Strong Women

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A friend and I were discussing the two half-sisters in The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins. Marian Halcombe is gracious, smart, strong, and capable, but ugly. Laura Fairlie is pretty and sweet, but somewhat weak and fragile. You can guess which one gets the guy.

That discussion led to thinking about other women in literature. Dora, the first love of David Copperfield, was pretty, sweet, and charming, but childish and totally inept as a household manager. She even told him to think of her as a “child wife.” After failed attempts to strengthen Dora, David had to just accept and love her as she was. But Agnes, his friend whom he later came to love after Dora’s death, was steady, capable, strong, and mature, and they could support and help each other. Lucie Manette from A Tale of Two Cities came up in the aforementioned discussion as a Victorian ideal of the weak damsel in distress, but I disagreed. I think she had to be very strong to take in a father who was mentally disabled after so many years locked up unjustly in the Bastille and and nurse him back to health. Then she traveled to France at the height of the French Revolution to find out what had happened to her husband when she feared he was in danger. Elinor Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility is another strong literary woman. She was steady, had to manage the household frugally even when the rest of the family complained, had to reign in her emotions to do the honorable thing, as opposed to her sister, Marianne, who gave free reign to her emotions and whims. Ma Ingalls is another: I honestly don’t know how she dealt with the sheer hard work of her life as well as the loneliness of being away from other people so much.

I am not a feminist by any means, but I do like to see a female protagonist who does have some umph to her, who adds more to the story than a pretty face.

Besides literary examples, we have a plethora of strong women in the Bible. How could Mary, the mother of Jesus, endure all she did without His strength? Other strong biblical woman are Jochebed, Moses’ mother, who defied Pharaoh to protect her son; Rahab, who took a great risk to hide the Hebrew spies because of her faith in their God; Deborah, a judge who went to battle; Hannah, in grief over her barrenness, yet knowing to whom to turn; Esther, who risked her life to intercede for her people before the king; Priscilla, who helped her husband in business and in discipling; Mary and Martha, strong in different ways; Joanna and the other women who ministered to Jesus’s needs, and so many more.

Being strong is not an unfeminine trait. In fact, Proverbs 31 says of the virtuous woman, “She girdeth her loins with strength, and strengtheneth her arms,” and “Strength and honour are her clothing.”

She is strong in character: excellent, or virtuous in some versions (verse 10), trustworthy (verse 11), does her husband good (verse 12), kind and compassionate (verses 20, 26), characterized by honor (or dignity in some versions) (verse 25), praiseworthy (28-31).

She is strong in industriousness and initiative: She “works with willing hands” (verse 13), she gets up early to start work and serve others (verse 15) – she’s not still in bed late in the morning waiting on someone to serve her (except maybe on special occasions), she weaves and knows her products are good (verse 18-19), she works into the evening (verse 18), she makes nice clothing (verse 21-22, 24), she makes products to sell (verse 24), she looks well to the ways of her household and is not idle (verse 27).

She is strong physically (verses 17, 25): she plants (verse 16),

She is strong mentally and intellectually: she seeks good products and prices (verses 13, 14, 16), she plans ahead for bad weather (verse 21), she is wise (verse 26).

She is strong spiritually: she fears the Lord (verse 30).

We can sometimes get discouraged just thinking about this epitome of womanhood, but as I like to say, she didn’t do all of that in a single day. And I don’t think we have to take up weaving, plant a vineyard, or have a home business to become virtuous women. But taken as a whole, the tenor of her life is that of strength, industry, and honor. She is definitely not a “damsel in distress,” but she doesn’t need to assert her strength by challenging her husband or stepping into his role.

Admittedly we all experience times of weakness, tiredness, and weariness, and there are times we do need rescue. I’ve so appreciated the times my husband has come to my aid when I’ve gotten stuck or over my head in a project, behind in getting ready for company, overwhelmed with a ministry activity, etc. As a family we all pitch in and help wherever needed rather than standing back and saying, “That’s your responsibility, not mine.” There is nothing wrong with a husband helping and serving his wife: if he loves as Christ loves the church, Christ helps and serves us. But I did struggle in early marriage with wanting my husband to help me in every little thing and having to remember that I am supposed to be a help meet for him. We don’t depend on our husbands instead of the Lord, but we do depend on their God-given assets and strengths. Our husbands also need to depend on us to be able to stand strong in the Lord’s strength. And God enables us to minister to others and give of ourselves even when we feel depleted.

We don’t usually step up to the brink of adulthood or marriage strong in all the ways we need to be. Strength of character has to be developed just as physical strength does. When you first start exercising physically, the first thing you notice is how weak and out of shape you really are, but starting to exercise even in weakness is the first step to developing strength. Often God develops strength in us by putting us in situations where we are totally weak. I could not have endured my husband’s many travels without learning to lean on the Lord for strength, but I was pretty much a basket case at first. I can remember the dismay of realizing as a young mother that I couldn’t just take to my bed when I was sick when I had little ones to take care of. I was probably overly dependent on my husband at first, but had to learn how to make decisions and take care of things while he was at work and out of reach.

Jonathan and Rosalind Goforth were missionaries to China from1888-1936. She had written his biography, and then by request wrote Climbing, one of my all-time favorite books, about missionary life and furlough from her perspective. She writes not as a “super-Christian,” but rather as a woman “of like passions” as we are. She writes in one place:

It was while I had a large family of little children about me and mission work was pressing heavily upon me, while feeling burdened and that strength was insufficient, I sought to find in God’s Word whether there were any conditions to be fulfilled for the receiving of divine strength. The result of this study was a surprise and joy to me, and later a blessing and help to many to whom I passed it on, for every condition the weakest could fulfill!

Conditions of receiving strength

1. Weaknesses. II Cor. 12:9-10
2. No might. Isa. 40:29
3. Sitting still. Isa. 30:7
4. Waiting on God. Isa. 40:31
5. Quietness. Isa. 30:15
6. Confidence. Isa. 30:15
7. Joy in the Lord. Neh. 8:10
8. Poor. Isa. 25:4
9. Needy. Isa. 25:4
10 Dependence on Christ. Phil. 4:13

The key is in Hebrew 11:32-34: “And what shall I more say? for the time would fail me to tell of Gedeon, and of Barak, and of Samson, and of Jephthae; of David also, and Samuel, and of the prophets: Who through faith subdued kingdoms, wrought righteousness, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, Quenched the violence of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, out of weakness were made strong, waxed valiant in fight, turned to flight the armies of the aliens.”

Jesus said, “My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness” (II Cor. 12:9-10).

The song “I Could Not Do Without Thee” by Francis Ridley Havergal says it well:

I could not do without Thee,
I cannot stand alone,
I have no strength or goodness,
No wisdom of my own;
But Thou, beloved Savior,
Art all in all to me,
And weakness will be power
If leaning hard on Thee.

May you “be strong in the Lord, and in the power of his might” (Ephesians 6:10) today.

(Revised from the archives)

Update: I discovered this afternoon that Dr. Michelle Bengtson’s post, 10 Scriptures for When You Need Strength, shared even more from God’s Word to strengthen us.

(Sharing with Inspire Me Monday, Literary Musing Monday, Tell His Story, Let’s Have Coffee, Porch Stories, Share a Link Wednesdays)

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Giving out of our poverty

We’ve probably all experienced this: someone needs time, attention, affection, ministry, or something else from us right when we feel we have nothing left, yet we don’t feel we can refuse.

I’m not talking about a people-pleaser who is drowning in obligations because she doesn’t want to disappoint anyone. We can’t say yes to everything. We all have legitimate limitations, some more than others due to physical conditions or other obligations.

But sometimes you’re a mom with three sick children, and you can’t stop giving them what they need. Or you’re looking for a few minutes of quiet respite after a busy day, when your poor husband, who is supposed to come first and has been sadly lacking in the attention department, needs you. Or you’ve been pouring into a work or ministry project, and the other person on the project falls ill or forgets or just doesn’t do their part. Or you’ve prayed about something someone requested of you, and you have every reason to say no, but you just can’t shake the feeling you’re supposed to say yes.

Recently when I was in one of these situations, God did give me grace to say yes and blessed my efforts. And as I thought over the whole situation, the Macedonians came to mind. What Macedonians? The ones in 2 Corinthians 8. Paul had been raising money to help the believers in Jerusalem. The Macedonians, though in “extreme poverty . . . overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part” (verse 2). They gave not only “according to their means,” but “beyond their means.” They didn’t have to be coerced; in fact, they were “begging us earnestly for the favor of taking part in the relief of the saints” (verse 4). They gave with abundant joy (verse 2). And, perhaps the secret to it all, they “gave themselves first to the Lord and then by the will of God to us” (verse 5).

Paul comes back to the Macedonians in 2 Corinthians 9, pointing out that Christians are to give, “not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver” (verse 7). He reminds that “whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows bountifully will also reap bountifully” (verse 6). He shares that “the ministry of this service is not only supplying the needs of the saints but is also overflowing in many thanksgivings to God.” Their service not only helps meet others’ needs, but it brings glory and thanksgiving to God as they recognize that He’s the one who supplied through His saints. And Paul encourages that:

God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times, you may abound in every good work. As it is written, “He has distributed freely, he has given to the poor; his righteousness endures forever.” He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness. You will be enriched in every way to be generous in every way, which through us will produce thanksgiving to God (verses 8-11).

Though Paul is talking about financial giving, I have found the principles to apply in other types of giving as well. I think of the poor widow of Zarephath who was about to make the last meal for herself and her son and then prepare to die. Just at that point, the prophet asked her for food. She could have said, “Are you crazy?” But she did as the prophet asked, and “The jar of flour was not spent, neither did the jug of oil become empty, according to the word of the Lord that he spoke by Elijah” (1 Kings 17: 16). I remember a preacher sharing an experience when he got into a taxi after an exhausting stretch of traveling and preaching. He just wanted to enjoy the quiet and rest. But the driver wanted to chat, and the preacher was able to listen and then share truth from God’s Word. I think of the apostle Paul, who said at one point, “We were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death.” But, he said, “that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead. He delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us. On him we have set our hope that he will deliver us again” (2 Corinthians 1:8-10).

There are times God wants us to say “No.” There are times when we need to step back, perhaps to let another lead the way, perhaps to rest and recuperate. But when God calls us to do something, even when we feel depleted, we can lean on Him for grace and provision to give to others.

(Sharing with Inspire Me Monday, Literary Musing Monday, Tell His Story, Let’s Have Coffee, Wise Woman Titus 2 Link-up, Woman to Woman Word-filled Wednesday, Faith on Fire, Grace and Truth)

The Forgotten Element in Bible Reading

It’s funny how you can read certain Bible passages for years, and suddenly something new jumps out at you. This happened one morning last week as I read in 2 Timothy. Chapter 2 verse 7 says:

Think over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in everything.

Many verses speak of God giving us understanding as we read His Word. I often pray for Him to do so just before I start reading the Bible. And I knew the Bible instructed us not only to read, but to study and meditate on it. But this is the first time I noticed both God’s part and ours so clearly and closely working together.

The ESV Study Bible notes comment on this verse:

Paul exhorts Timothy to make the effort to think and meditate on what Paul has written; as he does so, God will give him understanding in everything about which Paul has instructed him. The believer’s efforts and God’s empowering work together.

The definition of the Greek word for “think over” is noeo and means “to perceive with the mind, to understand, to think upon, heed, ponder, consider.” The KJV says “consider,” the NIV uses “reflect on.”

By contrast, just one chapter over, in 2 Timothy 3:8, Paul speaks of men who are “corrupted in mind.” The ESV notes say: “False teaching is cast in terms of deficient thinking . . . this is why divine aid is necessary for coming to the “knowledge of the truth” (2:7, 25-26)” (emphasis mine).

Jen Wilkin said, in “Studying the Bible Is Not Supposed to Be Easy“:

Bible study is . . . absolutely a skill. And so we need to go into it expecting, not that it will be easy – that the Holy Spirit is just going to dump truth on us just because we were faithful to sit down and flip open the covers – but rather, that if we obey just some simple reading tools that we would use with any book, that the Bible will begin to yield up treasure to us. 

I started to do a study on meditation, think, consider, ponder, etc., in the Bible, and then realized the topic was too big to complete in time for this blog post. But just looking up forms of the words “mediate” and “ponder,” I came up with the following:

When people speak of meditation, what usually comes to mind is emptying the mind or concentrating on one’s breathing. But what is Biblical meditation? It’s cogitating, reflecting, thinking about something, turning it over in your mind.

What does the Bible tell us to meditate on or think about?

  • God’s Word in some form: mentioned 10 times
  • God’s work, deeds: 9 times
  • God Himself: once
  • Our way (in relation to God’s): 4 times

Some of the words often associated with meditating on and pondering God’s Word:

  • Joy, delight
  • Counsel
  • Wisdom
  • Comfort
  • Love

The result of meditation on God’s Word is often faith, hope, and praise.

There are times for overview reading of larger parts of God’s Word, and times for camping out on a smaller section. Either way, we need to remember the object isn’t just to get through a certain amount of material or to check off our duty for the day. We need leave space to turn God’s truth over in our minds. Perhaps we need to allow for thinking time while reading and studying. Perhaps we need to turn off the constant noise while we go about our day’s duties to have time to think.

Of course, we have to be careful that our thoughts involve the text and what it says and how it applies. Some peoples thoughts stray far from Scriptural truth, yet they claim to be teaching Scripture. We don’t need to insert our thoughts into the Bible: we need to insert the Bible into our thoughts.

In the way of your testimonies I delight as much as in all riches. I will meditate on your precepts and fix my eyes on your ways. I will delight in your statutes; I will not forget your word (Psalm 119: 14-16, ESV).

Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night (Psalm 1:1-2, ESV).

(Sharing with Inspire Me Monday, Literary Musing Monday, Tell His Story, Let’s Have Coffee, Wise Woman, Woman to Woman Word-filled Wednesday, Faith on Fire, Grace and Truth)

The humility of wisdom

When’s the last time you heard anyone say they needed wisdom? About the only time I hear anyone mention wisdom is in regard to a particular situation. “I need wisdom about this job decision.” I’m praying for wisdom for dealing with Johnny’s continued disobedience.”

But when is the last time we thought about our need for wisdom just to live our everyday lives for God’s honor and glory? We often pray that He will guide us, provide for us, forgive us. But do we pray for wisdom? Do we value wisdom as the Bible does?

Or do we plunge ahead with our day and our plans, thinking we know everything we need to and can make our own choices?

Our church has been reading through Proverbs together the last few weeks. If you’re familiar at all with Proverbs, you know it is all about wisdom. I don’t think there is a chapter that doesn’t mention it. And since we’ve been camped out there, the need for and value of wisdom have been emphasized repeatedly and in varying ways.

A full-scale study of wisdom would take more space than a blog post allows. But what struck me most during this reading is the humility of wisdom.

It takes humility to understand that we need wisdom, that to go our own way often leads us astray.

Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths. Proverbs 3:5-6

There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death.
 Proverbs 14:12

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight. Proverbs 9:10

It takes humility to search for wisdom, to acknowledged that I don’t have it, and no matter how much I have, I need more.

My son, if you receive my words and treasure up my commandments with you, making your ear attentive to wisdom and inclining your heart to understanding;  yes, if you call out for insight and raise your voice for understanding, if you seek it like silver and search for it as for hidden treasures, then you will understand the fear of the Lord and find the knowledge of God. Proverbs 2:1-5

It takes humility to receive and instruction, and even more to receive rebuke. I was familiar with one or two verses about it being wise to receive reproof,  but I’ve noted 19 so far! Here are a few:

Like a gold ring or an ornament of gold is a wise reprover to a listening ear. Proverbs 25:12

The ear that listens to life-giving reproof will dwell among the wise.
Whoever ignores instruction despises himself, but he who listens to reproof gains intelligence.
The fear of the Lord is instruction in wisdom, and humility comes before honor. Proverbs 15:31-33

By insolence comes nothing but strife, but with those who take advice is wisdom.
 Proverbs 13:10

If someone tries to correct us, is our first response, “I better take heed: I might gain some wisdom from this?” No, our first response is anger with thoughts of “Who do you think you are?” and “Don’t judge me!” But the Bible says the wise person listens and learns. By contrast, “A scoffer does not listen to rebuke” (Proverbs 13:1) and “He who hates reproof is stupid” (Proverbs 12:1).

It’s scary to think of the personal consequences of rejecting reproof: it’s even more scary to realize that my lack of listening to instruction can negatively affect others. “Whoever heeds instruction is on the path to life, but he who rejects reproof leads others astray” (Proverbs 10:17).

I wonder if this lack of realization of our need for wisdom is behind our subtle ageism, even in the church. Once when visiting a new church, someone was showing us where the various classes were, and as we passed one door, our guide said, “Oh, you don’t want that one. That’s where the older folks are.” One younger lady told me she didn’t come to our ladies’ meetings because she thought only older ladies attended – even though at that time most of the attendees were just in their forties. Instead of deeming older people as worthy of our time and drawing on their wisdom, we label them out of touch, too slow, not “with it.” Proverbs honors older saints and the value of listening to authorities.

Of course, the need for wisdom runs throughout the Bible, not just Proverbs. One notable passage says:

For I want you to know how great a struggle I have for you and for those at Laodicea and for all who have not seen me face to face, that their hearts may be encouraged, being knit together in love, to reach all the riches of full assurance of understanding and the knowledge of God’s mystery, which is Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. I say this in order that no one may delude you with plausible arguments. Colossians 2:1-4.

May we continually seek Him and His wisdom through His Word.

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(Sharing with Inspire Me Monday, Literary Musing Monday, Tell His Story, Let’s Have Coffee, Porch Stories, Wise Woman, Faith on Fire, Grace and Truth. Links do not imply complete endorsement)

Press on toward the goal

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There is a tension in life between satisfaction with where we are and the need to grow in various areas. Coaches encourage and applaud athletes’ efforts and milestones while still pressing them to do more and do better. Parents celebrate and reward good grades and bolster their students for the next test or project. Performance reviews acknowledge an employee’s strengths and successes, but they also note areas where the employee needs to grow and improve. A wise coach, parent, teacher, supervisor, or mentor has to constantly seek balance, avoiding the stance of a slave-driving task-master who is never satisfied with anything less than perfection on one hand and that of the indulgent grandmother who never sees a fault on the other hand. And we need to seek that same balance with ourselves.

I see some of this same tension in the Bible, particularly Paul’s epistles.

In 1 Thessalonians 4:9-10, Paul writes, “Now concerning brotherly love you have no need for anyone to write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love one another, for that indeed is what you are doing to all the brothers throughout Macedonia. But we urge you, brothers, to do this more and more.”

Paul prays that the Philippians’ “love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment” (Philippians 1:9).

In Colossians, Paul proclaims: “To them God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ. For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me” (1:27-29). Christ is in those of us who believe in Him, yet there is a sense in which we grow in maturity in Him.

In Philippians 3, Paul acknowledges that he’s still in a state of growth and hasn’t reached perfection yet. We often use his statement in verse 13, “But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead,” as an encouragement to forget the sins and failures of the past. But what Paul is setting aside in that passage is his past laurels (verses 4-11).

But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith— that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead. (Philippians 3:7-11, ESV).

Our righteousness comes by faith in Christ, not our efforts. Our own efforts could never measure up. Yet there is still a “straining forward” toward growth in maturity.

Sometimes perfectionists can be thoroughly discouraged that no matter how much progress we’ve made, we’ll never get to the point where we don’t have something to work on. But we won’t be perfect until we reach heaven. Part of Paul’s prayer in Philippians 1:11 is that we may “filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God.” Galatians 5:22-23 speaks of the fruit of the Spirit: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.” That fruit comes from God. But fruit also conveys the idea of growth. And growth takes time.

On the other hand, some of us are prone to inertia. “Good enough” is sufficient for some ares of life. I once heard of someone who boasted that when she made the bed, the sheets were stretched so firm and tight that a quarter could bounce off them. And I thought, “Whatever for?” I’m all for a neatly made bed, but a good-enough made bed falls far below quarter-bouncing standards for me. But “good enough” isn’t sufficient for spiritual growth.  We need that prodding to keep pressing on.

In recent years it’s become common to read of our “mess” in an effort to be transparent and authentic. We’re not perfect and we shouldn’t try to put forth a false perfect image, so we need to pull back the curtain and let people see our flaws and failures. And there’s truth in those thoughts. We can more readily identify with someone who doesn’t seem to have it all together all the time. Yet it’s easy to go so far as to glory in our “mess” instead of progressing.

Or we can feel that the progress we’re making in most areas offsets the areas we’re struggling with. We all have our besetting sins, after all. One son once got upset that I pointed out the one area of his report card that needed attention instead of being satisfied with the rest of commendable grades. While I needed to remember to acknowledge the good grades, I couldn’t overlook the bad one.

While fruit in our lives comes from God, He also calls us to pursue wisdom (Proverbs), love (1 Corinthians 14:1), righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness (1 Timothy 6:11), peace (2 Timothy 2:22, 1 Peter 3:11).

Hebrews 10:14 says, “For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.” We’re made perfect in Christ when we believe on Him for salvation. But while we live here on earth, we still have our old nature, which fights against the new one we received at salvation (Galatians 5:16-17). That process of growth toward Christlikeness is called sanctification. Romans 12:2 tells us we’re transformed by the renewing of our minds, and one way we do that is by changing our thinking, lining it up with what God’s Word says, putting specific Scriptures in our minds that the Holy Spirit can then use to remind us.

The standard the Bible continually points to is Christ. We’ll never be Christ. But we don’t rest in self-satisfaction with how we’ve grown over the past ten years or how far we are compared to others: we grow towards His likeness. Yet we will stumble and fall, and we extend grace to ourselves while still making progress. II Corinthians 3:18 says, “But we all, with open face beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord.” As we behold Him in His Word, He changes us to become more like Him.

Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus (Philippians 3:12-14, ESV).

(Sharing with Inspire Me Monday, Literary Musing Monday, Tell His Story, Let’s Have Coffee, Woman to Woman Word-filled Wednesday, Titus 2 Wise Woman, Faith on Fire, Grace and Truth)

When sleep won’t come

A few years ago I asked Facebook friends, “Why am I awake when I should be asleep and sleepy when I should be awake?” One responded, “Welcome to middle age.” I can be dragging and nodding off before getting into bed, and then wide awake after.

I usually keep everything conducive to sleeping: lights off, soft music playing. Reading usually keeps me even more awake. One friend responded to my Facebook query that sleeplessness is an excellent time to pray. True. Sometimes I do pray then. But I also get frustrated when I can’t seem to dig in and get much done in the daytime because I need a nap because I am so groggy. It just seems like it would be so much more efficient to sleep at night and work during the day.

Still, I know that stewing about it only makes it worse. I remind myself in the night that even if I am not asleep, I’m resting. I can enjoy the quietness and freedom to just relax without any demands on my time. I breathe deep and slow, sometime pray, sometimes think, until eventually I drift off. And I catch a nap in the day time if I need to, but I try to keep it short so as not to perpetuate nighttime wakefulness.

Several nights ago, though, was one of my worst nights ever. I don’t think I slept more than an hour the whole night. And what’s worse, I had a three-hour drive the next morning and meetings all afternoon and evening. I wasn’t feeling particularly nervous about the trip. Last year I had made the same journey for a writer’s conference, and I was much more on edge then because it was the first time I had traveled alone or attended anything like a conference in years. But God got me through that, and I knew a bit more what to expect this time. So I had a bit of apprehension, but nothing like the year before. Perhaps underlying nerves were the problem, even though I wasn’t consciously feeling nervous at the time. I tried all my usual tactics, to no avail.

Then I had to fight worry. How was I going to drive and stay awake in meetings for a conference my husband had paid good money for without sleep? Some of my health issues get worse without sleep. What if they flared up? I knew these thoughts and concerns would only drive sleep further away, so I tried to give them to the Lord and stay relaxed.

On top of everything else, I was intensely uncomfortable. Hot one minute, cold the next. The sheets irritated my skin. I got up and went to the couch in the living room, thinking a change of venue might help. It didn’t. Maybe I was coming down with something?

I went ahead and got up at 4:30 a.m. and took my shower. But I was sad and frustrated and even a bit hurt because God had not answered my prayer. He knew I needed sleep. He made me to need sleep. He knew everything on the schedule this day. Why had He let me go most of the night without sleep when I earnestly begged Him for it?

I didn’t know. I sent a quick text to a friend letting her know what was going on and asking her prayers. I decided to just keep getting ready for the trip and see what happened. I felt like I was moving through molasses or walking like a zombie (to mix metaphors). I couldn’t eat much and began to feel nauseous.

I couldn’t remember if I had actually prayed about whether to go to the conference. Was this God’s way of telling me no?

After I got everything ready to go, I knew I could not drive safely in the condition I was in. I decided to try to take a nap in my desk chair and see what happened. I asked God to direct me and help me know whether to go or stay. I asked Him, if He wanted me to go, to multiply whatever sleep I could get in my nap like the loaves and fishes and make it enough. And I fell blessedly asleep for maybe an hour.

When I woke up, my stomach still wasn’t feeling 100% well, but all grogginess was gone. I left for the conference. The night before I had made a sandwich for lunch so I didn’t have to look for a restaurant first thing when I got to town: since I was running late, I was able to eat a few bites on the way. I got to the conference just after the first introductory meeting ended. Though I would have liked to have gotten there in time for it, it wasn’t entirely critical. I had enough time to peruse the schedule to choose which of the workshops to attend that afternoon. I attended the rest of the conference and had a wonderful time. I had no trouble sleeping in the hotel room that night.

Still I pondered why God had not answered my prayer for sleep the night before. One of the truths that had sustained me on a recent family trip was “Your heavenly Father knows what things you have need of (Matthew 6:8). One by one He met each of my needs on that trip. Why did He seem to withhold one this time?

Perhaps one reason was to increase my dependence on Him. I thought I already was depending on Him for a number of issues relating to the conference and travel! But maybe He wanted to take me to a different level.

Philippians 4:11-13 came to mind: “Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” I can’t say I have totally learned that contentment, but I am in the process.

And then 2 Corinthians 12:9-10 came to my attention. “And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong.

God may have any of a number of reasons to allow us to suffer a need of some sort. He’s not being cruel or unkind: all of His Word and years of knowing Him testify to that. God told Israel that He let them suffer hunger in the wilderness to humble them, to test them, and to turn their focus from their physical need to the spiritual. Unanswered prayer can cause us to examine ourselves for any hindrances on our part. Sometimes He cuts off something we need to produce more growth, to bring us to maturity.

I still don’t know why God didn’t answer my prayer for sleep on a night when sleep was critically needed. But He did meet my need, even though not in the usual way. Even in the face of a sleepless night and a full day, “God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times, you may abound in every good work” (2 Corinthians 9:8).

See also:

When I Don’t Get What I Need
When the Solution I Want Isn’t What I Need
Let Patience Have Her Perfect Work
Reasons Why Prayers Aren’t Answered

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One picture is worth a thousand misunderstandings

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Imagine a defendant going to trial. He’s told his story to his lawyer and worked with him to lay out all the proofs of his innocence. As the trial begins, the prosecutor introduces just one piece of evidence: a seemingly incriminating photograph. The judge calls for the verdict without giving the defense a chance to say anything. The jury convicts the defendant and the judges sentences him.

Imagine the same scenario, but the evidence is one statement the defendant is known to have made without any context as to its meaning.

“Ridiculous!” you might say. “How can anyone judge a case without hearing both sides?” And you’d be right.

Yet people do this every day. As you are probably aware, a young man was vilified recently on social media for a photograph that seemed to indicate he was disrespecting, if not downright mocking, an older Native American man. But in the following days, more information came out about the scenario, proving there was much more to the story. (I don’t know all the details: I just bring this up as an example of how quickly people rush to judgment before they know the facts.)

Once one of my son’s friends who had never met me thought that I must be pretty grouchy. The reason? Another son had posted pictures of a family outing, and one photo caught me looking quite irritable after waiting outside in the heat for seats in a restaurant for what seemed like an interminable amount of time. Someone else assumed in another group photo that there must have been some underlying hostilities because a few people were sitting with arms folded. Yet the conversation had been as amiable as could be.  But these are minor misunderstandings compared to the way people tear each other apart on Twitter with as little substantial cause.

“A picture is worth a thousand words,” the saying goes. Yet a picture captures just one moment in time, not the whole story. It doesn’t give context, the events leading up to or coming after, the circumstances behind the scene.

That’s true whether the picture seems bad or good. There are multitudes of articles about people feeling depressed after viewing other peoples’ seemingly perfect lives on social media. We see the perfectly decorated cake, but we don’t see that it has been turned so the best side faces the camera. We see the beautifully redone room, but we missed the part where the clutter was cleared off to the side before the picture was taken. We see the adorable family Christmas photo, but we don’t see the several pictures taken and rejected to get just the right poses and expressions. When we think other people on social media have such perfect lives, we don’t realize that those captures of perfect moments don’t tell the whole story. Nobody has a picture-perfect life all day, every day.

The same is true with isolated statements. Take, for example, the sentence, “I’m going to kill you!” Now imagine it in different scenarios:

  • Two friends setting up a chessboard
  • One brother pulling a prank on the other
  • A young wife being mercilessly tickled by her husband
  • A jealous man stalking a girl who doesn’t want his attention
  • A woman trying to escape an abusive relationship

Depending on the context, saying “I’m going to kill you!” might be perfectly innocent, though maybe not very wise to say.  Other contexts make the statement more realistic or sinister.

In addition to the folly of rendering judgment based on pictures or individual statements out of context, we can also misjudge scenarios. Imagine a parent hearing a loud crash, running into the living room, and seeing her son with a baseball bat standing by a broken window. Before launching into a tirade based on what seems to have happened, the wise parent calms herself down to ask questions and assess the situation further.

Proverbs 18:13 says in the ESV, “If one gives an answer before he hears, it is his folly and shame.” I am not familiar with the Holman Christian Standard Bible, but I like their translation of this verse: “The one who gives an answer before he listens– this is foolishness and disgrace for him.” We agree it is foolish, unjust, and harmful for a jury to convict a man over just one photo or statement. It’s just as foolish, unjust, and harmful to play armchair prosecutor, jury, and judge over situations we know little about; it’s even more foolish to do so publicly.

James tells us, “Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God” (1:19-20, ESV). Jesus said, as well, “And as ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise” (Luke 6:31, KJV).

This is true whether our judgment is good or bad, condemning or helpful. When we rush to “help” someone by pouring forth the benefit of our wisdom and experience without first hearing them out, we do more harm than good. Why? Because the person is wounded and alienated due to feeling misjudged and unheard, and our advice is off base because we’ve misdiagnosed the case.

We’re quick to pull out the “Judge not” card (often out of context) when anyone misjudges us, but we too often rush to judgment of others. Instead, we need to consider first of all whether it’s even our business to judge a particular situation. Then, in Matthew 7:1-5, Jesus admonishes us to take care of any “planks” in our own eyes before we try to take a speck out of someone else’s and to remember “with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you.” Then we need to hear all the facts and consider carefully and fairly. Withholding judgment due to not knowing all the facts would wipe out the great majority of public judgments on social media and in our persona lives.

“Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment” (John 7:24, ESV).

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Smelting the Soul

Photo courtesy of alejandro godoy at pngtree

Perhaps you’ve heard this old illustration, as I often have. When metalworkers need to refine metals, they melt them down and then have to skim off the dross, impurities, and other metals until the product is pure. The actual process has changed over the years, but it still involves smelting, separating, and removing impurities. We’re told that the way the refiner knows that his product is pure is when he can clearly see his face reflected in the liquefied metal.

All my Christian life I have heard this refining process as an illustration of God’s sanctifying us.

The crucible is for silver, and the furnace is for gold, and the Lord tests hearts. Proverbs 17:3

Take away the dross from the silver, and the smith has material for a vessel. Proverbs 25:4

Behold, I have refined you, but not as silver; I have tried you in the furnace of affliction. Isaiah 48:10

He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, and they will bring offerings in righteousness to the Lord. Malachi 3:3

But he knows the way that I take; when he has tried me, I shall come out as gold. Job 23:10

The refiner’s skill in applying just the right temperature illustrates God’s skill in adjusting our trials at just the right level. Too little “heat” might upset us but not purify us: too much might discourage or destroy us. The impurities or mixtures of other metals speaks of our need to be cleansed and purified from various sins and divided loyalties. The melting liquid shows our need to yield to the process. And since God’s goal in our sanctification is that we become like His Son, the refiner’s seeing his reflection in the melted metal is a beautiful illustration of our God’s refining and purifying us until we’re conformed to the image of His Son.

And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. 2 Corinthians 3:18

For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son. Romans 8:29a

These parallels have been a blessing in considering the process and end goal of God’s sanctifying work in my life.

But one particular aspect that I had not considered much before blessed me in a big way last week.

I’ve mentioned before that I am sometimes discouraged at my lack of love, my innate selfishness, and I often pray to be more loving. I know that the struggle between the Spirit and our flesh is a lifelong one that won’t end until we’re in heaven. Yet it seemed like, after around 45 years of being a Christian, I should be further along than I am now, and it should be less of a struggle.

But since that struggle doesn’t end until heaven, we’re going to continue to have our impurities brought to our attention. And that’s a good thing – not that we have them, but that they come to the surface so we can deal with them by confessing them to the Lord and seeking His grace to overcome them.

Whoever conceals his transgressions will not prosper, but he who confesses and forsakes them will obtain mercy. Proverbs 28:13

When I first became a Christian, I was convicted of a lack of love and a need to be more unselfish in some areas. But they were probably big, obvious areas. The more I grow in the Lord, the more He makes me aware of smaller, deeper areas, like a harsh thought as well as harsh words.

The refining process is an answer to my prayer to be more Christlike and more loving. I can’t be more loving until I see the ways in which I am unloving. I can’t turn from selfishness until I see the ways my selfishness displays itself. I can’t grow more like Christ until I see the ways I am not yet fully like Him.

So instead of being discouraged that God continually shows me the ways in which I fall short, I can rejoice that He is continuing to refine me. And I praise Him for the grace that washes away all sin.

(Sharing with Inspire Me Monday, Literary Musing Monday, Tell His Story, Let’s Have Coffee, Porch Stories, Woman to Woman Word-filled Wednesday, Wise Woman, Faith on Fire, Grace and Truth)

Praying to love more

Valentine’s Day vies with Christmas as my favorite holiday. I’ve shared before why I think it’s worth celebrating and compiled a list of some of my favorite quotes, songs, etc. for Valentine’s Day.

Of course, everyone is free to celebrate or not celebrate the day according to their own preferences. And though I love the fun and even silly aspects of the day, today I want to take a different tack.

One of my ongoing struggles in my Christian life is learning to love as Jesus did, and my biggest obstacle is my own selfishness.

A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. John 13:34

This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. John 15:12-13

Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. 1 Corinthians 14:4-7

Set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity. 1 Timothy 4:12

Let brotherly love continue. Hebrews 13:1

 Having purified your souls by your obedience to the truth for a sincere brotherly love, love one another earnestly from a pure heart. 1 Peter 1:22

Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins. 1 Peter 4:8

Whoever keeps his word, in him truly the love of God is perfected. 1 John 2:5

Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. 1 John 4:11

By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments. For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome. 1 John 5:2-3 (This might be a surprising one to some, but Jesus said “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15). If we love someone we don’t disregard their words: we take heed and try to keep them. He also said all the law and the prophets hang on to the command to love God and our neighbor.)

I was just discussing with a friend earlier this week how we often hear that Christian love is not just a warm fuzzy feeling: rather, as one professor used to put it, it’s a “self-sacrificing desire to meet the needs of the cherished person.” I think of a mother being awakened at 2 a.m. by her baby’s cries. She might not feel lovey-dovey right at first: in fact she might feel a little irritable. But she knows her baby needs her, and often, some time during their nocturnal meeting, that warm, loving feeling rises up again.

However, the opening of the great love chapter in the Bible, 1 Corinthians 13, warns us that we can make substantial sacrifices without doing so in love.

In my ongoing quest to understand what Christian love is and to grow in it, I compiled Bible verses which specifically spoke of praying to love. I sometimes use them for my own prayers.

For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. Ephesians 3:14-19. (It’s interesting to note that right after this prayer comes Paul’s’ declaration, “Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think . . . “)

And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God. Philippians 1:9-11

Now may our God and Father himself, and our Lord Jesus, direct our way to you, and may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, as we do for you, so that he may establish your hearts blameless in holiness before our God and Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints. 1 Thessalonians 3:11-13

Of course, it helps to remember that love is a fruit of the Holy Spirit, and I can only be filled with love as I am filled with Him.

And since we’re to love as God does did, it helps to meditate on how He showed love to us. That would take more study and a different post, but here are a few ways:

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. John 3:16

By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. 1 John 3:16

God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Romans 5:8

In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. 1 John 4:10

Those verses don’t enlighten me as to the “feeling” part of love, but they show that God loved first, He loved people who were enemies to Him, and He made every provision, at the highest cost to Himself, to redeem them.

The more I think about the myriad ways He has shown His love to me, the more His love will fill me and overflow to others.

As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. John 15:9

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It’s okay to say it hurts

Several years ago someone stood up in a church prayer meeting and requested prayer for a young couple. The husband had just been diagnosed with cancer, and the wife reportedly “wasn’t taking it very well.”

I wondered what was meant by this comment on the wife’s reaction, and I wondered how in the world one does take such news well. If she threw over her faith because she didn’t want to believe in a God who would do such a thing, yes, that would constitute reacting poorly. But I doubt this mutual friend was conveying such a severe response.

Perhaps she got upset, cried, even got angry. But are those responses wrong? Is the Christian life one of perfect serenity and beatific smiles no matter the circumstances?

It doesn’t appear that way in Scripture. The psalms show a range of emotions: grief, confusion, anger, despair. Paul speaks of being with the Corinthians “in weakness and in fear and much trembling” (1 Corinthians 2:3) and being “hard pressed on every side . . . perplexed . . . persecuted . . . struck down” (2 Corinthians 4:8). He reports being “in troubles, hardships and distresses; in beatings, imprisonments and riots; in hard work, sleepless nights and hunger . . . through glory and dishonor, bad report and good report; genuine, yet regarded as impostors; known, yet regarded as unknown; dying, and yet we live on; beaten, and yet not killed; sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; poor, yet making many rich; having nothing, and yet possessing everything” (2 Corinthians 6:4-10). Even the Lord Jesus wept (Luke 19:41; John 11:33-35) and sweat great drops of blood (Luke 22:44). We don’t “grieve as others do who have no hope” (1 Thessalonians 4:13), but we do grieve.

I was once subscribed to an email group of transverse myelitis patients, back in the days before forums, message boards, or Facebook groups. I was conscious of wanting to glorify God and be a good testimony there, both of which were good goals. But I felt that in order to be a good testimony, I had to present myself as always victorious and overcoming and positive. At some point another Christian lady joined the group, and I was blessed as she did not gloss over the hardship and pain and frustration, yet she glorified God in the midst of all of that. Not only did her testimony ring true, but it also made her more relatable. We might admire the people who seem like they’ve always got it all together, but we’re not likely to go to them for help. We’re more drawn to those we can identify with, who’ve been in the trenches we’ve been in and yet survived them with grace.

On the other hand, it’s not good to wallow where the Lord extends grace to overcome. I’ve read people who readily admit to weakness, fear, pain, and grief, yet never exhibit God’s grace in dealing with those things. They seem to glory in their perpetual “mess.” Paul admits being “hard pressed on every side . . . perplexed . . . persecuted . . . struck down,” but he doesn’t stop there. He says he is “not crushed . . . not driven to despair . . . not forsaken . . . not destroyed” ((2 Corinthians 4:8). He is “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing” (2 Corinthians 6:10). He doesn’t “lose heart” (2 Corinthians 4:16). Why? Because “Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal” (2 Corinthians 4:16-18) And later on in chapter 12:7-10, Paul shares that God did not remove something grievous in response to Paul’s prayers, but instead  promised “‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”

We do need to distinguish between lament and complaint. We see lament all through the psalms and in some of the prophets, a crying out to God in the midst of painful circumstances. But 1 Corinthians 10:9-10 says of Israel during their trek from Egypt to Canaan: “We must not put Christ to the test, as some of them did and were destroyed by serpents, nor grumble, as some of them did and were destroyed by the Destroyer.” One of those incidents of complaint occurred in Numbers 11:1-3. The people had previously grumbled about lack of water and food (Exodus 15:22-25; 16; 17;1-7), and God just met their need miraculously. He was longsuffering with them, perhaps because they had not been out of Egypt long and had not been taught His ways. But by Numbers 11, God responded to their complaints with fire and a plague. Did God just run out of patience with them? No, but by that time they had seen His miraculous deliverance from Egypt and provision of water and food. They should have gotten to know Him better and exhibited trust in Him at that point, plus grasped the larger picture of what He was delivering them to. What are the differences between lament and complaint? I don’t know all of them: that’s something I would like to study out more. Tim Challies points out the difference in one’s posture of either pride or humility. Complaint in these cases seemed to include a lack of faith, as I mentioned, and even an attack on God’s leadership, and by way of implication, on God. The laments in the psalms honestly admit the dire circumstances and hardships, but there is an element of faith running through them.

In George H. Guthrie’s book Read the Bible for Life: Your Guide to Understanding and Living God’s Word, Michael Card says:

Lament teaches us that we have to go through the process of dealing with our suffering before God. You don’t just stuff your feelings down and put a good face on it, like a lot of us tend to do. You need to go through the process of pouring your heart out to God. And if you don’t have the language for it, the Bible will give you the language.

Almost all of the psalms of lament involve the psalmist reminding himself of the truth he knows. God is good and righteous. He loves us. He sees and knows what’s going on. He will bring about justice in His own time. He has the power to deliver us, and at some point He will. But in the meantime we can rest in Him. Through prayer and praise, the psalmist exhibits faith that God hears him and will do what’s best.

So when our friends are going through a hard time, we don’t need to add to their burden by judging their tears and lamentations. We can lend a listening ear, a shoulder to cry on, and gently remind them of God’s truth.

Enduring hardship as a Christian is not just a matter of a stiff upper lip or a smile that glosses over painful circumstances. When we’re in the midst of pain and sorrow ourselves, we can “take it to the Lord in prayer,” as the old hymn says. Sometimes we can cry out to Him in ways that we could not before others. We remind ourselves of the truth we have gleaned from His Word, that He knows all about it, He cares, He has the bigger picture in view, and He has promised His grace for our every need. And He’ll be glorified as others see His grace in us through the hard times.

But you, O Lord, are a shield about me, my glory, and the lifter of my head. I cried aloud to the Lord, and he answered me from his holy hill. Psalm 3:3-4, ESV

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Linking does not imply full endorsement.)

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