Billy Graham’s “tree stump prayer” echoes the Virgin Mary’s famous prayer

December 19, 2014


In this article from Billy Graham’s website, his grandson Will describes the most important crossroads that Billy Graham faced in his life. It occurred in 1949 at a Christian retreat center in California called Forest Home. Among other things, Graham’s confidence in his calling as an evangelist was shaken by a disastrous recent crusade in Altoona, Pennsylvania. Also, as the uncredentialed president of Northwestern College in St. Paul, Graham had to decide, for the sake of the college’s accreditation, whether to quit his evangelistic career to pursue an advanced degree.

Meanwhile, his good friend and fellow evangelist Charles Templeton, with whom he had ministered at Youth for Christ, did abandon his career in evangelism for the academy—at Princeton Theological Seminary. While there, he began doubting the Bible’s trustworthiness until he later abandoned the Christian faith altogether and became an atheist. Did Templeton know something that Graham didn’t?

This was the context in which Graham accepted an invitation to speak to a church group at Forest Home. Will writes:

One night at Forest Home, [Graham] walked out into the woods and set his Bible on a stump – more an altar than a pulpit – and he cried out: “O God! There are many things in this book I do not understand. There are many problems with it for which I have no solution. There are many seeming contradictions. There are some areas in it that do not seem to correlate with modern science. I can’t answer some of the philosophical and psychological questions Chuck [Templeton] and others are raising.”

And then, my grandfather fell to his knees and the Holy Spirit moved in him as he said, “Father, I am going to accept this as Thy Word—by faith! I’m going to allow faith to go beyond my intellectual questions and doubts, and I will believe this to be Your inspired Word!”

The next day, the organizer of the retreat remarked that Graham “preached with authority” that she hadn’t seen in him before. Four hundred people made a commitment to Christ in response to Graham’s message. This marked the beginning of a new and fruitful chapter in Graham’s ministry.

While Graham’s “tree stump prayer” didn’t change the course of human history on nearly the same scale, it still reminds me of Mary’s prayer when the angel Gabriel tells her that she’s going to conceive and give birth to the Messiah, Savior, and Son of God. Like Graham, Mary struggled with God’s word. She was “greatly troubled” by it (Luke 1:29). She had questions about it that she was unable to answer: “How will this be, since I am a virgin?”

Like Graham, hers was not a blind faith or an unquestioning faith. She was inquisitive. She wanted to reason it through.

Ultimately, however, she accepts it, not because it all made perfect sense to her, but because she trusted God, with whom “nothing will be impossible.” She took God at his word. And like Graham, it made all the difference for her—which is an understatement, of course. Ultimately her freely chosen obedience helps make all the difference for all mankind: because through her son we find forgiveness of sin and eternal life.

Inasmuch as I have trusted in God’s Word and committed myself to following it—in spite of my questions, in spite of my doubts—I can attest that it’s made the biggest difference in my life and ministry. God has proven himself; he’s rewarded my faith. And those questions and doubts get smaller and less significant.

Almighty God, make me faithful to your word the way Mary was: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word” (Luke 1:38, NRSV). Amen.

Billy Graham isn’t wrong (or why even church Christmas concerts should include altar calls)

December 18, 2014

Billy Graham isn’t wrong to emphasize the decision to accept Christ as Savior and Lord.

I have a Methodist clergy colleague and Facebook friend who tends to post things that make me feel both inspired and guilty—or maybe “convicted” is the right word. A post of his from this week was no exception. He said that while he enjoys seeing online photos from various church Christmas musicals, cantatas and programs—and he knows first-hand how much work goes into pulling these things off—he finds it perplexing that he rarely hears about conversions at these events. Is it because we’re not inviting people to respond to the good news of Christ’s incarnation?

Meanwhile, he said, Mt. Pisgah United Methodist Church in Johns Creek, Georgia, the largest United Methodist church in our North Georgia Conference, reported over 100 professions of faith during their recent Christmas program.

Over 100 professions of faith! During a Christmas music program!

I can’t comprehend that. I am, like most of my colleagues, one of those pastors who hasn’t offered an invitation to salvation at a Christmas program. Nor have I ever seen it done (at least since I was a child in a Baptist church).

Why? We are not betraying our Methodist heritage, or becoming more “Baptist” (if I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard that fear expressed by clergy colleagues, I could at least buy a grande latte at Starbucks), if we offer an altar call at the end of our services. Revivalism is more authentically a part of our Methodist tradition than the ecumenically-minded liturgical reforms that mainline churches implemented in the wake of Vatican II.

I say this as someone who is not anti-liturgical. I have a great love for our denomination’s Anglican roots. I love the Book of Common Prayer. I appreciate that our movement’s founders, John and Charles Wesley, were lifelong clergy in the Church of England.

But inasmuch as the Wesley brothers were high-church, they were high-church evangelicals. They rightly understood that merely being baptized and confirmed, and going through the motions of liturgy week in and week out, without a corresponding change of heart wrought by the Holy Spirit, is meaningless.

All that to say, even we Methodists need to be converted! Indeed, we need to be saved! 

And, yes, we understand that salvation is a lifelong process of inward change that begins with God’s prevenient grace—by which we are able to repent, believe in Jesus, and be justified—and continues throughout our lives through the Spirit-initiated process of sanctification. We understand that God has given us means of grace, such as the Eucharist, holy scripture, prayer, and worship, through which God sanctifies us. We understand that we are not fully and finally saved until we arrive safely in heaven on the other side of death, the Second Coming, and resurrection.

And more controversially, unlike most of our fellow evangelicals, Methodists do stress the possibility of backsliding. Even after we’ve been converted, we believe, God grants us the terrifying freedom to turn away from Christ, such that we lose salvation.

I think I’ve faithfully represented—in a very brief sketch—our Wesleyan understanding of salvation. I affirm all the doctrines underlying this understanding.

So I understand that salvation is much more than a one-time decision made in response to a preacher’s invitation at the end of a church service. I understand that leading someone to pray the “sinner’s prayer” is, by itself—apart from genuine conversion, without the corresponding change of heart wrought by the Spirit—insufficient for salvation.

I get all that. But for all the outrageous slander directed against pastors like me who affirm praying a sinner’s prayer (bless your heart, mainline Protestants!), would somebody please tell me a better way for someone to get started down the path of salvation and lifelong discipleship? What would you have someone do when the Holy Spirit has led them to accept for themselves God’s gift of forgiveness and eternal life through Christ?

Everyone must ultimately decide for themselves whether they want this gift of salvation. Everyone must make a decision! That’s what the sinner’s prayer represents.

And this, in my mind, is the rationale for preachers like me inviting people to “accept Christ as Savior and Lord.” I have no problem with using this revivalistic language. Because it’s true—even if, in respectable corners of our dying mainline Protestant tradition, it’s unrespectable.

I couldn’t care less about respectability. We are facing a desperate need on the part of people to be saved. We Methodists have enabled them to avoid making a decision long enough. We’ve taught them—at least unintentionally—the damnable lie that simply going to church, getting baptized, going through confirmation, and being a “good person” is somehow enough.

I’ve been part of that problem, believe me!

Jesus said, “Do you not say, ‘There are yet four months, then comes the harvest’? Look, I tell you, lift up your eyes, and see that the fields are white for harvest.”

We Methodists keep saying, “There are yet four months.” Then, when four months pass, we say there are four months more. And so on. The harvest, oddly enough, never arrives.

As you can tell, I’m convicted.

Our church’s Christmas music program is this Sunday evening. It just so happens that even before I read my clergy friend’s Facebook post, my music director and I had built into the service an altar call for people to receive God’s gift of salvation. There will be people who come to that service—I have no idea who they are—who haven’t yet made a life-changing, soul-saving decision to accept Christ. I’m going to invite them to do so.

Will they respond? I don’t know. But I’m praying with all my heart that they will. Will you join me in that prayer?

The gospel in Genesis 18

December 17, 2014

Phillip Cary begins his Brazos commentary on the Book of Jonah with these powerful and convicting words:

First of all, this is a Christian reading of the Scriptures of Israel, which Christians call the Old Testament because it contains the ancient covenant to be fulfilled by Jesus Christ. Like the whole Bible, the book of Jonah is about Christ and therefore about all those who find their life in him.[†]

Like the whole Bible, this particular Old Testament book is about Christ. 

For the past year or so, I’ve taken this message to heart, and it’s changed my preaching for the better. It’s also changed the way I read the Old Testament. It’s not that I now read the Old Testament as allegory: I believe the Old Testament reports the history that it does first because these events really happened. But I’m convinced that the Old Testament is filled with signs that point to Jesus, whether its authors intended them or not.

For example, I’m currently re-reading Genesis. In Chapter 18, when the Lord warns Abraham of the impending destruction of Sodom, Abraham intercedes on their behalf. “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city. Will you then sweep away the place and not spare it for the fifty righteous who are in it?” And the Lord said, “If I find at Sodom fifty righteous in the city, I will spare the whole place for their sake.”

Likewise, Abraham is emboldened to ask if God will destroy the city if there are only 45 righteous within it, then 40, then 35, on down to ten. Even for the sake of ten righteous people, God says, he will not destroy the city. Abraham doesn’t dare to ask about fewer than that, but he probably got the point: no one in Sodom was righteous. Lot and his family were saved, but as the men of Sodom complained to him, Lot and his family were merely sojourners (Genesis 19:9), not citizens.

So let’s ask the question Abraham didn’t ask: What if there were only one righteous person? Would God spare the lives of the people for the sake of the one?

We already know the answer to that. God answered that question on the cross. Jesus Christ was the one righteous person for whose sake God offers salvation to the world. Christ lived his life and died his death on behalf of the ungodly.

Isn’t that beautiful? It wouldn’t have even occurred to me to make that connection even a couple of years ago. The next time I preach this passage, I promise I will!

I’ve written about this Christ-centered approach to reading the Old Testament before, including right here.

Phillip Cary, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible: Jonah (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2008), 17.

Is it selfish to complain? Only if it’s also selfish to be happy

December 15, 2014
My son Townshend and I enjoyed this recent Georgia Tech victory, over Clemson.

My son Townshend and I enjoyed this recent Georgia Tech victory over Clemson.

I’m almost embarrassed to say how happy I was a couple of weeks ago when my beloved alma mater, the Georgia Institute of Technology, defeated its in-state SEC rival to win the Governor’s Cup. I say I’m almost embarrassed because of course it’s unwise to let a group of 18-22 year-olds affect my happiness to such a great extent. So the voice of reason within said, “Act like you’ve done it before, Brent.” And we have done it before, although our current losing streak had been five years.

Still, the next day at church I disappointed a few Tech fans who wanted me to gloat. But it’s not my style. Act like you’ve done it before, Brent.

Happiness from sports is a zero-sum game. One team’s happiness from winning always comes at the expense of the other team’s misery from losing. Since we Tech fans, unfortunately, are much smaller in number than University of Georgia fans, our team’s victory in this game inflicts a disproportionate amount of pain on our state. Not that I mind!

Predictably, this pain was reflected in my Facebook feed that afternoon. One clergy acquaintance posted that he was tempted to complain about so many things regarding his team’s performance and the coaching decisions but decided not to—which is probably for the best. But I gently disagreed with the reason he gave for not complaining: all the “real” suffering in the world, from ISIS’s campaign of terror against Christians to parents in his church who are grieving the death of a child.

I replied, “Yes, but by that standard what right do any of us ever have to complain about anything?” Football is trivial relative to the scale of suffering in the world—as are most things that occupy our time and give meaning to our lives. Yet, my clergy friend and I both spend money on our respective teams’ games and merchandise. Why do we do that when that same money could go to help relieve suffering in the world? Why do we even spend time watching football games when we could more productively spend that time working for justice in the world?

Do you see the problem with my friend’s logic?

If we can’t complain about “little things”—for the sake of what other people are dealing with—then we can’t complain, period. Because no matter what we’re going through on a particular day, there are always at least tens or hundreds of thousands of people who are going through something much worse.

Moreover, if we can’t complain about little things then, by all means, we can’t let ourselves be happy with little things, either! For example, how can we be happy with presents that we receive on Christmas Day when so many people around the world have nothing, or next to it? How is our happiness not selfish? How can any of us be happy until God finally balances the scales of justice in Final Judgment?

Obviously this is not a Christian disposition. For one thing, God’s Word is filled with righteous complaining and complainers. God seems O.K. with that, even as he also tells us repeatedly and emphatically to rejoice in all circumstances—no matter how favorable or unfavorable, how significant or insignificant.

God gives us gifts—even like football, which I’ve blogged and preached about before—and he wants us to enjoy them.

“On finding the Jesus you thought you’d lost”

December 12, 2014

wright on bible reading

This Sunday, I’m preaching on Luke 2:41-51, the story of Mary and Joseph losing the 12-year-old Jesus for three days, only to find him in the temple in Jerusalem. N.T. Wright says that this story bookends nicely with another story in Luke’s gospel.

The way Luke has told the story may strike a careful reader of his gospel as part of a large-scale framework around the main story, which is just about to begin. One of the best loved moments in his gospel is the story of the road to Emmaus over the three days that have elapsed since Jesus’ death. Jesus meets them, and explains how ‘it was necessary that these things had to happen’. Here is another couple, coming back to Jerusalem, finding after three days the Jesus they thought they had lost, and having him explain that ‘it was necessary’ (the word is the same in Greek) ‘that I had to be busy at my father’s work’. You might call the pair of stories something like, ‘On Finding the Jesus You Thought You’d Lost’. And if that is the message of these two passages, maybe Luke is wanting to tell us something about his gospel as a whole: maybe he is writing, at one level at least, for people who may have some idea of Jesus but find he is more elusive than they had imagined.[†]

The parallelism is striking, isn’t it? What do you make of it? What might Luke be trying to tell us? This is an insight that I might have to work in my sermon somewhere!

N.T. Wright, Luke for Everyone (Louisville, KY: WJK, 2004), 29.

Worshiping is much more than showing up for worship!

December 11, 2014
Our church has given out hundreds of these postcards over the past couple of weeks. We're doing it not so that people will merely show for worship, but that they will actually worship.

Our church has given out hundreds of these postcards over the past couple of weeks. We’re doing it not so that people will merely show for worship services, but that they will actually worship.

I wrote the following for tomorrow’s emailed church newsletter. I had to get it off my chest! As you can see, while I’m writing mostly to myself, I hope these words can benefit others. What if all of us Christians placed a priority in our lives on worshiping?

A few weeks ago, when I preached a stewardship sermon on 2 Corinthians 9:6-14, I didn’t mention an important theme that runs through this passage. I neglected it because it didn’t fit in with our church’s theme for Stewardship Sunday, which was financial generosity.

Nevertheless, it’s important, and it relates to the season of Advent and Christmas.

In this passage, the apostle Paul highlights three reasons why he wants the church at Corinth to be generous with its financial gift to the church in Jerusalem: First, and most obvious, their giving helps meet a desperate need, since their brothers and sisters there were facing starvation in the midst of a terrible famine. Second, God wants to bless them through their giving. (This was the main theme of my sermon.)

Finally, when the people in Jerusalem see the Corinthians’ generosity, they will “overflow” in “many thanksgivings to God” (v. 12)  and they will “glorify God” (v. 13).

In other words, what does Paul say will be an important result of their giving? Worship! The gift will inspire people in Jerusalem to worship. Worship is so important to Paul in these nine verses that he mentions it twice. Can we safely say that it’s Paul’s top priority for his churches? If not, it’s certainly near the top.

This convicts me as a pastor for a few reasons. Since I spend so much time pouring my heart into my sermon each week, I think of “worship” mostly in terms of the sermon I preach. Notice that doesn’t even factor into Paul’s thinking!

I also tend to think of worship more as a noun than a verb. What I mean is, “worship” is that place we gather every Sunday morning, at either 9:00 or 11:00. We go to worship the way we go to a movie, a sporting event, or a restaurant. It’s an event that we sit through more than an activity that we engage in.

I’m not alone in thinking this way. After all, what do we often say when we go to church on Sunday morning? If someone asks us, “Did you go to worship this morning?” we may answer, “No, but I did go to Sunday school.”

Do you see what I mean? Worship is a noun.

Often, a more truthful answer to the question, “Did you go to worship this morning?” might be, “No, but I did sit in a pew in the sanctuary between 11:00 and 12:00.”


Another way Paul’s words convict me is that I’m far more interested in the number of people who show up for worship than the number who actually worship—if you know what I mean. I could blame it on the system. After all, we have to turn in “worship attendance” numbers each week to the conference. No one can objectively measure how many people are actually worshiping or the quality of that worship.

I could blame it on the system, but who am I kidding? If attendance numbers are good, I don’t care much about those other things!

Which is another reason I’m not like Paul!

Paul—please notice—does care. Deeply. He cares because he knows that worship is the best medicine for our souls. We need it like we need oxygen. Hampton, Georgia, needs it. The world needs it! We are made to do it, and we cannot live the abundant life that Christ wants us to live without it.

So of course we should place a priority on showing up on Sunday for the worship services. We can’t worship the way Paul describes without gathering as a community to do it. But showing up, at least in this case, isn’t nearly half the battle!

Can you join me in praying today that the Lord will bless our worship services this Sunday, that he will enable each of us attending the service to worship him, that our lives will be touched and changed through the experience? Can you also join me in praying, especially during these seasons of Advent and Christmas—when many people are looking for a church to go to—that unchurched people will find a welcome place where they, too, can do that thing for which they were created: to worship!

Sermon 11-30-14: “Beginning with the End”

December 10, 2014
My new Advent series draws on ideas from Hamilton's new book.

My new Advent series draws on ideas from Hamilton’s new book.

During Advent this year, I take a cue from Adam Hamilton’s new book, Not a Silent Night, and tell the Christmas story through Mary’s eyes. This first sermon in the series begins near the end—after the resurrection and ascension of her son Jesus. Although Mary only gets one mention in scripture after those events—in Acts 1:8-14—we can infer that she devoted herself to fulfilling the Great Commission.

Her mission is our mission, too!

Sermon Text: Acts 1:8-14

Audio only this week. Click on the play button below, or right-click here to download .mp3 file.

The following is my original manuscript with footnotes.

There was big news in the world of entertainment last week, as we got our first glimpse of the new Star Wars movie, number seven in the franchise. Of course, when I was a kid, there were only three Star Wars movies. And at the end of the third movie, which we used to call Return of the Jedi, but is now more often referred to as “Episode VI,” the rebels defeated Darth Vader, and the Empire, and the “dark side,” and everyone lived happily ever after, as far as we knew.

From the new Star Wars trailer

From the new Star Wars trailer

But now, guess what? The story wasn’t over after all. And in a voice-over, a menacing voice says, “There has been an awakening. Have you felt it?” I don’t know what has been awakened, but it sounds pretty bad.

The point is, despite the happy ending in the previous movie, the Star Wars story continues—and will continue for at least three more movies.

And believe it or not, something similar is happening in today’s scripture. Whereas we thought that the Gospel of Luke was the end of the story, it turns that it was just a prequel to the next story, one which Luke will tell in the Book of Acts. Luke writes in verse 1: “In the first book, O Theophilus, I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach…” Read the rest of this entry »

What’s at stake in a pastor’s denying the Virgin Birth?

December 9, 2014
Sorry, Horus, you can't ruin our Christmas celebration.

Sorry, Horus, you can’t ruin our Christmas celebration with phony parallels between your birth and Christ’s birth.

Yesterday, I received a lengthy email from a United Methodist pastor, sent to a group of undisclosed recipients, complaining about what he perceives to be “a serious problem for the future of the United Methodist Church,” which “needs to be addressed”: “Biblicism,” or biblical literalism, one example of which, apparently, is believing that the Virgin Birth actually happened.

He writes: “Living so closely to Southern Baptists and various fundamentalist churches, and having so many folks who approach the Bible from this perspective in our congregations, we have danced around this issue much too long.  Fearing conflict with influential lay members, the loss of those members and the revenue they contribute, we let misinformation and cultural bias to cloud the way the Bible is read and heard in the congregations we serve.”

“What do you mean ‘we,’ Kemo Sabe?”

Read the rest of this entry »

“Because we live in the world, and we know that everything stinks”

December 8, 2014

The following is the speech I made reference to in yesterday’s sermon—Jerry Seinfeld accepting his honorary Clio award. Profoundly good, if misanthropic. While everything in the world doesn’t stink—and I’m sure he’s employing hyperbole—everything in our world that human beings touch is tainted by sin. And that does stink. As Solzhenitsyn said (which I quoted in the sermon), “The line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.”

Being forgiven by God is more than realizing how “forgiving” God already is

December 5, 2014


My margin note on the top of page 58 of Adam Hamilton's Not a Silent Night.

My margin note on the top of page 58 of Adam Hamilton’s Not a Silent Night.

I realize I’m in danger of making penal substitution a hobby horse on this blog. I’m happy to do so, however, given the important theological questions at stake: Did Jesus’ death on the cross accomplish something objective, which deals once and for all with with humanity’s problem—my problem—with sin?

Or is the cross effective only inasmuch as it inspires us to change? In other words, does the effectiveness of the cross depend on our response to it?

What’s at stake, therefore, is the question of whether or not the Atonement is objective or subjective.

hamilton2I hope for my sake that the Atonement is objective. If the effectiveness of the cross depends on my weak and waffling response to it—even after 30 years of being a baptized, professing Christian—I’m afraid I’m in trouble.

That is, unless our sins aren’t really a problem for God after all. But if that were so, how do we make sense of most of the Bible, not least of which Romans 1-7? More on that in a moment.

In his new book on Christmas, Not a Silent Night, Adam Hamilton sides with those who believe that the Atonement is subjective. He writes:

Precisely how Jesus’ death saves is a mystery; there are multiple theories of the Atonement, and each carries some important truths. Some view the Atonement—God’s use of the cross to redeem, forgive, and restore us—as though it were a mathematical, economic, or juridical formula. But to me the cross makes the most sense when I recognize it more as poetry, as a divine drama meant to touch our hearts, move us to repentance, and lead us to acceptance of the truth that we are sinners and Jesus is our Savior. It is meant to lead us to accept a love and mercy that we don’t deserve and cannot afford. And it is meant to lead us to an assurance that he has, in the famous words of John Wesley, “taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”[1]

Elsewhere Hamilton writes, “Sin alienates us from God, but on the cross God was seeking to help us see the seriousness of our sin, the costliness of our forgiveness, and the magnitude of his love.”[2]

This is about as succinct a statement of the subjective theory of Atonement called “moral influence” as I’ve read. And I don’t disagree that the cross, to some extent, does these things. But notice the emphasis is almost entirely on how we respond to what God has done on the cross: we’re “touched” and “moved,” until we are “helped to see” and “led to accept.”

One of the things that the cross “leads us to accept,” Hamilton says, is the truth that Jesus is our Savior. But I wonder if he isn’t begging the question: Saved how? Saved from what?

If Hamilton is right that the objective theories of Atonement get it wrong—reduced, so he says, to “mathematical, economic, or juridical” formulae—then we are saved from our ignorance: ignorance of our sins, ignorance of the costliness of God’s forgiveness, ignorance of how much God loves us. And how are we saved? Hamilton implies that we’re saved when the cross melts our hardened hearts, and we finally see the truth.

While he’s not entirely wrong, his words don’t go nearly far enough: I would say that we mostly need to saved from our sins themselves—not our ignorance of them or anything else!

Hamilton says that our sin alienates us from God. And I agree, but why does it alienate us? Paul answers this question nicely in his Letter to the Romans: God is holy; God has justifiable wrath toward sin; God is committed to seeing to it that justice is fully and finally done. Among other things, this means that sin must be judged and punished. God was telling the truth in Genesis 2:17 when he warned Adam that eating the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil would lead to death. Paul, inspired as he was by the Spirit, was telling the truth when he said in Romans 3:23 that the wages of sin is death.

Hamilton says that our sins are a serious problem, but they only seem to be problem from our side of the relationship: again, they prevent us from “seeing” properly. If our sins are a problem on God’s side, Hamilton doesn’t say.

Instead, from Hamilton’s perspective, being forgiven isn’t a matter of accepting God’s gift of forgiveness made possible by Christ’s costly, atoning death on the cross, which he suffered willingly out of an incomprehensible love for us; rather, being forgiven is a matter of realizing how “forgiving” God already is.

Which of these alternatives makes better sense of the biblical witness?

1. Adam Hamilton, Not a Silent Night (Nashville: Abingdon, 2014), 57-8.

2. Ibid., 60.


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