Thoughts on the Adventist Response to Ryan Bell Becoming Atheist

Over the past year Ryan Bell, former Adventist pastor of the Hollywood SDA church, has publicly struggled with his faith and lived a life as an Atheist.  With the conclusion of his 2014 resolution to live as an Atheist yesterday it was no surprise to me that he announced that he no longer believes in God.  While many have responded with various signs of disappointment, compassion, or disdain, it was one response in the Adventist Review that struck a chord with me.  The article found HERE, entitled “Concern, Compassion, and Hope for ex-Pastor Who Left God” may appear in title to be sincere, but to which I found it patronizing and belittling.

Maybe it’s the fact that I understand Ryan’s struggle all too well.  While I never lived a year without God as he did, I struggled with belief for almost six months.  Very few people knew the depths of my struggle with religion, spirituality, and God since my job and family depended on my faith (not counting the fact I was and am the youth ministry director for my church).  Maybe it’s my current struggles not with faith, but with religion and Christianity as institutions.  Maybe it’s the fact that I identify with the individuals so callously referred to in the article as “social justice minded prodigals”.  No matter what it was, I was hurt by what felt like a patronizing and flippant response so out of touch with the reality of where so many are as believers.  I had to respond.  While I don’t know if my response will be approved or not, I thought I would share here in the hopes of connecting with others who feel likewise.

And in case you were wondering, my faith today is as strong as it has ever been.  I believe that my journey and struggles make me a better follower of Jesus and aide me in my ministry to those who often feel disconnected from God.  I am also strongly Adventist and believe in the core beliefs and truths that I have learned there.

“I am a fourth generation Adventist, a preachers kid, product of the SDA system, and bi-vocational youth pastor. Ryan’s experience is all too real to me both in my own personal spiritual journey (including atheism) as well as those students I meet and minister to on a regular basis. I’m hurt by this response because to me it appears very patronizing and more importantly out of touch. To start with the sentiment that our “Adventist education and enculturation” should have saved him is naïve. Our schools are dying and closing one after another. Year after year I see more students graduate from academy and leave church than stay. Have we become so reliant on our “system” that when we are faced with individuals who struggle as Ryan has that we don’t know how to respond? It’s easy to write off other world views and truths as “uninspired” when we don’t understand or agree with them. Many did the same to the reformers and even Mrs. White. Yet, we fail to reveal the inspired life in connection with God to these people. Belittling where Ryan has turned to for inspirational truth only results in pushing him and others on that path further away. I have seen God use those truths to shine into the lives of others in marvelous ways.
Real compassion would not write off the “give me” people as prodigals who will return when they come to their senses, but encourage them and nurture them. Didn’t Abram, Gideon, and Moses all ask for signs? Doesn’t Isaiah tell us to ask for a sign (Is. 7:11)? “Give me” goes so much deeper into a person’s faith journey. It’s a longing to fill the God shaped hole in all of us. And what did we give him in response to his struggle? How did Ryan see the hands and feet of Jesus moving on this earth? He was promptly fired from employment and shunned, leaving a group of Atheists to raise money to support this single dad.
Finally, I’m ashamed that we would write off those with a “social justice mentality” as prodigals. How then should we respond to Jesus who says those who will be saved feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and visit the imprisoned? How do we reconcile a gospel preached to the meek and powerless by a man who had no place to lay his head with our current state of large houses of worship and billion dollar television networks? Social injustice exists as a result of sin and we are called as the body of Christ to do his work. Seeing Christians claim this message, but not live it is what’s so disorienting to Ryan, myself, and many others. We are seeing Brennan Manning’s quote lived out “The single greatest cause of atheism is Christians: who acknowledge Jesus with their lips and deny him with their lifestyle”
I’m sorry, but I don’t see much concern or compassion here. I do see hope however. Hope that through this very public experience for our church, we can all see better ways to reach those who are struggling and maybe even re-evaluate how we are currently sharing the gospel truth with the world around us. And hope as you said in the father figures, who personally reached me during that time of struggle, to embrace me and nurture me through the questions and seeking “truth”. Those of us secure in our faith should do as Bill suggested and connect with Ryan personally much like Matthew 18 tells us to. That is how we reach an unbelieving world.”

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Do We Choose to Sin or Is It Human Nature?

Original SinI have a problem with sin.  I’m not talking about my shortcomings and guilt for the things I’ve done wrong that separate me from God.  I’m talking about sin as Ben Watson, tight end for the New Orleans Saints, identified it this past week.  After the grand jury verdict was delivered in the case of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and the subsequent riots and protests that broke out there, Ben Watson responded via his Facebook page.  In his post he says:

“ultimately the problem is not a SKIN problem, it is a SIN problem. SIN is the reason we rebel against authority. SIN is the reason we abuse our authority. SIN is the reason we are racist, prejudiced and lie to cover for our own. SIN is the reason we riot, loot and burn. “

I’m sorry, but this sounds like making excuses.  Like there was nothing else those people could have done but react the way they did.  As if sin made them do it.  But sin didn’t make them do it.  They chose to do it.  The existence of sin gave them the option to riot, loot, and burn; and that’s what they chose to do.  If sin were the cause, then why didn’t everyone feel the need to react in similar fashion?

I’ve heard this kind of thinking before and it I don’t like it.  To me it’s a scapegoat.  An excuse for doing bad things and not taking responsibility for them.  Sin is a choice.  It’s as if by making sin the reason for the things that occur in this world  that we are no longer responsible for our actions.  We can write them all off as “out of my control”.  I can’t use that excuse at work when I don’t follow through on a project and it definitely doesn’t fly when my kids are disobedient at home or school.  I guarantee you all the people who burned buildings, robbed stores and caused chaos in the streets knew exactly what they were doing was wrong.  It’s as if Michael Brown’s stepfather couldn’t control himself as if he were possessed when he shouted to an already angry town “Burn this @*%# down”.  No, all of it was a choice and could have been stopped if they wanted to.

Ben Watson’s response comes from a Christian doctrine called “original sin”.  This doctrine has never really made sense to me and the more I study and seek to know and understand God better, the less and less it sits right with me.  The doctrine essentially states that since the first sin committed by Adam and Eve, humanity is naturally bent towards sinfulness.  So Ben Watson’s line of thought is consistent with this belief that we as humans just can’t help ourselves when it comes to spinning out of control.  Therefore as John Bradford the 16th century theologian would say “but for the grace of God go I”; murdering, raping, lying, looting, and rioting.

But doesn’t original sin contradict our belief in God giving us free will?  To me sin is a willful choice resulting from free will.  Free will given to us by a God and creator to choose whether to love and obey or not.  Rabbi Tovia Singer on the website Outreach Judaism explains that the concept of original sin undermines the entire concept of free will.  This is a disturbing point to make.  If we are naturally bent toward sin, we inherently have little to no free will to steer from it.  Our acceptance of Christ as our savior and any inclination toward good would be contrary to ourselves and something which we would naturally reject.  It would then make any kindhearted and good actions some sort of requirement for being a follower of Christ similar to forcing your kids to each lima beans because it’s good for them.

Over and over again in the Old Testament the Israelites are given a choice to choose between following God or not.  And not once do you get this picture of pained acceptance of God as they are dragged kicking and screaming towards Him.  They repent, which literally means to stop or turn away from, and follow God’s call (even if only for a short time).  If God gives us the option to repent and choose, wouldn’t it make sense that somewhere in us also lies a natural tendency toward good?  Look around you and you will see more people (Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Atheist, or otherwise) doing good things than bad.  Not because they feel some compulsion to do so for salvation sake, but because it is naturally in them.  And there is a lot more good going on in the world than bad.  The bad is just what makes it on the evening news.

This isn’t to say there isn’t the presence of sin in the world and it’s effects.  Effects from the curse of sin brought about by Adam and Eve’s choice.  And I’m not talking about avoiding the consequences of sin.  I’m talking about the reasoning behind the action.  If we give into this notion that bad things will happen because we will always be sinners until the second coming, we also give into the fact that we are incapable of doing something about it to begin with.  It’s this “poor me, I’m so helpless and lost” attitude as if Jesus dying on the cross is the only thing that’s keeping us from being complete savages.  The problem in that notion is there are way too many people who have accepted Jesus into their lives and continue to do rather sinful things.

A pastor friend of mine once described sin as anything that comes between you and God.  I like this concept because it brought about a much broader perception of sin than just the ten commandments, a concept I felt Jesus elaborated upon during his ministry.  Jesus took the commandment of murder and expanded the intent to include hateful thoughts.  He took the commandment of adultery and expanded it to include lustful thinking.  Jesus then went on to say if your hand offends you cut it off, or your eye causes you to sin pluck it out (Matt 5:29-30).  Those sound like options to correct willful choices to me.

Let’s stop using “SIN” as an excuse.  Yes, all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Rom 3:23).  And we cannot save ourselves, as that only comes through Jesus (Acts 4:12).  However, so long as we focus on the sinful nature of man we will fail to see the blessings of God working all around us and through us.  We will continue to excuse each others sins and separation from God rather than accept that we can do anything through Christ (Phil 4:13) and resisting the devil (Jam. 4:7).  Sin does not force us to separate ourselves from God, it gives us the option to do so.  Therefore, if choosing to serve God (not rioting, looting, and burning) seems desirable to you, CHOOSE today who you will follow (Josh. 24:15).

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Where is 21st Century Youth Ministry Going

Where is youth ministry going in the 21st century?  Youth ministry itself is a relatively modern invention for churches.  It wasn’t too long ago that youth came to church with their parents because they were supposed to.  They’d gather in a room, sit around a table or in rows, and listen as a lesson was explained to them by an elder or parent who was willing to do it.  It didn’t look a whole lot different from school other than you might start off by singing a few songs.  Today it’s a different world.  Full-time paid youth pastors run programs using a variety of curriculum intended to make faith exciting for teens.  But as I’ve visited churches large and small, I’ve found that decades later there really isn’t much different.  Despite the recently devoted resources students are actually leaving the church faster than at any other point in the church’s history.  Why is that?

I used to blame parents for the lack of student interest in faith and youth ministry.  After all, it’s the parents responsibility to get their kids to church.  I still put part of the ownership on parents, but also look at it as a partnership where all the individuals involved must be engaged: parents, pastors, and students.  In doing so I found a glaring flaw common in youth ministries that wind up disconnecting them from their students.  They were not speaking the language of their students.

Today’s teens speak an electronic language.  They engage each other and the world through Google Goggles with the help of their trusted guide Siri.  Twitter lets them talk to celebrities, Instagram lets them show the world what they’re doing, and Tumblr lets them share their thoughts uninterrupted.  Those aren’t even half the apps used by youth today and do you see a trend?  It’s about them expressing themselves to their friends and the world around them.  It’s about them contributing and engaging.  Engagement is this buzzword that people like to throw around.  Pastors talk about engaging their youth when what they really mean is “we need to do something that makes them come and then not fall asleep when they get here”.  But engagement for youth in the 21st century is more than being interested in what the pastor is saying.  Engagement must be about their ability to interact and possibly change the conversation as it’s happening.

Gone are the stale lesson plans with daily reading assignments.  Gone are the days when a pastor could talk at them for 30 minutes while students listened.  Students today crave a conversation.  An organic youth program that allows them to engage in expressing their thoughts and ideas with others.  And that includes others beyond the walls of the church.  Youth ministry in the 21st century needs youth leaders who can effectively use the language of students and guides students as they engage each other in expressing the thoughts that are on their mind about faith and the world.  It means youth leaders must become the shepherding guide of the original meaning of the word “Pastor”.  They must spend more time facilitating the thoughts and conversations of teens then they do in preparing their own thoughts to teach.  They must learn to allow the students to wander where their hearts take them, but always be present to guide when needed.

This is where I believe youth ministry must go for our churches in the 21st century.  It’s a scary place for many youth pastors who like myself volunteer to work with teens.  We didn’t get the training of pastors and often dread being exposed as ignorant by the questions of our students.  As I’ve been blessed with countless people who have shepherded me in my spiritual path, I’ve come to believe that God is calling me to do the same.  To help other youth ministries and youth leaders as they engage students, using their language, to discuss topics relevant to their faith journey.  It’s led me to take a big leap of faith in creating a ministry resource for youth ministry.  One that would connect youth using electronic mediums so they can share their thoughts about life and faith.  Youth leaders can help each other and in so doing help more students.  The links below will share my vision for a 21st century youth ministry unlike any that has been created.  Take a few minutes to check it out and see if you are inspired to help students have a place where they can have conversations with each other about faith.

The Organic Ministry Project


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Why I Spank and When It Goes Wrong

Like the majority of Americans I was raised in a home that used corporal punishment .  My mom broke a fair share of wooden spoons on my rear end.  To this day I take pride in the fact that my parents don’t have any wooden spoons in the kitchen because my hide was tough enough to eliminate them all.  As I got older to where my mothers punishment wasn’t quite as effective, I remember transitioning to the “Wait till your father gets home” punishment.  Looking back, I realize that half the punishment was what we would have considered a “time-out” today as I sat in dreadful anticipation of what was to come.  There was never any arguing over the punishment (except for the pleading “don’t tell dad”).  I knew that arguing or fighting back just made matters worse.  I’d take my couple of swats and afterwards sit on the edge of the bed, usually two hands under me massaging my now tender buttocks, and “think about what I had done”.  This was how I was raised and how I intended to raise my kids.  Like so many people out there my thought was “I got spanked growing up and I turned out just fine”.

I never considered my punishment a “beating” or “whoopin'” like some call it.  That always seemed overdramatizing the situation.  It was a simple spanking. I never had to “fetch a switch” or pull down my pants.  We didn’t even have an official paddle like some of my friends parents had.  Today, I don’t remember how often I was spanked or for what.  What I do remember is what happened after every time though.  Whoever gave out the spanking would come back into the bedroom and sit down next to me.  They’d put their arms around me and wipe away the tears that were still trickling down my cheeks.  It always finished with “you know I don’t like spanking you.  I love you very much and am sorry.  We know you are a great kid and want you to be as great as we believe you are”.  There’d be an explanation of why what I did was wrong and I’d be sent off to play.  But that was a different time.

Apparently corporal punishment is still very common although a bit faux pas.  According to research led by Elizabeth Gershoff at the University of Texas nearly three fourths of US parents spank their children at least once a year.  Nineteen states still utilize corporal punishment in the school system where some 200,000 students receive spankings each year.  So at first the story of Adrian Peterson seemed a bit silly to most Americans.  In case you hadn’t heard Adrian Peterson, star running back for the Minnesota Vikings, turned himself in a week ago on charges of child abuse.  The details I gathered from the story are his 4 year old son pushed his other son off of a toy.  Peterson then used a “switch” to spank the child.  Sounds pretty normal for any of us who grew up fetching a dad’s belt from the closet, and initially many people defended his actions.  The problem arose when the child’s mother took him to the doctor for lacerations to his legs.  As I read the story the first thing that came to my mind was “why does a 260 lb professional athlete need a weapon to discipline a four year old?”.

The problem with child discipline is that there’s a thin line between discipline and abuse.  For every parent who takes the time to love on their child afterwards like mine did, there is one who uses the opportunity to relieve themselves of stress at the expense of a defenseless child; boys and girls who couldn’t sit for days or had black eyes for “sassing their parents” are all too common.  It’s for this reason that the UN passed a resolution to the basic human rights of children urging states to prohibit corporal punishment.  I realized the fine line very quickly as a father.  I scared myself as I felt myself losing control and spanking out of anger.  I had a rule that I would never use an object to discipline my boys.  I know how strong I am and I wasn’t going to allow myself to inflict harm.  But inevitably comes those moments as your arguing with your child and you lose your temper.  It was in those moments where I would grab my son and hold him tight, keeping him safe from me as we calmed ourselves down together.  I understand those parents who say “I never meant to hurt them”.  It’s so easy to lose control in the midst of a child’s temper tantrum as they are kicking and screaming at you.

What makes it even worse is trying to find the alternative.  How do you respond when a kid is stubborn and/or disrespectful?  Time-out is a joke for them.  It’s not easy reasoning with a child.  I’ve read the research and understand the Psychological effects physical violence have on children.  But for all the research that says don’t spank, there’s little to none that give helpful alternatives.  I know I can’t have the same level of discourse with a toddler about right and wrong as I can with a 13 year old due to their cognitive development.  If I take a four year old and explain to them in great detail that if you grab the dogs tail he will bite, what do you think will happen the next time that child sees a dog with it’s tail wagging?  I don’t believe they’ll stop and say “I remember that fantastic conversation with father about the perils of aggravating the dog”.  Most likely they will grab the dogs tail, get nipped at, and come crying to mom.  The reality is that the nip from the dog, the burn on the hand, or the slap on the wrist is what reinforces that was a bad decision.  It’s not a preferred consequence, but how many times have you told a child “no” to find them right back at it again as soon as you turn your back?

I don’t believe spanking is wrong, but like all things there comes a point where it is used extremely or improperly.  I don’t believe scolding a child is wrong, but I have friends who have gone through years of therapy for the emotional and verbal abuse they received as a child.  It’s hard as a parent to discover what kind of punishment is effective for your children.  There’s no manual for this kind of thing.  They don’t teach it in life skills at school, so each of us grows up making decisions about our parenting based on our childhood experiences and the personality of our children.  Every kid is different.  For some a time-out is all that’s needed.  Others need to lose their toys and others don’t respond unless there’s a physical response, be it a slap on the wrist or a swat on the rear.  There are plenty of us out there who got spanked and grew up just fine and there are plenty of people out there who know first hand what a parent losing control and using extreme measures looks like.  My boys are just now in elementary school and thankfully they are smart enough that I can’t remember the last time one of them got spanked.  And I’m thankful every time I don’t have to either.


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If We Learn One Thing From the Ice Bucket Challenge It Should Be This

According to Forbes, the ice bucket challenge has generated $100 million in just over a month for the ALS foundation.  It’s mindblowing to think about really.  How is it that such a silly thing as dumping ice on your head and daring your friends to do the same can result in over 3,000,000 people donating to a cause that they had likely never heard of prior to their Facebook challenge?  I could rant all day about the merits of non-profit organizations using viral marketing for fundraising or why people should/shouldn’t participate.  But at the end I can’t argue with the results going to a good cause that seeks to help makes the lives of other people better.  After all, isn’t that the case for nearly every non-profit charity out there?  So as I broke down what this really meant, what it was accomplishing and why, I came to one realization that I hope doesn’t get lost in the midst of it: together we make a lot bigger difference than as individuals.

Organizations for years have tried to find the key to social media engagement.  Remember Invisible Children’s campaign to arrest Joseph Kony in 2012?  It seemed that just like the Ice Bucket Challenge, every time you turned on the news or logged online you saw a KONY2012 update.  The problem was when the campaign was over and people went back to other things and nothing ever happened to Joseph Kony.  The difference here is that dollars carry a lot more weight; buttons, posters, and “awareness” don’t do a thing.  Here we have millions and millions of dollars that will live on long after the novelty has worn off.  The challenge shows no signs of slowing down either.  Who knows how much money it could raise by the end of the year; possibly $200 or $300 million dollars.  That will change the lives of countless current and future ALS patients as they battle the disease.

Imagine what would happen if we all stopped and realized the power of what just happened.  For a moment when you and I were dumping ice water on our heads and calling our friends out, we felt like we were part of something bigger than ourselves.  We were engaging our friends, contributing to a worthwhile cause, and having fun doing it.  It gave us something more to have at stake than just a guilty conscious about donating or not.  Regardless of ethnicity, income level, religion, or political affiliation people joined together in support of a common cause.  It’s truly amazing when you think about it.  And if we can do that what’s stopping us as a society, as members of humanity from doing more?

What if we decided to focus on one disease per year?  Could we cure AIDS or Cancer?

What if we focused on one cause?  Could we put an end to hunger or poverty?

It almost sounds like John Lennon as he was writing the words to Imagine.  However, this feels a bit more tangible than “All the people living in harmony”.  I’m sure that charitable organizations and research foundations are already trying to figure out how they can be the cause du jour for 2015.  And while I may be a bit curmudgeonly about it, I’ll go along for the ride.  I’m at a point where I don’t really care what it is, because I see a bigger picture of how much people united for a common cause can truly make a difference.  And I hope people don’t get bored with it or tune it out like the infomercials telling you “for the price of a cup of coffee per day…”.  Because afterall, how many buckets of ice are you willing to endure to make this planet a better place for all of us?


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The Tragedy of the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge

ALS Thank YouWell, unless you’ve been living in a hole you’ve seen/heard of the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge and the millions of dollars it’s generated for the ALS Foundation. Everyone is doing it from George W. Bush to Lady Gaga. Frankly I find the whole thing very annoying. What really bothers me about this “challenge” is how much it highlights our shallow, calloused, ADD society. While wars rage on all around us and people die from Ebola, we’re obsessed with running around putting ice down each other’s back like we’re middle schoolers.

As I watched the phenomenon build this past week I shared some of my observations via social media. I asked questions like “How many of you cared about ALS a month ago and how many will care in a month from now?” and “What’s the point of the Ice? Just make the donation. If you want your friends to do stupid things play truth or dare.” Responses varied on both sides of the spectrum:

I feel like the awareness is good but most of the videos are hollow. – Lindsey

ALS broke the heart of my family recently. The disease is Brutal. Glad it’s getting the attention – Tim

So for those who have challenged my sincerity toward the situation, please don’t misunderstand my reasoning. My point isn’t that this is a bad charity. It’s quite the opposite. My point is, if you’re passionately defending the gimmick that is the ice bucket challenge now, how passionate were you a week or two weeks ago about ALS? How much had you donated to the ALS foundation so far this year or even in your lifetime?

My wife is a physical therapist who works with children who suffer from all sorts of disease; ALS, Cystic Fibrosis, Fibromyalgia, MS, or a host of other diseases that affect the muscles, skeletal system, or mental capacity in one form or another. Our family gives year round to helping her non-profit clinic raise awareness and money to stay open so that they can provide treatment to help make life easier for those who suffer. There’s nothing more humbling than standing at a booth selling rubber ducks to raise money next to an 8 year old girl who has never walked and may never walk independently. Insurance alone doesn’t cover enough to keep my wife’s organization in business and they rely on donations as much as any other non-profit. Where’s their Ice Bucket? And why do they have to do it?

Why are gimmicks needed to get people’s attention? It’s as if compassion must come with a condition of reward. It’s like telling your children if they eat all their vegetables they can have dessert. Make a donation and get a t-shirt. Sure, you want to show the people who make a donation that you appreciate them, but isn’t the best reward in doing something responsible and showing results with what you’ve raised funds for as well?

Then where does this stop. Am I going to see my pastor get up in December and pour a bucket of ice on himself and challenge me to tithe more? I’ve already seen articles about charities trying to find the next “challenge” to replicate the effect. There are hundreds of charities begging every day for another dollar to help one more life put in their care. Is ALS more worthy than March of Dimes, St. Jude’s, The Red Cross, or AIDS research?

I wondered what Bill Gate’s thought as he dumped his water and made his donation. He’s been fighting Malaria for decades and it seems like no one cares or notices. I’ve tried for years to bring attention to childhood poverty through World Vision and find myself banging my head against the wall. 5,600 people are diagnosed every year with ALS while 20,000 children die EVERY DAY from poverty.  What would your response be if I poured a bucket of ice on my head and challenged you to adopt a World Vision child?

No this isn’t about the ALS foundation or how much they deserve the money for research (which they do). This is about you and me and everyone else who under normal circumstances wouldn’t have cared about ALS and wind up ignoring all other pleas for help on a regular basis. We wanted the attention and thrived on the peer pressure as we claimed our 15 seconds of fame and attention from all of our friends and family by posting a video of ourselves online. I wonder how much money ALS would have raised if it was merely a “donate and post to your FB page”. How many of us would have read the research and cared about how this brutal this horrible disease attacks people. I’m guessing it would have been ignored. And that’s the tragedy of the situation.


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Before Robin Williams Shows Up in Your Sermon, Think Again

I have several students in my youth group I’ve been counseling for depression. If you’re a Christian leader, do not be flippant and take these suggestions seriously. It could literally mean life and death for someone in your church.

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