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by Rev. Dr. Robert S. Rayburn
Delivered at the Symposium, “Church Music at a Crossroads,” July 20, 1999
There is a scene in the film “Dead Poets Society” in which Robin Williams, playing a New England Prep School English teacher, begins a class by asking a young student to read the introduction to a text on English poetry. The student begins, but after a few lines, Robin Williams interrupts him and tells him that what he has read is all wrong. “Rip out that page,” he tells the student. The student smiles. Of course the teacher is joking. “No. Rip it out! Rip that page out of the book.” Well, one doesn’t have to tell a class of adolescent boys more than twice to rip pages out of their textbooks. He rips the page out of the book and his fellow students do the same.
Now, I have told that story to my own congregation and then gone on to tell them that there is a page in their Bibles that is all wrong as well and ought to be ripped out. I haven’t ripped that page out of my own Bible because I have written too many notes on it. But it does not belong in the Bible. In fact, it is the only page in the Bible that the Holy Spirit did not put there. It is the page that separates Malachi from Matthew, the page that suggests so powerfully, however subtly, that when one moves from Malachi to Matthew, from the Old Testament to the New Testament, one is crossing a great divide, a great frontier, that one is moving from one spiritual world into another, from one way of looking at faith and life to another. But the Bible never teaches us that. It never teaches us to look at the first thirty-nine books of the Bible in any other way than as the living Word of God to be believed and obeyed. That page between Malachi and Matthew suggests something the Bible itself never does. It is important to remember that when we read in the New Testament that Holy Scripture is God-breathed and so useful for teaching and training in righteousness, the Scripture being referred to was, by and large, what we today call the Old Testament!
Christians today are, as a rule, quite ambivalent about the first thirty-nine books of the Bible. By and large, they believe that what is called the Old Testament represents a preliminary and inferior stage of religious development. That is, those books of what we call the Old Testament — a term the Bible never uses for the first thirty-nine books of Holy Scripture — provide the historical and theological background against which the New Testament can be understood and appreciated. Important as those books are in some ways, as an account of faith and life, the Old Testament is obsolescent.
But, as a matter of fact, in many ways these same believers do not treat it as such. When they are in trouble, they immediately turn to the Psalms for words with which to express their woe or to formulate their cries to God. They do not think then that the Psalter expresses an outmoded and outdated faith. They do not hesitate to mine the riches of Proverbs for daily wisdom. Their ethics, by and large, are drawn as much from the Old Testament as the New. Their theology, in many parts and subjects, is almost entirely derived from the Old Testament. The doctrine of God, for example, is, for all intents and purposes, an Old Testament doctrine. The New Testament adds virtually nothing to our understanding of the nature of God, concentrating rather on the revelation of the Trinity. They find it very easy to draw flesh and blood lessons concerning faith in God and living by faith from the narrative of the first thirty-nine books of the Bible. The New Testament has very much less of this illustrative material. And, the average evangelical is much more likely to explain the atonement of Jesus Christ with reference to Isaiah 53 than to Romans 3.
The result is an odd mixture of approaches to the Old Testament. And what this amounts to in practice is that Christians seem to feel rather free to take from the first thirty-nine books of the Bible what they feel is relevant and leave what they do not.
This situation has vast implications for worship because most of what the Bible says about worship it says in the first thirty-nine books. Most of what the Bible says about sung praise it says in the first thirty-nine books, not the last twenty-seven. We know that the church in the age of the apostles continued to sing its praises to God, but the New Testament provides almost no description of the singing of early Christian churches. We know that Christian churches gathered for worship on the Lord’s Day, but we are told very little about how they went about worship in the days of the apostles.
Now, is that because Pentecost cut the church loose from the regulations that had governed holy worship in the church of God from the days of Moses, perhaps leaving in their place only some very general principles? Or, is the relative paucity of information on worship in the last twenty seven books of the Bible due to the fact that worship, including sung worship, had been comprehensively explained, regulated, and illustrated in the first thirty-nine books of the Bible and there was no need to recover that ground.
The latter is unmistakably the case in regard to certain features of Christian worship. For example, you will find it virtually impossible to construct from New Testament materials alone, a doctrine of the sacraments — Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. We have the institution of the Supper in the New Testament and we have mention of its use in a few places, and one correction of its abuse. But nowhere are we told how such a thing as the Lord’s Supper functions, what its uses are, and how we are to partake of it and with what expectations. All of that was taught in the Old Testament concerning the sacraments of that age and epoch. Nothing more need be said except to make the necessary adjustments in form — baptism replacing circumcision; the Lord’s Supper replacing the Passover and the sacrifices. What these things are and how they work — that was already revealed.
The relationship between the material of the Old Testament touching worship and the practice of Christian churches in the new epoch is a huge issue with profound implications, and it is an issue faced in all traditions and still today.
The question touches every conceivable aspect of worship. For example, it is the Old Testament that teaches us the greater importance and supremacy of the corporate worship of the church. “The Lord loves the gates of Zion more than all the dwellings of Jacob” (Psalm 87:1). It was David, a man of the most intense private worship and communion with God, who communed with the Lord on his bed at night, who, nevertheless said, “One thing I ask of the Lord; this is what I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord and to seek Him in his temple.” (An interesting generalization of the term “temple” by the way; for when David wrote Psalm 27 the temple, of course, had not been built. There is nothing unbiblical about thinking of a Christian church on Sunday morning as God’s temple.) What is more, it is in the sanctuary that David says he saw the Lord in his glory; it was in the worship of the sanctuary that Asaph says his spiritual doubts were swept away. And on and on.
It is true that in the Book of Revelation, all the worship that we witness is corporate worship. And the New Testament certainly indicates that the early Christian churches worshipped together, especially on the Lord’s Day. But the emphatic, comprehensive supremacy of corporate worship over all other forms of worship is a doctrine of the Old Testament. This was not, by the way, the doctrine with which I was raised. We were taught in ways both intentional and unintentional that the real key to the Christian life was one’s private worship, what was ingloriously inferred to in those days as one’s “quiet time.” This is a matter of supreme importance. If public worship is, as the Bible seems to teach, the great engine of the Christian life, then how important does it become that Christians attend that worship faithfully and that it is conducted in a manner most faithful to the Bible.
But we are only scratching the surface. If we listen to the first thirty-nine books of the Bible on the subject of worship, it will fundamentally change the way we think about the participation of the worshipper (Leviticus 1:l-9); the order or elements in worship (the order of things is more important than we often stop to think. If you sleep with a woman and then marry her, you have one thing. If you marry a woman and then sleep with her, you have another. It seems but a small difference, the acts remain the same, only a slight difference in order. But one leads to hell and the other to heaven, both in this world and that which is to come. And so in worship. In the ancient Near East it was one religion in which the worshipper first killed the animal and then put his hands upon it before he offered it to his god. It was true religion to put one’s hands on the animals head and then to kill it. You will discover a great attention paid to the order of events in worship in the Old Testament and in the history of Christian worship, but almost none today. Is that right or wrong?); and so on: the place of the sacraments, even what a minister wears. All these are questions that are virtually bound to be answered differently if a Christian discounts the relevance of the material touching worship that is contained in the Old Testament.
And that is profoundly so concerning sung worship or Christian praise. In the Reformed tradition, for example, there are those who maintain that only Psalms should be sung in the praise of God, that is, only canonical psalms, the hymns of the Bible itself. And the argument for that position is, in fact, an argument about the relationship between the liturgical authority of the Old Testament and the practice of Christian churches today.
But, so it is the case, however unwittingly perhaps, with the advocates of contemporary Christian worship and the new singing in Christian Sunday services. In one way or another, the case they make depends upon a particular view they take of the liturgical authority of the Old Testament, that part of the Bible where sung praise is discussed and illustrated in detail. It may be that many contemporary Christian songs are based upon Psalm texts, or even are themselves settings of verses from the Psalms — as was the case with many great hymns. But it is clear, at the same time, that the authors of these songs do not see themselves, by and large, as subject to the regulation of the Psalter.
Consider, for example, the text of the Psalter. It is here, perhaps, that contemporary Christian praise most profoundly departs from the standard of the Psalter. The psalms are poems of theological depth and real sophistication. That is why Christians struggle to understand and appreciate them at many points. What is more, the Psalter forms a hymnal of astonishing breadth. The whole range of biblical teaching and theology as well as the whole range of human experience and reflection is turned into hymn in the 150 psalms of the Psalter. But there is little of this breadth or depth in contemporary Christian songs for worship.
This has been often alleged, even admitted by some of the leaders of the “contemporary Christian music” movement, as we heard this morning in Dr. Horton’s lecture. You can find some preliminary evaluation and evidence in David Wells’ book Losing our Virtue [pp. 41-46]. I do not claim to be familiar with the “contemporary Christian music” body of work, and there may be good material in it, and certainly some of it is simply the text of the Bible set to music. But, by and large, this complaint I think can be fairly sustained. However, the same thing was true of the previous several generations of Christian songs, by and large. They failed to rise to the standard of the Psalter in both theological depth and spiritual width.
Take, for example, the great 118th Psalm, one of the principle anthems of the Protestant Reformation and still sung today in Reformed Churches to the same grand tune, “Rendez a Dieu”, which first appeared in the Strasbourg Psalter of 1545 and then made its way into the worship of the whole Reformed Church through the arrangement of Louis Bourgeois, Calvin’s musician collaborator. This is a great Psalm of praise and is, at one and the same time, typical of so many psalms, an elaborate theological argument and an account of human experience full of pathos and power. It happens to contain, by the way, another great statement on the sustaining power of corporate worship (vv. l7-24).
What is remarkable is that Christians today know but one verse of the psalm, v.24: “This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.” That has been set to a sing-able and memorable tune and has been widely sung as a praise chorus. The statement that comes immediately before it in the psalm, however, vv. 22-23, is a much more important statement theologically. It is cited in the New Testament as many times or more than any other text from the Old Testament.
“The stone the builders rejected has become the capstone; the Lord has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes.”
This is a more difficult thought to turn to praise in the heart and so it is not sung as is “This is the day...” even though the New Testament bears its own witness to how important that statement really is.
The ordinary American evangelical believes that Pentecost raised the level of spiritual experience and the power of faith and understanding beyond what any Old Testament believer could know. That is not my theology, I don’t believe that the Bible teaches any such thing. But it is the thinking of most American Christians. How ironic then that pre-Pentecostal believers could manage the entire 118th Psalm and Christians today in the age of the Spirit can only sing and then repeat several times the simplest verse of that psalm! (That, by the way, is a reminder of a fact that should not be forgotten in the discussion of contemporary praise songs. They are not really new. I sang such songs when I was growing up in the church. We called them choruses. They were short and simple. What is new is that such choruses are being sung by adults in the church’s Lord’s Day worship. We young people loved to sing those songs, but we never imagined that we would continue to sing them when were adults.)
But that is but one illustration. There are countless others. Take, for example, Psalm 26:1: “Vindicate me, O Lord, for I have lived a blameless life.” What praise chorus picks up that theme? Or, perhaps you think none should. Perhaps you think that such a statement should not be made by a believer today. But surely, that is simply David’s way of saying what Paul said when he said of himself that he had fought the fight and kept the faith — Paul, remember, confessed himself a very sinful man, and yet he said that he had fought the fight and kept the faith. And what of hymns on the church of God of which the Psalter is full? “Glorious things of Thee are spoken, Zion city of our God” (John Newton’s rendition of Psalm 87:3). Or what of the psalms of judgment and the wrath of God? There is a lot of that in the Psalter and also in the New Testament, by the way, but very little in Christian sung worship today. Or the creation psalms? Or the psalms devoted to a recitation of the history of salvation and of the people of God. And on and on. Christians will never grow up to real spiritual stature if their worship remains juvenile, concentrating on the simplest part of divine revelation and those parts that least distinguish the Christian mind from the mind of the world.
God did not do that when he provided a manual of sung worship for his people. It was deep and demanding, it was sophisticated and beautiful at the same time. It was praise worthy of God, of his grace, of the realities of believing life, resolutely true and honest, and yet full of faith and hope. It was the deepest doctrine sung in the most exquisite tones.
In the past, a good hymn-book has been like the Psalter in both ways. It had theological depth — the hymns contained in it taught and expressed the range of truth that was revealed in Holy Scripture and brought that truth to bear on the full range of human experience. In fact, I would suggest that the reason a hymn survives through generations and wins the love and approval of Christians of different times and places is precisely that it rises to the standard of the Psalter, and (whether with understanding or instinct) the church recognizes it as worthy to be sung along side the hymns the Spirit of God himself placed in Holy Scripture. Sometime, however, great hymns sink into oblivion precisely because God’s people are not taught, are not helped to see what treasure lies within them. That should be no surprise. The same thing happens to the psalms. Indeed, it is a good test of a hymn to ask if there is something in its text that requires thought and preparation to understand completely, even if it can be sung with real meaning and appreciation by spiritual novices, just as the Psalms that yield their fullness only with study can still be read and appreciated by spiritual novices.
And, may I say, it seems to me that the Psalter itself teaches us to write such hymns, to continue to produce new poems to be sung in the worship of the Lord’s house. The Psalter teaches us to sing the history of the church, and there has been a lot of history since the Psalter was finished. Many of our greatest hymns were in a most marvelous way anthems drawn from the times, even the crises through which the church was then passing. Think of “A Mighty Fortress is our God.” But, better, think of Gregory Nazianzen’s “O Light that knew no Dawn” or Samuel Stone’s “The Church’s one Foundation.”
Well, there has been history of real importance in the 20th century that also should be sung. The struggle for fidelity to the Scripture which is the great story of 20th century Christendom, and so on. The Psalter also teaches us to sing the doctrine of the Bible, as a means of learning it, confessing it, laying it in our hearts, and responding to it with our lives. And there are many doctrines that are not fully represented in the Psalter, some of which we have a better grasp of in the 20th century than any previous generation of Christians. We need hymns, for example, on the inerrancy of the Bible, on the church as a community, a unity of mutually gifted individuals, many more hymns on the catholicity of the church as we have come to experience it in the 20th century, and so on. There are areas of the hymnal that are characteristically weak and ought to be improved by turning the appropriate biblical theology to song.
But there are practical factors at work here. Some of them, in my judgment, are quite discouraging to our prospects for better things in the future. For example, most of the great Christian hymns were written by theologically literate poets: from Clement of Alexandria to Isaac Watts to Charles Wesley to Henry Alford; from John Mason Neale (a translator poet) to Anna Waring (“I ask Thee for the daily strength, to none that ask denied; a mind to blend with outward life, while keeping at Thy side, content to fill a little space, if Thou be glorified.”)
Most songs for worship today are written not by poets but by musicians. No one has purchased a volume of the poetry of these song writers. And there is a great deal of difference between poetic texts written by poets and those written by musicians. But there is no use blaming the musicians for this. Where are the poets? I don’t know if your experience is like mine, but most Christian poetry I read today produces the same effect in me that most modern poetry produces: weariness at the studied ambiguity of it, the pretentious seeking after obscurity, and, then immediately, the conviction that no one would ever think of putting this to music!
With Watts and Wesley and Lyte and How and Keble and Ellerton, on the contrary, you think: what powerful and beautiful thought, and, what do you know, it rhymes! It is frankly hard for me to believe, the state of literary endeavor being what it is in our day, that the situation can be turned round very easily. And that poses a problem: a real challenge for those who believe in biblical worship and think that we are likely to find that more biblical pattern in the classic paradigms of Christian worship than in more contemporary developments. We want to adorn that classical worship, singing praises worthy of God and of the Christian church. But, to do so, we cannot simply sing the old. We must sing the best of the old, of course. Hymns from various periods of the church have a special elan that cannot be replaced. They wore born in the mighty works of God experienced by his people in a particular time and set of circumstances. Like certain Christian books and theological confessions, they gain a special authority from the circumstances of their birth. But we cannot simply sing the old. We must add to that deposit what we have to offer the church of the future. But when a culture is in steep decline, when its arts are corrupt and juvenile, the church will be hard-pressed to find the materials with which, in her worship, to add the contemporary to the ancient with the contemporary rising to the standard set first by Holy Scripture and then met time and time again in the history of Christian praise. We cannot bemoan the lack of new Christian hymns of high quality without bemoaning first the lack of poets.
My own feeling is that if we had the poets, we would find that we had the composers. The text is the larger problem and the more difficult to address.
But, do you see now, how this large issue of the content and character of sung praise in Christian worship reduces to this question: Do we have a Psalter in the Old Testament only and not in the New Testament because Christians, following Pentecost, no longer need a Psalter, they have been cut loose to worship God in song as the Holy Spirit leads them? Or, do we have only one Psalter in the Bible because one was enough for ever and all times?
And the question is the same on the musical side. There is, perhaps to the surprise of some, considerable material on the musical side of sung worship in the Old Testament. We know from I Chronicles 25 that David made it a point, when he organized the musical aspect of the temple worship, to place that responsibility in the hands of men who were “trained and skilled”—those are the Bible’s own words—in music, in the playing of instruments, in singing, and in the directing of choirs. It was unthinkable to David that the sung worship of God’s house would not be managed by skilled musicians.
And we know that they were skilled, in just the way in which we understand musical skill today. They combined instruments in the accompaniment of praise. They chose certain instruments for certain songs. (Psalms 61, 67, 76: “With stringed instruments.”) They wrote music, associated certain melodies with certain texts (Many psalms have in their title the direction “to be sung to the tune...”) and they annotated the music they wrote with technical terms, the very kind of terms that so frustrate the novice today. This is what all advanced arts and sciences develop: a terminology meaningful to those with a professional grasp of the discipline that, for them, advances understanding in the shortest number of words. Much such terminology in music today is additionally obscure to the amateur because it is Italian. Indeed the terms were so technical that when the translators of the Septuagint came to render the Hebrew Psalter into Greek, they could not figure out the meaning of this musical terminology and simply transliterated it. Still today we don’t know exactly what a “maskil” was, for example, or a “miktam.” We don’t know what it means to say that a psalm was “according to mahalath” or “according to alamoth” (Psalms 46, 53). We don’t know what “Selah” means, though it is generally thought to have been some musical direction.
But, once again, is this to be our standard today for sung praise? Should the church aspire to this technical expertise in music or is that, as many would say today, elitist or, worse, an actual offense against the priesthood of all believers?
The answer to that question, so far as it will be a biblical answer, depends upon how one views the material in Psalms and Chronicles and elsewhere ... whether it is still the voice of God directing us in our worship.
Now, I am sure that we do not all agree in this room concerning the relationship of the Old Testament to the New Testament. It is not my assignment to convince you of one particular understanding of that issue. But, having sketched, just sketched, the implications of this question for Christian worship and sung worship, let me at least remind you of certain things that are not in dispute, or at least, cannot be in dispute by those who believe the Bible to be the Word of God.
1. lt is the same God and the same Christ speaking in both the first thirty-nine books and the last twenty-seven. Indeed, we can go further and say, on the authority of the New Testament, that the person of the Godhead with whom the people of Israel had directly to do, was the Son of God, though not yet incarnate as Jesus Christ. It was the same person as the one who would later visit the world, who delivered his people from bondage in Egypt, who gave the law at Sinai, whose glory shone on the face of Moses after meeting with the prophet in the tent, the same person that Isaiah saw high and lifted up in the temple the year that King Uzziah died — so says John in chapter 12 of his gospel. It was for Christ that Moses suffered the loss of all things in Egypt. It was the day of Christ that Abraham rejoiced to see from afar. And on and on.
2. It is the same law governing life that is laid down in the Old Testament and confirmed in the New Testament. Over and again Christians in the New Testament are told to do what they have been commanded in the Word and Law of God. Whether it is the love of God and neighbor, or the believer’s separation from the world or honoring parents or being faithful in marriage or casting out a rebellious brother or something as simple, though near and dear to my heart, as paying salaries to ministers. The law of God is cited as binding upon the life of God’s people.
3. It is the same faith that is taught in the Old Testament as the New Testament. Paul makes a great point of this in his polemic against the judaizers in Galatia, and the author of the Letter to the Hebrews tells us that if we would live the Christian life faithfully we have but to imitate the faithful saints of the ancient epoch.
4. It is the same spiritual world that is described in both sections of the Bible, that which came before the Incarnation and that which came after. There is no place in the New Testament where Christians are taught that they have different powers or possibilities than those of the saints who lived before the incarnation. Quite the reverse. We have great privileges living on this side of the cross and resurrection, but it is a striking fact that the Bible itself never calls attention to them. We may know more than David did about how salvation would be purchased by our Redeemer, but faith in the Redeemer is still our way of life as it was for him.
5. But, it is, as well, the same worship.
Still today, God seeks worshippers to worship him in spirit and in truth, as Jesus told the woman at the well. What they do in that worship the New Testament does not elaborate at great length. It rather uses the language, the forms, and the principles of the liturgical teaching of the ancient epoch. And we see that same worship in heaven in the Book of Revelation. We see God’s people singing great hymns, we see them standing and bowing before the Lord Almighty, we hear the Word of God being proclaimed and the people giving their answer, their “amen” to that Word.
We today, Peter says, in language taken directly from the liturgical vocabulary of the Old Testament, are saved to form a spiritual priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices, acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. There is a day appointed for this worship as there was in Leviticus 23. Word and sacrament combine to form its center in the New Testament as was the case in the Old Testament. Also by the express testimony of the New Testament, sung praise, the reading of the Word of God, and the giving of offerings are part of the liturgy as they were in the ancient epoch.
The parts and forms of New Testament worship are taken over from the Old Testament, necessary changes being made, the principle of worship is the same — a right form invested with true faith and the engagement of the heart, and the language used to describe it is the language of Old Testament worship.
All of this lies on the face of the New Testament. But there is something more, something that I find often startles and even troubles evangelicals. There is among them a pervasive sense that there is something fundamentally incompatible with Old Testament worship in the New Testament situation. Perhaps they think that the Old Testament sacrifices were something other than sacraments, that the blood of bulls and goats really was intended to take away sin. That a Christian could never have anything to do with blood sacrifice, or a temple, or priests.
But as a matter of fact, it was not so. Did you know, most evangelicals do not seem to notice this fact, that the Apostle Paul, the champion of justification by faith alone and salvation by grace alone and of the full freedom of Gentile Christians, offered blood sacrifices in the Temple in Jerusalem, fully thirty years after the resurrection of Jesus Christ? He did. We know he did. He was glad to do it. So we read in Acts 21:26 and Acts 24:17. He saw nothing whatsoever incompatible between the forms of Gentile Christian worship to which he was accustomed in his churches in Galatia, Asia, and Europe and the worship of the temple in Jerusalem. So long as there was true faith, it was the same worship. The forms were different, of course.
But, in the same way that we, in a day of pitched roofs, easily adapt a commandment in the Mosaic law requiring a railing around the roof of our house to other efforts to make our property safe for our neighbor, so we adapt the rules and regulations of worship, given so comprehensively and emphatically in the first thirty-nine books of the Bible, to a situation that is different in form and outward circumstance, but essentially the same in character, in purpose, and in necessary qualifications.
The reason the New Testament says so little about the ways and hows of worship — and sung worship — is precisely because that teaching had been given with sufficient comprehensiveness already in the holy Word of God.
And it is not a small thing to say that. Worship is the last and most important bastion of the truth. It is true and lively and biblical worship that both proclaims the truth of God to the conscience and animates and adorns that truth, makes it persuasive and places it beyond doubt.
The great fear we should all have about modern worship in Protestant evangelical Christianity is not that it is in some particular way not as faithful to the biblical norm as it ought to be, or not even as worthy of God, of Christ, of his great salvation as it might be. The greater worry is that, at the last, it will not bear the weight of orthodox Christianity. Sooner or later, a generation fed with choruses and seeker-friendly sermons will find the doctrine of divine wrath so alien that it can no longer believe it, and the doctrine of a transcendent sovereign and holy God, with all the implications of that doctrine, simply unintelligible. It is the radical symbolization that takes place in Christian worship, at least worship ordered by the Bible, — from the kneeling of God’s people before Him to the wonderful and terrible things they confess about him in their singing, from the proclamation of his holy Word to the plea that he should forgive his people’s sins — that keeps the real world vivid before the face of the people of God, and keeps the unreal world, the world of mere appearances, the world of sight, with all its allurements, at bay.
Rev. Dr. Robert S. Rayburn is pastor of Faith Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Tacoma, Washington. Son of the late Dr. Robert G. Rayburn (O Come, Let Us Worship), he holds degrees from Covenant College, Covenant Theological Seminary and the University of Aberdeen, Scotland.
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