Contradictory Belief

I'm always looking for the easy way out. I'm inherently lazy, short-sighted, impatient, passive, or fill in the blank with some other vice. I do not like walking in the tension of anything and if there is a more comfortable option, I will take it with a cherry on top, thank you very much. I fear the unknown—especially when the unknown exists within me, not just around me. 

I was created from dust and bone fragments, so I don't know why I would believe perfection is possible before the return of Christ. I seek it though, friends. I seek it. 

One of my favorite passages of Scripture, one I return to again and again and again is from Mark chapter 9. Jesus had just undergone the transfiguration and had come back down the mountain, running into the father of a demon possessed boy. The father cries to Jesus, "If you can do anything, have compassion and help us!" Sweet Jesus response with incredulity: "If? If I can heal him? All things are possible to him who believes." And this, my favorite line in all of scripture, the father's response: "I believe. Help my unbelief."

I come from a charismatic background, not name it and claim it, health, wealth, and prosperity, but certainly a side that believes words have life or death in them. That if we speak death, we run the risk of experiencing it, and if we speak life, then the odds are higher we'll experience it. I look back now and see the ways I misunderstood and ingested theology without parsing it for myself, eating the words given me instead of the Scripture informing them. But what resulted for me is that I became a bundle of fear, afraid to ever speak what was actually true about myself, my sin, my fears, my anxieties, and only willing to speak what was not true, that I had assurance, joy, peace, faith. I didn't know how to walk in the tension of speaking what was not fully true but which I wanted to be true and speaking what was true but I wanted to be untrue. I could not have said, "Help my unbelief," because to confess unbelief seemed like the pathway to destruction, but I felt like a liar every time I said, "I believe."

All that changed in early 2010, when I could not live the lie of belief anymore. I pounded my fists into the tan carpet of my rental house and cried harder than ever before and said to God, for the first time ever, "I do not believe in you!" I have never heard the audible voice of God, but I will never forget the strong impression of the Father picking up his robes and running toward me saying, "Finally. We can begin with this." 

I think there are two temptations for the Christian who doubts. The first is to only say what is yet untrue (I believe) and the second is to only say what is true (I have unbelief). If you come from a background, like mine, where to utter words of unbelief means you are silenced by well-meaning friends who say you're just going through a hard time and it will wear off, you probably will be bound up in living the lie of belief, and, as Jeremiah 17 says, "You will not see good when it comes." If you come from a background where it's okay to have struggles and wrestle with truth and faith, you might be afraid to say the words, "I believe," because you don't want to lie about having something you don't fully have. 

What is the doubting Christian to do? 

This is why this passage from Mark 9 is so helpful for me. This father shows it is possible to say two conflicting things, neither of which are fully true and both of which are absolutely true at the same time. I believe. Help my unbelief. Both true. Both not all the way true. Both seeming to be in conflict with one another. 

I have met a few Christians who have simple faith. They believe the Bible is true, absolutely. They believe Jesus rose from the grave. They believe they are saved. They never wrestle with Scripture in a way that leads to confusion or tension or questions. They simply believe. I know very few of these. The great majority of Christians I know have complicated faiths. They all have a different history behind them that informs their reading and study of Scripture. They all have varying levels of schooling. They have different personalities, different propensities, different desires. And all of these things are informing their belief in some way—and their unbelief in some ways. 

The Christian who can say, "I believe. Help my unbelief," is the Christian who knows with absolute certainty that full, unfaltering faith is possible, and also that they do not have it, not fully. They know they are in progress, going, as Paul said, "from one degree of glory to another" and "the righteousness of God is being revealed faith to faith." We're not there yet, is what Paul was saying, farther up, further in, more to go until we arrive on eternity's shores. 

If you're someone who struggles to believe all the way through all the things you think Christians believe all the way through, I just wanted to say, hey, I'm with you. I struggle with that. My struggles with faith didn't cease the moment the gospel was unveiled to me. The difference was a difference by degrees: I saw more dimly before, and now less dimly, and will see even less dimly tomorrow. There are so many things about faith and the Bible that seem confusing to me, sometimes even more the more I study and read. I see what seem to be inconsistencies in Scripture, in other Christians, in the world in which we live. I don't understand fully how justification or sanctification or mortification or vivification work. I don't always know what I'm supposed to do and what only God can do. Here's what I know how to do: 

I know how to pray, "Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief." 

I'm praying for you today, that you can pray that prayer, believing he hears and heals and finishes what you cannot with mere words and weak faith. 

There is no magic bullet for your faith to be bolstered. I'll share a few things have grown and strengthened mine, but it might be something entirely different for you and that's okay. This photo is of the books on our shelves that have helped me realize I am not alone in this wrestle. I'll also link to a few below.

Spiritual Depression by Martyn Lloyd Jones

Help My Unbelief from Barnabas Piper

Sensing Jesus (now called The Imperfect Pastor) from Zack Eswine

Spurgeon's Sorrows by Zack Eswine

This sermon from Matt Chandler from before he was my pastor (I listened to it sixteen times in the spring of 2010).

It's Kind of a Long Story

In the words of Vonnegut, “Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.” And so it was, my story has got pneumonia. There’s no doctor for this and no cure or medicine. It’s not writer’s block, it’s the opposite. It’s not fear of saying something, it’s fear of saying everything. Others think of writers as prophets of sorts. Don’t ask me what writers think of themselves. The way blogs go these days it seems we all think we’re on a reality show or talk show or the stage and we are the star. Someone’s salvation is always resting on the crux of how well a writer can write it, and what we need someone to tell us is maybe it’s just the working out of our own salvation in the crux. I have never understood people who had books “just burning” inside them to be written or who have always known they would be a writer or who have messages they know only they can tell. I have always been on the other side of the spectrum, tapping the mic endlessly asking, “Is this thing on?” if only to say to the naysayers and bystanders and passersby that there is nothing to see here, carry on.

Thank you for staying, readers and friends. You didn’t have to and I’ll understand if you leave. I might leave if this was the story I came to hear. Or I might not. I have been prone to unpredictable behavior of late. This is what I do want to say to you though, if you have the patience and the benevolence to hear it.

This is how it happened, from the almost beginning: Nate and I met in the foyer of our church, it was a non-event except that I liked his beard and he was still not dating girls. A few weeks later a church in Denver asked me to consider working with them. I hemmed and hawed and talked with pastors and elders and friends and traveled there three months later to figure things out. Then I came home and made the decision in a conference room upstairs in my church with a few pastors and elders and friends.

I also told them then that the night before Nate Wilbert had asked me out. Who knew what would happen? Not us.

The decision to go to Denver was made, though, and when Nate and I knew we would be getting married, the decision to go to Denver was back on the table for a hot minute, and by minute, I mean second. “Do you wanna?” “Yeah, I wanna.” “Okay, let’s.” There was a bit more to it, but that was the general decision making process. We hardly knew one another but we knew we were going to get married and that everything in our lives was going to be One Great Adventure because we were doing it together and everything looks shinier when you’re in love.

Denver or bust. Except we didn’t really expect the bust. Everyone says it, but no one actually expects it.

Then the bust: a newly acquired house, a new job with more challenges than we could have envisioned going in, a few miscarriages, shootings, job loss, and so much more. You know the wrap. What you don’t know, maybe, is that we’d been encouraged to step back from leadership as much as possible in our first year of marriage. We were going from living in the middle of ministry in our respective homes to our primary ministry being one another. He didn’t know how to do that well in his first marriage and I sure didn’t know how to do it at all. So envision with me this: two people who don’t know how to swim, deep sea diving into a wreckage where they have to surface with precious artifacts without damaging them. This was our first year.

You know most of the story—but not all of it, please don’t ever assume you know all of someone’s story unless you’ve sat across from them with tea or coffee or your beverage of choice and watched them cry ugly tears or say angry words while you just sat there and were a presence beside them. This is bonus talk right here, not the point of this post at all. I just want to remind all of us that we fall under the shiny spell of interconnectivity more often than not, commentating on lives based on photos and 140 characters. As if the sum of a life can be measured in a snapshot or 140 letters.

Am I rambling, I probably am, but if there’s something I’ve learned a lot this year it’s how easy it is to assume really bad things or really good things in the lives of people as we voyeuristically and unthinkingly scan the artifacts they share. Social media isn’t a lie, friends, as some would have you believe, but it is just the tip of many, many things. So, maybe I should rephrase, you don’t know most of the story, in fact, you know very, very little of it. The mountain of things you don’t know about our lives this past year could not be moved by the pile of things you do know.

Moving on.

So, bust it was. We didn’t intend on leaving Denver, or the church. It’s not the church’s fault we were newly married and had disobeyed good counsel and had jumped in with both feet and were in over our heads. We had every intention of staying, of Nate finding a job there, and of learning to swim. But, God, in His strange sovereignty (and I don’t say that sarcastically, I truly mean it was strange), did not provide a job there.

When Nate first broached the subject of looking out of state, and in fact the mid-Atlantic region, my first response was, “Well, if we’re looking out of state, why not Texas?” For reasons I didn’t know at the time, though, his response was an emphatic no. And because my dear husband had uprooted his life to move for my job in Denver, I agreed to the mid-Atlantic region if a job awaited him there. He went to high-school in DC and had fond memories of the place, but I confess, I was envisioning something more along the lines of bucolic pastures and Shenandoah valleys. I am nothing if not idealistic.

There were interviews all over the mid-Atlantic region, but the one job I didn’t want him to get was the one job—out of myriads of interviews and applications—he was offered. In the heart of D.C. Across the street from the Smithsonian, in view of the Capitol, and every stately monument along the way.

I remembered driving through D.C. years ago. It was Thanksgiving weekend. I was traveling to a friend’s wedding in the Carolinas. It took me nearly four hours to get around the beltway. I swore to myself, probably drawing blood with my fingernails into my palms, that I would never live in a place like this. I was made for hills and mountains and crickets and fireflies. I know there are some who love and feel called to D.C. and these people I commend, but give me the country air and people and problems there. I would never live in D.C.

I remembered saying the same thing to the Lord right before I moved to Texas, though, and see how I was wrong? So I didn’t say any of that to my dear husband. As much as I couldn’t see myself or our family, or him, thriving in the area, I wanted him to feel wanted and approved of and needed by someone, anyone. And they were offering him a job. So I kept my mouth shut and I said, “Babe, I know you want to work and I want you to work, so wherever that is, I will follow you.”

And I did. And we’re here. And his commute is three hours a day. And this week they told him they’re most likely moving his team to another building in the District—one that will add 30 minutes to his commute, making it an even four hours of traveling a day. Whenever we mention that to people around here (because the cost of living pushes people outside the city), they nod and say things like, “Yup, well, that’s just how it is here.” Or “Well, sometimes you have to make sacrifices.” I want to across from those people and say, “You don't have to. What you’re saying is ‘I’m choosing to sacrifice community on the altar of my commute and job.’”

But we’re not.

Here is why I told you all that above, in case you’re wondering. I’m telling you because in the first move to Denver we moved for my job and he did not talk to me about some reasons he had for wanting to leave Dallas. The second move to D.C., we moved for his job, and I did not talk to him about some reasons I had for not wanting to move here. We both sinned against one another in that process and I have all sorts of excuses for why: we didn’t know one another well, we were just figuring this out, we loved the other one and wanted them to flourish, our proclivities and personalities are to stuff things instead of expose them, and we gave into our flesh in these ways. There is so much more to say, but that’s the bottom line. We sinned, a bit unknowingly and naively, but still sinned.

I’ve said before that marriage isn’t hard, not like the drama queens say with their hands across their perspiring brow, “Marriage is the hardest thing you’ll ever do.” Marriage isn’t hard like that. It’s got hard things for sure, but what’s hard about marriage is you’ve put two sinners together until death them do part. And for us, we left the safety net of community and friends, and like frogs in slowly boiling water, our sin was eating us alive, we just didn’t know it.

Until now.

Even though the cost of living is high here and he is gone twelve hours of our day and we’re struggling to feel at home here, and now know we’re not going to be at home here, we’ve also had space and time to sit under the weight of our sins of omission toward one another. Maybe this doesn’t seem like a huge deal, “So you withheld your true feelings, big deal, harder things are coming for you.” Except withholding those feelings and fears and hopes meant we moved across the country twice, lost a church community twice, lost $100,000 and our home, lost a lot more than just the benefit of having your feelings known. So, all I’m saying is there was a big price for those small secrets.

Everyone knows that seeing a counselor means everything is going to be fixed though, so that’s what we’ve been doing. Kidding. We told our counselor first thing, “We don’t expect you to be our savior,” and he’s made good on that expectation. But it has been helpful, in the way that peeling an onion is good before cutting it up. You peel back the layers and then you cry a lot. It’s like paying money every other week to peel a single onion together. I highly recommend it.

He’s asked good questions and pressed pretty hard on some things and not very hard at all on other things, but in the process it’s getting revealed that Nate and I need to learn to emote and talk and that it’s okay to say, “I don’t like _____, and that’s okay.” And also it’s okay to grieve what we’ve lost this year. And also it’s okay to not be super Christians. And it’s okay to withhold information from blog readers and even friends, but not from one another. And it’s okay to say, “Denver wasn’t a mistake. D.C. wasn’t a mistake. But also moving again doesn’t mean we’re running away.”

It’s been cathartic to be able to step back, a year into marriage, and talk about, well, what do we actually want our lives to look like, what do we want our family to look like, when we can start the adoption process, how we want to raise our kids, what sort of church do we want to be married to and serve in, what do we value in church leadership, what do we value in a city, in a town, in the country, how little can we live on instead of how much. All of those questions are things that maybe should be talked about before marriage (though I think the pressure to have all questions answered before marriage is one of the ways the enemy keeps people living in sin instead of covenant), but they are certainly things that should be talked about within marriage and without fear.

We’ve been doing that en masse. It’s been a veritable share-fest around our house these days. We’re making lists and unmaking them. We’re talking through cities and ruling them out. We’re aiming toward relationship building instead of job getting. We’re concentrating our search on churches and not employment. A job is important, even necessary before we move, but our primary posture right now is: where is God calling us to love one another, to raise a family, to invest into a church and city and people, to grow old in our marriage together?

So, because seven is the number of perfection, we’re making it The Seven Moves of 2015-16.

And we think we know where that place is.

It’s a place that holds a dear spot in my heart and a place that’s only a few hours from his family and a few more from mine. It’s a place I spent many happy years and many more happy holidays. In the past few years it has been like a vortex for some of my closest friends, pulling them back to various neighborhoods and churches. It’s the place I wept to leave and always feel at home coming back to. At the end of the month we’re traveling there together for a few days, to see if God might be drawing us there too.

We’re holding it loosely, but we’re talking about it instead of just pretending it doesn’t exist. And for the first time in a long time, we’re feeling excited and expectant and hopeful. Not a day goes by that he doesn’t say to me, “I’m really looking forward to our visit there.” And each time he does, I remember again what it means to be drawn closer to another person in a strange way. I can’t explain it. I know it’s good. And hard. And not impossible. Not easy. But good.

One of the things we failed to do in Denver was to prioritize relationship over normal mechanisms for getting a job. Partially Nate just didn’t have any connections there aside from other church staff. We were only there a few months when he lost his contract. We didn’t know where to turn or to go. He turned to sharpening up his resume, online searches, Linkedin connections. In Dallas he would have had a job in weeks. We knew this because he’d never been without a job and never had to look for one. But in this new place he didn’t have relational capital built up and he confesses now his pride got in the way of working on it.

In this season, we have been deeply convicted that God is more than capable of being our provision in every way, including by giving Nate a job. We have prayed more as a couple and found joy in restraint in the past few weeks, by not trying to manhandle this situation, but by being patient and faithful. We’re reaching out to friends in the area, we’re passing his resume on, and we’re scheduling meetings for him when we’re down there in a few weeks, but we’re not going to put getting a job before building relationship and building on relationships we already have there. In the ministry world that’s the norm, but in the business world, in Nate’s world? That is abnormal and especially abnormal when we don’t live in the city we’re looking to be in. But we’re trusting God is bigger and better than norms and we’re just asking for clarity in all things.

This is nearly 3000 words and kudos if you’ve made it this far. I wrote this mostly for me, but for you too, if it helps you to pray for us or for you to understand you. That’s why I write at all, honestly. It’s not to be understood by you in some needy way. None of us need to be understood by anyone and no amount of postulating or explaining will accomplish it anyway. I’ve learned that. But I write because it’s humbling for me and maybe it helps one or two of you understand yourself too. I’d be happy with that.

Will you pray friends? For us and our marriage? We have no idea whether we'll be moving or not, but we're learning to communicate, to dream, to talk, to be honest, and all of that is good wherever we live. But also pray for you, that you would learn to take your hands off your wounds, to stop self-protecting in your marriages and friendships, to be vulnerable with your fears and concerns. Not to the whole world, like Vonnegut says, but to one, just one.

Chattanooga or bust.

chattanooga

Pruning and the Painful Work of Producing

fruitI caught of a whiff of longing this morning. I'd almost forgotten what it feels like. I stood in the parking lot and let the Texas breeze wash over me—and I felt a burst of hope inside of me: I'm going home! I am sitting at the table with two dear friends the other day, an elder from my church and his wife, one of my first friends in Texas. They are New Yorkers, upstaters like me, and they have loved me well in my time here. This year has been one long shove, I said, a pushing away from all the reasons I would have to stay here. But are you running? they ask. Is it still running if you're going home?

New York is a big state, divided into sections. The City, Upstate, the North Country, the Adirondack Region, the Finger Lakes Region, the Thousand Island Seaway, the Catskills. It's all New York, but so much more than just The City. I'm not moving to the same region from which I hail, but I'm moving to the state I call home. Is it still running if you're going home?

When I first visited New York I was 18 years old, a sullen teenager whose parents wanted to buy an old farmhouse and homestead it, growing organic vegetables and raising animals. I was born and bred in an affluent county north of Philadelphia. The earthiness of our new home didn't bother me, but the humbleness of it did. It was a bigger, grander house than the one we'd left, but the life we now lived was simpler. I never felt at home there.

New York took from me, from beginning to end, it seemed. The timeline of my time there is dotted with its thievery. Home, life, family, security, finances, faith. By the time I left, my small car packed with every earthly belonging, I would have been glad to never return.

I tell one of my girls this morning that it was the lonely, poor, and rejected times where I now see the providence of God. It was not New York that stole from me, it was God who pruned from me. Cutting off what didn't bear fruit. My first three years in Texas I felt strong and tall and healthy, free of the dead branches. But new branches grew and they have to be pruned too. That is the truth I am learning: to bear healthy fruit, even new branches have to be pruned.

One of the most painful lessons God's children must learn is that we are not God, and our strength is only as strong as our dependence on Him. He is our strength. That which bears fruit in us, is born of Him. He is the producer, not us. He is also the farmer and the vine-keeper. He decides what is not best, what is not fit to produce.

I have some fears about moving back to New York, going home to a state that took from me, a place where my faith withered and died. I have fears that feel paramount today. Fear that some will think I am running away. That some will think I will never settle down. That I am making a mistake. That there, where I am known, I will slip into old patterns and ways of thinking. Deadly things.

But at the bottom of those fears, I land on one solid truth: He prunes. He takes away and gives something better. And he does it over and over and over and over again until we are his likeness. Because He is the vine and the vine-keeper, and truest fruit-bearer.

Tin Foil Hats and the Mark of the Beast

large_woman_tin_foil_hat You'd have thought I put on a tin-foil hat this afternoon when I tweeted, "Scuse me for being a little wary of conspiracy theories. I grew up thinking Keith Green was the antichrist & Social Security numbers were the mark of the beast."

I can remember the exact moment one of my parents removed a Keith Green record from the player and returned it to its owner under decided instructions to never play it in our presence again. I also remember the day I walked into the social security office at age 19, signed my name, and apparently my soul, over to the devil. The lump in my throat was surely the first sign I was hell-bent on hell. Truthfully I just wanted my driver's license and to stop getting paid under the table.

We cannot grow up unscathed by anything; we all carry the bumps and bruises of what our parents thought was best (Hebrews 12:7-11). Some will bear the presence of scars and some will bear the fruit of pruning—but we're all carved out, shaped through, and pricked by the reality of life in a post-fall world.

And we're all children of somebody broken by the same reality.

You don't have to look far back in my family history to see dysfunction; in fact, a good hard look at just me will probably keep you busy for a good long time. We're a mess, all of us, all the way back to Genesis. I don't write about my family often because I love my parents, I know they love me, and I'm convinced they were doing what they thought was right. And, trust me, the antichrist and the mark of the beast are a small fraction of the oddities we embraced while I was growing up (and also a small fraction of the beauties of growing up in my particular family).

A few weeks ago I had a discussion with someone who landed on a very conservative position on a tertiary doctrine. My soul and flesh blanched, and my first thought was for the children. The children! Adults can navigate these difficult matters with a decorum of sanity, but children? Children are simultaneously the most accepting and most polarizing creatures. The world is so black and white to us as children, right and wrong, good and evil. We accept what is good, abhor what is evil, and call spades spades.

At some point, though, introduction to gray areas must happen with children, and eventually we need to decide for ourselves where we land on gray areas. Open-handed theology, secondary or tertiary doctrines, even matters of finances or what is considered modest—these must be areas where we are given the freedom to wrestle and own for ourselves in light of gospel implications. We are exposed to violence, politics, death, joy, sex, divorce—some of us are exposed to all and all are exposed to how everything is broken in a sense.

But the very first brokenness we encounter as children is our parents—and that is so very difficult.

I'm not a parent, but I imagine how difficult it must be to have concluded ideals that broke my child and for them to see my own flawed nature so clearly. I know, as a child, how very difficult it was for me to realize the devil didn't reside in every song with a drum line; or that I wasn't going to hell in a hand-basket when I got my little nine numbered blue card. It wasn't wrestling with the music, though, or the number that was most difficult—it was the acknowledgement that Mom and Dad didn't know best even if they were doing what they thought was best. And that that's okay. Because God.

Every one of us has a story about our parents. We laugh about how over-protective they were, or under-protective. And for those of you who are parents, your children are crafting those stories about you right now. Some of them will be nostalgic "remember whens" and some of them will carry the weight of brokenness you tried to protect them from, but our prayer ought to be that these stories are told with greater perspective and deeper truths.

We pray we would not be like arrows kept in the quivers of our warrior parents, but that we would hit the mark, strong and true—even from broken bows.

You're Invited

The first words I remember hearing when I came to my church, "We're okay if you're not okay." And I knew it would be okay.

I would come as late as I could and still get a seat, sit in the back corner, closest to the door for a quick getaway. I knew I was still licking my wounds, but I couldn't let anyone else see them, not yet.

"Who wounded you?" I would ask myself because I loved my former church and I loved my family and I loved my college and I loved my life and there was the wound, I found. I loved my life.

There was nothing to love about my life: I was a washed up homeschooled kid, battered by extremes, ideals, and strange theology, still trying to figure my way through life when death and divorce swooped through and wrecked everything I thought would protect me from what I'd been protected from. I was not okay. But I grabbed and clenched every scrap of life left to love. And I hated myself for it.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Every generation of the Church comes along and finally corners the market. The Jesus Movement, the Bible Thumpers, the Emergent, the Young, Restless, Reformed—we're all taking back something of what felt stolen from us. We're learning to be okay in the face of what was not okay. We have never been a people much content with what we do have—we have pioneer blood running through our veins and there are always new lands to forge.

Someone asks me recently how it is that I am so okay with the wreck behind me and I remember the poet Adrienne Rich's words, "I came to explore the wreck; the words are purposes, the words are maps." I tell them I am not okay with the wreck behind me, but I am okay with not being okay. I thought once it was these words, the words I write every day, that let me be okay, but these words only help me navigate the invitation.

Peter was faced with the opportunity to listen to what others were saying about Jesus, and he said, "to whom else would we go? You have the words of eternal life!" He knew the invitation was not to fame or fortune, sense or stability—the invitation was to eternity and his only ride was upon the words of Jesus.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

We're okay if you're not okay, "but we don't want you to stay that way," is the rest of the invitation at my church.

This morning I read Revelation 19:9, "And the angel said to me, “Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.” And he said to me, “These are the true words of God.”

The truth is none of us will corner any market in the Kingdom of God. His kingdom is not a store or an auction, selling to the highest bidder or best-behaved sinner. On the threshold of His kingdom is a feast and a marriage; our King is a Lamb and all His children are invited.

So I don't know what your wreckage is, and I don't know what your story is, and I don't know how the Church has hurt or harmed you, or grown or strengthened you, but I know this: it's a blessing to be invited to the table and He's okay if you're not okay: He has the truest words of all.

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