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The Other Side of the Story

Guest Post by Tabitha Sikich

January 6, 2014
Nana Plaza, Red light District
Bangkok, Thailand

Four weeks ago a friend of mine and I found ourselves crowded around a small high-top table, sitting side-by-side on cushioned seats that faced an elevated stage in the middle of the dimly lit room. We sat with our backs against floor-to-ceiling mirrors that lined the entire venue, colored lights flickered and swung overhead to the pulsing music. We were doing our best to look inconspicuous in a place we were obviously not the usual clientele.

Sitting across the table was a young Thai girl, only thirteen years old, smiling at us as she answered our questions in well-tuned English.

“I’ve worked here one year.”
“Yes, I’m from far away. In the country.”

We smiled back, trying hard to pay attention to our new friend’s words in spite of the noise. I was distracted. By the fact that she (and every other girl in the building) was wearing only what you’d see in a Victoria’s Secret ad. And by the agonizingly uncomfortable presence of the middle-aged caucasian man sitting two feet to my left. He was here for a different reason than I was.

So were the other non-Thai men that sat in the dark corners around the room, prowling eyes fixed on the girls that swayed on stage, looking like hungry dogs waiting to devour a meal. If one of them saw a girl he preferred, he’d pick her out by the number she was wearing and add her to his bill. Along with his drinks. Once he paid his tab, he could go, taking his numbered token with him until he was finished with her.

Melissa, my American friend, and I were there in Thailand with a group of others who had partnered with The Sold Project—a non-profit organization that works on the ground in Thailand to prevent the ongoing movement of workers into the human trafficking machine that exists and is growing all over the world. Rachel Goble, director of SOLD and our guide for that two weeks, was to take us on an educational trek across the country to observe the economic, political, and social intricacies of an entire nation that’s riddled with the overt and toxic sex industry.

While we were all on the trip to learn, our education was far deeper than the close-up, gut-wrenching exposure to man’s capacity for exploitation, which was what I’d expected to gain from our time there.

I’d been familiarized with this sort of ugliness before. Sex trafficking — the commercial trade and usage of humans for sexual exploitation by using force, fraud or coercion. Most of us by now have heard that horrific, and all too familiar tale. The one about children getting kidnapped off the streets, locked in a warehouse basement somewhere and forced to give their bodies to any grotesque creature willing to pay a few bucks and keep a secret. Those are true stories. Horrific nightmares that have escaped the realm of imagination and clawed their way into the gruesome reality of this world we live in.

And in the last decade, it seems, the West has been rattled awake to the reality of this kind of injustice. We’re being shaken out of our ignorance and our apathy and are being forced to acknowledge the truth of its existence. Our eyes have been opened with the telling and retelling of that nightmare. It’s been a good, necessary, storytelling. But many of us have been unaware that there is another side to that story. That “other side” was the education I received while I was in Thailand for two weeks.

What I learned is that we humans aren’t just capable of exploitation, we are its master engineers.

The shape of the sex industry is more complex than awareness campaigns in America often portray. Like any other economic system, this one runs on supply and demand. As the demand (men buying sex) skyrockets, so must the supply (women, and men, being sold). What’s happening in Thailand is an ever-widening pipeline that fuels the industry as a result of poverty, corruption, religion (and the list continues).

“Vans don’t come to the countryside looking to pick up girls to work in the bars anymore. They don’t need to. The girls are coming to the cities on their own,” said one of the leaders we met on our visit.

There is more than the ugly narrative of kidnapping and chains—it’s deeper and more systemic. From rural areas, people are flocking to the city in droves to look for work. In the countryside jobs are scant, and hardly pay enough to support individuals, let alone entire families. Education, if it’s available in rural areas, is often inaccessible due to cost or inadequate. Parents, having to choose between their survival and education, aren’t able to send their kids to school, disqualifying them from any jobs that might have been available in the first place. (We were told that a university degree is required for employment at a fast food chain in Bangkok.)

Besides limited jobs and education, another problem is that Thai culture as a whole seems to have grown numb to this kind of exploitation. From the time they’re little, youth are conditioned to view inequality, abuse and promiscuity as acceptable parts of the social structure. An accepted cultural norm in Thailand, but one that’s not to be spoken of, is the assumption that husbands and boyfriends regularly seek and pay for sex outside of their primary relationship. It’s “just the way it is” in Thailand (and elsewhere in the world).

An added nuance to the equation is religion’s role in the mix. A buddhist nation at large, Thai people believe in gaining merit. Boys earn merit for their families by becoming monks for a period of time. Girls however, because they’re excluded from religious roles, earn merit by bringing in an income. But if they’re without education options for work are, as we’ve said, hugely limited.

One field that doesn’t require an education, though, is the booming sex industry. And because there is demand the most vulnerable are those filling the spots—as it appears on the surface—voluntarily. This is the other side of the story. This kind of human sickness, trafficking, isn’t just bad men stealing kids off the street. There are greater complexities. In Thailand, as Rachel Goble put it, “poverty is the trafficker.”

So there we sat, across the table from this child who’d found herself entangled in all the wreckage. Perhaps not chained physically, but bound essentially within the system of her own exploitation. She was there because she had to survive. She was there because, like the majority of the others, she had to send money back to her family in the country. Because she had no other options.

The reality of this atrocity points to entire systems — systems of economics, culture, and religion — that, complexly combined, create opportunity for exploitation of the vulnerable. And we’re not above it. But the enormity of the problem isn’t meant to leave us overwhelmed, and paralyzed with inaction, though the temptation for that response will always be an option.

What it also ought to do is point out our own hand in the equation. That when it comes to systems, we the people make up those systems. We create them, and allow them to perpetuate. And if we begin to acknowledge our role in their existence, and then identify where our hands are invested in the broken systems, we can begin to remove them. And in so doing, fulfill our calling to be agents of redemption, bearers of light in dark places. That begins with our eyes being opened to the entire story.

Living Intentionally with Tsh Oxenreider

My friend Tsh Oxenreider just released her new book Notes from a Blue Bike: The Art of Living Intentionally in a Chaotic WorldTsh is the founder of TheArtofSimple.net (previously Simple Mom), a community blog dedicated to the art and science of simple living. She’s the author of Organized Simplicity and One Bite at a Time, a regular contributor to (in)courage, an advocate for Compassion International, and a top-ranked podcaster. I hope you enjoy her thoughts on how we can all slow down and live with purpose.

KW: What made you realize that you needed to re-evaluate how you lived your life?

TO: It was about six or so months into our new life back in the States when my husband and I looked at each other square in the face and admit that we were rapidly returning to a fast-paced, frenetic lifestyle we didn’t want. We were moving from Austin, Texas to Bend, Oregon, so we had high hopes that moving to a much smaller town, albeit still in our home culture, would create the breathing space for us to slow down and live with more intention, like we did in Turkey.

It didn’t. We didn’t have to wait as much in traffic jams, and we ran into the same people at stores more frequently, but we still didn’t find a slower-paced life. Life was still crazy. And it was then that we realized a slower-paced life wasn’t going to just happen—we’d have to make it happen.

KW: How did living in and experiencing different cultures shape you?

TO: This is the whole premise of the book, really—that we can learn from other cultures how to live slower and simpler. This isn’t to say everywhere but the States is perfect, nor that there aren’t Americans who haven’t fully discovered how to live with intention. But in my experience, it is harder here to smell the roses because our very infrastructure prefers a lifestyle where you drive everywhere, work long hours, fill your calendars, and cram more stuff in your home. This is why it requires pedaling uphill from our culture’s default in order to live with more intention.

KW: Do you have recommendations for people who may not have the same flexibility or opportunity to travel that you’ve had?

TO: Well, I do make the black-and-white statement in the book that I believe everyone should visit another culture (besides Canada) with their family at least once in their life, preferably when your kids are small. I think it’s easier than most people think, once you make small changes in your life that are conducive to more travel opportunities.

That said, though, I do realize our family’s ability to travel often is unconventional, nor does everyone love it as much as us. For the average family, I’d recommend that they become more intentional in making friends that are “different” than them—perhaps a different life stage, a different race, a different background, a different religion. It’s not the same as actually immersing yourself in a different culture, but it’s still something. Get uncomfortable. Go out of your way to get involved, somehow, in a different part of town.

But really… I don’t think it’s as hard to find travel opportunities or the freedom to travel as most Americans think. And it’s important.

KW: What were some of the bumps in the road on your journey toward living intentionally?

TO: Busyness continues to be the biggest speed bump for us—it’s just so easy to pile too much on your plate in a culture that worships productivity. We have to intentionally go out of our way to make sure we don’t cram our calendar full of well-meaning, but ultimately not ideal, events and commitments.

It’s also easy to lose focus of our particular passions and values, and therefore fall prey to what the surrounding culture tells us is the best, “right” way to live. We admit that our family prefers to live a slightly unconventional life. But it’s easy when people question our choices, even well-meaning people that love. It’s even easier to assume people are questioning our choices, simply because we’re recovering people-pleasers at heart.

This culture also has a lot of distractions that aren’t necessarily bad, but really aren’t best; they don’t really add value to the life we want to live. TV shows, extracurriculars for our kids, more stuff to buy at stores… nothing inherently evil, but the sheer abundance of our choices make it easier for us to stray off our path a bit.

KW: How does your faith drive your desire to live intentionally and integrate into that effort?

TO: There’s not much of a point in living with intention without a purpose behind it, so in my experience, it became much easier to make daily, important choices when our life’s purpose was made clearer to us. And we wrote our family’s purpose statement after spending lots of time in prayer, in communion with God and searching His heart for why He gave us our gifts and passions. Once we felt at peace with this, it was like we were in partnership with our Creator, living the way He made us. He didn’t give us our gifts and passions by accident—they’re given to us so that we can live in tandem with God, as a natural outpouring of His creativity.

There’s also not much point in living simply for its own sake; I’m a big believer in Mother Teresa’s admonishment to “live simply so that others can simply live.” Simplifying our life for only our benefit leaves us empty, annoyed, and exhausted, but simplifying so that we can take part in the important work around the world of giving to those who need it, caring for the poor, and dying to ourselves so that the voiceless have more of a voice—that’s eternal. That gives glory to God.

KW: Is there one tip you could give readers to help them get started on this journey?

TO: Just start with one thing at a time. Sometimes the process of slowing down and simplifying can feel awfully chaotic, which is frustrating at best. It’s supposed to be a journey, not a destination, so take the art of slowing down—well, slow. Pick one area of your lfie and make a few daily choices to live in that area with more intention. Next month, pick a few more. Eventually, life will feel a little more how you want it to feel. This is one reason I wanted to divide Blue Bike in the categories of work, food, education, travel, and entertainment—to show that not everything has to be different within one week. It takes time.

A History of Africa

I’m not an expert on African history, but I’ve been studying it for the last eight years and am helping to facilitate a reading and discussion based seminar class in the Kilns College Master of Arts in Social Justice program called A History of Africa Since Independence. The course is designed to introduce students to the geographical and sociopolitical realities of contemporary Africa thru the lens of history. Topics include: colonialism and its affects, independence movements and self governance issues, the development of African nation-states, the rise of the “big men” in African politics, the emergence of two party democracies and the role of international policy, aid and development through the course of recent African history.

I thought I’d share some of my favorite books on the subject, some of which we are using in the class.

The Fate of Africa: A History of Fifty Years of Independence This narrative history of Africa by Martin Meredith is our primary text for the class. This book shows how Africans took power back from their colonizers, tries to uncover the reasons why African countries moved from a state of hope at independence to the myriad of problems is has faced and still faces. Meredith provides an unadulterated look at corrupt dictators, and though he doesn’t leave the reader with much hope, this is an important read for anyone who wants to begin to understand Africa’s recent history.

African History: A Very Short Introduction This book by John Parker & Richard Rathbone draws from over five millenia of events and focuses more on the challenges faced when studying African history as compared to other histories. The nature of the continent creates a unique set of questions and makes the study of African history different than any other.

Another America: The Story of Liberia and the Former Slaves Who Ruled It Another area of lifelong study for me is slavery. This book is the first popular history of the former slaves who left America and founded, ruled, and lost Africa’s first republic: Liberia.

Dancing in the Glory of Monsters: The Collapse of the Congo and the Great War of Africa Africa’s Great War is happening right now in the Democratic Republic of Congo and is tied to many other conflicts in the area. Jason Stearns’ account is an in-depth attempt to understand the nuances behind one of the continent’s most complicated conflicts. Stearns’ combines political science, first hand interviews with militia leaders, journalism, and activism to make this intractable conflict come to life on the pages of this book.

Long Walk to Freedom: The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela The autobiography of Nelson Mandela is reveals much of the life, thoughts and service of one of Africa’s—and the world’s— most influential leaders. It was written secretly during his 27 years of imprisonment on Robben Island. This is one of the most widely read books in America concerning African history. This book was made into a movie this year; see the trailer here.

Brotherhood

Christian brotherhood is not
an ideal which we must realize;
it is rather a reality created by God
in Christ Jesus in which we may participate.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer 

Your True Identity in Christ: An Interview with Dave Lomas

David Lomas serves as the lead pastor at Reality in San Francisco, a church community that started in 2010 in the Castro District. He lives, with his wife Ashley, in one of the most un-churched cities in the nation, but one that is bursting with new life and the grace of God. The Reality family of churches is a growing movement committed to relational church planting and serving the broader body of Christ. His new book The Truest Thing about You: Identity, Desire, and Why It All Matters is about the transformation possible when we discover our real identity in Christ.

KW: As a church planter and pastor, when did you first notice the issue of our true identity?

DL: I planted a church in San Francisco four years ago. People tend to move to SF to make something of themselves, to find themselves, or to be themselves. So the message of identity is in the city’s DNA. Even if people aren’t consciously asking the question What is my true identity?, they’re still trying to find the answer subconsciously.

This is a deeply human question, too, so it hit a nerve at our church when I taught on identity in Christ and Imago Dei. Just because we were Christians, that didn’t mean we’d figured out who we were, and it certainly didn’t mean we were living secure and holy lives every day because we followed Jesus. In the back of my pastor brain I thought it was supposed to work like that—but it wasn’t quite that simple. So I tried to show how the whole of Paul’s teaching (in my opinion) is about driving who we are in Christ deep into the core of our beings until we understand it is the truest thing about us.

KW: Working in the context of San Francisco, how does identity play out?

DL: San Francisco is just the rest of the country with the volume turned up. People move here because they have a great idea or product or startup. They move here because they want to live a lifestyle that won’t be judged by their hometown. This city is full of people who find their identity in three places: what they do, what they have, or what they desire. And this is true for the church, too! We take things that might be true about us—like jobs, possessions, desires, and dreams—and we push them down to the fundamental layer of who we are. We make them everything.

In short, we wrongly make those true things into the truest things. And that’s where the problems start.

KW: In the book you ask, What if the truest thing about you can cause you to reimagine your entire life? How has the message of this book caused you to reimagine your own life?

DL: It’s tempting to make my job more important than it really is. The truest thing about me is not that I’m a pastor of a church in San Francisco. That can go away. I can move to another church or another city. I can even end up working at Starbucks (again). But none of that can change what’s truest about me. The truest thing about me is not that I’m a husband, either. That can change in a tragic moment. The truest thing about me is not that I want to be a father. My wife and I have been trying to have children for years, and we don’t believe God has released us to adopt right now. It’s like we’ve been in a 5-year holding pattern, and that can weigh on me.

So if I find my identity in my job, or my marriage, or wanting to be a father—all good things!—I’ll be leaning my whole identity on things that aren’t meant to hold me up. I constantly have to push what’s truest about me to the core of my soul. And when I do that, it frees me to be a pastor and husband in a rightly ordered way.

KW: What is the heart of what you want people to take away from the book?

DL: I want people to come away with the deep sense that they are human, created in the image of God and loved by that same God. We get lost in a maze of confusion when we think we have to “find” ourselves or “make” ourselves. We don’t. We can’t. The only way to gain an identity is to receive one. Jesus received his identity at his baptism—and God called Jesus his beloved and delightful son—before Jesus did anything we might deem worthy of such love. When we’re in Jesus, it’s the same for us: we’re God’s beloved children, not because we earn it, but just for being. I pray that truth liberates many.

KW: How do we find our truest identity?

DL: You might expect application points. A “to-do-list” of identity. Some journal questions. Five things you can do in the next five weeks to actualize your new identity. But that’s not what this book is about. Unless you drive the single message of this book to the core of your being—beyond belief, to the place of your deepest trust—no application will stick.

So here it is.

You will not find your identity in what you have, but in Who has you. You will not find your identity in what you do, but in what has been done for you. And you will not find your identity in what you desire, but in Who has desired—at infinite cost to Himself—a relationship with you.

Human Persons

When Dreams Get in the Way

As a leader, I am often inundated by Christian leadership books and essays on goal setting, life planning and dream setting (having a bucket list of what I hope to do before I die).

Bucket lists can be idolatrous, however—things that end up directing us instead of God. Idols are incredibly dangerous because they reshape the entirety of lives.

I have a friend Keith who followed God into some of the poorest places in the world by putting on hold education, business ventures and even involvement with the US Rugby team.

What if Keith was guided by the thought, “I want to see Rome, climb the Himalayas, drive a motorcycle down Route 66 and retire to a lake home in Wyoming before I die”?

Would he have ended up running a relief and development organization years later helping millions of people in poverty?  Would he have an adopted daughter God brought into the life of his family while ministering overseas?

Sometimes dreams or overly defined life goals can get in the way of God’s plans.  Certainly, God can use goals, and often does, but we always have to hold them in loose hands recognizing that God could want us to head a different direction, or stop short of reaching a goal, or do something that would make all of our dreams and all of our goals unattainable because of how God chooses to use us.

Faith seeks. Faith serves. Faith questions. Faith hopes. Faith believes. But, I believe in Christian discipleship that faith doesn’t fantasize—it follows.

Cultivating Soul Friendships

Guest Post by Peter Heltzel

“How good and pleasant it is
when God’s people live together in unity!”
Psalm 133:1

Jesus Christ, the revelation of the Triune Creator as a human person, is the basis of our life together. In order to live in unity, we need to get to know each other, including our deepest differences. We need to know others as we are known by God. We need to “walk in love, as Christ loved us” (Ephesians 1:1-2). Getting to know others more intimately, so we can love them more fully is the heart of the Gospel.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer articulated the call to Christian community in his classic book Life Together. This book was birthed in the context of his teaching at an underground seminary in Finkenwalde, Germany. At that time most Christians were complicit with the Nazi regime through their inaction. Bonhoeffer had the courage to act decisively and founded an innovative and prophetic seminary dedicated to “a kind of new monasticism.”

Leaving the security of the state church, the young men who were gathered at that Seminary would wake up in the morning and pray together, read Scripture, and study theology. The spirit of this underground seminary continues in the New Urban Monastic movement today through a growing group of leaders including Shane and Katie Jo Claibrone, Jonathan and Leah Wilson-Hargrove, Chris and Cassie Haw, Sean and Rebecca Gladding, and Chris & Phileena Heueretz and many others. These new urban monastics live in intentional community and regularly practice the spiritual disciplines together. I appreciate their commitment to life together in and for the city.

While I don’t live in intentional community, but with my wife Sarah and two cats in a small New York City apartment, I try to practice the spiritual disciplines each day, waking up for prayer, Bible reading and the Lord’s Supper. We are part of a monthly small group at Park Avenue Christian Church called a “Soul Food” fellowship, where we gather for biblical reflection and prayer on the walk of discipleship.

Deep community is critical and must be cultivated. 

Central to our spiritual growth is our openness to “soul friendship”— “Friendships mediated by Jesus,” is how Bonhoeffer describes them. A soul friend is one you can talk to about your relationship with God. Make a commitment to meeting with a soul friend this month. Schedule a coffee or lunch and share your souls with each other and pray for each other. This can be a great source of spiritual refreshment for you and your friend.

In our online world, we often spend too much time at a superficial level of existence. As Sean Gladding writes in his new book Ten: Words of Life for an Addicted, Compulsive, Cynical, Divided and Worn-Out Culture: “We’re all public figures on Facebook and Twitter. Which has created some distance between us and even our closest friends” (pg. 61). While surfing the net and mobilizing the new social media, there are often soul friends across the street or crosstown that we can be talking to in person. Let’s get up and get together! May our hearts direct us to who we should talk to, and I pray that we go out and deepen our soul friendships, together deepening our friendship with the Living God.

When We Are The Mountain

Faith produces obedience out of trust, not its full knowledge of all the facts and concurrence with God’s divine strategy. This is what Jesus showed us in his death (Phil 2) that God’s plan was above the individual plan; that we are most in God’s will when we are most submissive.

As I look at most of the blessings I believe God has brought in my life, there are many instances where they came about because of things I had done or sacrifices I made purely out of a desire to follow where I believed God was leading—even though it seemed risky, crazy, or counter-intuitive.

The conclusion I’ve drawn is that if we want to receive more of the blessings, we’re well off to trust more ruthlessly and be willing to risk more in our pursuit of God.

God will never look at you and say you trusted too much.

Basically, be a part of God’s story. Don’t hope God’s blessing is stuff; rather, hope God’s blessing is you and on you. I find this old adage to be as true as any, don’t ask God to bless what you’re doing, find what God is blessing and do it.

Or, as my friend Eugene Cho puts it, “We ask God to move mountains but forget that God also wants to move us. In fact, it’s possible that we are that mountain.”

What is God’s will for my life?  To serve His will with my life.

“No, the easiness of Christianity is distinguished by one thing only: by the difficulty.  Thus its yoke is easy and its burden light—for the person who has cast off all his burdens, all of them, the burdens of hope and of fear and of despondency and of despair—but it is very difficult.”  Soren Kierkegaard

Conversation

There is not in the world
a kind of life more sweet & delightful
than that of a continual
conversation with God.

Brother Lawrence

2014 Voices: Alexia Salvatierra

I love how my friend Alexia describes The Justice Conference as, “a Biblical justice potluck on a grand scale,” and sees it as a great place to learn how to do justice. I’m looking forward to L.A. in a few weeks!

2014 Voices: Alexia Salvatierra from The Justice Conference on Vimeo.

Why the Local Church?

Over the past two decades I’ve spent in ministry, I’ve often encountered people who want to follow Jesus but can’t handle church, and people who have been hurt, abused or repeatedly let down by those who claim to be Christians.

Because of these, and other factors, everyone seems to be asking, “Can’t I just have Jesus and not the institutional church?”

In his novel Pilgrim’s Regress, C.S. Lewis uses the character Mother Kirk to allegorize the role of the church in the life of the believer. Kirk is the Scottish word for church and “mother” is the role Lewis saw for the church.

The rumors the main character, John, first hears of Mother Kirk are that she’s a little bit crazy. When he actually encounters her along his journey, she offers to help him along the way. But he refuses her help saying he couldn’t be put under anyone else’s authority and that since he’d made it thus far, he could certainly do it on his own. Plus, she was obviously insane.

Sound familiar?

But eventually—after he’s tried everything to complete the journey on his own—he comes back to Mother Kirk.

‘I have come to give myself up,’ he said.

‘It is well,’ said Mother Kirk. ‘You have come a long way round to reach this place, whither I would have carried you in a few moments. But it is very well.’

John had tried everything within his own power and reason to reach the end of his journey, but Mother Kirk could have led him there so much sooner if he’d just given up his own will. And that is what the church teaches us and calls us to do. The church isn’t our salvation, but it does play an important role in guiding and connecting us to the one who is.

The New Testament clearly conveys God’s desire for people to be meaningfully and deeply rooted in a local church community. The church is meant to be a group of individuals – diverse across all spectrums including gender, race, socio-economic status and age – coming together as a family.

In a very unique and profound way, God uses the local church to speak to us and shape us. Likewise, he uses each one of us and our individual gifts and wisdom to shape the church as part of our service to others. My participation with a church cannot be divorced from my influence on others and their influence on me.

God meets us when the local church gathers. It’s one of the sacred arenas in life that cannot be duplicated. How many times have you walked into church feeling like it’s the last place you want to be, but begin to hear from God exactly what you needed that day? When we treat local church affiliation lightly, we miss this opportunity.

God’s idea and our opportunity is to go beyond treating the church purely as an individual or consumer. The church isn’t just a mechanical or spiritual device. It ins’t just a functional business entity. It’s a family with all the fullness, mystery and beauty that can only exist within a sacred community.

The church is God’s Plan A, and there is no Plan B. Like any family, church becomes the sum of what its individual members invest into it.

Can we learn to love the local church? We change things best when we love them first.

Cognitive Bias in the Israeli-Palestenian Conflict

Guest Post by Justin Kron

Normally when I visit the beach in Tel Aviv I expect to see and interact with Israelis, but the Lord had something else in store for a few of my group members and me on my eXperience Israel tour in July 2013. Instead of Israelis, it was a few Palestinian young men from Ramallah that we crossed paths with. I invited them to join us in a game of frisbee and they quickly accepted the offer, but one of them first wanted me to know that they were Palestinians. I’m not sure why. Maybe it was for the same reason newlyweds like to tell people they just got married, or maybe it was just because they wanted us to know that Palestinians and Frisbees don’t have a lot of experience with one another, as was evident in how clumsily they threw it. Regardless of the reason, it was a very pleasant interaction and I am grateful for what it was—guys having fun playing frisbee on a beach.

Now suppose I lived in a vacuum and this was my first and only interaction with Palestinians. And then suppose that someone later told me that Palestinians were engaged in a bitter struggle with the State of Israel and were responsible for shooting rockets at innocent civilians. I might seriously balk at that proposition, especially considering how pleasant of an experience I had, and even argue passionately against any proposition that painted Palestinians in a negative light (although I might concede that Palestinians stink at throwing a Frisbee).

So what’s my point?

My point is that it is impossible to remotely understand the Israeli-Palestinian conflict based on limited interaction with one side, and more specifically, with one particular perspective on either side of the conflict.  Social Psychologists call this Cognitive Bias, which is:

…a pattern of deviation in judgment, whereby inferences of other people and situations may be drawn in an illogical fashion. Individuals create their own “subjective social reality” from their perception of the input. An individual’s construction of social reality, not the objective input, may dictate their behavior in the social world. Thus, cognitive biases may sometimes lead to perceptual distortion, inaccurate judgment, illogical interpretation, or what is broadly called irrationality (Wikipedia).

We all fall prey to cognitive bias.

In many cases, cognitive bias is harmless.  Such as the case when guys like me contend that Chicago deep dish pizza is the best pizza in the world. My New York friends might passionately disagree (But what do they know, they’re New Yorkers). If I try hard enough, I’m sure I could even bolster my position by finding a Pulitzer Prize winning food columnist from New York who agrees with me, thus proving that my view on the supremacy of Chicago style pizza is the most enlightened and rational one (I can hear the cheers from the Chicago readers right now and jeers from the New York ones).

Cognitive bias sounds funny when applied to pizza, but things get a bit more serious when it comes to politics. For example, if you’re a Democrat and you voted for Obama, then you’re far more likely going to view the tragedy at the U.S. Embassy in Benghazi last year as the result of a minor lapse in judgment by the president, but if you’re a Republican and you didn’t vote for Obama, then this event further confirms to you that you made the right decision.

This is why we so often call for independent investigations into events like Benghazi, because people (usually the side that is wary of the information that has been disseminated) want to get to the truth.  And even when the truth (or a new version of the “truth”) comes out, it is not surprising to see people stay entrenched in their original position, which more closely aligns to their presuppositions and worldview.

Because let’s be honest with ourselves—we will often stay entrenched in our position because no one likes to be wrong, let alone admit it, especially if our social or economic status might be jeopardized. People inherently want to belong and be liked, and sometimes will even sacrifice sound judgment and critical analysis in order to do so. Raising questions that challenge the status quo can often kill relationships (or profitability), so we keep our mouths shut and continue to tow the party line.

Our cultural biases—when left unfettered and unchallenged—can have adverse and even devastating effects on others, and even ourselves, and this is why I have become increasingly judicious and inquisitive when it comes to the topic of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

I have to confess that for many years I was in a bit of a bubble within the Evangelical community, which treated Israel as if it was the only country worth paying attention to in the Middle East, largely fueled by excitement related to end-times prophecy and the fulfillment of God’s promises to restore the Jewish people to their ancient homeland. This is a perspective that I’m very sympathetic to, but at the same time the impression that I was getting and contributing to in this bubble was, “God bless Israel…God bless the United States…God bless me…and everyone else can take a flying leap.”

This “everyone else” was particularly aimed at anyone who wasn’t a fan of Israel or who held to a different theological perspective on Israel’s place in redemptive history—particularly toward Palestinian Arabs and anyone else who was sympathetic to their plight.

But in recent years I’ve come to realize that it’s unacceptable for me to turn a blind eye to the spiritual and physical needs of Palestinian Arabs, especially considering how often I pass through and spend time in their neighborhoods when I’m leading groups through the Holy Land. Not only did Jesus teach to love our neighbors—and our enemies—but I’ve discovered that it’s impossible to fully engage with the remarkable reestablishment of the State of Israel without also considering how its existence is understood or experienced by the people who neighbor it—even when I disagree with the conclusions they’ve arrived at.

Suffice to say, the feedback is not always positive. But there are a growing number of people today, including many within the Christian community, who are questioning the moral integrity of Israel’s policies related to their Palestinian neighbors. For example, the establishment or expansion of Israeli settlements in the disputed territories is seen by many as “eating the pizza before determining which slices of the pizza one gets to eat.” Some are also questioning if Israel can truly be a “Jewish democracy” when doing so requires policies that keep Jews in the majority and non-Jews in the minority. Related to this are the on the ground implications of Christian Zionism, which appears to some as elevating the value or importance of one ethnic group (the Jewish people) over another (Palestinian Arabs) when the Bible clearly teaches not to play favorites at the expense of others (James 2:8-9).

Questions like these are good and legitimate questions to raise and wrestle with, and they must be wrestled with. Those of us who sympathize with Israel’s right to exist must become more familiar with the criticisms and challenges it faces, as well as seek to genuinely understand and sympathize with the challenges that Arabs in the Palestinian territories are faced with, if for no other reason than the fact that Jesus died for them both, as well as the reality that they will continue to be each other’s neighbors for the unforeseeable future.

I believe we must continue to proclaim the redemptive gospel of Jesus in both word and deed, which paves the way to the only perfect solution for the moral mess our world is in—Jesus himself. But I also contend that we must pursue and encourage peaceful relations wherever and whenever possible. “Blessed are the peacemakers,” Jesus said, “for they will be called children of God” (Matthew 5:9). That is the path I am committed to being on.

I hope you (and your cognitive bias and a slice of Chicago deep dish pizza) will join me.

John Brown’s Body

I love history.

Of every subject I’ve studied, history is the one I’m most passionate about. I love seeing how the different threads connect through time. I love to see how several things we would have never thought were connected – things distinct in our cultural understanding – are actually intimately connected in history.

On any given 4th of July, Memorial Day or Flag Day you are almost guaranteed to hear a symphonic rendition of The Battle Hymn of the Republic regally playing in the background. Now seen as a song of national pride, the history of this song has its roots in the most divisive season and figure of US history, John Brown, his raid on Harper’s Ferry, and the Civil War.

John Brown—America’s first terrorist[1]—was an American revolutionary abolitionist in the 1850s who promoted and practiced violent rebellion as a means to abolish slavery in the US. His fame began in “bloody Kansas” where he fought and killed pro-slavery militia and ultimately was sealed at his attempt of inciting the slaves of the South to revolt by raiding the federal armory at Harpers Ferry, Virginia.

Though still divisive, after his execution in 1859 for treason, Brown’s reputation was reclaimed by many influential Northerners who saw his actions as sparking the Civil War and ultimately leading to the Emancipation Proclamation. Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and other Transcendentalists, along with William Lloyd Garrison were greatly responsible for rescuing John Brown from infamy. Emerson said Brown would make the gallows as glorious as the cross and Amos Alcott wrote that Brown was the “type and synonym of the Just.”[2] Nobody, however, probably captured the significance of Brown more succinctly than the famous orator and Abolitionist, Frederick Douglass, who remarked, “If John Brown did not end the war that ended slavery, he did, at least, begin the war that ended slavery.”[3]

Therefore, John Brown’s significance, lost to many today, was unmistakable in 1860s America. Abraham Lincoln himself, who had originally resisted a Civil War, once remarked that an armed Civil War would be a “John Brown raid on a gigantic scale.”

Shortly after Brown’s hanging, a song surfaced in honor of his revolutionary life and death. The melody of this song, John Brown’s Song, was taken from an old folk tune On Canaan’s Happy Shore.

Two years after his death the song had become a marching tune for the Union Army. In 1862 Julia Ward Howe, the wife of one of the “Secret Six” –a group of wealthy Bostonites who had funded John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry — created his eternal link with American history by writing The Battle Hymn of the Republic to the tune of John Brown’s Body. The original melody and chorus were maintained from the original song straight through to the final version, proclaiming “Glory, glory, hallelujah! Glory, glory, hallelujah!”

David Reynolds writes that, “With her memorable images of a just God; ‘trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored,’ and loosening ‘the fateful lightnings of His terrible sword’ against the slaveholding South, she caught the essence of John Brown, a devout Calvinist who considered himself predestined to stamp out slavery. She had coupled his God-inspired antislavery passion with the North’s mission and had thus helped define America.”[4]

The Civil War, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Slavery, Marching Tunes, the Church, Hymnology, Lincoln and so much more all wrapped into John Brown and his little raid on Harper’s Ferry. If you love history, it doesn’t get any more interesting than that!

Check out some of the similarities between the songs below.

***

John Brown’s Body

John Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in the grave; (3X)
His soul’s marching on!

(Chorus)

Glory, glory, hallelujah!
Glory, glory, hallelujah!
Glory, glory, hallelujah!
His soul’s marching on!

He’s gone to be a soldier in the army of the Lord! (3X)
His soul’s marching on!

(Chorus)

John Brown’s knapsack is strapped upon his back! (3X)
His soul’s marching on!

(Chorus)

His pet lambs will meet him on the way; (3X)
They go marching on!

(Chorus)

They will hang Jeff Davis to a sour apple tree! (3X)
As they march along!

(Chorus)

Now, three rousing cheers for the Union; (3X)
As we are marching on!

***

Battle Hymn of the Republic

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord:
He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored;
He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword:
His truth is marching on.

(Chorus)

Glory, glory, hallelujah!
Glory, glory, hallelujah!
Glory, glory, hallelujah!
His truth is marching on.

I have seen Him in the watch-fires of a hundred circling camps,
They have builded Him an altar in the evening dews and damps;
I can read His righteous sentence by the dim and flaring lamps:
His day is marching on.

(Chorus)

I have read a fiery gospel writ in burnished rows of steel:
“As ye deal with my contemners, so with you my grace shall deal;
Let the Hero, born of woman, crush the serpent with his heel,
Since God is marching on.”

(Chorus)

He has sounded forth the trumpet that shall never call retreat;
He is sifting out the hearts of men before His judgment-seat:
Oh, be swift, my soul, to answer Him! be jubilant, my feet!
Our God is marching on.

(Chorus)

In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea,
With a glory in His bosom that transfigures you and me:
As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free,
While God is marching on.

(Chorus)

He is coming like the glory of the morning on the wave,
He is Wisdom to the mighty, He is Succour to the brave,
So the world shall be His footstool, and the soul of Time His slave,
Our God is marching on.

(Chorus)


[1] Fred Rosen, The Historical Atlas of American Crime, (New York: Facts on File Inc., 2005), 277.

[2] David S. Reynolds, John Brown Abolitionist: The Man who Killed Slavery, Sparked the Civil War, and Seeded Civil Rights, (New York: Vintage Books, 2005), 4.

[3] Ibid. viiii.

[4] Ibid, 5.

Poverty of Hope

Guest Post by Jonathan Hankins

What does hope look like?

A paid power bill? A hug from a stranger? A free ride? An unsolicited smile? Hope is a powerful force. Sometimes a little hope is all you need to get through another day.

I have the privilege of working among members of our community who are facing extremely difficult circumstances. Although such difficulties can be associated with substance abuse, domestic violence, mental health, criminal activity, child abuse, neglect and related consequences; there is a single word which is a common thread throughout such circumstances: poverty. Before we jump to a political debate about welfare, entitlement, and enabling a life of poor decisions, I ask you to take a step back with me and consider what I mean by poverty. Although on many occasions, the word poverty can be related directly to economic status with reference to a demographic who has less than, I am referring to the poverty of hope.

Imagine you’re in a hurry to get to work and in the process of hustling up a flight of stairs you fall hard and incur a broken leg. Did you mean to miss that step? Blame it on the poor lighting, ice, or your own clumsiness, the reality is that you missed the step, resulting in a broken leg. Fortunately for you, there was someone to help you up and lend you their shoulder to cry on and walk with you as you hopped on one leg to the nearest bench. Thankfully, they had a mobile phone to call someone who could help.  After a series of visits to the doctor along with a team of nurses, orthopedic specialists, physical therapists, family and friends, you are able to heal, regain your strength, and learn to walk again.

Now imagine if any of those helpful folks and resources were not available. What if you fell while no one was looking and no matter how loud you yelled, no one paid any attention? What if someone walked by and said, “Bummer! Sucks to be you!” and carried on their way. What if you heard things like: “I would love to help you, but I don’t want you to take advantage of my generosity.” “I’m sorry, but I don’t have time.” “I can’t help you.” “Get up! Dust yourself off!” “You’re just looking for a hand-up.” Hopefully, this scenario will never happen to you.

But the harsh reality is that there are individuals in our community who, at no fault of their own, have fallen and broken their hope. Has your hope ever felt broken beyond repair? Consider the plight of Fantine in Les Miserables. Was prostitution the best life she could live? No. Was it a poor choice to give her daughter up to be cared for by a couple crooks masked as Inn keepers? Yes. Painful circumstances are certainly a result of poor decisions, but many poor decisions are the result of circumstances that are completely out of our control. Fantine’s hope was broken when the man she loved abandoned her with their child in an era where society failed to understand and provide the support necessary to inspire hope and healing to a single mother in distress.

The difference between a broken leg and a broken spirit is that with one you can see and easily navigate the emergency responses with the inclusion of doctors and medicine for tangible healing. A broken spirit resulting in hopelessness, depression, anger, mental illness, substance abuse, violence, homelessness or whatever face it looks like, is much more complicated, and yet more worthy of assistance, healing and attention. I’m not suggesting an unhealthy approach to enabling one’s need for entitlement or improper attention. Sometimes the best form of help is tough love. I get that, as long as love is the common denominator. Certainly there are those who rely on the crutches a little too long or perpetuate the damage by walking on their broken leg. However, as we continue to wrestle with the injustice of poverty of all kinds, I’d like to suggest that hope is the best response.

Years ago, I asked a young boy in juvenile hall what he dreamed about or hoped for in life. I have never forgotten this chilling moment. With dark eyes he stared right through me and said, “I have no dreams.”  Did he wrongfully choose to act violently towards another person? Yes. Did he ask for his two older brothers to be killed by gang activity? No. At an early age, life robbed him of his hope. This void of hope was more isolating than his incarceration. In some cases I’ve advocated for individuals who have been held back by an actual disability or a deficiency of hope and inspiration. On multiple occasions I have seen parents give up on parenting, paralyzed by the fear of inadequacy and hopelessness. I have also seen hope restored by listening, accompanying, and advocating. You’d be amazed how the words, “You’ve got this!” can transform a person’s outlook.

Why do people choose to live on the streets? I don’t know, but I can’t even begin to understand the amount of hopelessness and despair which may have brought them to that place. I do know that one doesn’t just wake up one day and decide, “I’m going to give up on living to the fullest”. One thing always leads to another. Why does one allow himself to lose everything for the sake of substance abuse? I have no idea, but I can’t imagine how difficult their life must have been that they would want to drown out their sorrows in such a way.

Perhaps these are the wrong questions. I don’t know why bad things happen or what causes people to do what they do. When people are afflicted by whatever it is that demonstrates a poverty of hope, where will I be? Will I be the one looking the other way, or looking in their eyes? Will I be the one pointing my finger, or the one wrapping my arm around them? Will I be the one sitting next to them or standing over them?

Collectively, we ought to silence the voice of the oppressor by giving ear to the voice of the oppressed. The oppressor is the one who has lead us to believe that caring for the stranger is a bad idea. The oppressor is the one who speaks fear into our ears when hope would inspire us to share our sandwich with the homeless man on the bench outside the office. The voice of the oppressor tells us to be silent and mind our own business when given the opportunity to advocate for someone who is in trouble. The voice of the oppressor convinces us that the poor are not our problem and that they should just pull themselves up by their bootstraps, when hope sees they have no boots and longs to know their name and hear their story.

Hope does when nobody else is doing. Hope accompanies when everyone else is gone. Hope speaks up when everyone else is silent. While fear can paralyze a person, hope can get them out of the chair. Hope inspires dreams in place of nightmares. Hope helps, even when the recipient seems capable. Hope sees the barriers and assists in removing them. Hope advocates.  Hope gives without strings attached. Hope is a much needed shelter or warm meal. Hope empowers. Hope transforms the most tragic of situations. Hope shines bright in the darkness.

Kenny LaPoint on Homelessness in Central Oregon


Kenny LaPoint is the Housing and Resident Services Director for Housing Works (Central Oregon’s Regional Housing Authority) and Families Forward. He has 6 years of social service and non-profit experience as well as 11 years in the real estate industry. Kenny also serves as the Co-Chair of Central Oregon’s Homeless Leadership Coalition; he sits on the City of Bend’s Affordable Housing Committee, is an Executive Committee member of NAHRO (National Association of Housing Redevelopment Officials) and is the Board Chair for Icon City, a Central Oregon non-profit organization.

KW: Can you share some basic statistics on homelessness in Central Oregon and how they compare to other areas of the country?

KL: The national rate of homelessness is at about 20 homeless individuals per 10,000. As of 2011 the Central Oregon population is approximately 216,510 so if we were at the national average we would have approximately 433 homeless persons in Central Oregon. Central Oregon’s homeless rate is more than five times that of the national average with 2,192 individuals counted in 2013.

KW: What is a story that make these numbers more real?

KL: Data as a whole is just that. Data. It is only real if you put some perspective to it. Each of these numbers equals a child, a woman, a man, a father, a mother, a brother, a sister and/or a friend. When we extract data and try to determine what the numbers themselves mean, the overall outlook becomes near worthless. Then we start chasing a reduction in numbers rather than looking to reach out a hand to help another human being. God calls us to love in a way that is unconditional and does not have anything to do with whether or not that person fits into the data set that we are trying to reduce. To me the number says that there are a lot of people in Central Oregon that are lacking in resources and hope. Who will bring hope to the poor and needy and how will it come to them?

KW: What misperceptions do people have about homelessness and homeless people?

KL: Common misconceptions are that there is this one sized fits all picture of homelessness, like a guy with a cardboard sign saying “down on my luck, anything will help”. In reality, this is a very small percentage of the homeless population—probably close to 5% of the total homeless population fits this criteria. Many of the homeless in Central Oregon do what they can to hide. There are  914 total homeless youth in Central Oregon. That is nearly equal to the combined attendance of Buckingham and Pine Ridge Elementary schools. Our homeless friends are right next to us. They are sitting next to our kids in school. Their moms are dropping them off at school, right behind you in the parking lot. Driving the same car that they slept in last night. Most of the time they go unnoticed. Have you noticed?

KW: What inspires you in the work you do?

KL: To him who much has been given, much is expected. God has saved me from so much that my response should be nothing less than to defend the cause of the fatherless and plead the case of the widow (Isaiah 1:17). Isaiah 1 is great reading on justice. God has given Isaiah a vision in which He is very upset with Judah and Jerusalem. The passage shows how God took care of His people and they did not follow His instruction to advocate for the less fortunate. God gives Isaiah a view of cities that use to be righteous but now they do not defend the fatherless and ignore the cause of the widow. To not do these things is a great injustice in God’s eyes and it needs to be in mine as well. I am not perfect at this. Sometimes I find myself ignoring injustice and I need to be put in check. I need to be reminded that my life is a but a vapor and my purpose is to uphold justice for the needy.

KW: What does the work of Icon City do to help in Central Oregon?

KL: Icon City was created for the community, by the community. Our main mission is to bring awareness to urgent needs and social injustice. We have done this by first going out to the community and finding out how poverty is impacting the most vulnerable. That’s what led to the creation of the BeRemedy Text Line. We found that through social media and text messaging we could send needs out to the community  and initiate responses through the same text line. By simply texting the word “ICON” to 80565, you will be signed up to receive a text message, once per week, with a need in the community. You can then respond to that text with the word “GIVE” and we will contact you to coordinate a delivery of the item.

Icon City also found that the inability for homeless folks to take showers was a big problem. It is not easy to find a job when you have not showered in days. With Central Oregon winters being so cold, the river can only be used to clean off for a few months of the year. And that just is not quite the same thing as taking a warm shower. In response to that we built a shower truck that goes out into the community and provides around 50 showers per week to those experiencing homelessness. Icon City also serves meals to the homeless every Sunday at 2pm in downtown Bend. This has been a consistent service that has been offered since 2009.

Biggest of all, Icon City breaks down the walls of bureaucracy, bringing organizations together to better help those in need.

KW: What is the difference between equality and justice as you see it?

KL: Equality is an interesting notion to me. It has many false assumptions within it. Equality in man (and woman; did you see how that was inequality?) does not really exist in wholeness. In fact, God created us this way. We are all given different looks, personalities and experiences that make us all unequal to one another. Some of these experiences can put one person in completely different social classes than another. One person can be unequal to another but both can thrive. That is justice. Justice does not consider looks, personalities and experiences or history. Justice says that even though there are inequalities between us, I will rectify wrongs that have been done to you. I will ensure that you have sufficient access to the resources you need to thrive. I cannot provide anyone with access to resources that will create equality between myself and them.

KW: What can everyday people do to help with homelessness? What is a good way to take action?

KL: Volunteer with a local non-profit organization. Don’t just do anything but pick something that excites you and that you are passionate about. Use the skills and knowledge you have in your volunteering. Volunteering is extremely effective when done this way and it will keep you engaged. For some people, volunteering to serve food is what they love. For some it is helping an organization with its website. For some it may be helping to plan fundraisers or being involved on boards. Find what excites you and bring your talents to the table.

Advocate for the less fortunate. Create awareness within your own social circles. If everyone were to do this it would create a ripple affect in the community (both locally and nationally).

PRAY…ask God to give you a passion to serve the most vulnerable in our community and ask him to give you wisdom in how you serve.

Oh, and you can text the word “ICON” to 80565 and join the movement. Be the Remedy!

BeRemedy Bend from Delve Films on Vimeo.

Visionary Dreaming

One of the passages I keep coming back to as a corrective to today’s strong focus on the role of the CEO, entrepreneur, and Lead Pastor in driving the vision for the church or organization, are the words below from Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

May we always hold our plans loosely and with open hands. May we remember, like in the Old Testament with the people of God, that when the pillar of fire or the cloud above the tabernacle moves, we must sacrifice our agendas and follow.

—–
[Excerpted from Life Together]

“God hates visionary dreaming; it makes the dreamer proud and pretentious. The man who fashions a visionary ideal of community demands that it be realized by God, by others, and by himself. He enters the community of Christians with his demands, sets up his own law, and judges the brethren and God Himself accordingly. He stands adamant, a living reproach to all others in the circle of brethren. He acts as if he is the creator of the Christian community, as if his dream binds men together. When things do not go his way, he calls the effort a failure. When his ideal picture is destroyed, he sees the community going to smash. So he becomes, first an accuser of his brethren, then an accuser of God, and finally the despairing accuser of himself.

Because God has already laid the only foundation of our fellowship, because God has bound us together in one body with other Christians in Jesus Christ, long before we entered into common life with them, we enter into that common life not as demanders but as thankful recipients. We thank God for what He has done for us. We thank God for giving us brethren who live by His call, by His forgiveness, and His promise. We do not complain of what God does not give us; we rather thank God for what He does give us daily. And is not what has been given us enough: brothers, who will go on living with us through sin and need under the blessing of His grace? Is the divine gift of Christian fellowship anything less than this, any day, even the most difficult and distressing day? Even when sin and misunderstanding burden the communal life, is not the sinning brother still a brother, with whom I, too, stand under the Word of Christ? Will not his sin be a constant occasion for me to give thanks that both of us may live in the forgiving love of God in Jesus Christ? Thus the very hour of disillusionment with my brother becomes incomparably salutary, because it so thoroughly teaches me that neither of us can ever live by our own words and deeds, but only by that one Word and Deed which really binds us together – the forgiveness of sins in Jesus Christ. When the morning mists of dreams vanish, then dawns the bright day of Christian fellowship.”

Coming January 2015

I e-mailed in the second book to Thomas Nelson Publishers today.

It was fun, this time around, to focus on discipleship and the pursuit of God from a contemporary perspective.

Stay tuned–this book will be out in January 2015!

Messages from Antioch Church

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