Is Alan Chambers Wrong?

I wanted to invite your responses to Alan Chambers’ latest piece in order to have some comments to bounce off from. With controversial articles like this (and some people are very upset about it) it’s good to know how people are reacting before framing my stance.

I think I want to suggest to you all that Alan Chambers is right, but in a wrong way for the wrong reasons. Let me explain.

During lunch, my friend asked my views on “covenant friendships”. I’d never heard that term, but quickly realized she was referring to sexless committed relationships between members of the same gender. I immediately called them sinful. She was shocked. So was I. Apparently, we don’t share what I consider to be fairly cut and dry biblical position on this issue. So I asked her to give me a first hand account of such a relationship that she saw as healthy. She went on to share the story of a Christian lesbian who believes that homosexual behavior is sinful, but holds no hope of ever experiencing heterosexuality. The thought of living a single life was too much for her to bear and so she developed a committed non-sexual relationship with another woman. They held a commitment ceremony, bought a house together, combined their finances and are trying to live happily ever after. They live in separate bedrooms, but in every other sense of the word, they are partners. “What’s wrong with that?” my friend asked. Everything.

The problem with the many negative responses to Alan’s piece is that they hinge on the understanding of what sin actually is. Is sin simply about doing something wrong (an activity) or is it about a more fundamental state of heart that rejects God’s sovereignty? If you took the first perspective then there is little in the lesbian relationship described above that is in and of itself sinful. There is no sex, no eroticism. They essentially live as close friends but nothing more. What are they doing that is itself sinful.

If you take the second perspective however then you run a different equation. If sin is one’s perspective and attitude on life (I can ignore God) then you start to see how a celibate but covenanted same-sex couple might be sinful.

Let me explain. A conservative reading of Scripture indicates two states of sexual being that are advocated for humans. The first is sexual activity within a marriage of a man and a woman. The second is celibacy and singleness. The Scriptures have absolutely nothing to say about giftings or callings to either of these two states (though many report such a thing to both states) and it expects humans to operate in one of the choices.

All good so far, but how does this impact upon the celibate gay couple? Dave Rattigan at Ex-Gay Watch makes a good point on this subject:

He has the audacity to claim this is a “fairly cut and dry biblical position.” There will always be debate over the nature of Ruth and Naomi’s relationship, or whether David and Jonathan physically consummated their unusually intimate (and covenant-sealed) friendship. But what can never be doubted is that these are two scriptural examples of committed, loving, same-gender relationships. Chambers calls this “living outside God’s best.” He must either deny the love that existed between Ruth and Naomi, and David and Jonathan, or make such relationships the exclusive domain of heterosexuals.

Now I know like the next man that there is absolutely no evidence that these two relationships were sexual in any way. But putting that aside, they were very strong friendships and the best of pro-gay theology has used them (in a non-sexual way) to support such covenanted relationships like the one above. However, here the Scriptures help us with our quandry. You see, in both these comitted friendships, the partners were open to God bringing the individuals involved into marriage. Both David and Jonathan married (David more than once, but not necessarily for the right reasons or in the right way, though Matthew 1:6 indicates how God can triumph over sin). Ruth left Naomi to be married to Boaz (and a quick look at the genealogy in Matthew 1:5 shows just how important that was). In each of these relationships, the friendship did not get in the way of following God’s will for them to either be single and celibate or married.

So back to the Lesbian couple in question. If the covenant that they are talking about doesn’t prevent them from being married or from being single and celibate then there is no problem with it. I wonder though whether the very act of entering into such a covenant has placed them both in a position that they simply cannot get married, because to get married would be to break that covenant. At the same, they can hardly be called single – they have obligations to each other that extend beyond mere friendship.

This is the crux of the issue. If the couple can still be thought of as single then there is no problem. If they can’t then the relationship is sinful, not because of any particular sexual activity but rather since those involved seek to create a manner of life that prevents them from that which God has indicated they should live.

Now, so far I have agreed with Alan Chambers, but on one point I differ. He writes:

What about abstaining from all appearances of evil? How about ? Two same-sex attracted women getting married and pledging their lifelong love and devotion to one another, with or without sex, is called homosexuality. How can we say anything less?

I think I’m hesitant to use the “abstaining from all appearances of evil” or “fleeing from temptation” argument here. After all, during my single years I have shared houses with men and women. Never at any time did I think that the fact that we both had keys for the same front door lock meant that once the door closed there was doubt as to what we were doing behind it. When two people say to me “We’re not having sex or anything like that” I believe them unless there is clear evidence to the contrary. When they are strong Christians, grounded in the faith, I don’t suddenly question their ability to resist temptation unless they come to me and say, “We are finding this really hard”.

So I think Alan is right, but on this issue for the wrong reason. The real reason why such relationships (and I would class for example Jeffrey John’s relationship as one of these) are wrong is because they prevent the participants from entering into a manner of life that God actually explicitly intends for them. The intimacy involved in such a relationship is not the kind of intimacy we were designed for. Here Alan does hit the nail right on the head when he says:

Our impatience with God and our inability to allow Him to work things out in our lives can lead us to sin. I see the relationship between the two women that I related above as a counterfeit to the intimacy that only God can give and bring through another person. Like Proverbs 13:12 says, “Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but desire fulfilled is a tree of life.” Filling the hole in our hearts with anything other than God’s best will make our hearts sick. Whether we call them civil unions, domestic partnerships, same-sex marriage or covenant friendships, the truth of the matter is that these unions are less than the Creator’s creative intent for His creation.

One more issue though needs to be addressed. It could be argued that there is no difference between a monastic community and the covenant relationship described above. At first this seems quite convincing, but when we explore the nature of a religious community we see straight away that kind of mutual committment between two people, to the exclusion of committing to anybody else, is the antithesis of what a monastery tries to achieve. A religious community involves the individual committing to singleness and to non-exclusive relationships with all members. You can’t do that if you have made a particilar vow of superior friendship to a particular person.

I think I’d want Alan Chambers to emphasise the point a bit more that it’s marriage or singleness that is the aim of our lives, but apart from this I think he’s roughly on the right track. As Christians we need to realise that our lives are not our own, that we were paid for at a price. What we do sexually and relationally speaks of him and to live our lives in a way he has not designed is to say something not just about ourselves and our desires, but also about God. That has nothing to do with whether our particular sexual attractions are mutable or not, and everything to do with whether regardless of the effect of a fallen world upon us, we will let our lives and how they are arranged speak of Him.

Your thoughts as always are welcome.

23 Comments on “Is Alan Chambers Wrong?

  1. Thank you, Peter. That clarifies the position for me very well. And I think you are quite right about the comparison with monasticism – and it is a point that was troubling me – that the problem would be the (presumed) exclusivity of a covenanted friendship.

    Some friendships can indeed appear to be like marriages, but because they are friendships, and not marriages (or something approximating to a marriage), they can be a sign of God’s love without marring his image in us. True friendship is a very valuable gift, and that twelfth-century monastic writer, Aelred of Rievaulx, has much to teach us about ‘Spiritual Friendship’, not least that true friendship takes Christ as its model; any friendship that has an ulterior motive, say, material or sexual, is not holy and true (and this is just one reason why the ‘spiritual boyfriends’ idea won’t do) . So true friendship must, like Christ’s love, indeed be selfless – how then could it be exclusive?

    I think my own understanding of these issues is becoming clearer, not least because of your help, Peter. Thank you again.

    • Flattery will get you everywhere John!!!

      I think John H makes some useful criticisms of my position below and is well worth considering in connection with the point you make about Anselm.

  2. The real reason why such relationships (and I would class for example Jeffrey John’s relationship as one of these) are wrong is because they prevent the participants from entering into a manner of life that God actually explicitly intends for them.

    Hmm. So the argument is that if they didn’t do this, then they’d be leaving the door open for when The Right Man comes along? Not sure about that.

    However, where I would really take issue with you is this statement:

    it’s marriage or singleness that is the aim of our lives

    At the risk of sounding like Doug Wilson, I really don’t think “singleness” is a biblical concept. “For that reason a man will” – cease to be single? Not quite – “a man will leave his father and mother…”

    The biblical perspective is that we always live in community, in fellowship with others. There are any number of ways in which we can do this: I don’t think Genesis 2:24 commits us to stay with our parents until we are married, for example, even once we set aside Mark Driscoll’s bizarre exegesis of that verse. Marriage is then still a “living-in-community”, but with the added aspect of sexual union.

    So I don’t see that your argument against these arrangements works, because it’s predicated on saying the relationship fails to fall into either of the God-ordained states of “marriage” or “singleness”. If we see the distinction as being “sexual relationship-in-community (i.e. marriage)” versus “non-sexual relationship-in-community”, then I don’t see that a problem remains.

    As for the “commitment ceremony” aspect, let’s assume that this does indeed amount to a mutual promise by each person not to get married. Vowing not to marry has a long history in the church, not always associated with monasticism. It may not have taken this precise form in the past, and it may or may not be a wise thing to do in particular circumstances, but it is still “in the tradition”, as it were. And in any event, there is no obligation on anyone to marry, so I don’t see what there is to stop someone making a permanent, settled decision that they do not wish to do so.

    • John H,

      Thanks for coming back to me on the monasticism / community issue.

      I think you have a valid criticism of my marriage / singleness dichotomy. Might it therefore be better stated that the options we are given in Scripture are marriage and non-exclusive friendship? If so, my critique of the covenant relationship would still work.

      I think I need to point out that I can see many, many merits in the covenant model. I believe it is the absolutely maximum good that one could achieve if one believed both that one was immutably same-sex attracted AND that one was committed not to engage in such sexual behaviour. The question though in this case is “Is the good the enemy of the best?”

      • But why are you so keen to find ways to express the position in a way which says this particular form of relationship is wrong? I don’t even see that it is necessarily the good being the enemy of the best, but that may depend on the view one takes of “immutability”. My own view is that the ability of people to “change” their sexual orientation is extremely variable.

        • Two things,

          I raised the issue of mutability in order to dismiss it as a validator for deciding the morality of a particular action. I did so because I want to get away from the “local maxima” way of arguing in favour of celibate gay relationships.

          That said, you have raised some really interesting stuff, especially this last piece on Boars Head. I think I might have to go back and do some more thinking about friendships and covenants, especially in the light of the Ruth / Naomi position.

  3. “So true friendship must, like Christ’s love, indeed be selfless – how then could it be exclusive?” – I think John as put it perfectly.

    I had this (on-line) discussion with David Morrison, a Catholic who was living in such a chaste relationship. I had and still have no problems with such a relationship, except that I see no need to label it as exclusive, precisely because of the above.

    Put simply – marriage is exclusive – it is the eros (and all built around it) that is exclusive. Agape is not exclusive, and agape is mostly what such friendship relationships are all about, or should be all about.

    However, there is a significant portion of philia and storge. The parties enjoy each other’s company and are to some extent dependent on each other, so it’s perfectly understandable why one would not want the other to leave. After all, even best friends experience mixed feelings when one of them goes of to get married.

    But what of formalizing this in a covenant, saying, in essence, “I’ll be best friends with you for life.” For me, it doesn’t make sense. Again, since agape is the basis and agape needs no formalization or covenant, there seems to me no need for a covenant. With true agape, if one of the parties finds himself having to leave – for marriage, job,  religious vocation, or any other reason, he will fully consider the impact on the other. In the same way as a daughter nursing her elderly parents may postpone marriage. Not because of a covenant, but because it happens to be the right thing to do given the circumstances. At the same time, agape would lead the partner being ‘left’ to being open to the new circumstances.

    So yes, what’s in the person’s heart is what’s important. Not exclusivity, but agape.

    • Thanks Saul. I think some excellent points have been made on celibate close relationships and I will need to go away and ponder more. In the meantime, if anybody can point me to examples of these in the Bible I’d be grateful (i.e. relationships that were close friendships and where the parties did not later marry).

  4. Interesting discussion you have here.  Taking a totally different take on this…  I think we in the church are great for putting out rules but we are not so good at providing redeemptive ethics.  Let me try to explain.  Jesus told the experts in the law the following..

    (Luke 11:46 NIV)  Jesus replied, “And you experts in the law, woe to you, because you load people down with burdens they can hardly carry, and you yourselves will not lift one finger to help them.

    This issue of loading down people with heavy burdens and not lifting one finger to help them is important to consider.  This is where redeemptive ethics comes in.  You have been discussing this from a standpoint of biblical interpretation and perhaps a tad bit of legalism.  But look at some of these issues that the church addresses…

     We tell the woman with the unexpected pregnancy that she must keep the baby – but do we provide any means to help her?  Do we give her the means to keep the child? (thankfully sometimes we do)

    We tell the older couple that is living together outside of marriage that they must either marry or break up (but don’t consider the loss of income (social security) and benefits if they marry)

    And.. coming back on to the subject…

    We tell the gay or lesbian person that they must remain celibate (or perhaps enter a mixed orientation marriage which by the way has a questionable longevity) but we do not provide for their emotional needs. 

    While it is true that straight singles are in a similar situation, in reality those singles are still looking for that special someone to be with.  With gay or lesbian people we are basically telling them.. you can never have a significant other, you will never have soeone in your life to watch after you and make decisions for you  if you are hospitalized, etc. 
    If we are going to put them in this situation and expect this from them then , just as in the circumstances I mentioned previously, we need to be there for them.  But the reality is that we won’t be .. we have our own families .. our own children . our own elderly parents to take care of .. etc.

    Scripture only addresses the same sex sex issue.  It does not talk much about the unique issues that gay and lesbian people face.  These covenant friendships provide an answer to this difficulty.  I don’t really see a problem with them.  Alan Chambers is, in my mind operating in too narrow of a window (ie. his way and nothing else)

    I think if we reject even this option (covenant freindships) we could indeed be found guilty of making rules without mercy, without empathy, and, like the scripture I quoted earlier, be guilty of not lifting a finger to help people honor God with their lives.  I am all for doing what the bible  says.  But I do not believe scripture condemns lifelong friendships.  So, if we condemn lifelong friendships then we better be willing to provide alternatives.  Otherwise, we may be pushing some folks into a box that they are unable to bear with the result being that they abandon their beliefs and seek an alternative route.   Yes, I do know and  understand that, ultimately,  people are accountable for their own actions, but Jesus held the rulers and religious leaders accountable for their actions as well.

    Chrisitanity is about more than just rules for right and wrong.  It is about a relationship with Jesus Christ.  It is about our caring about our brothers and sisters in Christ.  And it is about helping each other to live holy lives.



    P.S.  I also take exception to your statment..

    If you take the second perspective however then you run a different equation. If sin is one’s perspective and attitude on life (I can ignore God) then you start to see how a celibate but covenanted same-sex couple might be sinful.

    From the discussions I have seen on this issue among gay and lesbian folks who believe in celibacy, they are doing this because they are listening to God .. not ignoring Him.  They are chosing this as a middle path between a life of (apparently bible perscribed) singleness and the path of gay marriage which they do not believe is open to them

    • Thank you for this, Dave. I too got out my bible and looked at the similar passage in Matthew 23 v 4 : “They tie up heavy loads and put them on men’s shoulders but they are not willing to lift a finger to move them.” Also verse 23 ” woe to you, teachers of the law and pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of you spices …but you have neglected the more important matters of the law – justice, mercy and blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.”

      To strain over a gnat ( the need of gay and lesbian people for affection and love) but to swallow a camel ( the gross cruelty and complacency of assuming people can bear these burdens – and that we ourselves would do so in the same position?) is the worst kind of legalism and the very anthithesis of Christian love. Christ has many harsh words to say to us when we adopt this attitude – “blind guides” , ” whited sepulchres but charnel houses within “, “snakes” , “brood of vipers”, “how will you avoid being condemned to hell?” In fact, Christ has harsher words to say to such as these than he does to any sexual sinner, with the possible exception of those who take away the innocence of children ( Matthew 18) Luke 18 verses 9-14 and Matthew 7 verses 3-5 are also relevant.

    • This is well-written.
      I like your point about the Pharisees and the burdens they refused to help people carry.

      However, would it not be better to say that the choice is between “obedience” and “disobedience”?
      In other words I think you might be putting too much emphasis on coming up with solutions for your own problems rather than living daily by God’s guidance.

      After all, is this not what happened to Abraham and Sarah? They doubted that they could make children at that age and so they set up a “workable” solution that we are all paying for to this day.

      Maybe people who are gay/lesbian etc. should not decide for themselves whether or not they will ever “realistically” change but rather seek to let God determine that one way or another daily?

      That’s what I am trying to do anyways.

      • Well obviously obedience is a good idea.  Jesus said if we love him we will obey him.

        But I think the issue here is coming to a state of peace and acceptance about one’s self.  This could be more of a philosophy of life then anything else.  For example, the person who is ADHD  may spend all of his or her life trying to change this.  Or they may harness this as part of themselves and move on.  The same goes for any other tendencies.  People who have spent months, years, decades looking to see if God will change them may come to the place where they decide it is time to accept how things are.  Heterosexual marriage is out unless they believe they can maintain a mixed oreintation marriage.  That is a whole discussion in itself.  Or they may choose a life of singleness.  This may indeed work for some people.  Perhaps it works for you.  This is fine.  But everyone is not the same, and what works for one does not work for all.  I for one would like to dispense with cookie cutter Christianity where everyone has to see the Christian life the way I do.  Instead I think it would be best if we let God work out His life in each person as He sees fit.

        The following scripture comes to mind…

        (Rom 14:4 NIV)  Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To his own master he stands or falls. And he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand.

        I can rejoice with Mr. Chambers that he has found this path in Christ.  What I have trouble with is his presumption that he knows what is best for everyone else and seeks to judge everything through his own narrow lens.  And all I can say is, that when I do that, I usually get in trouble.


        • But isn’t a covenant friendship more than just a passive acceptance of current circumstances if it excludes marriage explicitly?
          I’m sort of weary of marriage looming its head everywhere myself, but what about Philippians 4:11?
          “I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances.”
          So it’s more of a cutting-edge seat-of-the-pants determination where you leave all question of “possibility” to God and live daily by His Providence and provision. 

          Why “rule out” anything? Marriage is not something that “just happens if you’re not careful” so it doesn’t require any positive action to avoid. (Hallelujah!)

          So my reservations were not the same as Mr. Chambers’ view that this type of arrangement was a false approximation to marriage. I did not even care too much about the living arrangements (or that “appearance of evil” stuff). That might be a helpful model to look at. Rather it was troubling to me because it actively and affirmatively ruled out God’s power to determine the course of the believer’s life in the future.

          After all, what happens if one of the participants feels led to marry in the future (“change” or not)? How do they break this “covenant”? Should they? Is this “covenant” before God and man? Or between men/women?

          • I am responding to the post above me.  I say this because the times on the posts are a bit confusing at least on my screen. 

            I have to say that if I took your phlosophy of life I would be unable to do anything.  I exagerate slightly here with these examples..  I better not get married, God may want me to be a Monk.  I better not be a Monk, God may want me to get married.  I should not invest in a home.. God may call me to be a missionary.  And so forth…

            Again, I do not see the need to judge someone else’s walk in Christ.  In terms of covenant friendships they would not work for everyone.  And I am sure if God blew someone away (emotionally) by miracoulusly providing both opposite sex attraction and a partner that the covenant could be broken since it is not a marriage or anything like that. 


      • I think many gay and lesbian people know from long , hard experience that they will “never change”, others may find they do experience change ( in my opinion that is likely to be because they had some degree of bisexuality in their nature.) I can’t see why there is any conflict between coming to a conclusion about your sexuality and “trusting in God.” We do this in other areas,for example “I’m not cut out for this job” , we may have partly reached that knowledge through our trust in God, partly through instinctive self knowledge. But then we need to continue to trust in God to know what to do in the situation we are in, but like Dave, I think people reach different conclusions and it is not always that they are being “disobedient” – even if they are in a relationship, they may have squared this with their own conscience and reading of scripture.

        I think for each of us, to seek God’s will  and rely on Him is key. I know this is what you are doing :)

  5. My main issue with this is that Chambers considers his views to be in line with a “fairly cut and dry biblical position.”  Obviously, your own post about this shows that it’s not cut and dry at all.  The intentions and motivations of the individuals in such friendships are extremely important, and I think it would be quite difficult to say which friends who are living together are sinning and which aren’t.

  6. It is often difficult to know whether people are sinning or not or to judge the relative gravity of different sins. This is because…we are human, fallible and each of us is deeply sinful ourselves and have a nasty tendency to be oblivious to our own sins and alive to what we see as sinful in others. Think of the woman who annoints Jesus at Simon the Pharisee’s house. Simon thinks “If this man were a prophet, the would know what kind of a woman she is – that she is a sinner.” Notice Simon’s confident identification of sin in others and his arrogant belief  that he knows better than Jesus. I think we are often hasty to see and condemn sin in others and , like Simon, we think it is our job to judge those sins, when really it is God’s role. I think, as Christians we should be so much, much, much more conscious of our own personal sinfulness and prepared to “police” this than we should the sins of others. Simon’s sin is that he has a sense of self righteousness but no gratitude to God. Simon “loves but little” – his love for God and for his fellow human beings is arid and thin. Of course there is a role for debate, teaching, guidance on moral issues , but ultimately it is not for us to judge sins, people are answerable to God – but more importantly so is each of us and we, like Simon, may be surprised at what Jesus has to tell us about our own sinfulness.

  7. The main problem I have with this discussion is the assumption which underlies both Alan Chambers’ and Peter Ould’s positions that anything not expressly commended or permitted in Scripture is not a valid choice for someone who claims to follow Christ.

    This seems to conflict with the Apostle Paul’s assertion in 1 Cor 10:23 that “All things are lawful.”

    Of course the Apostle proceeds to say that not all things are helpful, not all things build up, and I would be the first one to wonder about the wisdom of the type of relationship Alan Chambers describes, just as I wonder about the wisdom of co-ed student housing, but I see no biblical basis for claiming that the only legitimate choices for the Christian are either marriage or singleness. I think Scripture is pretty clear that the only two options are marriage or sexual abstinence, but I do not even find singleness as a clearly defined condition in Scripture.

    I also have a problem with the assertion that exclusiveness in a relationship is predicated simply on the erotic nature of that relationship — the relationship between God and His people, between Christ and the Church are pictured in both OT and NT using marriage, and while the exclusivity is a feature of this relationship, eros is definitely not.

    In view of that I would not be quick to call a relationship like that described by Alan Chambers “sinful” but I might call it “unwise”.

    Jeffrey John’s relationship is an altogether different matter for two reasons:

    (a) Mr John has made it quite clear that he and his partner are celibate only to accommodate the church, which they consider wrong on that issue, however; by contrast, the woman described by Mr Chambers is quite clear that celibacy is God’s requirement for her.

    (b) Mr John is a leader in the Church, and leaders in the Church are to be held to higher standards than those in the pew. In particular, I would expect leaders in the Church to be in inner agreement with the teachings of the Church, not outwardly compliant dissenters.

    Assuming for a moment that it is even legitimate for the Church to consider changing  its position on something as clear in Scripture as the prohibition of homosexual sex, here is the problem posed by leaders like Mr John: when we say that we are in a discernment process on some issue, and then stack the cards in favor of the new position by appointing leaders who disagree with the received position, we are being dishonest and have already abandoned the discernment process in favor of the new position.

    Greetings from Austria,


    • “…the assumption which underlies both Alan Chambers’ and Peter Ould’s positions that anything not expressly commended or permitted in Scripture is not a valid choice for someone who claims to follow Christ.”

      Just generally, I think this is a wise attitude to remain close to.
      Human beings can drive an entire truck through a garden gate if they have a mind to rebel.

      • In reference to his statement:

        “anything not expressly commended or permitted in Scripture is not a valid choice for someone who claims to follow Christ”

        Well if that is true than artificial insemination is out since scripture does not cover it.  Also having your parents in a nursing home is also out since the culture of the Old nad New Testament is mulitgenerational households.  Antidepressant drugs would also be out since the joy of the Lord is our strength.  Democracy is also out since the only type of government scripture affirms is kingdoms and theocracies..  Medical decisions in end of life situations would also be out since scripture does not cover that either.

        These are but a few of hundreds or more things that scripture does not cover.  I believe you need more than this simple statement to guide you through modern day life.  The bible is our foundation and the Holy Spirit is our guide.


        • To be precise,

          “anything not expressly commended or permitted in Scripture is not a valid choice for someone who claims to follow Christ”

          is not my actual position but that put forward by Wolf Paul as representing my position.

  8. I know of two heterosexual Christian people who have entered into this kind of informal living arrangement, but it isn't so formal. When is it too much commitment?

    I also know of a monastic community with just two avowed. Is this in the same boat?

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