Choices and More Choices

“Chicken, beef or vegetarian?”

The text was from the planners for an upcoming banquet. My meal choice was needed and I quickly shot back my answer. I was hungry.

Ahh, wouldn’t it be nice if all decisions in life were that easy?

They’re not. Most the time I hate being pushed into issuing a verdict. I often try to put off coming to a conclusion as long as possible because I naturally doubt my initial conviction. Yet it seems there’s always some kind of decision I’m being asked to make—financially, vocationally, relationally, politically, ethically, spiritually, medically, nutritionally, etc., etc. Some feel easy, some seem irrelevant, while others overwhelm me as completely impossible. And I must remember that procrastination and even not choosing at all are all choices. I can’t get away from them!

Following Jesus is the choice I want to focus on. It’s actually a decision made up of many choices: daily, hourly and even minute by minute. They determine what I believe, think and do, as well as how I react, love, hate, give, trust others, and distract myself, all in light of truly being a follower of Jesus.  And sooner or later an outcome chases after each one—outcomes, that for better or worse, I must own.

Consequences

Joshua said it several thousand years ago, “Choose this day whom you will serve” (Joshua 24:15). He was fed up with the people of his country waffling on important issues like who their god was going to be. I find, however, that I so dread the thought of being stuck with the results of a bad choice (I don’t have all the information after all) that I look for ways to avoid committing at an intersection in life. Saying ‘yes’ to one thing means saying ‘no’ to one or more others. What if a better option comes along? Can’t I just hold off and sit here for a while, no obligations? Of course I can; that’s a choice. And it will eventually produce some kind of consequence.

As a result, it’s easy to just let life happen, which is releasing others to make choices for me. That then becomes my choice with its own set of consequences. I’m sure that some who were listening to Joshua were thinking, if not saying out loud, “But what if a better god comes along?” Hmm. And how did that work out for them?

They’re Ours to Own

The irony of making decisions is that while we want, and even fight for, the right to make our own choices—resisting the commands of those “Joshuas” who want to control us—we also struggle with it. There are many times we would rather someone just tell us what to do. Choosing can be hard and confusing work. It’s nice to have someone who’s figured it out give us the answer. And if in the end their judgment was wrong then it wasn’t our fault. Right?

Unfortunately, for that way of thinking, an irrefutable law stalks us: everything about our choices belong to us. We choose, whether we realize it or not, how we respond to everything that is thrown at us, even the things we didn’t choose: our DNA, our upbringing and all those crazy, painful outside circumstances or abuses. Though it feels like we don’t have a choice, we still must decide our response, our attitude and our actions. What we do with all that is given or thrust upon us is ours! And as much, if not more, these choices are what make us who we are, for good or for ill.

 A lot of Choices to Examine

I want to use this blogging space going forward to talk about what it means to move through every day as a follower of Jesus, depending on His grace but recognizing all the choices before us. There’s actually many to look at because walking with Jesus involves our entire life—every part. And like so many other choices, not committing or half committing our lives to Him (is it possible to half-commit to my wife?) has an eternal consequence.

So, take Joshua’s challenge and choose. Some choices will be as simple as deciding between chicken or beef. Others will force you to search more deeply, determining WHO you’re going to serve each day. And your options are quite limited on that last one. For, as the Bible communicates and one of our American cultural prophets, Bob Dylan, has said, “You’re gonna have to serve somebody. It may be the devil or it may be the Lord, but you’re gonna have to serve somebody.”

The choice is yours.

Reflections

  • What are some of the choices I regularly make that I rarely if ever think about?
  • In what ways do my everyday choices reflect my level of commitment to following Jesus?
  • What is the most powerful influencer of my choices? Circumstances? Feelings? Values?

Choosing to Get Unstuck

It’s a nameless, forgotten movie from my childhood. But one scene has remained etched in my mind for decades. Perhaps it’s a composite of multiple movies. An individual walking through a trackless jungle steps into quicksand. He tries to work his way out, but the more he moves, the deeper he sinks. Fortunately, he has a companion who avoided the trap and is able to throw the sinking man a rope or stick from the edge of the quagmire and pull his friend to safety.

Why has this episode remained so vivid in my memory? It’s probably due to the sheer terror that comes with imagining being so powerless in such a deadly situation. For years afterward, I was on constant lookout in my wanderings through woods or rural areas for any miry hole that I could stumble into. Afterall, I might not have someone there to pull me out.

Helplessness is a terrible feeling. The inability to move out of an unpleasant, restrictive, or toxic situation can eventually squeeze the life out of a person. Whether it’s life-sucking addictions, character-crushing jobs, soul-suffocating relationships, or mind-numbing boredom, to be unable to lift one’s self out of a cheerless pit is cause for all categories of despair. How does one find freedom?

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Choosing Gratitude

I am afflicted with a condition that I understand many men have. I often cannot see what is right in front of my face. The can of soup I’m looking for in the pantry mysteriously disappears when I go to retrieve it. I’m perplexed and frustrated. And then my wife steps in and produces it out of thin air. How is that possible? To my embarrassment, it isn’t a mere coincidence. 

Somehow, she can see what is there. I look, and if it is not where I imagined it should be, or if it is a different color or shape than I assumed, or not moving, blindness settles in. Items in plain sight vanish. I experience this while searching for socks, medicine, keys, and books more often than I care to admit. 

But I’ve come to see that it also is a condition that affects my soul.

Blind to What I Have

I am naturally programmed to focus my attention on what I cannot see—that is, what is not immediately in my grasp. My mind is alert to comparing my status, career, possessions, education, relationships, experiences, and health to those around me. Often, however, I come out on the short end. What I have doesn’t seem enough and I become agitated. This blinds me to what I do possess. I don’t see what I really have. And sometimes It’s not necessary to compare myself to anyone; I just see everything in my life and all that’s around me as wrong.

When our family has a financial need, my tendency is to then focus on the many other things that are not ours. Something breaks in our house that I cannot immediately afford to repair, and my eyes then zero in on the walls that need to be painted, the deck that needs to be sanded and stained, the roof that will soon need to be replaced and I feel myself slipping into depression. What I fail to take in and savor in those moments is that we’ve actually been blessed with a house to live in! 

What a terrible sickness this is!

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Choosing to Look UP

As a kid, I loved to do pencil drawings. I received so much affirmation from my sketches that I decided that I should learn to paint and become a professional artist when I grew up. But the problem was that for every drawing or painting I completed, there were 10 I abandoned part-way through. They just never looked right. I became unsure of my ambition to attend art school once I realized that I couldn’t distinguish certain shades of color. My younger brother burst into hysteria one day over a self-portrait that I thought was perfect. He pointed out through howls of laughter that I had painted myself green. That pretty much ended my dream and at the same time assured me that I couldn’t trust my own abilities.

I realize now that my idea of a perfect drawing or painting was so narrow that I could never fulfill it. In my belief system at the time, there were only two ways to create a picture, the right way and the wrong way. Unfortunately, my understanding of art wasn’t mature enough to question any unarticulated definitions of right and wrong. And so, my old sketchbooks are littered with abandoned and incomplete drawings.* I’ve often wondered what could have been if I had learned to relax, appreciate the process, and creatively discover something new rather than fixating on a specific end product and the fear of not attaining it.

Avoiding Failure

What is it that lures people into the perfectionistic trap? I’m sure there are many answers to such a question, depending on the specific task at hand. Some might say they just want what they do to be the best it can be. Others link their personal value to achieving specific goals. What they accomplish, however, rarely matches what they believe ought to be.

For me, perfectionism has always manifested when I narrow down success at a task to a razor-thin definition. If I don’t see how my expectation can be attained, I usually stop trying. And when it comes to making decisions, my greatest concern is to avoid making the wrong one. Therefore, I tend to procrastinate. Putting off a conclusion as long as possible feels like a better option than failure.

Thinking Outside the Box

I recently finished reading an old classic titled Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions. It’s a strange story, written in 1884, in which the narrator, a square, describes what his life is like living in a two-dimensional world. There is no such thing as up or down in his reality, only right, left, forward, or backward. All that can be seen of others are single lines since there’s no understanding of height. It’s all he’s ever known, and he’s perfectly fine with it until a three-dimensional creature, a sphere, enters his world and tries to convince him that there’s a whole other way of experiencing reality. By jumping, the newcomer can suddenly disappear in the eyes of the flat square. And depending on which part of himself is in the two-dimensional world, the sphere can change the length of the line that represents himself–all to the utter amazement of the two-dimensional creatures watching.

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Choosing to Hear God

As I pulled up to the stop light in a Dallas suburb, I mumbled under my breath, “Right, left or straight?” The word “right” lingered in my mind, so I made the turn. My knuckles were white clinging to the steering wheel, and every muscle in my body felt like tightly wound guitar strings. As I rounded the corner, a row of yellow buses were parked ahead. An incredulous sigh of relief burst from my lungs.

I had been distracted and failed to get directions to my 13-year-old daughter’s volleyball tournament in Dallas. Our family was at a hotel in the city for a week-long conference. I had the task of picking Natalie up after her last game so that she could join the rest of us at the hotel. Her coach had agreed that I should come get her just before the team drove back to our hometown of Lindale, nearly 100 miles away. Family cell phones were yet a thing of the future. I had no way of calling to get directions or inform her that she should just ride back with her team and stay with a friend till our conference ended. My little girl was going to be left on a Dallas street corner with evening coming on! It was my fault, and I was desperate.

And then an absurd thought: “You believe that God speaks? Ask Him to guide you to the tournament site.”

With the sun getting low, I didn’t debate the idea long. I pulled out of the hotel parking lot, repeating my four-word prayer at every intersection, trying to keep all the rational questions at bay. And then after about 20 minutes, I saw her standing beside one of the tournament school buses. I was dumbfounded. It had really worked!

God, the Communicator

It was a long time before I shared this experience with anybody, mainly because I felt like such a bad father having forgotten to get the directions. But it was a profound reminder of what the Bible reveals—that God cares, He speaks, and He wants us to hear and respond (1 Samuel 3:1-11; John 10:2-5). He has even more to say than merely providing driving directions.

As followers of Jesus, what’s keeping us from hearing Him?

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Choosing to Embrace the Atonement

I wasn’t more than ten years old when I watched my grandfather butcher a pig. Contrary to what some might imagine, I don’t think I was emotionally damaged by it. Sure, it was gruesome and bloody. But I also remember thinking that this is how we get food. I liked meat. I liked the idea of nourishing my body. And that was enough for my kid’s way of thinking to justify the act and not blame my grandfather for any cruelty.

Years later I learned that there was a lifestyle called vegetarianism. A classmate confronted me with the horrors of murdering living creatures for human consumption. I was troubled. Was it wrong to kill an animal for food? And then I read the novel When the Legends Die in one of my high-school English classes. It told the story of a young Native American struggling to navigate the traditional ways of his parents with the practices of white men that had been thrust upon him. At one point, the protagonist returns to the forest to hunt like his father had. After killing a deer, he thanks it for its sacrifice so that he, a man, can eat and live.

Kind of weird to pray to a dead animal, but something about it left an imprint on my imagination.

Death for the Innocent?

After all these years, this scene is the only one I remember from that book. It helped me visualize and articulate a personal proverb that was forming in my mind and that I’ve never forgotten: sacrifice precedes life, and thanksgiving is always the appropriate response.

Life in this world holds a mysterious quality that’s difficult to explain. The death of something innocent—like a deer or pig—makes it possible for something or someone else to have what is needed to live. On the surface, it doesn’t feel fair or even right. Why does something living have to die? Yet it’s the way it is—the circle of life, as some call it. Even vegetarians must kill certain living plants to nourish life in their own bodies. And gratitude is always the humble and right response.

Throughout human history this insight, in one form or another, has been developed, and implemented. Animal sacrifices have not always been merely to provide for food but also for appeasing deities to gain favors that would supposedly improve human existence. Human sacrifices were thrown into the mix as well. The ancient cultures of the Egyptians, Chinese, Carthaginians, and Aztecs are a few of the many that believed the more precious the sacrifice (an innocent child, accomplished warrior, or virgin), the greater the ultimate benefit for the community. It made sense to them, though it’s mere murder in our minds today.

Biblical Sacrifices

The ancient Israelites, also, were instructed to make bloody offerings, though not human. Perfectly-formed bulls and lambs gave up their lives to somehow provide a holy covering for the imperfect Jewish community. Their tabernacle and temple served as places for the continual butchering of animals. Why? Though never thoroughly explained to the satisfaction of modern rationalism, a theme of the innocent dying for the sake of the guilty runs throughout the Hebrew scriptures.

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Choosing to Grow Like a Child

I turn another year older this week. It’s funny how my excitement and attitude toward birthdays have changed since I was young. They used to be the happy focal point for my entire year. It’s easy now to slip into a dark gloom as I count down to those milestone birthdays that mock my youthful days. What is there to look forward to as the number of candles on my cake moves well beyond a half century?

Other than increased body aches and my age corresponding with the decade that gave us lava lamps and bubble wrap, I haven’t minded getting older. I have experienced benefits, and I try to focus on those. The youthful angst is gone. I care less about what others think about me and feel freer to be and do life according to how God made me. I thoroughly enjoy solitary moments but believe more than ever that I have valuable things to offer others. And as I reflect on what has been the most important ingredient contributing to my growth from a shy, foolish, insecure boy to a man who is less shy, less foolish, and less insecure, I realize there’s been an anomaly at work.

A paradox is a statement or idea that seems contradictory at face value but when examined more closely is quite true. It’s easy to overlook such things since much of the time we don’t probe beyond the surface of an idea. The paradox that so many miss, and that I believe to be a key to greater wisdom and maturity while aging, is that I must become more like a child. Yes. I’m confident that valuing, embracing, and living out qualities that we typically attribute to children will change any life for the better.

Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, anyone who doesn’t receive the Kingdom of God like a child will never enter it” (Mark 10:15, NLT).

What does a Child Have to Offer?

Why would Jesus make such a counter-intuitive statement? It sounds like He’s insisting that experienced, educated, sophisticated adults become like small children to get close to God. Yes. On the surface, it sounds a bit foolish or naïve. But to start with, at least it assures me that God likes kids and has invested something in them that He considers important.

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Choosing God’s Definition of Love

I was in Lhasa, Tibet the first time I saw someone physically bow in worship to a statue. The Buddhist temple was filled with smoky incense, and dozens of people prostrated before a grinning image. Sunday-school stories of the ancient Israelites giving offerings to idols bubbled up from my memory. It was difficult to comprehend there were people today still worshiping gods made of wood and metal. The second Commandment came to mind: “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them” (Exodus 20:4, ESV).

My next thought: “I’m so glad we don’t carve images and worship them in our Western culture.”

Of course, I’m embarrassed now that I blindly believed the American people were idol-free. As a nation, we’ve made gods out of so many things, it’s mind blowing. Money and comfort are only the tip of the proverbial iceberg. There are all kinds of stuff we worshipfully run after to make our lives feel easier and worthwhile. We have relational idols—ideal connections with others that we trust will remove or cover our loneliness and give a greater sense of significance. We have philosophical and political idols—ideas we count on to provide a sense of control and self-determination. We even have religious idols—reshaped images of God that allow us to better relate to, manage, and fit the divine into our lifestyle.

Yes, we still worshipfully “carve” and fashion things and ideas into shapes we believe will benefit us. And we then bow down in submission, living our lives and treating others according to how these “gods” dictate.

Buddhist temples have nothing on us.

The Shape of Love?

One such thing I have noticed popping up more and more among Christians is the refashioned image of love. We quickly assume we know what it is: to show love is to affirm the feelings and personal interests of another. Granted, sometimes that is how love is manifested. But as far as a definition goes, it’s not quite what’s presented in the scriptures.  Nobody today disagrees that we need more love in our society. However, if you ask someone what the word means, you’re likely to hear something about being nice and letting people alone to do whatever they want.

The most succinct definition of love in the Bible is found in 1 John 4:8: “God is love.” It’s important to note that it doesn’t merely say God is loving. In other words, love is the essence of the totality of God’s being. It’s not just what He does, it’s what He is.

Some are drawn to this definition because it allows us to call out anyone who does something that we consider unloving as working against or opposing God. If God’s essence is love and we claim that His Spirit indwells us, then love is what we should be all about. And someone who isn’t loving is thus “Godless.”

However, if we’re going to take this definition seriously, it seems to me that we have to find out what God is like so we can then know what love is really like. Only then can we determine whether what we feel love ought to be fits with what is revealed about who God is. To be faithful to this definition, we must start with God. If we instead begin with what we personally believe love is or should feel like, we end up shaping our image of God after ourselves. Thus, we would be saying something more like, “My idea of love is God.” We would then be on the pathway of worshiping an image rather than the Almighty Creator of heaven and earth.

This possibility should concern any follower of Jesus.

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Choosing the Right Clothes

It happened one day on the school playground when I was in 5th grade. A girl who I thought was my friend suddenly called me a “blockhead.” As all the surrounding kids laughed, she went on shouting that my head was too big for my body. Her tone and the unwanted attention was mortifying. I had no idea why she was saying this or even what exactly she meant by it. But rather than seeing it for what it was, foolish talk of a child, I searched for an explanation in my own childish understanding of myself.

It had been pointed out that I spent a lot of time in the school library, even during recess, reading books. I had been called weird a few times for this activity. The playground incident, however, sealed the verdict that there was something wrong with me, and I needed to change that something. So, I decided to pursue sports. Baseball, basketball and soccer all went poorly. In high school I did well with football, receiving praise. Yet the sad truth was that I didn’t enjoy any sports that much. I just needed to feel I was OK, and being an athlete provided that covering for a short time. I now realize I was dealing with my own brand of shame.

Guilt vs. Shame

For years I viewed guilt and shame as synonyms, interchanging them with no distinction. In recent years, however, I’ve heard several teachers and authors bring important clarity to what these unpleasant words mean. Guilt tells me that I have done something bad. Shame tells me that I am bad. Guilt highlights my wrong behavior. Shame focuses on the faults I feel in my identity. Both can have proper places and times in my life. I have done some bad things, and guilt has reminded me that they need to be dealt with. Some of those bad things have sprung out of bad motivations that are shameful character flaws. And I need to acknowledge that I have issues in my heart that feed the bad behavior.

The good news is that as a follower of Jesus my guilt can be forgiven and cleansed, and my shame can be covered with something that makes my heart new! The problem for Jesus followers is when we let these two conditions linger even after we claim God has taken care of them. I can wallow in feelings of guilt that no longer have any basis. And I can try to hide that deep sense of shame that is rooted in nothing more than a false interpretation of myself.

How Do We Deal with It?

I will summarize the solution for true guilt by quoting 1 John 1:9 NLT: “But if we confess our sins to Him, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all wickedness.” We can deal with our guilt through confession and repentance. They’re gifts God has provided that, when used sincerely, give us a cleansing bath on the inside. I’ll give my full thoughts on this in a future post. It’s shame I want to address more thoroughly right now.

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Choosing My Destiny in the Family of God

I remember as a child, hearing a school friend explain her theology of death. When people die, they go to heaven and become angels. This made sense to my young mind. And then a few years later I watched the classic movie It’s a Wonderful Life and it was cinched into my beliefs. Clarence the angel, a deceased individual, works on earning his wings by returning to earth and helping the protagonist, George Bailey, get through all his troubles. That proved it for me. Someday I’ll get to be an angel if I’m good enough! Who would turn that down?

Serious Bible study, however, eventually raised some questions about this view of the afterlife. Mainly, there is no human in the scriptures that’s ever described as transforming into a heavenly cherub or any other angelic form. According to the Bible, humans remain humans even after they die.

Hmm.

Why is that important?

The Roles God Intended

The Bible is clear that angels are spiritual beings created to be God’s servants, messengers, and worshipers (Hebrews 1:14; Luke 1:26-27; Revelation 4:8-11)—sometimes referred to as seraphim and cherubim. Psalm 8:5 says that we were made just a little lower than these heavenly creatures. And while we, in our present physical form, may fulfill similar roles as angels but less gloriously, it appears we were ultimately made for something more. Yes, humans are unique out of ALL creation.

I have often thought of God the Father, His Son, and the Spirit living in perfect unity for all eternity (read post on The Trinity). Their love and mutual submission flowing so perfectly between one another that they, the Godhead, can truly be said to be One. Imagine at a certain point, the Father saying, “We have so much love here in our divine family. Let’s make humans in our image and likeness so they can join us in our fellowship of love.” Sure, that’s not exactly how it’s said in Genesis 1:26. But neither is it a theological stretch to imagine this to be God’s intention. He wanted many sons and daughters to join Him.

We are given the impression that the first humans lived in intimate (family-like) fellowship with God in the Garden. The introduction of sin, however, changed all that. Much of the rest of the Old Testament storyline describes humankind as rebels, resisting God and His purposes. Jesus was then sent to provide a way to make us into those sons and daughters afterall, and show us what our Father is really like (John 1:12, 14:8-9).

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Choosing Divine Life

Ever wish you had someone else’s life? I have, many times. It’s easy to do when we see a friend or even a stranger buying that house or going on that vacation we always dreamed of for ourselves. Or maybe it’s that higher level of education we never were able to attain, or even the relational bliss we see someone else enjoying. But even if we acquire these trophies that are so often assumed to be keys to the good life, it’s not unusual for contradicting thoughts to still run through our minds at times: “Is this all there is?” So many people wake up each morning wondering how their life ended up as unfulfilling, boring or painful as it is. Surely it was meant to have more to it.

The search is always on for how to make life better. And I, too, am in the middle of seeking greater fulfillment. But as a follower of Jesus, I have to ask, what do we mean by “life”? There are many ways that word can be defined and used. And how a person understands what life ought to be determines the path for its pursuit.

The meaning of life?

A few years back, I discovered that the Bible has more to say about this than I first realized. Not being an ancient language scholar, I didn’t know that New Testament Greek has three words that can be translated into English as “life.” And each one of them communicates a distinct meaning.

For example, Jesus watched people giving their offerings at the temple. He commended a poor widow as giving the most, even though it was only a few copper coins, because “she out of her poverty put in all that she had, her whole livelihood (Mark 12:44, NKJV). The Greek word translated as “livelihood” is bios. It’s the root word for our English “biology.” Multiple times throughout the New Testament, it’s used to speak of the means for sustaining physical life, particularly material and financial resources. In general, it refers to the aspects of human life that we encounter on the surface—what it takes to physically be alive in this present world.

The second word for life in the New Testament is the Greek word psyche. This can also be translated as “soul.” It indicates a human’s inner life—thoughts, values, desires, ambitions. This is the part of our essence where knowledge is gathered, choices are made, commitments are established, and character is formed. It’s where we find and confirm identity and meaning for our existence. When Jesus said, “Whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it” (Mark 8:35, ESV), psyche is the word used here for “life,” the substance of our souls.

And then there’s the third word, zoe. It’s used by the New Testament writers to describe life that does not (as opposed to bios and psyche) innately belong to humans. It comes from outside ourselves and thus must be received. It’s God’s life, part of Himself that He desires to share with humans. God in His essence is never described with bios or psyche—only zoe. Humans can go from their first breath to their last and never experience zoe if they never receive it from God. But it is His ambition for as many humans as will receive it to make it their center and source for all they need to live—forever.

The Tree of Life (Zoe) in the Garden was available to humans from the beginning, until it was lost because of human sin. And the same tree will be at the center of the New Jerusalem in the end (Revelation 22:2). Its fruit will allow us to live eternally healed and whole, since its essence is God’s life, not human life. When Jesus said, “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly” (John 10:10), He wasn’t speaking of bios or psyche. The word used here is zoe. That’s what He came to give. And He promised eternal zoe for all who believe in Him (John 3:16).

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