Vicar’s Blog

All are Welcome in this Place

St Michael’s Vicarage
Alnwick

Dear People of Alnwick,

Hardly a Sunday goes by at St. Michael’s without finding that we have
some visitors in our congregation. At 8.00am we find people on holiday who
have plans for the rest of the day but still feel it is important to be at worship.
At 9.30am there are frequent visits from folk from all over the world – many
of whom have visited St. Michael’s for a look at the architecture and heritage
of the building and felt drawn to return to experience the church at prayer. At
11.15am we often find ourselves hosting those whose breakfast arrangements
have meant that this timing is better and at 6.00pm there is a fairly regular
trickle who greatly appreciate the fact that we maintain a regular sung
Evensong when this has been abandoned by so many parish churches.

Visitors frequently comment on the welcome they receive and the
friendliness of the congregation and this is something which we should most
certainly celebrate. As people ‘pass through’ Alnwick it is good to know that
one of their lasting memories may be the good experience they had when
visiting our church.

But we should not rest on our laurels! For visitors and, perhaps more
importantly, for those newly moved into the town who are looking to put
down roots in the church, we need to be especially vigilant.

Those of us who have made St. Michael’s our spiritual home and are a
real part of the fellowship there all need to remember that being a friendly
church involves more than being friendly with those we already know!

Occasionally you will see Gerard sitting in the congregation. This mirrors
what my Training Incumbent did with me many years ago. The idea is that,
as you worship, you might just ask yourself that, if you were present for the
first time, what it would be that urged you to return, what it would be that
might make you want to make this place your spiritual home.

As Lent begins we plan to look carefully at the whole concept of
welcome. We want to celebrate all we already do in this respect but, at the
same time, reflect carefully on where we might improve.

This is certainly a part of our ministry in which we can all be involved.
People happily share the Peace with those around them – but do we allow
that to be followed up with a friendly conversation at the end of the service?
If it is people you’ve not met before, do you extend an invitation to stay for
coffee afterwards?

Please commit these thoughts to your prayers and do what you can to
extend the hand of friendship. If all commit to this then we will be able to sing
with real integrity:

‘All are welcome, all are welcome, all are welcome in this place.’

With every blessing,

Paul.

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Faith: More Than a Hobby

St. Michael’s Vicarage
Alnwick

Dear People of Alnwick,

I never cease to be fascinated when, in conversation, people tell me about their hobbies. In fact, taking the dictionary definition of a hobby as “a favourite pursuit; a personal pastime that interests or amuses one…” I suppose you could say that one of my hobbies is hearing about other people’s hobbies.

Talking with people when visiting them in their homes, I have heard about many varying interests: travelling, photography, local history, music and building computers to name just a few.

Perhaps the reason why I am so interested in the hobbies of those with whom I come into contact is that it can give some indication of “what makes them tick”: what it is that contributes towards fulfilment in their lives; what it is that gives them a “buzz” and upon which they are prepared to spend countless hours of their time.

And sometimes it can be extremely surprising. What, for instance, motivated a friend of mine – a well-respected Parish Councillor and organised at his local church – to take up potholing at the age of 60? (Upon hearing the news, my own assessment was that, after years of working in the National Health Service, he had finally “lost the plot”!)

Of course, the spectrum of hobbies which exists amongst those of us who call ourselves Christians is just as wide ranging – if not more so – than any other group of diverse people. We are, after all, just as much in need of pleasure, enjoyment and being taken out of ourselves as anyone else.

We do, however, need to be extremely careful that we do not treat our faith as a hobby. Our belief in God and in the saving power of his Son, Jesus Christ, is not like a piece of embroidery or a book that we can pick up or lay down as the feeling takes us. Nor can we treat our faith like football supporters who only attend a game when they feel like it. Our faith involves determination and commitment to a cause. It demands a constant programme of prayer, reflection and worship; a constant striving to get the better of our weaknesses and blot out our shortcomings; a hunger to give ourselves more and more in the service of Christ and to show his love in a world that often appears to have lost its loveliness.

Our faith can and should be so much more than the dictionary definition I quoted at the beginning of this letter. Particularly, it needs to be much more than a “pastime that amuses…”

This year, we have the whole of February before Ash Wednesday and Lent is upon us. What a luxury! Yes, it’s a short month, but I urge you to begin to prepare for how you may use Lent to make a real commitment to seek out a spiritually fulfilling six weeks.

Lent does not need to be miserable! It is possible (and definitely preferable) to have positive experiences whilst still growing and deepening in faith. Not everyone feels motivated to get up really early for a quiet service of Holy Communion – but some do. Not everyone finds discussion groups their ‘thing’ – but some do. Look out for what is on offer and resolve to commit wholeheartedly to making progress. You might find it even more rewarding than a game of golf or a trip to the cinema.

With every blessing,

Paul.

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Refurbishing Halls – and Souls

St. Michael’s Vicarage
Alnwick

Dear People of Alnwick,

I am writing this letter the day after our very successful Winter Market which was, once again, held in our own Parish Hall. And what a splendid occasion it was!

So many people worked happily and willingly together; not only on the day itself but for weeks and months beforehand producing crafts and jams, wrapping up ‘mystery parcels’ and sorting through books and jigsaws as well as persuading family and friends to buy raffle tickets as we prepared for the ‘Great Day’. Lots of people came to hear the children from our own Church School open the occasion with their lovely singing as well as snapping up some bargains for Christmas and enjoying each other’s company.

A photograph of curtains and purple chairs in St Michael's Parish Hall

New curtains in the Parish Hall

Many folk commented on how lovely our Parish Hall is now looking following a protracted period of improvements which have just culminated in beautiful new curtains in the main hall. Together with all the work recently finished in the kitchen, the entrance hall and the ladies’ toilets, we only have to attend to the small hall and all will be finished. Then we can say, after much planning and hard work: “Come, for all is ready!”

As we enter December and all the busy-ness leading up to Christmas, we really do need to have the same approach to our hearts and minds. Advent is the perfect time to ‘refurbish’ – just like we’ve done in the Parish Hall. A time to get in to the dusty corners of our souls, to, metaphorically, apply a coat of new paint and do everything else necessary – from a spiritual point of view – to be able to say, when Christmas arrives: “Come, for all is ready!”

On Tuesday afternoons and Thursday evenings in Advent Gerard will be leading four sessions in church entitled: “Prophets and Prayer”. You might like to consider coming along. Treat it as your own personal ‘refurbishing’. Take time, once a week, to spend some quality time with God as your main focus. Imagine your own soul newly prepared for the coming of the Christ-child at Christmas. Even imagine people commenting on how you have been transformed – for they will be able to tell by your actions, your demeanour, your outlook on life – once the cobwebs have been cleared away.

In a hymn, rarely sung these days, can be found these words:

Happy all who hear the message of Christ’s coming from above;
happier still who hail his coming and with praises greet his love.
Blessed Saviour, Christ most holy, in a manger thou didst rest;
canst thou stoop again, yet lower, and abide within my breast?

Evil things there are before thee; in the heart where they have fed,
wilt thou pitifully enter, Son of Man, and lay thy head?
Enter, then, O Christ most holy; make a Christmas in my heart;
make a heaven of my manger: it is heaven where thou art.

And to those who never listened to the message of thy birth,
who have winter, but no Christmas bringing them thy peace on earth.
Send to these the joyful tidings; by all people in each home,
be there heard the Christmas anthem: ‘Praise to God, the Christ hath come!’

With every blessing, as you ‘refurbish’ this Advent,

Paul.

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Remembrance

St. Michael’s Vicarage
Alnwick

Dear People of Alnwick,

My father was born in the last week of the First World War – meaning that 4th November would have been his 100th birthday.

Of course very few of us need specific dates to remember loved ones who have gone before us (we do that almost every day) but birthdays, anniversaries and dates of death do make those days particularly poignant.

This year, on 11th November, we will remember with immeasurable gratitude the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Armistice at the 11th hour on the 11th day of the 11th month 1918.

So many lives were lost in those four years of carnage that, for many, it is difficult to know what stance to take.

As a schoolboy at King Edward VI Grammar School in Morpeth, I recall the seemingly endless list of names of former pupils who had paid the ‘supreme sacrifice’ being read out in assembly by the headmaster and singing the hymn ‘O valiant hearts’ (now considered very politically incorrect) which included these words:

Proudly you gathered, rank on rank, to war
as who had heard God’s message from afar;
all you had hoped for, all you had, you gave,
to save mankind – yourselves you scorned to save.

Whether or not one should show any pride (rather than remorse) in the light of conflicts where opposite sides take up arms against one another could be the subject of a very lengthy debate: but one thing is sure – the sacrifice made by millions of bright, energetic young men who had their whole lives before them is worthy of remembrance year after year.

In St. Michael’s we are about to unveil a display of handmade poppies – each one representing a life lost in Alnwick or Denwick. It will serve, we hope, not only as a memorial to the fallen but also to press home the degree of loss which our community experienced.

Nothing can be more moving than seeing the long list of names (even in the smallest of villages) and recalling the effect these sacrifices had on families and communities – often with several brothers from the same household giving up their lives in the cause of freedom.

And yet, wars have continued long beyond the ‘war that would end all wars’. One hundred years later, arms are still being taken up against countries and parties where there is disagreement.

So, as once again we prepare, rightly, to remember all those who lost their lives in the cause of peace and freedom perhaps our most ardent prayer should be about peace and for peace; about a time when God’s kingdom might be established on earth as it is in heaven and for a greater recognition that a lasting peace would enhance the lives of us all.

Let us all, then, take the opportunity this 100th anniversary gives not only to remember lives lost and give thanks for all that has been, but also to pray regularly and meaningfully for the peace which God longs for his people everywhere.

With every blessing,

Paul.

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Increasing faith (and murder mysteries!)

St. Michael’s Vicarage
Alnwick

 Dear People of Alnwick,

As many of you will know, I usually have a murder-mystery book on the go. Recently, I’ve been enthralled by the writings of L J Ross whose novels are all based in Northumberland and Tyneside. I and many others are patiently waiting for 20th October when her latest offer will be published – based in and around Warkworth.

But (surprisingly, some of you may find) I also like to have something a little more serious to accompany my escapism. Recently I was recommended a book by Adam Nicholson entitled “When God Spoke English”which gives a fascinating account of the history and writing of the King James translation of the Bible often known as the Authorised Version.

One of the central figures in this fascinating account is Lancelot Andrewes (1555 – 1626) at various times Dean of Westminster and Bishop successively of Chichester, Ely and Winchester.

As I read more and more of the account and of the part Andrewes played in it I was reminded that somewhere on my bookshelves I had a copy of his much-loved publication “The Private Prayers of Lancelot Andrewes.” This thin little volume has enhanced the prayer life of generations of Christians and I now find myself using it again on a regular basis.

One of Bishop Andrewes’ prayers (perhaps the best-known) includes these words:

O Lord God, perfect in us that which is lacking of your gifts:
of faith to increase it;
of hope to establish it;
of love to kindle it ….

What a splendid list of requests! And what a different world we might live in if such gifts were seriously and regularly prayed for by all who call themselves Christian.

But, if such a vision seems too ambitious, imagine the transformation that could take place here in Alnwick if all of us who swear allegiance to Christ were to make these words our own.

How our praises would echo in our worship! How our thirst to understand more clearly the essentials of our belief might be satisfied! How our outlook on life and our treatment of each other, and all with whom we come into contact, would improve! How our ability to see, act and think positively would grow!

Coincidentally, I am writing this letter on 25th September – the day on which the Church remembers Lancelot Andrewes! We have indeed much to thank him for: not least his own life of prayer, of which we catch a tiny glimpse in the words above.

Increase faith, establish hope, kindle love. We could ask for no better way forward as we journey through life. Let’s take every opportunity to do all three. It can be done – and there can still be time to indulge in the odd murder-mystery, sci-fi or whatever else you enjoy!

With every blessing,

Paul.

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Being Fed

St. Michael’s Vicarage
Alnwick

Dear People of Alnwick,

As I sat down, early on a Monday morning, to write this letter and then get on with a long list of other desk-bound tasks, I found that I was unable to type a single word on my computer!

Not being the most technically-minded person in Alnwick, I very quickly began to feel the frustration rising within me. So much to do, so much planned – and I couldn’t get on with any of it.

Then I noticed a tiny light flashing and slowly (very slowly) it dawned on me that the batteries which power the keyboard to the computer had worn out. A quick walk to ‘Wilko’ and I was back in business!

As I walked back from buying the life-giving batteries two thoughts came to mind from the readings we had heard in church the previous day: in the morning Jesus teaching his disciples about the importance of spiritual food and, in the evening, the writer of the letter to the Hebrews reminding them of God’s promise that he would never leave us or forsake us.

Without being ‘fed’ from the batteries my computer could do nothing. It was, in effect, useless. Perhaps we can use this experience of mine to consider if we are being adequately fed in our spiritual lives in order to function as best we can.

On reflection, I can now see that, for a few weeks, my computer had not been quite as efficient as it usually was. Obviously the batteries were running down – and yet I didn’t recognise the warnings until there was a complete breakdown.

Our regular, ongoing relationship with God is how we are fed spiritually – how we grow and how we can be of greatest use to him. Our prayer life, our regular attendance at worship, our reception of Holy Communion all ‘fuel’ us in the same way as the batteries allow my computer to function. If you’re ‘hungry’ do make sure your spiritual batteries are topped up!

Secondly, in my frustration over all my plans going awry, it was good for me to remember I’d been advising others in my sermon the previous evening always to remember God’s promise that he would never leave us or forsake us.

Of course I was thinking of much greater instances in life than a malfunctioning computer – but how often do we allow the little irritations of day-to-day living to irk us and get out of proportion? How often do we feel that God has let us down because things simply aren’t going out way when, more often than not, the solution is in our own hands?

The two situations are closely linked. Being nourished spiritually also helps us keep the issues of daily life in proportion. The more we are fed, the more we will know that God, in his great love, will always be with us!

These words from the Iona community seem fitting:

The peace of God comes close to those caught in the storm,
forgoing lives of ease to ease the lives forlorn:
the peace of God is here to stay,
embracing those who walk his way.

The joy of God comes close where faith encounters fears,
where heights and depths of life are found through smiles and tears:
the joy of God is here to stay,
embracing those who walk his way.

The grace of God comes close to those whose grace is spent,
when hearts are tired or sore and hope is bruised or bent:
the grace of God is here to stay,
embracing those who walk his way.

With every blessing,

Paul.

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Journeying with God & Friends

St. Michael’s Vicarage
Alnwick

Dear People of Alnwick,

After the success of last year’s Sponsored Walk we have decided to repeat the event and so, on Saturday 18th August, another intrepid band of walkers will be striding out for approximately six miles – hopefully with full sponsor forms and raising some much-needed funds for St. Michael’s!

In addition to fundraising however, journeying alongside others is a rewarding and positive thing to do in many different contexts.

For those of us who will walk together on the 18th there will be opportunities to get into discussions – in twos or threes – about all sorts of things, to find out more about each other and to simply enjoy each other’s company.

Perhaps, like me, you journeyed together with one or two in your earliest years at school who have remained lifelong friends. Perhaps you have stayed in touch with a colleague from your first job or with a fellow-parent you came to know at the school gates as you dropped off or collected your own children day by day.

Whatever the context, growing in friendship and trust is central to an improved quality of life. We do not need to be constantly in each other’s company – but a regular acknowledgement and exchange of news and views is important.

Our recent ‘Strawberry Tea’ was a splendid example of lots of people just enjoying being together: journeying along life’s way and, in the simplest but most fulfilling of ways, enriching each other’s lives. After-service fellowship over a cup of coffee and showing interest in what others are doing adds an extra facet to who we are.

Of course in current times letter-writing has largely been replaced by e-mails, texts and ‘skyping’ but that need for ongoing contact is what builds up firm foundations.

A once-a-year note which says ‘we must catch up sometime soon’ on a Christmas card is not sufficient to maintain a true and deepening friendship – and, of course, the same is true of our relationship with God: the more we are in touch, the deeper the relationship will become.

All of us are ‘busy’ people but we can all make time for our friends if we really want to.

God never tires of our being in touch with him. Consider the time it takes to write a letter. Perhaps you can devote that amount of time consciously placing yourself in His presence. If that is too great an ‘ask’ then think about the length of a ‘phone call with someone who is important to you. Even the few moments it takes to send off an e-mail or a text, if spent ‘in touch’ with God will enhance our awareness of how much he has done for us and for the whole of humanity.

So, if the prospect of journeying alongside our sponsored walkers seems a little daunting – or is simply physically impossible for you to contemplate – do remember that journeying alongside God can be done anywhere, at any time, even from the comfort of your favourite armchair!

With every blessing,

Paul.

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Working Together for the Kingdom

St Michael’s Vicarage
Alnwick

Dear People of Alnwick,

By the time you read this blog, Gerard Rundell will have been ordained Deacon in our Cathedral Church and he, Karen and their children Theo and Phoebe will be beginning to ‘find their feet’ here in Alnwick.

When Bishop Martin invited me to consider becoming Vicar of Alnwick, some six and a half years ago, he said that he considered Alnwick to be a splendid context in which to serve a curacy and expected that candidates would continue to be offered that opportunity. It is good to know that Bishop Christine shares that view and I consider it a privilege to be given, once again, some share in the formation of another newly-ordained Deacon.

Such a “vote of confidence” is a recognition that this parish is already home to a viable and vibrant Christian community: a community which has firm foundations and which can be the basis for further growth and development.

And all of us are called – individually by God – to play our part in doing what we can to build on the foundation which already exists. Each one of us, from the tiniest of babies to the oldest of our number – including those who are now no longer able to make it to church, add something special and unique to the family of St. Michael’s.

Indeed, each of us is called to ministry. Never forget that wonderful analogy of the body with its many limbs and organs which St. Paul expounds to the church in Corinth. To be really effective we must work together for the extension of the Kingdom in this place – and each of us has been given a contribution to make towards that goal.

The way in which many folk at St. Michael’s already take seriously the challenge to make Christ known is a great witness that their faith is alive and healthy. Just think of the many jobs and responsibilities which go towards the smooth-running of the church in this place: from Choir and Servers, via those who help with the Mini Michaels and Messy Church to collecting for Christian Aid. The list is a long and varied one – and all of it undergirded by the prayer “Thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.”

As Gerard takes his place amongst us, and adds his own particular contribution to the life of the Christian community in this place, please pray for him and his family that God’s work will go from strength to strength and that we all will be richly blessed.

Almighty and everlasting God, by whose Spirit the whole body of the Church is governed and sanctified: hear our prayer which we offer for all your faithful people, that in their vocation and ministry they may serve you in holiness and truth to the glory of your name; through our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

With every blessing,

Paul.

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Weddings, Worship & Walking with God

St. Michael’s Vicarage
Alnwick

Dear People of Alnwick,

I’m sure that, like Jane and myself, many of you were fully occupied watching the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle (now the Duke & Duchess of Sussex) on 19th May.

I’m sure, too, that as I write these words, many parish magazine letters will be being penned by Incumbents the length and breadth of the country and, no doubt, a great number of them will be commenting on the address by Bishop Michael Curry.

For my own part ‘the jury is still out’ on his particular and very individual style of delivery – but of one thing I’m certain: it was far too long!!

The words of the Marriage Service in the Church of England are superb: they speak for themselves. The order of the service at St. George’s Chapel last Saturday was exactly what you would hear if you were to attend a wedding at St. Michael’s in Alnwick – or indeed in any English parish church if the Incumbent is doing his or her job properly!

Frankly, very little else needs to be said. Of course, each couple are involved in choosing the readings that are used at their own wedding and it is a great privilege for whoever is officiating at a wedding to take the readings and weave them into a short reflection which is as individual to the couple as possible. Far more important, however, is the opportunity to let the words of the service itself be said with meaning, feeling and sincerity.

Over the past two years the number of weddings at St. Michael’s has increased quite markedly – and for this we give thanks to God. It is a great privilege to work with couples as they approach their ‘big day’ and to spend time reflecting on the depth and symbolism of the words (and actions) so that their significance for bride and groom are fully appreciated.

And what is true of weddings is true also of other acts of worship in church. The Church of England holds word and sacrament in balance. It places equal importance on what is ‘done’ as much as what is said.

This is particularly true as we meet, Sunday by Sunday to do what Jesus commanded us to do. And so, as, once again, we enter ‘Ordinary Time’ my plea to you is to look afresh at the words which the Church has given to us and the actions which accompany them. Consider the true beauty and the depth of meaning (and the vast significance for our lives and our eternal salvation) each time we say or sing ‘Glory to God in the highest’, ‘Peace be with you’ or ‘Lamb of God, you take away the sings of the world’.

Within the words of our worship lie the path to an ever-deepening relationship with God – and with one another. Just as marriages grow, strengthen and mature with the passing of the years as both parties attend to the wellbeing of the other, so too, our walk with God can blossom and flourish if we devote our worship and our praise to him who, at all times, is the giver of all good things.

With every blessing,

Paul.

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Polishing Floors (and People)

St Michael’s Vicarage
Alnwick

Dear People of Alnwick,

Many of you will be aware that our Parish Hall has been undergoing a fair amount of upgrading and refurbishing in recent months. You will find out in the current edition of “Gateway” just how impressed one Easter visitor was by the improvements which have been made – and, by the time you read this, we hope the long-awaited dishwasher may have been installed in the kitchen!

In all that has been done, one of the most fascinating processes has been the refurbishing of the lovely parquet floors. There’s no getting away from the fact that, with so much activity taking place in the hall, the floors do get a “hammering”.

This is a good and healthy sign: it shows that the place is alive and well-used and it also shows that we are happy for it to be so. There is nothing more discouraging or depressing than buildings (especially church halls) which are treated like mausoleums and where signs appear on every wall or surface with commands which begin “Don’t touch this…” “Never do that…” and so on. God can be glorified in the messy, the noisy and the spontaneous – even if it does involve a little bit of clearing away afterwards!

But back to the floors: innumerable layers of polish which had built up over the years were stripped down and the sanding process then brought out the beauty of the natural wood which had probably not been seen for a very long time.

And then there was the change in the surface texture as the different grades of sanding took place: coarse, medium and smooth. Finally, several coats of seal were applied: each one in turn enhancing the beauty and colour of the wood.

“So what?” you may say. Well, it made me reflect on how things are in life generally. If we wrap ourselves up in cotton wool, as it were; if we refuse to engage in the realities of life – which often are messy, noisy or generally unpleasant, then we’re unlikely to grow in stature, experience or understanding. It is the “daily round, the common” task which moulds us into the people we are – and this includes all the mess, the sadness and the disappointment which life, in all its fullness, often brings.

When I was first ordained there were still a significant number of folk around who had lived through and could remember two World Wars. Now I don’t want to suggest for a moment that war is a good thing, but the hardships, the deprivations and the disasters which these sad times brought undoubtedly led to the tenacity and strength of character which so many of these people possessed. They had, in a sense, been “hammered” a bit like our Parish Hall floor – but they had survived and often had become stronger, more responsible and wiser people as a result.

In the eyes of those who knew them and, surely, in the eyes of God, they had become beautiful people, with a shine and a lustre born of trial and not a little worry.

I am reminded of the words of the 17th century hymn writer, Richard Baxter:

“Christ leads me through no darker rooms
than he went through before;
he that into God’s kingdom comes
must enter by this door.”

As the Church prepares to celebrate the Ascension of Christ and then the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, we would do well to remember Christ’s words:

“In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33)

Whatever life throws at us, we deal with it in the light of Christ’s victory – and his abiding presence. Through God’s good grace we will become stronger in faith (smoothed and more polished by experience) and equal to our task as Christians in his world.

With every blessing,

            Paul.

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