Leave Ya Pockets Like Rabbit Ears

So I joined this community of believers at Faithful Central Bible Church in Inglewood, California, and just like with anything that feels this good, I'm waiting for the other shoe to drop. I have lived my life by a certain code, which tells me that at their core, people are just wack most of the time. No need to bother depending on them because they will let you down. Don't trust 'em with nothing because they will stab you in the back or the front— sometimes literally. And under no circumstances should you ever be stupid enough to accept anybody or any situation at face value.

So I'd been sitting under the dynamic teaching of Bishop Kenneth Ulmer for about six months, and to be honest, I was feelin' him. Over the course of my time at FCBC he has shown himself to be the real thing. He grew up in Saint Louis, Missouri. He attended the University of Illinois. He pledged Kappa Alpha Psi as an undergrad. On top of that he went on to acquire his master's and doctorate degrees in theology and a doctor of ministry degree from United Theological Seminary. Ol' boy got a head on his shoulders, and I can respect that. But the best part about him is that he's human. A sermon of his feels more like an intimate conversation you'd have on the fly with your favorite uncle. He drops some knowledge on you, makes you laugh, and challenges you to change all at the same time. And he's a brotha fo' sho'. He's smart, articulate, and funny. And he is definitely old-school black man with his. One of my boys calls him Bishop Cat Daddy, because he's mad cool. It would be a shame to die and leave this earth without hearing him preach at least one time.

Beyond his oratory skills, Bishop inspires the common man because he is really walking this walk. The Christian lifestyle is really tough to maintain in the culture at large. He readily confesses his struggles both past and present, and openly questions God's Word in order to provide his flock with the most accurate understanding of the Bible he can manage. And he's so cool. Did I mention that? You just want to kick it with him. He's one of those dudes that if you were his age you'd be his homie. But he's your pastor! It's the best of both worlds.

Even with all of Bishop's good traits, I knew that one day I was going to stumble onto something that was gon' make me reconsider my views. It didn't take long. About six months in, at the end of one service, he announced that the following week he was going to begin a series on tithing. FCBC is no different from any other church in that they take up a collection at some point during the service. I had certainly noticed, but never thought much of it. After my grandmother's experience in Pittsburgh, I knew I'd just as soon offer up my right arm as hand over my hard-earned cash to any preacher. I didn't care how cool he was or how many letters he had behind his name; homeboy wasn't gettin' my scrilla. And that was that.

I went to church the next week anyway, more because I wanted to hear how Bishop could possibly try to justify my handing over my money than because I was willing to listen. I sat though praise and worship, which if I recall correctly was particularly moving that day. I didn't let it faze me though. I was ready. I held Bishop in high esteem, but I had to admit that he was just wrong on this point. I had read some in the Bible about tithing, and I just couldn't see why it was necessary. Well, needless to say, Bishop broke the Word all the way down that day and in subsequent weeks. I came away with a better understanding of why I should tithe, but with an equal amount of determination that I would not . . . ever.

As I look back, I realize that my grandmother's experience with the preacher in Pittsburgh had affected me more than I was aware. In many ways it had laid the foundation for my mistrust of churches in general, but in particular for pastors and tithing. Why did we have to give? Where was my money going? Who was it benefiting? And why on earth did God need my money? I mean, He's God, after all. If He wanted some money, couldn't He just make some? Or better yet, why would He have to shop? Couldn't He just make what He needed? I mean, He was the One who said, "Let there be light," and we all know how that turned out. So why couldn't He just say, "Let there be new church vans," or something like that? This is the same God who raised Jesus from the dead. He parted the Red Sea. He shook down the walls of Jericho. Why not just make what the church needed miraculously appear? I could not wrap my mind around it. What possible need could the Almighty have for 10 percent of Mykel Mitchell's paycheck?

I had all these questions and many more. Bishop's teaching went a long way toward helping me to understand. One thing he has always done, however, is to warn his listeners never just to take his word for it. One of the things I like about FCBC is that they encourage personal study of the Word over study of someone else's opinion of the Word, no matter how well-informed that opinion is. There is no substitute for reading the Bible yourself. If you don't get something, you must ask questions—not just of those more learned than you, but of God Himself. After all, He breathed out the Bible. He's still alive. He wants you to understand it. So if you don't get something, go to the Word. Ask the Holy Spirit to help you understand and then read with spiritual eyes, expecting to comprehend. Sometimes you get instant enlightenment. Sometimes you don't. But Jesus promises that if you ask, "it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you" (Matthew 7:7-8). It's pretty much a win-win situation. The author Himself will interpret His manuscript for you! That beats Cliff's Notes hands down!

So that's what I did—and did I get answers! Years later, the Holy Spirit is still teaching me . . . not so much because I'm a slow learner (which I certainly can be, except where money is concerned), but because God's Word is so deep in this area. The Bible has so much to say about financial matters. Anyway I've learned enough to be convinced that every believer should tithe. Here's why.

First of all, God commands it. "Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse!" God commands in Malachi 3:10. To hold back the tithe is to rob God. It's no different from sticking a gun in His face and screaming, "Put the money in the bag!" I don't know about you, but I don't ever want to be in that position. Why does God see it like that? Why is mishandling the tithe so offensive to Him? Part of the reason is that from day one God has been interested in having intimate relationships with people. Genesis says He walked in the garden with Adam. He was a friend to Noah. He wrestled with Jacob. He communicated with Joseph through dreams. Moses actually came face-to-face with Him (the only person to ever do so and live). Through Moses, God gave the Hebrews His commandments to help them to live a productive, peaceful life in the new land they would inherit. His motive with all of humanity has always been to reveal more of Himself that we might know, love, and have a relationship with Him. God is always interested in showing us how to do things His way. Given the fact that He's perfect, omniscient, and all that other good stuff, it's a good bet that His way works better than anything you or I can think of.

I like to think of his relationship to us as similar to that of a car manufacturer to its car. Land Rover makes the Range Rover. When you purchase one, you get a lesson in four-wheel drive on the lot on a man-made mountain. You get an owner's manual, a warranty, and a full automotive/body shop at your disposal, along with a bunch of other perks. If you want your Rover to run its best, then you should follow the directions in the owner's manual regarding maintenance and operation. You should use unleaded gas, change the oil every three thousand miles or so, and go in for engine maintenance as the schedule or dashboard lights indicate. If anything goes wrong, you can take it to other mechanics, but truthfully it's better to bring it into a Land Rover-certified mechanic, who is most often found at the dealership.

It's the same with God and us. He created us. He knows full well how He intended us to perform and function. He knows what works best. He has given us an owner's manual, which covers everything from relationships (marriage, parenting, friendships) to finance (running a business, dealing with employees, managing money) to life situations (confronting wrongdoers, handling disappointments, rollin' with success). You get the picture. There is pretty much no topic left uncovered either directly or indirectly in the Bible. When we're having problems, we can go to other sources— shrinks, counselors, or friends. But it's best first to turn in prayer to the One who created us and to read His Word. Given that He wrote every moment of our lives down in His book before one moment came to pass, He's got a better idea than we do of what lies ahead and what we need in order to come through it successfully (Psalms 139:16). So it makes sense to seek Him out and to listen to what He has to say.

With God, it's all about the relationship. Everything He does or allows is motivated by his love for us. He even disciplines us out of love. Like any other being with sense, He would like us to return in kind. He wants our motivation for all that we do to be out of love for Him. Like anyone with self-respect, He's got standards of how the relationship needs to work. And you know what? Given what He offers, His requirements are very reasonable.

I learned that God doesn't want our money. First off, it isn't ours to give. It's His money. I know that sounds crazy, but let me explain. You may work a job and get a paycheck. You may own your own business, real estate, or other investments, which provide a return. But all those things belong to God. "The earth is the Lord's, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it" (Psalms 24:1-2). Everything belongs to Him. That we do not acknowledge this fact makes it no less true. The company you work for, the investments you hold, the business you run are the means through which He chooses to provide for you financially. But don't sleep; He is the one doing the providing. Corporations downsize. Stocks plummet. Small businesses fail every day. But don't trip. If any of your sources of income ever go belly-up, the Lord is able to provide for you some other way. Most of us just refuse to recognize.

It's tempting to boast that you are self-made, but that's simply a lie. If you've ever admitted to being lucky in your life—even once—then you are not self-made. You can't control luck. I don't care what New Agers say; you can't make good things happen to you or for you. So many things play into making you who you are and placing you where you are today. Certainly your deliberate choices play a part—choices such as to pursue a college degree or to start your own business or to marry and have kids. But the events you can't control weigh in just as heavily, maybe even more so. You had no say into which family you'd be born. You had no choice in whether your father would be a postal worker, a crack addict, or a brain surgeon. You had no say in whether your parents would divorce or die during your childhood. You did not choose your race. Even the way in which your brain developed was never up to you. The fundamentals of your personality were predetermined and/or shaped by forces you couldn't even comprehend or affect. Even the opportunities presented to you were created by someone else. You may have prepared for them, but you couldn't call them to you. I know for a fact that there are a whole lot of dudes sitting in prison whose manuscripts will never see the light of day, even though they are far better writers than I will ever hope to be. There is a gang of rappers who could run rings around the best of the best, but they will never make it out of the ghetto. That's just real, y'all. And if you want to know the truth, I could just as easily have been writing my memoirs from prison, but for the grace of God. There are so many variables in any given life that no one can brag about his accomplishments apart from God. So shut up already.

Every good deal you ever got or "lucky" break that ever came your way was ordered and/or allowed by God Himself. That's true of the bad stuff, too, so don't get it twisted. Everything you got, God either gave it to you or let you have it. So "your" money is not yours; it's His. He's just lettin' you hold it while you're alive. That makes you a steward, not an owner. And like any other master, don't think He won't hold you responsible for what you do with it when the time comes to settle up.

Another reason God does not want "your" money is that He doesn't need it. He's infinite and eternal. What could He possibly need from your sorry butt? Nada—that's what. There is one thing that God wants from you that He can't get from anyone else, though. That's your love. He wants you to love Him first and above everything else. The first and greatest commandment upon which the entire Old Testament is based is "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind" (Matthew 22:37). God wants you. But like any respectable person, He wants you to give yourself willingly, understanding all the benefits and sacrifices involved in the relationship. He will never force you.

That's where tithing comes in. God created people, so if He knows anything, He knows that we are prone to loving money. Yet He specifically tells us over and over again throughout the Old and New Testaments not to love money. Why? Think about it. People who love money kick rocks. They do anything to anyone in order to get it. And they are never satisfied. When you are greedy, your appetite is like a cup with a hole in it: You can never fill it. No matter how much money you have, you want more. No amount can make you happy or content. It's like being addicted to crack. There can be no happily-ever-after as long as you love money. Loving God, on the other hand, produces all the satisfaction you ever dreamed of and more. He promises that when you seek Him first, He'll make sure that you get all the other stuff you need. He will fulfill your desires with good things and you won't have to break your back to keep them. 'Cause if He provides it, He'll maintain it for you. And should He decide not to, then you don't need it anyway. You can live in peace either way, once you are convinced that His love will afford you only the very best life has to offer.

When you tithe, what you are saying is that God is more important to you than money. You are saying that out of sheer love for Him and appreciation for His many blessings, you symbolically give back into His hand a portion of what came from His hand in the first place. You give Him his "cut" purely to honor Him. The cool thing is that God promises to reward you for your diligence in this area. Tithing is one of the few areas where God actually invites us to test Him! In Malachi 3:10, God challenges, "Test me in this . . . and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that you will not have room enough for it." God extends this promise to the Israelites, who at the time were straight punkin' Him. He had been loyal to them for generations, while they did their own thing, slippin' and dippin', coming back to Him apologetic—only to fall away and come back again. Finally He just lights them up in Malachi. He tells them through the prophet Malachi that they've been wack and that they need to get on their J-O-B. Then, as though to encourage them, He challenges them. "Do it and see if I don't hook you up" is basically what God is saying. Okay, I'm paraphrasing, but you get the point. Since God does not change, his Word still applies today to anyone who will take Him up on it.

Now before you go crazy, notice that the issue is not to tithe so that you can get. That would be wrong. That would be pimpin' God. If I know anything about Him, I know this: God will not be pimped. So get it right from jump. You give to God because it's a requirement He has put in place. You give out of love for Him. Out of gratitude to Him for your very existence in the world He created, you tithe—cheerfully! You tithe for the same reason you praise God: He deserves it. He is worthy of it.

During the opening ceremonies of the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, my wife and I sat transfixed as we watched Muhammad Ali light the torch that would signify the start of the games. In the advanced stages of Alzheimer's disease, he trembled violently as his hand pressed the torch to the giant Olympic torch. Sheeri and I had both grown up in families where Muhammad Ali—or Cassius Clay, as both our grandmothers had insisted on calling him—was not only well liked, but nearly revered. As a black American he represented so much to every generation in both our families. As a national hero, a civil rights icon, and a formidable athlete, he is the object of our personal affection and respect. Sheeri and I were so proud of him that we actually stood up and applauded when he successfully lit the giant torchère.

Later the Holy Spirit would speak to my heart: "That's how I want you to feel about me." I understood. If I could admire a man who had only indirectly affected my life, clap for a man whom I have never met, offer my respect to any man, period, how much more so should I offer everything I have to the God who sacrificed His own Son to save my worthless behind? There's no comparison. That is the attitude that should be at the heart of our tithing. God says, "I want you to give." In response, I say, "Yes, Lord!" Doing anything for God is such a privilege. Just so we're clear, He don't need us. He chooses to work through us to accomplish His plan for humanity. In return for our genuine affection, He pours out his blessing—because He chooses to, not because He owes us.

What's important to remember is that God's pouring out His blessing is not necessarily the same thing as His meeting our needs.

In chapter 6 of the gospel of Matthew, Jesus patiently and thoroughly explains the futility of worry. He asks rhetorically in verse twenty-seven, "Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?" He goes on to explain that we shouldn't worry about what we'll wear or what we'll eat, because God provides those things for us. He charges us to "seek first His kingdom and His righteousness and all these things will be given to" us, too (Matthew 6:33). Now, the first time I heard this verse, I thought it sounded crazy. If I don't handle my business, then who's gon' handle it for me? It sounded so pie-in-the-sky, so corny and unrealistic. I remember thinking that philosophy might work for folks who don't mind living under cardboard boxes in the scary part of town, but I'm tryin' to do bigger things. You know what I mean? So at first I just dismissed it as fluff.

I eventually came to understand that Jesus isn't encouraging us to be irresponsible. He's not telling us to sit on our butts singing "Kumbaya" all day long, cup in hand, hoping someone will give us some change for lunch. He is definitely not saying that. In fact, His charge to us is just the opposite. In the parable of the talents, found in Matthew, He commands us to keep doing business until He comes the second time. What Jesus is saying is, don't worry about your needs being met.

Now, that may not mean much to you if you've never had a real problem. But if you've ever been next to homelessness, bordering on bankruptcy, or about to get ya lights cut off—then you understand worry. True worry consumes all your thoughts and sometimes your dreams, too. It takes you over as you struggle to come up with a solution to a situation that you can barely wrap your mind around. Your situation doesn't have to be life threatening, just life altering. A kid who finally gets into the college of his choice, but can't afford to go, can obsess over millions of ways to solve his problem as easily as a senior citizen, who realizes too late that her Social Security benefits and retirement combined aren't enough to meet her minimum monthly bills. Worry can eat away at your peace, your hope, and your health. Most of us worry over things that haven't happened yet and over which we have absolutely no control. Therefore worry is as pointless as it is destructive. No amount of worry can change what will happen. No amount of worry can prepare you to handle the unknown. Jesus knew this. That's why he commands us not to do it.

Out of His love for us, God created us. Out of that same love He provides for our every need. A bird can't fall from the sky without His permission. How much more important than a bird are you? The problem with the way God does His job is that when He's doing it to our satisfaction, we don't even notice that He's doing it. Think about it. What if your all your needs being met tomorrow depended on your thanking God for meeting them today? Yeah. Many of us wouldn't even wake up tomorrow. That's how much God does for us. He meets needs on the regular that we don't even know we have. My family and I do a lot of daily freeway driving. Every day we pass at least one or two accidents. My wife is very careful at bedtime to remind our children to thank God in prayer for getting us (and everybody we know) home safely one more time. I have no idea how many hazards God protects me from daily. And you know what? I don't wanna know, 'cause that might be a little much for a brotha to handle. But daily I just offer up a blanket thanks because I know He does so much more than what I see.

Also, when God handles business in a way that pleases us, we take credit for it ourselves! That's crazy. We will give credit to ourselves, to "being in the right place at the right time," or, worst of all, to luck. I can't stand that. We're not that great or that skillful, and "luck" doesn't exist in a world ordered by God. If you want to know the truth, we couldn't wipe our noses without God's help. Anybody who has ever suffered any form of paralysis or chronic pain can tell you, when your legs don't work or your back goes out, no amount of intelligence or self-will can fix either of them. Anybody who has ever suffered through the flu can tell you that while you're lying flat on your back, praying to luck makes no difference.

It's only when God does His thing in a way that troubles us that we suddenly pay attention. After 9/11, so many people demanded to know where God was: "If He is supposed to be omnipotent, then why didn't He prevent the attacks?" In defense of God's character I had only two things to say. First, the attacks were thwarted to some degree. We know at least one of the planes did not hit its target. So, praise God, it wasn't as bad as it could have been. Second, who do you think has been covering our butts for the last two hundred or so years? It's my understanding that foreign terrorist threats were much greater in the 1970s than any other time in our history, but we didn't experience even one attack on our soil during that decade. And when you consider our nation's history with brown people the world over, that's pretty amazing. Say what you want, but God deserves some dap for that. Many people claim that our intelligence sources not having been as good as in decades past contributed to the success of the 9/11 attacks. I don't doubt that. But the best human intelligence goes only so far. We just need to come up off some praise to God for protecting our sorry behinds this far. As people in other nations can tell you, it could be much worse on the regular. So stop playin' and give God His props.

So what's the point? It's this: God meets our needs all the time, simply because He loves us. We don't deserve it. We didn't earn it. He's just that gracious. And when you consider how much we kick rocks, that's a lot of grace. In Matthew 6, Jesus doesn't chastise us for having concerns. As a matter of fact, he encourages us to bring our concerns to God directly. "Give us each day our daily bread," is what He instructs us to ask (Luke 11:3). God cares for us. He hurts when we hurt. We live under God's benevolent covering. It's for this reason in particular that we shouldn't worry. God's got our backs. All He wants is our hearts. Matthew 6:33 instructs us to re arrange our priorities. Put God's concerns first and let Him take care of yours. "What does God care about?" you may ask. I have yet to hear it better worded than in Micah 6:8, which reads, "And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God." James 1:27 goes into more detail: "Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world." That's pretty straightforward. It ain't easy, but it is clear.

I'll give you an example from my own life of how God hooked me up. Sheeri and I were working on a deal between two parties. The first party offered us a legitimate finder's fee, standard in its industry, for bringing the second party to the table. Everything was straight until a third party, who worked for the first party, came to me in secret demanding a cut of my finder's fee, threatening— albeit very politely—that the deal would not go through unless I agreed. I figured that's just how it had to go. Besides, a percentage of something was better than 100 percent of nothing. Without praying about it or talking it over with my wife, I agreed. Later as we began to pray about it, we both became uncomfortable with the idea. It wasn't so much that we had to share the fee. It was the way and the reason we had to share the fee—in secret and because of someone else's greed. To say that this third party was already paid is an understatement. I know for a fact that this person was pullin' down at least seven figures annually. We decided to forgo the fee altogether. Let me tell you, it was a six-figure fee and we weren't having the best year financially. And even if we had been, I wouldn't turn my nose up at that kind of cash. At any rate, we were sure that we had made the right decision because of God's confirming peace. If you have never experienced it, I really cannot explain it to you. Suffice it to say we were cool. But before we could inform any of the parties of our decision, the deal fell apart and the person demanding the kickback got let go. We were disappointed that the deal flopped, but months later the first two parties renegotiated the terms, reached an agreement, and—get this—my fee quintupled and I didn't have to pay any kickbacks off of it. You can't tell me nothing about my Jesus. Because Sheeri and I were willing to let go of the cash (which we really could have used, y'all) in order to obey the prompting of the Holy Spirit, God hooked us up! We sought the kingdom first. God made good on His Word. You can't beat that.

I'll give you one more example before I close shop. This one involves giving. When Sheeri and I met, she was pushin' a little red Miata. It was cute but small. That was no problem, though, because it was just the two of us and I had my own ride. When things started to get tight, we let go of my car. It was inconvenient to share a ride, but not impossible, until we got pregnant.

We decided to sell Sheeri's car, which was paid for, and use the cash as a down payment on a new one. Perfectly logical. We put an ad in the paper and waited . . . and waited . . . and waited. We could not understand why we got not even one inquiry. Our ad ran out and we placed another. Still not one call. And we were asking well below blue book.

Then Sheeri came to me one day and said that in her prayer time the Holy Spirit spoke to her heart. I ain't gon' lie; sometimes I just hate to hear her say that 'cause I just know that what's going to follow is gon' press me. So she tells me that she's pretty sure that the Lord wants us to give the car away. You know I looked at her sideways, right? I think I said something like, "Are you sure, Sheeri?" Clearly she was. And peep this: She knew who we were supposed to give it to as well. I wasn't excited about it, but I did give her permission to go ahead. In my spirit, I was sure she had heard from the Lord.

So we got the person's number. Sheeri called and offered the car. The person flipped out! It turns out he had been living in Los Angeles for almost a decade and taking the bus because he couldn't afford to buy a car yet. There was screaming and shouting and all kinds of praising as homeboy made arrangements to pick up the car the following week. I was not prepared for how it made me feel. I don't think I had ever given anything at God's prompting in my life. And I had certainly never given away anything along the lines of a whole car. It felt great! I wanted to find some more stuff to give away. I can't tell you how it moved me to see the gratitude on the face of that guy who took the car. I was so grateful to God that He let me be a part of something that could so positively affect someone else. I vowed then to do it as often as He would permit me.

Okay, so there we were—carless. We were expecting a baby and living in Los Angeles, a metropolis not known for its fine public transportation. And I sho' as hell didn't want to be that dude on the bus with the stroller and the car seat. Much love to anyone who has to go that route, but I was not trying to hear that. What happened next I still have difficulty believing. Someone gave us a car. I kid you not. A friend's elderly aunt owned a classic Mercury Cougar and gave it to us. She and her husband had two cars, but used only one. They seldom went any farther than their neighborhood grocery store. And since her hip-replacement surgery, she had stopped doing much driving altogether, so she gave us a car! No hassles, no worries. I still bug out at that. Yeah, it was older, but it was clean. And older cats loved it! Every time my wife or I drove somewhere, someone—usually a man over sixty—would stop us to admire it. It was crazy! A friend pointed out that we had given away a car with two seats and got one with four. And talk about a tank! That car was made of metal, not fiberglass. I had no problem toting my little man around in that.

God had shown us yet again that if we trusted Him, took Him at His word, and obeyed Him, He would make sure that "all these things would be given" to us as well. Don't sleep on this. If He will do it for me, He will do it for you, too. Those are only two stories from my life. Between me and my friends, we got a truckload of stories like that, most of them involving tithing. In what areas do you have difficulty trusting in the promises of God? Do you even know any? In what areas of your life are you being tempted to compromise in order to advance or to meet your needs? I bet that if you went to God and asked Him to meet your needs in order to keep you unpolluted, He would answer you. If that's your situation, you really have nothing to lose. The worst He can do is nothing, which would leave you in no worse shape than you are now.

All of that's to say, once I got that God didn't want my money, but my heart, my devotion, my will, it became a small thing to give up the cash. I see that His requirements are quite reasonable. It seems like I'm giving up something, because I am! But really the resources, the cash, the people, the stuff in my life aren't mine anyway. They are His. And whatever He wants from me—my cash, my time, my effort—He's got it. I'm sold out, y'all. He's been too good for me to front. The way I feel about my God is similar to the way I feel about my wife—only more so. My wife has given me so much, so willingly, and so completely that anything that nigga want is hers. She has earned it just for stickin' by me when nobody wanted anything to do with me. And as much as I love my girl, she ain't got nothing on my Jesus. Yeah, it's like that. If you don't know that kind of devotion, ain't much else I can say, except I'm sorry for you. But if you ever figure out that you'd like to, just know He's only a short prayer away.

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