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Living by What “Seems Right”

There have been certain sins throughout history which have been so wickedly horrific that I’m quite certain the vast majority of people today would not even consider committing them. For instance, can you imagine sacrificing your daughter to an idol by burning her alive? Of course not, and neither could the Israelites when they first entered the Promised Land. And yet, a few hundred years passed, and sure enough…

“When you present your gifts and offer up your children in fire, you defile yourselves with all your idols to this day. And shall I be inquired of by you, O house of Israel? As I live, declares the Lord God, I will not be inquired of by you.” Ezekiel 20:31 (ESV)

Such is the shaping power of culture. What was at one time absolutely impossible to imagine…became reality. Sacrificing a child suddenly “seemed the right thing” to do, simply because it was the cultural norm.

God’s Response

What’s fascinating to note in Ezekiel 20 is God’s response to this wickedness. He said they would not be able to “inquire” of Him. In other words, no relationship. And so it was that idolatry, introduced through exposure to a wicked culture, destroyed any meaningful relationship they had with the One True God.

What We Lose by Adopting Cultural Beliefs

Of course, the same thing happens in our culture, only with different issues. The people of God today constantly find themselves under pressure to modify their beliefs and practices toward what “seems right”. But what I have realized recently is that adopting these cultural beliefs and practices has an unintended consequence: the loss of a vital relationship with God. We can no longer inquire of Him. This makes sense considering Israel’s experience under Ezekiel, but also because in order to adopt many cultural beliefs, one must reject Scripture, which is, of course, God’s Word to us. How can I have a vital relationship with someone who does not speak to me?

The Stepford Wives…the Stepford God

The lesson here is clear: while we will all be shaped to some degree by culture, we must be sure to let God’s Word have the final say (Romans 12:2).  Along these lines, one of my favorite Tim Keller illustrations comes from his book, The Reason for God:

“If we let our unexamined beliefs undermine our confidence in the Bible, the cost may be greater than we think.

“If you don’t trust the Bible enough to let it challenge and correct your thinking, how could you ever have a personal relationship with God? In any truly personal relationship, the other person has to be able to contradict you. For example, if a wife is not allowed to contradict her husband, they won’t have an intimate relationship. Remember the (two!) movies The Stepford Wives? The husbands of Stepford, Connecticut, decide to have their wives turned into robots who never cross the wills of their husbands. A Stepford wife was wonderfully compliant and beautiful, but no one would describe such a marriage as intimate or personal.

“Now, what happens if you eliminate anything from the Bible that offends your sensibility and crosses your will? If you pick and choose what you want to believe and reject the rest, how will you ever have a God who can contradict you? You won’t! You’ll have a Stepford God! A God, essentially, of your own making, and not a God with whom you can have a relationship and genuine interaction. Only if your God can say things that outrage you and make you struggle (as in a real friendship or marriage!) will you know that you have gotten hold of a real God and not a figment of your imagination.”

– Keller, Timothy. The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism

Therefore, only a real relationship with God can save us from being wrongly shaped by culture and what “seems right”. And not surprisingly, such a relationship with God only comes from a thorough commitment to Scripture as authoritative.

For as the history of the Israelites teaches us, if we abandon God’s Word, the fire is never far away.

 
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Posted by on September 20, 2016 in Uncategorized

 

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The One Problem Behind All Your Worry

angst-802639__180[1]It was bedtime recently, and as we got ready for the sandman, I explained to Diane why I was worried about something. She wasn’t buying it, and yet I assured her I had reason for my worry. She just didn’t understand what I understood.

Now, I’m beginning to doubt my certainty.

Looking back, I think I was being foolish. Let me go one step further. I was being proud.

It was that insightful pastor Tim Keller who brought this out to me in a sermon on the fruit of the Spirit. Keller wrote…

Do you know how to deal with worry? Worry is arrogance. Worry is always, in the Bible, a refusal to assume a humble posture before God. In James 4 (my favorite place almost on this), verses 13 and 14, it says, “Now listen, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city … Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow.”

That’s it. Anybody who worries thinks they know. Anybody who is filled with anxiety is arrogant, because you’re sure you know how things have to go. You’re sure you know what you need. You’re sure you know how history has to go. The peace that is always there … always there … is a peace based on humility, saying before God, “God, you know what I need. You know what has to happen. I don’t know. I don’t know! That’s the reason I don’t worry, because I don’t know. I’m not sure. I put myself in your hands. I’m a child. You’re my Father.”

Real peace that will never pass away (the peace that passes all understanding, the peace that’s perfect) is always connected to humility. If you’re a proud person and you have peace, it’s not real peace. It’s peace based on the fact things are going well for you. When you’re a proud person and things are going well for you, you’re actually misusing that peace because what you’re saying is, “The reason things are going well is I chose well. I’m saving. I have a good job. I got into a good school. I married a good person.”

In other words, your peace is a counterfeit peace. It is not a lasting peace. It will eventually fall apart…Real peace is always connected to humility.

Keller, T. J. (2013). The Timothy Keller Sermon Archive. New York City: Redeemer Presbyterian Church.

When I’m so certain that I have reason to worry, it’s because I am doing what James said not to do – I am looking into the future and imagining I know how everything is going to turn out…which means, in the case of worry, turning out badly. And imagining these lousy scenarios wakes me up at 3 a.m…full of anxiety. And really, it all happens because of arrogance and pride.

And then yesterday, with Keller’s insight speaking life to my soul, the Spirit brought to mind a beautiful, short Psalm I had memorized years before…

A Song of Ascents, of David. O LORD, my heart is not proud, nor my eyes haughty; Nor do I involve myself in great matters, Or in things too difficult for me. Surely I have composed and quieted my soul; Like a weaned child rests against his mother, My soul is like a weaned child within me. O Israel, hope in the LORD From this time forth and forever. Psalm 131:1-3 (NASB)

So, I’m learning that one great key to overcoming worry is to repent of involving myself in “great matters”, to repent of looking into the future and pretending that I know.

Because I don’t.

I don’t have any certain knowledge of the future. But I do know the One who does. And I know what He said…

Do not fear, for I am with you; Do not anxiously look about you, for I am your God. I will strengthen you, surely I will help you, Surely I will uphold you with My righteous right hand. Isaiah 41:10 (NASB)

 
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Posted by on September 6, 2016 in Uncategorized

 

Live from El Salvador with Compassion

imageWe’ve been sponsoring a boy named Daniel in Mexico with Compassion for many years. We exchange letters (not nearly enough come from the Knowltons), but still Daniel’s life has always had an air of mystery to me.

But not so much after this week, not because we made it to Mexico, but because we are here in El Salvador seeing Compassion’s ministry up close and personal. Two months ago Compassion invited us on a trip here to see their ministry first hand, and we delightfully accepted.

We have been having a wonderful time, getting to know some terrific people all while seeing a ministry that is doing an incredible work “releasing children from poverty.” A number of Compassion staff are along for the tour, as well as 7 pastors, some of whom brought their sweeties (Yay, Diane!). Also along for the trip is the comedian Jeff Foxworthy and his wife and daughter. They have made a number of Compassion trips.

Compassion-sponsored child Naomi shows Diane one of her sponsor's letters...

Compassion child Naomi shows off her sponsor letter

To begin with…

Suffice it to say that Compassion…works. Quite well. Unwed mothers come to Christ (about 65% who enter the Child Survival Program come to know the Lord) and receive resources to holistically care for their children. Children come to Christ and often their families are also impacted by the gospel. (One group met a mother and father today who came to Christ when both showed up at the church/project to see their son baptized) Compassion isn’t perfect, but by the grace of God their strategy works well.

Why Compassion Works…

Delightful lunch with Compassion Child Gerson

Delightful lunch with Compassion Child Gerson

Of course I am simplifying, and obviously I’m no expert after two days of touring, but if pressed to name one great reason, I think it works because it is all based on the Gospel working through the LOCAL CHURCH. I knew the gospel was significant, but the overwhelming importance of the local church in Compassion’s ministry was new to me. And this fact alone made me love their ministry. As one staff member put it, “It has always been our intention to attend to the bride of Christ.” Jeff Foxworthy said, “The star of the whole thing is the church.” So what we visited over the last two days…were two different Compassion projects, or really, two different churches. Someone noted something I hadn’t realized, but it was definitely true: “It doesn’t say COMPASSION in giant letters when you go to the project.”

It’s a church, and therefore each touring day we have met the church staff, and the Compassion staff (which includes an accountant at every single project – they have won awards for their excellence in financial accountability, and approximately 80% of all donated monies go directly to helping the child). Staff member Mark Pellingra related a story of a visit he once made to a Compassion child’s home. He asked the parents about how they felt about Compassion’s impact on their child. They responded, “What is Compassion?” They knew about the sponsor…and the church, but not the organization behind it.

The Ultimate Aim

Compassion actually hopes to put themselves out of business, and it’s not just a pipe dream – it is beginning to happen in certain countries like Uganda and Ecuador. Compassion children grow up, become gainfully employed and serving in the local church from whence they came; and over time, with their understanding of sustainable ministry, they themselves take over sponsoring their neighbors, other local children. Sponsors therefore from the U.S., Canada, and the U.K. become unnecessary…to the glory of God!

Today’s fun 

You know you're...on a Compassion trip...

You know you’re…on a Compassion trip…

After four long hours on a bus today (two hours into the mountains and back – we passed time sharing personal testimonies), we came back to the very nice Real Intercontinental hotel, where, after a great meal, Mr. Foxworthy did stand-up for 17 of us, which he said made him more nervous than a crowd of 5,000. And yet he was hilarious, a real treat. Then we shared our impressions of our two days so far, what we have learned. More blessing. I’ll look forward to telling more stories when I return to Edgewood on the weekend after Labor Day.

The El Salvador Compassion trip team

The El Salvador Compassion trip team

 
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Posted by on September 1, 2016 in Uncategorized

 

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Our Broken World…and Our Longing for Another

The deep darkness of the world has come home to us in recent days. It’s a combination of things, really. The shooting of innocent young black men, the shooting of police, our nation’s finest, and then two political conventions with two candidates that, more than any election I can recall, define the idea of voting for the lesser of two evils. Truly this is a “Come, Lord Jesus” moment in our nation’s history. But there have been a lot of such moments, haven’t there?

So…I was moved to tears last week listening to Gary Sinese read Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. I hadn’t read the classic since high school (sophomore or junior year?), when I wrote a thesis on how the book shows that “man is basically good.” How I ever came up with that out of this book, I can’t tell you 35 years later. It sure wouldn’t be what I would say now.

But what touched me was one of the familiar scenes in the book when Lennie asks George to tell about the dream the two of them have. Do you remember? It’s a dream of a place of their own. It’s a dream of a place where they don’t “buck barley” for a task-master. But mostly, it is a dream of hutches, and rabbits and hope. And as I heard Sinese’s masterful reading, I realized that George and Lennie’s dream is really the dream of all mankind…a better place. A safe place. A place of belonging. A place, sadly, that is not of this world…

Lennie drummed on the table with his fingers. “George?”

“Huh?”

“George, how long’s it gonna be till we get that little place an’ live on the fatta the lan’— an’ rabbits?”

“I don’ know,” said George. “We gotta get a big stake together. I know a little place we can get cheap, but they ain’t givin’ it away.”

Old Candy turned slowly over. His eyes were wide open. He watched George carefully.

Lennie said, “Tell about that place, George.”

“I jus’ tol’ you, jus’ las’ night.”

“Go on— tell again, George.”

“Well, it’s ten acres,” said George. “Got a little win’mill. Got a little shack on it, an’ a chicken run. Got a kitchen, orchard, cherries, apples, peaches, ’cots, nuts, got a few berries. They’s a place for alfalfa and plenty water to flood it. They’s a pig pen——”

“An’ rabbits, George.”

“No place for rabbits now, but I could easy build a few hutches and you could feed alfalfa to the rabbits.”

“Damn right, I could,” said Lennie. “You…damn right I could.”

George’s hands stopped working with the cards. His voice was growing warmer. “An’ we could have a few pigs. I could build a smoke house like the one gran’pa had, an’ when we kill a pig we can smoke the bacon and the hams, and make sausage an’ all like that. An’ when the salmon run up river we could catch a hundred of ’em an’ salt ’em down or smoke ’em. We could have them for breakfast. They ain’t nothing so nice as smoked salmon. When the fruit come in we could can it— and tomatoes, they’re easy to can. Ever’ Sunday we’d kill a chicken or a rabbit. Maybe we’d have a cow or a goat, and the cream is so…damn thick you got to cut it with a knife and take it out with a spoon.”

Lennie watched him with wide eyes, and old Candy watched him too. Lennie said softly, “We could live offa the fatta the lan’.”

“Sure,” said George. “All kin’s a vegetables in the garden, and if we want a little whisky we can sell a few eggs or something, or some milk. We’d jus’ live there. We’d belong there. There wouldn’t be no more runnin’ round the country and gettin’ fed by a Jap cook. No, sir, we’d have our own place where we belonged and not sleep in no bunkhouse.”

“Tell about the house, George,” Lennie begged.

“Sure, we’d have a little house an’ a room to ourself. Little fat iron stove, an’ in the winter we’d keep a fire goin’ in it. It ain’t enough land so we’d have to work too hard. Maybe six, seven hours a day. We wouldn’t have to buck no barley eleven hours a day. An’ when we put in a crop, why, we’d be there to take the crop up. We’d know what come of our planting.”

“An’ rabbits,” Lennie said eagerly. “An’ I’d take care of ’em. Tell how I’d do that, George.”

“Sure, you’d go out in the alfalfa patch an’ you’d have a sack. You’d fill up the sack and bring it an’ put it in the rabbit cages.”

“They’d nibble an’ they’d nibble,” said Lennie, “the way they do. I seen ’em.”

“Ever’ six weeks or so,” George continued, “them does would throw a litter so we’d have plenty rabbits to eat an’ to sell. An’ we’d keep a few pigeons to go flyin’ around the win’mill like they done when I was a kid.” He looked raptly at the wall over Lennie’s head. “An’ it’d be our own, an’ nobody could can us. If we don’t like a guy we can say, ‘Get the hell out,’ and by God he’s got to do it. An’ if a fren’ come along, why we’d have an extra bunk, an’ we’d say, ‘Why don’t you spen’ the night?’ an’ by God he would. We’d have a setter dog and a couple stripe cats, but you gotta watch out them cats don’t get the little rabbits.”

Lennie breathed hard. “You jus’ let ’em try to get the rabbits. I’ll break their…damn necks. I’ll . . . I’ll smash ’em with a stick.” He subsided, grumbling to himself, threatening the future cats which might dare to disturb the future rabbits.

George sat entranced with his own picture.

When Candy spoke they both jumped as though they had been caught doing something reprehensible. Candy said, “You know where’s a place like that?”

George was on guard immediately. “S’pose I do,” he said.

Steinbeck, John. Of Mice and Men (pp. 55-56). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

 

 
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Posted by on July 26, 2016 in Uncategorized

 

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When Facing an Enemy, Remember This…

When I worked at Enterprise Rent-A-Car almost 25 years ago, one day someone in the office took lunch orders for sub sandwiches and made a run for the whole gang. When I saw the bag full of subs, I grabbed mine and took a bite.

Except it wasn’t mine. It was the sub marked for our assistant manager, Mike. Mike was a cocky, good-looking guy who thought he was all that, busy climbing the Enterprise ladder. He was not much into grace.

So…when he found out I had taken a bite out of his sandwich, he was hot, and he looked at me like I was dumber than a toothpick. And ever after that, he treated me just that way. You know how when someone treats you like an idiot, you end up acting like one? Yeah, that was me. Mike made me nervous, and therefore fouling up got easier and easier around him.

Once I asked him a question about a particular procedure. He replied: “That’s a dumb question. Don’t ask dumb questions.”

Any questions?

Eventually I was transferred to another office, and we lost contact. Some time later I heard through the grapevine that he was demoted…or passed over for promotion, or something along those lines. Whatever it was, he and Enterprise parted ways.

Time passed, and one day at the office, I got a call for a rental…from Mike. I remember the sense that things weren’t going so well for him (surprise, surprise), and I think he needed some sort of a favor in the rental deal. It was within my purview to grant it, and I did. Then, realizing that he hadn’t been so kind to me in the past, he expressed surprise at my helpfulness. I don’t remember how I responded, but Mike knew I was a Christian.

Hopefully he connected the dots.

Maybe you have had an enemy like Mike at the office…or in the neighborhood…or in your own family. If so, you know they can definitely make life horrible. And if you’re going through life facing an enemy lately, I have a thought from Scripture that might just help you to respond like Christ.

It’s a line from the song Moses sang before he departed from the Children of Israel…

For their rock is not as our Rock; our enemies are by themselves. Deuteronomy 32:31 (ESV)

By themselves. Isn’t that stark? Your enemy may be after you, but he or she is…all alone. I think of that classic lyric by Eric Carmen, in his song, All by Myself:

Livin’ alone
I think of all the friends I’ve known
But when I dial the telephone
Nobody’s home

All by myself
Don’t wanna be, all by myself anymore
All by myself
Don’t wanna live, all by myself anymore

If you are a Christian facing an enemy, you do not face him alone; you have the Rock! And conversely, no matter how powerful he seems, he is still all by himself. And if it is a group of folks plotting your demise, they receive no supernatural help. All alone…in a cold, dark world. How sad and broken. How hopeless. How much they need Christ.

How much we all do.

…for he has said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” So we can confidently say, “The Lord is my helper; I will not fear; what can man do to me?” Hebrews 13:5-6 (ESV)

 
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Posted by on June 28, 2016 in Uncategorized

 

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On Parents Passing the Faith on to Their Children

In the midst of reading for my Father’s Day sermon, I ran across some wisdom about passing on the faith to our kids from one of my favorite writers. Here it is…

From D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Life in the Spirit in Marriage, Home and Work:

One good rule is that we should never foist our views upon our children. Up to a certain age it is right and good to teach them certain things and insist upon them, and there will be no difficulty about that if done properly. They should even enjoy it. But shortly they come to an age when they begin to hear other views and ideas from their friends, probably in school or other associations. Now a crisis begins to develop. The parents’ whole instinct, very rightly, is to protect the child, but it can be done in such a way as, again, to do more harm than good. If you give the impression to the child that he has to believe these things simply because you believe them, and because your parents did so, you will inevitably create a reaction. It is unscriptural to do so. Not only is it unscriptural, but it betrays a dismal lack of understanding of the New Testament doctrine of regeneration.

An important principle arises at this point which applies not only in this realm but in many other realms. I am constantly having to tell people who have become Christian and whose loved ones are not Christian, to be careful. They themselves have come to see the Christian truth, and they cannot understand why this other member of the family – husband, wife, father, mother, or child – fails to do so. Their whole tendency is to be impatient with them and to dragoon them into the Christian faith, to foist their belief upon them. This must on no account be done. If the person in question is not regenerate he or she cannot exercise faith. We need to be “quickened” before we can believe. When one is “dead in trespasses and sins” one cannot believe; so you cannot foist faith on others. They do not see it, they do not understand it. “The natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness unto him; neither can he know them, for they are spiritually discerned” (1 Corinthians 2:14). Many parents have fallen into this error just at this point. They have tried to dragoon their children in the adolescent stage into the Christian faith; they have tried to foist their views on them, they have tried to compel them to say things that they do not really believe. This method is always wrong.

“Well, what can one do?” I shall be asked. Our business is to try to win them, to try to show them the excellence and the reasonableness of what we are and of what we believe. We must be very patient with them, and bear with their difficulties. They have their difficulties, though to you they are nothing. But to them they are very real. The whole art of exercising discipline is to recognize this other personality all the time. You must put yourself into his place, as it were, and with real sympathy and love and understanding try to help him. If the children refuse and reject your efforts, do not react violently, but give the impression that you are very sorry, that you are very grieved for their sakes, and that you feel they are missing something most precious. And at the same time you must make as many concessions as you can. You must not be hard and rigid, you must not refuse everything automatically without any reason, simply because you are the parent, and this is your method and manner. On the contrary, you must be concerned to make every legitimate concession that you can, to go as far as you can in the matter of concession, thereby showing that you are paying respect to the personality and to the individuality of the child. That in and of itself is always good and right, and it will always result in good.

 
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Posted by on June 21, 2016 in Uncategorized

 

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One Glorious Hour in Maximum Security – Part 3

 

Part 1 of my tale of preaching chapel at Waupun Correctional Institution is here and part 2 is here.

I would guess the Walls chapel has a capacity of 200, but for crowd control, only 80 “offenders” – as their nametags declare them to be – are allowed in. Chaplain Francis brought me a jug of water, and we went over the uncomplicated “order of service”: three songs and then me.  And the service started.

Prison chapel worship was led by a choir of 8 men.  There was also a guy on keyboard, a lead guitarist and a drummer.  The music elevated me.  Now, I can’t remember the name or the melody of the first song, but I remember the chorus: one word…Jesus.  All the songs were slow and swinging, smooth jazz like, and nothing like what I’m accustomed to in the worship that I’m regularly exposed to.  A couple of years ago, I baptized about 15 prisoners, testimonies and everything, and the prison choir showed up to sing us through.  Oh, happy day…

The second song we sang on Saturday was Kirk Franklin’s “Silver and Gold.”  A great song, but what I remember most was the solo that one man sang:

Woke up this morning, feelin’ kinda down,

Then I called my best friend; he could not be found.

Then I called Jesus…

He sang this particular part at two different places in the song, but I could never get the next line, because when he said, “Jesus,” the place erupted…both times.  Suffice it to say that the overall sense was joy, O so good.

We closed up with Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready, There’s a Train a Comin’.”

You don’t need no baggage
You just get on board
All you need is faith
To hear diesels humming
You don’t need no ticket
You just thank the Lord

I’ve got baggage, so to speak, but I love that I don’t need a ticket. Thank you, Lord.

Then it was time to preach, which went fine, if I can say so.  Preaching at the prison chapel, of course, is different than preaching at Edgewood because…well, let’s just say that there is a lot of audience participation. You might call it a team sport. Can I get an Amen?  Every so often when I’m preaching at Edgewood, we get a visitor or someone who will say “Amen” as I preach.  It’s okay, of course, as long as they “Amen” with the right timing.  Not just anyone can “Amen,” you know; there is a rhythm to it.  And if you’re gonna help the preacher, you got to do it right.  The timing was ON Saturday afternoon, and the men helped me preach the same message I delivered to our church at Easter – the parable of the man who was forgiven much but who himself refused to forgive: The Lesson: Forgiveness always involves suffering. Hence, the cross. When I understand how Jesus has suffered for me, I am naturally willing to suffer to forgive the debts of others.

Afterwards I got to the back and shook a number of hands. The men “glorified the worm” and then headed back to their cells. And then it was time for Chaplain Francis to walk me out through the many doors and bars…to freedom.  I dropped by to see my family serving at a Piggly Wiggly brat fry, and headed back to my office a mile or so away.  I had to finish a sermon for a whole different set of folks who would be coming to Edgewood at 5:30 that night.

My brief afternoon with the inmates of Waupun Correctional Institution was over.  We only spent an hour in one another’s company, but I’m hoping that, at least with many of these men, one day…we will spend eternity together.

(This is a repost from May of 2012)

 
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Posted by on June 9, 2016 in Uncategorized

 

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