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The Relational Progression

A Relational Theology of Discipleship


Discipleship  Study

7           The Forgotten Person

printer-friendly pdf version of entire study




Relational Orphans
Working the Relational Progression
The Misused Person
It's About Relationship

Study Note: Please engage each chap. in sequence because this study is cumulative.

Chap. 1
Chap. 2
Chap. 3
Chap. 4
Chap. 5
Chap. 6
Chap. 8
Chap. 9
Chap. 10
Chap. 11
Chap. 12
Chap. 13
Chap. 14

Table of Contents


Scripture Index



"I will not leave you as orphans."

John 14:18

The relational work necessary in the process of following Jesus was problematic for the early disciples while in his physical presence.  Even more so in his physical absence, this relational work becomes a further struggle for discipleship formation when it is undertaken in effect by oneself.  Discipleship is a relational process that by its nature is a cooperative effort--a reciprocal, reflexive process that goes back and forth between us.

Discipleship, however, is often practiced basically as a unilateral effort.  And the person who is forgotten the most in the process is the Holy Spirit, not necessarily in our beliefs or rhetoric but functionally in this relational process.  As middle children often get overlooked in family dynamics, the Spirit is commonly perceived as the middle person in the Godhead (triune, not tritheism).  If you have been similar to me in my past practice of calling on the Spirit, we tend to use him only to do things.  This begs the question for our practice: was the Spirit given for us to do something or be someone?



Relational Orphans

Our main perceptions of the Spirit emerge from Pentecost and the activity of the early church.  Yet, our primary understanding of his presence and purpose is gained from Jesus.

I suggest that the single most significant verse related to the Spirit is Jesus' promise: "I will not leave you as orphans' (Jn 14:18).  The word "leave' (Gk. aphiemi) means to let go from oneself, essentially abandon to a condition deprived of one's parents, which in the context of biblical times was an unprotected, helpless position.  This may not have much emotional identification for you if you have parents.  But the significance of the condition is more relational than situational.  In relational terms, the condition of the relationship can be further described as distant, disconnected, detached, separated.  This has more general significance.  Whenever, for example, we feel distant from God, disconnected or don't know where he is, we are experiencing the condition of relational orphans.  This relational condition can exist even when we are busily doing things for God.

This is an issue for all followers of Christ, which is compounded by his bodily absence.  Since Jesus was leaving physically, he would continue to make connection with his followers through the person of his Spirit ("I will come to you").  As Jesus requested of the Father in the bond of their relationship, he "will give you another" (Jn 14:16), "will send" (Jn 14:26; 15:26; 16:7) the Paraclete.  "Another" (Gk. allos) means another of equal quality, not another of different quality (heteros).  So, the Spirit is defined by Jesus as equal to himself; in a relational sense they are interchangeable (cf. Gal 4:6).  "Paraclete" (Gk. parakletos) is one who comes forward on behalf of and as the representative of another in order to comfort, encourage, counsel, help.  Whatever title or role you want to give the Spirit, he serves a relational function as Jesus' relational replacement.

The Spirit's main purpose is relational: to help us to be connected with God (Jn 14:26; 15:26) and to grow in this relationship (Jn 16:13-15).  With the departure of Jesus, the Spirit is vitally necessary and important for us in order to continue an intimate relational connection with Christ.  He is the extension of Jesus' person: "He will not speak on his own . . . only what he hears . . . will take from what is mine and make it known to you."  Furthermore, as Jesus' relational replacement of equal quality, the Spirit extends and completes the relational process that Jesus vulnerably established.  He will deepen the relationship and bring the relational progression to wholeness and fulfill all that is involved in making it complete.  That's why Jesus said it was for our benefit (Gk. symphero) that he went and the Spirit came (Jn 16:7).

Relational work is the fundamental function of the Spirit's presence and purpose.  The perception of the Spirit as a helper to do something is inadequate.  As Jesus' relational replacement, the Spirit's presence in us functions so we would not be separated from him and the Father in any way as relational orphans.  Everything the Spirit does goes toward transforming us to the new in deeper intimate relationship with the Father and his Son and building his family together.  Therefore, he is absolutely necessary for us in discipleship.  We must embrace the Spirit just as we embrace Jesus, and count on his relational work to keep us intimately connected with Christ and our Father.  This is the vital transition John's Gospel provides for us in the farewell narratives of Jesus (Jn 13-17), which is foundational for the epistles.

Without this relational understanding, the Spirit easily gets overlooked in our everyday practice.  Since he is present with us at least for the rest of our earthly journey (Jn 14:17b), it is important for us to examine how we relate to him.  The Spirit is not a force or a power but a person.  As in all relational work by its nature, the Spirit's relational work is not unilateral; he works cooperatively with us such that he doesn't do all the work, nor do we.  Though he stirs in our hearts and convicts us, he does not impose his work on us as a general rule.  So, it is necessary to engage the Spirit in ongoing relationship just as we engage the other persons of the Godhead.

We can constrain his person (cf. 1 Thes 5:19) and grieve him (cf.Eph. 4:30).  We constrain his person when we only use him to help us do something, even if it's serving and ministry (diakoneō as noted in Jn 12:26).  We grieve him when we ignore his presence and relational function, which are inseparable.  While the Spirit does help us to serve, that involves helping us be someone in our relational responsibility--be it in relationship with God or in relationship with others.  Likewise, the fruits of the Spirit basically involve relational work (see Gal 5:22-23, and context).  To be someone is relationship-specific to the Creator's design and purpose and the Father's desires for which we need to be ongoingly transformed in order to experience.  The Spirit works cooperatively with us for this relational outcome so we will not be relational orphans. We need to build relationship with the person of the Spirit.



Working the Relational Progression

Jesus defines the Spirit as the Spirit of truth (Jn 14:17; 15:26; 16:13).  The Spirit's person is truth in the same way Jesus is the Truth; this is the nature and character of the Trinity.  Yet, the Spirit of truth appears to be described in a subordinate role of truth that defers to Jesus the Truth: "The Spirit of truth . . . will testify [Gk. martyreo, bear witness] about me" (Jn 15:26), "the Holy Spirit . . . will remind you of everything I have said to you" (Jn 14:26).  As the Spirit of truth guides us into all truth, "he will not speak on his own . . . only what he hears . . . he will bring glory to me by taking from what is mine and making it known to you" (Jn 16:13,14).  In this sense, we can say that the Spirit is all about the Son.

But the Spirit's truth is not for more information about Jesus, nor to better formulate doctrine and statements of faith.  From our discussion in the last chapter, the purpose and function of truth is for quality relationship.  The Truth, in particular, is for relationship with the Father.  As the Spirit is about the Son, the Son is all about the Father.  The Spirit of truth is for relationship in the relational progression; this is the only function the Spirit has.  Though the Spirit may guide us, convict us, teach us, empower us, comfort us, it is all for the purpose and function of relationship.

Reductionism of the Spirit's person (e.g., to a power, helper, comforter) and his function (merely to do something) contradicts this truth and reinforces relational distance.  The Spirit of truth will continue to lead us into deeper intimate relationship by taking what belongs to Jesus and to the Father and "make it known to you" (Jn 16:15).  "Make known" (Gk. anangello) means to tell freely and openly.  Here the Spirit of truth is engaged in the relational work of developing the relational progression from an indentured servant (not privy to secrets) to a deep friend (shared intimacies, Jn 15:15).  Relational distance is a barrier to the vital transmission of the intimate substance belonging to Jesus and the Father.

The relational progression, furthermore, does not stop at friend.  Yet, this relational process for still deeper relationship at the same time requires our transformation of heart, mind and will. Jesus asks the Father to sanctify (Gk. hagiazo, make holy with the fundamental idea of separating from ordinary or common usage --e.g., from the prevailing, established way to define ourselves) us by the truth (Jn 17:17).  Paul identifies this as the Spirit's relational work (Rom 15:16).  While Paul reinforces the interchangeable relational sense of Christ and the Spirit (2 Cor 3:17a; Gal 4:6), he also extends the Spirit's relational work to transformation (2 Cor 3:18, Gk. metamorphoo, to change from inside-out).   The Spirit of transformation takes us functionally to the next level of relationship in the relational progression.

The Spirit of transformation includes the crucial process of freedom (2 Cor 3:17b, Gk. eleutheria), which essentially involves being able to be oneself without the control of something else.  This freedom takes in what Christ saved us from but in practice it is often separated from what he also saved us to.  Consequently, alternative change in our life is substituted and settled for in place of the relational work of the Spirit of truth and transformation.  Yet, metamorphoo is always qualitatively distinct from mere outward changes (metaschematizo).  The Spirit is here as Jesus' relational replacement to functionally accomplish the process of our transformation to what Christ saved us to, so that we will live relationship-specific to the Father's desires.

This process is further indicated by Paul in the most relationally significant chapter of the epistles (see Rom 8) when he described the differences in relationship of those who aren't really free (like those in enslavement) and those who truly are (like functioning sons and daughters).  A person is basically condemned because they are not justified by Christ and thus are not redeemed, set free (8:3).  In contrast, a son or daughter is not condemned because they are (8:1-4).  Paul's strong contrast here flips back and forth, leading to the ultimate relational outcome.  But let's reflect on this distinction as if both were Christians.  While we know the implications of this theological truth, the relational reality of being his intimate child is often not our practical experience.  The constraints on our person and barriers in our relationship created by condemnation or fear affect us all in one way or another.  This directly involves the issue for all Christians of how are we going to live--as a free person or a virtual slave?

The dominant influence of our old self develops a mind-set (Gk. phroneo) on matters which constrain our person and limit our relationships, especially with God (8:5a).  Besides the obvious sins of rebellion Paul discussed, which are hostile to God (8:7), the more subtle areas of our inner person directly relate to the issue of "how we define ourselves."  Essentially, the question of "how are we going to live?" becomes (often unknowingly) the issue of trying to measure up, establish our self-worth and, in terms of relationships, be accepted and loved.  Yet, as Jesus earlier revealed in the Sermon on the Mount, this effort actually leads to greater distance in relationships (8:7,8), even broken relationships ("death," 8:6a), not to mention its controlling effects on our person from pressure and fear (8:15a).  This is not surprising because Satan creates many lies about this effort for us to live by, which are in subtle conflict with the truth.

The presence and relational work of the Spirit of transformation are strongly contrasted with this old self and this effort essentially of self-determination (including discipleship practiced as a unilateral effort).  Initially, the overlap work of the Spirit of truth with the Spirit of transformation redeems us ("set free") from the old (8:2) and ongoingly transforms us to the new (8:5b).  His transforming work restores us to intimate relational connection (reconciliation, "life," zoe) and to wholeness, well-being, deep satisfaction (" peace," 8:6b).  Eventually, the Spirit's relational function in cooperative effort with us makes it possible for us to fulfill God's purpose and desires underlying his law: relationships and intimate connections of the heart which express agape involvement.  Whereas any disciple influenced or controlled by the old is unable to please God, a disciple being transformed to the new by the Spirit (thus, metamorphoo, not metaschematizo) lives in relational significance to the Father and relationship-specific to the Father's desires (8:7,8).

The transformation of the Spirit is comprehensive for any Christian cooperatively engaged in this process.  That disciple has a different and opposite mind-set than, for example, those disciples doing it alone (8:5-8).  Yet, this mind-set is not merely about perspective and a paradigm shift but about functioning in relationship.  Paul said we have "an obligation" (Gk. opheiletes, a debtor, one indebted for favors, 8:12) to define ourselves and do our relationships (two critical issues in discipleship) according to the grace and truth (unfailing love and faithfulness) of Christ's relational work (and relational righteousness) as well as the relational reality of his Spirit's presence and function in us (8:9-13).

What exactly is this obligation or debt?  Jesus is all about the Father, so what he saved us to is first and ultimately for the Father.  He redeemed us (paid for our release) from the condition of enslavement in order that the Father could adopt us as his own children for his family.  This payment and adoption now obligate us relationally to function intimately as his son or daughter (8:15), to represent our Father in his qualitative substance (8:17) and extend his family to all of creation (8:19,29).  This is not an obligation to do something but the privilege and relational responsibility to be someone, so that the Father can have those who are rightfully his.  Likewise, the Spirit comes "from the Father . . . goes out from the Father" (Jn. 15:26) and brings us who intimately belong to the Father (Jn 16:15), not to constrain us or enslave us again to fear.  He functions as the Spirit of adoption by whom we can intimately connect with "Abba, Father" (Rom 8:15), be assured of our family relational position (8:16) and our heir rights, as well as our responsibilities (8:17).  Thus, the Spirit's relational work in the relational progression, like Jesus', is truly all about and for the Father.

To function as his son or daughter involves a choice by our person but it is not a relational reality we can experience merely by our will.  We may be able to outwardly appear as such (metaschematizo) but not from the inside out (metamorphoo).  This is the relational outcome only from ongoing cooperative relational work with the Spirit of adoption.  Yet, as the Spirit works to bring the relational progression to completion as the Father's family, our part of the relational work could still be problematic, even a struggle.  Despite the Spirit's presence as a further expression of God's favor
(cf. Heb 10:29, the Spirit of grace), we constrain his function by remaining influenced by the old mind-set (specifically by still defining ourselves by what we do and have, and doing relationship with the Spirit in that mind-set); we also grieve the Spirit by our unilateral efforts (particularly by trying to measure up to the Father or the Son, and to feel worthy as his family member).

This underscores the Spirit's total relational work in the relational progression that functionally in our everyday practice is usually not linear but reflexive.  We ongoingly need the Spirit of truth which overlaps with the Spirit of transformation in order to free us from our enslavements, heal us from their effects and change us from the inside-out to the wholeness of the new person--who ongoingly then is reconciled and restored to the Father to function in his family by the Spirit of adoption.  Furthermore, even in our weakness and limitations in this relational work to make intimate connection with our Father at times, the Spirit's relational work functions with us to help us make that connection especially at those moments in our end points (8:26,27).

This reflects the cooperative and reflexive nature of this relational process that goes back and forth between us.  As the Spirit works the relational progression to complete our function as our Father's very own child in his family, we need to build relationship with the Spirit and work together to make this progression an experiential reality.  I think the single most significant issue that interferes with this working relationship is fear.  That's why Paul contrasts being controlled by fear with the intimate relational experience of his son and daughter (8:15).  Fear, in one form or another (from doubt to distrust), to one degree or another (from hesitation to panic), is the dominant motivating force for human action and a formidable barrier to quality relationships.

Fear can dominate our lives, even unknowing to us.  As bold as Peter appeared, fear controlled his life at times and deeply affected his relationships.  For example, circumstances brought out Peter's fear (Gk. phobeomai) while he was walking on the water in relational response to Jesus (Mt 14:27-30)--fear which disconnected him from Jesus in that intimate moment of trust (v.31).  Another example had broader relational repercussions when Peter discriminated against the Gentiles because he was afraid (phobeomai) and thus compromised the truth of the gospel, as we discussed previously (Gal 2:11-14).  Whether he was aware of it or not, fear controlled Peter's life in various ways.  I suspect he was made aware of this in retrospect (and in cooperative work with the Spirit of truth), particularly in his earthly relationship with Jesus.  In any case, he later certainly understood (probably from personal experience also) the direct link between control and enslavement when he spoke about a false sense of freedom: "For you are a slave to whatever controls you"
(2 Pet 2:19b, NLT).

Whatever its form or degree, fear prevents our heart from being vulnerable, and distances us in our relationships (especially from the inside-out with God) if left unattended.  Throughout Scripture we are encouraged not to let fear control us.  In varied interactions Jesus identifies fear as the barrier to deeper trust and intimacy with him (Mt 8:26; 10:31; 14:27; 17:7; Mk 5:36).  The Spirit's presence and function are critical to help us in all aspects of this relational process (Jn 14:26-27; Rom. 8:6).

The Spirit only serves the relational purpose of bringing to completion the relational progression Jesus incarnated and the Father ordained (Rom 8:29; Eph 1:5).  The Spirit of adoption must be functionally connected to Jesus' saying "I will not leave you as orphans" (Jn 14:18).  We cannot reduce, distort or obscure the absolute relational function involved between Jesus' promise, the Father's fulfillment and the Spirit's purpose--which clearly involves our relationship to our Father as his sons and daughters, and the experiential reality and responsibility which the Spirit serves to help us complete.

Only the Spirit can ensure the ongoing intimate relational connection between the Father and his daughters and sons. The Spirit is the only one who will bring those relationships to completion, transforming us to be like Jesus as his family, just as the Father desires (Rom 8:29). This is the relational outcome we confidently know in our hearts (oida) and thus can expect, as those deeply involved with the Father (agape) and relationally responding to his purpose (prothesis, 8:28).

The presence and function of the Spirit's person guarantees this, of course, when not constrained nor grieved.  As we engage the Spirit with our relational work, the Spirit also effectively serves as the Spirit of down payment guaranteeing the completion of the relational progression (2 Cor 5:5; 1:22; Eph 1:13,14).  Only in an experiential sense is the Spirit the initial payment (Gk. arrobon) for our redemption and adoption because the reality of the full payment has already been accomplished by Christ.  Nevertheless, the Spirit provides us with the experiential reality of this irrevocable relational act of adoption.  We are the Father's and the Father is ours.  But without the Spirit this only remains a fact of truth in our minds, while seeking for the Father with our hearts as relational orphans.



The Misused Person

Without the Spirit's active presence and function, discipleship becomes the unilateral effort in effect of such relational orphans. Besides being the forgotten person, however, the Spirit is often the misused person.  When not forgotten, the Spirit still can be misused--in two major ways in particular.

The first misuse of the Spirit involves what is represented in spiritual gifts and what we do.  The matter of spiritual gifts seems to be making a relative resurgence in some Christian contexts during recent years; there is a strong push to find your particular spiritual gift.  But a reductionist view of these gifts perceives them with a different mind-set--a mind-set which defines our self by what we have and thus can do.  In some Christian subcultures, having a spiritual gift has become the main ingredient to Christian identity.  Invariably, when this gift essentially defines what one can do, the comparative system of what we have and do leads to subtle stratification in the church (based on the gift you have) and to implicit differentiation of status (based on what you do).  This can be illustrated, for example, if you asked in Christian circles who has charisma, only a select few would be identified and thus be assigned a higher role and status.  Gender function in the church also further illustrates this.

A reductionist mind-set (that reduces the definition of a person and the top priority of relationships) that can influence us to relationally forget the Spirit, can also influence us to misuse the Spirit.  But we need to understand the contrary mind-set of the Spirit who gives out all the spiritual gifts (1 Cor 12:11).

As the Spirit's presence is the expression of God's grace, every spiritual gift by definition (Gk. charisma) means a gift of God's grace (1 Cor 1:4-7).  Anyone in Christ has that grace and is not without charisma, thus is never lacking of a spiritual gift.  Along with the gift of God's grace in the incarnation which we all received, there are specific gifts further distributed by the Spirit (Heb 2:4).  The term for "distribute" (Gk. merimos) comes from the word merizo which means to divide into parts.  This implies a whole from which the parts come and which they make up together.  From this whole, only the Spirit determines (Gk. boulomai, designating an inner decision) who gets what part and "gives them to each one" (1 Cor 12:11). "Gives" (Gk. diaireo) means to take one part from another (i.e., a whole), again describing the mind-set of how the Spirit works in contrast to a reductionist mind-set.

The distribution of the parts is not uniform (1 Cor 12:8-10; Rom 12:6-8; Eph 4:11).  Different gifts are given to different persons (1 Cor 12:4), yet every person is given a spiritual gift which is manifested by the Spirit (Gk. phonerosis, make visible or observable, 12:7).  The emphasis, however, is not on differences but on their commonality to the whole: different gifts but the same Spirit (v.4), different ministries, service (diakonia) but the same Lord (v.5), different effects of exercising these ("working," energema) but the same result because of the same God's underlying work (energeo) in all the different gifts in all the different persons (v.6,10a).

When we define ourselves by what we have and do, we will overemphasize spiritual gifts, and other related efforts.  This imbalance inevitably focuses on differences, which become manifested in our relationships.  The need and purpose for spiritual gifts are not minor issues.  They get us back to the initial question raised at the beginning of the chapter: was the Spirit given for us to do something or be someone? and now its variation, are spiritual gifts given to us to do something or be someone?

As the Spirit determines who gets what gift by his inner decision (boulomai), it always reflects conformity to his purpose and function as the Spirit of truth.  Distributing spiritual gifts is not an independent function or auxiliary duty but directly related to the purpose of the Spirit's presence.  That purpose is completely relational and all about and for the Father and his family.  The Spirit does not give spiritual gifts for any other purpose, therefore they are not given for individual benefit but "for the common good"
(1 Cor 12:7, Gk. symphero, to bring together for the benefit of others).  More specifically, these gifts are for building up God's family (Eph 4:12,13).  This is the whole of the Father's desires and his favor fulfilled in the incarnation, and further extended in the Spirit--the whole from which the Spirit of adoption works and distributes gifts.

In other words, spiritual gifts are designed and given only to serve toward fulfilling our responsibility as his adopted sons and daughters to represent our Father and extend his family.  This is the someone Jesus made it possible for us to be, this is who our Father wants us to be, this is what the Spirit of adoption will help us be, and this is how spiritual gifts serve to be this someone. When these gifts of God's grace become reduced in function (if not also in perception) to merely do something, however sincere in practice or with good intention for God, then we effectively misuse the Spirit.

This overlaps into the second misuse of the Spirit.  How we define ourselves always translates into how our relationships will be.  The influence of reductionism on our identity consistently emerges, for example, in negative patterns of relationships from indifference to obsession.  Whatever the extent of the effect, we can be certain that relationships will be shaped by how we define ourselves.

The pressure, need or responsibility to perform, to produce, to measure up, to justify (e.g., God's love, grace, promises, and so on) are the established ways of reductionism and individualism.  This creates an ongoing tension and conflict with the Spirit. Since the Spirit is all about the Father, relationships as his children and his family, the Spirit is not here for the individual. The Spirit works the relational progression to completion in order that we won't stop or get stuck in the process.  The Spirit is not here to assist in self-determination, but only for relationship together as his family.

Reductionism and individualism resist the relational purpose of the Spirit and try to change the Spirit's function.  In their mind-set and process, the Spirit is reduced to serve the individual and to assist the individual basically to do something; thus spiritual gifts, for example, become more self-serving than the relational means to represent the qualitative difference of the Father and to build his family.  If the Spirit of truth and transformation is not forgotten in the process, the Spirit of adoption is misused to help merely the individual.



It's About Relationship

While freedom, individualism and relativism are prevailing practices in Western cultures, the reductionist mind-set is ongoingly confronted by the Spirit as Jesus' relational replacement. This conflict is not about doctrinal purity nor about the battle for truth but totally for relationship--its implication, its restoration, its repercussion (Jn 16:8-11).  The Truth (along with the Way and the Life) is always about relationship and the Spirit of truth works with us to not get stuck at the individual position in the relational progression.  Relationships always suffer from the individual's efforts to define oneself by what one does or has.

Addressing this crucial relational issue, Paul identifies the most important quality by which any and all individual gifts and function need to be exercised: love (1 Cor 12:31ff).  This qualifies all that we do.  Yet, love (agape), as the ultimate practice for the individual is not about what to do.  Love, as Jesus practiced and taught (especially in the Sermon on the Mount), is about how to be involved in relationships--especially as his family (the church).

Agape involvement in relationships is the fruit of the Spirit's relational work with us (Gal 5:22).  Building relationships defines the Spirit's presence.  And the Spirit of adoption establishes us in the Father's family through his relational work (which includes signs and wonders) and by providing us with the means for our relational work (which may or may not include signs and wonders).  As parts of this whole, the vital understanding we need to embrace for practice is that we don't find our place in the body of Christ by what we do but only by relationship-involvement as his son or daughter (Jn 8:35).  Relying on one's part in the body to establish one's place and belonging is not the purpose of Paul's metaphor of the church (1 Cor 12:12ff).  Such individual effort is the mind-set and approach of reductionism, the practice of which becomes controlling and thus enslaving--with the relational consequence of an inability to intimately function as son or daughter.

Authentic discipleship cannot survive forgetting the Spirit, nor develop misusing the Spirit's presence and function.




Theology in general and a theology of discipleship in particular suffer a lack of coherence, thus inadequate formulations of wholeness, when the presence of the Spirit is absent or the function of the Spirit is misperceived.

The whole of God, of whose being the Spirit is an ontological part (not separate), is what (and whose sovereign desires) the Spirit fulfills relationally by his presence and function in bringing us to completion in the relational progression of God's eschatological plan.

Without this trinitarian understanding of who and what God is, along with experiencing how God is, we are only left with reductionist alternatives, with substitutes for the qualitative substance and difference of God and his mystery. As followers of the Word, can we justifiably continue to settle for less?




2004 T. Dave Matsuo, Ph.D.

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