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A Note From Pastor Martin's Desk...

 

Why Holy Week is Important

March 19, 2024

   Why does religion exist? Because we need.
   If we didn’t need anything, if we were content all the time, we would have no need for religion. One thing would be as good as another; we would simply exist in a state of eternal okay-ness. But we are not okay. We sense that we are not living up to our potential. Worse, we are painfully aware of our inability to fulfill our potential. We are limited by weakness, isolation, ignorance, disease, and finally death. Death is our ultimate limit, a genetic deadline that gives us just so much time and no more. In the words of author Neil Gaiman, “Every hour wounds. The last one kills.”
   To be free from death means to be free to fulfill our potential, to have the possibility of becoming what we were meant to be, to return to the Edenic existence in which we lived rightly – in harmony with nature, ourselves, and our God. This is why Holy Week is so important. It represents our liberation from death into the fulness of life.
   Christ and God are one. Therefore, Christ’s abandonment, suffering, and death on the cross means that God has embraced abandonment, suffering, and death as well. God reigns over suffering and death as well as joy and life. In the presence of God, all things are redeemed, restored, and blessed. Christ on the cross means that even suffering and death are now blessed. And if death is blessed, what is there left for us to fear? As St. Paul wrote, “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? … For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
    Death can no longer separate us from God, and therefore from life. This is what I believe. This is why I choose to worship God. This is why Holy Week is important.
God bless you all!

Pastor Martin
 

Gotta Love It!

February 20, 2024

Perusing through the history of Valentine’s Day, I find that in 1400AD King Charles VI of France issued a charter for a “Court of Love” to take place on the feast of Saint Valentine in Mantes-la-Jolie, where randy suiters would compete in singing amorous songs, writing love poetry, and lusty dancing. The ladies in attendance would judge their efforts and settle their love-fueled disputes. As it turns out, the only lady-judge there that day was Charles’s queen, Isabea of Bavaria, which might explain the sparse attendance. Nice try, Charlie. February tends to be a cold month, and therefore not such a bad time to celebrate love. You’ve been stuck indoors all winter and are likely to be for some days yet. You’ve been hunkered down on the couch in your pajamas and happy-socks. Trust me, you are being judged – and I wouldn’t count on a positive assessment. Best to polish up those wooing skills that got you in the door in the first place. The first thing to understand about love is that it is not a decision but a lifestyle, not a noun but a verb. Love is not something we make or attain, as if it were something we could display on a shelf or lock away for safe-keeping. Love is the sum of all the decisions we make and actions we take every day. Every moment, we are deciding how we will relate to those around us. We can sink together into grumpy silence, or build a bridge with an unexpected compliment. We can choose to be offended, or view the actions of others in the best possible light. We can treat others as resources to be drawn upon when it suits us, or as treasures to be added to and invested in. And not just people. The earth desperately needs our love, and we have neglected it far too long. St. Paul writes in Romans 12:10, “love one another with mutual affection; and 2 outdo one another in showing honor.” We share this earth with a lot of other people. Our choices can turn it into a heaven or a hell. Let’s turn it into a Court of Love.

God bless you all!

Pastor Martin

 

What is Evangelism?

January 18, 2024

 

Continuing on with our Reformation Day questions … One soul asks, “what is evangelism?” Just in case he/she means “what the heck is evangelism?” evangelism comes from the Greek evangelion, which means “good news.” So to be an evangelist is to be someone who delivers or passes along good news. However, I suspect our questioner is poking at the deeper question of how we be evangelists in a time when our “good news” is not always delivered or received as such. Even the word, evangelist, has been coopted by the likes of Rick Warren, Ted Haggard, and Joel Osteen, media moguls who with dazzling, persistent smiles market, package, and sell the gospel to their star-struck fans. For all our faults, most Lutherans have the good sense to steer clear of such exhibitionism. Money always seems to find a way to undermine the gospel – and these media circuses are awash in money. It seems to me the first rule of evangelism should be (to quote Hippocrates) primum non nocere, “first, do no harm.” The good news should always be good news. It should never be used to threaten or control. The gospel is not that Jesus will save you if you go to church every Sunday, tithe your earnings, and generally toe the line. Rather it is that Jesus saves us precisely because we fail miserably at doing these things. Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. Go and learn what this means: `I desire mercy, not sacrifice. ' For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners." Evangelism is not about winning souls for Jesus, as if he was somehow too feeble to complete the task himself and needed us to bring it home. Our evangelion is not that people can be saved, but that they have been saved. It is not that Christ has opened the gate to heaven for us to come ambling through if we can, but rather that Christ has scooped us up, run the length of the field, and spiked us into the end zone. To proclaim that we might be saved makes for a lukewarm message at best. But to stand before someone who is being consumed by fear, shame, self-loathing, addiction, anger, despair, or just plain ol’ garden variety angst, and to be able to tell them that God loves them exactly as they are, without changing, contributing, or subscribing, well … that is good news. Of course, to find those who most need this good news, we will need to go where they can be found and that may not be where we want to find them, in our pews or in our neighborhood, and it may be that a sandwich, a sleeping bag, or a loan communicates much more persuasively than words. Some who hear this good news may even what to 9 join with us in passing it along to others, but I wouldn’t count on it any more than Jesus did. How many disciples did Jesus have in the end? Oh, that’s right: none. Our job is not to change the world or tally the numbers. Our job as evangelists is simply to tell the good news, and then give thanks for the power of that evangelion to change everything.

Pastor Gehring

Emmanuel, God With Us

December 18, 2023

At the risk of beginning with an overused phrase, our society is polarized these days. We are divided over global warming, the wars in Ukraine and Israel, immigration reform, healthcare reform, the national budget, reparations for slavery, gender nonconformity, gender conformity, gun control (or lack thereof), vaccinations, masking, Social Security reform, eliminating the filibuster, the flat tax rate, the estate tax, the two-party political system, cats vs. dogs … It seems that given any complex issue, we will find a way to boil it down to one all-polarizing issue.

Most often, these divides focus on theoretical issues – not theoretical in the sense that the issue does not exist, but in that it has little to do with me. Those arguing loudest about any given issue tend to be those with the least skin in the game: cisgenders argue against LGBTQ rights, those with good healthcare argue against expanding Medicare. It is amazing how having a gay son or losing one’s health insurance has a way of sobering discourse, of moving an argument into the real world.

At Christmas, we celebrate the incarnation, the enfleshment of our God. In holy wonder we witness again our God becoming one of us – not in thought or theory, but in actual flesh and bone. The incarnate one wastes not one moment in theoretical arguments over the best way to reform a sinner, what it means to feel true repentance, or any other such theological concerns; to its shame, such never-ending theological wrangling will distract the church for centuries to come. Rather, with a minimum of fuss, Jesus simply gets about the work of gathering the abused, excluded, scapegoated, and despairing and gently leading them into God’s new future.

We do not need a theory of salvation. We do not need a plan for reformation, we do not need empty prayers or good wishes. What we need is a God here, now, in each moment of our troubled lives. And that is exactly what we get in Jesus, Emmanuel, “God with us.”

A blessed Christmas to you all!  Pastor Martin

God’s Work, Our Hands

Nov. 21, 2024

 

Back in September, our congregation took part in God’s Work, Our Hands. My original intent had been to celebrate the collected projects as part of worship the following week. At the time, I had only received two or three reports and frankly didn’t want to draw attention to what I feared had proven a mediocre response. Since that time, however, reports have slowly trickled in, providing a glimpse into the Godly work being done daily by our congregation. Modesty and discretion have lead me to omit names and certain identifying details. Some projects were ambitious: rebuilding the sacristy steps, taking down a tree threatening a neighbor’s property, building an elevated deck for a growing family. Some projects were community-minded: picking up trash, putting together school-kits for underserved children, distributing gift cards and other needed items to the homeless. Some projects were more personal: visiting or cooking for sick or isolated neighbors, or simply taking the time to spend in private devotion and prayer. As we approach Thanksgiving, it is clear we have much to give thanks for! The projects reported were as varied the those reporting them, demonstrating creativity, generosity, and a powerful sense of community. The Spirit still blows through human hearts, kindling dormant embers into fires of faith and service. And the best part is many of the reported projects, far from special efforts, seemed to be business as usual – the simple and magnificent daily work of compassionate, generous souls in the world. The Kingdom of God will not come with the sound of trumpets and clash of arms. It will come one small, quiet act of kindness at a time. Thank you for participating in God’s Work, Our Hands. I am proud to be part of this community! God bless you all! Pastor Martin

 

 

 

And the Dance Goes On

October 17, 2023

     The last few days have brought a chill that assures us that once again the earth has spun around the sun and tilted us toward the vast emptiness of the cosmos. The light migrates south to shine on other lands while we are left to brood in the dark. It happens every year; we take our places, and the dance begins again. Light and dark, life and death twirl their mysterious rhythm ,accompanied by the music of rustling leaves, crickets, and raucous Blue Jays.

     Although we’ve seen it play out a thousand times (in my case … hmmm … 65 x 365 = 23,725 times), we still light up the night and turn up the heat, prodded by a deep-seated uncertainty that despite all evidence to the contrary, this might be the year that Spring forgets, that the cold only deepens, that the light gives out, and we are left to spin off into the darkness.

     But it doesn’t, and we don’t. The light always returns. Spring brings new growth, and we forget our silly anxiety. Life and death exist side by side, one making room for the other in lock step. But eventually, scripture tells us, the dance will end. And when it does, death will take a final bow and leave the dancefloor, leaving life to twirl to a new and livelier tune, because the fiddle player is just getting warmed up.

     Even as our side of the earth spins into darkness again, we hum the refrain and practice the steps because we know we’ll get our chance to join that dance. Sure, we’ll take our turn with death, that clumsy sod, everyone does; but when that slow tune wheezes to an end, when Lady Life starts calling the steps, then we will find ourselves caught up in a grand reel and, rounding the dance floor, find only life and light and glory again, and again, and again.

God bless you all!

Pastor Martin

Learn Something

September 19, 2023

 

     I always looked forward to the start of school. Yeah, I was nerdy that way. Mom would take me shopping for some new clothes, leading me to imagine just how cool I would look (Of course, the new jeans would be too blue and too stiff, so I would spend the next week scuffing, stretching, and stomping on them to make them presentable), then it was on to the school supplies: new pencils, pens, and notebooks. You could buy one with a cleverly concealed radio in the binding, and with malice aforethought, I imagined how I would put one over on the math teacher, secretly listening to rock n’ roll while he droned on (as if he wouldn’t notice the cord twisting up to my ear). The fantasy didn’t last long; they were banned after the first week. But mostly I enjoyed learning stuff. Really. At that age I was acutely aware of how I was growing, physically and mentally. I was becoming a new person, growing into a future that was as exciting as it was unknown. The world was a big place, and I had a lot to learn.

     I still do. The world has only grown larger, and every day presents new opportunities for growth. At St. Paul’s we offer various opportunities for just that! In addition to my weekly lessons study, exploring the scriptures for the upcoming Sunday, Lindsey Cochran (one of our newer members!) is offering a class on the book of Ruth, meeting on Saturday mornings at 11am. There is also Pastor Betsy Williams’ study of civic life and faith, exploring the sometimes turbulent intersection of church and state, religion and politics, that meets Mondays at 7pm. Diane Ganz leads a monthly book club (third Monday, 7pm), Ruth Graham leads a class Sunday mornings … I suddenly realize I don’t have space here to list all the possibilities! There are other bible studies, music and art opportunities, you can even learn the finer points of fly fishing! Check out the weekly announcements and the Forward for all the possibilities! But most importantly, pick one (or more) and go! The world is only getting larger, and there is so much to learn.

Bless you all (and especially our teachers!)

Pastor Martin

God's Work, Our Hands

July 18, 2023 and August 15, 2023

     St. Paul’s has been an active participant in the ELCA’s “God’s Work, Our Hands” (GWOH) Sunday. This year it is scheduled for the weekend of September 9-10. In the past, this meant someone ran around trying to find a volunteer project or two the congregation could get involved in. This had a couple of drawbacks: the first was that it isn’t always easy to find projects that can use a lot of people; the second was that our varied schedules meant that not everyone could serve at that particular place or time. Introducing GWOH 2.0! The idea is simple: the weekend of September 9-10 we will not come together for the usual worship service; rather, we invite you to use the time normally spent in our worship service and to instead perform acts of actual service.

     What could you do? You could pick up trash, write to an elected official, clean out someone’s flower bed, write a thank you card, make sandwiches for the homeless, hand out socks, visit a shut-in, write an editorial, clean someone’s windows … the possibilities are endless. Afterwards, write a brief paragraph about what you did and email it or send a note to the church, along with your name, to secretary@stpaulselca.org . We will share these with the congregation. My hope is that rather than one communal project, we will see a great patchwork quilt of projects reflecting our individual interests and abilities!

     Since this means a change in our normal worship schedule, I wanted to get this information out to you early so you can plan accordingly. Worship is an important part of what we do as the community of Christ. However, for this one Sunday let’s remember that worship is not an end in itself, but rather an equipping for the real work of loving and serving our neighbor!

God bless you all!

Pastor Martin

Life Goes On

June 20, 2023


     Ever since Adam and Eve bit the apple and belly-flopped out of the Garden of Eden, we human beings have been scratching our heads and trying to make sense of this world.
     The carrot dangled in front of the apple, so to speak, was the promise of knowledge. “God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened,” saith the serpent, “and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” Well, now we know, and we’ve been regretting it ever since.
     Anxiety and depression have become a way of life. Of course, we have lots of reasons to be anxious and depressed. Wars, pandemics, global warming … it seems as if Mother Nature has had enough of our shenanigans and is sending a warning shot across our collective bow.
     Notwithstanding, for me, nature has always been a good tonic for anxiety. The breeze blows, the bugs chirrup, and suddenly my worries don’t seem quite so worrisome. Jesus also pointed to nature as a tonic for worry. “Look at the birds … Look at the flowers. God takes care of them. God will take care of you too.”
     Nature seems blissfully unaware of all our goings on. The sun comes up and the leaves blissfully get about their business of photosynthesizing; the rain falls and my dandelions sing a song of praise. I don’t think they spend a single moment worrying about politics or much of anything else except the “knowledge” that God is good and gives them what they need.
     Surrounded by the voice of nature, I remember that life goes on. Life goes on. Today will not make or break creation. I am neither the apogee nor the nadir of world history. This day is, and I am, just the latest punctuation in
     God’s unfolding story of loving restoration. It is a beautiful story with a real whizz-bang ending. And we will all be there to read the final lines that will finally make sense of this scrambled hash we experience as history.
     “Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” (Matt 6:34)
Amen.

… We Will be Changed

April 18, 2023 & May 16, 2023

     Listen, I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. (1 Corinthians 15:51-52)

     I can't help it. I keep thinking I should write about something different this time of year, but here it is again. It is the yearly miracle. It is life, pushing and shouldering its way through death. It is light shining where there used to be darkness. It is warmth. It is rain. It is Spring. I look around me and suddenly here it is, bursting on the scene, hardly noticed until it is here.

     Yet it isn't sudden; far from it. The seed has been planted for a long while now. Back in December, the earth spun a little further through its orbit and crossed an invisible boundary, unseen, unheard, unnoticed. From that moment, the world stopped leaning toward winter and started leaning toward spring instead. From that moment, spring was inevitable. It was just a matter of time.

     Back in December another event took place which, in its time, passed equally unheralded. A child was born - just one among so many - but with that birth, creation stepped over a boundary. A world which, up to that point, had been hurtling toward death, shifted, and by the grace of God began leaning instead toward life and peace and light.

     Spring has come again, and I thank God because each time it comes I am reminded that the seeds of life were planted long ago, and though only the barest hint of green may be showing now, the day is coming when all creation will bloom with God's unstoppable glory.

 

God bless you all!

Pastor Martin

Living It Up in Lent

March 21, 2023

Here we are once more counting down the forty days of Lent. It has become a bit of a lost art. Not many people consider it worth the effort. Just as Advent gets swallowed up in the hoopla surrounding Christmas, so Lent tends to be overlooked as we watch for sales on Easter baskets and chocolate bunnies. Both Advent and Lent suffer from poor public images. Perhaps a Lent mascot (Hmm … Lenny, the Lenten Smudge?), Certainly, the church has contributed to this unpopularity, insisting that we give up chocolate, coffee, meat, or something else we enjoy, as if enjoyment were the problem and misery the cure. But such self-mortification misses the point. Lent is not about depriving oneself, or making oneself unhappy; it is about remembering the source of our true happiness. Lent is not about giving up things that make us happy to show God how sorry we are for having crucified Jesus; it is about remembering who we are and what God has done for us.

 

In Lent, we strive to shake ourselves awake to the presence of God all around us. We are encouraged to discipline ourselves, not for the sake of making ourselves unhappy, but to limit or set aside those things which tend to distract or otherwise separate us from the reality of God’s presence. If we make confession, it is so that we can receive healing from God. If we silence our phones, it is so that we can hear God speaking “in a still small voice.” If we give up something, it should be that which is harmful to us, or that which by its absence will raise our awareness of the need and suffering of others and thus restore us to our larger human family.

 

So try powering down your screens and talking to your family. Try eating a bit less, and giving a bit more. Try parking the car for a day and walking instead. Try finding a few moments of silence in the day to listen for that holy voice sounding beneath the constant buzz of our busyness . Not everyone will observe such Lenten disciplines, but those who do may find themselves approaching the days of Holy Week with a new appreciation and wonder for the mighty works of God in Christ.

 

Christ came that we might have life, and have it abundantly. Lent is a good time start really living that life!

 

May God bless us to be a blessing to others!

Pastor Martin

 

 

The Fire Within

February 21, 2023

 

"The religions start from mysticism. There is no other way to start a religion. But, I compare this to a volcano that gushes forth ...and then ...the magma flows down the sides of the mountain and cools off. And when it reaches the bottom, it's just rocks. You'd never guess that there was fire in it. So after a couple of hundred years, or two thousand years or more, what was once alive is dead rock. Doctrine becomes doctrinaire. Morals become moralistic. Ritual becomes ritualistic. What do we do with it? We have to push through this crust and go to the fire that's within it." David Steindl-Rast

 

February 22 is Ash Wednesday. We don’t get a lot of time to catch our breath, to reflect upon just what it means that God has joined us on this messy earth, owned our troubled flesh, before Ash Wednesday rolls around to remind us that no one lasts forever, that we are dust and destined to return to same. And as if to test the sincerity of God’s investment in this newborn mortality, we will in short order make him bleed and die, his blood the ink on the contract that binds us together come hell or high water, come life or death.

 

Lent is the time to crack our cold stone hearts open to rediscover the fire within, to again handle the mystery of the Spirit’s fire and let it burn us, for there can be no refining without fire. The Old Testament writers warned us of the dangers of coming into God’s presence, that death is always the cost of seeing, let alone touching, God. Even now, in worship we regularly reenact our baptismal death, a glorious conflagration of water and fire. But by the time we arrive at Easter morning, having endured the slow humiliation and death via Holy Week, we will be reminded that there is still fire at the core of our faith, a refining fire that is making all things new, including us. Having drunk deeply of that dark cup, only then will we be ready to experience what lies beyond – a glorious unexpected morning, an empty tomb – ours as well as his – and an eternal life in the presence of our God. Pastor Martin

 

 

 

A Marvelous Footnote

November 15, 2022


“If I am asked what are my grounds for hope, this is my answer:
Light is lord over darkness, truth is lord over falsehood, life is ever lord over death.
Of all the facts I daily live with, there is none more comforting than this: If I have two rooms, one dark, the other light, and I open the door between them, the dark room becomes lighter without the light one becoming darker. I know this is no headline, but it’s a marvelous footnote. And God comforts me in that.”


     This brief meditation by the Lutheran theologian Gehard Emmanuel Frost is one of those literary bits I desperately wish I had written. It reminds me again what the Reign of God looks like, which is the highest compliment I can pay any such writing. It fills me with hope and peace, two commodities I can never get enough of.
     We live in a time of pandemic, bitter political divides, warfare, and the anxiety of climate change. Meanwhile, we watch the days grow shorter as we sink into the darkness of the coming winter months. Who could blame us for feeling a bit
pessimistic. At the same time, however, we are entering into the church season of Advent, which embraces simultaneously the ideas of anticipating and coming. We anticipate the coming of a star and the inbreaking of God’s glory into our benighted lives.      These uncertain days will give way to better ones as surely as night must give way to morning. It is already written in the pages of creation and in the DNA of our lives. Nothing can stop it.
     May God give you peace during these anxious times and fill you with the certain hope of better days to come. Pastor Martin

 

Now is Enough

October 16, 2022

     Every now and then I have to do a reality check.

     When it seems the wheels are coming off the proverbial wagon of the world, I ask myself whether they are really coming off any more today than they were yesterday, whether it’s just that I may have liked the old wheels and someone has replaced them with new ones, or whether I’m just turning into a pessimistic old fart – always a possibility. Perhaps it is a combination of all three. For whatever reason, I seem to find myself complaining more.

     Although I may seem enthusiastic in my complaining, I don’t really like the way it makes me feel. If I stop to take stock, I’m likely to find the things I complain about are comparatively few. Let’s see … 1. Politics, 2. The environment, 3. Lack of civility 4. People who wear slogan t-shirts, 5. Autotuned pop singers … that’s about it. It’s just that I am likely to focus on these so much that they seem like a lot. Like I said: time for a reality check.

     The reality is that for whatever shortcomings there may be – and there are certainly real – this is still an amazing time and place to be alive for the simple reason that it is now. At this moment, I am sitting on our deck writing. It is a perfect autumn day. The last few cool nights have made the trees explode with color. I have three cats who, in response to the cooler weather, will instantly distribute themselves across my belly when I lay down later for a nap, creating my own Thunder Blanket. Despite what I hear on the news, the people directly around me continue to be civil to, and generally caring for, each other. Above all, however, this moment is filled with potential. I have a full day to act in the world, to be kind to someone, to create something of beauty, to encourage someone, to build something, to make a difference. I pray that I will not contribute to this world’s problems, but rather will leave it just a little bit better for having been here. It is still a beautiful place. It is still worthy of our care and encouragement. It is still the only world we have. It is still our Garden of Eden.

 

Pastor Martin

 

All We Need is Love

August 16, 2022

I came into pastoral leadership at a challenging time. After decades of growth, the protestant church in America was just starting to come to grips with the fact that it was shrinking. The hand-wringing began in earnest, and we began throwing massive amounts of energy and resources at what we saw as our two main problems: how to get more people, and how to get more money. As I pass my 25-year anniversary of ordination, it seems a good time to look back and see how we’ve done. The truth is, for all our anxious efforts, the sky is still falling. Numbers continue to decline; budgets continue to shrink; worry continues to abound.

 

Why have we been so completely ineffective in solving these problems? There is probably more than one reason. It doesn’t help that the church, and especially the more conservative denominations, continues to view political coercion as an effective means of mission. Experience has consistently shown, however, that when church and state try to inhabit the same space, both are damaged. Morality can only be modeled, never legislated.

 

So why have we been so ineffective? Because we have turned what should be a joy into a burden, an invitation into an obligation. When summarizing his teachings, Jesus reduced it all to one simple idea: love God, love each other, and do so with a prodigal abandon. Loving God does not require knowledge or training, just the will to draw nearer to God. Loving each other does not require business models, clever new approaches, advertising, or new technology, just the willingness to see each other as part of the same family, and to express our love in tangible ways. That’s it. That’s why we’re here. That’s all God wants of us.

 

We are not being asked to develop a program, memorize a gospel, post on Instagram, sign a petition, or open a storefront church. We are being asked to do one thing, and one thing only: to boldly bring the power of love to bear on those around us.

 

The Beatles were right: All we need is love.

 

Surely, this commandment that I am giving you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away. It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will go up and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will cross over and get it so that we may hear it and observe it?’ No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart. (Deuteronomy 30:11-14)

Pastor Martin

 

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