Take Up Your Cross

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Awhile back I was planning to go on a short sabbatical. I had never done this before, but situations in our life were prompting me to get away to be alone with God. My plan was to go to my parents’ camper for a few days and spend an extended time in prayer and scripture reading along with many moments of just listening to God. A few days before I was scheduled to leave I was sitting down to read to my son Caleb his bedtime story and pray with him. He comes downstairs and sits down next to me and says, “Daddy, you’re going to die in few days.” I was taken aback by his statement and asked him what he meant. He said you are going to be with Jesus in a few days. My son in his innocence thought I had to die in order to be with Jesus (his mother had told him I was going to be with Jesus while I was gone). As I thought about it I decided that while I wouldn’t die physically while being on my sabbatical something had to die if I was going to draw closer to Christ. Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” –Matthew 16:24

In our western society we feel that we can have it all with a little Jesus on the side. We have become masters at compartmentalizing our life so that we can fool ourselves into thinking we can be happy with what the world offers and yet give Jesus at least a small corner in our life. We become consumers of what the world throws in front of us and in the process also become consumers of Christianity. Far too many times we find it so easy to go to church on Sunday morning, enjoy a time of worship, listen to a good sermon, and then return home to our daily lives. We seldom spend time in God’s Word and prayer becomes a dinnertime activity or at best a passing moment. We may be “good” people and believe that we have our religion and beliefs all right. We believe in Jesus and “know” that we are going to Heaven. The problem is that this is not what Jesus has in mind for us as disciples.

Throughout the Gospels Jesus admonished His disciples to take up their cross and follow Him. In order to be His disciples they must deny themselves, which meant giving up everything. If they tried to save their lives, if they tried to become successful by the world’s standards, they would lose their lives in His Kingdom. To pursue the pleasures of this world was to become a slave to the flesh and be chained to this world. In order to follow Christ and be part of His Kingdom, they had to break the chains of this world and seek first His Kingdom. The rules haven’t changed. We are still under the same expectations as disciples as those first disciples. “And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.” – Matthew 10:38

Dying to self is never optional. If we truly deny ourselves there is nothing that can stop us from being obedient to God. We need to put to death our sinful ways and lifestyles. The selfish pleasures that we once engaged in and pursued need to be replaced with a passion for what pleases God. If we do not do this completely can we really call ourselves disciples? Jesus has a name for people who enjoy being called Christians without sacrifice…lukewarm.

“I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth. For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.” – Revelation 3:15-17

God has plans for us. If we pursue His will He will provide for our every need. For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” – Jeremiah 29:11. But we need to be obedient and not double-minded. Christ needs to be first in our lives and we need to actively pursue a real relationship with Christ.

Father, help me to not be lukewarm. Lead me as I pursue your heart’s desire. Make my will your will. I trust you to care for my needs as I take up my cross daily. – Amen

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Humbly Seeking

seekingMy son Caleb is always asking me questions. There are times when he asks things like “do cows make ice cream?” In a round about way the answer to that question is yes. Other times he asks will me tougher, more deep questions like “what is sin?” It surprises me sometimes the range of questions a 5 year old will come up with. Most of his questions are more along the lines of, “Daddy can I ride my bike?” or “Daddy can I have this toy?”  When he asks me this type of question there is no doubt as to what his will is. His will is to ride his bike or play with a certain toy. When my will does not match his will conflict occurs, which may lead to a grumpy face and sometimes ultimately to him spending time with his nose against the wall in time-out. Recently, I realized that I needed to spend some time with my nose against the wall after asking my Heavenly Father for something.

I thought what I was asking for was God’s will. I thought it all made perfect sense. I even went so far as to feel that I was sacrificing and that God would be honored by what I wanted to do. Wasn’t this what God wanted for me? Wasn’t this his will for me and my family? I prayed so hard for God to move and make things work out the way that I thought that they should. I would wake-up every morning praying and go to bed each night praying. Didn’t Jesus say in Matthew 7:7, “Ask and it will be given to you“? I asked. I asked a lot. When God did not move in the direction that I thought made sense, I had that split second when I got all grumpy face and wanted to fall down on the ground kicking and screaming. Though it only lasted for a second, it was still there and I had to repent.

You see, I believe that we have a misunderstanding of prayer, especially prayers of supplication. Many times we approach God with prayer believing we know what should happen and that if we would just pray hard enough and long enough we can get what we want. If God can just see how good we are and listen to our prayers, He will bless us with what we want. This is messed-up thinking! Daniel had it right when he prayed, “O my God, incline your ear and hear. Open your eyes and see our desolations, and the city that is called by your name. For we do not present our pleas before you because of our righteousness, but because of your great mercy” (Daniel 9:18). Did you catch that? Daniel was not presenting his request because he thought he was right and the request was righteous, but because he trusted in a God who is merciful. In the same way, it is not our quantity, quality, or the righteousness of our prayers, or our own righteousness, that move God to act. It is His mercy that moves God. We need to have the same attitude that Daniel had. In verse 19 Daniel is continuing to pray for forgiveness and mercy. This needs to be our physical and spiritual posture in prayer…..humbleness.

It is in humbleness that we ask God to move in our lives, and it is in humbleness we accept God’s answer to our prayers. It is in humbleness that our will is changed. It is in humbleness that we grow an become more like Christ. And isn’t that our goal as Christians?

 But this is the one to whom I will look: he who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at my word. Isaiah 66:2b

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Waking On Water

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And in the fourth watch of the night he came to them, walking on the sea. But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, and said, “It is a ghost!” and they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them, saying, “Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.” And Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat and walked on the water and came to Jesus. But when he saw the wind, he was afraid, and beginning to sink he cried out, “Lord, save me.” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and took hold of him, saying to him, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” And when they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.” -Matthew 14:25-33

There can be no doubt that if the Apostles Paul and Peter were on tour together that Paul would get top billing. Paul wrote 13 of the 27 books of the New Testament while Peter maybe wrote three. Why shouldn’t Paul get top billing?  But sometimes I think that Peter gets the short end of the stick in the shadow of Paul’s apostleship. I find it hard sometimes to relate to Paul. I have not been a pharisee who persecuted the church, but like many of us, I consider myself a regular person like Peter the fisherman who has been changed by the touch of Jesus Christ.

Now I admit that Peter was somewhat of a dolt at times. Imagine you are Peter and you are creating your resume and you have to begin with the:

  • I walked on water with Jesus, but didn’t have enough faith to make it all the way to Him.
  • I denied Jesus three times, though I was restored by Jesus later.
  • I was at Jesus’ transfiguration, but put my foot in my mouth when I suggested we build three shrines.
  • I rebuked Christ, and was rebuked back in the process.
  • I cut the ear off the servant of the High Priest to protect Jesus, which Jesus in turned healed.
  • I was chastised by the Apostle Paul for being prejudiced towards the gentiles.

Not exactly stellar, career-advancing activities. But at closer examination Peter really did have some good characteristics. He was passionate, though sometimes misdirected. He was the boldest of all the Apostles. He knew he was unworthy of the love of Christ, “But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord” (Luke 5:8). It is Peter who the Holy Spirit decides to use at Pentecost to preach and 3,000 people believe in Christ. He willingly suffered persecution, imprisonment, beatings, and even rejoiced at the fact that he was worthy to suffer disgrace for the Lord‘s sake (Acts 5:41). Peter was a natural leader, it just took the Holy Spirit to bring it out in him. Even then, he still had some trouble. He was rebuked by Paul for not eating with the gentiles when Jews were around. I am finding more and more that I can more easily relate to Peter than to Paul.

Many times I have to extract my foot from my mouth. I can be impulsive and act without thinking through the consequences and listening to those around me. I can be extremely passionate about somethings, and sometimes my greatest passion is actually focused on what it should be focused upon. I am understanding more and more that I am not worthy of the love of Christ and the blessings that He has given me, especially as I draw closer to Christ. My faith at times is not what it should be, but I have hope that if Jesus could use Peter he can use me. He can change me and use me beyond anything I could ever imagine to further His kingdom. I just need to be willing to get out of the boat and walk on the waves of this world in faith by keeping my eyes on Christ.

Father, I am not worthy of You. I am a sinful man amongst a sinful people, but you have redeemed me and lifted me from my sin. Help me to keep my eyes focused on you. Help me not to not be swallowed by the waves of this world so that I can be used by You to bring You praise and glory that is due your name. Use me to build Your kingdom through the power of the Holy Spirit. – Amen

 

 

 

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Good Dirt

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And he told them many things in parables, saying: “A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured them. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and immediately they sprang up, since they had no depth of soil, but when the sun rose they were scorched. And since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and produced grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. He who has ears, let him hear.” – Matthew 13:3-9

I love to see my vegetable garden growing. Right now the plants are beginning to get stronger and taller as we get into the hotter days. It is always amazing to think about how the dirt was before I started the process of putting in the garden and where it is now. It always makes me think of this passage from Matthew.

The dirt in my garden boxes gets hard and compacted down by the weight of the winter snow and early spring rains. The soil must be broken-up and worked to loosen it up in order to allow the seeds to be able to push through and grow. If I just planted seeds on top of the hard soil, it would be like the path in the parable above. The seeds would just sit on top and not germinate properly and the birds would just come along and eat all of my seeds. There are times in my life that I have been like this soil, hard and compacted in spirit. The “birds” of this world come along and steel the seed and my joy. It takes God breaking my spirit and preparing me for the seed He wants to plant.

The content of the soil in my garden is very important. I do not use just any old dirt in my garden boxes. I use a combination of peat moss, compost, and vermiculite. What is vermiculite? It is actually one of the softest stones on Earth. It is a silicate that allows the water to easily flow through my soil. Too much vermiculite and my boxes won’t hold the water, too little vermiculite and my plants will drown. Our lives are like this. We all have rocky places in our lives. Too many, and the soil is not deep enough for the seed that God plants in us to take root and it will wither in the heat of of our lives. If we don’t have a little of rocky soil in our lives we will never learn to depend on God and we will do everything by our own power and ability. We need just the right level of rocks and soil depth so that the Gospel that God plants in us can take root and grow us toward harvest time.

The great thing about my garden boxes is that I do not have to get down on the ground to weed my garden. I can just walk around them and reach in and pull out anything that doesn’t belong. It amazes me that even though the garden boxes are four foot high and the soil is specially mixed that I still get grass and weeds that try to take over. In just a few days weeds that were no where to be seen are sprouting up and trying to take over. The “weeds” or thorns in our lives are just as sneaky and progressive. If we are not careful, things that seem innocent and innocuous will turn out to be the catalyst for our downfall. We need to guard our hearts:

Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life. Put away perversity from your mouth; keep corrupt talk far from your lips. Let your eyes look straight ahead, fix your gaze directly before you. Make level paths for your feet and take only ways that are firm. Do not swerve to the right or the left; keep your foot from evil. -Proverbs 4:23-27

I have the best soil I can provide to help my plants grow, and part of that good soil is compost. What is compost? Cow patties mixed with other material. Yes, decayed cow manure. This nutrient rich material helps my plants to grow, but too much and it will destroy my garden. It will actually make my soil too acidic to grow anything. Our lives are that way sometimes. We all have our share of stinky “cow poop” in our lives. At a certain level, it helps us grow and become more like Christ. God works it into our lives and we grow. Think of Job. He had an abundance of  compost dumped on him. He came out of that situation better than when he entered, and hopefully his friends and wife were changed for the better. We need a good mix of prayer, scripture, and worship, mixed in with the “compost”of this life on earth in order for the seed that God plants in us to grow.

There is one more element that must be added to help in making my plants grow. That element is water. Without water my plants would wither and die. It takes regular watering to make sure that my garden remains healthy and the harvest will be plentiful. I collect rain water and use it on my garden because I believe it is better for my garden than water out of the faucet. I have gotten to the point now that I can tell when my plants are thirsty for a drink of water. I can see the signs in the plants that they need water. Amazingly I can also sense those times in my life when I need to drink from the “living water.”

On the last and greatest day of the Feast, Jesus stood and said in a loud voice, “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within him.” John 7:37-38

The world offers us a faucet full of “water” that always seems to be turned all the way on. It seems a whole lot easier to just open the world’s faucet and drink from what pours out. To collect the rain water that God provides takes a lot of extra work and extra time. The water from the world’s faucet will never fully satisfy no matter how much we drink, but a small amount of living water that comes from God will always satisfy.

Father, we praise you for you are the farmer who plants the seed in us and gives us the ability to help it grow. Break us when our soil gets too compacted and hard. Help us to go deep into your word so that our soil is deep enough to grow. Give us just enough rocky places go allow us to grow and not depend only on ourselves. Help us to weed out the thorns of this world that long to choke us and keep us from you. Make us good soil and water us with living water that fully satisfies. May you be blessed and praised. – Amen

 

 

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Blessing, Not Cursing

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Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. – Romans 12:14

We have all had people in our lives that have caused us to want to curse them. Everyone from the person who cuts you off in traffic to a relative who gets under your skin every time you are with them. Our normal human response is to wish them ill will. I mean, how many times have you been cut off in traffic and wished that a police officer was around to catch the guy who just about slammed into your car? Even worse, have you ever actually wished that something bad would happen to them?

A curse according to scripture is more than just speaking evil about someone. It is desiring evil to come upon someone. If a person is under a curse, according to the Bible, evil has come upon them in some way. Sickness, tragedy, or bad circumstances are occurring in their lives. Now this does not mean that every problem we have in our lives are the result of a curse. There are times that God allows circumstances to stretch our faith. These times help us grow stronger and allow us to identify with Christ, who suffered greatly at the end of His life.

The Bible is full of curses. The first curse appears in Genesis 3:14:

“The LORD God said to the serpent, “Because you have done this, cursed are you above all livestock and above all beasts of the field; on your belly you shall go, and dust you shall eat all the days of your life.” 

Because the serpent tempted Eve, he was cursed by God. God goes on to curse woman and man for their actions. Hence, we live in the kind of world we live in today. We live with the results of the curse given to man and woman. There are also numerous curses that affect numerous generations because on the actions of one person. The common denominator in all these curses is that the curse was given by God and it was due to the action of an individual or a people.

Now, that being said, I do believe that Satan and his demons do have power in this world. But, they do not have power over those who are true believers in Jesus Christ. James 4:7 tells us to, “Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.” If we fully submit ourselves to God then Satan has no power over us. He won’t just leave us alone, he will flee.

As a true believer in Jesus Christ I must be sure not to curse anyone. Cursing is God’s prerogative, not mine. We are not to return evil for evil, but we are to overcome evil with good (Romans 12:21). We should always forgive those who wrong us, even when they don’t ask for forgiveness, because it is very possible that they don’t even know what they did. Forgiveness is our responsibility, not the person who wronged us. We should always speak good and pray for others, even those who seek us harm.

The tongue of the wise commends knowledge.” (Proverbs 15:2a)  “A gentle tongue is a tree of life.” (Proverbs 15:4a)e:

Father, please forgive me when I curse when I should bless. Help me to resist Satan so that he will flee from me. Lord, I pray for those who have cursed me. I pray that they will be blessed and that they will come to know you more and more. Father, you are all powerful and nothing on Earth, above the Earth, or under the Earth can overpower you. Help me to have a gentle tongue. May your praises always be on my lips, so that I may be a blessing to all those I encounter. I pray this in the name of your Son, Jesus Christ. – Amen.

 

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Perseverance

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My family recently took a much needed vacation to the mountains in Georgia. We stayed in a Bavarian town called Helen and we had an awesome time. Our condo was on the Chattahoochee river and all the red buds and dogwoods were in bloom. It was a very peaceful and restful place to be. 

One day we decided to go and visit one of the many waterfalls that are in the immediate area. We thought we might get to hit at least two waterfalls before the kids gave out, so we got in the car and headed for our first waterfall. When we stopped and got out of the car we were all filled with excitement. It had rained pretty hard a few days earlier and there was sure to be a lot of water coming over the falls. We went down the first set of steps and were a little apprehensive because it told us that the observation deck was .1 miles ahead and foot of the falls was 1.1 miles ahead. Now my wife and I could easily make this trip without too much effort, but we had a 4 year old and a 2 year old with us. I also have a bad back and my wife had thrown her back out earlier in the week, so carrying the kids would be a difficult endeavor, but decided to push on and try to make the 1.1 mile trek to falls.

The first leg of our journey was pretty easy. There were short areas of path and then wooden steps and decking to walk on. We thought, “hey, this ain’t so bad. We can make it.” Then we came to the end of the steps. We could hear water rushing and and we became more excited as we knew that the falls were just around the next bend. We were happily walking along and enjoying the beauty and majesty of God’s creation when we came around the next bend and realized that the waterfall was a lot farther away than we thought. We decided to press on, we had come this far why quit now. After another 15 minutes of walking, the trail turned back on itself and continued to descend to the foot of the falls. Unfortunately, our kids were done. They were crying and complaining that they couldn’t do it. We decided to turn back and make our way back to the car. Understand that the whole way was uphill and the kids were unable to walk uphill all the way. My wife and I ended up carrying them most of the way on our back or shoulders with many stops along the way.

That night I was getting ready to read to the kids and opened my pad to the place in the Bible that I had been earlier in the day. I was in Colossians in The Message. I don’t normally read the Bible in The Message, but I thought I would try it just once. Here is what I read to my kids,

We pray that you’ll have the strength to stick it out over the long haul—not the grim strength of gritting your teeth but the glory-strength God gives. It is strength that endures the unendurable and spills over into joy, thanking the Father who makes us strong enough to take part in everything bright and beautiful that he has for us. -Colossians 1:11-12

I went on to explain to my children that just like today when we had to carry them back to the car because they could not do it on their own, and we kept telling them to be brave and that they could make it, God will carry us through the things that we feel we cannot endure. I also said that God has some amazing things to show us in our lives if we just press on and find our strength in Him. I am not sure if they understood it all, but I think that God was telling me and my wife this more than our kids.

God has plans for us. He promised Jeremiah in 29:11 that , “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.” I believe that this holds true for us. God has plans that He will help us see through to the end. But we will not see those plans by our own “gritting your teeth” strength, but by the “glory-strength” that only comes from God.

Don’t grow weary in doing well
Don’t surrender in the fight
Keep on storming the gates of hell
Keep on doing what you know is right

For there will be seasons of testing
And there maybe weeping for a night
But soon we’ll be reaping the blessing
If we keep pressing on toward the prize

Keep on praying in the Spirit
Keep on walking in the Light
Don’t be fearful or discouraged
Keep on doing what you know is right

 
Father God, I love you and praise you. You are my Abba Father. Help me lord to find my strength in the “glory-strength” and not in my own truly weak strength. May you get all the glory an honor that is due your name. Help me to persevere and not give up when it seems hopeless and yet the goal you have set before me is in sight. Lord, I trust your judgement and your plans for my life. Help me to walk in them not stumble. Amen.
 

 

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Prayer Breathing

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And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” – John 20:22

Take a deep breath and hold it. How long can you hold it in? When was the last time you heard of someone dying because they were holding their breath? You haven’t heard of anyone because it is not possible to die from holding your breath. Why is that? Because your body will not allow it. Unless you have something covering your mouth and nose your body will automatically force you to take a breath.

I am finding that as I get older I am taking more shallow breaths. It gets so bad sometimes that my body will involuntarily take a huge breath in order to get enough oxygen into my lungs. It is a little disconcerting to all of a sudden have my body do something that I cannot control. It is even more disconcerting to my wife. I talked to my doctor about it and he said it was normal and that experts are finding that more people are not breathing as deep as they used to. I have found that I need to intentionally take deeper breaths in order to keep my body from forcing a deep gulp of air.

Sadly, I am finding that my prayer “breathing” is mirroring my physical breathing. While my prayer life is occuring and I pray throughout the day, I do not believe that it has the depth in order to give my spirit the “oxygen” that it needs. It is like I am ankle deep, but I need to go deep enough for the water to cover my head. I need to emerse myself in the presence of God. I need to go deeper. I have started to go deeper in my scripture reading. I have been devouring scripture like someone who hasn’t eaten anything in weeks. I can’t get enough of it. Even though I have read the Bible completely through at least a dozen times, I am finding that I have a new longing for listening to the words of God. I need to transfer this desire to my prayer time.

Now before you start giving me all the techniques and methods for going deeper in prayer I want to say that I probably know all of them. You see, methods and techniques will not get to the job done. I fear that today there is a tendency within Christianity to deal with symptoms instead of dealing with the root cause. As a side note, I am also seeing this within the medical field, but that is for another time. In Christianity we try to modifiy the behavior hoping that our actions will change. This is a very common way that most people deal with their addictions, especially pornography addiction. While modifying the behavior has a short-term success, over the long haul we automatically return to our old patterns. Proverbs 26:11 says, “Like a dog that returns to his vomit is a fool who repeats his folly.” If we don’t get to the root of our actions, our actions will never change and we continue to fall back into our “folly.” We truly are fools.

That being said, what is the root cause of my shallow prayer life? I believe that it is my lack of love for Christ. That is a very hard thing to admit. It breaks my heart to say that I don’t love Christ enough. I can try to justify where I am, but when I do that the arguments all come up empty. I have to ask myself, “Is Jesus Lord of my life?” If he is, then my prayer life would be deep. Am I putting Christ first? If I am then my spirit would have plenty of “oxygen.” As it is I have a long way to go, but I am going in the right direction. Will you come along with me? How is your prayer life? Are you having to take deep “breaths” in order for your spirit to have enough “oxygen?” Are you ankle deep when you should be completely covered? The place that I am starting is right here:

“Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.” – Psalm 139:23-24

Father, I praise you for searching my heart. You know me better than I know myself. Search me deep Father! Cleanse me from any grievioius way that is in me. Help me to breathe you in so that my spirit is full. Give me a desire not just for your Word, but for your presence in prayer. Give me a hunger that can only be fulfilled by time spent talking to You. You are my hope and salvation. I praise your name. Thank you for loving me beyond understanding, even when I don’t seem to love you enough. Amen.

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