Why I Will Never be Truly Reformed

kinnon —  August 2, 2007 — 34 Comments

“…you and I know that God did not do anything wrong. God always does what is wise. And you and I know that God could have held up that bridge with one hand.” Talitha said, “With his pinky.” “Yes,” I said, “with his pinky. Which means that God had a purpose for not holding up that bridge, knowing all that would happen, and he is infinitely wise in all that he wills.”
– John Piper describing his prayer time with his daughter last night in the Twin Cities.

UPDATE: Pastor M recommends you read the iMonk on this. I wouldn’t disagree. (Ever.)

UPDATE 2: Wise beyond his years, Brad Boydson says:

(Piper’s) monergistic Calvinism comes through — “…God had a purpose for not holding up that bridge, knowing all that would happen, and he is infinitely wise in all that he wills…”

I’d be content to say that in his sovereignty God will work out his plan — weaving together the mundane, the tragic, and the joyous into his great tapestry. It’s not that he willed people to die in a tragedy but that he takes the things which naturally happen because we individually and collectively live too independently of him — the tragedies — and recycles them so that ultimately they become a part of his glorious plan for the world and his people. “…we can be so sure that every detail in our lives of love for God is worked into something good.” (The Message, Romans 8:29)

There’s some interesting discussion in the comments on this post.



A television editor, writer & director since 1978. A Christian since 1982. More than a little frustrated with the Church in the West since late in the last millennium.

34 responses to Why I Will Never be Truly Reformed

  1. I liked the Internet Monk’s take on this much better.

  2. I’ll never be reformed either.

  3. Since you like Keller (as I do), you’ll notice that his remarks after 9/11 were a little different.

    I’m not sure we’ll ever be able to fully account for “how could a good and powerful God allow something like this to happen” – Reformed or not.

  4. My theology is a little simplistic, I guess. God gave us “dominion”. Left us in charge, as it were. And we’ve proceeded to royally screw up the planet. In every way imaginable.

    Do I believe that God breaks through time and space to intervene? Yes, occasionally. Does he do it as often as I would like. Unfortunately (actually, fortunately) I’m not in charge.

    Saying that the bridge collapsing was by God’s will is perverse. And would seem more akin to the exegeting of the Koran rather than the Bible.

    Do I believe God had foreknowledge? I believe he knows from the beginning to the end – He is the Alpha and the Omega.

    But we are the ones who built a bridge in 1967 designed to carry a certain weight then, and then in the ensuing years, added more and more to its load. Any finger pointing, blaming or question of whose will was involved, leave us as the guilty parties. Not God.

    But then again, what do I know.

  5. Bill,

    I don’t know quite what you mean by all of this, and I have read IMonk’s take twice now. A few thoughts come to mind.

    First, John isn’t usually considered Truly Reformed. Not by anyone whom I know who cares about those debates. He is reformed, though, no question about that.

    Second, there is room to ask and answer both of the sets of questions raised. IMonk answers and values the ‘ordinary’ questions. But questions about God’s role in tragedy is actually an ordinary question that I get all the time, from people all over the spectrum of belief and skepticism. So I think we need to answer both of them: the questions about engineers and the question about God and His role in ordinary events.

    After all, the most practical issue we all face who believe in Christ is: what role do we play and what role does/should God play? The Minnesota tragedy shows some of the complexity in answering these pretty relevant questions.

    You are certainly right in saying that we, the humans who made the bridge, are responsible for the brokenness of it. But He who made us is not uninvolved or unengaged with our world, and we need to understand His involvement. Did He simply allow it? Cringe and hold His breath? it is fair, indeed necessary, to answer these in a way that is biblical and true. Piper rightly refuses to let God off the hook for events in our midst. God is not mocked, or hurt, by being pointed to as the Ultimate Cause of all things. It is His essence to be sovereign. It is our task to do the hard work of seeing what that means.


  6. Bill,

    I think you have done a wise decision 😉


  7. Dan,
    I do not disagree that God is uninvolved in our world. I do disagree that God orchestrated the events that led to the collapse of the bridge on I35. Just as I disagree that God orchestrated the events that brought Hitler to power and saw 6 million Jews murdered – or Stalin to power, that 20+ million people living in the USSR would die.

    I am convinced of the existence of Free Will – and it is in the exercise of that Free Will that I see much (if not all) of the pain and suffering in this world.

    So, at pain of repeating myself, I categorically disagree that God willed the collapse of the Twin Cities Bridge over I35. I do, however, believe that He is actively engaged in comforting and helping those hurt by its events – by the power of His Holy Spirit empowering His Body – the people of Christ. He is also actively engaged in drawing all those people to Himself.

  8. Darryl,
    I would much rather read Tim Keller’s response (which I did) than John Piper’s.

  9. Well said Bill, thank you.

  10. Bill,

    I actually find the instant theologizing to be rather unreformed for two reasons:

    1. God doesn’t need our defense for how he runs his universe. And certainly not from us.

    2. It is the reformation view that the work of engineers, etc is sacred and holy as vocation. The “ordinary” questions are appropriate because we believe those are some of God’s ministers in the secular realm.

    Someone at IM said, “At least we don’t have to hear from Jerry Falwell.” Of course, Pat Robertson will make up the difference.

  11. I like the “rather unreformed” thing Michael pokes in here because it demonstrates that it is not only the conservatives who want to tell the rest of us what exactly it is we ought to do. Thanks, Michael, for joining the Reformation police. You look good in the uniform.

    However, that said, it is interesting to me that what comes out of this tragedy for some is that we are “too God-centered”. Think about that for a second — that’s a claim that somehow God doesn’t have a relationship with this event or the people who were killed, or injured, or traumatized by what is rightly said to be an event which, all told, men did to their brothers. Or perhaps, more charitably, it says that somehow we should not get around to thinking about God’s relationship to this event and all the people involved in it because it is either too high and too removed from doing something, or it is too low and lazy and stops us from doing things like comforting the injured, traumatized, and the survivors of those who died.

    My opinion — unsolicited, and provided only because the comments are open — is that answering the question which relates to what some call “life after life after death” (or in layman’s terms “the day after tomorrow”) rather than the question “how do I tow that car out of the river” is itself a necessary part of presenting the Gospel to the world we live in.

    Because let’s face it: God is powerful enough to have stopped the bridge from coming down, and God is generous and merciful enough to do such a thing, but God didn’t do it. And the question the person with a dead spouse, or a dead child, or a traumatized life due to injury and loss, will eventually ask is, “God: why?”

    The answer to that question is the intellectual bridge which that person will drive on when considering the Gospel. Yes: we should care for these people, hug them, love them, pray for them. But when they want to know if God is good when God allows a husband to be killed in a random act like a collapsing bridge, they are asking, “Can I trust God in the big thing, the final thing, if I cannot trust Him in this which was frankly a little thing to Him?”

    This is a question of the problem of the fall, the problem of evil, the problem that we live in a world where we are fragile and contingent beings. If we neglect that piece of our theology in thinking about the ways people need comfort, we are neglecting at least half of why the Gospel has any value.

  12. We are asked to take Piper seriously?

    “The meaning of the collapse of this bridge is that John Piper is a sinner and should repent or forfeit his life forever.

    One is that God doesn’t build bridges, he divides seas.”

    We are asked to take this ego-centric voice of God nonsense seriously?
    Over 100 people died in a train wreck in DR Congo that same day because the tracks haven’t been fixed for years.
    Piper can keep his opinion, thanks.

  13. Bene —

    If you will be kind enough to field a small set of question, does the Gospel of Jesus Christ have any relationship to this event? If so, what is it? If not, why not?

  14. The question of how God acts in this space and time is an important one. It is intimately tied to his purpose for humanity, and the nature that he endowed to us. If God is all powerful, and refuses to use his power for good, then he is evil. Of course, that is an heretical, ridiculous statement. So there must be some other explanation for why God doesn’t keep bad things from happening. The most extreme alternative explanation is the deist one where God is totally removed from this realm. Rather, I believe in what Scriptures points us to see. That perspective is that God works in this world through the people of God. If there is human tragedy, whether a bridge in Minnesota or famine in Africa, then is it God’s responsibility or ours. The bridge collapse is a human tragedy. Both from our sinful neglect of that which we are responsible, and from our denial of our responsibility portrayed in our tossing the ball to God to fix. We live in a very complicated world that is built upon contingency as a core principle of nature. Our actions have consequences, for good and ill. We are not God’s regional sales representatives. We are literally God’s presence in this world. That is what the church is, Christ’s physical presence defused through millions of believers, none who are in absolute control, but all who share the same responsibility. It is chaos theory as divine intention. God create this world so that we might live in worshipful, faithful sacrificial dependence upon his grace. When we don’t, bad things happen. For this reason, I think we are tremendously mistaken in thinking God acts sovereignly over this world as some puppet master who is capricious in deciding when to act and when not to. As a Reformed, Calvinist, Presbyterian Christian, I have to say that our elevation of God’s sovereignty as some high view of God has resulted in a God who is the author of evil. For this reason, whatever the biblical writers mean by sovereignty is not what we Reformed Christians are seeing. The only thing that makes sense to me is that God has given responsibility for this world in to our hands, and it is the poverty of our faith that we continue to blame God for our own failures. At the end of the day, if we don’t accept the responsibility to repair worn out bridges, then we will be force to care for those who lose loved ones when those bridges crash. If you want to live with a Pollyanna God, do so, but from my experience, it is only as I have accepted my own responsibility for my life that I came to understand how God works in this world.

  15. Frank:^)

    I’m not going to be kind enough to field your questions.

    It’s a long weekend in Canada, while I was out today I actually wondered if you’d be back to this thread to ‘do battle.’

    Not going to oblige you buddy, n’est ce pas?
    Maybe next time.

    I think there have been some excellent gospel responses from very mature believers, that I most certainly can’t improve on.

    Now, if you’ll excuse me, to everything there is a season. While I’m enjoying the holiday I’ll be praying for the good people of Minneapolis/St. Paul.

  16. Bill,

    Thanks for replying. Looks like some orther voices joined the chorus. I think Frank and I are asking the same thing. Given that God runs this whole shebang we call the created universe, we do have, at the end of the day, to ask and answer the question of what God’s role was. Your reply to me was a start, as is this thread.

    The gospel says God is very concerned with our world, and the ultimate answer to every tragedy is the Advent of Christ to redeem us from this vale of tears. Pastorally, Michael’s approach shows wisdom and compassion – but sooner or later the thoughtful are going to ask about how our God fits into this. I am simpy not sure why you decided to pick on Piper, though I appreciate you sending us to IMonk.

    Because your answer to the question of how God if engaged in the world is going to have to go farther than it presently does, to answer the question: is our free will strong enough to frustrate the plans of God? Piper says no; Frank agrees (I think), as do I. What say ye?

    I agree with you that God did not plan Hitler’s rise and demonic behaviour; but I also do not think God was overcome by Hitler’s cunning, or force of will. That would make Hitler stronger, or smarter, than God.

    So in my mind, and this is hard work, there needs to be some way of understanding both God’s goodness and His sovereign allowing of tragedy and evil. Just punting to free will is not sufficient, unless free will is freer, and stronger, than God’s will.

    In which case Free will wins every time – but then God is not sovereign, and if that were true then I cannot have a certain hope that He will one day wipe away every tear, put right every injustice, save all those who hope in him, and make everything wrong right again. I can only have this hope if He is bigger and stronger than everything, including the free will of humans.

    So into this mess we must plunge, trying to make ends meet that seemingly are not meant to meet, but somehow meet in God. Yes, we have the freedom to make choices, but no, these choices do not overrule or frustrate the plan of God. He knew about Minnesota, and Afghanistan, and the flooding in Pakistan and india, before they happened, and did not stop them. This is not TR stuff, simply Bible stuff.

    Anyway, next time you are in the city, let’s grab a coffee; love ya man.

  17. Dan & Frank, Let me directly quote from the iMonk in response. (Though ’tis always dangerous to quote from the theologian from Kentucky for some. And yes, Frank, I think the title is valid.)


    Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when he saw him he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he asked him, “Have you considered why God sovereignly ordains that this sort of thing happen? And the man said “uuuuhhhhhhmmm.” And the Samaritan said unto him, “It’s important to remember that events like this are in no way evidence that God is not actively ruling over all events. This is an example of God’s temporal judgment. In fact, what’s happened to you today should have happened many times before. The fact that it hasn’t is evidence of God’s mercy. You can be sure that God is actively involved in this robbery, yet without being the author of sin. If you are going to ever understand the truth, you need to accept the sovereignty of God in events like this.” And the man said nothing, being in shock. And the next day the Samaritan took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take care of him, and buy him Arthur W. Pink’s book, “The Sovereignty of God.”’ Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” He said, “I’m not really sure.”


  18. Bene,
    A wise response to Frank. Best to enjoy this beautiful Canadian summer long weekend.

    As always, thanks for weighing in here. “…our elevation of God’s sovereignty as some high view of God has resulted in a God who is the author of evil” is well said.

    Hope you don’t mind me reposting your Parody in the comments section here.

    Pastor M,
    Note that I added your point to the original post. As ususal, thanks for reading and commenting.

    One day I’d love to sit down over a beer and chat. In spite of your often (always?) pugilistic approach to discourse, I think I’d enjoy your company.

    I look forward to again being a permanent residence in the greatest city on the North American continent. One of the reasons for that is the ability to enjoy a great cup of Joe at yours and my favourite coffee shop on the Danforth. I warmly anticipate our further conversations.

    David and LPC,
    Thanks for reading and commenting.

  19. Dan:

    >at the end of the day.

    You said it.

    It’s surreal that Frank and Phil imply I don’t believe in the sovereignty of God.

    First, I believe in it because scripture teaches it. The confessions I confess teach it.

    Second, I believe it because 6 years ago our house caught on fire when I was asleep and a power line blew up outside, unrelated to the fire, but it caused me to get up and save my family and home.

    I work at a ministry that does no advertising, has no radio program, has no book sales, but receives millions of dollars a year to sustain us. We receive students from all over the world and we’ve never placed an ad.

    I make less money in a year than most of you make in 2 months, but I have a home, two cars, insurance, nice things, kids in college, etc.

    I love the sovereignty of God in salvation and in all the universe. It causes me to worship.

    But I don’t talk about it all the time.

    I don’t have to.

    I talk about it as I need to, as its appropriate, and I am free to talk about ordinary things.

    I fixed the water heater that caused the fire.

    We write letters and build relationships with our financial supporters.

    Ordinary things glorify God.

    This is a straw man because some see an opportunity to tell thousands of people a lie about me, rather than take the simple point of a discussion-starter type post and just get the simple point.

    The whole discussion is proof of what I’m talking about.

  20. Here’s what I love about this side of the blogosphere: very smart and stern until they have to substantiate their concerns — and then the somehow that’s all that needs to be said.

    I wonder: why are questions about things people say “pugilistic”? Is it really less pugilistic to say something like, “We are asked to take this ego-centric voice of God nonsense seriously?” even as a rhetorical question?

  21. Sorry, Frank. I missed that rule of the blogosphere where anyone has to respond to you in the manner that you decree. Perhaps the rules are buried on the site of Little Boys with a Big Box of Matches™.

  22. Michael:

    Dude, you are the one who injected the term “too God-centered” into the discussion. It wasn’t hung on you — you pulled out your own Sharpie and scrawled in on your “will blog for attention” sign.

    (BTW, for those keeping score, THAT was antagonistic)

    If I said, “It leaves me wondering if we are sometimes too worried about feeding the poor?” do you think maybe it would be important to ask questions or level a counterpoint regarding whether “feeding the poor” is important or not? I ask because if I said something that stupid, I hope somebody would call me on it.

    If you don’t want people to get engaged, don’t say things which are frankly begging for some of the same in return.

    I know: you’re a saint and a martyr. You’re only asking questions and fumbling around for answers, but at the same time you’re a wholly-stable guy with both feet on concrete pillars, personally, emotionally, theologically, socially. I’m the bad guy for wondering if someone like you has made a mis-step in thinking John Piper — geez, John Piper, who has planted more churches than you have left — is missing the point by preaching the Gospel during a tragedy.

    I’m the bad guy. For wondering if the Gospel is still the most important thing when 6 people die on a bridge which collapsed due to human short-sightedness.

  23. Bill —

    I love it when whether or not someone is talking sense becomes about whether or not I have decreed something. At some point, Bill, does someone have to admit that people disagree with them and that maybe it would do some good to think about criticism rather than call critics mean, pompous, arrogant, whatever?

    If it’s more loving, or more civil, or more reasonable, or more respectful, or more “Christian” to ignore or to denigrate criticism and then not answer it, then I guess you guys are way more like Christ than I am.

    Thanks for having me here.

  24. Frank,
    Just wondering. Did you type that with the gloves on or off?

  25. Frank:

    I used to think there was a difference between you and the “that question isn’t allowed at our church” crowd. I’ll revise that.

    I had nothing to say about Piper and I never denied or questioned the Gospel. And what if I did critique Piper’s rhetoric? Have you signed on to the “my pastor and my church can’t be mentioned” club?

    It’s a compliment to Piper that he raises this issue and that some people want to discuss if there is more to say than only what he said. Geeez Frank, I deal with tragedy by the busfulls with my students and I love the sovereignty of God. But there are some questions that can be asked. Or at least there are in some places.

    You’ve teamed up with someone who believes the question- a question that ought to be discussed by all intelligent Christians who love people and God’s sovereignty- is simply not allowed.

    Too bad. I’ve heard you teach. You are sharp enough to know how to use questions and to know how to examine the application of a principle or affirmation.



  26. Sigh…

    Bill, I feel like I could soon lose the gracious label you’ve given to me. Lord have mercy.

  27. P.S. iMonk and I were posting at the same time, so I’m not reacting to his last comment.

  28. My problem is that when I went to college and seminary, we could come back from chapel or come to class after a reading or a previous lecture AND ASK QUESTIONS. It was actually considered appropriate. Professors did it. Ignorant freshmen did it. Struggling, curious believers did it. It was an invaluable and much missed part of the collegial experience.

    Then I discovered the blogosphere, where the rules are, to say the least, different. On at least four occasions that I can recall, I’ve raised questions about someone’s rhetoric in the aftermath of disaster and been greeted with the announcement that I was committing an illegal and apostate act.

    What’s going on here?

  29. Darryl,
    I think the response to your “Lord have mercy” is Christ have mercy!

    Good grief! I’ve only just discovered the “discourse” going on at the Little Boys with a Big Box of Matches™ blog. Makes me profoundly sad. I’m so glad for them that they have God and His Sovereignty all worked out. I’m afraid my mind isn’t that large. But you knew that already.

  30. Guys,
    So sorry- I was travelling back from holidays after my first two posts. Quite a revelation to find all this since I last tuned in.

    There seems to be some history b/w Frank and Michael that I am wholly ignorant of, and possibly Bill as well.

    Michael, I respect you and read your blogs often, and have been challenged and refined by your posts. I think your questions are worth asking, and may well be the pastorally more appropriate first-pass at the issue.

    I just wanted to say to Bill that his headline seemed to put Piper in a box which I don’t think he deserves. I did not mean to impute anything to your posts, yay or nay – I think both what you have to say, and what John has to say, are meaningful and relevant to people, depending upon where they are at. Piper articulates with a clean, sharp edge, and it can be off-putting; but I think most of us boys in this little chat are guilty of the same! I love the way you allow the tensions of living in this world to impact your theology. You don’t always find the tradtional answers that satisfying, and push for better ones, more existentially thoughtful ones. You have the heart of a shepherd, I think, and a real compassion for people.

    But i also love that Piper, and people like Frank, remind us that the soft edges of compassion must find their footing on the solid bedrock of God’s Word.

    I find the same tension we all feel with the whole sovereignty/free will issue, yet what is clearest in scripture is to me, God’s sovereign Godness (eh! lousy writing!) And I love that Piper dies on that hill, in this day when so few of us are willing to. I think you do too, but you leave a little more room for mystery and doubt and disagreement. As a pastor of sheep, my emotions incline me toward your appproach when comforting them, but as a person who faces my own crises (cancer, our infertility, Dad’s Alzheimer’s), my deepest confidence lies in the God who is, must, and always will prevail over evil and death and disease.

    If you were being as dismissive as I felt Bill was of Piper and his comments, then I respectfully disagree with that, but in the main, I really appreciate what you have to say.

    I am sorry you are getting labelled unfairly for your comments somewhere. I am not sure about all that straw man stuff, it seems to be a response to more than just this thread, so I will leave it there. Thanks.

    Bill: I agree with Gideon’s articulation of neocalvinist theology, I think, 99.5%, but I am not sure he would agree with your interpretation of it.

    I also don’t think the parody, although I thought it funny, really gets to the issue. As Michael points out, our response, since we do not have the mind of God, is to do what we can for those who are hurting and to engage the world constructively to prevent these things from recurring. The parody mocks reformed people because it makes reformed people act as if they can read the inscrutable mind of God. But no reformed person I have met thinks this way, save perhaps one.

    All the reformed people I know would rescue the man, because they do know it is God’s revealed will for people to care for people in need. Piper is not talking about our response – Michael dealt with that. Piper was talking about God’s presence, power, and authority over all situations in light of what happened. Piper is geting at the mystery of God’s secret purposes, which allow tragedy and weave them together for a greater good that I cannot see with my frail eyes, and must take by faith.

    Therefore, to me, Michael and John are looking at the same issue from different sides of the coin: our perspective and God’s.The parody puts both on the same side. It works as parody, but not as argument.

    And this, I think, is why Frank is frustrated, as am I. You aren’t really answering the issues you yourself raised. I agree with you that men are not robots – we are made in the image of God, with divine dignity. Our actions matter. But how God’s rule intersects and weaves together the strands of our free actions to perfectly accomplish His purposes is a staggering mystery. I wrestle with it a lot, especially in times of tragedy. Maybe you didn’t like the way Piper didn’t seem to wrestle with it enough. Fair enough, but having read almost all of his works, I can say with pretty good confidence he HAS wrestled with it – long and deep. You seem to dismiss him as being too cavalier with the subject; of all the subjects to accuse Piper of being cavalier about, this would not be it.

    Listen, I am praying for you as the western trip approaches. Have as good a trip as you can.

  31. Dan,
    You’ve lost me in the pronouns. Not sure who you are talking to at different points in your comment.

    I have no history with Frank to the best of my rather addled knowledge. Though Frank and the Little Boys with the Big Box of Matches blog have a history of being very “frustrated” with anything that does not agree with their rather narrow, or should I say circumscribed view of the Gospel.

    The parody was written by Michael.

    I quote Gideon in another post. And, ’tis true, I am no neo-calvinist expert (or even novice, perhaps). Though, as espoused by Mouw, Chaplin, de Pree et al, there is much I find attractive in a Kuyperian worldview.

    Whether Piper has wrestled with the issue “long and deep” is really not my issue. I was responding to his “blog” post, which, quite frankly, I found offensive. Perhaps he needed to add the caveat – “to understand what I’m saying here, you really need to have read everything I’ve written.”

    I appreciate your prayers. I think the stress I’m under is showing up in my less than irenic style of writing.

  32. I wonder. . .is it possible to just be godly, follow Christ as a disciple through a broken world (which we broke), doing the very best we can with Christ in us, and all the while care not one bit about Calvinism, Monergism, Arminianism, and whatever-ism?

    I have no doubt that God can and will weave the tragedy’s of the world into His design so that His ends are achieved–whatever we do to mess it up in the meantime. Like building inadequate bridge structures.

    Lesson: Whatever you do, do it as if for God. Then, when you build a bridge, it wont fall because you did an inadeguate job.

  33. Pugilistic Discussion Syndrome

    In this curious form of aphasia, the subject is unable to distinguish between a discussion and a contest. The subject approaches any online forum as a sort of playing field, and attempts to “win” the discussion by any means necessary. The rules of the imaginary contest are apparently clear to the individual as he or she will often point out when others break them, but when asked to outline these rules the individual is reluctant, perhaps not wishing to confer an “advantage” on any “opponents.” The conditions for winning are similarly difficult to pin down, although in some cases the individual will declare himself the winner of a discussion that, to all others, appears to be ongoing.

    Lore Sjöberg – Wired News
    link to wired.com

  34. Part of your problem is quoting from “The Message,” which is a paraphrase at best. I’m a little curious what The Message does with Eph 1 and 2, and Romans 9-10.

    I am thankful that God has brought me thus far to and is continuing to grow me in a belief that He is not a laissez faire deity.


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