“What Think Ye of Christ?”

[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]

Twice in the past week, I have been asked, in essence, this very question, though not exactly as it is recorded in Matthew 22:42. Once the question came from a student of mine, a young person, unfamiliar with the Mormon church but filled with questions, a person generally uninterested in Christianity; the other came from a fellow Mormon blogger, an academic like myself, trying to make sense of certain statements I’d made in response to some of the templerelated controversies which the Mormon Moment has thrust upon us. I found myself responding as I did in both cases, I suppose, because I’m mostly unconcerned with, and admittedly sometimes outright dismissive of, many of the doctrines in question: the point of the church, for me at least, is to get close to God, and experience the condescension, love, and grace of Jesus, and I often find the need to justify or make sense of much of the rest of our teachings a distraction, at best. What follows is my attempt to recreate the answers I gave to those two questioners, with some help from Elders Holland and Uchtdorf along the way.

What does Jesus do for me? I should be clear first on what He doesn’t do for me. I don’t find Him to be the answer to all my questions, a readily available sanctifying gloss on everything that troubles me, a smiling friendly source of Truth and Happiness watching over my shoulder. Truth is, I find a great deal of American Christian culture (Protestant, Catholic, and Mormon too) fundamentally stupid, and to the degree to which that culture involves what I consider to be an irrational devotion to Jesus-as-totem, I find that devotion to be stupid (to say nothing of borderline blasphemous) as well. I’m not the sort of person to nods his head in sympathy when I run across yet another claim, whether within the church or without, of Jesus having found someone’s lost dog/fixed someone’s toothache/appeared in a dream or in the steam in the bathroom mirror/etc.

So why do I say what I do about Him? Because I think the Jesus freaks at least have something right, maybe the most important thing right: the basic Christian insight which I sometimes fear part of the 19th-century history of our church occasionally took many of us Mormons away from, and which we are only belatedly, thankfully, getting back to–namely, the consciousness of sin. This is, I think, my most foundational spiritual conviction: that I am a pathetic, sinful screw-up, and so is everybody else. Not just “imperfect,” whatever that means, but a bad person, “an enemy to God” as some prophet once said. I could break this conviction down developmentally, and acknowledge the degree to which it isn’t a principled, but rather a historically contingent, conviction: I could look at my own upbringing, the addictions and sins I struggled with as a young man, many of which I still struggle with today, and conclude that my own appreciation of sinfulness is a result of particular, embarrassing, traumatic events and their psychological consequences. But then, it also seems apparent to me that the same could be said for just about anyone’s views about probably just about anything, especially religion.

Besides, such a breakdown wouldn’t fully explain why I find, not just an experience of relief and joy, but real intellectual persuasion in messages of forgiveness, of redemption from my own mortal condition, of grace. Original sin, or at least some version of the doctrine, just makes sense to me, to say nothing of accounting for what I observe around me. The world is filled, to be sure, with happiness and beauty and pleasure and kindness and fun, all in the very best sense of those words, and I seek after such good things as much as anyone. But when I try to take the whole thing in, mostly what I see is brokenness and fallenness and wickedness. People–in particular this person, myself, the one I know best–know to do right, but don’t do it; we hate sin, and embrace it anyway, no matter what the learning or talents or intentions mixed in with that striving may be. Paul was right, I think, and so was Augustine, and so was Luther. I really just don’t believe that, fundamentally, we can do any damn thing at all on our own, not in the eternal sense anyway.

And so I turn to Jesus, because His strange and astonishing story in the New Testament (and, to a lesser but still very real degree, the Book of Mormon, the writings of Jacob and King Benjamin in particular) is the way I’ve been able to see and feel and believe in and make good intellectual sense out of God’s response to our shattered reality. I want there to have been, through Jesus’s suffering and death and resurrection, to have been some unfathomable, magical event which redeems me. I am a member of the Mormon Christian community, who comes before the mercy seat and pleads for God’s grace through partaking of the sacrament, the symbol (but also more than that; I’m thinking of Jim Faulconer’s wonderful essays on incarnation and remembrance here) of His body and blood, and through serving and being served by my fellow citizens in the household of God. I’ll freely grant that much official Mormon rhetoric about sin and grace comes off to me as flat and rote, or addicted to a kind of legalism, constantly talking about the need to “pay our debts” (a model which I strongly dislike, because I suspect that notion hides the presumption of an original, balanced, individual baseline from which our spiritual journey began and to which we must return, and I don’t think that’s our actual relationship with God at all), or covenant-happy, which to my mind often theologically undermines and breaks down the holistic, redemptive power of Jesus-as-God, replacing it with some nominally grander cosmological operation, in which Jesus and I are, in some very distant but still real sense, partners in building something. I frankly don’t want to worship a God that I can partner with, that I can “relate” to. I don’t want my God to be really anything like me at all, complete loser that I am, except and to the extent that He marvelously chooses to love me. This takes me back to my most central belief, a conviction that I realized as my own when I read C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce while in the mission field, a conviction that has recurred to me at times of crisis again and again in my life. I don’t embrace anything like all of Lewis’s Christian dogma, but his fundamental argument in that text–that nothing we do in this mortal coil ultimately matters that much, that everything will be left behind and transformed into something utterly unlike anything we have here–has always rung true to me, and beautifully so. I have, of course, greatly elaborated upon and revised this insight over the decades as I’ve lived and learned more, but it has stayed with me all the same.

And fortunately, as time goes by, I hear this insight ratified by men and women whom I have ever reason to believe are closer to God (if still every bit sinners) than I. Two of them spoke to us about this last week, at General Conference–and while I’ve no doubt their theological articulations of what this kind of acceptance of Jesus may mean for us would differ dramatically from mine, I take solace in their words all the same. First, Elder Holland, who reminded us of the parable of the laborers in the vineyard, and then speaks on:

This parable–like all parables–is not really about laborers or wages any more than the others are about sheep and goats. This is a story about God’s goodness, His patience and forgiveness, and the Atonement of the Lord Jesus Christ. It is a story about generosity and compassion. It is a story about grace. It underscores the thought I heard many years ago that surely the thing God enjoys most about being God is the thrill of being merciful, especially to those who don’t expect it and often feel they don’t deserve it. I do not know who in this vast audience today may need to hear the message of forgiveness inherent in this parable, but however late you think you are, however many chances you think you have missed, however many mistakes you feel you have made or talents you think you don’t have, or however far from home and family and God you feel you have traveled, I testify that you have not traveled beyond the reach of divine love. It is not possible for you to sink lower than the infinite light of Christ’s Atonement shines.

Whether you are not yet of our faith or were with us once and have not remained, there is nothing in either case that you have done that cannot be undone. There is no problem which you cannot overcome. There is no dream that in the unfolding of time and eternity cannot yet be realized. Even if you feel you are the lost and last laborer of the eleventh hour, the Lord of the vineyard still stands beckoning. “Come boldly [to] the throne of grace,” and fall at the feet of the Holy One of Israel. Come and feast “without money and without price” at the table of the Lord.

Jesus is the Bridegroom, the Master of the Feast, and He intends to feed every one of us, prostitutes and publicans and soldiers and sinners all. That is the invitation which moves me–beside which, all the other (in my view often somewhat literalistic and extravagant) promises and particulars of the plan of salvation seem to me to pale in comparison. That was Saturday afternoon, but Sunday morning was still to come, when Elder Uchtdorf spoke with the joy of one who knew God’s grace:

Our Savior has spoken so clearly on this subject that there is little room for private interpretation. “I, the Lord, will forgive whom I will forgive,” but then He said, “of you it is required to forgive all men”….God is our Father. We are His children. We are all brothers and sisters. I don’t know exactly how to articulate this point of not judging others with sufficient eloquence, passion, and persuasion to make it stick. I can quote scripture, I can try to expound doctrine, and I will even quote a bumper sticker I recently saw. It was attached to the back of a car whose driver appeared to be a little rough around the edges, but the words on the sticker taught an insightful lesson. It read, “Don’t judge me because I sin differently than you.”

We must recognize that we are all imperfect–that we are beggars before God. Haven’t we all, at one time or another, meekly approached the mercy seat and pleaded for grace? Haven’t we wished with all the energy of our souls for mercy–to be forgiven for the mistakes we have made and the sins we have committed? Because we all depend on the mercy of God, how can we deny to others any measure of the grace we so desperately desire for ourselves? My beloved brothers and sisters, should we not forgive as we wish to be forgiven?

To be forgiven: that’s what I want out a church. That’s what I want out of God: that my proud and rebellious soul will, to my great and eternal amazement, be forgiven. As one to whom grace and forgiveness is given, how can I not extend the same to others? That’s the Good News, right there: as Jesus loved us and is with us, we must strive (and fail, and strive again) to love and be with one another. Everything else is, I think, just details. And God, I believe, contrary to popular rumor, is in the Big Picture, not the details.


  1. Thank you for a better sermon than I heard all day (really, lady, you’re going to talk in sacrament meeting about the silly string fight your kids had this morning?). I love the notion that we need to be forgiving as much as we need forgiveness. It seems like we easily get caught up in the “me-focused” aspects of the gospel (or maybe it’s just my ward), forgetting that the principles that push us to look outside of ourselves are just as, if not more, important as any other.

  2. Russell. This is beautiful, and I agree with you about what I want out of church – to be forgiven and to love and be loved. Pres. Uchtdorf’s message you quoted was a shining example of that – and I hope so deeply that we as members of the Church understand and start living it better than we currently do.

    I posted three Easter-themed posts this weekend (starting on Friday) on my personal blog. Today’s post is my own answer to the title question in your post:

    “By All Objective Measures, Jesus of Nazareth Was an Abject Failure: My Easter Testimony” (http://thingsofmysoul.blogspot.com/2012/04/by-all-objective-measures-jesus-of.html)

  3. Thank you for this post. There were some parts where I shook my head so much in agreement that I thought it might fall off, and then others where I shook it so much in disagreement the same way. It was all beautiful and vulnerable though. It has given me great food for thought–to think to myself in the dark recesses of my brain with no one around, what do I think of Christ?

  4. Amen. That brings to mind the Joseph Smith quote: “If you do not accuse each other, God will not accuse you. If you have no accuser you will enter heaven.” Everything else really is just details.

  5. This is truly one of the great politically incorrect truths (that we sin constantly), and the paradoxical corollary – (one that my protestant friends embrace so freely) is of equal importance. We are SAVED! How many Mormons do you know who glory in that inconceivable reality! I do nothing to earn my salvation – not perfect parenting or perfect visiting teaching or perfect gospel doctrine lessons – because I am a pathetic slug! But beyond that, he takes my paltry offering, and one day HE WILL SAVE ME! There would be no depression in the church if we really got that. Sin and salvation. It’s a good big picture.

  6. I love your wording and insight, the only thing I could add is the word God makes it a impersonial relationship for me, too nebulus too big picture. I would use the 100 discriptions of this amazing being in the scriptures. The devil is in the details!

  7. Bonnie I think of it more like this: At my last job, if you were called for jury duty they would of course not hold it against you. However you had to surrender your jury pay to receive your normal wages for the day.

    I give God my measley jury pay, and he gives me a full day’s wage.

  8. The older I get, the less I believe in innate sinfulness, and the more I believe that what we think are our sins are not, and that what (and who) we don’t even think about are our real sins. Masturbation – for example – which in our culture causes such fear and spiritual trauma in young persons, and can become part of a truly dysfunctional porn/shame problem, seems to me to be a non-issue (or should be), and the best way to deal with it would be to ignore it. On the other hand, judging others, seeking riches, cruelty, not caring for the needy, etc. – are sins condemned by Jesus during his ministry and often ignored by the most “righteous” of us.

    It reminds me of a patient of mine with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, whose obsessive bad thought was that she would inherit her mother’s Bipolar Disorder. As often as I said (or at least thought of saying to her) “No, you don’t need to worry about having Bipolar Disorder. Bipolar Disorder is not getting in the way of your happiness and ruining your life. Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is getting in the way of your happiness and ruining your life, and that is what we need to work on,” she would say, “Well… but do you think I might have Bipolar Disorder?”

    Yes we sin, but it’s often not what we think it is. I suppose we are whited sepulchres who complain about the landscaping.

  9. “There would be no depression in the church if we really got that.”

    After talking about those OCD and Bipolar Disorder, “I suppose we are whited sepulchres who complain about the landscaping.”

    I also wish we would stop stigmatizing and downplaying real, psychological, mental and/or neurological issues by using them as examples when we talk about sin. I don’t think either commenter meant to equate those conditions with sin (I hope not.), but bringing them up in comments about sin doesn’t help us deal properly with them. Imo, since they are struggles not of our own making or choosing, whatever is done as a result, at worst, might be classified as unavoidable transgression and, therefore, is covered in the Atonement – and, thus, will not be held against us in any way.

    I believe our 2nd Article of Faith teaches that quite clearly, and it is a big part of my own answer to the question, “What think ye of Christ?”

  10. Yes, Russell… such a big, hearty, beautiful “YES”. Thank you.

  11. It’s beautiful, RAF, and I follow you, mostly, to the end. But the truth is in people – individual, idiosyncratic, apart, the details. Love is in and for the details. I’m sorry, really truly sorry, if it seems like I’m always trying to rain on people’s parade – and particularly trying to be your nemesis. I do not look for one thing in my church, nor in my companions – not even forgiveness, not even love. There is no grand uniting principle. Love is love for each individual thing, each principle and each part, therefore each love is a different thing. The coming together is only for those who have loved the parts of the whole. It isn’t love of the church, or love of mankind – it is love of each soul. And even love alone is not an answer. God is love, but he is many things – seeing that love is itself not one thing.

  12. I wrote an entire long post re: original sin. I deleted it. I am an ex-catholic, but I am not bitter about it and unintentionally my post sounded that way. Catholicism has a rich tradition. Oddly enough, the ritualistic aspect of mass still comforts me to this day. I am an Irish/Italian New Yorker; there was almost nothing else that I could have been born as (religion-wise). I also enjoyed my Catholic education–but not at the time of course. :)

    So, I have said all of that to say this; perhaps it is because it is very early, or perhaps it is because I am not really as smart as I think I am, but is there a difference between original sin, and innate sinfulness? If so, would someone care to explain it? Thanks.

  13. Bonnie, CRW, and Ray,

    I tend to look upon depression, bipolar disorder, OCD–and, along those lines, anger management issues, and all sorts of problems which clearly have their roots at least partly in psychological and neurological conditions, to say nothing of environmental factors–as additional evidence of our brokenness. Here in this fallen world there is all sorts of debris, both within and without us, and no one gets through unaffected by any of it. I recognize that for both ecclesiastical and political reasons we feel an enormous push to distinguish between those conditions which we decide are easily labeled “sinful” (because we think them to be chosen) and those which we assume aren’t (because we’ve decided that the person exhibiting such conditions had no choice in the matter); I’ve felt that tension myself, and it’s probably in some ways an important and necessary tension, an inevitable concomitant of living in a world where the individual subject is recognized as valid component of our thought. But I think that, for purposes of thinking of Christ, in some ways we need to be able to step back from it, to turn that tension down. Being a “natural man,” an enemy to God–that is, in my view, one who is in sin, one who is by definition in need of grace–is a bad thing, a terrible thing, a miserable thing. It is also, I think, to put it simply, the most human thing of all. Some of us were messed up by our own choices, some by our parents, some in the womb; for my part, I assume all three were true. And so I plead for forgivenenss, for grace, for help. The struggling alcoholic needs it, the kid with a behavioral disorder who yells hurtfully at his mom needs it, the adulterer needs it, the new parent who is so overwhelmed by poverty and working two jobs and their own addictions that they end up accidentally shaking their colicky newborn to death needs it. (And the jury which convicts that latter person needs it too.) I’m sure it is both right and necessary that we, down here in earthly communities, as compassionately and wisely as possible, try to distinguish between those types of conditions and sins–but in God’s eyes, I wonder if they all aren’t just more details.

    You remember that scene at the end of Places in the Heart, when the congregation takes communion, and everyone is there, the racists and the open-hearted, the damaged and the whole, the weak and the strong, the good and the bad, the living and the dead? That’s the higher community, the fellowship which God’s grace ultimately calls us to, I think.

  14. EOR,

    Is there a difference between original sin, and innate sinfulness? If so, would someone care to explain it?

    For my part, I don’t embrace the full notion of original sin as it has been occasionally elaborated through the centuries by different Christian thinkers, including a lot of thinkers I otherwise largely agree with. I think Joseph Smith was absolutely correct that we do not exist in a state of sinfulness because we carry the stain of Adam’s sin within us, especially since a lot of that theology is deeply misogynistic, associating Adam’s sin with the (female) corruption of sexuality and gender. But at the same time, I also kind of think that it has been a little too easy for many members of the church to set that basic principle up as some grand distinction between Mormonism and the rest of Christendom. I mean, what are “my own sins,” to use the words of the second Article of Faith, anyway? I would guess it means anything that is particular to me–my thoughts, my words, my deeds. All those natural things, all those things that naturally emerge within me or come out of me. Nearly all of which, if I’m honest with myself, don’t even begin to nearly measure up to what I am called to be. So it seems reasonable to assume that I need grace, forgiveness, pretty much from the start, and will need it all the way until the end. That isn’t “original” in the sense of characterizing my state at the moment of conception, but it is pretty innate, in the sense of being with me as a mortal.

  15. Ray, thank you for your charitable thoughts regarding my comment. I did, however mean to imply something so direct. I have a history of bi-polar disorder and in my twenties had two of what nobody now calls “breakdowns” so I feel a certain freedom to speak about issues of mental illness. I do so quite comfortably because I want mental illness to come to the forefront and be discussed, but I do not ascribe to the belief that if we give something a name and a genetic or environmental cause that we have done its sufferers a service. The Lord, who created our bodies and knows their processes, said quite clearly, “Despair cometh because of iniquity (Moro 10:22).” [But read on to 10:32]. Precisely as Russell has articulated, we are broken in a broken world and choice is only one aspect of most of our suffering. However, grace is an enabling as well as ennobling power and “turns down the tension” between our choice and our victimization (nice phrasing, Russell). The same is true of the issues of forgiveness and repentance, the distinctions between which are blurred more and more for me as I get older. Both are so crucial to our life here that I’ve grown to look at them as almost the same process. I live above the symptoms of bi-polar now and have for some time. Did I cure myself through my righteousness. Not even close. I was blessed by grace, and though it doesn’t happen for everyone the same way, it is possible. To testify of less would do violence to the power of the atonement.

  16. Antonio Parr says:

    Thank you for your beautiful essay. And thank you for reminding me of the sublime beauty of some of the finer teaching moments of Jim Faulconer, Elder Holland and President Uchtdorf.

  17. Thank you Ray (@9) for your gentle correction. My intended analogy of “the problematic point is this thing, not this other thing” was overwhelmed by the unintended analogy of mental disorder as sin, and I apologize.

  18. #13 – Russell, that is exactly how I see it. Again, thanks.

    #15 – Bonnie, my mom is schizophrenic – an angel when the medication is working, a demon when it’s not. There are people very close to me who struggle with depression. I agree with everything in your last comment. My only concern was the exact wording of the sentence I quoted in #9 (“There would be no depression in the church if we really got that.”), since I know too many people who suffer from depression and would be crushed by a perceived expectation that their depression would disappear if they only had more faith and understanding of the Atonement. That often gets translated internally as, “You wouldn’t need that mediation if . . .” – and that’s a brutal message that feeds a vicious cycle for many.

    Some people really do have to come to grips with and learn to control their disorders in order to find the capacity to understand and accept the Atonement, not vice-versa. That’s all I meant in my comment.

    #17 – It’s cool, CRW. I know I’ve screwed up more things that I wanted to say here at BCC (and most other places in the Bloggernacle) than you have – in much more egregious ways. Seriously, when you comment as much as I do, the words get messed up regularly – not matter how much I try.

  19. Ray, my grandmother also suffers from a mild form of schizophrenia, so I understand the roller coaster. Mental illness is strong in my family’s genes! ;) You were right to ask for me to correct such a strong statement, and I know I often come across as insensitive. It’s because if I had not been firm with myself (and sometimes others in my family) they would still be caught in their experience or illness or condition or whatever we want to call it, because sometimes pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps is an option. To acknowledge that I am sinful and broken doesn’t challenge my self-esteem, nor does experiencing heartbreaking limitation get better when I make it environmental or genetic or biological. To say that one can influence one’s illness (or whatever we call it) through righteous living doesn’t preclude taking medication and altering expectations, but I do think when we give people medications and place them in therapy, we do them a disservice if we don’t include spiritual medicines as well. Healing is a very long-term process, for us personally and for our world. I do genuinely believe that across generations, we do heal even our genes, our environments, and our biology with the influence of righteous choice and grace. That is what I meant. I think long-term, but my speaking doesn’t clarify the scope of my thoughts, so I need to improve that.

  20. I am glad that some with mental illnesses have found grace and clarity through righteous living. I suffer from a mental illness that I am not comfortable disclosing and I am afraid I have had no such luck. Perhaps it is different for everyone, or perhaps I am merely more defective than I thought.

    One of my bigger fears about returning to Church is the “sneaky hello” from other members. Last time I was there someone (a man) snuck up behind me and touched my shoulder and said hello. I know he did not mean anything, but that absolutely cannot happen again. I don’t generally like to be touched and I certainly don’t like people sneaking up on me. How can I pre-empt this without hurting anyone’s feelings since I am prone to reaction at such times?

  21. EOR, I should clarify that when I say “righteous living” I mean much more than performing, I mean receiving. Throughout the scriptures we are told that God is limited in his blessings to us by what we are willing to receive. Joseph received a great deal through Liberty Jail; how many of us are willing to receive that? Healing sometimes takes a long, long time – an enduring long time – but we’re promised we can overcome if we endure. Hope grows by exercising hope, and for me, hope is the key to grace. The ticklish part is that we are healed when he feels like we are ready, so we can’t predict when it occurs. At the risk of self-promotion, I’ve written about enduring here and finding peace with burdens here and hope through terrible suffering here (though unfortunately the metaphor in the last is a female one and may not resonate with you.) If you have a therapist who can help you structure some coping behaviors for the “sneaky hello” then you could make it through the initial “very friendly stage” of coming back to church and then settle into a more comfortable situation. I don’t like to be touched either, but I can curl my toes under tight and breathe deeply now when someone heads toward me and that distracts me from my anxieties. Everyone finds something different. It would be a shame for that to stand in the way of your opportunity to commune with the Lord. (And it really does get better with time.)

  22. Would somebody be a dear and fix the middle link?

  23. I understand and agree, Bonnie. Life is nuanced.

    EOR, personally, I would talk with the Bishop and Relief Society President directly about my situation. I wouldn’t share everything about the “why” – or even all of the “what”, necessarily – but I would explain the basic issue and ask them to help everyone else understand. The other option for me, personally, would be to share a testimony in which I mention how hard church (or any group setting) can be due to that specific possibility and how much I appreciate everyone else’s willingness to udnerstand difficulties like mine and love me and others anyway. (I might even throw out Pres. Uchtdorf’s admonition to not judge others because they sin differently than we do and broaden it to include those whose struggles are different than ours.) To tie it to this particular post, I also could add that I am grateful the Savior does that for me – that he loves and accepts me despite my struggles that make it hard to enjoy church as much as would be possible without those struggles.

    Yeah, I know that’s a bit of projection of hope, and I know how hard it could be for many (perhaps not even possible), but other people can’t avoid doing what they don’t know they need to try to avoid.

  24. Bonnie, I think I accidentally deleted your link while trying to fix it. My apologies! I shouldn’t be allowed near computers.

  25. Well, you write a nice piece, so it works out! The enduring piece is here and the peace with burdens piece is here.

  26. Bradley says:

    Awesome. I think in the last paragraph you may be switching cause and effect. God forgives because you forgive. To me, the miracle of forgiveness is when we forgive each other.

    God has a holographic nature of which we all are part. Put one of us under a microscope and you will find aspects of God, notwithstanding our rebellious and self-deluding natures. So when Christ said “If you have done it unto the least of these, you have done it unto me”, he was speaking of the true nature of our interconnectedness. If you forgive your worst persecutor, you have forgiven Christ. What greater gift can you give to Him?

  27. I don’t know if anyone would find this account of Clara Barton helpful, but it gave me comfort.


  28. Bonnie and Ray (21 and 23) thank you for your advice. I guess I will see what happens this Sunday and do my best to school my feelings if anything arises. If it does, I will have to speak to the Bishop.

    Bradley (26) maybe I am misunderstanding your penultimate sentence but my eyes popped out of my head. Forgive Christ? Us? I admit that I am utterly confused here. Would you care to expand on this concept a bit so I can better understand you?

  29. “Would you care to expand on this concept a bit so I can better understand you?”


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