What if it is all gift?

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I love gifts. I love giving them and I love receiving them. ‘Gifts’ are one of my top ‘love languages’. Unnecessary, they are given in love to bring delight, to show favour. They are usually above and beyond what we need or deserve, given ‘just because’.

Just recently I have been thinking about the idea that God chose to create, not because He had to, but because He wanted to. He made a beautiful world, affirming its goodness over and over again. Then He made us, and gave it to us to live in, to enjoy with Him. While I do not want to overlook the pain and brokenness that entered our human existence through our collective turning from God, I think that, this side of the cross, we are perhaps even in a better position to understand our lives as gift.

The story began as gift and ends as gift, John tells us that “Out of His fullness we have all received grace in place of grace already given” (John 1:16). God chose to create, He chose to call Abraham, He chose rescue Israel, He chose to send Jesus. And He chooses to work in us, inviting us into fullness of life (John 10:10). What if we lived into this? What if our lives were a place where we received “Every good and perfect gift [as] from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows” (James 1:17 ‘is’ to ‘as’ – my editorial change)?

Sometimes there will be a painful tension here, I realise that. The brokenness of life ‘under the sun’ (a la Ecclesiastes) is real, so real in fact that God dealt with it fully and finally in Jesus. He knows and deeply feels our hurts, showing us by giving us Himself.

The problem of pain aside (while still wanting to acknowledge its weight), receiving a gift well actually forces our focus to shift. It involves humility, gratitude and it usually results in joy. Hands out, we open ourselves to the giver. Thanks on our lips, we slow down, stilling ourself to appreciate the moment. Delight bubbles up, not just in the gift, lovely as it maybe, but in the way it points us to the one who has given it. In recognition of their kindness toward us, their care for us.

If we received our times and our days like this, if I received my times and my days like this, I think, perhaps I might be on the right track. Because He is my Father and He does indeed give good gifts (Matthew 7:11). I think that there is a lightness to be found here, a joy God is calling us into. Grace upon grace, gift upon gift. Like a child eager for Christmas morning or their birthday, I want to try and live in anticipation of His readiness to gift – I do love presents, after all! What if our everyday-walking-around-lives were shaped by the joy of Love demonstrated in gifts given and received?

Gifts given

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“… What do you have that you did not receive? … ” (1 Corinthians 4:7b)

Not much really! I have been musing about the idea of sacrament, ceremony and celebration recently. Thinking about the way that God made a good world, full of good things that should remind us to turn our gaze to Him in gratitude. About formalising our thanks in ceremony. About expressing and sharing our thanks in celebration.

I have been thinking about creation and Eucharist, about feasting and joy, about thankfulness. About a good world, about bread. About cake and friends to share it with. About delight and welcome. These are the threads I am beginning to trace as I learn God’s word. I am beginning to see the story about a world made in love, about good gifts given. About a King and a feast, about coming home to dinner. About fullness of life, about joy, not fear. Oh, I want to be able to tell that story. I want to tell it with loaves of bread baked in precious new pots. I want to tell it with Funfetti cake topped with butter cream frosting and sprinkles.  I want to tell it slowly and carefully and with great joy.

The psalmist tells us that “He withholds no good thing …” Psalm 84:11 and I know it to be true. Sometimes the gifts are extra special though. This last week I was given a beautiful blue le Creuset pot, heavy with the hope of bread to break and dinners to share. Newly arrived in Vancouver, only few months ago, I had also been given an preloved Kitchenaid mixer and then, last week, the bowl finally arrived. Talk about stuff being sacred – my heart and my kitchen are full! So I baked in thanks. I baked basic-bread and a party-cake. The stuff of life and the stuff of celebration. I think we need both. We need the reminder that our earthy bodies are nourished both by the earth, and by the One who offers us Himself, the true Bread of Life. And once we have remembered, we need to gather and celebrate His Goodness and His abundant welcome.

Piece of cake, anyone?!

Going back and starting with Joy

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Some of my recent posts have been good to articulate (see Waiting, Walking and Working 1 & 2, and Ambivalent Consumer), but they took precedence over that which should have come before. They are desperate and true and difficult and so need tempering. Sometimes they end in a good place, but, perhaps, with a better beginning, the journey home may not be so hard. I want to return to a framework of joy so that I can work out the issues of embodiment, eating and clothing in a good place, in the right frame. In God’s story of good Creation and full Redemption. In Christ.

In his book, For the Life of the World, Schmemann insists that “from it’s very beginning Christianity has been the proclamation of joy” (24). In the night, in our fragile, expectant state Luke calls out voicing a strong truth, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people” (Luke 2:10). It needs to be my theme verse! Maybe it needs to be yours too! At the other end of his biography of Jesus we see His disciples, beginning to grasp the meaning of that good news “worship[ing] Him and return[ing] to Jerusalem with great joy” (Luke 24:52).

I think that Schmemann is right. It seems imperative we “recover the meaning of this great joy. We must if possible partake of it, before we discuss anything else – programs and missions, projects and techniques” (24-25). In other words, before we ‘do’ our praxis (or even try and figure out what our practical-lived-out-Christian life might be), we need to know, get, do joy. Maybe it will involve something like the Sons of Korah call us to in Psalm 46:10-11. “Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth. The Lord Almighty is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress”. The Lord is indeed with us, John affirms, He came and dwelt with us (1:14), loving us before we loved Him (1 John 4:10).

I suspect my natural tendency is always going to be to skip joy and get to the to-do list. I was so relieved to be told this morning reading Schmemann that I was getting it wrong, putting the cart before the horse, so to speak! The cart goes behind the horse because left in front it will not get anywhere and, by extension, will end up no good to anyone. I need the joy that comes from operating out of a right understanding of reality. That there is One who knows all, made all and loves all that He has made. That I am known and loved by Him, the One who brings real fullness of Life. That He is working good and His plans for cosmic wholeness will come to pass.

The list comes later. It is good and beautiful in its time, but only because these illuminating truths come first and inform it.

So, joy first. Even perhaps, little joys that remind me how to do Big Joy. Flowers that “unsettle the room” (thanks Kirk Patston) bringing grace and beauty. Making things. Talking to friends. All these things are deeply sacred, gifts from the Good Giver. Turning to thank Him for them a chance to be caught up into His Truth again, “the only possible joy on earth” (24), as Schmemann says.

“Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things” (Philippians 4:4-8)

Schmemann, Alexander. For the Life of the World. New York: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1963.

The Story and a beginning

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In honour of making it to the end of first week of Regent I thought I would share this song. Asher and I wrote it together at Compass Conference (now Venn Summer Conference) as a reflection on the week’s teaching – hopefully it will continue to be the first of many (see this other post) with him as composer and me as lyricist – it is a fun combination! Anyhow, he rewrote the lyrics of an older song as a demonstration of his evolving understanding of God’s story, told in the Bible. That unfolding Story is held in high esteem at Regent – one of the reasons why I am particularly thrilled to be here. Anyhow maybe you’ll enjoy it too!

Here is what he said about it;

This song is a re-write of a piece I wrote in ’09 (I think). My wife re-wrote the lyrics last year at Compass Summer Conference (www.venn.org.nz). We had been reflecting on the Creation, Fall, Redemption Story of the Bible and decided to try and put that into a form we could present at the creative presentation night. I felt like I had grown since I wrote the song and wanted to revise my thoughts about how God has not created me to endure this life and then get out of here but to try and be a part of building his kingdom and then looking forward to his coming when he will come and dwell with us:

“Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” Rev 21:1-4

Originally the song was called ‘Heaven is Home’ but Compass was the culmination of me realising that our deepest rest is in God himself and we look forward to his final ‘Mend of the World’. Heaven is when we will finally be with Christ and I look forward to that day.

– Asher

Heaven’s Coming Home

Good morning,
Creations waiting for a word
Skies and seas and rocks and birds
Beauty spoken seen and heard

My darlings,
Welcome to this world its time
To rule this place dear child of mine
Bless, tend, keep and be a sign

Oh, Creation is His throne,
Full of Love He’s shown,
Made to be our home
Made to be our home

Where are you?
Covered now we feel ashamed
Creation feels the weight of pain
What once was joyful now is strained

Lost
Wandering through this desert land,
Everything I taste is bland,
Dare we hope there is a plan?

Oh, we’re longing for a home,
A place to cease our roam,
Are we left alone?
Are we left alone?

He came,
Though He was not recognised,
To fix the broken, shame the wise,
Free the captives, open eyes.

Dying,
Heavens precious only Son,
For the broken, distant ones,
The sacrifice at last was done.

Oh, ascended to the Throne,
Our Father can be known
An invitation home,
An invitation home.

Don’t worry,
Restoration is to come,
Transformation will be done,
Blessing, wholeness, for gathered ones.

At last,
Redemptions story will be told,
Rest and peace as was foretold
Creation once more shot with gold.

Oh, Creation is His throne,
Never on our own,
Heavens coming home,
Heavens coming home

Vegan Christianity?

As I mentioned a few posts ago I have just finished the coursework involved in my Masters of Arts (Food Studies) course. The final essay I worked on involved retelling the history of a particular ‘food movement’, my lecturer suggested veganism. I am so glad she did – studying the growing interest in vegetarianism (focusing on a completely plant-based version) was very stimulating. Although the motivations behind choosing a vegetarian, or indeed vegan, diet often overlap, merging into one larger compulsion – the ideological positions that motivate the move are quite distinct. It was also interesting to note just how early our conversations around eschewing of meat products began – with Pythagoras in the sixth century BC! Porphyry (234-305 AD) is the first to suggest that perhaps meat isn’t enough; that use of milk, wool and honey by humans as also unjust. He did however, decide later that this more extreme position was not necessary. The earliest follower of a vegan diet seems to be Dr William Lambe (so many commentators enjoy that irony!) – although his completely plant-based diet was motivated by health alone. It was not until one of his patients, also following the diet, John Frank Newton, wrote Return to Nature that Lambe’s medical motivations were expanded to include ethical concerns; such as environmental benefits and alleviation of animal suffering. Percy Shelley (the famous English poet) later built on Newton’s work, drawing attention to humanitarian concerns for the human poor (hungry because grain was fed to ‘food animals’ for the wealthy, at their expense). I found it fascinating how similar early motivations for following a plant-based diet were to modern arguments for a similar lifestyle. Religion provides another powerfully motivating reason to follow a vegetable diet – Ancient Hindus, Buddhists and Jains all concerned with ahimsa (non-harm) and the purity it achieves for its followers. Western religions seem more motivated by the purity achieved by a life of acetistism and abstinence.

Most of the vegetarian/vegan discourse seems to occur between England and America – with perhaps a slightly higher focus on the connection between spiritual and physical health occurring in American circles. The influence of Sylvester Graham (think ‘crackers’) and John Kellogg continues in our shopping isles today. Both were heavily involved in church communities and made significant contributions to the development of modern-day nutrition. On the other hand – the history of vegetable diets also introduces us to people like Amos Bronson Alcott and Francis Newman (an Englishman in this case) who appeared to hold a Christian faith, as well as deep social concern for things like the abolition of slavery, equal rights for women and animal rights.

By no means do I want to deny any connection between spiritual and physical health; however, I found other aspects of vegan ideology more compelling. We are placed at an interesting time in the West, food choice is abundant, overwhelming and unguided. Unlike France, we are no longer led by a specific, prevailing food culture. We do not have a specified system of eating that provides the scaffold for our shopping, preparation and consumption. We are adrift in a sea of cafes, processed food, fast food outlets, petrol stations full of junk food, Coles and Woolworth stores, BBQs, gourmet farmers markets, kids parties, gourmet delis etc. and have no guiding compass. Veganism, while extreme, offers an elegant solution to our increasing concern for the atrocities of factory farming (for meat, milk and eggs), environmental sustainability (less animals for food requires less energy and less land), the hungry (1 in 9 across the planet) and eating healthily (less education and more information has led to increasing ambivalence on this issue). It is not hard to understand the modern attraction to plant-based diets.

As a Christian, I am very sympathetic. My lived life, enacted choices should demonstrate my concerns and values. I believe that as it’s Creator, God cares about the world; about its environments, its animals and its people. I do believe that God has a special relationship with people, His image bearers, and that this relationship calls us to care for His world, the environments, animals and other people, as He would. To steward well the world given to us as a gift. Perhaps less discussed is the principle of life-given-for-another God seems to have embedded deeply into the nature of His creation. Both physically (we need food and water to live) and spiritually (we needed Jesus to offer His life for ours) we are dependant on something or someone dying so that we can have life. As Christians we are then called to offer our own lives – our energy, time and love – back to God and for the good of others. We are called to ‘eat and be eaten’ as C. S. Lewis says. The physical and spiritual reality forces us to comprehend the interdependant complexity of life. Passover demands we watch the lamb killed, the blood splashed on the door frame, the meat shared, the people saved. John tells us that Jesus is that Lamb, slain for the sins of the world.

Does that mean that as Christians we have to eat meat? Like the Swedenborgian Bible Christian Church in vegetarian history who insisted on ovo-lacto vegetarianism because the Promise Land was ‘flowing with milk and honey’! I don’t think so. However, I do think that it gives us permission to consider (thoughtful) meat consumption appropriate within Christian practice. On the other hand we still must face the call to consume in line with our call to steward well. To treat the land, the animals and other people with dignity. In light of those concerns I outlined before; feeding the hungry, the cruel realities of factory farming and environmental sustainability in the face of devastating land degradation, I can understand why some Christians choose a vegetarian or even vegan diet. Our human systems developed to nourish, clothe and equip bear the signs of deep brokenness. The very clothes we wear and food we eat implicate us as part of the problem.

While far from having answers to this extensive systemic challenge, I was delighted to engage with an example of embodied expression of belief as I wrote this essay. I want to keep walking here, in the middle of the mess, despite my desire for neat solutions. I imagine that for my family, this will, at the very least, involve quantitatively less meat, and the need to seek out more ‘thoughtfully’ raised animal products. I hope that it also means many more conversations about how to live a life that demonstrates my deep concerns and cares.

Bibliography

Abrams, Jr., H. Leon. 2000. “Vegetarianism: another view”. In The Cambridge World History of Food, edited by Kenneth F. Kiple and Kriemhild Coneè Ornelas, 1564-1574. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.

Berndsen, Mariëtte & van der Pligt, Joop. 2005. “Risks of meat: the relative impact of cognitive, affective and moral concerns”. Appetite, 44: 195–205.

Sneijder, Petra & te Molder, Hedwig. 2009. “Normalizing ideological food choice and eating practices. Identity work in online veganism”. Appetite, 52: 621-630.

Davis, John. 2010. World Veganism – past, present and future. International Vegetarian Union website: Online. Accessed June 17, 2015.

http://www.ivu.org/history/Vegan_History.pdf

Deppe, Michele. 2012. “Clean Eating: getting more of what you need”. Vibrant Life, 28:34-37.

Dywer, J. 2005. “Vegetarian Diets”. In The Encyclopedia of Human Nutrition, edited by Benjamin Caballero, 323-328. Elsevier: Online.

Fox, Nick & Ward, Katie J. 2008. “You are what you eat? Vegetarianism, health and identity”. Social Science & Medicine, 66: 2585-2595.

Gregory, James. 2007. “Physical Puritanism and Medical Orthodoxy”. In Of Victorians and Vegetarians: The vegetarian movement in nineteenth-century Britain, by James Gregory, 69-97. Tauris Academic Studies: London.

Grumett, David & Muers Rachel, eds. 2008. Eating and Believing Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Vegetarianism and Theology. Continuum International Publishing: London.

Grumett, David, and Rachel Muers. 2010. Theology on the Menu: Asceticism, meat and Christian diet. Oxfordshire: Routledge.

Heynen, Nik. 2010. “Cooking up Non-violent Civil-disobedient Direct Action for the Hungry: ‘Food Not Bombs’ and the Resurgence of Radical Democracy in the US”. Urban Studies, 47: 1225-1240.

Hoogland, Carolien T., de Boer, Joop & Boersema, Jan J. 2005. “Transparency of the meat chain in the light of food culture and history”. Appetite, 45: 15-23.

Larsson, Christel L., Rönnlund, Ulla., Johansson, Gunnar & Dahlgren, Lars. 2003. “Veganism as status passage
The process of becoming a vegan among youths in Sweden”. Appetite, 41:61-67.

National Health and Medical research council (NHMRC). 2013. Educator Guide. Canberra: National Health and Medical research council.

Preece, Rod. 2008. Sins of the Flesh: A history of vegetarian thought. Vancouver: UBC Press.

Ruby, Matthew B & Heine, Steven J. 2011. “Meat, morals, and masculinity”. Appetite, 56:447-450.

Schneider, Nathan. 2009. “A History of veganism”. The Candid Hominid Blog, updated 2011. http://www.candidhominid.com/p/vegan-history.html

Whorton, James C. 2000. “Vegetarianism”. In The Cambridge World History of Food, edited by Kenneth F. Kiple and Kriemhild Coneè Ornelas, 1553-1564. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.

Zamir, Tzachi. 2004. “Veganism”. Journal of Social Philosophy, 35: 367–379.

Jabs, Jennifer., Devine, Carol and Sobal, Jeffery. “Model of the Process of Adopting Vegetarian Diets: Health Vegetarians and Ethical Vegetarians”. Journal of Nutritional Education, 30: 196-197.

Growing Things

This is our vegetable garden. I married a gardener. Not that I knew it then, but finding out this year has been a happy turn of events for everyone involved, especially my dad, who has always been happy in the garden. He came and gave some expert advice … and it is looking pretty green out there! It has brought much joy, this shortening of the distance between us and the earth. It seems right that we, its stewards, should get our fingers dirty, just like our creator did in making us. Asher is really enjoying this aspect of imaging his creator, and the green tomato chutney in our fridge is evidence of the fact that the land does bring forth food in season!

“Now no shrub had yet appeared on the earth and no plant had yet sprung up (except those old palms and the big weed in the corner), for … there was no one to work thre ground …” Genesis 2:5)

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“The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it” Genesis 2:15

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Bringing order out of chaos …

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Some of the herbs and tomates had a head start … the seedlings and seeds were new the weekend Dad visited.

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And a few weeks later … now we are getting somewhere!

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“These all look to you, to give them their food in due season. When you give it to them, they gather it up;
when you open your hand, they are filled with good things.” Psalm 104: 27-28

Celebrating Seasons

I’m currently studying a subject for my food and anthropology focused Masters course on the way that people celebrate with food. I wanted to share a little of the readings that were for this week in a few blog posts because the information they covered were really fascinating. What follows is a series of quotes and my reflections on the connections between Native American Indian religious beliefs and their environmental landscape. The exerpts are from Linda Murray Berzok’s book American Indian Food, 2005.

“Land, religion and life were one; agriculture was sacred and hunting holy” (p143)
“Agriculture became a holy labour, capable of bringing the people into profound contact with the powers of life” (p144)
“The act of gathering plants and roots was considered a sacred ritual and celebrated with ceremonies, both when the women first set out … and when they returned to prepare their gleanings” (p151)
As a Christian who believes in a God who made a land for His people to enjoy, tend to and be blessed by, I wonder if recognition of the holiness the land and obtaining nourishment from it would change our gratitude for life and food in important ways.

“Sustenance crops, particularly maize, beans and squash, were considered gifts from sacred beings” (p144)
With amazing and hugely advanced technology it is easy for our food to be something we produced, we become ‘self made’ people and loose our gratitude. We quickly forget the miracle of species, seeds, shoots and seasons that really we only have a small amount of control over …

“sought the blessings of the spirits for this endeavour, oversaw planting at the right time, recited prayers when planting seeds, conducted ceremonies that linked the life cycle of maize and sacrificed sacred foods at the beginning of each year’s harvest.” (p144)
They also had deep convictions about cycles of time; that if they did not uphold “rituals [that] revolved around the cyclical processes that sustained life – hunting, gathering, fishing, planting, growing and harvesting” (p147), “the world would die” (p147).
In our efforts to feed more, grow more and earn more, we have lost our sence of seasonality, the blessing of the (perhaps somewhat inefficient, thankyou Kirk Patston) cycles built into our world that provide for us.

“‘For a people so intensely agrarian for so many centuries of their existence, all of life does result from happenings within the earth, from the union of earth, water and sun.'” (p144)
In many ways this remains true today. Our actions indicate that we, perhaps, just don’t believe it!

They have a “belief that we are what we eat” (p150) which expressed itself a little differently to our understanding of this concept, they thought those eating meat of an animal took on qualities of the animal whose meat was consumed. However, this did engender a respect for the environment and for life given for life that we would do well to better emulate!

Feasting and celebration marked both events in the human life cycle and events in the yearly agricultural cycle; “observing the appearance of the first fruits in the season” (p152). “The … Iquoquois Confederacy – Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga and Seneca – held five feasts in a year; at the time of making maple syrup after planting when they gave thanks for the season and learned from the chiefs how to ensure a good harvest, the Green Corn Feast, the harvest thanksgiving, and at year’s end at the time of the Old Moon around the end of January” (p154).
This made me wonder how and what we celebrate … life in all its stages or only the attractive parts? The birth of babies and 18th Birthdays, engagement and anniversaries but do we really celebrate growing older? Lost of fertility? In some societies these occasions are marked! And then, do we even bother to think beyond occasions that pertain to us and our lives and on to the (now unseen) events that bring us food and sustenance – the beginning of the strawberry harvest? The bringing in of the wheat? These matter to our lives but we live as though they don’t because of our wealth and the increasing distance between the modern western life and the land that sustains it. Those new, autumn mandarins in my fridge definitely deserve celebration I think!

When first food ceremonies were held, these were “ritual preparation for the [harvest] … The food’s spiritual and physical necessity was acknowledged, and forgiveness asked from the spirits assuring them that the food had not been taken wantonly” (p154).
And what if we were constantly aware of not taking food wantonly … would our shopping lists grow shorter? Or involve different shops (perhaps independent stores and local green grocers) or products (perhaps fairtrade or sustainably and compassionately farmed items)? Would we grow more ourselves so we realised just how much work was involved? I don’t have all the answers but I think that they deserve pondering!

Interestingly the author, Linda Murray suggested that the Native American Indian “spiritual beliefs evolved from the need to ensure the food supply” (p143). As a Christian, I see the world a little differently. I see a God who has lovingly created a good, fertile world that was the perfect environment for human flourishing. A place where people ruled under Him, trying to bless the environment He had made for them – to follow Him was not to coerce food from Him but to live full lives as people part of His story.

“He makes grass grow for the cattle, and plants for people to cultivate– bringing forth food from the earth: wine that gladdens human hearts, oil to make their faces shine, and bread that sustains their hearts.” Psalm 104: 14-15

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