Brad Isbell

Against Requiring Background Checks

It is not for the General Assembly to require lower courts or churches to dispose of their property against their will. Writing such provisions into the PCA constitution would set a dangerous precedent and would undermine the freedom and rights of local churches.

Overtures to the 51st General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America that would require —with a “shall”—the purchase of background checks for all officer and ministerial candidates violate the principle that a church’s property is its own and cannot be taken by a higher court, agency, or committee of the church.1 Many PCA churches incurred great financial loss to come into the denomination from the Presbyterian Church in the United States because of claims to local church property by the denomination and its presbyteries. Churches lost buildings, ministers lost pensions, or churches paid huge sums to keep what they rightly owned. Written into the PCA constitution are provisions to prevent such things from ever happening again. Money is property—requiring it to be spent is equivalent to taking it.
Book of Church Order 25-10:
The provisions of this BCO 25 are to be construed as a solemn covenant whereby the Church as a whole promises never to attempt to secure possession of the property of any congregation against its will, whether or not such congregation remains within or chooses to withdraw from this body. All officers and courts of the Church are hereby prohibited from making any such attempt.
Heretofore, monetary expense (the taking of church money or requiring that church money be spent) was not required to constitute a church or call an ordained man.
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Leaking to the Left

“Isn’t it good that egalitarian or less confessional ministers leave?” We would answer in the affirmative, but we’d also note that the precipitating change in convictions probably didn’t arrive with lightning-bolt speed. The number leaving left suggests that men with egalitarian convictions operated in the PCA for a number of years before departing. 

When PCA ministers leave for other denominations, where do they go? Our friend Zack Groff has tracked this and takes a slightly different approach in his analysis than do we. He uses more peaceful/less peaceful to describe the receiving denominations. We will use the flawed left/right descriptor.
For our purposes left will basically mean less doctrinally precise and/or more egalitarian than the PCA. Right indicates denominations more doctrinally precise or socially conservative than the PCA. Far fewer congregations leave for other denominations than do ministers, thus the ministerial numbers are more significant than the congregational data. Here is the section of the General Assembly minutes from 2023 that reflects ministerial moves in 2022:1

The data suggests that when PCA ministers leave, they go left. More than half of the leavers went to the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC – 9)) and ECO (A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians – 2) are less concerned2 with confessional Reformed doctrine and both allow women elders and pastors. The same is true for the hard-to-categorize Anglican Church in North America (ACNA – 1). And the Episcopal Church (1) is simply a liberal mainline church. It should be noted that all of these “left” denominations (Except the Episcopal) were late 20th/early 21st-century institutions meant primarily to serve as landing zones for “conservative” refugees from the mainline.
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Machen Saw What was Coming

In the machinery of modern industry and government, and in worldly, pragmatic ideologies, Machen saw a real threat to liberty, society, and the church. The only solution for him was the knowledge of a God who cared enough to send his Son, beneath whose cross and in whose church is the only refuge from the decay and depravity of the world.

J. Gresham Machen was certainly prescient about the havoc theological liberalism would wreak on the mainline churches in the 20th century. He also saw the rise of fascism and ethnonationalism in the 1920s and 1930s. We would do well to consider those warnings today.
Machen’s observations about the church and the world in his great short essay Mountains and Why We Love Them were published in 1933 (based on a mountain-climbing trip of the previous year) and have never been more relevant. In 1932 Italian fascist dictator Benito Mussolini was probably more well-known to most Americans than Adolf Hitler, who lost the German presidential election that year. But Machen, who had studied in Germany and knew it well, was keenly aware of Hitler’s threat. He looked out across Europe from a peak in the Swiss Alps and did not like what he saw:
Then there is something else about that view from the Matterhorn. I felt it partly at least as I stood there, and I wonder whether you can feel it with me. It is this. You are standing there not in any ordinary country, but in the very midst of Europe, looking out from its very centre. Germany just beyond where you can see to the northeast, Italy to the south, France beyond those snows of Mont Blanc. There, in that glorious round spread out before you, that land of Europe, humanity has put forth its best. There it has struggled; there it has fallen; there it has looked upward to God. The history of the race seems to pass before you in an instant of time, concentrated in that fairest of all the lands of the earth. You think of the great men whose memories you love, the men who have struggled there in those countries below you, who have struggled for light and freedom, struggled for beauty, struggled above all for God’s Word. And then you think of the present and its decadence and its slavery, and you desire to weep. It is a pathetic thing to contemplate the history of mankind.
Here it seems that Machen had in view modernity and its dehumanizing machinery (of state and of steel) and its godless “morality.” See the introductory chapter of Christianity and Liberalism (written 10 years before) to understand more fully what Machen had in mind. In that book, Machen had extolled “the great principles of Anglo-Saxon liberty,” meaning the tradition of individual rights pioneered in the British Isles.
Machen goes on to speak of the evil ends that modernity’s machines and men were beginning to serve:
I know that there are people who tell us contemptuously that always there are croakers who look always to the past, croakers who think that the good old times are the best. But I for my part refuse to acquiesce in this relativism which refuses to take stock of the times in which we are living. It does seem to me that there can never be any true advance, and above all there can never be any true prayer, unless a man does pause occasionally, as on some mountain vantage ground, to try, at least, to evaluate the age in which he is living. And when I do that, I cannot for the life of me see how any man with even the slightest knowledge of history can help recognizing the fact that we are living in a time of sad decadence—a decadence only thinly disguised by the material achievements of our age, which already are beginning to pall on us like a new toy. When Mussolini makes war deliberately and openly upon democracy and freedom, and is much admired for doing so even in countries like ours; when an ignorant ruffian is dictator of Germany, until recently the most highly educated country in the world—when we contemplate these things I do not see how we can possibly help seeing that something is radically wrong. Just read the latest utterances of our own General Johnson, his cheap and vulgar abuse of a recent appointee of our President, the cheap tirades in which he develops his view that economics are bunk—and then compare that kind of thing with the state papers of a Jefferson or a Washington—and you will inevitably come to the conclusion that we are living in a time when decadence has set in on a gigantic scale.
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Who Ought to Read Scripture in Public Worship?

Who may (or ought to) read scripture in public worship is severely limited by the words and implications of our standards and even sanctified common sense. And I hope PCA officers will consider that our fathers in the faith may have been right about these things.

The reading of scripture in public worship is an essential, though undervalued, part of worship for confessional presbyterian churches, whose greatest distinctive (aside from their eponymous form of government) is their doctrine of worship. Reading is an element of Reformed worship, meaning it cannot be omitted and must be done properly.1 The Westminster Divines understood this and evidently they believed that the weightiness and importance of public scripture reading meant that not just anyone could do it:
Is the Word of God to be read by all?Although all are not to be permitted to read the word publicly to the congregation, yet all sorts of people are bound to read it apart by themselves, and with their families: to which end, the holy Scriptures are to be translated out of the original into vulgar languages.—Westminster Larger Catechism 156
For 300 or more years after John Knox began reforming the Scottish church, all presbyterians understood that trained, ordained men (or those being trained) ought to read scripture in public worship services. This fact is obvious to any fair-minded student of ecclesial history. There have been no presbyterian Shakers or Quakers…at least not until recently.2 So it must be that either our forbears were wrong or that things have changed.
It’s a rare week when I don’t receive a message from someone in the conservative Presbyterian and Reformed world reporting a practice that the scandalized sender has witnessed in a NAPARC3 church. Often the report is of females reading scripture or leading some other part of worship, such as the call to worship, confessions, “pastoral” prayer, distributing Lord’s Supper elements—pretty much anything except sermon and benediction. Unsurprisingly, these reports usually concern PCA churches—unsurprising, I say, for two reasons. First, the membership of the PCA makes up about two-thirds of the 600,000 members in NAPARC churches, so there are proportionally more PCA churches to, well, do stuff. Second, there is simply more diversity of practice (i.e., doing stuff) in the PCA. This diversity of practice, some will aver, is because of the diverse geographical and cultural contexts that PCA churches and church plants inhabit compared to their stodgier NAPARC cousins. Missional faithfulness, some will say, requires contextualization, and contextualization requires adjustments. But the question may be asked: What is the real (or first) context that ought to govern practice in a presbyterian church?
I would argue that the primary and governing context of a confessional, constitutional presbyterian church is…the confessional, constitutional presbyterian church and her standards. Church websites often extol a congregation’s unique “DNA,” but all presbyterian churches in a given denomination have the same DNA: their biblical (not to say biblicist) confessions and constitutions. Such a presbyterian church ought not be so “outward-facing” (a popular concept) that it turns its back on its confessional-constitutional core. Nor should it be pharisaically legalist…but more about that below.
The Fifth Commandment enjoins us to honor our fathers and mothers, and the Westminster Standards apply the commandment to the honoring of our betters and our elders more generally. As presbyterians who stand on the shoulders of five centuries of churchmen in our tradition, the principles of the Fifth Commandment imply that we should consider what our faithful fathers in the faith found in the scriptures and passed on to us.4
The PCA Historical Center has done helpful work which allows us to trace the mind of the presbyterian churches on the matter of public scripture reading. This is the Historical Center’s data, presented in reverse order (compared to the original article) with bolding added:
The Directory for the Publick Worship of God; agreed upon by the Assembly of Divines at Westminster, 1645, III-1 & 2Reading of the word in the congregation, being part of the publick worship of God, (wherein we acknowledge our dependence upon him, and subjection to him,) and one mean sanctified by him for the edifying of his people, is to be performed by the pastors and teachers.Howbeit, such as intend the ministry, may occasionally both read the word, and exercise their gift in preaching in the congregation, if allowed by the presbytery thereunto.
PCUSA, 1786, DfW, 2d DraftThe reading of the Holy Scriptures in the Congregation, is a part of the public worship of God; and ought to be performed by the Ministers and Teachers.
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Chariots of Hire

There are still presbyterians around whose consciences are pricked by the prospect of thousands of people (Christians and pagans alike) working on the Lord’s Day for the sake of “recreation.” For them, obvious violations of the Second Commandment take all the fun out of America’s biggest Sunday.

We are reliably informed that this is “Super Bowl Week,” a promotional publicity-fest that is something like Advent for the USA’s greatest holy day. That this holy day falls on the first day of next week—the Lord’s Day if you are a confessional presbyterian—may have something to do with professional football’s relatively late arrival on the American sports scene. That some churches and elders who ought to know better embrace this mega-event as an appropriate occasion for church activities may indicate the diminishing regard presbyterians have for their historic standards.
By the time burly bruisers began to get paid for playing football, Saturdays were taken—already the domain of high school and college football.1 Professional football arose in the 1920s when Blue Laws prohibiting many commercial activities on Sundays were fading away. All over the country local and state governments were greenlighting Sunday contests. By 1967 TV viewers were ready for some football and the TV networks were ready for increased revenues so when 65 million people watched the first Super Bowl the die was cast. Every Super Bowl since has been played on Sunday. The NFL owns Sunday now from fall through winter. A few cranky protestants pose no threat to the new lords of the old Lord’s Day.
American churches generally accepted the ongoing relevance and application of the Ten Commandments until about the time professional sports went wild in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. By then the glories of Revivalism were fading and pragmatism called evangelicals like a siren. The doctrinal underpinnings of Lord’s Day observance were largely lost on both the fundamentalist right and the progressive left. The right was running on the fumes of Calvinistic doctrine (see the early Southern Baptists). The 1925 Baptist Faith & Message reflects an almost-Westminsterian understanding of the Lord’s Day. The 2000 revision showed the loss of this understanding by the end of the 20th century. While evangelicals may have fallen prey to pragmatism, the mainline loved respectability. The old ways of honoring the Lord’s Day were just…weird. And no one wanted to be weird. (Witness the baptists’ Lord’s Day declension.)
But back to the 1920s: by then waves of European immigration brought the freer, so-called “Continental Sabbath”2 to American cities where Sunday freedom became a political issue. Cultural resistance to a commercial Sunday crumbled and many evangelicals and confessional protestants forgot why they had ever cared about the Fourth Commandment. And they kept forgetting. Christians loved the courageous example of sabbatarian conviction portrayed in the 1981 movie Chariots of Fire, but there was no resurgence of regard for the Christian Sabbath. Scottish athlete Eric Liddells’s sacrifices for the sake of his convictions in 1924 were inspiring but already seemed quaint and out of date.
In the middle of the 17th century the Westminster Divines believed the Christian Sabbath was too important to forget, and their warnings against such forgetting seem almost prophetic. In Westminster Larger Catechism 121, they wrote: “Satan with his instruments much labor(s) to blot out the glory, and even the memory of (the Christian Sabbath), to bring in all irreligion and impiety.”
In 2024, after about 100 years of professional Sunday sports, it’s common to see evangelical pastors wearing football jerseys on their church stages (or even behind rare vestigial pulpits) to promote “Super Sunday” events. Whether conceived for outreach or fellowship, these events are always billed as FUN! Less common are confessional presbyterian churches engaging in February football hijinks. Less common, I say, but not unknown.
A PCA church somewhere in the southeast is having a big, public, commercial Super Bowl party this year. Surely it is not the only such church to do so, but we are persuaded that such events are still quite rare. Now, informal gatherings of church families or small groups to watch what we (for legal reasons) are supposed to call the BIG GAME are not unheard of, and neither are youth events centered around the advertising-entertainment festival to which a football game has been attached. Sunday evening worship services, since they have almost disappeared in the PCA, are no hindrance to such gatherings. Neither, it would seem, are the doctrinal standards of the church.
The PCA church in question is meeting not at its building but at a brewpub, though prospective attendees are assured that non-alcoholic drinks will be available. And the victuals for the viewers will be provided not by church ladies or warmed-up Costco pizzas, but by a food truck. And speaking of food trucks (chariots of hire, if you will), we’ve noticed a churchy trend in that regard: churches contracting with food trucks to vend on church campuses on the Lord’s Day after worship. This at least serves to render the old “Should we go out to eat on Sunday?” controversy moot. Now the restaurant comes to you. Dinner on the grounds just ain’t what it used to be. Who ever got great street tacos at a potluck anyway?
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Empty Lofts & Vacant Stages

Choirs may “age out”—the older members simply can’t (or don’t want to) climb the steps anymore, and the younger people who would replace them want to worship with their families rather than spend half the service on a platform or in a loft, especially in churches where there is no children’s church or age-segregated worship. Sometimes members come to prefer singing with their congregational neighbors rather than being more or less sung at by an amplified, center-stage team.

Choirs (and their casual, modern descendants worship teams and praise bands) have been near-ubiquitous in Reformed churches for less than two centuries, but just like government programs, once instituted these groups are difficult to disband even though their historical pedigree is weak. Arrangements may be changed (from choir to praise team), expanded, or downsized, but any pastor or session/consistory knows that messing with the music is akin to playing with fire.
The music-loving Welsh even had a term (cythraul canu) for problems and strife caused by music and choirs. Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones sometimes referred to it in English: the devil in the singing. Many pastors and church officers have understood the concept all too well, resisting change and preferring the known “devil” to the unknown one.
But change does happen. Diminution or even elimination of church “music programs” is not completely unknown.
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The Pixelated

Christianity is first a hearing religion. The unimpressive “foolishness” of the preaching medium is suited to the Gospel message as are the modest visual media of the sacraments. We know these media are suitable and profitable because God has ordained them. If the words of scripture prompt visual images in our mind, that is natural. If we seek to create and fixate on sentimental images (even if only mental), we go astray according to the Westminster divines. Godliness with contentment is great gain—let us strive to be content with biblical data and media. 

Nothing provides a jolt of controversy like touching the worship rails, Almost every discussion of the Second and Fourth Commandments turns into a skirmish if not a pitched battle. While some Reformed folk would slot issues connected to images, worship music, and the finer details of sacramental administration and Lord’s Day observance into second or third “tiers” of importance, the mere mention of certain ways of applying the Second and Fourth Commandments (ways that seem to comport with the plain reading of the Reformed standards) elicits howls of protest. The sharp reactions around these issues tell us that Calvin was right: worship is of primary importance. People tell you what really matters to them. Hear Machen:
In the sphere of religion, as in other spheres, the things about which men are agreed are apt to be the things that are least worth holding; the really important things are the things about which men will fight.
Now, since I have no desire to start an actual shooting war I’ll refrain (for now) from talking about instruments, praise ditties and divine boyfriend songs, intinction, “young child communion,” non-elder scripture readers, or whether Christians should watch or even attend professional sporting events on the Lord’s Day…or eat at restaurants on the way to or from. I don’t want to be unreasonable.But let’s talk about pictures of Jesus, not just in public worship or Sunday School rooms but in Christians’ heads—the mental images that the Westminster Divines had in mind (no pun intended).
109. What sins are forbidden in the second commandment?A. The sins forbidden in the second commandment are, all devising, counseling, commanding, using, and any wise approving, any religious worship not instituted by God himself; the making any representation of God, of all or of any of the three persons, either inwardly in our mind, or outwardly in any kind of image or likeness of any creature whatsoever; all worshiping of it, or God in it or by it; the making of any representation of feigned deities, and all worship of them, or service belonging to them; all superstitious devices, corrupting the worship of God, adding to it, or taking from it, whether invented and taken up of ourselves, or received by tradition from others, though under the title of antiquity, custom, devotion, good intent, or any other pretense whatsoever; simony; sacrilege; all neglect, contempt, hindering, and opposing the worship and ordinances which God hath appointed.
The plain reading of this answer to the 109th question of the Larger Catechism is itself based on the plain reading of the Second Commandment. Yet, it is controversial for some presbyters. Some aver that it is impossible to have, make, or use mental images of Jesus so the catechism must have overdone it. But the impossibility of keeping this commandment (not to mention the other nine) seems a poor argument for taking a pass on it or sanding its application down to a more pleasing smoothness.
Our friend Harrison Perkins wrote a fine paper on Westminster and images several years ago. Posting quotes from that article and the reactions to it prompted these reflections. In the article, Perkins showed that Westminster was not alone (as some have suggested) in its concern about mental images.
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Machen on the Church

Is there no refuge from strife? Is there no place of refreshing where a man can prepare for the battle of life? Is there no place where two or three can gather in Jesus’ name, to forget for the moment all those things that divide nation from nation and race from race, to forget human pride, to forget the passions of war, to forget the puzzling problems of industrial strife, and to unite in overflowing gratitude at the foot of the Cross? If there be such a place, then that is the house of God and that the gate of heaven. And from under the threshold of that house will go forth a river that will revive the weary world.

The closing paragraphs of J. Gresham Machen’s Christianity and Liberalism are among the most moving words he ever wrote, and they seem well-nigh prophetic 100 years later as ethnic and national strife again (or still) roil the church. After lamenting the state of the liberalizing mainline churches, their skewed mission, and their fading, worldly gospel, he ended the book in this way:
Sometimes, it is true, the longing for Christian fellowship is satisfied. There are congregations, even in the present age of conflict, that are really gathered around the table of the crucified Lord; there are pastors that are pastors indeed. But such congregations, in many cities, are difficult to find. Weary with the conflicts of the world, one goes into the Church to seek refreshment for the soul.
Gospel and gospel rest are in view here. The “table of the crucified Lord” does not only refer to the proper administration of the sacrament. Machen knew that the Lord’s table was of no benefit to church members unless the gospel framing the supper pointed them to the supernatural Jesus of the bible, the God-Man. This is why Machen spent considerable time earlier in the book on orthodox Christology. He also knew that a non-atoning “atonement” for people not convinced of their lost condition (thanks to milquetoast preachers of vague moral uplift) was not worthy of being called good news. Then as now, clear biblical gospel presentation was a rarity, as was a church focused first on the spiritual rather than the material.
The church, instead restful refuge for weary pilgrims and strangers, had become a job center, a feel-good clinic, and a lifestyle brand. Such, he said in chapter two, had not been true of the “Christian movement at its inception (which) was not just a way of life in the modern sense, but a way of life founded upon a message.  It was based, not upon a mere feeling, not upon a mere program of work, but on an account of facts.” Machen knew that the primary work of the ministry was to proclaim the facts of the good news. And he knew that the church should be the most unusual of places—an auditorium that is also a free-admission hospital, a hospice, and a hostel.
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Reformed Worship & Presbyterian Viability

The regulative principle of worship suggests and bolsters a regulative principle of everything for the church. Doctrine, order, and doxology are a three-legged stool. When present and sturdy, these legs will bear great weight; when any are missing or compromised, collapse is imminent. Calvin would seem to agree with this thesis according to his famous statement about worship and soteriology in “The Necessity of Reforming the Church” (admittedly written before the presbyterian government was fully developed).

Thesis: No confessional presbyterian church will long remain confessional or presbyterian if it loses Reformed worship.
First, some definitions:

Confessional: orthodox soteriology and doctrine (doctrine of God, Christology, covenant) according to the Reformed confessions
Presbyterian: government by ordained male (per scripture) elders organized in accountable, graded courts
Reformed worship: scripturally regulated (RPW), simple, ordinary means of grace worship—a Reformed bucket to carry Reformed water.

Why will unscriptural, man-centered, culturally conditioned, over-contextualized worship undermine confessional orthodoxy? Because worship by its very form (which ought to be according to spirit—uppercase and lowercase— and truth) communicates certain things about the nature of God and man, thus theology proper and anthropology can’t help but be warped by unbiblical worship. Theology proper and biblical anthropology are the foundations of soteriology, which will also be warped by unbiblical (e.g.: revivalist or sacerdotal) worship.
Why will unscriptural, man-centered, culturally conditioned, over-contextualized worship undermine biblical, presbyterian church government? Because free-form, optional, variable worship forms suggest free-form, optional, variable ecclesial forms…or little form at all. And when worship is no longer led by ordained elders, government by ordained elders seems less plausible. Presbyterian order is not hierarchical, but neither is it excessively horizontal. Rolling it out too thin leads to its disintegration.
The regulative principle of worship suggests and bolsters a regulative principle of everything for the church. Doctrine, order, and doxology are a three-legged stool. When present and sturdy, these legs will bear great weight; when any are missing or compromised, collapse is imminent.
Calvin would seem to agree with this thesis according to his famous statement about worship and soteriology in “The Necessity of Reforming the Church” (admittedly written before the presbyterian government was fully developed).
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In Praise of the Humble Blue Blazer

The blue blazer is a manly, wise, and presbyterian choice. Every elder should have at least one. Even better if you find one that fits from the 50%-off rack. And remember to buy it a little big[1] since decades of fellowship meals and one-on-one breakfast meetings can have their expansive effect. Blessed is the elder who serves long and wears out (or maybe even outgrows) more than one blue blazer.

What equipment does a newly minted Ruling Elder need? I would propose the following: the Bible, the Westminster Standards, the Book of Church Order (BCO), a phone for texting members and fellow elders (there is lots of texting), an email account, and that most presbyterian item of men’s clothing – the essential blue blazer.
Why a blazer? A blazer is a solid-color coat – safe, humble, versatile, and frugal. A blue blazer is not going to impress, alienate, or overawe anyone. Let me put this gently: If you wish to impress with your creative and fashionable sartorial choices, you might not be elder material. If you are to stand out, let it be for your character, not for the cut of your suit; let it be for humility, not for haute couture; let it be for commitment to truth, not for the loudness of your plaids and patterns.
The modern “freedom” of informality and nearly limitless choices of dress and self-expression is, as many have noted, a source of stress. The plethora of choices makes confidence and ease even harder to achieve. What is appropriate for this or that setting? Is this too much? Is that not enough? Guess what works in nearly every setting from worship service to classroom, from funeral to wedding, from a hospital visit to a fellowship dinner, from presbytery committee meeting to General Assembly: the humble blue blazer. Pair it with jeans, khakis, or dress pants. Wear a tie or don’t wear a tie. Pair it with a casual shirt or a dress shirt. The blue blazer is almost infinitely adjustable.
The blue blazer says, “I take this event, job, or situation seriously, but I do not take myself too seriously.”
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