. God sends his life-giving rain on the just and the unjust.

Can you see what a difference faith as visio could make in your life? What a difference there would be in seeing reality as essentially hostile, essentially indifferent, or essentially nourishing and life-giving? This last way of looking at reality can lead to the radical trust we talked about earlier. As Borg says, “It leads to the kind of life we see in Jesus and the saints, known and unknown. Or, to use words from Paul, it leads to a life marked by freedom, joy, peace, and love.”

There they are: four Latin words for faith—assensus, fiducia, fidelitas, and visio—and you may have noticed that all but the first are relational words. Fiducia describes a relationship of radical trust. Fidelitas describes a relationship of love and loyalty. Visio describes a relationship of life-giving nurture. Assensus is the only one that means giving our intellectual assent to a set of theological propositions and, as I said, that’s important.

But it may not be the most important thing.

“If you have faith the size of a mustard seed,” Jesus said, “you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you.” And so we try to increase our faith. We try to believe more and doubt less. We try to believe things that are, frankly, unbelievable. And we do it because there are mountains that need to be moved.

But what if that’s not what Jesus meant?

What if he meant, “You don’t need more faith. You only need the tiniest little speck. No, it’s not about having more faith, it’s about putting your faith in the right place, or more specifically, in the right person.”  Because here is the truth: that little “mustard seed” is found only five times in the Gospels. It’s mentioned twice in reference to faith, as in, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed.” But the other three times Jesus uses it he talks about how, if it’s planted in the ground, this tiny seed can become a huge bush, even a tree, in which the birds of the air can build their nests. A mustard seed, in other words, is something small that can grow big—if you put it in the ground. But if you put it in a Ziploc bag, and bury it in the bottom of your sock drawer?

That mustard seed will always stay the same size.

What if Jesus is trying to tell us this: that we don’t need a lot of faith, we only need the tiniest little speck. But we need to put our faith in the right place—not in ourselves and our ability to believe—but in God, the One who gives us life and nurtures it, the One who loves us like a faithful spouse, the One we can trust completely, and, yes, the One who can and does move mountains. Let us put our mustard seed of faith in him; let us tend it and nourish it; let us water it with worship, study, service, and prayer;

And then watch it grow.

I keep thinking about Marcus Borg’s wife trying to teach her son to swim, helping him as he struggles and thrashes in the water, telling him over and over again to relax. And then I picture him finally listening to her, hearing her, and obeying her—stretching himself out on the surface of the water like you would stretch yourself out on a king size bed, feeling it beneath him lifting him up, holding him, even as his mother’s arms are beneath him, supporting him. I can almost hear him gasp with wonder as he realizes that he can float, and almost see the smile on his face as he lies there on the water with his eyes closed, rocking gently back and forth as his mother chides,

“O, ye of little faith. Why did you doubt?”

—Jim Somerville ©2015

The Church and Mr. Coffee

Mr. CoffeeUsually, before I go to bed at night, I make coffee.

Which is to say I get the coffeemaker ready to make coffee first thing in the morning, and set the automatic timer for 4:55 a.m., so that the aroma of brewing coffee will rise to my nostrils on the second floor just before the alarm goes off at 5:00.

And that really helps.

Once I’ve had coffee, I can actually think about how it got here, and it occurs to me that somewhere out there is a factory that makes coffeemakers. Two things seem clear:

1. If there wasn’t a factory to make coffeemakers, I probably wouldn’t have one.
2. If coffeemakers didn’t make coffee, there probably wouldn’t be a factory.

Stay with me.

I heard someone refer to the church as a “disciple-making factory” recently, and I sat up a little straighter because I’ve had that thought myself.

When I came to Richmond seven years ago our mission statement read: “First Baptist Church exists to make disciples…” and, almost immediately, I pictured fully formed, fully functioning disciples rolling off the assembly line.

My question, however, was, “What does a disciple do?”

If coffeemakers didn’t make coffee the factory would go out of business. Is there a corollary in church life? Could it be said, “If disciples don’t ______________ the church will go out of business”? And how would you fill in that blank?

The answer to that question could make all the difference.

Some people answer it by saying that disciples make disciples, and if they don’t the church will go out of business. That seems logical, until I apply that same logic to coffeemakers: coffeemakers aren’t supposed to make coffeemakers; they’re supposed to make coffee. If they do it and do it well people will continue to buy coffeemakers and the factory will stay in business.

So, what are disciples supposed to “make,” if not more disciples?

Here’s one answer:

In Matthew 10 Jesus sends his disciples out to preach the good news of the coming Kingdom and to give people a glimpse of what the world will look like when God, at last, has his way: “Heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead, cast out demons,” he says, and off they go to do it.

That’s Kingdom coffee, friends, and I believe that if we made more of that the church would have all the business it could handle. That’s what Jesus did, after all, and everywhere he went he drew such crowds that he could hardly breathe. But along the way he was teaching his disciples to do the same things he did, to heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead, and cast out demons, and to do it as a sign of the coming Kingdom.  Is it too much to think that we, in our own way, could do the same?

Maybe if we stopped worrying so much about making coffeemakers, maybe if we put more energy into making coffee, God’s kingdom would come and his will be done,

On earth as it is in heaven.

How to Keep on Living the Good and Beautiful Life

blue-morpho-butterfly-habitat-1During the Season of Lent, the members and friends of Richmond’s First Baptist Church studied a book called The Good and Beautiful Life, by James Bryan Smith. Some of them met in homes, some in Sunday school classes, some came to the Journey to the Cross services, and some did all of the above.  It was a powerful community-building exercise, and I think we all learned a great deal.

So, now what?

The original plan was this: that we would spend the Season of Lent learning about the Good and Beautiful Life, that we would spend the Season of Easter living the Good and Beautiful Life, and then spend the Season of Pentecost sharing the Good and Beautiful Life.

Learning, living, sharing.  Got it?

According to that plan we are now in the Great Fifty Days of the Easter season (April 5 through May 23), the season of living the life.  But how do we do that?  Or, rather, how do we keep on doing it?

Here’s one suggestion:

The Good and Beautiful Life is essentially a study of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7.  James Bryan Smith’s premise is that in these chapters Jesus explains what life in God’s kingdom looks like and what it would take to live it.  The life of the kingdom is the good and beautiful life, Smith argues, and if we could learn to do what Jesus says we would know that.

So, try this.

In the remainder of this season, all the way up to May 24, the Day of Pentecost, try reading the Sermon on the Mount as a kind of daily devotion.  If you’re reading this on your computer, you can simply click HERE and go to a page that has the whole sermon waiting for you in the New Revised Standard Version.  Click that same link tomorrow and try reading it in a different version, the Message, or the NIV.  Maybe you could read a different version every day, just to keep it fresh.

My hope is this: that if you saturate yourself in that sermon, if you sink down into its message day after day, you will begin to live the life it describes.  You will trust God more.  You will hate others less.  You will pluck up the seed of sin before it can take root.  You will know that you are blessed.  You will be like the one who built his house on a rock.

Try it!  Live it!  And then get ready to share it.

A life like this will be too good and beautiful to keep to yourself.

Why can’t Christians love Lent like Muslims love Ramadan?

Bim-Adewunmi-007Bim Adewunmi says she loves Ramadan.

“I am not a model Muslim,” she admits, “but Ramadan is the one pillar of Islam I do really well. It’s my time to shine.”

In a July, 2012, article Bim writes:

I think I was 11 when I took part in my first Ramadan. I was at boarding school in Nigeria, and the bell prefect sent one of her minions to wake us up for the pre-dawn meal, the sehri. A few hundred sleepy girls got up to walk to the dining hall at 5am to queue up in front of older girls who dished out piping hot rice and stew. Afterwards, we’d trudge back to our dormitories to catch some extra sleep and/or pray. In the evenings, we slipped out of prep to attend the Taraweeh prayers in the assembly hall. During the day, we would go to class as normal, virtuously turning down drinks and food with exaggeratedly pious expressions. The Ramadans of my youth were brilliant – communal pre-dawn meals of cassava, yams, rice or bread, followed by evenings of breaking the fast (iftar) with fruit, cornmeal and bean cakes. There was alms-giving, introspection and a community feeling; moments that have made it my favourite Islamic month.

It is the reason I still fast today. I am not a model Muslim: I swear like a sailor, I’m not often “modestly” dressed and cannot ever see myself wearing a hijab. I fall down on all the other pillars quite regularly – my zakat is sporadic, I have never done the hajj, and I don’t make five prayers a day; I take heart in the Islamic view that sincerity in intention is the foundation of all actions. But Ramadan, I can do. I am good at Ramadan. I love every element of it – the not eating, sure, but also the long tasbih sessions, the contemplation, the meditation, the communal prayers, the hum of anticipation right before iftar. It is a month where the halal butcher puts a little extra into my bag when I’m buying lamb shanks. It is the time when I throw out “Salam alaikum!” to hijabis and they smile back and reply. It is the time where I overhear Yorubas, who have a greeting for every occasion, say “E ku ongbe” empathetically on the bus. Everyone is better during Ramadan, more patient, more kind.

Ramadan makes me feel connected. There’s a network of us all across the globe; more than a billion of us, all doing the same thing at the same time. However disparate our lives, whatever freedoms we enjoy – or otherwise – however different our experiences, someone else is probably feeling exactly the same way I am. I find that incredibly moving and life-affirming. At this point in my life, I’ve documented my various issues with organised religion – and I’m not entirely comfortable with everything I see. But I know I love Ramadan. I fast because I want to, and because I can.  I fast because it makes me feel good.

When I compare Bim Adewunmi’s enthusiasm for Ramadan with the groaning I sometimes hear among Christians who are giving up chocolate for Lent (smile), I feel that we haven’t embraced the rich possibilities of this season.

Jesus spent 40 days in the wilderness, fasting and praying and being tested by the devil.  Why can’t we get a little closer to that in our observance of Lent?

None of us is Jesus, but we could fast a little more seriously, come to church a little more frequently, say our prayers a little more fervently during these 40 days, and, like Bim Adewunmi, we could throw out cheerful greetings to everyone we meet on the street.  Jesus said that when we fast we should anoint our heads and wash our faces (Matt. 6:16-18).  Wasn’t that a way of saying we should look cheerful instead of miserable?

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if people could say about Christians during this season: “Everyone is better during Lent, more patient, more kind,” instead of saying, “Those Christians sure do grumble a lot about giving up chocolate!”?

This is your invitation to a holy and happy Lent, one like you’ve never experienced before, and maybe one you will look forward to next year.



What We Can Do about ISIS

Father NabilAt one point on my recent trip to the Middle East an Army chaplain said to me with tears in his eyes, “We are at the beginning of something like the Protestant Reformation, and Father Nabil Haddad is like Martin Luther.”

Father Nabil Haddad is the Catholic priest who invited six of us to World Interfaith Harmony Week in Amman, February 1-7. For several years now Father Nabil has been working with Episcopal priest Bill Sachs, who convenes our interfaith group in Richmond, and he and Bill agreed that it would be good for us to have this experience. Apparently our group is something of a novelty–Muslims, Christians, and Jews who not only “dialogue” about the serious business of interfaith relations, but who also eat together, travel together, and sometimes, just for fun, bowl together. Father Nabil wanted to see that for himself, and also wanted his colleagues here in Jordan to see it.

And so he invited us to his house for dinner, where we were greeted by his wife and adult children (“Wait a minute. Wife and children? Didn’t you say he was a Catholic priest?” Yes, he is. A Melkite Catholic priest, which is closer to Greek Orthodox than Roman Catholic, and yet in full communion with the worldwide Catholic Church). His children were perfect hosts (I got the feeling they’d had some practice), and his wife had cooked the entire meal we enjoyed, and we enjoyed it entirely.

Along with our delegation Nabil had invited a half-dozen US Army chaplains he’s become acquainted with. This was a surprise to us, but we’re learning that with Father Nabil you have to be ready for almost anything. The chaplains turned out to be terrific guys and one of them identified himself to me as a Southern Baptist pastor from Washington state.

As we were getting to know each other our conversation was interrupted by the news that the Jordanian pilot being held by ISIS had been executed, and in the most horrific way imaginable. Someone asked Father Nabil if he would lead us in prayer, and we all stood and joined hands while he prayed for the family of this pilot, and for the country of Jordan, and for peace in the Middle East.

For the rest of the evening this tragic news was the topic of conversation. We ate dinner with the television on, and at one point Father Nabil got a call asking if he could come and make an appearance on national television. That’s when I got into a conversation with the chaplain who told me that Nabil was like Martin Luther.

It surprised me, coming from him, because in the course of conversation I learned that he was a Mormon, and I felt my spine stiffen just a little bit. I can talk to Muslims and Jews. I can even talk to Episcopalians (smile). But here was someone who was not exactly “orthodox,” if you know what I mean: someone whose religion was just enough different from my own that all I could see were the differences and all I could feel was an urge to distance myself.

But I stayed with it. I kept on talking with him. And then he said that remarkable thing, with tears in his eyes, and it made me look at him in a different way: as a fellow human being, certainly, but as someone who was also looking for peace in the world and between our warring religions.

Like me.

That’s been my experience over and over on this trip, as I ride on the tour bus beside a Muslim imam, and talk with my Jewish rabbi roommate after the lights have gone out at night: I’ve been seeing all the ways in which we are like each other on the human level, but also in our desire to see that day when all of God’s children can live in peace. Father Nabil said, “When my Jordanian friends see you–Muslim, Christian, Jew–eating together, traveling together, laughing together…I think they are very jealous! You are setting an example for us.” That doesn’t mean my interfaith group is trying to create “one world religion.” Not at all. In fact we are finding that the more passionately we embrace our own religious identities–as Christians, Jews, and Muslims–the more we are able to respect and appreciate each other’s religions. And what is central to each of them is a love for God and neighbor.

Which makes it clear that ISIS is not Islamic.

When ISIS killed that Jordanian pilot (a faithful Muslim) it let the world know that its agenda is not Islam vs. Christianity; its agenda is to gain control through fear, and it doesn’t care who it kills in order to achieve that goal.*  But suppose that instead of eyeing each other with suspicion the world’s religions joined hands and prayed–for the end of ISIS, the end of extremism, the end of fear?

That’s what we did in Father Nabil’s living room. I joined hands with a circle of friends that included a rabbi, an imam, a Catholic priest, a Baptist minister, and a Mormon chaplain, and we prayed together for an end to the kind of violence and hatred that could do such a thing to another human being. We did it in part because Father Nabil believes this is the only way to achieve peace in the world–for the many religions to stop arguing with each other and join hands in prayer to the One who would love to see his children come together…

…in peace.

*When Ammar Amonette, the imam who was traveling with us, heard what ISIS had done to the Jordanian pilot he said, “This is not Islam.  The Quran does not allow this kind of killing.”

How Good and Pleasant It Is

Nabil HaddadI’m traveling to Amman, Jordan, next week with a priest, an imam, and a rabbi.

Sounds like the beginning of a bad joke, doesn’t it?

But it’s not.  My Richmond interfaith group has been invited to participate in something called “World Interfaith Harmony Week” by Father Nabil Haddad, a Catholic priest who lives in Amman and works to promote peaceful relations among Christians, Muslims, and Jews.

These days, more than ever, that kind of work needs to be done.

I told someone at the Jewish Community Center that I was on my way to Jordan for this conference and he said, “Well, good!  Someone needs to tell those Muslims to quit blowing us up.”  I tried to explain that it’s not “those Muslims,” but rather radical extremists who are the problem, and you can find those in almost any religion.  “Not ours,” he said.  “You don’t see us cutting anybody’s heads off.”

Maybe not today, but during the Crusades “Christian Soldiers” massacred both Muslims and Jews in their efforts to re-take the Holy Land.  And, yes, they used swords.  Many modern-day extremists refer to those events when they try to justify their own actions.  “We are only doing what was done to us!” they say.

Yes, but that was a thousand years ago.  Can’t we let it go?  Must we always be at war with each other?

In my interfaith group we are often reminded that Jews, Christians, and Muslims (through Ishmael) consider Abraham their ancestor.  If that’s true, if he is in fact our “father,” then we are in fact “brothers.”  It doesn’t mean we have to agree on everything anymore than my biological brothers and I agree on everything,  It certainly doesn’t mean that we have to adopt each other’s beliefs or practice each other’s religion.*  But I hope it would mean that we would try to get along with each other, and at the very least not kill each other.

I love the beginning of Psalm 133: “Behold, how good and pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!” (KJV).  It is good and pleasant.  And the times I have spent with the members of my interfaith group talking, sharing meals, and even bowling together, has convinced me that we don’t have to hate each other just because we’re different.  We “children of Abraham” can dwell together in unity.  May it be so as we travel to Amman, and may we set an example for the world to follow.

These days, more than ever, that work needs to be done.

*I spent a good bit of time on the phone recently trying to convince a woman that I was not promoting “Chrislam” (her word for a supposed synthesis between Christianity and Islam).  For years in my interfaith work I have followed the advice that the best way to have interfaith dialogue is to be a wholehearted adherent of your own faith and not try to water it down or make it more palatable to others.  That’s how we reach a place of mutual understanding and respect.

A Good and Beautiful Year

Jim Somerville:

Some great thoughts here (wink) about what life is for and how to live it!

Originally posted on :

Story by Jim Somerville. Photo by Sean Lumsden-Cook.

For years I’ve been looking for a way to harmonize the good news of the coming Kingdom, so prevalent in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, with the good news of eternal life, so prevalent in John. I think I’ve found it, and if I could sum it up in a few words, I think I would say this:

Jesus came to give us the gift of LIFE – abundant, overflowing, and everlasting – and His vision of the Kingdom was about the place, the reality, where that kind of life could be lived.

book studyIn 2015 I’m hoping that we can learn how to live that sort of life here, at First Baptist, by thinking of our church as a kind of “laboratory” where we practice obeying the clear commands of Christ to see what can happen when we truly love one another, forgive…

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