Archive for December, 2013

Prayer for Family and Friends

Spirit of Hope, God of Many Names, and One Transforming and Abundant Love,

At the close of one week and the beginning of a new,

Remind us to pause, to remember all the faces around us,

the faces that we cherish,

and who cherish us in return;

for the family we may be far from – in distance or in connection,

may we find moments that bring freshness into withered connections,

or closure where there is no way forward.

Teach us to love, wherever we can,

especially when it’s hard,

even ourselves.

In this holiday season of cheer and expectation,

some of us are celebrating the birth of light in the world,

or hope in our hearts,

or grateful for a long-sought rest at the end of a year.

Others are mourning those who are gone,

or mourning the dream of a family they never knew.

May we hold each of these in care,

Holding them in our hearts,

holding them in our coffee conversations,

holding them in our phone calls and Facebook posts.

For we are the ones who create the world around us.

Whether it be for love or despair,

we have some part in its creation.

Remind us to pause – before we act.

Then act.

With kindness.

With generosity of spirit.

With patience.

And a day will surely come,

where we know a world,

so full of these blessings.

 

We remember this hour the people of Newtown, Connecticut. May their families know peace. And may our nation find a spirit of determination to act in the face of apathy and political interference.

 

We so to hold in our hearts the families of Littleton, Colorado this morning who are grieving losses of their own. May we support our leaders in building a world of peace.

 

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Sermon: The Still Point (The Poetry of T.S. Eliot)

This sermon was first preached at the UU Fellowship in Huntington on Dec 8th, 2013. It reflects on the intersections of the B-52s, T.S. Eliot and Nelson Mandela.

A few weeks ago Brian and I went to see the B-52’s in concert in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Twenty-five years after their hey-day, they were still a raucous party on stage. We had a lot of fun. I want to focus in on though what happened before the show. It was an experiment in human psychology and self-awareness. The show was in a massive urban bowling alley, of all places, that had a standing area with a stage that easily fit 1000 people. We got there early for dinner – yes they had a fancy-ish restaurant in the mega-bowling alley. After dinner we bee-lined for the stage to get as close as possible since it wasn’t a designated seating area. We were lucky enough to be be in the second row of people from the stage. There was only one person between us and the band at any point of the show.

As time went on, we began talking with the people around us. It was all innocuous chit-chat – none of which could I recall today. After a bit, the fellow in front of us walked away. After about 10 minutes of the spot being empty, I moved forward to lean my back on the stage. I was getting stiff from the hour plus standing still. After a bit, that same fellow came back – walked up right next to me and began poking me in the side saying “that’s my spot.” “I was standing there.” (poke, poke, poke.) I told him I was just leaning back, and moved (the two feet) back to where Brian was standing.

Some time went by, and the fellow disappeared again for a while. Not wanting to get poked again, I left the space empty. After about 10 minutes, a woman came up and snuck into the empty spot. I began eating my proverbial popcorn and waited for the movie to unfold. In short order, the guy came back and did the same poke, poke, poke – “Move, this was my spot. I was standing here.” In a moment of luck, he found a second New Yorker that was willing to move away and just let it be without any drama.

Some time went by, and the fellow walked away – again. Like a comic routine, the same story unfolded for a third and final time. Three strangers in a row, he sidled up next to and poked them in the side saying, “this is my space.”

I’m pretty forgiving of many things, and I’m rather Zen about the big problems in life. But walking in front of me and stopping, blocking a subway or train door, and randomly poking my side are each ways to really work me up. I let it go, this time, but I wasn’t social with this guy for the rest of the night.

The next day we’re scheduled to meet a friend at Cinema Arts here in Huntington. We were going to see the opening of the LGBT film festival, and our friend was hoping to introduce us to area folks he knew. I turned to Brian and said, wouldn’t it be funny if one of the friends he introduces us to was that space-saver from the concert last night. No way. Well, as it turns out the next night we wind up meeting this same guy from the concert in Brooklyn, here in Huntington, and he’s friends with a friend of ours.

Priceless as this is, it’s not enough for my fiance. At the event he strikes up a conversation with this fellow about how concert-goers can sometimes be really difficult. The guy agrees whole-heartedly and begins to tell us stories of past concerts where some attendees would be really obnoxious about space – about where they were standing and who gets to stand there. (I swear, I’m not making this up.) For bonus points, and a last ditch effort to get me to smile, Brian asks the guy, “Do you think those obnoxious people even realize that they’re being rude or dramatic?” …And the guy says,… “No, I don’t think they even know they’re doing it.” It’s at this point that I have to stop looking at Brian, or I’m going to burst out laughing at the banality of it all.

It all makes you wonder how often we’re guilty of the things we complain about. It’s an absurd story, but a good reminder that whoever we interact with today, we very well may interact with tomorrow. But maybe, most importantly, this concert-driven story tells me how we can carry around for a long time the really small stuff and make it really big. We can flip the story of being bumped two feet into a great wrong that requires us to poke and poke and poke – even if we don’t learn our lesson the first three times.

Moments like this, grievances like this, can overwhelm us. Who here has ever succumbed to vivid moments of annoyance over banal pettiness?  Walk with me now through what I see as a primer for moving through the mundane and into the sublime. T.S. Eliot’s poetry does this for me. His body of work seems to address our insecurities and our foibles while pointing toward that which transcends it all. Eliot was actually raised a Unitarian, but left us as an adult to experiment with various religions and ended up with traditional Christianity in his elder years.

There’s a line from his poem “The Love-song of J. Alfred Prufrock” that reminds me of the banality we sometimes succumb to. “For I have known them all already, known them all: – Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons, I have measured out my life with coffee spoons; I know the voices dying with a dying fall, Beneath the music from a  farther room. So how should I presume.” The larger poem is a metaphor for a man unable to interact or flirt with a group of women. It touches upon feelings of inadequacy many of us feel in our lives. But this particular line has never left me. We know each minute that we can count. We’re creatures that in some ways live meaninglessly to a clock; or terrified through conversations we’re too scared to engage genuinely with; or base our lives around the same every day habits. I’ll be at Starbucks every morning, waiting in line with all the rest. Is my life about the next stir of the coffee spoon, or is it about something more? All of this leads to the poet’s question, “So how should I presume.” Presume to break free of the tick tock of whatever clocks we live by? To presume to talk with those we don’t feel worthy to speak with? Presume to not live our lives as though we were in a dying fall, or our music was less than another’s? (A dying fall is a musical reference to the gradual decrease in volume in a piece.) Measuring our lives in this way, through coffee spoons, is to deface what is timeless about us. It subverts what is eternal about the depth of life and gives us the greatest lie ‘that which is mundane is most significant.’

It doesn’t put us at ease, or find meaning in our days. In fact, making the mundane our focus in our lives, actually creates a sense of discord. It creates an emptiness and lack of peace that isn’t natural for humans – even if it is regretfully all to common. When we live for our habits, or live for that exact space in front of the stage at a B-52’s concert, or wallow in our presumptions – we miss out on life. Or as Eliot puts it in his later poem “The Hollow Men”, “We are the hollow men, We are the stuffed men, leaning together, headpiece filled with straw. Alas! Our dried voices, when we whisper together, are quiet and meaningless as wind in dry grass or rats’ feet over broken glass in our dry cellar. Shape without form, shade without colour, paralyzed force, gesture without motion; Those who have crossed with direct eyes, to death’s other Kingdom remember us – if at all – not as lost violent souls, but only as the hollow men, the stuffed men.” Eliot has a way with the dramatic turn of phrase, but he often critiques us for not living fully; for not taking steps when it’s time to do so; or for not richly keeping the gifts we were given in this precious life. Succumbing to the trivial, we trade our living birthright with a hollow shell. There’s a way to live life with color and not solely shades of grey, but it requires a directness to it and an attentiveness. The trap of emptiness or meaninglessness only closes when we live our lives in tepid, unreflected ways.

An excerpt here from his poem, The Dry Salvages (rhyming with assuages), (the part we heard earlier as one of our readings)

“To explore the womb, or tomb, or dreams; all these are usual past times and drugs, and features of the press: and always will be, some of them especially, when there is distress of nations or perplexity, whether on the shores of Asia, or in the Edgeware Road. Men’s curiosity searches past and future and clings to that dimension. But to apprehend the point of intersection of the timeless with time, is an occupation for the saint – no occupation either, but something given and taken, in a lifetime’s death in love, ardour and selflessness and self-surrender. For most of us, there is only the unattended moment, the moment in and out of time, the distraction fit, lost in a shaft of sunlight, the wild thyme unseen, or the winter lightening or the waterfall, or music heard so deeply that it is not heard at all, but you are the music while the music lasts. These are only hints and guesses, hints followed by guesses; and the rest is prayer, observance, discipline, thought and action. The hint half guessed, the gift half understood, is Incarnation. Here the impossible union.”

 

For me, this T.S. Eliot’s most spiritual poem. If we live hollow lives due to our quiet muttering or our dry cellars – as he puts it – this poem is a response to that malaise. The spiritual practice is in the attended moment. It’s finding the moments of beauty and peace, and delicately placing them upon the altars of our consciousness, and simply bearing witness. Whether they be shafts of sunlight, or winter lightning, or times of celebrated joy or relief, it is in these moments that we apprehend the intersection of the timeless with time. It’s in these actions that we put down our coffee spoons, and stir our lives to another thrum. Nothing neat. Nothing measurable. Intimations… Attention… Hints directing to something more than the measure of minutes and seconds…. It’s in these moments that we incarnate – fully human – fully holy.

These moments though, aren’t always based in the peace of nature. Sometimes they shine through in our messy human interactions – filling our hearts, reminding us that we are part of a greater story that began before us, and will continue on when our part is finished… On Thursday, Nelson Mandela died at home after a three month battle with a lung infection. He lived a life that we should celebrate, even through all the pain and loss. Going from serving 27 years of a life sentence for speaking out against a racist, genocidal regime to serving as that country’s president – is a story that will be a bastion for human perseverance for the ages.

In my life, one of my moments between the moments involved President Mandela. It was a few years after he was elected President. I was an undergraduate studying abroad at Oxford University, and he was speaking at the University about peaceful struggles, about apartheid, about reconciliation. I didn’t get to hear him talk. I just got to wait in the streets as he passed by triumphantly. He was coming to talk at one of our world’s greatest institutions for learning, and he was received by streets packed with people as if it were the Thanksgiving Day parade in NYC.

People wanted to witness his presence. We knew that the world was a different place because of this soul. We knew that peace was just that much more possible because of Mr. Mandela. I think deep down in our souls, we also knew, that this human saw extreme suffering and saw extreme joy. And he brought extreme joy, and extreme relief, to so many people living in bondage. Whether it be the bondage of the oppressed, or the bondage of the oppressor. He showed us a way forward, that involved peace and reconciliation.

His methods involved truth-telling. Stories of those abused, and stories of those who did the abusing. His Truth and Reconciliation Commission involved brave moments of authenticity – and those brave moments allowed a nation to move through the pain through extreme acts of attentiveness. And at some small corner of a street, in a country that was a world away from South Africa, all of us were there celebrating our moment between the moments. We’re human. There is something more to this life than empty stirrings. We’re witnessing a life that reminds us how to live. All I can say that happened was that he smiled, and waved. But that would be painting the most surface of pictures. It’s in moments like this that we remember our connections, our actions, and our strivings – have impact, have meaning, and have relevance – to the people around us, to the generations that follow us – and sometimes to the world beyond our quiet streets.

Not to romanticize our public honoring of President Mandela, our own nation was not always a supporter of him. Though no evidence ever directly tied violence to his actions, the NY Times does write that, “in 1961, with the patience of the liberation movement stretched to the snapping point by the police killing of 69 peaceful demonstrators in Sharpeville township the previous year, Mr. Mandela led the African National Congress onto a new road of armed insurrection.” We can decry acts of violence, but as a nation it’s hard to critique another country’s revolutionaries when our own patriotism is rooted in similar actions. Mr. Mandela served a life sentence though for something else. What began with being “charged with inciting a strike and leaving the country without a passport” according to the NY Times, ended with “sabotage and conspiracy to overthrow the state.” Mr. Mandela’s appeal to this was “I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination,” he told the court. “I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons will live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal for which I hope to live for and to see realized. But my lord, if it needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

His life was as far from T.S. Eliot’s pastiche of the Hollow Men that I can imagine. No quiet whisperings, no empty mutterings, but a life of substance and dream, hope and rigor.  Or in Mr. Mandela’s own words, “There is no passion to be found playing small in settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of living.” And a life that our own nation had extreme conflict and varied responses to. Although our President Carter put pressure on the South African government to release Mr. Mandela, the next presidency reversed that policy. In 1986, President Reagan said, “In defending their society and people, the South African government  has a right and a responsibility to maintain order in the face of terrorists.” Far from a terrorist, Mr. Mandela would go on to win the Nobel Peace Prize.

I mention Mr. Mandela today, because he lived a life that was worthy of remembering. I also feel that lives such as his, are the direction this morning’s poet was pointing toward. The poems I’ve read from by T.S. Eliot today spanned in time from World War 1, through World War 2. They were not ignorant of the great tragedies, challenges and hopes of their day. And they ultimately sketch out the impressions of an ethic for an era that continues to hold vibrancy today. And Eliot makes those sketches rooted in a theological mindset.

I’ll close with the other poem we read earlier from – the excerpt from Burnt Norton: “ At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless; neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is, but neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity, Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards, Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point, there would be no dance, and there is only the dance, I can only say there we have been: but I cannot say where. And I cannot say, how long, for that is to place it in time.”

This is the theology that grounds the poetry that implies the ethic. We find sustenance in the moments between the moments. Not the practice, not the doing, not the striving, but the being present to the world around us. When time unfolds between our breathes and life inhales our patience. Those timeless glimpses can nurture and sustain us. The path of the infinite pressed down upon us and we know we are more than we are not. It validates all the rest; all the effort, all the striving, all the doing. Knowing that we are not merely the sum of our actions – although our actions do matter – but rather we are the witnesses to the eternal scope of life, albeit for but a moment.  A moment may be long enough to sustain us.

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Sermon: Return Again

This sermon was first preached at the UU Fellowship in Huntington, NY on 12/1/13 celebrating Hanukkah. It reflects on the liberating roots of the holiday.

Earlier this week, Pope Francis made a statement that the media found incredibly shocking. The Pope called “unfettered capitalism ‘tyranny’.” In his statement, he went further than previous comments criticising the global economic system, attacking the “idolatry of money” and beseeching politicians to guarantee all citizens “dignified work, education and healthcare”. Possibly, most notably he asked, “How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points?”

At casual glance, following only the media’s portrayal of the statement, one might think this was a radically new position for the Catholic Church. However, Pope Francis also said he was merely continuing the thinking of Pope Benedict who had planned to say as much prior to his sudden retirement. And the ethical teachings of Jesus have long and clearly been understood to support the poor and struggling in the world, over those with means – who remain hard of heart.

Quoting the Catholic Church is an odd choice to begin a celebration of Hanukkah. But the two are very connected. The current Pope was formed in Latin American Christianity – which over the past 40 years or so has strongly been influenced by Liberation Theology. This branch of Christian thinking grounds itself in the biblical moments of Liberation. Think Passover where the Jews are freed from slavery. Or Hanukkah, where a people rise up to overthrow foreign ways. In these stories, and more, we see a religion that teaches that God sides with the poor of the world. That the oppressed will be set free from their oppressors.

This thinking says that our faith can’t be in money, or the stock market, or any of the thousand things our commercials tell us we need – to be whole. Liberation doesn’t mean freedom to do what we will; rather it means freedom to be whole; to be a meaningful participant in community. That there is hope in the world. That worldly powers do not always win out. That another way is possible. That we can be authentic. That we matter.

As our reading said today, “I am a millions-of-year-old wonder…. that I saw a bluebird with my millions-of-year-old eyes and heard it sing with my highly advanced evolutionary ears… Daily newspaper headlines could say, ‘Mary Feagan Exists Again Today!”. That’s the religious message. The Pope’s observation is sad truth – the newspaper headlines all to often read instead “the stock-market dropped two points” rather than cover the great moments of tragedy or success in our personal and communal lives.

Hanukkah is called the Festival of Lights because of the miracle of lights. In the story, it is said that although the Jews only had enough oil to keep the sacred fires lit for one night, the oil miraculously kept the fires burning for 8 days and 8 eight nights. It reminds us that somewhere deep within us, is a real strength. When we feel empty, or alone, or defeated – there is still room for a miracle. Human perseverance is the real story in this and every age. Every age believes itself to be exhausted, or worn out. Every age laments what has passed away, and believes its trials are the worst we could ever face. As horrifying as history has been at times, no matter that we may feel like we’re running on empty with no where to go, Hanukkah reminds us that we have all the stores we need for the story ahead of us – so long as we ground ourselves in community.

The revolution of this spiritual people did not happen as individuals. It birthed in families, and houses of worship; it was grounded in the community that it sought to save. That is the crux of Pope Francis’ critique of unfettered Capitalism. It becomes a tyranny of the few over the work of the many. The community is secondary to the success of the individual with a myth that the individual’s success neatly and evenly distributes out to all who are blessed to witness their magnificence.

To go a little deeper into the example I mentioned in passing for last Sunday’s sermon – Walmart. Having employees work on Thanksgiving Day is in itself not a moral failure. Some people are just scraping by and need the work. Having been raised in a working class family, with a mom who worked retail, and a dad who often worked opposite hours so that I was never alone – I appreciate the reality of working holidays. Or as a minister, Holidays are usually the time when my work is the busiest – seeing family who live out of state is almost impossible. It’s the nature of my vocation. The moral failure is a system that makes it so that people must work on holidays in order to survive. To compare to one of its competitors, Costco pays its Cashiers an average of $15.06/hour vs Walmart’s $8.51/hour. That’s about $31,000 per year vs. just under $18,000 per year. Both companies are doing exceedingly well for annual profits. Both are clearly Capitalistic. But Costco functions in a model where the Executives don’t need to make eight hundred times the salary of their cashiers, only a fifty times. According to CNN Money, Walmart CEO, Michael Duke’s, compensation is the same as what 796 of his employers make in a year. Costco CEO, James Sinegal’s, compensation is the same as what 48 of his employees make in a year. I can’t think of a clearer articulation of the differences between unfettered Capitalism and one with regulation or moral regard for its impact on communities and families. We can choose a Capitalism that serves all of us, or we can celebrate a Tyranny this holiday season. And we all have shopping choices to make when we do so.

The Hanukkah story we told this morning was less about money and more about religious authenticity. According to Michael Lerner, a PhD, a founder and editor of Tikkun magazine, there’s another angle to the story that does closely relate to all of this.

“…Jewish Hellenizers saw no point in resisting Greek rule. Their goal was to live in harmony with the powers that ran the world. They could benefit from the connection to the expanding trade of the Hellenistic world (the Greek-inspired cultural world). On the other hand, the vast majority of the Jewish people were small, independent farmers who lived on the land and brought its produce to Jerusalem three times each year to celebrate their hard-won freedom from slavery. It was they who bore the brunt of the taxes imposed first by the Greeks… These Jews resented foreign rule and detested the city-dwelling elites who seemed to be earning favor with the Hellenistic conquerors, imitating their ways, abandoning the religion of the past and becoming worshipers at the shrine of political and cultural “reality.”   From: “Jewish Renewal: A Path To Healing and Transformation”, Lerner, Michael; 1994, p. 272-3.

In other words, some were comfortable with the new world and its expanding trade, and some had their work taxed more than others. The Hanukkah story was about foreign power, religious authenticity, and the differing responses from those that have and those that had not.

Our theme this month focuses on Peace. Hanukkah has a complex relationship to this. Although I tend toward pacifism, the reality is that both this story and the story of our own nation, are rooted in Revolutions in the physical sense. It’s easy to critique stories of violence in the Christian and Jewish Scriptures. The idea that God condones violence by one people over another is an easy thing to try to stand above and look down upon with derision. It’s particularly common in countries like ours where there have only been a few moments in our history where our own people’s safety was at risk on our own soil. It’s easy to judge when this nation has never been an occupied people by a foreign power. When one’s nation is no longer its own, these stories of liberation are real in a whole new way – a way that some of us can relate to, and most of us might not be able to. When liberation is a metaphor for feelings of dryness, or being trapped in bad patterns, stories of God-sanctioned violence seem overblown. When liberation is a desperate need – whether from a foreign power, or slavery, or genocide – nothing short of power may seem enough. We have to hold these stories in this tension – remembering that whatever privilege we may hold in our lives may make them harder to empathize with – but not any less true. And for some of us, we can easily empathize with the liberating message.

Nonetheless, the miracle of the Hanukkah story is two-fold. First the more magical side where one day’s amount of oil is enough to last till our reserves are filled in other ways. I mentioned that already. The other is the historic reality that a rag-tag group of farmers were able to overturn rule by the world’s most powerful ruler. It didn’t last forever, but its moment came. When we’re struggling in this world to defeat oppression, or counter the ills of a world ruled by the very, very few – we can remember this story and know that other ways are in fact possible. The success of the revolution was historic fact. We can whittle away at so many success stories, or religious texts, but this one had a concrete reality we can learn from.

If the Hanukkah story has many angles – the quest for religious authenticity, the desire for self-rule, hope in the face of adversity, and a turning away from valuing world-spanning commerce over local community – which thread will you pick up in your own life? How does it move beyond the history and speak to the present? …

In the book by Michael Lerner that I quoted from earlier, he goes on to suggest a reflective practice where we ask ourselves questions for each candle we light. I’ll focus on a few of them now, but if your interest is piqued you can grab “Jewish Renewal: A Path To Healing and Transformation” to read more. The first night’s question is “Imagine your life freed of the need to accommodate to people with more power than you. How would your life be different?” There are many ways we can answer this as individuals, but I’d like to focus on the nature of our month’s theme – peace. This question feels like one rooted in two of our principles: Where we covenant to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of each person, and where we affirm the interdependent web of life of which we are a part. The spiritual practice of reflecting on how those with more power influences our lives, can inform how we treat others. It informs how we can build peace in our lives. Sometimes we will not be able to change the oppressions that harm our lives. Sometimes we won’t be able to wave away the abuse of power a boss, or a friend, or a teacher holds over us. But we can learn to not replicate those ills with the people around us – or the people we hold some sway over. This is the foundation for peace in our world. Break those chains – in both directions. If we can’t break the ones that bind us to those with more power, we can break the chains we may hold on those with less power. We need to take the time though to reflect on where we hold them, and who we hold them over. Sometimes we’re harmed. And sometimes we’re the ones causing the harm; sometimes we’re holding the chains – and they bind us just as strongly.

The question for tonight, the fifth night will be: “Imagine what your neighborhood would be like if people really connected with one another as caring neighbors. Now imagine what you’d have to do to get others in your neighborhood to talk about what they’d want, and how they’d go about getting it, so that everyone would live in a friendlier and less alienated neighborhood.” To begin this month of reflecting on peace, this is your homework. How could we connect more with one another? What would others have to do to make that so? What would you have to change in your own life to accomplish that? Would our priorities have to change? Would our schedules need to lessen or be redirected? Is a less alienated, and less alienating world, worth your effort? Because it would take nothing short of all of us to accomplish that, right? If you come up with an idea you want to bring to the Fellowship, please reach out to our Hospitality Team made up in part by Cathi Zilliman and Jackie Agdern. I know they’d love the help!

This is the revolution of the spirit that Hanukkah calls for. To assess when power brokers of the world are running our lives in our kitchens or our living rooms. To determine when our farmers have lost real connections with our urban workers. To acknowledge when we’re following the gods, or the goals, of another people, and let go of our own values and ways. And armed with all that self-awareness, to free ourselves from the many yokes that oppress us – or that serve to gather our strength to oppress another. The revolution of the spirit is in living more authentically, and covenanting to affirm and promote the authentic living of our neighbors – both local and foreign – knowing that however far apart we may live, the Spirit of Peace calls us to see the stranger as our neighbor. In returning to our spiritual roots of this holiday, we return again to our authentic selves. We return our souls to the discipline of authenticity. We devote our minds to the practice of peace.

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