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Category: 2015

Learning to Read: Books for Myanmar

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In January of 2011 I spent five weeks traveling around Myanmar with a group of my classmates from Virginia Theological Seminary. We were there to learn about the Anglican Church in Myanmar and the lives of our brothers and sisters in Christ, half a world away. During our time there we visited Holy Cross Theological College in Yangon and St. Peter’s Bible School in Toungoo. We were asked to bring a few theology books in our suitcases to donate to the schools. While touring one of the school libraries I was shocked to see an entire set of Hardy Boys Mysteries. On one hand, it is nice that the students have access to a fun set of easy books to help improve their English. On the other hand, I was so sad to see that in this small, one-room library at a theological college there was room on the shelf for a set of kids mystery books. I wished the shelves were so over-flowing with theology books that other texts would be in a classroom or dorm somewhere else on site. But, as we were learning, when you live in a country like Myanmar you don’t have access to the resources we have – and you make due with the donations that come your way.

 

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“Once you learn to read, you will be forever free.” – Fredrick Douglas

Growing up, my house was filled with books. A floor to ceiling bookcase, built by my father, was installed in our upstairs hallway and was covered with books. Books about gardening, early childhood education, theology, cooking, special education, and Irish heritage (along with several mysteries, novels, and a few romance novels) graced the shelves. There were bookcases in every room of the house – all of which were piled high.

The irony of growing up surrounded by books was, I was a kid whose dyslexia made even the idea of reading abhorrent to me. Reading made me feel stupid and angry. I hated reading so much it became a source of amusement for my friends. In seventh grade my friends wrapped my birthday present in layers of bubble wrap and duct tape. The anticipation grew as I struggled to open what must have been a magnificently cool present since they put such effort into concealing it. After a struggle that took the entire lunch period, I got into the package to discover three classic novels including the Count of Monte Cristo, Jane Eyre, and one other I seem to have blocked out. I choked back tears as they all laughed. They intended the gift to be a joke, but to me it served to highlight my insecurities about the secret I carried and which felt like a scarlet letter on my chest. (Point of clarification: I never read The Scarlet Letter. When it was assigned, like all assigned reading, I read the back of the book and a few paragraphs inside and then wrote a paper, which earned an A. I was very, very good at fooling teachers into thinking I’d completed my assigned reading.)

I did not read my first chapter book until the age of 15. And even then, the novel I chose (Forrest Gump) was one in which I could anticipate key plot points after seeing the movie with my mother. I graduated high school without having read a single assigned book. I did read chapters in history texts or excerpts from sociology – but reading an entire novel or biography? Impossible. Yet, I graduated with honors. I was convinced I was incapable of reading. I lived in a house surrounded by books I had no intention of ever reading.

Fast forward to college. I went to Wheelock College in the fall of 1999 with grand intentions to become a Child Life Specialist and to make a difference in the world. I struggled with the adjustment to college life – the workload was much more strenuous and teachers actually did notice if I didn’t do my reading. But I wanted to succeed. At the same time my mother was felled by a mystery illness so I attacked the only part of the scenario I had any control over: my work. I made an appointment with the learning center and buckled down. I read my texts and I figured out was that when I was interested, and when I employed the necessary strategies, I could read them. It took me three or four times as long as my peers, but I could read. In the spring of my freshmen year I signed up for an intermediate philosophy course about world religions and I was hooked. Philosophy became my minor. Not only had I learned how to read, I was intentionally signing up for courses that required me to read primary source documents that were more complex than anything I’d ever seen before.

In my sophomore year, my mother, the woman who loved books more than anyone else I knew, died from cancer. My world shattered – but I didn’t miss a single day of school. Mom died during Christmas break, and I was back in my dorm room in mid-January with the rest of my classmates. I graduated college, had a successful career in child life, went to seminary, and now I am a priest. All the while, books have been a source of comfort and nostalgia. In college I learned how to read for knowledge. In the summer after college, when I devoured books 1-5 of the Harry Potter series, I learned to read for pleasure. When I think about my life I realize that I truly learned to read at the age of twenty-two. And since then, I feel blessed each and every time I open a book and understand the thoughts contained in those pages. Bookshelves full of musty pages smell and feel like home. I am a priest who gleefully surrounds myself with books, floor to ceiling – in every room of the house. My books remind me of my mother and the countless hours she spent in used bookstores acquiring her treasures. They remind me of my father, who despite his own severe dyslexia, loved to read books by Patrick O’Brien, John Grisham, and Tom Clancy. I am reminded of the loving work my parents put into not shaming me for my learning challenges but covertly offering strategies to help me overcome them.

 

“There are many little ways to enlarge your child’s world. Love of books is the best of all.” – Jacqueline Kennedy-Onassis

 

During my vocational discernment I met one of my mother’s friends whom I’d never met. She told me about my mother’s own discernment about a call to the diaconate. Suddenly, all of my mother’s theology books came alive for me in a new way. She had countless books about God – many focusing on feminist theology and the roles of women in the church. Suddenly, this knowledge that my mother was discerning her own call before her untimely death at forty-three, made abundantly more sense and introduced me to a side of my mother I’d never had the privilege of knowing. My nineteen year-old self was not ready to know that part of my mom, but my twenty-seven year-old self desperately hungered for her presence.

Five years later, with a crisp new Master of Divinity in the back of my overloaded Lancer, I arrived in my new apartment following a grueling 15-hour drive from Virginia Theological Seminary. I walked into a home filled with boxes. My bed was made for me. The living room was set up. Fresh towels, soap, and shampoo waited in the bathroom. And my mother’s prized collection of religious books waited for me in her antique bookcase: A gift from my father. I have loved those books. They’ve been a blanket around my heart reminding me who I am and from where I’ve come.

 

“Whenever you read a good book, somewhere in the world a door opens to allow in more light.” – Vera Nazarian

 

As Chris and I have begun to seriously think about our impending move I’ve had to seriously look at my collection *hoarding tendencies. I read “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up” and decided to use those strategies to begin to pare down my belongings. The book’s author, Marie Kondo, suggests one-tackle books first. Oh dear. As I really considered the question of whether or not my books were bringing me joy I came to the difficult answer that they were not. Aside from Harry Potter, I did not plan to reread any of the books on my shelves. Moreover, many of the books had never even been opened. They were solid theological titles, but at this time in my life and journey I did not want to read them. I realized that my books were holding up the walls and reminding me of a happier time when I could moodily slam the door of my teen-bedroom and hear the thumping of mom’s books falling from the shelf outside. I was reminded of hours spent in the used bookstore as mom browsed the shelves. I was reminded of my dad sitting in his ugly recliner reading a novel before bed. But they were not necessary for my joy.

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After coming to that realization I initially decided I could donate them to the Virginia Theological Seminary library. I had benefitted many times in my seminary career from library book sales and I could just see the joy on the current seminarian’s faces as they purchased my mother’s books for a dollar or two. Then, I remembered those sparse library collections in Myanmar. What if, instead of enabling the hoarding tendencies of American seminarians, I found a way to actually enhance the education of Burmese college students? Could it be possible? The answer, as you’ve probably figured out, is yes. For a price, I could mail my mother’s and my b168404_10150171443704606_573547_nooks to Myanmar to the Diocese of Toungoo for them to share with the students there.

I wrote to other Myanmar “alumns” who’d visited the country with the seminary and asked for donations to help offset the cost of
shipping. Several came through and generously made the shipment possible! Once you’ve been to Myanmar and met the amazing people there and learned their stories it is impossible to walk away unchanged and this project is evidence of that.

20151020_133450 copyFinally, after months of sorting and packing, this week, I collected a lot of steps on my fitbit as I ran up and down the stairs packing over 300 pounds of books into my car. The amused post office employee asked me what I was mailing, assuming I was a Peace Corps volunteer mailing supplies to myself. When I explained he paused for a moment, looking at me seriously, before saying, “That is kind of awesome.”

It is kind of awesome. In a few (?) weeks my mother’s collection of books – all of which have hand written book plates in the front covers and the year of acquisition written inside, will be shared with students and priests in Myanmar. My parents who loved God, each other, their children, and reading will be memorialized in the form of love and knowledge being shared with our friends half a world away. I cannot think of a more fitting tribute than that.

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Faith or Fear?

The following sermon was preached at Saint Dunstan’s Episcopal Church in Dover, Massachusetts on June 21, 2015. The readings for the week can be found here; the primary text referenced was the Gospel lesson of the day.

charleston AME victims

“For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent,
and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest,
until her vindication shines out like the dawn,
and her salvation like a burning torch.” – Isaiah 62:1

I have a confession to make: my heart is broken and I’ve got nothing for you this morning but raw emotion and unfinished reflections.

I wrote my sermon early this week – it was about David and Goliath – I figured I couldn’t make someone read that incredibly long text and then not talk about it. It was about the David and Goliath story and I had this great theme: you see, the dean of my seminary liked to say that we like to claim to be the persecuted ones because it’s easier to feel small than to accept that we are big and need to work towards humbling ourselves to a point that enables us to use our power for good. We’d rather claim weakness and complain than to steel ourselves, claim our authority, and work for change. I had this week in the bag.

When I led the vestry in bible study on Wednesday night about the Gospel passage I joked with them that they could rest assured I wasn’t using their reflections to write my sermon because that was already finished. I wasn’t writing on the Gospel passage.

I felt confident about my sermon. I felt inspired. And then, on Thursday morning, I woke up to learn that the night before – while our vestry was studying the Gospel together – something horrible happened to another group studying scripture in a church several hundred miles away. That group invited a stranger who walked in to join their intimate circle. After he participated in the bible study with them, he stood up and killed 9 peaceful people because of hate – pure and simple – except it’s not simple… not at all.

We live in a nation that claims to have liberty and justice for all, yet my children will not have to grow up being taught how to avoid racial profiling by our police forces. We live in a nation that claims to be the birthplace of freedom; yet we built our economy on the backs of enslaved black citizens whom we kidnapped from their homelands. We claim to be a post-racial society, but in just the last year we have learned the names Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, and Eric Garner who join others like Tanisha Anderson, Trayvon Martin, Miriam Carey, Emmett Till, Medgar Evers, and countless others who have been killed for the crime of existing as black people in this free nation we call home.

I say we, because as a white woman in America today I must claim the privilege that my skin color affords me and I must chose how I will use that privilege.

In our Gospel lesson for this morning Jesus, exhausted from teaching, healing, and preaching, asks his disciples to journey to the other side of the Sea of Galilee. Four of Jesus’ disciples are experienced fishermen, so when they leave the docks, with other boats nearby on the same journey, he retires to rest on a cushion in the back of the boat. Jesus has faith in his disciples to get them safely to shore, and he trusts his Father in heaven to protect them from peril.

Jesus trusts that the disciples will use their knowledge and skill to get them safely across, but when the storm comes even the experienced fishermen panic and everyone gets upset with Jesus for “falling asleep on the job.” Jesus stands, rebukes the wind and the waves, and then he challenges the disciples asking them why they are afraid – where is their faith? Jesus gives us the choice right there: will we live in fear, or will we have faith?

Albert Einstein said, “The world will not be destroyed by those who do evil, but by those who watch them and do nothing.”

Which do we choose?

We are called to be Christ’s body here on earth. His hands, feet, heart, and mind are in each of us and we are called to act as Christ’s instruments bringing the kingdom of God closer each day.

The families of the Honorable Rev. Clementa Pinckney, Cynthia Hurd, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lance, the Rev. DePayne Middleton-Doctor, Tywanza Sanders, the Rev. Dr. Daniel Simmons Sr., the Rev. Sharonda Singleton, and Myra Thompson preached that Gospel for the world on Friday as one by one they stood in the bond hearing and told the young man who confessed to this brutal attack that they forgave him. They named their anger – but showed the true Gospel of Love as they professed their faith, not in the words of a creed, but in the words that echo the radical love and forgiveness enacted for us by our savior.

Jesus slept on the boat not because he didn’t care, but because he was exhausted and he trusted in the skills of his friends and the care of our God. Now it is our turn to stand up in the boat and battle the winds. We are in the midst of a storm of racism – one that our brothers and sisters of color cannot simply stand up and walk away from – they live it every day. Some days might be calmer than others – but the storm is always there. As white allies we have to choose to walk into the storm. We have to choose to batten down the hatches, patch the holes, and bail the water. We all like to claim we are the ones being persecuted for this little thing or that little thing, but when we stand in the face of real racism and persecution the temptation will come to ignore it and pretend it isn’t there.

Resist the temptation. Resist the urge to walk away. Resist the urge to go back to a life that ignores the storm we are living through.

Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?

They are the ones living the hard work. They are the ones living lives that some judge to be less worthy than those of white people. They are the ones who live in fear of being stopped by police based only on the color of their skin. They are the ones who have to work twice as hard to get half as much. They are the ones who are expected to explain time and time again to their white brothers and sisters that racism is real and still a problem today. They are living the hard work and now we chose: Faith or Fear? Will we join our brothers and sisters in the boat or will we leave them to fend for themselves?

The name of the church where these murders took place, ‘Mother’ Emanuel AME Church, is a reminder to us all to hold fast to the faith. Emanuel, after all, means “God with us” and “Mother” reminds us that God want to be as a mother hen protecting her chicks under her wing. So, on this Father’s Day, let’s trust that God, who is our Mother and Father, is, indeed, with us.* (Thanks to the Rev. Thomas Mousin for this reminder and image)

If we are Christians who truly believe that God is with us and we honestly believe it is our calling to follow Christ than it is time to get in that boat. Jesus is in the boat. Jesus never left the boat – and we can’t either – not until we all get to the other side – together.

Vegetables and Mindfulness

Trisha’s daughter, Lydia, in the Whole Foods. We agreed she

looks a lot like I do when I am on a juice kick.

It’s been a week since this “no food” resolution began. The plan was simple: nothing but vegetable juice for Lent. It was a cute idea. Really it was. It was also unhealthy and unrealistic. A friend mailed me a great book that arrived on Shrove Tuesday called Christ Walk: a 40-day Spiritual FitnessJourney. I started using it on Wednesday along with my ridiculous all juice no food plan. The walking has continued; the juicing has… changed.

I was thinking entirely of discipline and sacrifice when I came up with my planned Lenten practice. In the year since my dad died my healthful habits have all but disappeared. I think often about going for a run or eating a salad instead of the pasta, but then I make the easier choice. I’ve never spiraled out of control, but I have longed for the consistency that discipline brings to my life. I’ve longed for the easy connection with God that has felt more like work this past year. I started running again last fall and promptly tore my calf muscle. I have resolved over and over again to watch my dietary habits – but each time I’ve not paid enough attention.

This week of paying attention – of changing my plan each day in response to how my body feels or studies I’ve read – has shown me that my discipline was never juicing, my discipline was mindfulness in health. I feel healthier and stronger than I have in months – and that is after just a week of *almost entirely clean eating. (Sunday was tough – note to self, Sundays need more calories.) I’ve gone from a stringent attitude to one of listening. I listen to my body and my heart and in the listening I am starting to find God again.

God is in all of this. God is present in the hunger pangs and the reminder to get up and walk away from my desk. God is in the grocery store when I want ALL OF THE PRODUCE despite knowing my fridge is only so big. God is in the moments of overwhelm when I desire nothing more than to feel held.

So the new plan has been to juice during the day and then eat mindfully at night and on the weekends. Nothing is “officially” off limits, but I know what will nourish my body and what will work against me.  In a meeting with a lovely parishioner this morning I learned that she is actually doing the same thing! So we have a lunch date to swap juices coming up – and I couldn’t be more excited.

Why Do We Fast?

For Lent this year I am taking on the one discipline of which I have been most afraid. Each year as I consider what to eliminate or take on there is one thing I have been unwilling consider seriously: food. I have always found some way to mark the season – whether it is giving up television or adding a daily devotional time. These disciplines have usually been positive spiritual experiences and have helped me refocus my eyes on God. But each year the first thing I think about doing is fasting from food, yet I always find a way around it. It seems too challenging – impossible, even. It will be the most difficult thing for me; and that is why it is my discipline this year.

As a penitential season of preparation on our church calendar, Lent is a time set aside for introspection. But that introspection is squandered if it does not result in a strengthened call toward discipleship and service. Lent is a season that mirrors the time of Jesus’ temptation in the desert and when he was called upon to search deep within himself and discern his path forward before he began his teaching journeys. Jesus prayed through his forty days of temptation before going out into the world. For us, Lent is a time when we are invited to fast from the things that distract us from following God with our whole heart. Lent, like Advent, is a season of preparation. We are preparing to go forward doing the work to which God has called us.

The spiritual discipline of fasting is woven throughout our canon of scripture. Moses was compelled to fast for forty days twice while on Mt. Sinai: first, after receiving the law from God (Exodus 34:28), and again when he discovers the Israelites worshipping their self-fashioned idol (Deuteronomy 9:18). The Ninevites fast for forty days to abate God’s anger with their infidelity and to save their city (Jonah 3:1-10). Saul fasts for 3 days after his encounter with Jesus on the Road to Damascus (Acts 9:4-9). In the book of Isaiah, the prophet learns from God the nature of true fasting (Isaiah 58:1-12).

In his sermon about that passage from Isaiah, Rowan Williams preaches: “Real fasting, says God to the prophet, is breaking the bonds of injustice and sharing your resources. And it is fasting because it means denying yourself something – not denying yourself material things alone… but denying yourself the pleasures of thinking of yourself as an isolated being with no real relations with those around… denying yourself the luxury of not noticing the suffering of your neighbour. This is fasting that reconnects you with reality. And in the context of the gospel, this is the fasting that the Holy Spirit makes possible for us, breaking through our self-satisfaction.”

Fasting is a form of depravation aimed at focusing our senses and removing distraction. Fasting from something upon which we are dependent forces us to find another source of strength – for Christians, it points us towards greater dependence on our Triune God. In this season of Lent as you consider what discipline to adopt, consider even the things that might sound crazy. Consider the things that illustrate instances of injustice. Consider the things that scare you. As Jesus told us, “You must first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.” (Luke 6:42)

Love Builds Up

Sermon for the 4th Sunday after the Epiphany – Year B

1 Corinthians 8:1-13 
(listen to it here)

 

I have never in my life heard a sermon preached about this passage from 1st Corinthians. In fact, earlier this week I got an email from Brett, who expertly read this passage for us this morning, making sure it was the right reading and we joked that he should do an interpretive reading complete with crumbly, gluttonous foods as props. I am slightly disappointed we didn’t have that pleasure this morning. But, kidding aside, there is a reason this passage is still important today. The challenge of exploring this type of seemingly outdated piece of scripture is vital in our lives as Christians and so, we must, if you’ll forgive the pun, dig in.

The Corinthian Christians to whom this letter is addressed are a well-off group who converted from a number of pagan faiths under the spiritual leadership of Paul. They are highly educated and socially adept. Thus, their question about whether or not they can enjoy feasts comprised of the meat of animals burned in sacrifice to gods and idols they know to be false is, for them, a question to confirm their assumptions – not one they actually believed needed to be answered.

For the Corinthians, they were – in a way – kissing up to their teacher. Paul, we know the idols those other folks worship don’t exist, so it’s still okay to go to their dinner parties, right?!

The surprise for them comes when Paul writes back to explain how their actions affect others around them. And what’s more, Paul uses this as an illustration to explain the concept of Christian freedom. Paul explains to the people how the seemingly innocuous act of participating in a celebration featuring food from sacrifice is actually creating a stumbling block for those who do not understand on as deep a level as the members of the church.

Paul is telling the people that it isn’t enough to understand for themselves – they need to let their actions communicate their convictions, even when that goes against the grain of what society expects.

For these aristocrats of Corinthian society, abstaining from eating the food from sacrifice is tantamount to social suicide. They must avoid the most popular parties being thrown in the community. They asked Paul thinking he would commend them for their knowledge, when really he explored more deeply the concept of Christian Freedom. To paraphrase John Philpot Curran, “The condition upon which God ha[s] given freedom to [hu]man[s] is eternal vigilance.”[1]To be truly free, is to be a slave to Christ – making us responsible for all people. Christ commissioned his disciples to go into the nations and share the Good News – we cannot do that if we are keeping our knowledge to ourselves and allowing our actions to disparage that which our Savior taught us.

So how, then, does this apply to us today? What is the food of idol sacrifice in which we partake?

A documentary series was released out of Norway this month and it has caused a stir all over Europe. The series, Sweatshop: Dead Cheap Fashion, takes 3 young, Norwegian fashion bloggers and sends them to live and work with Cambodian sweatshop workers. The bloggers, all interviewed before leaving for their trip, admit they have know about sweat shops and are aware they exist but figure that earning a wage, even if it is low, must be better than earning no wage at all. They know it isn’t fair, but that is how the industry works so they haven’t really paid that much attention.

Over the course of the series the audience watches as the doe-eyed young adults go from looking like they are on a world travel adventure to being horrified by the atrocities committed against the people they are getting to know on their journey. “‘The truth is, that we are rich because they’re poor,” [One of the featured bloggers] said. “We are rich because it costs us 10 euros to buy a T-shirt [at] H&M. But somebody else has to starve for you to be able to buy it. Those who make the garments should also be able to afford them,’ he said.”[2]

The idols in Corinthian society were false gods and prophets while the idols in our own society are just as damaging: vanity, wealth, popularity – just to name a few.

It feels overwhelming to consider how to change the world and so oftentimes we decide instead, like the Corinthians, to look the other way or ask how to change, hoping our own knowledge of the problem will be enough. Change is uncomfortable and confusing – but you know what? Jesus never said it was supposed to be comfortable.

Last Sunday night a wonderful group gathered to hear more about our upcoming medical mission to Haiti. Folks raised money for this worthy cause to share healthcare with friends who would not otherwise have access. Today, after the service when we all go to the annual meeting, a team of women have prepared a delicious lunch for us to share to raise money for El Hogar – a school aimed at bringing education to some of the most at risk children in Honduras. Each day volunteers from Epiphany head to the Blackstone Library to help ensure children of low-income families in the south end of Boston have access to all of the resources they need to succeed in school and beyond. Right now, on the Episcopal Relief and Development website there a “giving Super Bowl” happening between Pats fans and Seahawks fans in a pseudo contest to see who can donate the most money to help others before kick off tonight. (I guess there is some big football game on tonight? — Team Patriots is still down by $2,000 – click here to donate now!)

The Corinthians felt like they couldn’t take on this problem and affect real change. They were afraid of what their neighbors would think if they did things differently and separated themselves from what was popular.

We should be afraid of exactly the opposite. What will our neighbors think if they see us enjoying the rich blessings of this life with no regard for those upon whose backs we’ve built our lives?

If true Christian freedom from the law means that we are, in fact, free to live the life we choose because of the sacrifice that Jesus made for us – then aren’t we then obligated, by the blessings we enjoy, to give all that we have to ensure others have that same freedom?

The fact that we are free is by the Grace of God who loved us enough to send Jesus to walk among us. We now, in the midst of that freedom, must ask what we will do with this gift of life we’ve been given. By some lottery we were born into these lives that we live where we have roofs over our heads and warm food to eat. We know to come to this safe place each week and to learn more about the God who creates, redeems, and sustains us.

The idols are still here, as they were in Corinth 2,000 years ago. By virtue of our status and citizenship in a country, which protects our rights to free speech, we have a unique voice that much of the world does not have. So as we consider what we will eat or what we will drink, or about our bodies, what we will wear – we need to remind ourselves of the freedom we enjoy. As Jesus asked in his sermon on the mount, “Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?” So we too must ask each morning when we wake up, “How will I use my freedom, today?”

***Update: as of 6:07PM Team Patriots is up $24,181 to $12,418 over the Seahawks – but the real winner is Episcopal Relief and Development who are going to do amazing things with this $39,774 (and counting!) that has been raised!


[1] http://www.monticello.org/site/jefferson/eternal-vigilance-price-liberty-quotation#footnote4_4pha5x2

[2] http://www.sustainablebrands.com/news_and_views/business_models/caitlin_kauffman/norwegian_reality_series_shows_fashionistas_dark_sid?utm_source=Twitter&utm_medium=schtweets&utm_campaign=social

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