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Posts Tagged ‘Evangelical Christianity’

Outward Posture, Inward Rebellion

There is something innate in human nature that makes most people want to conform to the social mores of a group to be accepted. It is the way we identify “those who are like us” and “those who are not like us.”  Even those who consider themselves mavericks, loners and social outcasts often conform to way of behaving and dressing that identifies them with all the other mavericks, loners and social outcasts.  As such, paradoxically, they become a part of their own self-identified group even though they want to exhibit their individualism and anti-group attitude.

No where is the propensity to want to identify with a particular coterie more evident than in or among religious and political groups. Even then, political assemblies do not hold a candle stick to the divisive nature of religious groups.  This is not just an issue with any one particular religion, but all religions.  Christians used to murder one another over doctrinal distinctives as quickly as Muslim Sunnis, Shias and other Islamic sects do today in the Middle and Far East.  Hindu castes war with one another and tribalism is known to rule many parts of the warring factions of Buddhists.

I am not able to speak to the other religions state of division, but I am not the only one among Christians who are dismayed at the lack of charity and love many Christians show one another from different doctrinal streams. This is especially ironic given the particular emphasis its founder, Jesus the Messiah, place upon “loving one another” in the Christian community.  It was these loving, grace-filled communities that were supposed to be a sign and witness to the rest of the world that God’s Kingdom had truly come to earth.

Without denying what is clearly described as the central tenets of the faith that all Christians can agree upon, nor marginalizing what all can agree Scripture clearly identifies as sin, it seems to me that there is a lot of room for allowing others to follow Jesus according to the dictates of one’s own heart and conscience without imposing those upon others.  Alas, this does not seem to be the case.  Like the Pharisees and Sadducees of Jesus’ day, Christians are determined to cluster in groups for the only particular purpose of identifying “who is in” and “who is out;” like they have some decision in the matter of who actually gets into heaven and who doesn’t.

So, we like to bunch ourselves around labels: conservatives versus liberals, fundamentalists versus evangelicals, pentecostals versus charismatics, dunking baptizers versus sprinkling baptizers, social gospel versus proclamation gospel, baby baptizers versus baby dedicators, congregationalists versus presbyteries, hi-church versus lo-church, liturgical versus non-liturgical, King James version only versus modern translations, traditional church music versus contemporary church music, denominational versus independent non-denominational.  And the grouping goes on and on and on.

It would be one thing if this was simply an attempt to gather like minds and hearts to worship and learn together. This could be done while at the same time recognizing and embracing other Christian fellowships that have different expressions and doctrinal emphases.  Sadly, this is not the case for the vast majority of churches and their followers.  The pride of triumphalism creeps into the gang gathered that emits an attitude that communicates, if not expressed overtly and outwardly at least inwardly, that they are the “only true” believers on God’s planet.  God must laugh, or weep.

All that we seemed to have accomplished with such behaviors is to confound nonbelievers and tarnish our testimony to the One we are striving to follow. Then, to make matters worse, our efforts to ensure group conformity in beliefs and behaviors only produce among us disingenuous and hypocritical believers.  The disciples we produce are able to spout our dearest doctrinal truths and exhibit, at least while within and among the group, the expected pious behavior.  Thus, they have an outward posture that says they genuinely belong to the Christian sect, but inwardly struggle with rebellion that will express itself sooner or later.

Once again, human efforts at religion create a human-focused and human-energized faith system. A faith system that holds in bondage its followers to a scripted religious expression and holds at a distance anyone who is at variant with that particular expression.  Is doctrine important?  Yes.  Is righteousness or right-living important?  Yes.  However, outward conformity to either of these without a change in heart only breeds a deadly religious syncretism where faith and belief do not really change attitude and heart.

Extending love and grace to everyone on their spiritual journeys, no matter where they may be in them, is the only way to live in the communal unity Jesus called his disciple to attain. Instead of attempting to identify “who’s in” and “who’s out,” what if every Christian fellowships goal was to identify where people are on their spiritual pilgrimage?  What if Christians permitted one anther to cluster around like interests and similar spiritual journeys without rejecting or disparaging other Christians of different interests and dissimilar spiritual journeys?

Hot Rod, Cool Desert Nights, Richland, Washington, June 2009

Hot Rod, Cool Desert Nights, Richland, Washington, June 2009 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

In my household, all four of my children are different from one another. They have different abilities and talents; dissimilar likes and dislikes; as well as a various mix of personality traits from their paternal and maternal side of the family.  In my household, I do not attempt to make them all like the same thing.  They do not all have to play the same sport or same games.  Even the formation of their behaviors and beliefs has taken on unique and interesting paths.

I do not love any one of them more than any other. I love each of my kids dearly.  I cannot imagine my household without them.  Each of their character, sense of humor, way of doing things, seeing things, approaching things and processing things adds variety to our family life.  Yes.  Sometimes it is frustrating and even maddening.  At the same time, all of our differences can bring hilarity and light moments.

The point is this: we do not sit around the dining room table trying to identify who is really part of the family and who is not.  As amazingly different as we are all from one another, there is enough family resemblance to assure us that there is no mistaking our family tree.  Instead of picking one another a part with differences, we attempt to celebrate them.  And, as we mature, those very traits that once drove us to distraction when we were younger now become the most endearing qualities we love about each other.

We are not a perfect family. We have our dysfunctions for sure; just like God’s family here on earth.  What if God sees his family like this?  What if he loves each of our clusters, fellowships and groups as much as the next one?  What if he looked upon us with loving eyes and just wished we would honor and love each other the way he esteems and loves us?  What if he recognizes our spiritual quirks, illogical dogmas and inconsistent righteousness and loves us anyway and wishes we would do the same for each other?  Imagine that for a moment.

In truth, humanity is broken. Along with the rest of humanity, Christians are broken people seeking healing and wholeness in their Creator.  In the long run, it may suit our efforts toward personal healing and wholeness and seeing God’s Kingdom truly come to earth if we simply stopped and rejected our own religious posturing.  Rather than expending so much energy identifying “who’s in” and “who’s out,” if we took time to recognize our own tendencies toward inward rebellion, we may be more apt to extend grace to others.  This, in turn, may allow us to broaden our acceptance, care and love to all our spiritual siblings in the heavenly Father’s household.  It is, after all, his house and not ours.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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[author unknown]

Happy Easter, Passover, Good Luck

Happy Easter, Passover, Good Luck ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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Spiritual Stockholm Syndrome

Stockholm Syndrome, in short, is the psychological phenomenon in which people become enamored with those who enslave them and hold them captive.  Christian music artist Derek Webb made this a part of his new album by the same name.  In it he explores how people, particularly Christians, have fallen in love with things that ultimately destroy them.  This seems to be the reality of the human story throughout time.

This smart application of a psychological phenomenon to the human spiritual condition caught my attention.  Personally, I think Webb is on to something and has creatively pointed it out for us.  Of course, that is what artists are supposed to do, right?  I really appreciate artists that take us below the fluffy surface of life to get to the gritty reality of day-to-day living.  I like to think of them as prophetic artists.

Blue Heron on the Deschutes River, April 2010

Blue Heron on the Deschutes River, April 2010 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

Of course, it is easy to name the ways in which fallen humanity as a whole and our American society in particular has fallen in love and come to identify with those things that are destroying us.  It is quite another issue to look within each of our own hearts and find those places, people and things that we have become enamored with that are really destroying us spiritually albeit ever so slowly.  Our affinity to our self and our sin goes unnoticed most of the time.

Instead of keeping up an adversarial mentality towards our own spiritual enemies, we have learned to make peace with them.  Rather than staying in constant battle-mode, if we are honest with ourselves, we have taken off our armor, dropped our weapons and started enjoying the company of the enemy of our souls.  This goes against the message of the New Testament which is replete with pictures of saints as boxers training their bodies, athletes staying fit for the race and warriors constantly armored and at the ready to use their weapons.  We are to be always on our guard because our enemy, the devil, is always going around searching for an easy meal.

Spiritual Stockholm Syndrome is where American Christians in particular have become enamored with affluence, materialism, comfort, gluttony, convenience, pornography, anger, swearing, gambling, selfishness, personal rights, image and looks or the hundreds of others lures and sirens of our age calling us to our own destruction.  At best, these things merely make us spiritually impotent against the spiritual enemies of our age.  We are no longer poor and impoverished; but we no longer have spiritual authority or power when and where we need it either.  Collectively we have lost our prophetic voice and the right to speak to our culture because we have become just like the rest of our culture – enamored with the enemy.

What will it take for the evangelical churches in America to come out of their spiritual Stockholm Syndrome? I do not know.  We have experienced national crises and have soon afterward returned to what we were before.  Perhaps God in his goodness and grace will visit us by his Holy Spirit and awaken us from our slumber.

Meanwhile, there are many who, like bellwether sheep, are ringing the bell as loud as they can to call us back to where we belong.  I am not certain I agree with Derek Webb’s approach when in one song he chides those who “don’t give a s—” about thousands dying around the world daily.  Such shock treatments, reminiscent of Tony Compolo’s similar attempt more than two decades ago, rarely have the desired effect.  Nevertheless, I cannot denounce his attempt to do something to ring the alarm.  I just think there are more effective ways.

Treatment for spiritual Stockholm Syndrome will take time and commitment.  The Great Counselor is the only one who can give us the wisdom necessary to navigate out of this spiritual and moral dilemma.  The spiritual manual for living – the Scriptures – must be our map out of this spiritual wilderness.  Finally, recognition of our true spiritual condition must result in a cry for help from the Lord who is full of grace and mercy.  He will fulfill his promise to help when we cry out to him.  Only he has the power to break free those who are stuck in a spiritual Stockholm Syndrome.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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Competing Orthodoxies

A simplified chart of historical developments ...

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Let’s face it.  American Christians seem to be afraid of theological and philosophical competition in the market place.  Even among themselves, they demonize one another’s theological differences and trash each other’s denominations.  This is not a healthy environment for building the Kingdom of God.  Yet, when it comes to competing claims, they remain largely silent except in their huddles and clusters.

Evangelical Christians seem to be particularly afraid of competing against secularism.  Unrecognized by many of them, secularism itself has become a part of the American Christian thought and practice.  It is itself a type of dangerous syncretism that threatens the genuine message and power of the message of Jesus.

Except in missionary circles, the theological arenas of Bible schools or seminaries, or among expatriates overseas, any dialogue on American soil among Americans of different religious persuasions is almost nil.  This is due largely to American Christians buying into the secularist notion that religion is a personal and private matter and should not be discussed or carried into the market places.  It would seem that it is not a suitable topic for public discussion, we are taught.

When the Apostle Paul addressed the crowd on Mars Hill in Athens, Greece, it was in a public place.  Frequently, the Apostle Paul used the market place to introduce and speak to the spiritual questions and needs of the people of the culture.  It will be necessary for Christians to regain that missionary zeal and practice if we are to transform our culture by being salt and light in it.

Southeast Washington State, Palouse, Spring 2010

Southeast Washington State, Palouse, Spring 2010 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

There are many believers and leaders in America who are raising their voices and modeling this for the church.  One such person is Hunter Baker who is the Houston Baptist University political science professor.  He voices his concern about the dangers of secularism in society and the church in his recently published book, “The End of Secularism.”  Online editor for Christianity Today , Sarah Pulliam, had an interview with Hunter Baker in the October 2009 issue.

Francis Schaeffer

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Of course, the pioneer for this discussion was Francis A. Schaeffer.  His seminal book, “How Should We Then Live: The Rise and Decline of Western Thought and Culture” addresses much of the same issues but more in-depth and with historical background.  The fact that it is still an issue largely unaddressed by the average evangelical American Christian is alarming.  It registers just how deep secularism has dug into the expressions and practices of American Christianity.

Secularism teaches Americans from an early age that religion and spiritual discussions, particularly of certain subjects, should be private and not a part of public life at all.  The ideal is a social harmony that is absent of God-talk.  One is reminded of the Beatles’ song, “Imagine.”  The secularist likes to “imagine if there was no religion.”  For the true Christian, however, to act as if God does not exist in any part of our life is not just dishonest, it is hypocritical.  It is also worthy of some of the strongest words of Jesus against disowning him before others.

Hunter Baker, in his 0nline interview with Sarah Pulliam of Christianity Today, also notes that to place this expectation upon Christians is unfair.  It is utterly mistaken to think that secularism is the center of our American culture, while the competing claims of Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Mormonism et al all revolve around it.  Secularism is not the objective umpire attempting to control or regulate the debate.  Instead, it is a completing orthodoxy in the market place of ideas.

For Christians to buy into the idea that their spiritual life should be “private and purely devotional” is a mistake.  Instead, our faith in God should be vocal and visible in the market place of ideas.  It can be a voice against the ills and abuses of our society.  It can provide hope and answers to society’s ills.

As such, American Christians should not be afraid to speak up and speak out – with grace and love – concerning the answers their faith has for today’s issues.  Granted, this means that we will need to be well informed concerning those issues and just how Scripture and the ways and words of Jesus address them.  But when all is said and done, I am confident that the message of God’s Kingdom can stand on its own two feet and compete with any other ideology in the public square of American ideas.

American Christians should not hide or stay silent just because the answers they hold for our country are spiritual.  Let’s let them compete against the competing orthodoxies that are already out there.  I am confident that the truth of the gospel and the power of truth will prevail.  As Hunter Baker points out in the CT interview, “It’s not unfair to have a religious point of view, and a religious point of view is not an inferior point of view.”

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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Old Abraham was a poor tailor whose shop was next door to a very upscale French restaurant.  Every day at lunch time, Abraham would go out the back of his shop and eat his black bread and herring while smelling the wonderful odors coming from the restaurant’s kitchen.  It was a wonderful addition to his unchanging daily lunch time meal.

One day, Abraham was surprised to receive an invoice from the restaurant for “enjoyment of food.” So he went to the restaurant to point out that he had not bought anything from them.  The manager said, “You’re enjoying the smell of our food, so you should pay us for it.”

Abraham refused to pay and the restaurant sued him.  At the hearing, the judge asked the restaurant manager to present his side of the case.

The manager said, “Every day, this man comes and sits outside our kitchen and smells our food while eating his.  It is clear that we are providing added value to his poor food and we deserve to be compensated for it.”

The judge turned to Abraham and said, “What do you have to say to that?”

Abraham didn’t say anything but stuck his hand in his pocket and rattled the few coins he had inside.

The judge asked him, “What is the meaning of that?”

Abraham replied, “I’m paying for the smell of his food with the sound of my money.”

Someone observed that “you can’t get something for nothing.” However, you can get nothing for nothing!  Many followers of Jesus seem to want to get spiritual maturity without investing anything into it.  Apart from salvation, growing in Christ takes the believer’s initiative and efforts.  Jesus’ parable of the talents implies that each believe is given something to invest in the Kingdom and will, in the end, be judged by him as to how they invested it (or did not) back into his Kingdom.

Likewise, the apostle Paul warned Christ’s followers to “work out your salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil. 2:12).  The MKJV version says “cultivate your own salvation with fear and trembling.”  Each believer is responsible for his or her own spiritual growth and should attend to it as they would the vineyard of their Master.

When it comes to establishing God’s kingdom through the work of ministries in and through the local church, there is a cost. You can’t get ministry for nothing (though you can get no ministry for nothing).

  • Reaching in lost people in our community has a cost.
  • Preaching the gospel has a cost.
  • Discipling children and young people has a cost.
  • Ministering to broken lives has a cost.
  • Providing a safe, secure, and satisfying place of ministry to families and their children has a cost.
  • Reaching into the community to bring help and transformation has a cost.
  • Helping others to take the gospel around the world to people without the knowledge of what God offers through his son Jesus has a cost.

These and many more Kingdom efforts bear a cost in time, treasure and talents.  The question to the followers of Christ is, “Who is going to pay?”

These costs are covered by the many followers of Jesus who pay the price with their time, treasures and talents.  They choose to share equally sacrifice what they have towards the cost of doing Kingdom business by giving of their lives.  As a result, not only do they experience God’s blessings but also experience spiritual growth that the uninvolved will never experience.

It is a truly poor follower of Christ who does not join with others in bearing the cost of doing the work of the Lord’s Kingdom. In essence, they are hoping for a ‘free ride’ on someone else’s work.  They want to enjoy the fruit of the labors of others without sharing in the work in the Lord’s vineyard.  However, no one can grow by watching the efforts of another.  The Lord never planned for his Kingdom to be a spectator centered or focused work.  Yet, it seems that many of our churches and their ministries plan on just that expectation of their adherents.

Purple Lupine Under Old Sage, April 2010

Purple Lupine Under Old Sage, April 2010 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

Martin Luther said it plainly, “A religion that gives nothing, costs nothing, and suffers nothing, is worth nothing.” As a co-laborer in God’s kingdom, I am proud to share in the work and worth of doing the Lord’s Kingdom business.  Successful ministry that transforms lives and our community cannot happen without the many hours that people volunteer.  Kingdom efforts would be handicapped without the sacrificial giving of its family of faith.

Mobilized and motivated laborers in the harvest fields of the Lord are rewarded for their selfless sacrifices.  Yes, they receive a promised eternal reward.  Just as important, however, they receive the reward of growing in the knowledge and strength of the Lord, his Spirit and his Word, which a whole lot more than the smell of good food or the sound of money.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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Healthy Holistic Spirituality

Since Jesus’ departure from earth his disciples have attempted to follow his path of teaching and practice.  Unfortunately, he left behind ideas and concepts about a Kingdom.  He did not leave behind a lot of details about how this spiritual life should work – organizing the church, spiritual disciplines, and a myriad of other details that constantly change with times and cultures.  We are left to work that out as we commune with him through his Holy Spirit and the fellowship of the saints.

Surprisingly, for the most part, the church has performed fairly well.  It has its black moments in history.  It has suffered backsliding and experienced renewal and revival. It has been mixed with earthly governments and rule to its own demise and suffered through the revolutions of breaking free from them.  It has fallen prey to wolves in sheep’s clothing and expelled or rejected their rule and authority.

Nevertheless, the message and work of the Kingdom continues on and changes lives.  The message is that God has sent Jesus, his son, to restore the broken Creator-creation relationship with people everywhere and the work is that he is present in and among his people through his Holy Spirit to undo the works of evil and the Evil One.  As such, the church has been a major force throughout history in serving the poor, the hungry, the widows, the sick and the orphans.  Today, there is much work being done through its services to provide clean water, free health clinics to villages, free education for children, and working to eliminate preventable diseases.

Still, most of this type of work goes unnoticed by the world’s skeptics, cynics, agnostics and atheists.  This is not to suggest that the effort is to have some kind of global balance sheet of “good things” versus “bad things” done by Christians.  Nothing will satisfy those who look with anger and prejudice against others for whatever reasons.  The point simply is this:  The Kingdom of God has always been about a message accompanied by a work.

When Jesus ministered on earth, his sermons most often followed his work among the sick, demon possessed, oppressed, poor and outcasts of society.  He was not satisfied with staying in the local synagogue preaching and teaching.  Neither was he content with staying where he was most popular and most successful according to statistics.  He was always about his Heavenly Father‘s business.  There was work to be done.

The Acts of the Apostles recounts many early sermons.  Almost all of them followed some work by miracle or powerful demonstration of the Holy Spirit.  James expects this pattern to be continued and chides his readers through his letters for having faith without works.  As such, their faith was dead and worthless.  Faith not only has a message but it has a work that it must do.

Starfish and Sea Anemone, June 2003

Starfish and Sea Anemone, June 2003 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

I am wondering if believers in any given congregation in our area can identify these two things in their local church.   What is the message of the church?  Can they summarize it precisely and succinctly so that their neighbor or co-worker could understand it?  Just as importantly, what is the work of the church?  What work does their local fellowship of believers do to undo the work of evil and the Evil One around them?  What activities are their congregation engaged in to affect the lives of the least, last and lost of the community they live in?

The church’s credibility is not just in the integrity of its message – something we in the Evangelical churches like to focus upon.  The real credibility of the church is in the work it does that aligns with its message:  God has come to restore humankind and creation to himself by inviting everyone into relationship with him and work with him to undo the work of evil and the Evil One.  While we work on getting the message out, it might be time to also roll up our sleeves and get to work in the world around us.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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There is a story about a little girl who, on the way home from church, turned to her mother and said, “Mommy, the preacher’s sermon this morning confused me.”

The mother said, “Oh, why is that?”

The girl replied, “Well, he said that God is bigger than we are.  Is that true?”

Yes, that’s true,” the mother replied.

He also said that God lives within us.  Is that true, too?”

Again, the mother replied, “Yes.”

Well,” said the girl.  “If God is bigger than us and he lives in us, wouldn’t he show through?”

Sometimes the simple words of a child can reveal such great truth.  Shouldn’t Jesus show through us?  Indeed, if we are living our life for him, we will allow his light to shine through us.  Matthew 5:16 tells us to “So let our light so shine before men, that they may see our good works, and glorify our Father which is in heaven.”

Too often, we dismiss the importance of Jesus showing through us through the good works that we do for Him.  However, Jesus made it clear that this is an important part of our witness to the world.  The things we do for others should be like a bright neon sign that declares, “Followers of Jesus here!”

Gareth and Cara at Sunset, Strawberry Point, 2002

Gareth and Cara at Sunset, Strawberry Point, 2002 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

Jesus is made real to the world – our children, friends, neighbors, and family – by the work we do in his name.  It is the type of fruit on the tree that identifies the tree.  It is the same way with the spiritual fruit born in our lives.

Unfortunately, the church culture has more “bark than bite” when it comes to the gospel.  We frequently do not “walk the talk.”  This is why it important that everyone who calls himself or herself a follower of Christ find the place where they are to serve.  A disciple cannot grow to be like his or her master if he or she does not do the same work the Master did as an example for us to follow.

Jesus’ example to us is most clear when he washed his own disciples’ feet.  Those who should have humbled themselves to wash their master’s feet and offer to wash other’s feet instead argued, stubbornly sat waiting for someone else to do what was necessary, and allowed the honored guest at the table do it instead.  How awkward.  At least Peter had the sense to protest.  The others seemed content to let Jesus do it!

Nevertheless, we can be guilty of the same servant apathy today.  The problem is not that there are not enough opportunities to serve and minister.  The problem is that there are not enough servants.  Jesus said, “The harvest is plentiful!”

There are a great many opportunities for the Kingdom; more than anyone can count or imagine.  “But the laborers are few.”  The greatest need is willing servants who will humble themselves to do what is necessary to reap the rewards of the harvest.  “Pray…to send forth laborers…”

One of the strengths of a healthy, vital church is that ministry is not clergy driven.  It does not depend upon a “professional” or recognized “pastor” to be initiated or get done.  Everyone being a minister and serving others is a value embraced by everyone in such a fellowship of believers.  Everyone is a priest with a position to serve someone else for the glory of God.  God’s light of glory shines through them.

How does God “show through” you?  What good works do you do for the least, last, and lost around you that brings glory to God?  In what way are you personally engaged in the harvest fields of the master?  Does a life of serving others mark your life like it marked the Master’s?

I encourage you to let God be bigger than you.  Allow Him to do something bigger through you than you could ever imagine.  Who knows, someone may see what you do and give thanks and praise to God for it.  All because you allowed God to show through.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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