Minnesota. Land of 10,000 lakes boasts their license plate. And right in the middle of the state is a chain of lakes called the Whitefish Chain. If you head out for a boat ride on Whitefish Lake, you can reach 16 or 17 (depending on whose counting) different lakes without leaving the boat. Located on that chain of lakes on a peninsula that separates Whitefish Lake from Trout Lake sits Camp Knutson. Mary and Jo use to go to Trout Lake every winter to be with their quilting group. Beautiful spot, isn’t it? Even in the winter—cold but beautiful. Marilyn has a goddaughter living in Pequot Lakes which is at the opposite end of the Whitefish Chain from Camp Knutson.
Thinking about our reading in John 13 immediately brought to mind Camp Knutson. In verse 34 Jesus commands his disciples to love one another and then He shows them how they can do it—as I have loved you, love one another.
The night Jesus shared this new commandment with His disciples was the start of the toughest days of His life. That night He would be betrayed by Judas and so the final journey leading to His death began. He knew when He was sharing a meal with them that it would be their last meal together; He knew Judas was going to betray Him; He knew Peter was going to deny Him three times; He knew he was going to suffer; He knew that even though He was innocent He would die; He knew that all of the disciples except John would dessert Him. Yes, Jesus knew all these things. Yet in the midst of all this Jesus choose to take off His outer garment, wrap a towel around His waist and with humbleness lovingly wash the feet of His disciples—all of His disciples. Jesus demonstrated how to love one another.
I thought of Camp K as I was studying these verses because love-the kind of love Jesus demonstrated- is what makes this camp work. It is a camp for kids with special needs. The campers include kids with Downs Syndrome, autism, severe skin diseases, and heart disease. Every summer about 11-12 hundred campers come to the camp to spend a week.
Some kids that come to camp one summer don’t come back the following summer because their disease has won. The camp weeks are divided up according to diagnosis and age. So some of these campers see each other every year at camp and become fast friends.
Love flows in and out of that camp on a daily basis. Hundreds of volunteers from the surrounding communities come to camp to do whatever they can to make the week a camper spends at Camp K be the best week possible. Quilters spend the cold Minnesota winter nights sewing quilts together with thread and love to send to the camp for their annual quilt auction, gardeners’ garden, bakers bake, handy men fix. Regular people do regular things for the camp but do it with love.
Sara is the chief cook and bottle washer for the campers. She serves hundreds of meals each day but she doesn’t just cook great meals for campers. One night the theme for dinner was going to be the ballroom of the Titanic. All the counselors and campers visited the costume shop and dressed to the hilt for dinner. Sara served Hor d’Ouevores on the aft deck. Any chief on the Titanic would have been proud to serve those Hor d’Ouevores. They were spectacular. Once when the theme night was Dirty Jobs, she served spaghetti to the campers in plastic construction helmets and told the kids they could eat it with their hands. Sara doesn’t just do her job she does it with love.
Love doesn’t just flow into the camp, it also flows out. One of the goals at camp is to give these kids as normal a week at camp as possible. Some of the problems they have are so severe; they can’t do the things normal kids can do. Their lives are very restrictive. Consequently for some the only friends they have are the ones they have shared experiences with at Camp K. It is incredible to see how these campers build relationships with each other. How they learn to love each other. They build a community of their own and take it with them as they leave camp to go back home. When Junni was 9, she was scheduled for open heart surgery. Two weeks before she was to have the operation she was at Camp Knutson. One arts and crafts project that week was for each cabin of campers to build a totem pole that embodied their group as a whole and individually. At the weeks closing ceremony, her nine cabin mates presented that totem pole to Junni. They wanted her to know that they loved her, were praying for her and were supporting her as she faced surgery.
Sharing love and receiving love. Jesus shared His love for His disciples by washing their feet. They received His love by having their feet washed. He commanded them to love each other. As I have loved you , love one another. He set the bar when He said as I have loved you. The love Jesus shared changed the world; the love we share can change a life.
One last story from Camp K. is taken from a letter of a Mother. “Our son, Tommy, had talked about going to camp since he was 5 years old. Neither one of us were truly convinced that what he would get out of it was worth the 24+ hours of driving (they lived in New Mexico) it would take to get to camp. We were also concerned that campers with medical issues far more complex than his would scare him”
You see Tommy had CHD and he thought his chances of survival were only 50/50. Especially since a friend with the same medical issues Tommy had died in the hospital bed right next to his.
His mom continues, “He did go to camp and last night when I asked him what he learned at camp, expecting to hear about boat rides, fishing, or horseback riding. He smiled at me and answered, “I learned that everything is going to be Ok, Mom.”
There are thousands of wonderful stories happening all the time at Camp Knutson but you and I don’t have to be involved in something like Camp K to “love one another.” There are opportunities in our everyday life to demonstrate our love---pray for someone, bake cookies for a neighbor, mow someone’s yard, run an errand for someone who can’t drive, share a cup of coffee with a friend that needs to talk.
We demonstrate our love when a visitor walk in the door of this church and we extend a welcoming hand, by participating in the crop walk in whatever way we can, by giving someone a bear, or praying for the recipients of a bear, or helping the people in East Africa secure clean water through our One Great Hour of Sharing gift next week.
A gentleman was asked why he was in such a hurry. “ I am on the way to the nursing home to have breakfast with my wife. She has Alzheimer.” Will she be upset if you are late? “She doesn’t know me and hasn’t for the last five years.” And you still go every day? He smiled and said, “She doesn’t know me but I still know who she is.”
Jesus didn’t just tell His disciples that He loved them. Jesus showed them how much He loved them. “Love one another. As I have loved you, love one another.” And then Jesus says, “ By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”
I had decided that I would focus on this story from Acts this morning – especially since it is one of those stories that gets little attention. As I began to research, to read reflections and interpretations, I thought that maybe there’s a good reason it doesn’t get much attention. Unlike other healing stories in Acts, there is no sermon accompanying this story – no sermon that explains what had happened. We don’t hear anything further about Tabitha (or Dorcas) so we don’t know how this healing had an impact on her life or her community.
In fact, this story may create some problems.
I was startled to learn that Tabitha is the only female who is called a disciple – the only one in the entire New Testament. Mary Magdalene isn’t called a disciple. Lydia isn’t called a disciple. The women that Paul names in some of his letters aren’t called disciples. Tabitha, Dorcas, is the only woman who is given that designation! One scholar noted that there is always a temptation to take one example and make it the pre-eminent model by which we are to live. So, Tabitha, the woman of good works and acts of charity, became the model for all Christian women. They were expected to fit this mold – to be Tabithas whose lives demonstrated good works and acts of charity – and nothing else. Another problem is that we begin to see this healing as a merited healing. She was devoted to good works and acts of charity – so she deserved God’s healing presence.
Joseph Harvard points out that Acts does not fit the modern world very well. So, to enter its story we have to live with the “assumption that God is still working through God’s Spirit in the lives of people and in human society to restore this broken world.” That is the faith assumption. It does not mean we leave our minds at the door. It does not mean we reject science and medicine – and all the good gifts of technology – as anti-God or anti-faith. But we do need to let our faith “challenge our assumptions that we are left to our own devices to fix our predicaments – or…that our predicaments are not fixable at all.”
“Faith challenges our assumptions that we are left to our own devices to fix our predicaments.” One of God’s good gifts to us is the gift of community. Stephen Jones notes that this story tells us about a community in pain – a community torn by loss. The community in Joppa had lost one of its beloved members – a pillar of the community – a disciple--whose discipleship bore witness in concrete acts that had an impact on others, that touched their needs and their hurts.
Jones disagrees with other interpreters and suggests that the emphasis in this story is not on Peter, but on the community. The community reached out to Peter on behalf of one of its members.
“Christians today are more aware than ever of the power of holistic healing – the intersection of prayer, hopeful attitude, and the resources of medicine. We are more aware than ever that no one should face disease alone. Prayer partners and spiritual advocates (and I would add advocates in a more general sense) can support us, complementing medical treatment. Communities are powerful healing partners in helping us overcome illness and brokenness.”
Jones points out that this approach is counter-cultural in our world which stresses self-reliance, individualism, and the intense privacy that is often seen as a virtue when it comes to illness. He quotes Frederick Buechner:
“When it comes to putting broken lives back together – when it comes, in religious terms, to the saving of souls – the human best tends to be at odds with the holy best. To do for yourself the best that you have it in you to do – to grit your teeth and clench your fists in order to survive the world at its harshest and worst – is, by that very act, to be unable to let something be done for you and in you that is more wonderful still. The trouble with steeling yourself against the harshness of reality is that the same steel secures your life against being destroyed secures your life also against being opened up and transformed by the holy power that life itself comes from.”
The chapter on Healing in the book Practicing Our Faith says that as Christians we are called to be healers in a variety of ways. There are those who work in medical fields – as caregivers and researchers and technicians and chaplains. Others are healers as they walk with the other wounded in organizations like Narcotics or Alcoholics Anonymous. People volunteer in hospices. A growing field is one of therapeutic touch – a ministry offered to those who are ill and receiving treatment, but feel that they have been lost. I’ve often thought of the real need for people to serve as advocates for those who are sick – asking questions in hospitals or doctors’ offices to help the patient understand what’s happening.
If we understand that the root understanding of healing is broader than physical health – that for Christians it means wholeness, we remember that creation itself is in need of healing – so we can be healers as we choose to live more responsibly in our environment and as we seek new ways of bringing wholeness to the earth.
I think it’s easier to talk about “doing” than to talk about the vulnerability of “receiving.” Our service today includes the invitation to ask for prayers. One church, that developed a healing ministry, said that when they pray for healing something always happens even if it wasn’t what they had asked for. They remember that it is God’s power working through them. They remember that, by God’s grace, we are not left to our own devices. Other church communities have developed support groups for those struggling with chronic illnesses. These groups gather to share stories and offer prayers for each other.
A United Methodist pastor, serving as a spiritual healer and teacher, says that the healing ministry of Jesus is still continuing in the community of faith. In that community we remember that healing includes the whole person – spiritual, physical and emotional. And, God wills our wholeness and is actively involved in our growth.
Tabitha was healed. She was restored to the community that loved her and that had interceded on her behalf. They sought out the resource that offered her the best hope. They did not abandon her, even in death. In her story, we are reminded that the church carries Jesus’ own ministry of healing into each other’s lives and into the world.
Writer Flannery O’Connor said of Paul, “I reckon the Lord knew that the only way to make a Christian out of that one was to knock him off his horse.”
That statement is a reminder that we bring baggage to the hearing of this story. There’s nothing in the story about a horse. That’s a European addition – probably thanks to artists who chose this story as inspiration for paintings. They painted according to the world they knew. In that world, people travelled by horse! One of my courses when I spent a semester in Vienna, Austria, was art appreciation. We visited numerous museums – and saw this particular story illustrated by numerous artists. Someone finally asked me, “Is that the way they used to convert people? By walking horses over them?”
O’Connor brought that baggage of artistic interpretation. We also bring the baggage of a modern Christianity that often focuses on the need for conversion. “Have you been born again?” is a phrase often used as a litmus test for legitimate Christian faith. I remember being challenged years ago by Christian friends – friends who had not been raised in the church. “If you haven’t been born again, you’re not really a Christian.” There was a prevailing attitude that those who had always been in the church couldn’t possibly really be Christians because they couldn’t point to a moment of clarity – a moment when they had been born again.
We bring the baggage of our attitudes toward Paul. He isn’t an easy person to hear. And some of his teachings have been harmful to particular groups of people – at least in the ways they have been heard and interpreted.
We also bring the cultural baggage that has interpreted this as a complete change in who Paul was. We think of conversion as a movement from being a bad person to being a good person. Conversion is about morality.
So, we have to try to shed some of that baggage and let the story speak for itself. It is an important story in Luke-Acts. Paul’s experience on the Damascus road gets told three times. Here, the narrator tells it. Then Paul tells of it himself in Acts 22 and Acts 26.
But, his isn’t the only conversion story. It may have gained prominence through the centuries because of its drama – losing and then regaining his sight – but we’re told of other conversions as well.
The Rev. Anthony Robinson, a leader in church revitalization, suggests that in the book of Acts conversion is “not conceived of in narrowly moral terms,” but is, rather, “seen as coming to a new understanding.”
We have to remember that Paul (Saul) was a devout Jew. He thought he was doing what God required of him – as a good and faithful Jew. He was seeking to squash an emerging interpretation of the faith that he perceived to be a threat to God’s ways. He was not morally corrupt. He was – by all accounts – a righteous man, who lived according to God’s laws. And in the name of God’s law, he was going to force people back into God’s narrow way. God broke into his narrow faith and offered him a new, deeper, broader understanding – based on God’s grace in Jesus the Christ.
The other conversions are less dramatic (a reminder that we don’t all experience faith in the same way – thank you, God! and Biblical writers!). There’s another conversion within this very story. Ananias had to be converted from his judgment and fear of Saul so that he might pray for Saul and be part of God’s healing presence with Saul. In chapter 10, we have the wonderful story of Peter’s conversion from a good Jewish man who wanted to keep Jesus within the circle of Judaism to one who was willing to tell God’s story to a Gentile. Later, we have the story of the conversion of Lydia – a woman of faith.
Robinson points out that contrary to our modern understandings of conversion, in Acts, conversion is not moral, it does not focus on unbelievers and it is not a one time event. “If Acts is to be believed,” he writes, “the focus of conversion is as much on believers and ‘good Christians’ as it is on unbelievers or the morally reprobate. Moreover, conversion is not simply a matter of the heart or the emotions; it has a cognitive content and carries with it a call to service and action…a person is converted in order to be of use.”
The church is often guilty of reducing the faith to morality and a personal faith that has little connection to the world. I remember a colleague saying, years ago, that he found that his congregation wanted to hear how they should live. They wanted to know what the “boundaries” of Christian living would be. He preached a personal faith and a careful morality. His approach is a common one. Read church signs. Most of them have some little invitation to come explore how one should live. “Got worries? Bring them to church!” one church declares. “God wants to talk to you,” says another.
I’m afraid I can’t see the Biblical justification for such an approach to faith. It can’t be reduced to me and my God, to how to live carefully, within certain moral boundaries. The implicit promise is that if we live carefully – according to God’s morality – we will have easy and safe lives. God will reward us and protect us. “Come to God – and all your troubles will be over!”
Robinson says that the church has been highly influenced by our culture’s interest in the therapeutic – which focuses on the self. “How does this enhance or benefit me and my life? How does this work for me? How can this make my life better or more comfortable or more meaningful? Does this meet my needs? We’ve fallen susceptible to Martin Luther’s definition of sin: “The self curved in upon itself.”
Saul was called – and converted – for a purpose. Robinson points out that the book of Acts is focused less on Paul’s (Saul’s) conversion than on the purpose of the call. Yet, he had to be converted in order to fulfill that call. He had to recognize his blindness to what God had done through Jesus Christ and was doing through his followers so that he might see that he, too, was invited to participate in God’s redeeming work and presence. Robinson writes, “Saul’s conversion meant transcending the self-centered demands of the ego and sustaining the intrusion into his life of another reality, another being – the living Jesus.”
So, Robinson suggests, “Conversion in our own time may likewise entail an intrusion into and deliverance from our self-centered and self-absorbed – if also anxious – constructions of the self.”
Robinson suggests we consider a modern parable – actually, what I’ve always heard as a joke.
Two battleships were on maneuvers at sea. When a storm struck, one of the captains stayed on the bridge to oversee things. After dark, a lookout reported, “Light on the starboard bow.”
“Is it steady or moving astern?” asked the captain.
“Steady,” captain, the lookout replied. They were on a collision course.
“Signal that ship!” roared the captain. “We are on a collision course. Advise you to change course 20 degrees.”
A signal came back. “Advisable for you to change course 20 degrees.
The captain said, “Send: I’m a captain. Change course 20 degrees.”
The reply came. “I’m a second-class seaman, sir. You had better change course 20 degrees.”
The angry captain shouted, “Send: I’m a battleship. You change course 20 degrees.”
Back came the reply. “I’m a lighthouse!”
“Change course,” muttered the captain.
Saul thought he had all the answers. He set out thinking he was in charge and that he knew what should happen. He was like the captain. He encountered the “lighthouse”, Jesus, the Christ.
The problem with reducing conversion to a one time, one place event is that we forget that we are constantly in need of conversion. We are always in need of being encountered by the one who is the light in our darkness. We need to recognize our own blindness to the ways of God – and let our sight be restored or expanded.
Someone told me of a visit she made to her childhood Sunday School teacher – a visit that took place decades later. “It was sad,” she said. “The woman’s views hadn’t changed one bit. She was no different in her attitudes.”
How often does the church lift up consistency as a value? We are in danger that consistency can be a sign of our blindness to the ways and presence of God. A commentator noted Flannery O’Connor’s statement and said that, although she was wrong about the horse, she might have been right about the need to be shaken up – startled out of our complacency and consistency.
God calls us – beyond ourselves – to be a part of God’s redeeming, healing, and transforming presence in this world. If we are following Jesus, we are remembering and striving to emulate what he did – doing the works of the One who had sent him. Saul was told, “Get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” The church exists, we are called, not for our own sakes – but for God’s service, for God’s mission, and for God’s work.
April 3, 2016
I really enjoyed the scholarship that was the foundation for the Lenten series “Sensing the Gospel.” Professor Matt Skinner introduced the series saying, “In Jesus Christ, the salvation God provides cannot be reduced to an idea or abstraction. Salvation happens, instead, in human flesh. Indeed, God arrives as human flesh….People encountered Jesus in their own bodies. These were real people in real contact with a real man from Galilee. Even today, we encounter God and God’s salvation in embodied ways – in our bodies’ abilities to perceive familiar realities and to interpret new ones.”
The series looked at our five senses—touch, sight, taste, hearing, and smell – and explored the ways in which our senses are involved, or could be involved, in the life of faith. It was a reminder that we celebrate and worship the God who would not be an abstraction, the God who refused to be remote. We celebrate and worship the God who gets “dirty,” immersing God’s very self in human life. Jesus was a human being who touched others, who saw people – even those the world around him dismissed or ignored, who listened to friends and enemies and strangers, who feasted in various homes, tasting and smelling the meals offered him. Jesus was a sentient being!
Now, if we keep that in mind as we hear the story of Thomas, perhaps our perceptions might change. I think of Thomas as the scientist – experimental, not theoretical. (Big Bang Theory – Leonard, not Sheldon!) He wanted to touch, to feel, to see, to hear – to prove in the world he inhabited – that this resurrection story was real! His was a questioning faith. We already knew that about Thomas. After all, he was the one who had said to Jesus, “We do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” So, what he had heard from others, that Jesus had appeared to them, did not make sense in the world that he knew. However, he did not walk away. He stayed with the group, with the other disciples. He remained to question.
Isn’t it interesting that through the centuries Thomas’ desire to have proof – proof that he could see and touch – has been belittled, condemned and dismissed as an example of an inferior faith? We hear in Jesus’ words, “Do not doubt, but believe!” a rebuke of Thomas. “Why couldn’t he just believe?” we ask. “After all, his friends told him the good news!”
Yet, we worship the God who chooses to be known to us through creation itself. We follow Jesus who calls us through the waters of baptism and is known to us in the breaking of the bread. Jesus did not condemn Thomas. He invited Thomas to touch and see – to explore a new reality – death had been conquered.
Somewhere, in the history of Christianity, we became highly influenced by philosophies that disparaged the physical world. The world was seen as fallen and corrupt – something to be distrusted. God is “other” – outside and beyond the world in which we live. Somehow, we are to shed our connections with this faulty creation and make the leap to be with God. Faith is a leap from knowing into unknowing – from the earthly into the divine presence.
But, the incarnation itself challenges that view. God is not some remote, abstract concept. God is the One who created, who was present in and through Jesus the Christ, and who comes to us through the Holy Spirit. God chooses to be present as we touch and feel, as we taste and see, as we encounter this beloved creation.
Years ago, I was introduced to meditation that had its roots in Eastern religions. The aim of meditation was to let go of the self and become one with the cosmos. (That may be a very unfair characterization!) The best, deepest Christian practices have as their goal deepening one’s connection with God who is present – in our world and in our very beings.
Now, consider the first part of this story. Jesus met with the disciples – and breathed on them. Breath – it’s part of being a living being. We breathe! We take in oxygen. We exhale. We are connected to this earth – to the cycle of life. Jesus breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” The Spirit’s presence does not take us out of the world, but equips us to live as God’s people in the world. We are the ones who are invited to see, touch, taste, smell, and hear God’s very presence in the world so that we might share it with those who need to know that God is here – not remote, not sitting far off in judgment – but here, inviting us into life-giving relationship.
I invite you to look at the questions for reflection that are in the bulletin. They came from the Feasting on the Word resource. “What might happen if, like Christ, we invited those shut down by life to explore our wounds?”
Wow! The resurrected Christ invited Thomas to explore his wounds. We know this. But do we really think about this? God didn’t erase the signs of the crucifixion in the resurrection. God resurrected the wounded Christ.
I pulled an old book, The Wounded Healer, off my shelf this week, as I was thinking about this question. The sub title is In Our Own Woundedness, We can Become a Source of Life for Others. The book is a classic by Henri Nouwen, a Dutch Catholic Priest. Nouwen explores a new style of leadership, particularly Christian leadership. He challenged old ways that promoted aloofness, separating oneself in a “helping relationship.” Instead, he said, “no one can help anyone without becoming involved, without entering with [one’s] whole person into the painful situation, without taking the risk of becoming hurt, wounded or even destroyed in the process. The beginning and the end of all Christian [service] is to give your life for others… [that] means a witness that starts with the willingness to cry with those who cry, laugh with those who laugh, and to make one’s own painful and joyful experiences available as sources of clarification and understanding.”
The risen Christ bears the signs of having cried with those who cried, laughed with those who laughed – and given his life, fully, to the human experience. “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side!” he said to Thomas – he says to all.
Nouwen asks, “Who can save a child from a burning house without taking the risk of being hurt by the flames? Who can listen to a story of loneliness and despair without taking the risk of experiencing similar pains in his or her own heart and even losing his or her precious peace of mind? In short, who can take away suffering without entering into it?”
I had a colleague, years ago, who struggled in his job as he and his wife went through a separation and then divorce. Sometime after everything had settled down, he apologized to the congregation because he knew that he had struggled with each and every sermon. He didn’t preach about what was happening – he just struggled to find ways of telling the good news as he was journeying through a difficult part of his life. The congregation’s response surprised him. “Those were your best sermons.” They came from a place of honesty, from a place of woundedness. They saw in him, not some veneer of perfection, but a human being who was striving to know God in this world that still wounds.
How many people avoid the church because we stress some notion of perfection or triumph that doesn’t connect with people’s lives? As you know, I kind of like music. Years ago, I heard a preacher say that he wouldn’t let any sad hymns be sung in his church because God’s news is good news. I worked with a church musician who refused to play any hymns in a minor key (sad sounding key) except during Lent. They wanted church to be a place that denied the wounds of the people who came. So church was a place for smiles that hid pain, for superficial politeness.
We reflect a culture that too often denies the pains of people – a culture that is uncomfortable with weakness – so we condemn those who appear weak and do everything we can to make sure others don’t perceive us as weak. We look for vulnerabilities in those we do not like so that they, too, can be dismissed.
“Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side.”
Nouwen shared a wonderful Jewish story from the Talmud.
Rabbi Yoshua ben Levi came upon Elijah, the prophet, while he was standing at the entrance of Rabbi Simeron ben Yohai’s cave…He asked Elijah, “When will the Messiah come?” Elijah replied, “Go and ask him yourself.”
“Where is he?”
“Sitting at the gates of the city.”
“How shall I know him?”
“He is sitting among the poor covered with wounds. The others unbind all their wounds at the same time and then bind them up again. But he unbinds one at a time and binds it up again, saying to himself, ‘Perhaps I shall be needed: if so I must always be ready so as not to delay for a moment.’”
Nowen concludes, “The Messiah, the story tells us, is sitting among the poor… waiting for the moment when he will be needed. So it is with the [Christian]. Since it is [the Christian’s] task to make visible the first vestiges of liberation for others, [the Christian] must bind his or her own wounds carefully in anticipation of the moment when he or she will be needed. [The Christian] is called to be the wounded healer.”
Thank you, Thomas. You questioned, you explored – you reminded us that God came and comes to us in this very creation. God chooses to be known through the very senses we have – touch, taste, smell, sight and hearing. Thank you, Thomas. You reminded us that the wounds of living, wounds the world might disparage, are, instead, a sign of God’s redeeming presence.
Christmas Eve Service
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