Beyond Words

It has been a long while since I wrote anything on here… which is where I try to reflect more thoughtfully and slowly on happenings, and to digest how I feel about things. I haven’t written perhaps because life has been so full of happenings, or because I hadn’t begun to digest them, or perhaps because I have been afraid of how I feel about them.

For you, reader, it will be more pertinent if I begin with a few actual happenings.

We’ll zoom quickly in: Internationally an apparent grade 1 egotist with a ridiculous degree of ignorance has managed, by lies and hyperbole, to persuade enough of his nation to vote for him, almost as though it were only a game, that he has become President of North America.

Nationally of course, in a display of thinly disguised xenophobia and short-sighted protest, our island nation has voted by a narrow margin, to cast itself adrift from its neighbours and ‘leave’ the European Union.

Locally, we in this borough have been an experimental region for the government’s latest cost-cutting exercise, ‘Universal Credit’… a system so flawed and complicated that it cannot be named ‘Welfare’ or ‘Benefits’ or ‘Support’ although it replaces all of those, and so slow to move into action even when correctly operated, that successfully poverty-stricken and desperate recipients find themselves, after the eight week delay in initial payments, even more desperately in debt than before (if they have been so impractical as to continue eating or feeding their children during that limbo period) and often homeless too.

Take Steve (name changed but only that). Steve had a bedsit and although he did not own a computer, and was not familiar or comfortable using one, when he went down to the JobCentre and found that his job seeker’s allowance and housing benefit was moved to Universal Credit, his landlord took all his ID from him and inputted the details onto her computer and kept him logged on regularly (there is an online journal to complete) so that he would not lose his housing benefit and would keep paying the rent. When Steve became uncomfortable with his landlord having all his ID, passwords, bank details, birth date, proof of ID etc, on her computer, and spoke to her about it- they fell out. Shortly after, she found a reason (walking downstairs with an unlit cigarette to go outside for a smoke) to give him a formal warning and then a week or so later she got a couple of large friends of hers to evict him. He did not argue as the atmosphere was unpleasant and it was hardly ‘home’. Since he left with only a small threat of violence and a lot of threats (but no formal ‘eviction’ process), he was then classed as ‘voluntarily homeless’ and no longer eligible for housing benefit (one part of the Universal Credit funds). So, being an honest chap, he went and informed the JobCentre that this was the case, and they updated his record with the address of the new ‘bedsit’ (B&B) where he had gone to in this emergency, and which was now costing considerably more than the bedsit (£20 a night), and, as he had ‘voluntarily’ become ‘homeless’ – they stopped his housing benefit – as he knew they would.

So now he was paying much more to stay in a B&B, with much less money coming in… so he was paying out of Jobseeker’s allowance-  his food money really. After a few days the B&B was just too expensive, and the remaining money ran out – (please note, Steve is not a drinker or an addict-  although interestingly if he were, he would have received a little bit more state money, as an incentive to avoid using crime to fund his habit… an incentive that doesn’t work, naturally. Anyway, he isn’t an addict so its just the flat support rate from someone totally out of work, but looking). Now in order to PROVE he is looking for work, Steve is having to ‘logon’ to his journal and search for jobs several times a week for a set amount of time as well as attending regular meetings and appointments at the JobCentre. The first part of this is unfortunate- logging on- because, being very poor indeed, and homeless, Steve does not own a ‘Smartphone’ or have a ‘Laptop’ – he has a very small pushbutton phone with very little credit on it.

So in order to keep his reduced Universal Credit allowance, now that his landlord is no longer holding all his details, Steve has to walk (of course walk, he doesn’t own a bicycle or car, or horse, or scooter, or roller skates), Steve has to walk 2 miles  into town in the winter weather, and queue up to log on to the small bank of library computers… which of course have their regular Jobseekers in situ. Or to go to the JobCentre, which now has very few computers, and a queue – during opening hours.

Of course the trouble is, that after walking for half an hour (better than the hour it used to take from the other landlord but still not great) in the freezing winter weather, on an empty stomach, Steve’s brain is not in the best possible place to fill out his journal and complete job applications or update his CV. Also the system is new, and Universal Credit is confusing even the professionals who are there to support… so when the 17 page form needs updating, or something gets stuck (because out here on the East Coast of England, the Internet access, even from council buildings, is patchy and sometimes fails)… then Steve, who is not great on computers, needs to ask for help.

So he is directed to phone the helpline. But the helpline costs money. And Steve’s phone does not have credit – because he is very very poor, and homeless, and if he’d had enough money to make a phonecall to the helpline, then he would have used that money to buy himself dinner that day… but actually he spent it all on the B&B so he will just have to be content with breakfast and be glad he has a bed. Though he tries the helpline from the JobCentre’s one single phone at his next appointment… and they are sorry but they have no information and cannot help- because the Universal Credit system is only experimental, and they can only offer help for the old systems.

Oh, I forgot…that as I mentioned four paragraphs back, the B&B is more expensive than the bedsit was, and actually he doesn’t have enough money to pay for it. So he has to leave. So now he is really totally homeless. No roof, no bed, no money. Actually he has a sheet of tarpaulin and his sleeping bag, and he beds down in an unattended corner round the back of a church. But he still has to turn up to his JobCentre appointments and fill out his journal, or the last of his money will be stopped and he won’t even be able to eat once in the day. He pretends that the B&B address is still correct, because if he tells the government exactly HOW homeless he is… that he really has NO address, then they will stop ALL his money.

… It goes on. The ‘up’ side is that after months of planning we started a Winter night shelter the week Steve was really totally homeless… and he was the first guest. It shocked me.

Maybe you are thinking: ‘You’re supposed to follow Jesus, why didn’t you do more?… you clearly have a computer, a home, food etc… Why didn’t you feed him, help him, house him?’

Well actually, Steve has used this computer, the one I’m typing on now, to fill out some of his ‘online journal’ to obtain his credit… and he hates it, computers that is- it is HE who explained how cold and inhuman the system is, how he really would rather speak to a person, and how he feels pity for the people in the Job Centre trying to make bricks without straw… Yes he has taken shelter in the Church, we have fed him many times, we’ve turned all the heaters on him and made him hot drinks, and the first night that the nightshelter we were working to open, opened in January, I drove him over there to make sure he was welcomed, and I got his feedback afterward about the experience. (Okay, but the risk assessment forms we have to start with were almost the straw that broke the camel’s back… for someone constantly having to attend appointments and interviews). He’s sofa-surfing now, and one of the parishioners is storing the stuff he owns that he can’t carry around, whilst he STILL tries to make the system work just a little bit- even though he knows damn well it is broken, we all do.

And also, I can’t do all that needs to be done, Steve is not my only parishioner… and in my parish he is not alone in these difficulties… he is one of very very many and one of many whom I care about. And I must be here for more than one person … sometimes for a lot of people at once, and sometimes for one at a time, sometimes for someone who was a stranger and sometimes for my own family, sometimes for colleagues and sometimes even for myself.

So all I can really do is acknowledge Steve for who he is, he is not an anonymous homeless person, he is Steve, a bit of a philosopher, keen on gardening, and with an NVQ in community theatre… Steve who I bought shortbread biscuits for not as charity but AS A CHRISTMAS PRESENT because he’d helped out round the church… YES I would like to employ him at church… but we are a really poor parish and I haven’t worked out HOW yet.

Anyway… that is just ONE of the happenings that has happened lately… and I am not feeling very philosophical or theological about it – because it is wrong and broken and getting worse.

But I will not give up- that’s the theological bit. I will stay and see and listen, and maybe even manage to help out a little bit… but mostly I will just stay, and be here and not give up. Because Steve matters, and so does Jasmine, and Andy, and Alan and Brian and everyone else…old and young, poor, and occasionally even rich.

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The Bread of Life

This reflection below is actually the sermon I preached yesterday at our Harvest service… a visitor thought it might be useful to other people – I’m not so sure, as I think that the Holy Spirit does a lot of translating and fixing when I actually preach ‘live’ – but in the spirit of receiving advice from an elder – here goes:

“What do you want from God, when you come to church?

For a lot of people, what they want when they come into church is practical support – they associate churches with charity, with ‘love thy neighbour’, and like the many that Jesus fed on the mountainside, they are not wrong – absolutely not. Practical support  is a key part of our Christian service to one another and the community in which we live, and it is important that we offer real practical support – food and help, wherever we can. God knows we must start by loving those around us, before we can begin to love God whom we cannot see.

So thank you all who brought an extra offering today, of food for the Foodbank and the Pathway Café for the destitute– it will be well used.

I have, thankfully, never been starving.

I have rarely even gone hungry… but I have sometimes lost my appetite for food because my heart was heavy with grief or trouble. Distracted with cares, or sick with regret or guilt.

What or who can feed the human heart, the human soul?

What do we hunger for – beyond food, beyond the basic needs of survival?

Well usually we human beings hunger for whatever the world tells us we should be hungering for: From a ‘big mac and fries’ – because ‘we’re lovin’ it’; To a fancy shampoo ‘because we’re worth it’; Or a new car ‘for the drive of our lives’; Or a boyfriend or girlfriend because we want our ‘happy ever after’.

We human beings are hungry all the time… not just for food, but for a sense of self-worth, companionship, esteem, identity, purpose, truth, hope… The list goes on. We are ravenous.

And Christ knows that bread will not satisfy us.

Every week at the Eucharist – all across the world, Christians receive a tiny morsel of bread, blessed and broken in remembrance of Christ. And it may seem, to those who are unfamiliar, a very strange and unimpressive kind of meal.

It doesn’t fill our stomachs? But does it begin to feed another hunger?

“Christ is the bread of life”… what does that mean?

“Christ is the food that will satisfy ALL our hungers.”

Do you know that as true? – or do you still wonder HOW Christ will satisfy your hunger? Both of those are good states to be in.

For some people, particularly older people of a lifelong faith, they really know in their soul that Christ is what they really need, the answer to all their cravings, and they are blissfully content.

For others of us, we are still working out just HOW Christ is our bread, how God, in Christ, fulfils our daily needs. That can be hard to understand if we are not sure what our needs are, or if our lives are crowded with the needs that the WORLD tells us we must have!

…I find that people who don’t pray much in a formal way sometimes jokingly ask me to pray for them that they’ll win the lottery that weekend, or that it’ll be sunny on their holiday. Well I always say a prayer for anyone who asks and I will happily pray that God supplies their real needs, and that their holidays are restful and restorative: But I’m not silly enough to specify to God exactly how I think that he should respond to the needs in someone’s life… We often don’t know what’s good for our OWN soul, let alone someone else’s!

But in the Bible we begin to LEARN from Jesus what is good for our soul – and it’s not having everything that the world tells us we should want. Nor is what is good for us the same for everybody… We each come to Christ from vastly different starting places – some of us need gently building up, others need a challenging spiritual workout… every one of us is different – and our paths towards God will all take slightly different routes – sometimes wildly different routes.

I’d love to talk more about that –how God calls us on paths and we are to try to stay on them, but what is a step back for one person and a cause for repentance, can be a step in the right direction for another…  and a positive move from where they are right now towards our loving Heavenly Father.

But for now let’s just think about bread from heaven.

…In the Old Testament we are told that when the Israelites came out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery and into the harsh environment of the desert… when they were eating manna in the wilderness, that it tasted different to different people: According to their needs, according to their hunger – so they were fed.

But how often do we take time to consider, to remember to think about what our soul’s hungers really ARE, whether they are good and godly, and sit happily in the mind of Christ- and we can ask God for them – or whether they are hurtful and a cause for repentance and we need help from God to turn away from them?

Bring all the desires of your heart before God, and ask him to help you sort through them, to sort the healthful desires from the hurtful… and when in doubt – pray as Jesus taught us – that we may be simply ‘given our daily bread’… given what our soul actually NEEDS to survive – He knows what we need .That may be a nourishing treat, or a dose of Epsom salts!

But let God order for you! – and trust that his vast love for you means that it is good and nourishing for your soul – even if it when it arrives on your plate it looks unappetising and tough.                    …Give us this day our daily bread –

And then we must give thanks for what we receive.

Because when we pray ‘give us our bread for today’ we are asking, not simply for a loaf, or even more generically for some food… we are asking for food for our lives – for all our hungers.

We are asking for Christ – the ‘living bread in whom all our hungers are satisfied’…

…Many people are called to God’s table, many people come, wanting to be fed… and week by week we always give thanks – that is what the word Eucharist means – ‘thanksgiving’ – we say Grace. Who wouldn’t? Christ gave us his all.

But sadly, many of us leave unsatisfied – because, with our desires daily shaped and fed on earthly offerings, we cannot stomach the bread of eternal life.

But there is no other bread than Christ. No matter how you package the gift in different worship, or trendier wrapping, in ancient chants or rock guitar riffs. There is only one true and living bread and that is Christ.

So what will you do?

Will you receive Christ like a pill or a placebo, swallow it dutifully and go away still hungry, because you do not examine your soul before God to see if it is being fed?

Or will you bring your soul’s hungers regularly before God?

Will you receive Christ once like a rare delicacy… and find He does not compare to the vast choice that the world offers. Will you decide then not to come to eat at his table again – ignoring your soul’s hungers and concentrating on the passing, changing hungers that the world shows you?

Or will you pray DAILY, that God will give you the bread you need…

Will you receive Christ – and find it so unsettling to your stomach, such a troubling change from your usual fare, that you abandon the idea of nourishing your soul – and settle instead for whatever easily digested pap the world serves up, filling with it your heart and mind?

Or are you longing to welcome Christ into your heart… but just a bit unsure of what that means or if you are allowed?

You are allowed.

Christ give himself freely – you just need to realise your hunger – hunger for the love of the God who created you – hunger for the forgiveness of the Lord who is holy and who gave up everything to redeem us sinners – hungry for the hope of the Truth, and of justice, and of mercy… and of knowing Him face to face, and seeing and understanding Him as he does us.last supper

We are all hungry for the bread of heaven – and it is our life’s work to receive Him, right into our heart and soul, and to recognise what we have received. And be thankful.

Amen.

 

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Measure twice, cut once…

That title is a very good rule for anyone doing carpentry or sewing- but I want to try and apply it to the way I listen.

It might not be apparent in these reflective writings, that I am not always the best listener. I HEAR very well – I am, no doubt, terribly quick on the uptake, good at reading between the lines, and astute when it comes to interpreting the unspoken. But I am also often rather too quick to respond.

Kind people who have told me this throughout the years have described me as  ‘enthusiastic’, ‘keen’ or even ‘Tigger-like’. Unkind ones warned me in my youth , when I was forever being told off for answering back, ‘Be careful, you’re so sharp you’ll cut yourself’. Most recently it was ‘bubbly’… by which I think my bishop meant ‘effervescent’ rather than the giggly blonde partygoer image it conjures in my own head.

Either way I struggle with the recurring failure that I communicate too hastily – it is (except in a crisis) no good to hear and comprehend instantly, if the person who is speaking doesn’t FEEL that they have been heard.

I often find myself having a pastoral conversation that goes something like this:

‘Jemma, d’you mind if I talk to you about soandso’

Me: ‘Not at all… what is it?’

‘Well I’m worried about… (insert anxiety here at some length)’

Me, understanding where they are coming from and eager to allay fears’ Oh. Well do you think… ?(insert helpful and enlightening theological  comment here)’

‘You see I’m worried about (repeat anxiety here, at similar length)’

Me: ‘Yes, I understand you’re worried about (paraphrase anxiety), do you think perhaps (rephrase helpful notion in the form of an anecdote)…?’

(blankly, and with concealed irritation) ‘What’s that?’

Me: ‘Do you think that if you’re worried about …(neatly paraphrased anxiety) that…(quick reiteration of supportive concept that I have found helpful in a similar circumstance)?’

(Pretty much politely ignoring me as talking a foreign language) ‘Oh, I don’t know about that- only I am so worried about… (repeats anxiety, but in brief this time for vicar who is clearly foreign and having trouble understanding)’

Me: (beginning to think I must have misunderstood completely) ‘Do you mean that you are worried about… (reiterates anxiety at similar length almost word for word as the first time I heard it)?’

‘YES! (With visible relief now, despite no change) I am very worried about that. I suppose I ought to… (paraphrases all my previous advice in one common-sense phrase)

Me: (Finally realising they  perhaps didn’t need me to say ANYTHING except to let them know that I heard their worry) ‘Oh well it sounds to me like you’re approaching it in the right way, I wouldn’t worry any further’

‘No, that’s probably true.’

I would like to learn to skip my first two or three attempts to respond helpfully and go straight to the part where I make it reassuringly clear to the speaker that they have well and truly been heard.

Pray for me!

 

 

 

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The Body of Christ

Today is the feast day of ‘Corpus Christi’ – when many parts of the Church across the world will give thanks for Christ’s Institution of Holy Communion, and all that it means and has meant over time for the Church.

‘The Body of Christ’ – those words I speak as I pass a piece of the broken host bread to eat communicant at the rail or around the altar. ‘The Body of Christ’ – I hear each time I receive that precious bread from the hands of another priest.

The Body of Christ – both the bread as commanded by the Lord, and the persons sharing it – taking, blessing, breaking, giving, receiving – an exchange blessed by God – painful in its inadequacy, a tiny, faint foreshadowing – even at the most glorious High Mass- of that feast at the end of days- when all are safely gathered in.

Painful in its minuteness – like a butterfly’s wing in place of all creation – and painful in its accuracy and appropriateness – as the broken body of Christ is received by the broken body of Christ’s Church. As the blessed and broken and oh so precious fragments are received into the bodies and hearts of a blessed and broken and precious people.

Perhaps I am greedy for God or perhaps the weight of broken fragments of millennia rest too heavily upon my heart as a priest of this generation, but I never receive communion without a sense of unfulfilled longing. And I too am a penitent sinner so I carry also a conflicted desire both to stay, like Mary, and receive more- and also like Judas, to take the bread, and up and away in haste, and be about the World’s business.

But I am indeed grateful for the institution of the Lord’s supper – grateful beyond words- that here at last, of God on earth there is something weird and tangible – a true memorial- both as transient as a passing breeze and as endless as the tide – a physical message of a hope beyond all telling, medicine for the life that ails us all – and an unseen exchange whereby the bride in faithful obedience sets a table for the Lord of life, and endlessly invites the world to dine.

God is Spirit- and to worship we must worship in Spirit and in Truth – but Christ is also fully human – solid and suffering, drawn together of the same clay as his creation-and all too often our faith becomes cerebral merely…a thought experiment that does not turn our hearts or hands to ventures in Christ’s name. In the Eucharist, in this bread and this cup we are reminded that our faith is also tangible – unavoidably shared– and that with those whom GOD is calling, not with our chosen dinner guests – and it is also a foolish statement in the eyes of the world: again and again to gather, bless and break bread- But it is by this act that followers of Christ are most often known to one another- not only when we gather in church- but when we gather elsewhere to bless and break and share bread… the many unplanned sacraments of a thoughtful life shared with and physically caring for others.

But still I always leave the holy meal unsatisfied… and I think that is right – except for those who know they are dying, for whom comfort and consolation in the sacrament are a practical foretaste of the banquet at which they shall next dine in glory… except for them… this is a meal on the run.

We dine dressed for travel – we dine because we are called, and when we are dismissed it is not to rest and hunger no more but it is to love and serve the Lord. We are still wayfarers here… those who eat in public, beside the path, and then keep moving on. It is important as we travel daily, to remember that and to be bold in sharing our bread – spiritual and physical- with others who travel life’s road beside us.

So I still leave each Eucharist encouraged, but unsatisfied… pepped up but not settled. And we will not be settled, until we eat together with the Lord.

I heard a wonderful line today- in the midst of a moving funeral address actually- Tony was a wine lover and used to travel all the way across France to taste directly at the vineyards themselves- and he used to say ” You’ve never really tasted a wine, until you’ve tasted it gazing into the eyes of its maker”

” You’ve never really tasted a wine – until you’ve tasted it gazing into the eyes of its Maker”.

I can’t wait for that day.

 

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Love poem

I bloody love you God.

Through thick and thin

You have been there

Since…

I can remember

Running across the playground from the fists of bullies with their turned up faces of anguish and all clawing nails

Wandering across the slope of the world and singing and then all the trees sang too

and then I knew that I was really not alone.

I looked for you in books… in Enid Blyton! And in garden ponds behind the twist of a snail’s shell and in the dew that goes early away.

I flew on the wings of the morning and over the hoar frost like ashes scattered across the lawn and decided to dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea and be an explorer.

And then I stopped looking and starting shouting.

Running across the playground face turned up in anguish and all clawing nails

‘I bloody love you God… Where have you gone?’

And then I saw you wandering across the slope of the world surrounded by the fists of bullies with their turned up faces of anguish and all clawing nails. You were not my hero and I was not your heroine.

And then I stopped shouting.

Because they were shouting.

But you did not open your mouth… you just looked at me God. You just bloody looked at me and I knew.

 

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Pigeon poo and planning

I keep dreaming about pigeon poo – since Tuesday when I had to go into a closed church in the parish and meet with some people who might be keen on buying the organ there… although it was locked against human beings, the pigeons had found themselves a home, in every space between the rooftiles and the wooden ceiling… they are messy and very careless… pigeon poo, broken twigs from fallen nests, and the odd dehydrated young pigeon corpse lay sadly littered across empty pews.

I didn’t really feel that sad as it had not been a place I had known as ‘open’, only as a closed church, and only in this state. Huge, theatrical spiderswebs hung from the ceiling, and the morning sun shone gently through filthy stained-glass windows and onto stained flower-vases, creased hymn books, and boxes of unsold jumble-sale bric-a-brac.

The detritus of Anglican religion?

I work each day in a huge, cold, bright space: the Minster Church of St Nicholas. Gutted completely by fire-bombs in World War II, the rebuilt shell now stands bright and airy on the shore of the East Coast, much like a gorgeously smooth and clean seashell… with the remnants of age and mathematical planning about its structure, but mostly an uplifting simplicity, free of adornment.

Stuff… we have so much of it, and sometimes it is useful… but we just don’t share it around, so that when we think we need stuff, we have to get our own- and then when we stop using it, it goes to rack and ruin, like that church, and like that organ will if it’s not sold.

I’ve never been good with presents… people still get me the odd Christmas and birthday present: less and less  thank goodness – they’ve realised I really can’t do a believable pretend ‘thank you’ – and that if my family can’t eat it, or I don’t need one and haven’t asked for it, then I probably don’t want it just because they feel it’s supposed to be gift-giving time. But I LOVE gifts when they are given at the right moment and not out of ‘duty’… what I mean is this: A lovely lady I know sent me a teatowel for no particular reason- I was immensely pleased, because it was unexpected, it reminded me of her, and it was useful. Someone else once handed me a book that they had told me I should read – that was kind and useful. An old couple once gave me a VERY old bicycle so I could cycle to rehearsals – that was really kind and useful… if a little rickety. I in my turn have given boots, babyclothes, books, glasses… things that I had and didn’t really need, and that other people had expressed a need for… I hope they were useful and welcome and, with one or two occasional exceptions, I haven’t missed them at all.

I do hope that the things that the church has, and doesn’t need, get given to those who need them, and that those things that the church needs and doesn’t have – will be given to the church to use for the people.

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Mercy Marathon

Some folks have written about prayer as being spiritual training; and about  formation as being spiritual training… akin to athletic training it must go on and on regularly, day after day, week after week, year after year… in order not to get spiritually flaccid.

But I think the hardest part of the priestly training is the mercy marathon that you have to prepare your heart for.

What I mean is this… many priests have high personal standards (are finicky perfectionists) but God does not call us to be finicky perfectionists who inflict that on other people… it is MERCY he desires not sacrifice.

So part of the ongoing training of every priest is to keep stretching your heart, so that it doesn’t go hard around the edges and get judgemental and finicky, unforgiving and unmerciful… all of which are habits that it could fall into whilst we are seriously trying to live holy lives (no really, don’t laugh!)

So on and on, God reveals to us situations where judgements must be made but made with mercy, and generous hearts… where forgiveness must be ever on our minds and the opportunities for repentance always held out with an open hand…

Come to think about it, there’s something to that image… a heart overflowing, and hands held out open, whilst all the while ready to forgive… I suppose realistically it’s a long walk up a steep hill rather than a marathon run.

 

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