January 20, 2019

The IM Saturday Monks Brunch: January 19, 2019

The IM Saturday Monks Brunch: January 19, 2019

What are you doing out there? Come on in out of the wind and snow and join us for Brunch! We have hot chocolate, tea, and coffee, and plenty of food to warm and fill you. Here in the northern climes we’re deep in the bleak midwinter, and a nasty snowstorm is making its way across the continental U.S. as we speak. Let’s take a break from the bluster and enjoy some time at the table together. Welcome to Brunch!

• • •

Somewhere, Michael Spencer is laughing his head off…

It’s a home run. It’s an absolutely perfect confluence of topics for the iMonk, who loved to laugh about the evangelical circus and who lived to enjoy Cincinnati Reds baseball. At Right Wing Watch, Kyle Mantyla reports:

Self-proclaimed “prophet” Charlie Shamp appeared on “The Jim Bakker Show” today, where he recounted a divine vision he claims he was given in which God told him that former professional baseball player Pete Rose will be forgiven and inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame as a sign of the imminent return of Jesus Christ.

Shamp claimed that he was “taken in the spirit” and brought to a stadium which began to shake, where he was told by God that such an event will take place at some point in the future and that it will be a sign of revival. Shamp said that God then took him back to Candlestick Park in San Francisco, California, when it was hit by an earthquake during the World Series in 1989, which was also the year in which the gambling scandal involving Rose was revealed, which eventually resulted in Rose being banned from baseball and deemed permanently ineligible for the Hall of Fame.

Shamp then claimed that God took him to another stadium in Cincinnati, Ohio, where he “saw a man standing in red.” (Rose played for, and was manager of, the Cincinnati Reds for a large part of his career.)

“I said, ‘Who is this Lord?’” Shamp recounted. “He said, ‘This is Peter to me.’ He said, ‘This man was a past time hero of America,’ and I said, ‘Who is it, Lord?’ And he said, ‘Pete Rose.’ He said, ‘1989, there was a massive scandal that took place with Pete Rose.’ He said, ‘And even to this day, he has not been allowed to enter into the Hall of Fame.’ But he said as a prophetic sign, he said that the Lord will redeem him and allow him to be forgiven and enter into the Baseball Hall of Fame.”

“It will be a sign,” Shamp proclaimed, “that those that have been away from the Lord, that were playing in the game, they were on the field but they were taken out through scandal, the Lord said that, ‘It will be a sign that I’m returning.’”

Of course, Jim Bakker “verified” the truth of this prophecy by exclaiming that Pete Rose had once sent him a signed baseball and he had never told anyone about it. What a coincidence!

Oh, and make sure you take a good look at this prophet dude’s picture. Wow.

This one’s for you, Michael!

• • •

Holy McJesus!

The Haifa (Israel) Museum of Art has been displaying a sculpture called “McJesus,” which is designed to be a critique of society’s capitalistic culture.

Despite the fact that the sculpture has been up for months and shown in other countries without incident, Israel’s Arab Christian community has protested and called for the sculture’s removal.

As Michael Brice-Saddler reports in the Washington Post:

As reported by the Jerusalem Post, one protester told Walla news that he thought the government was ignoring complaints because Arab Christians are in the minority in Israel, making up a small percentage of the country’s population.

“If they put up [a sculpture of] Hitler with a Torah scroll, they would immediately respond,” the protester told the Israeli news outlet.

The museum, however, says that removing the artwork would undermine freedom of expression. It has since hung a curtain over the entrance to the exhibit and put up a sign indicating that the sculpture is not meant to be offensive.

“This is the maximum that we can do,” Tal told the AP. “If we take the art down, the next day we’ll have politicians demanding we take other things down, and we’ll end up only with colorful pictures of flowers in the museum.”

There has been another protest about this artwork, and it actually comes from the artist who created it.

Jani Leinonen, the Finnish artist behind “McJesus,” told the Jerusalem Post that the sculpture was displayed against his wishes. He said he wants it removed from the exhibit because he supports the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, better known as BDS. The Palestinian-led initiative calls for boycotting Israeli goods and services to pressure Israel to end its occupation.

• • •

Australia’s gay penguin parents…

Gentoo penguins relax in the cool temperatures at the Sea Life Sydney Aquarium in 2016. Sphen and Magic, the newest penguin couple in the aquarium, are fostering an egg together.

A remarkable nature story from Australia came to light this week.

Young, inexperienced penguins, when they become parents, apparently aren’t very good at it. They get distracted from their nests, go to play or to take a swim, and as a result, the eggs they’ve laid get cold and are not likely to hatch.

However, in Sydney Australia where this young penguin colony is, there was one penguin couple that is different. Their names are Sphen and Magic, they made the biggest nest, and they diligently sat on it, keeping the eggs warm.

What’s the catch? Spen and Magic are “gay” — two male penguins who have taken to each other and have become a “couple.”

Nellie Boles tells their story at the New York Times:

Magic, a 3-year-old Gentoo born at the Sea Life Melbourne Aquarium, is excitable and playful. He chases after toys and anything that shines. He greets visitors.

Sphen, who is 6 and from SeaWorld, is taller and has a bigger beak. He’s quieter, more serious and less interested in toys and humans.

But it was clear early on what Sphen and Magic were doing when they met one summer day at Sea Life Sydney Aquarium.

First, as is the Gentoo way, they began to bow to each other.

They brought each other carefully selected pebbles for the nest they hoped to build together. If either had not been interested he would have rejected the pebble, pushing it away with a beak. But each admired the pebbles he was brought.

Ms. Lawrie described it as “consent.”

Then they started to sing. Standing close together, they sang to each other until they had learned each other’s voices.

“You would see Magic standing in his spot looking for Sphen, and he would call and Sphen would come running over and give Magic a little bow and sing as well,” Ms. Hannan said. “They’ve chosen each other. That’s it. They’re bonded now.”

Others in the colony of 33 penguins were still flirting. Younger birds tend to take a little while to choose their partners.

“They were recognizing multiple different bird calls and bowing to different individuals,” Ms. Hannan said. “We saw none of that behavior from either Sphen or Magic. They weren’t interested in other birds in the colony.”

And so it was no surprise that the two began preparing for an egg.

“We knew they would start picking up stones,” Ms. Hannan said. “And we knew they would build the best nest.”

When the egg came, Sphen and Magic each took turns sitting on it for 28 days.

Read more about their little one “Sphengic” and the way these two devoted penguin parents are nurturing him by clicking on the link above. It is truly an extraordinary tale.

• • •

Another megachurch leader steps aside…

From RNS: Pastor James MacDonald will take an “indefinite sabbatical from all preaching and leadership” at Harvest Bible Chapel, the influential Chicago-area megachurch he founded more than 30 years ago, as the church seeks to address continued criticism alleging a culture of intimidation and little accountability for its leadership.

The move comes a week after Harvest dropped a defamation lawsuit against two bloggers, their wives and a freelance reporter, following a court ruling that documents subpoenaed in the case could be made public.

On Wednesday (Jan. 16), Harvest Bible Chapel’s governing elders announced on the Harvest website a “peacemaking process that seeks both reconciliation and change where needed.”

In a statement included in the announcement, MacDonald said, “I am grieved that people I love have been hurt by me in ways they felt they could not express to me directly and have not been able to resolve.

“I blame only myself for this and want to devote my entire energy to understanding and addressing these recurring patterns.”

• • •

Historic blizzard photos from New York City (New York Times)…

Times Square, aka Longacre Square, c. 1895

Central Park, 1859

As evidenced by this view toward Wall Street, it’s hard to overstate the devastation wrought by the blizzard of 1888, an onslaught which started on March 11 and lasted most of three days. It caught the Northeast by surprise at the tail end of a balmy weekend amid a mild winter. It killed more than 400 people from Maryland to Maine, half of them in the New York area, while paralyzing commerce and grinding daily life to a frozen halt. It wasn’t just that the roads and rails were choked with snow; the innumerable fallen telephone, telegraph and electrical lines left crackling hazards hidden beneath the snow while disabling communication — for regular people, for brokers and markets, and especially for the railroads, which relied on the wired telegraph to dispatch trains safely even in mild weather. That cut off the supply of food, forcing some New Yorkers to cook frozen sparrows they scrounged from outside their front doors.

Near City Hall, sometime before World War I

“Storm Played No Favorites with Men or Beasts,” an editor wrote in 1914 as part of a winter-misery photo spread titled “New Yorkers Playthings in the Blizzard’s Grip.”

In January of 1909, when this undated photo first ran in the newspaper, “snow tickets” referred to the pay-per-load voucher system through which the city compensated the on-call army of subcontractors who cleared the majority of New York City’s streets in a snowstorm.

• • •


If Your Church Doesn’t Have an Elaborate System of Wires to Make Your Pastor Fly, Is It Really Even Church?

How was service this weekend ?

A post shared by churchoflaugh (@churchoflaugh) on

IM Book Review: In His Majesty’s Secret Service

A little over thirty years ago my younger brother, Patrick Bell, left on an adventure. He joined Greg, his best friend from high school, on a clandestine team smuggling bibles behind the Iron Curtain. For two years they crisscrossed Eastern Europe bringing Bibles, medicines, and food to Christians who faced persecution and even death because of their faith.

They took ten trips into Romania, where Christians were having a particularly difficult time under President Nicolae Ceaușescu. It was also very stressful for the smuggling teams. “When you hear gunfire outside your hotel and there are bullet holes in the window and blood on the carpet, you know you’re in the thick of things.” A network of informers meant that they could never be sure who they could trust.

In his downtime he started writing about what he was experiencing. He wrote in the genre of a historical fiction, with himself and Greg being portrayed as two of the main characters in the book.

His letters from their Austrian base kept us up-to-date on what he was doing. Some of his stories made it into the manuscript he was writing. Others for security reasons did not. He wrote to our family about some of the ethical issues that a Bible Smuggler faces: What do you do when asked at the border if you have Bibles? How do you hold church services when they have been banned? These very real dilemmas were addressed in his manuscript in the context of a story of high risk, betrayal, faith, prison escapes, near misses, revolution, death, and even a little romance. All was skilfully woven together in a way that put the manuscript into the “can’t put down” category.

In the late fall of 1989 we received a letter from Pat. “I’m not very hopeful for the situation in Romania”, he wrote, “there are soldiers with sub-machine guns on every corner.” Six weeks later, the revolution had been successful and Ceaușescu was arrested.. “When Ceaușescu was shown on TV, soldiers became so angry at him, they wanted to shoot the TV.” On Christmas day, 1989, Ceaușescu and his wife were led before a firing squad and executed. They had been tried before a secret tribunal and found guilty of multiple crimes against the country.

A few days later I was watching the CBS evening news. The Romanian border had just been opened with the West and CBS had a reporter on the spot interviewing the first visitors to make the trip across. I almost fell out of my chair when I saw my brother Pat, and Holly (his future wife), smiling at the cameras from inside their vehicle? “Why are you headed into Romania”, the reporter asked? “We heard there was great skiing in Romania!”, came the response. The Bibles were, as usual, still carefully concealed. I learned later that they were given a tank escort into Bucharest and he was offered a ride!

So what happened to the manuscript? In 1995, Pat and Holly moved to Japan to teach English in order to pay down school debts. The manuscript went into a box. For the twelve years they were in Japan, another year in Kenya, and nine more years in Canada, the manuscript sat in the box unseen. About a year ago Pat happened upon the box and opened it. There was the manuscript. The floppy disks on which it had been written were long gone. “We really should do something with this,” Holly said. With the help of a friend, Pat had the book scanned and converted back into readable text. Holly found a publishing contest to enter, and so Pat spent a few more weeks editing the book to get it ready to submit.

They won the contest!

It was released just days before Christmas, and the early reviews have been very positive.

Patrick Bell takes us on a stirring, memorable, and historic journey in the book In His Majesty’s secret Service. As a long-ago former Bible Courier myself, I can viscerally relate to the emotions of anxiousness, uncertainty, hope, and joy that cycle in every chapter. Patrick vividly describes the remarkable witness of believers behind the Curtain, the honor of those from the West who served the Church in the East, and the staggering suffering that despots like Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu unleashed on millions of his own countrymen. Reading the book is not only a riveting experience, it’s a first-hand exposure to one of the most momentous global events of the send half of the 20th century. – Craig Glass

While the book can be ordered from Amazon and other booksellers, I would encourage you to support the author and order the book directly from PatrickBooks.com

I leave you with the opening paragraphs of the Prologue:

September 3, l989

The distant pounding of an AK-47 assault rifle brought each person to a standstill. Petru’s eyes locked with those of their leader Emil. Emil shook his head slightly, warning him not to move or speak. The six men and four women listened, hesitated, then, when Emil gestured for them to continue, followed him through the dense brush in the dead of the night. A murky, cold canal stretched before them, barely visible. One hundred yards beyond, they would be challenged by the heavily-patrolled fence, its top lined with twisted coils of barbed wire. This was the Yugoslavian frontier, which signaled freedom and escape from Romania.

Petru, tall and bulky with an unruly tangle of brown, curly hair, brought up the rear; his huge hand gripped a length of cord, nearly invisible in the darkness. He strained to see, but could barely make out their guide as Emil moved on carefully and silently in front of them. He wouldn’t abandon them, would he? Petru felt a tug on the cord and kept close to the group, anxious not to be left behind.

A yellow moon rose at the edge of the forest, outlining Emil. The forest came alive with the movement and sound of small animals and insects. Frogs trilled their chorus between the reeds of the canal; crickets chirped their reply among the grass and leaves. Then as suddenly as they had begun, both the frogs and the crickets fell silent.

Petru froze. Beyond the tree line, a border guard near the edge of the canal strode towards Emil. “Stop,” Petru hissed at the others; they promptly drew back into the brush, crowding together out of sight of the guard. Petru tensed, ready to run.

The guard uttered a sharp, “Halt. Stand still.” Emil lifted both arms. The cord in Petru’s fingers went limp.

“You are under arrest,” the guard shouted. “Turn around and put your hands on your head.” A beam of light flashed across Emil’s body, settling on the side of his face.

“My bicycle broke down and I thought this was a short cut to the village,” Emil declared loudly. “I have my papers in my inside jacket pocket.”

The guard shoved the muzzle of his AK-47 into the small of Emil’s back. Without hesitation, Emil spun to his right, pinning the rifle barrel between his body and his right arm. With his left hand, he grabbed the knife strapped to the back of his neck. A quick slash with the blade stifled a cry from the guard. Petru watched as the two men toppled over and disappeared with a noisy splash into the dark waters of the canal…

A link to the rest of the prologue is available at PatrickBooks.com.

Looking for a little historical fiction adventure? I had the privilege of reading an early draft of Pat’s manuscript more than twenty five years ago. And I thoroughly enjoyed reading the final published copy of In His Majesty’s Secret Service over Christmas. I hope you will too.

P.S. Monday was Patrick’s birthday. A happy belated birthday to my super talented brother!

Faith Across the Multiverse, Parables from Modern Science- Part 2, The Language of Physics, Chapter 5: A Conspiracy of Chronometers By Andy Walsh

Faith Across the Multiverse: Parables from Modern Science

Part 2, The Language of Physics, Chapter 5: A Conspiracy of Chronometers

By Andy Walsh

We are blogging through the book, “Faith Across the Multiverse, Parables from Modern Science” by Andy Walsh.  Today is Chapter 5: A Conspiracy of Chronometers.  Walsh begins the chapter with a summary of Ender’s GameEnder’s Game is a 1985 military science fiction novel by Orson Scott Card. Set at an unspecified date in Earth’s future, the novel presents an imperiled mankind after two conflicts with the Formics, an insectoid alien species. In preparation for an anticipated third invasion, children, including the novel’s protagonist, Andrew “Ender” Wiggin, are trained from a very young age through increasingly difficult games including some in zero gravity, where Ender’s tactical genius is revealed.  His tactical genius is realizing the Earth-bound framework or coordinates are no longer relevant in space with no gravity plane to orient along, like that of surface of the ocean.  Walsh says:

By providing this new frame of reference, Ender acknowledges two realities.  The first is that he and his classmates were being held back by rules that made sense on Earth but were incoherent in space.  The second and more subtle one is that casting aside those rules for complete freedom wouldn’t be an improvement.  In order for his squad to work together, they would still need a framework in which to operate.  When they found the old framework didn’t match the new context, they didn’t ditch the rules altogether; they found ones that fit the new context.

Walsh notes a similar paradigm shift occurred in physics as a result of studying the world on the scale of the solar system and the galaxy.  By conducting experiments looking for the “aether”, the supposed medium through which light moved, we discovered there was no evidence for the aether and there was no evidence that the speed of light depended on relative motion the way other speeds do.  Ultimately, the observation that the speed of light is both finite and fixed led to a new framework for understanding space, time, and motion called special relativity.  It was originally proposed by Albert Einstein in a paper published in 1905.

In some Christian circles the theory of special (and general) relativity is misconstrued.  Broadening one’s horizons and changing one’s perspective often seems to have a negative association. Some seem to have a concern that one can go broadly into a pluralistic experience as to wind up in pure relativism, which, according to some Christians is a bad thing.  And since special and general relativity have “relativity” in their names and have spread in popular awareness around the same time as post-modernism, these topics in physics make some Christians uneasy, especially when applying them via analogy.  However, while special relativity predicts that the outcome of certain measurements will depend on the context of the measuring, it is also a theory with absolutes.  We are not giving up a more absolute model for a more relative one, we are simply changing which quantities are absolute and which are relative.  And we are doing so because the model better reflects the reality in which we live, which provides an absolute point of reference of a different sort.  Walsh says:

Here’s where I think special relativity comes in.  As I mentioned earlier, in prior theories, space and time were absolute and only infinite speeds were measured the same from all frames of reference.  In special relativity, we trade absolute space and time for an invariant and finite speed of light.  I think these properties and their consequences are useful for understanding the role that Jesus plays in the biblical notion of morality.

Walsh notes that throughout his adult life, as recorded in all four Gospels, various religious and political factions attempt to find something they can use to accuse Jesus.  They ask him all sorts of questions that they think are no-win, Kobayashi Maru scenarios.  Every time Jesus navigates through the rhetorical traps and leaves his accusers with nothing to use against him.

Caesar’s Coin, by Peter Paul Rubens

An example is the pericope from Mark 12 where Jesus is asked whether Jews ought to pay the tribute tax.  The expectation was that if he said “yes”, they could paint him as a Roman sympathizer, costing him credibility with his Jewish followers, and if he said “no” then he would be in trouble with Roman authorities.  Jesus asked one of them to produce a Roman coin that would be suitable for paying Caesar’s tax. One of them showed him a Roman coin, and he asked them whose head and inscription were on it. They answered, “Caesar’s,” and he responded: “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s”.  Walsh notes:

There’s a lot of common sense there that’s hard to argue with; in fact it borders on tautology.  And yet he doesn’t explicitly affirm the legality of Roman taxes nor endorse a boycott of them; there is also a lot of room for discussion about what actually belongs to either party.  Jesus handles all of these verbal confrontations in a similar manner, thwarting attempts to find substantial grounds to condemn him.

Even in the process of putting him on trial and ultimately putting him to death, his accusers have a hard time finding charges that will stick; their manufactured witnesses can’t keep their stories straight.  Pilate famously washes his hands of the whole business, reportedly because he wants nothing to do with execution of an innocent man.  The impression from the Gospel accounts is that Jesus was condemned without clearly established guilt.  Walsh says:

The explanation for this inability to find fault with him, according to the Bible, is that Jesus did in fact live a sinless life, and was the only person to do so.  For the sake of argument, let’s say that is true.  Is there anything analogous about light?  It turns out that yes, there is—light has no mass.  That is why it can travel at the speed of light.  Anything with mass cannot reach that speed; it’s not just really hard, it’s impossible.  So what happens if we think of being sinful (having committed one or more sins) as having mass and being sinless as equivalent to being massless?

So to continue the metaphor, our “speed” is our righteousness and all the qualities we are trying to maximize as followers of Jesus.  Our “mass” is the sins we have committed.  Our “momentum” is our resistance to change our behavior, a function of both our righteousness and our sin, for after all when we are behaving morally it is easier to continue to do so, and when we behave sinfully it is easier to persist in our sin.  “Energy” is the capacity to do good works.

In this model, the moral perfection of Jesus is the optimal point of righteousness we are supposed to be reaching, if we choose to follow Jesus.  But this level is impossible to reach for anyone who has sinned, just as traveling at light speed is impossible for any object with mass.  The diminishing returns aspect of trying to reach light speed resonates with biblical accounts of what it is like to in the presence of God and his sinless perfection.  The closer we get, the more aware we are of our burden of sin.  We cry out like Isaiah, “Woe to me!” I cried. “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty.” (Isaiah 6:5).

Higgs Boson

Walsh then brings up the Higgs boson. The physics model explaining mass involves the Higgs boson and the Higgs field.  The Higgs field exists everywhere in the universe, and when matter interacts with that field it acquires mass.  The Higgs boson is a particular kind of matter predicted by the Higgs field description of mass.  Walsh says:

What I find interesting about the Higgs story is that, if we extrapolate to our metaphor of sin, it resonates with the idea that sin is relational, arising out of our interactions.  We might wish to think of God as the omnipresent Higgs field, and us as the individual bits of matter.  This might suggest to you that sin only exists because of God, and in a sense I think that is an accurate representation of the biblical teaching.  Sin is only sin with respect to our relationship with God, and by extension other people.  It is not meaningful to talk about sin outside of the context of those relationships.

And that brings me back to Ender Wiggin, no longer floating in the Battle Room but now confronting the Formic beings he has trained his whole life to defeat.  He recognizes that how he interacts with them has moral significance.  And he also starts to appreciate an unintended consequence of the way he was trained.  He was removed from an Earth-bound perspective in order to better understand how Formics see the world.  That understanding is supposed to help him defeat them.  Yet he observes, “When I truly understand my enemy… then in that moment I also love him”.

The Bible offers a similar observation.  Although we chose to be enemies with God, he chose to know us and show us love.  “And you were at one time strangers and enemies in your minds as expressed through your evil deeds, but now he has reconciled you by his physical body through death” (Colossians 1:21-22).  If that is true, and I believe it is, then I think it only reasonable to get to know him in return.

I have to give credit to Andy Walsh for trying.  His attempts to bring out truths of Christianity by analogy with science and physics, while it may not be everyone’s cup of tea, I find worthy of contemplating.  His analogy here of mass and energy to sin and works brings to mind the Orthodox notion of “Divine Energies”.  Father Stephen Freeman in his post on “Providence and the Music of All Creation” said:

God’s being and actions are one.  This is essentially the teaching of the Church on the topic of the Divine Energies. When I read discussions about this – it seems to get lost in the twists and turns of medieval metaphysics or passes into the territory of seeing the “Uncreated Light.” Both approaches are unhelpful for me, and both obscure something that should be far more transparent.

Some of the obscurity comes from the use of the word “energies.” It is the literal Greek term, but it conjures up some pretty problematic images in a post-Einstein world. When I first read about the Divine Energies, my mind wandered over to some vision of God sending out rays and beams of radiating light, etc. The focus on the Uncreated Light in the Transfiguration probably helped nurture that reading. It is also misleading.

Another simple term for “energies” is “actions” or “doings.” The root of the Greek word simply means “doing.” Indeed, it is most often translated as “deed” or “work.” “Workings” would be another accurate way of rendering “energies.” Understanding this points us towards the heart of the Church’s proclamation. Who God is, and what God does, are not two separate things. “God acting” is God. His actions are not a means of hiding Himself – they are the means of His self-revelation. Indeed, this is the heart of the Church’s teaching on the Energies. The Church says that God can be fully known in His energies but cannot be known in His essence.

We cannot pierce beneath the veil and see or comprehend the very essence (ousia) of God. He is God, “ineffable, inconceivable, invisible, incomprehensible…” However, He can be known (and participated in) in His energies, His actions.

Father Freemen says in another post:

We are indeed saved by grace. However, the Protestant meme that interprets this as mere judicial kindness is an egregious error. Grace is the very life of God, the Divine energies, the fire by which we are transformed into the image of Christ. We do not earn it, but we can certainly shield ourselves from its action.

Maybe I’m not doing Walsh justice in my reviews.  His meditations are hard to summarize in the few words of a blog post.  But I’m finding his analogies thought-provoking and useful. His notions that shifts in the frames of reference bring a deeper and more realistic understanding of truths we thought we already knew is similar to what Chaplain Mike is trying to say about our understanding of the Bible.  We are not abandoning the truths we know, we are deepening our understanding of them in our relationships to God and others.

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