Thursday, August 27, 2009

Acceptance

There are nearly 200 member states in the United Nations. Along with the hundreds of people groups represented, there are further thousands of different languages, dialects and communication forms used among them. In the past, one can easily identify people groups based on where they live or what they speak. With globalization, immigration and the advancement in transportation technology, the world increasingly resembles a global village of different people groups residing closer and closer together. Many international corporations have in their employment code a clause for non-discriminatory hiring. That is human progression, at least at a surface level. What is more challenging is the integration of a non-discriminatory stance internally rather than mere external adherence to regulatory controls. This brings us to our topic for this week: Acceptance.

"Here there is no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all." (Col 3:11)

The verse above needs to be read in its proper context. It is essentially a summary statement that affirms that our earthly behavior ought to reflect a heavenly disposition. This means that our ability to accept one another lies with our identity with Christ. Heaven-bound believers are differentiated from earthly people, not by racial status but via changed behavior in Christ. Paul urges us to set our hearts on things above and not things of this earth. Sometimes, we become too fixated about visible things in heaven and earth that we miss Paul’s concern about the invisible things that happen inside our hearts: the need to accept one another, as Christ accepted us.

Beyond the External Façade
It is easy to take this verse and parade our own doctrines of democracy, free-speech, and mutual acceptance of human rights etc. In churches, we tell members that we are all equal in Christ. In practice, we see people gathering in ethnic enclaves, speaking in languages that seem more comfortable to self, and in the process isolating others. In some churches, even the name itself is a double-edged sword. For example, does the name ABC 'Chinese' Church of Christ tell us that the church is only for Chinese people? Is the 'Korean' Free Church only for those that are conversant in Korean only? What about the Spanish, the Vietnamese, the Hmong and other ethnic groups? For logistical and programming purposes, it makes sense to concentrate on one main language that the majority is comfortable with. However, when people switch to their own preferred language toward their friends, in front of strangers, it is like saying: “Sorry, you don't speak my kind of language like my friend. Good day to you.” A visitor to such a church will most certainly feel unwelcome and isolated.

I remember seeing an early 2005 cover story of ChristianityToday with the heading: “All Churches Should Be Multiracial.” The lead story is essentially an excerpt of a book (United by Faith: The Multiracial Congregation as an Answer to the Problem of Race, Oxford 2003) written by a multiracial team comprising Karen Chai Kim, George Yancey, and Curtiss Paul DeYoung. In it, the authors made a brave proposition, that the ‘21st century must be the century of multiracial congregations.’ Furthermore, they said that where possible, all churches should seek out a diverse makeup in their congregations. They were quick to make 3 exceptions. The first case is a geographical one where only one racial group exists and a multiracial one is not possible. The second case deals with the lack of a common language. The third case involves understanding the struggles of new immigrants that they should be given some time to adapt, before pushing any multiracial agenda on them.

While there are biblical examples and sociological benefits, I still feel that the article is too lopsided, stuck mostly at the level of physical representation. It hardly deals with the next chapter of what happens next? I suspect that it is far easier to shape our external congregational mix than to change our internal attitudinal stance. The former brings together people based on their race, language and ethnicity. The latter reaches much further. Let me explain. Suppose a church is successful in getting equal percentages of racial groups A-Z. What about common values? How are they going to learn to work together and live in peace and harmony? If numbers are successfully brought in for the sake of meeting the ethnic quotas, will that automatically result in a healthy multiracial church? What happens if individuals are not changed in the first place? What if they are simply following the wishes of the leadership and are not at all interested in people other than their own kind? I assert that a multiracial mix is only a small step in the long journey of friendship and acceptance. Paul’s letter to the Colossians points us the way.

A More Excellent Way

"Therefore, as God's chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity." (Col 3:12-14)

Even though Paul mentions Greek, Scythian, slaves and others, having a multiracial mix is not the end of it all. His objective is a unity in Christ that surpasses our earthly vision of a multiracial congregation. Unity is not uniformity. Unity transcends physical appearances. It does not discriminate. In a nutshell, it is maintaining a heavenly perspective that we are all brothers and sisters in Christ that we must learn to maintain a heavenly perspective of what living together means: Accepting one another, as Christ accepted us. Indeed, numbers and statistics do not define unity. One of my favourite quotes comes from a respected pastor I know:

“Diversity without Unity = Crowd;
Unity without diversity = Cult;
Diversity with unity = Community.”

We are all affected by sin which tempts us to discriminate people based on differences. Even people from the same tribe can show prejudice against one another. As long as people keep scrutinizing for differences, they will find it. In the hands of a chauvinist a minor discrepancy springs major divisions. When people starts to major on the minors, a small thing quickly snowballs to a major issue.

All of us are unique individuals. Our differences reflect more of the generosity and creativity of God. The way to live together in unity and harmony is not in terms of looking the same on the outside. It is behaving Christlike on the inside. If there is any desire to differentiate, let it be for praise and thanksgiving, not to isolate and set people further apart.

Achieving a multiracial mix may be a calling for some. Accepting one another in Christ is a higher calling for ALL. Desire the better gift. Yearn for a visible multiracial congregation. Extend a welcoming hand toward people from all walks of life, who share the faith or seeks God. Open our doors to acknowledge one another gratefully. Create opportunities to be a friend to others. Seek out such friends. Better still, be such a friend.

A friend is someone who understands your past, believes in your future, and accepts you just the way you are.” (anonymous)

Thought: Do you prefer to stay in your comfort zone of familiar friends? Or to extend a hand of welcome to people different from you? What does it take to deny gratifying one's selfish desires in favor of satisfying the needs of others?


sabbathwalk




Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Empathetical Praying

PRAYER AS LISTENING

Prayer meetings is one of the most unpopular meetings in the Church. People will gather for food. They readily sign up for social and fun events. Many do not mind coming for Bible studies. However, prayer meetings occupy the lowest concern of any typical Church member.

I remember a pastor cheekily give tips on how best to disperse a Christian gathering: “Let’s have a prayer meeting.” Believers will then give all kinds of excuses to leave, like bees that scatter at the smell of smoke. Soon, the group will be reduced to a paltry few, as the rest carry on with their respective businesses. Amid the humor, there is a cloaked sense of sarcasm in the way this pastor has said about the attitude of Christians toward prayer meetings. It is common knowledge that in many churches, prayer meetings are unpopular. In a way, why should anybody bother with a ‘passive’ activity, when one can be engaged in something more active, like planning to make things happen? Why depend on something that works sometimes, and not other times? Why spend time doing something not proven by technology or science? Perhaps, prayer meetings are for sissies and those who approach Christianity like a crutch. People with such a perspective are those who tend to ask: “Why pray when I can simply pay for the solution?

The pastor above may have been right about the unattractiveness of coming together merely to pray. However, if he thinks that coming to prayer meeting makes one more ‘spiritual,’ he is on the wrong track. People do come for prayer meetings, albeit under special circumstances. An emergency medical operation, a serious illness, a tragic accident, a major retrenchment or loss of income, frantic students seeking some comfort in the middle of exams all creates urgency for people to come. People need a reason to come for a prayer meeting, not simply because someone says so. When one realizes the limits of one’s ability and the world’s poor handling of the deepest human needs, one will come crawling back to the Heavenly Father, just like the prodigal Son, of the famed parable of Jesus, seeking Divine Intervention. When all else fails, the slender thread of hope lies in Jesus. These people tend to assert: “Pray only when all else fails, or when I sense a need.

The first reason I talked about is a practical one that seeks to free God from mundane requests. The second reason I mentioned above is a tactical one that seeks God to intervene when nothing else helps. Let me propose a third reason for why people find prayer meetings unattractive. This third raison d'être why people find prayer meetings undesirable or boring is not the prayer meeting itself, but an incomplete picture of what prayer is. The reason why we find prayer meetings unappealing is because prayer is in many ways, an ‘empathetical’ one. We need to incorporate empathy in our praying. It is because we do not comprehend the magnitude of listening to God, to others and to ourselves, that we fail to pray well.

Three Reasons for Praying

In practical praying, we look for excitement and to some extent, entertainment. We are more interested with what works, what inspires or what makes things happen. At that place, some people say a few words, sing a few songs, complain a little frustration, share a little needy request, and hear a little prayer lesson. Nothing seems to happen, at least during the prayer meeting. In tactical praying, we wait for emergencies to occur before committing ourselves to that dreaded meeting. We are more interested only when the need arises. When there is no need, or no emergencies, why bother to come?

In empathetical praying, the reason why we come to pray is chiefly to listen. How well we listen to others reflects how well we listen to God. We listen because we want to know. We want to know because we desire to care. We desire to care because our friends matter. Our friends matter because we love. We love because we are first loved.

In empathetical praying, our listening goes far beyond the ear’s audible range. In other words, our listening device is not restricted only to our ears. We train our eyes, our hands and our hearts to listen.

  • Listen for the pain when one shares about hurts.
  • Listen for the joy when one shares about happiness.
  • Listen what was spoken, according to what is audible;
  • Listen out for what that was unspoken, according to what we know of the person;
  • Listen with our eyes, to see the facial and timing of the person doing the talking,
  • Listen with our hands, by holding the person gently with care and grace.
  • Listen with our hearts, to challenge the highly motivated, to comfort the discouraged, to stimulate the bored, to soothe the agitated, to be the brother or sister we were meant to be.

We loved because he first loved us. A simple prayer exercise is an opportunity to love, to show our gratitude to God because He first loved us. We come to prayer meetings to listen to God, to know over and over again, why does He bother to come down to earth to die for us. We listen to God to ponder his great initiative. We listen to God to wonder how the new heaven and new earth will look like. Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s classic treatise, “Life Together” has a beautiful description about the office of listening to one another. Let me share two segments, the first one a rebuke, and the second an exhortation to listen to one another. It is necessary for us to take note of both.

A REBUKE (-ve)

There is a kind of listening with half an ear that presumes already to know what the other person has to say. It is an impatient, inattentive listening, that despises the brother and is only waiting for a chance to speak and so get rid of the other person. This is no fulfillment of our obligation, and it is certain that here to our attitude toward our brother only reflects our relationship to God. ” (D Bonhoeffer, Life together, London: SCM Press, 1954, 75-6)

I remember times when people are sharing their prayer requests in a circular manner. As individuals are sharing, I will be thinking of what things I should be sharing, instead of noting the details of each person’s prayer needs. As a result, when it comes to my turn, I would have half-forgotten what others have previously shared. When that happens, I am forced to depend on my presumptions of my fellow brothers and sisters, and to pray very generally. Things like, “God bless Alex for all his needs. Amen,” hardly brings justice to Alex’s eloquent sharing about his life.

AN EXHORTATION (+ve)

This leads us to the next. The simple act of loving our brother or sister through genuine care and concern via listening, is an act of worship to God.

Secular education today is aware that often a person can be helped merely by having someone who will listen to him seriously, and upon this insight it has constructed its own soul therapy, which has attracted great numbers of people, including Christians. But Christians have forgotten that the ministry of listening has been committed to them by him who is himself the great listener and whose work they should share. We should listen with the ears of God that we may speak the Word of God.” (D Bonhoeffer, Life together, London: SCM Press, 1954, 76)

This act of listening, in empathetical praying not only connects us to our brother/sister in Christ, we participate with the Holy Spirit prompting to pray for others, even about needs that our loved ones do not even know.

In the same way the Spirit also helps our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we should, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words; (Rom 8:26)

Let us not be caged up with practical praying, using pragmatic approaches to prayer so much so, that God is reduced to a nice-to-have but not always necessary spiritual mechanic. Let us also be careful not to indulge in tactical praying that sees God as a spiritual surgeon. Instead, see our whole praying discipline as empathetical praying that tries to see what others see, to look from God’s camera lens and in the process, recognize that we are made not for ourselves. We are made for God, for one another, and in that process, we find our deepest calling:

We ought always to thank God for you, brothers, and rightly so, because your faith is growing more and more, and the love every one of you has for each other is increasing. (2 Thess 1:3)

May we practice empathetical calling more and more.Perhaps, when we wear this attitude, it helps us see prayer meetings in a totally new way. Blessings and enjoy your praying, empathetical ones that is.

sabbathwalk

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Meaning Living (via Healing)

MEANINGFUL LIVING (via healing)

Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain a heart of wisdom. ” (Ps 90:12)

What do we want to achieve in this short life? A good comfortable life? A loving relationship? A good reputation? How about leaving this earth with a lasting legacy of good works? In First Things First, Stephen Covey, describes the meaning of life in terms of “to live, to love, to learn and to leave a legacy.” One helpful memory tool he suggests is to see life in terms of physical (to live), intellectual (to learn), emotional (to love) and spiritual (leave a legacy). Being able to balance one’s life in all four aspects will thus define 'success' much better than simply struggling to make ends meet. All of us, consciously or not seek for meaning in whatever we do. Consider the following growth stages:

· CHILD: What do you want to be when you grow up?

· TEEN: What fun things can we do in life?

· ADULT: What does it take to make my first million dollars?

· SENIOR: How do I impart wisdom to the next generation?

As a child, we have innocent dreams about what we want to do when we grow up. As a teen, we fight boredom and think that fun things are far better than anything else in the world. As an adult, we grapple with basic issues of life like money, family, love relationships, work successes and social acceptance. As a senior, we would have traversed life, fallen through potholes and experienced various success stories. If only one is able to teach the younger generation to learn best practices and to avoid repeating foolish mistakes we have made. Question is, are these satisfactory in our quest for significance? Are they adequate in our search for meaning? Covey's paradigm is a helpful start. It forces the busy person to take a step back to reflect. While it has its usefulness, let me propose a biblical model and suggest that Ps 91 is another way to help us. In short, we search for meaning by joining together the dots in our own lives. We cannot be effective 'joiners' unless we are first healed.

Healing Our Past (esp bad memories)

The words of the Psalmist provides us two clues in our search for meaning. Firstly, he urges us to consider our days carefully by noticing the details of our life. The Hebrew word for ‘to number’ is [לִמְנֹ֣ות, manah] literally to count out the details. This same word is used in Gen 13:16 when the LORD promised Abraham that ‘counting’ his offspring is like counting the grains of dust. In life, we do not live our life haphazardly, as if yesterday is totally unrelated to today.

There is one common denominator from birth to our present state: our growing selves. Just because we do not understand our past does not mean they are not related to our present condition. In fact, many psychological problems are results of an unfulfilled past. The late Michael Jackson’s death reveals a troubled man, colored largely by his experience with his bad-tempered father, who abused him physically and emotionally. With this context, we get to appreciate his huge investment to help little children be healed and to make a better world for you and for me. The rising demand for psychologists and mental health-care reveals not so much about coping with external pressures and stresses we face day to day. Rather it is a need for inner healing. In fact, many deep problems are due to unfulfilled needs in childhood and youth. A child not allowed to be a child when young, will childish toys even through adulthood. An adult person's sense of insecurity can often be traced back to a turbulent teenage period. In the movie, The Dark Knight, we were given glimpses of how the Joker suffered under the hands of a cruel father, eventually becoming Gotham City's most dreadful villain, who tyrannized throngs of people. Each time the Joker kills someone, he will refer the victim back to his own past treatment. This first observation tells us that the clue for meaning is no use, unless it is seen with lenses of healed memories. That is where the verb 'teach us' remind us that we cannot do this search on our own. We need God. This leads us to the next clue, that with God as our guide, we can find the treasure of meaning in our lives.

The second clue for meaning is found in the later part of the verse. The Hebrew mind surrounding 'heart' is not merely on an emotional level. It represents the center of one's being, meaning all that concerns a person, whether it be intellectual, emotional or physical. The 'heart' is one whole being. Literally, as we consider our days on this life, we will grow wiser as we connect our past with who we are. By connecting up the various dots in our life, we will then be able to see a meaningful picture of our own sense of identity. This is far better than the worldly definition of our identity in terms of who we work for, or how productive we are in our career or relationships. The biblical patriarch, Joseph was able to do just that, to connect the seemingly meaningless blot in his life when his brothers sold him out.

"You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives." (Gen 50:20)

Joseph did not understand what happened in his past, until he learned to number his days and to seek God for understanding. In other words, Joseph remembered what happened, not with an evil intent, but with a heart that is healed from above. This is something we all need: Healed memories. Sometimes we drive life forward so much that we forget that sometimes we need to reverse backwards to achieve closure.

Healing Our Future (our understanding of success)

Christian spirituality suggests an even more surprising paradigm. The way toward greater meaning is not in accumulating more stuff, but learning to live contently even with less. We have been inundated with calls to rise up to the next level of achievement. Society around us tempts us to strive for more materialistic goods and more social status. For students, it is the rush for more knowledge. For the salesman, it is more clients. In the entertainment industry, it is more flesh, gory, violence and heightened fame. Even in churches, more members mean more money for the organ. Christ's path to glorifying God is not accumulating more but to give up all, for the sake of God's kingdom come. All 12 disciples left him in his greatest time of need. His most loved disciple Peter denied him not once but thrice. Even the clothes he was wearing at the crucifix was torn in into shreds. He came with nothing and he left with nothing, except disgrace and humiliation. Using the calculators and spreadsheets of the world, this man from Nazareth is a bankrupt and a failure. Yet, what the man Jesus did in 3 years accomplished far beyond anyone else in the world, combined. He did so with minimal resources. He had no Internet, yet his gospel is transmitted all over the world, online and offline. He had no military might, yet his good news cannot be blown into oblivion by any formidable military might. He had not many friends when he died, yet his message has moved millions of people through the ages to follow his footsteps. He had no legal legacy to leave behind except his simple last words: "Father forgive them, for they know not what they do." These last words left behind a mark of humility that reflects the heart of God, of loving others more than himself. By his stripes, we are healed (Isa 53:5c).

It is tough to follow Christ's act. For those of us who plead for something more doable, perhaps, we can learn from the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, the 19th Century American poet, who defined success as follows:

"To leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch, or a redeemed social condition; to know that even one life has breathed easier because you lived - that is to have succeeded." (Ralph Waldo Emerson)

It takes a person to consider his days before he can make out meaning in his life. There is always meaning to be discovered. Let the Spirit of God dwell in our hearts richly, to help us consider our past. In doing so, as we join up the various dots of our life, may the process help untangle our past knots of unhappiness. Let us find healing for any bad memories. Let us find strength to reconcile broken relationships. Let us begin the path of fruitful living. The meaning of life is often not greater discovery of knowledge or larger accumulation of things, but starts with healing.

Consider our days well, and trust God to help us number our days, and to grow our heart in wisdom. Do that always, if not, at least once a week. Remember the Healer.

sabbathwalk

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Fire: Celestial Punishment or Divine Redemption?

“Assyria will fall by a sword that is not of mine; a sword, not of mortals, will devour them. They will flee before the sword and their young men will be put to forced labor. Their stronghold will fall because of terror; at sight of the battle standard their commanders will panic, declares the LORD, whose fire is in Zion, whose furnace is in Jerusalem.” (Isa 31:8-9)

How can a good and loving God inflict harsh punishment on people? This is one of the hardest questions for New Testament Christians. In the Old Testament, fire has been a tool of judgment on people. The Scripture text above shows that while God cannot tolerate his people going into idolatry, he despises those who harm his people with deception and cruelty. At that time, the superpowers of the world are Egypt, Assyria and later Persia. (As a quick comparison, in our modern world, the three major military powers are the US, Russia and China.) Now, what did Assyria do that makes God so angry? Basically, they became arrogant and proud, having ‘willful pride’ and ‘haughty’ eyes (Isa 10:12). Instead of acknowledging God, they chose to take for granted their power and prosperity. Worse, they abuse their authority through merciless killings and free ravages of the land of Israel, treating powerless Israel like a whore to be shoved around and stepped upon. Whatever God gave Assyria, Assyria boasts not in God but its riches and power. Whatever God gives Israel, Israel took for granted. Before we go on, let me say a few things about reading the Old Testament.

Reading the Old Testament

When we read the Old Testament, it is easy to point a finger at God and accuse him of sadist behaviors. It is a common struggle for many believers that it is much more difficult to read the Old Testament than the New Testament. After-all, the New Testament Jesus is more palatable to our understanding of a Good and Loving God, compared to the Old-Testament view of God as a cruel and punishing Creator. For those of us who think this way, we may have conveniently forgotten that the Old Testament is the ‘Bible’ that Jesus used. At that time, there were no Pauline or Peterine epistles that Jesus can quote from. He had no gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke or John to refer to. He came to fulfill what was written in the Old Testament (Matt 5:17). In his book, “The Bible Jesus read,” Philip Yancey summarizes the Christian predicament in two simple points:

  • The OT does not always make sense;
  • It offends our modern ears.

Some Christians feel that the solution is to become a ‘Jesus freak.’ They prefer the New Testament to the Old. They prioritize Jesus’s words over anything else mentioned in the Bible. They divide the Bible according to what their own minds understand, instead of what God meant for them to receive in faith. Perhaps this is a problem that besets those of us living in comfortable modern worlds of air-conditioners, rich foods, well-paying jobs, high-tech transport and comfortable houses. Yancey observes that many people living in simple environments in Africa and Afghanistan identifies themselves very closely with the Old Testament picture of land, justice, water rights, tribal matters etc. In contrast to our modern minds of questioning and scholars challenging the authenticity of the Old Testament, the people living in rural lands like Africa finds it a no-brainer to accept the Old Testament, the way that what Jesus accepted: By faith. According to Yancey, the more he reads the Old Testament, the greater his realization that it can be more ‘personal and passionate’ (Yancey, The Bible Jesus Read, 22).

We need to make sure that we learn to read the complete Bible, rather than choice texts. If we read only ‘choice texts’ of the Bible, where is our need for wonder and ponder? When we no longer have any appetite, what good is a rich seafood buffet spread before us? Reading ‘choice texts’ put us in control. Reading the Bible for what it is puts God in control. Before we contest anything, we need to know the content and to understand the context. There is also something else unique and special about the Old Testament. God presents not only both sides of the coin, He gives us truth as it is, uncensored, unadulterated and uncompromising. Let me suggest that we read the Old Testament not only of celestial punishment, but also as a form of divine redemption.

Of Punishment and Divine Redemption

Isa 31 is a classic display of God’s love for his people. It shows how Jerusalem is being prepared for deliverance from their cruel slavery under the hands of the Assyrians. It seems that the Israelites have no inkling of what their God can do. They have forgotten how their forefathers, have been delivered from the land of Egypt via the Great Exodus. They have short memories over how God blessed them previously, when they were the most feared military force under King David. Just as the Israelites were able to witness God’s acts against Pharaoh, they were able to see the haughty Assyrians being punished before their very eyes. The very God who punishes their enemies will be the Same God who will deliver them. The way the prophet describes the punishment is worth noticing. The fire and the furnace of punishment is described as being ‘in Zion’ and ‘in Jerusalem’ respectively. There is a strong connotation of those who harm God’s precious people; they themselves will suffer a heavy retribution. The very victims they abuse have become their traps and pitfalls. With one masterful stroke of God, the innocent sheep-den has become the downfall of mighty Assyria. God accomplishes both celestial punishment of the Assyrians, and the divine redemption of Jerusalem not separately but together.

My friends. It is hard to read the Old Testament with New Testament eyes. It is harder still to accept the ways God chooses to punish the wicked. Let me suggest that it is most difficult to accept God can love ugly and idolatrous people. That is pure grace, very similar to Jesus’s death on the Cross for undeserved persons like you and I. The fire can punish and destroy. It too can save and purify. Respect both. Thus, whenever we ask about God's punishing ways, let us also ask about God's redemptive ways. Ponder over them. Wonder at them and let God reveal his truths to us. Until we learn to see all God's work as one giant display of grace.

One such grace is this: Let our hearts be a furnace that burns away sin, and to keep our flame of love for God and neighbor alive and well.

"We are on safe ground when we encourage any Christian to read and study the great saints and lovers of the Lord, be they Protestant or Roman Catholic, mystic or theologian. If they wrote out of a burning heart of love to Christ, we shall catch fire from the same holy flame." (Hannah Hurnard, Winged Life)

Christianity has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult and left untried. (G. K. Chesterton)

sabbathwalk
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