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EPISODE 60: The Value of Church History

God has done so many wonderful things through is people over the centuries. There are powerful lessons to learn. Ben Virgo leads tours through London that highlight the great works of people God has used. He’s a fountain of joyous stories and important insights.

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Welcome to Questions That Matter. This is a podcast of the C.S. Lewis Institute, and I have the great privilege of being your host. My name is Randy Newman. My guest today is Ben Virgo. He's with Christian Heritage London. Ben and I met in London a few weeks ago when I was there for a number of conferences. I heard from several people, “Oh, you're going to be in London. You've got to get in touch with Ben. You’ve got to go on one of his tours.” And my schedule was very busy, and I didn't know about taking a whole day or a half a day on a tour, but I thought, “Oh, let's give it a try.” And, oh, my goodness, it was wonderful. It was really wonderful. Ben and I walked around London for an hour and a half, and he was just a fountain of great information about church history and what God has done in London through His sovereign hand. I got the idea Ben could have walked for 10 hours. I could have walked for an hour and a half, which is about how long we walked. And then I said, “Ben, I need to find a lovely London bench.” Anyway, Ben Virgo, it's great to have you on Questions That Matter. Welcome.

Thank you, Randy. It's lovely to see you.

Well, Ben, give us a little commercial in the beginning about Christian Heritage London. What do you do? And what are these tours about?

Well, the great opportunity that we have, Randy, is that, all over the world, when people are looking for an illustration for how the gospel can change the world, if you were to read, say, R.C. Sproul or Charles Colson or Vishal Mangalwadi or Tim Keller or Ajis Fernando, when people are looking for an illustration for how the gospel can change history, they always start talking about London because they start talking about Wilberforce and Spurgeon and Whitfield and Elizabeth Fry and John Newton and John Wesley and Tyndale, Wycliffe, people who, because of the gospel, they invested themselves, and they happen to have invested themselves in London.

And typically, throughout the week, I meet people from four or five continents because the heroes of London's church history are the heroes of world history. When I speak to people about Wilberforce, I rarely find them saying, “Sorry, which one was he? Who was he?” He was the guy who ended the slave trade. I heard a guy speaking at a conference, and he was from Texas, and he was asked by his denomination, “What model will you use for your church?” And he said, “Charles Spurgeon, Metropolitan Tabernacle, 1859.” See, all over the world, people are talking about these heroes. And so it's an opportunity literally on our doorstep. We can take people on a walk through the stories of what God has done in London. And these are not just my opinion or anyone's opinion. We have dates. We take people into the church building where John Newton sat down with William Wilberforce, and we can then say, “26th of July 1833, they beat slavery as a legal trade in the British Empire. 800,000 people would become free.” Now, that isn't a matter of opinion, but you can say, “It was in this building.” People just walked past outside thinking, “Oh, there’s a church service going on in there.” Didn't know there was a conversation which would change history. But it all is based on the gospel. And so that's our great opportunity, telling stories about how the gospel has changed the world.

Oh, man, thanks. That's really good. My experience in London reminded me this has become a very secular city. I think I was told less than 3% of Londoners are in church on a Sunday morning, a typical Sunday morning. And yet, when you just rattled off those names of the people that God has used in London, it was staggering. And I do have to say, when we stepped into that church and you told me this is where John Newton and William Wilberforce had the conversation, I got goosebumps. And that was such a great experience.

But let's step back a little bit and be a little bit more general. So the question that matters is about church history. Why is church history so important for all Christians? This isn't just sort of a niche thing that a couple of historical nerds should get into. I was convinced of this before I had that time with you, but you certainly reinforced that. Learning and knowing more and more about church history is so crucial for our spiritual growth. Why is that?

Well, C.S. Lewis says there is a moment at which time touches eternity, and that moment is now. And if the gospel is true, it is an event that happened in a now. It happened in a moment in time, and people have had to come to terms with it. And if it is a historical fact that God came to the world, that He lived 3000 miles from where I'm sitting here 2000 years ago, and He came so that He could save, that probably changed some things. And the exciting thing is that it changed history. It changed the experience of the world. God living among people changed things. And therefore church history is very powerful potentially to learn from, because you're essentially telling the stories of people who, in other generations, found the Christ who you are now being invited to find, in their time, and then the consequences of what happened.

John Piper says, “I like to read about people who finished well,” because you kind of get the impression… It’s always a dodgy thing if you name your child after someone who's still alive because you don't know how they're going to end. But the people who we’re studying in history, they are people who found the Christ of history to be enough. And we can see how they ended. Now, that's very helpful. So that's a real potential encouragement.

And as it happens, one of the things that we love to point out on our tours through London is that history has layers. So each one of the heroes of church history had heroes. So Charles Spurgeon, one of his heroes was John Newton. And John Newton’s hero was George Whitefield. And so you find people who, looking back, this guy had a hero, this guy had a hero. It just reminds us history hasn't finished. We are still alive in this same creation. The book that God is writing is called history.

Oh, well said. This is so good! Not too long ago, I heard someone say we tend to think of history in this linear fashion, so it moves from this date to this date to this date to this date, but another image—and that's fine, that’s good, because that is kind of the way time moves on. But another perspective might be more of rings of a tree. And when you cut down a tree, you see that there are these rings. And so something happens in an inner ring and then that starts affecting the outer ring and then that starts affecting what comes after it. So instead of it being point A, point B, point C. And now we've moved on from A. That's done. Now we're in B. No, it's more like A influences and shapes B, which then becomes part of C, which influences… and again, I felt that walking around there in London.


What are some of your favorite stops along the tour that you do?

Well, that's a fascinating observation. There's also a sense in which it could be… you could almost see it as a spiral. You find people coming round. It also fits the circular idea, because you find people coming to the same issue. And that's one of the things which really is a powerful apologetic for the gospel. It's alive, in the sense that someone's got it. Have you noticed, Randy, how you'll get a particular beautiful revelation as you read something in, say Colossians, and then you pray about it and you pray about it, and three or four weeks later, it isn't quite the same, because you're alive, and it's a beautiful thing, and now I have other challenges in my life, and I stood on that one, and now let's go on to this. And the Lord seems to open new things up to you. Now, if we had just learned something once and then everything was sorted from then on, well, where's the beauty? Where's the potential? And that's the thrilling thing.

We see people, and one of the delightful things is, in earlier generations, so many of these heroes have written their own, either their autobiographies or they've written their diaries, and so therefore we can see them. And the hilarious thing is, and you mentioned Wilberforce. One of my great favorites, and the favorite stop we've mentioned already, is the church building where John Newton used to be the minister, and William Wilberforce came into that building. It's a 200 seater. I mean, most people listening to this would go to churches of a similar size and would think, “Well, my church, of course, isn't very important.” Yet, that was what it was like. It didn't feel very important. But William Wilberforce's diaries have recently been published for the first time, and thrillingly as you read them, you think, “Wait a minute! There must be some mistake, because these are my diaries.” He says things like, “I should be so much further on than I am, and I feel like I've broken my own resolution again, and I must remember the grace of God. And I heard a great sermon on Sunday, and I turned to God in prayer.” And you think, “Hang on. This is my journal!” And you forget Wilberforce changed the world. No, no, no. That’s the point.

If you one day meet Wilberforce, the idea at that moment that he changed the world will be so ridiculous. First of all, you will see he is being lit by a light shining brighter than the sun. Secondly, you will notice that his crown is on the floor, and that will be because he's looking up at the Lamb. You see, these stories, they are about people who, in earlier generations, they found the beautiful Jesus who any believer has found now. And so yeah, I particularly… I love his story. Shall I elaborate a little on Wilberforce, there?

Yeah. But before you do, let me just jump in, because a little bit of my historic nerdiness has to kick in here, because you use the image of a spiral. I really love that, because when I was a fairly young Christian, I heard a speaker talking about the Christian view of history is that it does progress, it does move on, and it is moving to a culmination, with the return of the Messiah. And this is contrasted to a different view of history, which just says, “We’re just on a circle, going around and around and around, going nowhere.” That's much more of an Eastern mysticism, maybe even Buddhist philosophy. The Christian view is, while there are cycles that repeat, it is not an endless circle just going nowhere, it is a spiral moving. And so our calendar year—yes, every year we celebrate Christmas, but Christmas at 2022 is going to be different than 2023. And so that spiral, moving upward, onward to the return of the Messiah, is a really crucial picture to have, especially when you feel like, “Oh, I'm just not growing. I’m going nowhere. I'm just on this treadmill.” No, it's not a treadmill. So, anyway but, yes, elaborate some more about Wilberforce, because you know him well.

The point you're making there, though, actually, I think it's a fascinating trail you've opened up there. You see, half the time I'm giving tours in the City of London, talking about how the gospel has changed the world. The other half of the time I'm giving tours in the British Museum. I'm looking at actual Bible items, things that were held by Bible characters. And what's fascinating, Randy, is living around… for example, I walk frequently past a slab on which a Bible character wrote something. There is the handwriting of a Bible character in the British Museum, and there are bowls that very likely were held by Nehemiah. Now, when you're reading the Bible, you're reading the Old Testament, you do see promises of how the seed of Abraham will change and bless the nations. And what's fascinating is, of course, as we see in the New Testament, the seed of Abraham is…. There is a seed, who is Jesus. And when you are thinking constantly about Old Testament type prophecies, you start seeing again and again how we are told there is going to be a blessing of the nations.

And now what's interesting is, of course, 2000 years after Jesus, we live in a city where there are hospitals, universities, schools, a welfare state. There are countless institutions set up for the poor, and you see, if you look back on all these, you can find dates. Christians set these things up. I mean, in London, the hospitals are called St. Bartholomew’s, which is the oldest hospital in Europe, and St. Thomas's, one of these oldest…. Where do they come from? They come from priories. What about the universities? Well, they originally were seminaries, so we could teach the ministers of the gospel. The schools. Why are there free schools? Because of Lord Shaftesbury, who thought there should be free schools. And he pushed and enabled that. And the fascinating fact is the world in which we are living has been stamped by the Gospel. And fascinating, the rest of the world then says, “How do we know we're civilized?” And that's a word that doesn't get used very much nowadays, but you tend to find it's associated with things like education and health. And where did we get this excellence?

See, my first degree was in classics. And if you read the words of the Greeks and the Romans, that was [UNKNOWN 14:32]. Those guys, they made the Nazis look nice. So how did it change? Well, the sociologist Rodney Stark and the historian Tom Holland say you just can't get past the fact Christianity has changed everything. So, yes, I think that the cyclical thing is fascinating. But in that spiral vision, it's changing. It’s getting better. It’s getting better. And there's a development which is fascinating to watch, not least because the ones who flourish in it are the ones who cling to the One who's in the middle of it. Jesus says, “I'll give you a promise. You want to be fruitful? Abide in Me. I’ll make you fruitful.”

Now, as you read the heroes, as you read the lives of people like John Newton, Charles Spurgeon. George Whitefield, you find, though everyone is against them, including the church, you find that they themselves are rejoicing in Christ. They cling to Him, and their critics generally are forgotten. And they themselves, they're the people you name your children after. So Wilberforce, to come back to him. Wilberforce, I adore him because here’s a guy who…. It’s funny. People now say, “We need another Wilberforce,” and they assume that the first Wilberforce was extremely effective and a great organizer and was a very powerful man. They don't know the original Wilberforce. They don't know that he was considered to be the funniest man in London. They don't know he was chaotically disorganized. He was always late. They don't know he could speak for three hours without notes. They don't know that he broke his toe dropping a bowling ball on it when he was playing with his children. They don't know that, when he arrived at his friends’ homes, his friends’ children would say, “Oh, Mr. Wilberforce is here. Great! We can play with him. We can't play with Pa, but we can play with Mr. Wilberforce.” He was great fun! So if you read his biography by Pollock. It’s a brilliant, wonderful biography, but Pollock seems to be bemused. “How did this man change everything?” Well, again, you can see, he was…. People who knew him said he was always humming a hymn of praise. He was always worshiping. And he himself chastised the clergymen of his day. He said, “My chief objection with the professional churchmen of our day is that they seem to reduce Christianity into a system of rules and prohibitions and neglect the command to rejoice.” Isn't that wonderful?

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Oh, man! All right. So we're going to put a bunch of commercials in the show notes here about a couple of the books you've mentioned and about your website and about the tour of the British Museum. When I was in London, I was looking at different things I could possibly do in between these conferences, and I saw the British Museum and I thought, “I don't know. It’s a bunch of old stuff there, and I've heard that it's probably a lot more walking.” And so I've never been inside. I've been to London several times. I've never been inside. But then when I took this tour, I thought, “Oh, now I know how I'm going to do the British Museum. I'm going to call Ben Virgo and set this up and join one of his tours.” I can't wait. Lord willing, I'll be back in the UK in September for some conferences, and I hope I can do it.

Well, tell us… let's go in the direction of John Newton for a minute. Here's the most that some people know about John Newton: He was a really bad person because he was captain of a slave ship, and then he got saved, and then he wrote Amazing Grace there. That's it. I'm joking, but I have to confess that's pretty much my level. I'm sorry. You recommended a bio of John Newton, and I'm reading it and finding out more and more. He wrote hundreds of hymns, right? Or hundreds of poems that then got set to music? But just go on a little riff for us about John Newton.

Well, Newton. I love Newton. I read him every day. Interestingly, when multiple people in his own day had written great works of literature, had written books which they had hoped would be published, many of them came to him to edit them, which is fascinating, because here's a guy who was the son of a sailor, born in East London, not born in wealth. He will not have sounded like a parliamentarian. He will not have sounded like he studied at Oxford. He would have sounded like a sailor, very likely. And he had been on the seas. He had a very interesting and inquiring mind.

So at one occasion, he gets stranded on the west coast of Africa. And what did he do for his kind of vice? Well, what he liked to do and he loved to spend his time doing was, among other wicked things, he loved to study maths. He was fascinated to see how things worked. Now, I don't know if that's only Newton. I do think there was a time, perhaps we can remember it from our childhood, when, before there was the internet, people might actually learn stuff. They might actually go and learn and read. Well, I suppose that we learn from the internet now. But there was an inquiring, a searching of things out, a visiting of books. And he used to read Euclid and try and teach himself languages. He got himself up to a useful standard of Latin, Hebrew, Greek, and so on.

But he himself was a bad guy. He was a slave trader. And at that time, that was just one of the very many jobs that a sailor could find himself doing if he wanted to work on the seas. And his father had been a sailor. His father had been a captain. Then that was an alternative. So he ended up working, seeing quite staggering cruelty on slave ships. He describes an instance in which he describes being on a long boat on which they, on the west coast of Africa, had just purchased an African woman. And the woman came with what John Newton describes as a fine one-year-old child. But at night the baby was crying, and this was keeping the first mate of the longboat awake. And John Newton remembered the first mate threatening the mother, “If you do not silence that child, I will silence it.” But the baby continued to cry, and the first mate pulled the baby off the mother and threw it over the side of the boat. This is one of very many, many instances of horror that Newton will have experienced. And then, of course, he describes how the first mate had to deal with the lamentations of the mother, but of course, she was too valuable to throw overboard herself, so he saw quite hideous cruelty. But he himself…. As I say, he ended up stranded essentially on the west coast of Africa. He had been a bitter-hearted man and it always came out of a cruel mouth, and so when his captain died on one occasion, he realized, “The man who will be put instead in charge of the ship is this man who really hates me, and he will sell me to a military ship, and I will die.” And so John Newton said, “No, I'm not going to go back on the ship.” And he stayed on land. But while he was on land there, he became seriously ill. And eventually he was rescued, two years later, by a ship going back to England.

But while he was on that ship, in March 1748, he was asleep when he was woken by the horrifying sound of water pouring through the cabin of his ship, and someone shouted, “The ship is sinking!” He climbs up on deck. As he's going up, the captain calls out to him, “Mr. Newton, come down here. Bring me your knife.” So he didn't go up, he went down. The man who did go up was washed off, was never seen again. And Newton spent the night, from three in the morning till noon the next day, pumping water out of the ship. He says that night he did something out of character. That night, in that storm, he prayed, and of course he survived.

Now, as a consequence of this, he starts to look into the Bible. And as he looked through the Bible, he didn't just find useful advice. He didn't just find a new philosophy. What he did find was a Savior who comes to take the blame for his enemies. And the man who would later write, “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me,” put his faith in Christ. So he was a bad guy, but then his inquiring mind took him to study theology. He longed to serve Christ as a minister of the gospel. He used to go… and one thing he does have in common with our time is he used to go and listen to many preachers. He loved to go and travel across London to go, and in one place, he’d go and listen to the great George Whitefield, and then he’d go across London, might go and hear Wesley on the same day or… an extraordinary time to be in London. But then he becomes minister of a church before being invited… after 16 years of ministry in Buckinghamshire, he's invited to become minister of a church in the city of London. At that time, he was only the second Bible-believing minister in London at that time, and he served a Lydd church for 28 years.

Oh, my.

Yeah. So we love to talk about him because, apart from anything else, he's a man of great grace, but also his influence through that tiny church was enormous. William Carey, Henry Martin, William Cooper, William Wilberforce are only a few of the people whose lives were changed by him.

This is so important to remember, because a whole lot of us have some level of influence around us and we think, “Oh, it's not that much. I'm not the pastor of a church of thousands. I'm not even a pastor. I have this one-on-one mentorship that I do through my church or through our Fellows Program or something.” It’s like, “Am I really making any difference?” And you never really know. You never know what will be done through you long after you're gone from this earth. Newton was a pastor for 28 years in that church after serving 16 years in another church. I'm just intrigued. Ben, you said you read John Newton every day. What do you read? What are you feasting on?

Delightfully, really delightfully, this great and able gospel minister and brilliant writer wrote many letters, and you'll find, if you just read one of his letters a day, or a couple of them a day, you'll find that's real food for your soul. He manages to get the gospel, and he puts himself back into the frame. He shows you again and again. And you probably know, towards the end of his life, he said, “These things I know….” By now, he's losing his memory, and he's lost so many things. He's lost his wife, and he's alone, and he says, “These two things I know, though. I'm a great sinner, but Christ is a great Savior.” I think this is wonderful.


This is wonderful. You see, if you read secularly, people will say now…. It's fascinating. If you look up John Newton on Google, there are whole studies written about what a terrible person he was. And you want to sit there and you look at them and you look at the author and say, “So you're saying he's a terrible person. Would you say he's a wretch? Yeah. That’s what he called himself.” He said, “He saved a wretch like me.” So I would highly recommend his letters.

Oh, nice! Well, this is really delightful. And I have to tell you, I like sitting down listening to you more than walking, because the walking was tiring. And you're tall, so your legs are longer, and you moved fast. Anyway, I'm just being a wise guy. I do need to wrap this up here. And here's where I want to wrap it up.

We just got started!

Well, okay. By the way, when you were saying earlier of how the Christian presence has shaped history and the people who have been our enemies, they're gone. I remember J.P. Moreland, a philosopher, saying, “There’s a reason why people name their children Peter and Paul, and they name their dogs Nero and Caesar.” It's a very funny way to put it. But here's where I want to land this: I want to say, so you conduct these tours, you’re walking around, you're saying some of the same things. How has doing the tours shaped you? How has that experience of telling God's people about these people and these places, how has that helped your spiritual growth, your discipleship?

Yes. It’s a wonderful question. It's a fascinating question. The way I tend to put it is that actually I have shaped the tours, in that what I have come to understand of the gospel has become more and more the pivot of each story. Now what I mean by that is this: The people about whom I talk on the tour, I talk about them as much as I think they want me to talk about them, because the point of each story really is the gospel. So when I'm talking about William Tyndale, I'm not talking about Tyndale. I'm talking about, “You need a Bible. You need to see Jesus. And he wrote a book, and it's here.” And I tell the story of Tyndale and how he longed for people to see that. And as he's about to die at the stake, he says, “Lord, open the King of England's eyes.” See, as I have come to understand the gospel, I've seen how again and again and again, it, it is exemplified in history, and that’s had a mutual effect in that sense.

But in terms of the actual effect on me, it has been of some stimulus and encouragement to see that, when one feels—for example, I'm planting a church among Bangladeshi Muslims in East London, and it's extremely slow. When one reads the letters of, say, a Newton, and he feels like no one's getting it and so on, but he still is astonished at the love of God in Christ. When I read the journals of Wilberforce, and he's saying, “I'm nowhere near where I should be,” when I read the journals and letters of Whitefield, and he's saying, “Yes, but Jesus is enough,” these things, they encourage me. They encourage me. They build me up. They stimulate me. And it just so happens… It's a great privilege being able to read London's churches because so many of these blokes are so helpful. John Owen I read every day as well. What a blessing! He just wants you to see Jesus. He just wants you to see Jesus.

And so it helps me as much as I see these guys made it to the other side just treasuring Christ. And you also see, with their weaknesses, He carried them. He carried them. I'm sorry to say some of these guys were not a great example in some of the things they did, but the Lord brought them through, and that's a precious encouragement. So that's a short answer. I'm sure there's a great deal which I haven't seen, which I'll see one day.

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Well, every time I delve into church history, I get this double appreciation. One is we've really messed up a whole lot. I mean, God's people are far from perfect. Terrible mistakes and divisions and fights and… and yet then on the other side, look at how God has used these wretches to spread the gospel. Now, I can't leave. I can’t leave because you just threw out this little thing, “I'm planting a church among Bangladeshi Muslims in London.” You mentioned that to me when we were together, and you told me a little bit about it, but I can't let our listeners just let that fly by. Give us a little report. You're what? You're planting a church where? In London. Okay. Aren’t there a lot of churches? Yeah but of Bangladeshi Muslims.  Give us a little, short missionary report.

Well, we're living in what we call a housing estate. And it once happened that I told an American lady we live on an estate, and she said, “Was that inherited?” She was thinking it was like Downton Abbey or something. But no, an estate is government housing. It's what you would probably call the projects in America, and the people around us mostly are Bangladeshi, and the people either side of where we live here, my neighbors don't speak English. And the whole situation here is that many of them have fled here. And fascinatingly, they’re all convinced, however, that Islam is the answer. When we talk to them about Islam, very few of them know anything about Islam, which is very frustrating, because we are the ones who have to tell them what their whole thing says, so that we can say, “Yes, but can you see how your whole system requires a Savior? You surely see that.” So we try to tell them the gospel. But we’ve been on this estate for nearly thirteen years, and we've been planting for about twelve. And we have seen people come and go. And it's hard, it's slow. But I'll tell you one thing: Interestingly, our children have grown up seeing that their parents believe this, and they've heard us explain it to them, push, pray for it. And now our children—our oldest is 22. We've had seven children. Our first son died when he was a baby. But our oldest now is 22, youngest is ten. And they're praying, they're they're seeking the Lord. And my oldest is now preaching for us every month or so. He’s doing his theology degree. And they are the ones who are then bringing many of their friends. So we now have 20 to 30 people actually meeting on the estate in a community hall. And this Sunday we have a carol service, which is… that looks nice, doesn't it? Carols! Actually, what you're doing at a carol service is, “Here’s a big meeting to talk about the incarnation.” So we're going to preach Jesus to a room full, hopefully, of local people.

So, yeah, the church is called Victoria Park Community Church, which I thought sounded safe enough. Victoria Park Community Church. And we are meeting in East London. And yeah, you're very welcome to pray for us, Randy.

This is really great! What a great ministry, ministries, plural, God has opened up for you, and I'm so very grateful to connect with it. Well, we're going to wrap this up now. Let me just say to our listeners, if you got a little bug there to delve into church history, there's quite a few things on our website,, quite a few biographies. We've collected several short biographies over the years in our publication Knowing & Doing, so it's my prayer and hope that reading some of these things, hearing some of these things will help you grow in your love for the Lord. And may all of our resources and all that we do here at the C.S. Lewis Institute help you grow, so that you love the Lord your God, with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind. Thanks for joining us.

Bless you, Randy. Hey! If I can still say it, I'm so grateful for what you do. I think your approach of questioning and listening to people has been instrumental to what we do. And if you came and started to preach to our people, I think they'd say, “Hang on, he's copying Ben,” because I've taken your beautiful example of relationship, asking questions and listening to people, so you can actually apply the gospel like a surgeon, rather than just throwing a brick from the distance. I think that's been foundational and extremely helpful. So it's a delight to connect with you.

Oh, that's a nice way to end. Thanks so very, very much. That's encouraging to me. Okay. Until next time. Bye-bye.

Bless you, bye.

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