Dr. Seuss Tells the Sermon on the Mount, Part 1: Yertle the Turtle

Theodore Geisel, the man millions know simply as Dr. Seuss, was not a religious man.  That doesn’t mean that his work didn’t have deeply religious themes.  I’m currently working on a sermon series called “Dr. Seuss Tells the Sermon on the Mount.”  It is a five-part series where I go through Jesus’ most important teaching, as found in the Gospel of Matthew, and relate the texts to different Dr. Seuss classics.  

yertleYertle the Turtle was a king.  He was the king over all he saw, but he was dissatisfied.  He wanted a bigger kingdom, so he decided he needed a higher throne.  From the higher throne, he would be able to see farther, and rule over more territory.  To satisfy his need for a higher throne, he order a few turtles to be stacked upon each other.  From atop this throne of turtles, he could expand his kingdom.  Over the course of increasing his reign an insignificant turtle on the bottom of the throne named Mack asked for some relief.  He was granted none.  Higher and higher the turtles were stacked, and yet Yertle was never satisfied.  Eyeing his vast empire, he noted he wasn’t the highest creature in the sky.  Perturbed by the presence of the moon, her ordered a thousand more turtles for his thone.  All the while poor Mack on the bottom of the stack was aching with a sore back.  Finally, Mack cracked.  Actually, he burped.  And the tower of turtles came toppling down.  Yertle fell into a puddle of mud, where he reigned all that he could see, which wasn’t very far.

Yertle understood the power of a kingdom.  He understood only one thing that matters: more.  More turtles, more land, more power.  He didn’t care how he achieved more, and he paid no heed to some poor turtle named Mack.

Jesus lived in a time when the power of kingship was clear.  The stack of turtles under the King was high indeed.  So high that the King named Caesar called himself the son of God.  All the people that gathered on that mountain understood that kind of kingdom.  They understood what it felt like to be on the bottom of the stack.  It was a crowd of Macks that gathered that day.

Then Jesus stood in front of the crowd and told them about another sort of Kingdom.  He told them about who was blessed and who wasn’t, and it was different from anything they had known.  In the Kingdom they were used to, it was easy to tell who was blessed and who wasn’t.  Yertle was blesssed.  Mack wasn’t.  Then Jesus stood up and said “You who are poor…  You who mourn… You who hunger and thirst… are blessed.”

“You, Mack.  You are blessed.  You who have been piled on.  You with sore backs.  You who are neglected, mistreated, and set aside.  You are blessed.  You who see that the world is broken and want to speak up.  You who are left heartbroken by the pain of others.  You who long to be in community.  You who want to know the heart of God, and strive for something greater than the letter of the law.  You are blessed.”

Jesus declared that the Kingdom of God was at hand, and in the Kingdom of God, even the burp of a lowly turtle on the bottom of the pile matters.

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Find your voice for mothers

Healthy Families Healthy Planet

Click on the logo to apply for a Healthy Families Healthy Planet training seminar in Peoria, Ill. on Sept 6.

There are two little girls that I pick up out of bed almost every morning.  One of them is sitting in my office, cradling a stuffed turtle in her arms.  She is giving it kisses and singing it to sleep.  Now she has another little toy that her imagination has transformed into a bottle.  She wants to be a Mommy.

It may happen someday, and when that time comes, I will be a worried, emotional, joyful, wreck.  I pray that for her, like her mother, the decision to become a Mom will be completely hers.  I pray that she becomes a mother at a mature age, with a loving partner, and has access to health care during and after her pregnancy.  I hope that when she gives birth, it will be in a clean environment, surrounded by experts, and access to emergency treatments.  I know that giving birth is one of the most dangerous things a woman can do, and I will never take for granted the loving care with which she will be surrounded.

I won’t take it for granted, because I know that there are millions of women worldwide that do not have such care.  They do not have control over when they will be married, or when they will become pregnant.  They are valued for little more than the children they can produce.  They are forced into pregnancy too young, and once they have a child, their only option is to become pregnant again.  They are misinformed about how to avoid and delay pregnancies, and once they do become pregnant, they have little guidance about how to have a healthy child.

Giving better education and access to maternal health and family planning is a moral imperative.  This is from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s page about maternal health: 

Every year, complications from pregnancy and childbirth claim the lives of nearly 300,000 women and permanently disable many more, mostly in developing countries. Mothers suffer primarily from hemorrhage, sepsis, obstructed labor, and disorders caused by high blood pressure.

In addition, more than 2.6 million babies are stillborn, another 2.9 million die before they are a month old, and many suffer neurodevelopmental disabilities and impairments. Most neonatal deaths are caused by preterm birth, asphyxia during birth, and infections such as sepsis, pneumonia, and meningitis.

Effective, low-cost interventions are available, but they are not reaching all of the women and babies who need them. In developing countries, many women deliver at home and rarely see a trained healthcare provider before or after the baby’s birth. Skilled providers in poor countries often lack access to current tools or do not use them. Families may not seek care or follow medical advice.

This is why I am an ambassador for the Healthy Families Healthy Planet project.  HFHP is a partnership between the United Methodist Church and the United Nations Foundation.  The mission of Healthy Families Healthy Planet is to give mothers a voice.  Far too many women have no voice.  They have no advocate.  HFHP is trying to change that.  Two years ago I went to a training in Ohio.  I sat in awe of the powerful women that I met.  I wondered at that meeting if there was a place for me in this project.  

When I thought of my girls, my wife, my sisters, my friends who have given birth and never once wished they had a plastic sheet to lay across their dirt floor as they went into labor, I found my voice.  As I learned about complications that women I know and love faced and survived that would mean certain death in other parts of the world, I found my voice.  As I practiced my elevator speech, learned addresses of Congressional offices, watched documentaries, and met with Congressional staffs, I found my voice.

I am one father, and I have big dreams for my daughters.  As I realized that my dreams were not just for them, but for the daughters of the world, I found my voice. I am one father.  I am one voice.  I invite you – father, mother, brother, sister, son, or daughter – to find yours. 

On September 6, there is a Healthy Families Healthy Planet training seminar in Peoria, Illinois.  Follow the link below (or linked to the logo above) to read a little bit more about the training, and apply to come.  There is no cost for the training.  It starts at 9 a.m. with breakfast and ends at 6 p.m. with dinner.  Come and pray.  Come and learn.  Come and share stories.  Come, and find your voice.

Apply here for the training in Peoria on September 6.

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the Bible under my bed

I still have that red Bible with the frayed edges.

I still have that red Bible with the frayed edges.

I found it under my bed.  I know, not the best place to keep it.  I have no idea how it got there, but one of the most powerful experiences I’ve ever had with my Bible came the night I found it under my bed.

I was living alone for the first time in my life.  A graduate student in a small apartment with a strange roommate, it was probably the most lonely I’ve ever been.  I missed my girlfriend.  I missed my friends and family.  I had some nice co-workers, but the relationships were still at the very superficial level.  I was about six weeks into a two-year commitment.  When I decided to go to graduate school, I thought two years wouldn’t be too long to try and have a long-distance relationship.  On that night though, sitting on my bed feeling sorry for myself, two years seemed like an eternity.

For reasons which I cannot fully explain, I decided to clean my room.  I started at side of my bed, picking up clothes and books and whatnot.  I looked under my bed and found the red book with gold letters on it surrounded by dust bunnies.  I felt a little guilty that my Bible had been pushed that far back under my bed.  I picked it up, and held it for a moment and decided that cleaning my room could wait.  I crawled back on my bed, and felt compelled to read.  I didn’t know what to read.  I didn’t know where to start, so I started at the beginning.

I had never really read the Old Testament before.  Seminary was still in my distant future, so I knew nothing about JDEP, historical criticism, or a post modern hermeneutic.  I simply read the stories.  They were confusing.  The story of Noah was redundant and seemed to contradict itself.  It was boring.  Seriously, do I really care about the sons of Ham?  It was troubling.  Abraham did what to his son?  Yet I kept reading.  I also found the stories to be direct, and easier to follow then I thought they might be.  It all read like a TV drama.  As I read I found myself eager to read more.  Then I read this line:

“So Jacob served seven years for Rachel, and they seemed to him but a few days because of the love he had for her.” (Genesis 29:20)

The words stopped me.  I read them again and again.  I drew so much comfort from that little verse.  The truth is, Jacob was a pretty unsavory character.  In my Pulpit Fiction Podcast, we’ve been blasting Jacob as his story has unfolded through the lectionary.  He was pretty much a scoundrel.  The story from which this verse emerges is a sordid affair that wouldn’t do very well in modern romantic comedies.  Yet at the same time, there was something so pure about this notion.  There really isn’t a lot of romantic love in the Bible.  There are a lot of property exchanges.  There are relationships fraught with deceit and unfaithfulness.  There are some strange tails men claiming their wives are their sisters.  This particular story finds Jacob marrying Rachel’s sister and Rachel, nevermind the fact that Rachel and Leah are his first cousins.

The fact of the matter was, in that moment, I didn’t care about any of that.  I didn’t need to know the cultural context of marriage.  I didn’t need to understand the source criticism of Genesis.  All I knew was that I was hurting.  I was lonely.  I missed the woman I loved, and somehow that verse spoke to me.  A pain was lifted.  It wasn’t erased, but I was able to look at my situation from a new perspective.  Call it the Holy Spirit.  Call it the power of the Living Word.  In that moment, the Bible spoke to me, and I was renewed.  Did God move me to clean my room?  Did God direct me to look under my bed?  I don’t know, but a couple of years later, my sister read that verse at our wedding.

That is the power of the Bible.  That isn’t to say that the deeper, more scholarly approaches to the Bible aren’t helpful.  I believe in using all of the tools of scholarship, archeology, sociology to dig deeper into the Bible.  I love looking at Scriptures from different cultural contexts, and I try to be aware of the lens I bring to the Scripture.  I believe that the Word of God is made more fully alive when we bring our own understanding of tradition, reason, and experience into it.

But sometimes, encountering the divine is as simple as opening up the book and reading.  Sometimes we can have an encounter with God through the Bible that is free of trappings.  On that night it was just me and my Bible, and I was made new.  That is an important reminder for me as I surround myself with commentaries and studies.  Sometimes God’s grace comes through a scoundrel, and a simple and eternal message of love.

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There will be people there waiting for you.

I don’t think this was the exact motor we made, but they looked like these.

It was a hot factory in Elgin.  We were building electric motors that would be used in hospital beds.  Every morning at 7 am we would come into the factory and walk by the big thermometer.  It regularly read over 90.  My first job in the morning was to go into the huge walk-in ovens and take out parts that had been baking all night.  All of the jobs in the factory were monotonous.

Take part out of box. Sweat. Place part in machine. Pull handle. Put part in different box. Wipe forehead.  Repeat.

It was my first job out of college.  I found it through a temp agency.  I had a degree, but was going to start in the fall as a graduate assistant in Edwardsville.  The job was basically a filler.  I had left the world of college.  I had known that world well.  In that world I had a loving girlfriend, good friends, a familiar community, respect of my professors, and a good part-time job.  In the fall I would be entering a new world.

It was a strange new world with an unfamiliar city, a new boss and co-workers, and a strange roommate.  I was full of trepidation, and I had plenty of time with my own thoughts and worries.

One day I was sitting at table putting together the little motors, and started talking to one of my co-workers.  She was a tiny African American woman in her late fifties.  She had skinny fingers, with wide knuckles and big round glasses. She was the kind of person that was easy to talk to, easy to share with.  Or maybe I was just in need of an ear other than my own.

“In the fall I’m moving to Edwardsville, a city near Saint Louis,” I told her.

“Oh, there are lots of black people in Saint Louis,” was her bewildering response.  I wasn’t sure what to say, so I just said, “Oh, that’s good.”

Then she said something I’ll never forget.  “God will be with you,” she stopped what she was doing and looked at me.  “There will be people there waiting for you.”

Sarah and my Dad helped me move into my apartment in Edwardsville.  Their leaving was one of the saddest, most lonely moments of my life.  I cried that first night.  On the second night I bought a copy of a comedy to help me keep my mind off my sadness.  I cried that night too.

Eventually, things got better.  I adapted.  I liked my work.  I liked my classes.  I liked my boss and co-workers.  Then I tried to go to church.  I went to a Methodist church near my apartment.  It was my first time going to a church that was not the one I was born and raised in.  I was nervous. I felt out of place. I knew no one.

The hymns were familiar.  The order felt right.  The sermon kept my attention (though I have no idea what the topic was).  The pastor, Rev. Michael Smith, had a warm and gentle spirit, and I liked his humor and insight.  I sat next to a gray-haired woman who smiled at me at the greeting time.  She asked me if I was a student.  She told me there was a lunch downstairs after worship, and invited me.  I was a grad student on a tight budget, so I wasn’t going to pass up a free meal.

From the New Bethel UMC Facebook page

Soon after my first worship experience at New Bethel UMC, another older lady arrived at my apartment and handed me a loaf of bread.  She didn’t ask to come in, and didn’t stay to chat.  I went back.  I learned about an upcoming soup dinner.  So I learned how to make soup, and brought it.  I started going to choir practice and to a weeknight Bible study.  I discovered much about myself and the Bible in that study.  I learned that I had some insight into the Scriptures, and was able to help people gain understanding even while I was searching myself.

There was no one in that congregation that was my age.  There were no student ministries.  There was no praise band.  There were no brochures.  There was bread.  There was soup.  There were earnest people singing, studying, and enjoying each other.  When Sarah came to visit, we would go to church together.  When Sarah left, I would still cry.  That pain never left, but the utter loneliness melted away.

One night, while I was working in a gas station trying to save money for an engagement ring, my pastor came in.  We chatted for a while.  Somehow it came out that I had felt a call to the ministry many years before.  He told me we should have lunch, and he had a book to give me.  That was the official start of my ordination process that culminated 10 years later in a Conference Center in Peoria.

It wasn’t long into my time at Edwardsville that I remembered my friend’s words.  “There will be someone there waiting for you.”

It turned out she was wrong.  There was a whole church waiting for me.

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A journal entry from 12 years ago gave me goosebumps

photoWhile packing up my house last month I came across a notebook I had not seen in many years.  I didn’t recognize it at first.  When I opened it up, a torn page fell out.  On it was an entry into a journal that I started to keep in 2002.  At the time, I was 24 years old.  I was living with my wife of eight months in a two-bedroom apartment in Peoria.  I was working my first full-time job as the head of the Children’s Book section at Barnes and Noble.  It was a great job, but I had felt frustrated.  I first heard the calling into ministry at age 15.  It was my Mom’s idea, and try as I might, it was an idea I couldn’t ignore.

My wife and I had found a church which we kind of liked, but it was difficult to get involved more than an occasional Sunday worship.  Working retail hours made it difficult to plan more than a couple of weeks out.  It was nearly impossible to join a Sunday school class, or the choir, or any of the regular things that help get acclimated into the life of a church.  So I started to pray.  I prayed that God would help me find a new job that would make it easier to get involved in church again.

Shortly thereafter I found a four-line ad in the Peoria Journal.  A small church about 30 minutes away was hiring a part-time Director of Youth and Young Adult Ministries.  I applied.  “I have no experience.  No training.  No qualifications,” I told the interview team.  “There is no reason you should hire me, except that I think this is what I’m supposed to be doing.  And I think I’d be pretty good at it.”  They believed me.  They took a chance on me, and hired me.  Here’s the first page of my journal before starting at Mackinaw United Methodist Church.

March 6, 2002

I bought this book because I am about to embark on a remarkable journey.  It is a journey I have been waiting to make for quite some time.  On sunday I will be introduced to the congregation of Mackinaw United Methodist Church as the new Director of Youth and Young Adult Ministries.  My sister once told me that she believes I have a story to tell.  I have a feeling this is going to be quite a story.

In a few days I will begin the toughest, most demanding, and most important job I’ve ever had.  Right now I’m excited because I think I can be a very good youth minister.  I have a lot of energy and enthusiasm.  I feel like I can relate well to teenagers because I will respect them as individuals.  I think I have a lot of insights into the Bible and a strong-enough faith to instill it into others.  I feel like I will be able to lead a group of young people to Christ.  I have a lot of good ideas.  Right now I feel as if I’m ready to dive in and start shaping lives.

At the same time I’m terrified.  I’ve never really done anything like this.  I don’t know the Bible that well, and I have no idea how to teach others about it.  I have no idea how I’m going to answer tough questions.  I still have questions myself.  Is homosexuality a sin?  Can you be gay and be saved? Are all Muslims going to hell?  What about the people who have never heard of Jesus, where do they go? Are we near the end times?  What if they see through me and realize I’m just a big impostor?  What if they see I have no idea what I’m doing?

On the job training is one thing, but we’re talking about souls here, not putting a book on the wrong shelf.  This is the most important job I’ve ever had, by a long shot.  I mean, second place isn’t even close.  Since I was 15 years old I’ve known that this was my path.  I’ve always felt it was a part of God’s plan for my life, but it was always somewhere in the future.  Well, it’s still in the future, about four days into the future.

Like I said, I’m about to embark on a journey.  Tomorrow I will meet with Rev. Dan to start figuring out some details of my job.  I have a feeling I’ll be figuring out the details of this job for some time to come.  “The first year as a youth minister for a totally untrained young man.”  It could be an interesting story.  I’m looking forward to writing it.

Those Mackinaw kids will forever hold a special place in my heart.  They’re all grown up now.  College, jobs, marriages, kids.  They were an amazing collection of young people, and Sarah and I have stayed in touch with many of them.  We were in Mackinaw for a year and a half before we decided to go to seminary.  Saying goodbye to those kids and that church was a difficult time.  Yet we left with so much joy at the time we shared, and so much hope for what was to come.  I’m now serving in my fourth church since Mackinaw.  Each goodbye was difficult.  Every hello has been a blessing.

12 years later.  Joy and hope.  Goodbyes and hellos.  A few questions answered. A few lessons learned. I’ve started as the Pastor of Two Rivers Church in Rock Island.  I’m still figuring out the details of this job, but I’m having a blast writing the story…

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Prayer for Illumination

I’ve long said that the motto of the United Methodist Church is best read as a call to action.  It is not a descriptor so much as a call to action.  I take the word “open” to be a verb.  It is a call to action to do all that I can to open hearts, doors, and minds.  Including my own.

A prayer for illumination, to be read responsively in worship before the reading of the Scripture.

One: Open our hearts

All: That the Holy Spirit may move through the reading of the Word.

One: Open our minds.

All: That we may hear again the story of salvation.

One: Open our doors

All: That all may know the love and grace of Christ.

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The Dad Life (2:04 is me, to a T)

It’s the Dad Life, and I wouldn’t trade it for any other.

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I’ve gained 10 pounds, and I’m okay with it.

20140203-095440.jpgAfter spending a year losing 80 pounds, I have spent the last year putting back on 10.  And I’m okay with that.  I was extremely proud of the transformation I experienced in 2012.  From seeing the scale tip 329 to weighing in at 249, I changed more than my body.  In fact, the transformation I experienced was never about my body alone.  It was about how I felt and how I lived.

My joy came from more than a before and after photo.  It came from knowing that my life span had probably been significantly extended.  It came from the energy with which I woke every morning.  It came from being able to run a 5K in under 27 minutes, and dreams of finishing a marathon that suddenly seemed within reach.  It came from living a more disciplined life, one that was full of more healthy choices, and habits that were life-giving. Above all, my joy came from my daughters, one of whom told me, “I’m glad you are healthier and your belly is smaller, but don’t make it go away completely, I like a little softness to snuggle.”

before between after stillMy fitness journey has been well chronicled on this site.  I started this blog in October 2008, when I tipped the scale at 301 pounds.  I said from day one that the journey was about more than weight, but it was that moment staring at a milestone I never wanted to cross that pushed me to start – and name – this blog.

Since losing 80 pounds, I decided to keep calling myself the “Fat Pastor,” because I knew that fitness wasn’t a destination to reach.  It is a life.  The name of this blog reminds me every day to make fit choices.  And that’s why I’m okay with having gained back 10-15 pounds over the last year.  In my mind fitness is not linked directly to my weight.

Some might think I’m just making excuses, but at some point over the last year, I made a conscious decision – not to gain weight back – but to spend less time at the gym, and more time with my youngest daughter.

Without going into too many details, my wife went back to work part-time this September, and I was left with a choice.  I could work out while my daughter was at preschool two times a week, or I could bring her to the gym with me two days a week, and allow the nursery care there to take her.

Another way of putting it, I could have:

  • Two days a week at the gym, two mornings with my daughter.
  • Three days a week at the gym, and zero mornings with my daughter.

It was an easy choice.  For the last year, I’ve spent two mornings a week with my three-year-old.  Sometimes she goes with me to visit shut-ins.  Sometimes she comes with me to the office.  Most of the time, she sits in my lap, on my chair.  She watches cartoons. I read.  She rubs my cheek.  I smell her hair.  At random times we are interrupted by spontaneous tickle fights, or overwhelmed by a sudden need for a bear hug.  We play Uno, or Memory. We put together puzzles or read books.

So yeah, I have put on a few pounds.  My 5K time has gotten a couple minutes slower.  The size 36 pants I got last spring have stayed in the closet.  But every Sunday night I would kiss her goodnight and ask her, “Do you know what tomorrow is?”  And she would smile and shout, “Daddy-Daughter morning!”

I wouldn’t trade those 10 pounds for anything in the world.  I can get back to running more often.  I intend to get refocused this summer, and I hope to run a marathon in September.

Pretty soon she is going to go to school all day, and we won’t have Daddy-Daughter mornings any more.  We’ll have Saturdays, but Saturdays are family days.  For Daddy-Daughter mornings, this was it.  This was the only year I could spend this kind of time with her – probably forever.

For me, fitness is about choices.  It is about making healthy, life-giving choices.  My body has a little more fat on it this April than it did last year, but I’m pretty certain that I’m as fit as I’ve ever been.  

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We are left to finish the story

easter

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April 20, 2014 · 7:44 am

Pastor Robb is going to sing?

Pastor Robb McCoy will be umm, starring? in Godspell on April 18, 2014.

Pastor Robb McCoy will be umm, starring? in Godspell on April 18, 2014.

(With a tip of the hat to this great article from The Onion – vulgarity warning)

The cast of Riverside and the Center For Living Arts expressed their shock when Director Dino Hayz announced the solo list for their April 18 production of Godspell.

“Pastor Robb is singing?” one cast member, who wished to remain anonymous, questioned.  “I mean, he’s a nice guy and all, and knows his Bible.  But singing?”

Reports indicate that while he has a fairly loud preaching voice, and feels comfortable being in front of people, he’s not exactly a song-and-dance kind of guy.  With no shortage of talented veterans to choose from, Dino Hayz inexplicably asked McCoy to sing one of the biggest songs of the show, “We Beseech Thee.”

“It’s the last fun number of the show,” said anonymous.  “Everyone will want to crucify him, not Jesus.”

McCoy showed some potential in the other three shows he’s been in.  The first was a 50’s Follies show he did in eighth grade at his own church.  Most believe that he only joined that cast because he “might get to hold hands with Christina.”  One witness says that they did, in fact, hold hands, but broke up only a few months after the show.  The causes are still unknown, as the note that ended the relationship has been lost.

His two shows as an adult were last year’s presentation of Godspell, where his vocal limitations were apparent in his two-line solo.  His last production was a play called A Bright Room Called Day. 

“He didn’t even memorize his lines,” said one reviewer of the drama about the rise of Nazism in 1930’s Germany.  Ironically, in both Godspell and Bright Room¸ the ordained United Methodist pastor played Satan.

“He’s a damn good Satan, but I’ve never seen a show where Satan has to sing and dance.  We’ll just have to sing back-up extra loud for this one.”

The show is Friday, April 18 at 7:00 p.m. at Riverside United Methodist Church.  There will be a bake sale before the show and at intermission.  There will also be someone taking bets as to whether or not McCoy will “ever show his face in the church again after this debacle.”

2013 Godspell reflection, part 1

2013 Godspell reflection, part 2

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