New Zealand: 15. Fjord and cave

The next day was another long day on the road which left us feeling tired and irritable. But what a day! An early start meant getting up at 0530 in order to leave the hotel at 0700 for the drive along the Eglinton Valley, and stopping briefly at aptly-named Mirror Lake, to our chief destination at Milford Sound in New Zealand’s glacier-carved Fjordland. Our Lonely Planet guide tells us that “the world-beating collage of waterfalls, verdant cliffs and peaks, and dark cobalt waters is at its best” on a clear, sunny day. “More likely, though, is the classic Fjordland combination of mist and drizzle, with the iconic profile of Mitre Peak revealed slowly through shimmering sheets of precipitation.” Well, we were the lucky ones: the weather was near perfect.

Milford Sound on a perfect day

Lots and lots of photographs as the boat took us along the fjord and as far as the open sea, which we gazed upon, turned about, and returned into the calmer waters of the Sound. Captain Cook never actually discovered it, because his view from out at sea didn’t show it as a inlet at all. He just sailed on by, and missed a treat. “The fjord remained undiscovered by Europeans until Captain John Grono discovered it c.1812 and named it Milford Haven after his homeland in Wales. Captain John Lort Stokes later renamed it Milford Sound. (Source: Wikipedia)

Milford Sound

Apart from the scenery, there were also glimpses of basking seals.

basking seals

This is Alison’s picture. She was convinced that the bird in the background was a penguin. Me, I think it was just one of the seals getting dressed for a fancy dress party.

From Milford Sound, it was south again to the most southerly of all our overnight stays in New Zealand: Te Anau. Here’s where I faced and didn’t exactly overcome, but at least survived, one of my worst phobias. Alison really really wanted to visit the world-renowned glowworm caves. I thought I could do without. I do not like caves. I do not like them, Sam I Am. Perhaps it comes of reading Tom Sawyer as a child – those nightmare chapters in which Tom and Becky get separated from everyone else and are lost in the caves, and become convinced they’re going to die, and when they do eventually see a fellow-human being, it’s the terrifying Injun Joe… It’s the darkness, the sense of millions of tons of rock over your head… And don’t even get me started on the thought of potholing, and the crawling through narrow tunnels not even on hands and knees…

(Quick break till I stop hyper-ventilating and the panic ebbs away…)

But in the end I went because Alison wanted me to, and she wanted to see the caves so much. It was worth a visit. But it was terrifying too: the noise of the rushing water, the walkways over drops into the abyss. Strangely enough, the glowworm part wasn’t alarming at all, even though it involved getting into a small boat on an underground lake (by this time, thankfully, we were away from the rushing of mighty waters), and then being moved along in total darkness by the guide pulling on a rope or wire or something. And then suddenly there are the lights of these strange creatures hanging in the blackness above and around you. It’s like nothing on earth. Naturally you can’t take any flash photos because it scares the poor worms to death, so you’ll either have to go there yourself, or do an image search (try Te Anau glowworm caves) with your favourite search engine. (Incidentally, I am currently using Startpage because it is “the world’s most private search engine”, and it also lets you view images, a feature that Google has just removed.)

I have faced one of my worst fears (-ish) and have survived.

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New Zealand: 14. Lord of the Rings. Etcetera

When we got back from New Zealand, we wanted to watch or re-watch some of the films and TV series set in NZ, to enjoy memories of the places we’ve been. So we started with Top of the Lake on Netflix, filmed in and around Queenstown and Lake Wakatipu.

Let’s just say, it was a Disappointment. New Zealand noir just doesn’t suit our memories of the place. No doubt there are paedophiles, rapists, drug-crazed incestuous hippies, bent coppers, murderers, and gangsters in New Zealand. But thankfully we didn’t see them; and the country also prides itself on having relatively little crime. But apart from the crime, we couldn’t make much sense of the characterisation and motivation in the story. One minute people are having a violent showdown; the next they’re somewhere else entirely, and behaving as if nothing has happened. One minute they’re fighting and saying it’s all over between them; the next we see them having sex (again). I think there has been a second, more recent, series. We might give it a try, sometime. We’re a bit like Homer Simpson about that. Doh!

In TOTL, Queenstown is described as a “millionaires’ playground”. Which may be true. But it was still a great place for lots of other people who aren’t millionaires. There was so much to see and do, that our itinerary allowed us a “free day” there, to make our own choice from the smörgåsbord of possibilities. Alison and I had already, the previous evening, enjoyed our first meal in a Vietnamese restaurant – which cheered us up after our gruelling day on the road. On the “free day” we went different ways. Alison chose the Kiwi Birdlife Park, where she actually saw some kiwis in their special nocturnal environment. I opted for one of Nomad Safaris, which was not quite the all-LOTR safari that most of our little group of 5 were hoping for, but was very interesting all the same.

It took in Skippers Road, the “most dangerous road in New Zealand”,
Skippers Road warning

a single track dirt road winding up into the hills, with seemingly impossible passing places and sheer drops to the side. It’s the old road used by the gold prospectors of the New Zealand Gold Rush. One of those rides where you’re willing the driver to keep his eyes on the road, not keep looking round to see how his passengers are enjoying themselves… where you feel yourself automatically leaning away from the cliff edge as if you could stop the landrover from falling off the road…

It also took us to Arrowtown, one of the old gold rush towns, and to the Arrow River to try our own hand at panning for gold. Me, I didn’t find any. But Paul did: he held his speck of gold like a mote of dust on his fingertip for about 5 minutes before it somehow disappeared. The end of another wonderful fortune. Apparently there are still real nuggets to be found up there. But not very often.

And yes, we did see a couple of places which Marcello the driver claimed had been used as settings in the filming of LOTR. Of course, the whole amazing range of The Remarkables, which feature so often, snow-covered and in summer, as the Misty Mountains. But also, the bend on the Arrow River which had been the Ford of Bruinen, where Frodo escaped from the Black Riders…
The ford of Bruinen
the path near Arrowtown which had represented part of the Gladden Fields…
The Gladden Fields
the place where Aragorn fell in the battle with the Warg Riders… (You have to use your imagination here: it’s the little edge just beyond that clump of trees in the foreground.)
where Aragorn fell

But really, the landscape is so splendid that it’s easy to imagine yourself there in the story. I don’t know how much Peter Jackson has been worth to the New Zealand tourist economy. Much more than his weight in gold, I would think.

After the tour I met up with Alison at the Kiwi Birdlife Park, and we took the Skyline gondola to the top, to enjoy the view of the city, the lake, and the mountains. Selfie!
selfie on the skyline gondola

And in the evening, another of Queenstown’s attractions: a cruise on a 100-year old steamship, the TS Earnslaw, which took us to the other side of the lake for an evening meal and a demonstration of sheep-shearing. The excursion includes some olde-time community singing on the way home. Hmm. My old dad would have loved it.

And here’s a thing about South Island. We had saved our warmer clothes, thinking it would be cooler when we got this far south. Instead, they were “enjoying” unprecedented temperatures in the high 30s C. Hotels in South Island don’t have air-conditioning: they never need it. So we had a few nights of poor sleep because of the heat. A problem we had not expected.

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New Zealand: 13. What was your favourite place in NZ?

Favourite place in NZ?

Queenstown and Lake Wakatipu

The following morning dawned bright, warm and sunny, and we were hopeful that we’d be able to get up on the glacier this time. We walked round the corner to the Helicopter Line, where once again we were allocated to the groups, given our wristbands, reminded of the safety procedures (Never approach a helicopter from the rear; don’t try and open the door yourselves, our crew will help you out when it’s safe…) This time we made it across the highway and through the short stretch of bush to the actual landing site. We even saw a helicopter coming in to land at the far end of the open ground. And then the message came over the phone: Cloud has come down, it’s too dangerous to fly, flying cancelled until further notice.

Apparently this is common, even normal. Fewer than 50% of people who book a helicopter flight up onto the Franz Josef glacier actually make it up there. And there would be another opportunity for a helicopter ride later in the tour: just not onto the glacier.

So it was back to the coach, and on the road again. It’s 144 km from Franz Josef down to Haast, described by Denis as the most remote settlement in New Zealand. And the west coast of South Island is the wettest part of the country, with up to 7 m (that’s seven metres) of rain annually. It felt like quite a lot of it fell during that morning1, during which we stopped to have a quick run through a bit of rain forest to see one of the waterfalls.

running through New Zealand rain forest

Rainforests don’t have to be tropical: there are temperate rainforests too, of which those in this part of New Zealand are typical. They are like nothing I’ve ever seen or experienced before.

From Haast the SH6 takes you inland up the Haast Valley, and over the alps again, then south among some of the glacial lakes of South Island. Lake Wanaka on our right, then Lake Hawea on our left, and so down at last to Queenstown, on the shores of Lake Wakatipu. It’s 248 km from Haast to Queenstown: this was a long day on the road.

So: what was my favourite place in New Zealand? There are so many candidates, so many wonderful sights and scenes. But I think I’d have to say, Queenstown. Not because it’s the birthplace of (commercial) bungee jumping, or a favourite centre for lots of other extreme sports that you have to be mad to pursue. Just because it is an almost unbelievably beautiful setting, a charming small city with so much going on, and set in the midst of scenery that looks like it’s straight out of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Which is because so much of it was used by Peter Jackson when he made the film.

How can you not love a place with sunsets like this?

sunset on Lake Wakatipu

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  1. Though actually we were very fortunate throughout our time in South Island, that it didn’t rain as much as it might have done. ↩︎

New Zealand: 12. Over the Alps and down to the sea

The Tranzalpine is one of the world’s great train journeys, and one of New Zealand’s most exciting, too: from Christchurch on South Island’s east coast, across the Canterbury region, up and over the Southern Alps, and down to Greymouth on the west coast. It was also one of our earliest morning starts: we had to leave the hotel at 0715 to get to the station in time to catch the early train.

The whole journey from Christchurch to Greymouth takes almost 5 hours, but we left the train at Arthur’s Pass to rejoin our coach (which had made the distance in less time) for the westward descent. We had still been able to enjoy the spectacular views from the train as it climbed into the mountains. We even saw snow – though not much of it – on the highest peaks.
Leaving the Tranzalpine at Arthur's Pass

The descent by road was one of the steepest gradients I’ve ever been driven down, and I was happy not to be the driver, especially of a coach full of 51 people and their luggage. Our first stop was at Hokitika, now a small coastal town, but in the 1860s it was a bustling gold rush town, filled with prospectors from all over the world who had come to the west coast to make their fortunes. Eleanor Catton’s Man Booker Prize-winning novel The Luminaries is a fascinating mystery that also gives a picture of the town and the period.

Hokitika today is a centre for the traditional greenstone industry, but its major industry now is tourism. We had the best lunch here of any of our NZ travels, at the Aurora Restaurant where we shared a grilled chicken open sandwich – freshly prepared! unlike many of the plastic-wrapped lunchtime sandwiches we had eaten on other days – and some Bundaberg ginger beer.

After lunch our journey took us onward down the west coast highway to Franz Josef. Here we made our first unsuccessful attempt to get a helicopter ride to take us up onto the Franz Josef Glacier. First you have to be weighed so they can select a passenger manifest of the right total weight, and distribution in the helicopter. Then we even got as far as being allocated to groups, given wrist bands and taken through the safety instructions (main point: Always approach the helicopter from the front; never go anywhere near the tail end. Anyone who’s ever watched ER won’t need telling…) We were led out of the office and halfway across the road to the landing site, before the message came through that flights were cancelled because of poor visibility.

There’s not much else to see at Franz Josef, and not too many eating places (though a few more than Denis let on about…) so the whole party ate at The Landing.

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On reading the New Testament in Lent

As part of my Lenten discipline this year, I decided to read the New Testament again. Lots of reasons: it was reading the New Testament, in 1970, that first made the innate faith of my childhood and teenage really come alive for me; it’s a long time since I read it from cover to cover in a short space of time; I feel put to shame by the common practice of our Muslim neighbours, who read their holy book during Ramadan…

259 chapters in the New Testament. 40 days of Lent. That means you can do it by reading 7 chapters a day, with a day or two to spare in case you’ve fallen behind. (And likewise Sundays, as a ‘day off’ to either catch up, or because you want to spend more time in church…)

It’s proving interesting. So far I’m still working through Gospels, and the familiar tales are so familiar that I sometimes feel I’ve been reading on auto-pilot, hardly even taking them in. Then sometimes you stumble over something and stop: something you’ve never noticed before, or maybe knew a long time ago and have forgotten, or that speaks to you as if for the first time.

Today I was reading Mark chapter 10 and suddenly asked myself, Why were the religious teachers asking Jesus about divorce? Was it a theological and ethical hot potato of the time, like same-sex marriage is for us today1? Did they genuinely want to know where he stood on a current divisive issue? Had they heard his teaching – such as Matthew records in the ‘Sermon on the Mount’ – forbidding divorce? Whatever the reason, they would be asking the question to try and hear something they could use against Jesus.

Then, in the story of blind Bartimaeus receiving his sight. When Jesus asks him, What do you want me to do for you? he answers Rabbouni, let me see again. Only, the NRSV2 says My teacher, let me see again; and relegates to the margin the little note Aramaic: Rabbouni. It’s so unusual for Aramaic words to be preserved in the original Koine Greek of the New Testament, that you’d think it would be worth leaving it in the text, rather than the margin. The only other time this Aramaic word appears in the NT is in John 20, when Mary Magdalene, grieving and weeping at the empty tomb, sees the risen Jesus, fails to recognise him, mistakes him for the gardener, and he calls her by name: Mary. She answers Rabbouni, which (John explains) means My teacher. It’s extraordinary to me that this blind beggar, sitting by the roadside, who for all we know has never encountered Jesus before, uses the same form of address to Jesus as one of Jesus’ closest friends, who has spent a lot of time around Jesus, listening to him, learning from him. What does it mean, that Bartimaeus calls Jesus Rabbouni, my teacher? I don’t know. But isn’t it a great question!

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  1. It seems it was. There were some rabbis who taught that divorce was definitely a last-resort strategy; while others were saying a man (of course) was within his rights to divorce his wife for quite trivial misdemeanours that displeased him. ↩︎

  2. New Revised Standard Version ↩︎

Exceeding righteousness

Exceeding Righteousness

Sermon first preached, and posted on my blog, 16 February 2014

Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount has quite a good press really. Lots of people who are very far from being practising Christians regard it as being evidence for the belief that Jesus was a great moral teacher. Sadly, that doesn’t always (often?) lead them to follow these teachings. It’s easy to see that if more people did actually live by them, most of the world’s problems would simply go away. But I don’t know whether Christians have been all that much better at following these teachings. In fact I seem to remember that the Scofield Reference Bible (a very influential study bible among evangelicals even today) has a note explaining that since the Sermon on the Mount is impossible to actually put into practice, it must be Jesus’ teaching about how people will live after the Second Coming has taken place and he has established his kingdom. If this is actually what it says (and I haven’t just imagined it) it’s a disastrous example of how Christians misread and misunderstand even the most important of scriptures.

It’s true that we struggle with the Sermon on the Mount — but so we should, and we’re going to struggle with it a bit more this morning.

It seems to me that the passage we have for this morning’s Gospel (Matthew 5.21-37) can be read as a kind of exposition or unpacking of what Jesus tells his disciples in v.20: For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Now, his disciples will have felt crushed at this point. Oh! whoa! what chance have we got then? Because the scribes and the Pharisees were the. most. righteous. people. ever. They were the ones everyone looked up to, regarded as an example of godly living, were sure they could never aspire to. Well, the scribes and the Pharisees thought that as well, and had succeeded in getting everyone else to think it. And that, probably, was the problem.

Because what follows is Jesus explaining the Law and its teachings in such a way (remember, he’s said that he hasn’t come to abolish the Law; not a stroke of a letter will pass from the Law until all is accomplished) that he completely undermines much (most?) of what the religious teachers stood for, and shows that their so-called righteousness is really nothing of the kind, it’s not what God has in mind at all. This is the thing about so much of what religious people mean by righteousness: it’s based on a very legalistic kind of religion, which puts external conformity way ahead of the heart of the matter.

Here’s what I mean. Legalistic religion is all about knowing, and telling other people, how to be righteous. You must do this; you must not do that. And perhaps even more importantly: you don’t need to do that; doing this will suffice for you to make the grade. So, if the Law says Thou shalt not kill, it will be sufficient if you haven’t actually terminated someone’s life. If it says Thou shalt not bear false witness, it will be OK to lie anywhere else, as long as you don’t lie in court.

But Jesus isn’t having any of this dishonesty, this cheating with God — which is what it actually is. The Sermon on the Mount undermines these pretences by going to the heart of what God really desires. Jesus wants to talk not just about what the Law is, what it says, but what it’s for. And I would say the whole purpose, aim of the Law, is to enable human flourishing. It is all about shalom, the total peace and well-being and common-wealth that is God’s will for humanity, in fact for the whole creation. So, it’s not enough not to have murdered anyone. We also need to deal with the root cause in the human heart: which is anger, despising your neighbour, thinking that they are of so little worth that you can call them fool, or spit on them, or abuse them, or discriminate against them, or mistreat them in some way. It’s not enough not to have actually committed adultery: we must deal with the lust in our hearts which looks at another person not as a person at all, but as an object for our physical pleasure or gratification. It’s not enough to observe all the proper legal forms when you want to divorce your wife (and in those days men could do that, on pretty trivial pretexts): you shouldn’t even be there in the first place. Don’t even think about it, I think Jesus is saying — remember what marriage is, what it’s for. It’s not enough not to swear falsely: you shouldn’t need to be swearing at all, your speech should be so true, so transparently honest, that it doesn’t need any So help me Gods, or whatever. So all the time, when Jesus is saying, You’ve heard that it was said … but I say to you … he’s not undermining or revising the Law. He is saying: The teachers of the Law have misrepresented what it means; and what I’m telling you, is what it’s really for.

So. How may we relate any of this to the moral issues that concern us in our day? With the Church we love tearing itself to pieces in arguments about gay marriage, and women bishops, and looking more and more stupid and irrelevant to people outside — wouldn’t it be nice if Jesus had said something about these things? Sadly he didn’t. So I don’t know what the answer to that question is: How may we relate any of this to the moral issues that concern us in our day? I don’t know, and I’m getting too tired of the argument, and the people who are doing it. Because so many of them seem to want to portray themselves as the righteous ones, and their opponents as the opposite. It reminds me of a novella that I had to study at university, Michael Kohlhaas, by Heinrich von Kleist. I’ve forgotten nearly everything about it, except for the description of this central character, in the very first sentence: On the banks of the River Havel there lived, about the middle of the 16th century, a horse-dealer by the name of Michael Kohlhaas, who was at the same time one of the most righteous, and one of the most entsetzlich [= terrible, dreadful, horrific, inhuman] men of his time. His passion for justice, righteousness, was so overwhelmingly huge, that it led him to commit the most terrible atrocities, causing death, destruction and mayhem to the whole country.

It’s not a bad description of people who adhere to any extreme form of religion or morality, whether it’s bombing abortion clinics and killing people who work there in the name of the right to life; or killing women for sexual transgressions, even if the transgression in question is having been raped. Of course, the squabbles about gay marriage and women bishops aren’t exactly in the same league, but there’s a tang of the same tendency. We are right, and we know we are right, and we don’t care how much damage our rightness causes to those who disagree with us.

Let’s step back and say, It’s time to stop looking at what we think the rules are and what they say, and think about what they are for. If they contribute to shalom, the flourishing of human beings and creation, then OK. If they prevent that flourishing, perhaps it’s time to let go of our interpretation of the rules, and change it, or the rules. I haven’t been keen on the idea of gay marriage. In fact when I was first ordained I would have taken the evangelical line that the Bible says homosexuality is wrong, and that’s it. As if we could say to a gay person: You may think you are attracted to someone of the same sex, and your life will be enriched by being with them, but you’re mistaken. What you need is to marry a nice girl (or boy) instead. But what I’ve been hearing for years from the gay people I listen to (and how brave are they, to speak about it at all!) is that their sexual orientation is a deep part of their identity, it’s how they experience that God has created them — not a wilful choice, not any kind of choice. And a permanent, faithful, stable union with a partner — what we call marriage if it is between a man and a woman — will save them from loneliness and desperate promiscuity. In other words, help them to flourish. Why shouldn’t they have the same opportunities to flourish, as men and women who want to share their lives?

I’d say the case for women bishops is even clearer. Not that I welcomed the thought of women bishops either, at first — but then I’m not all that keen on male bishops (don’t tell Bishop John). The supposed arguments against, from scripture and tradition, are frankly unconvincing, while the effect of not having women in leadership positions serves to perpetuate the subjection of women to the rank of second-class human beings, which has so often been the way not just in the church (actually, I think the Church can point to some shining exceptions) but in so many societies to this day. Giving proper scope for the wonderful gifts of women in ministry, releasing those gifts in the church, not only helps those women to flourish, but helps the whole church to flourish.

You might disagree with how I’ve applied what I think Jesus’ approach to the Law in the Sermon on the Mount is. I’d have to accept that, because it’s part of what I described as our continuing struggle with understanding, and living out, these teachings. But what I would encourage us all to do is keep on with that questioning and struggling. The heart of the Sermon on the Mount is the idea that we are called to live as children of God, our heavenly Father, and that relationship undermines, or trumps, all other human loyalties or obediences.

Let us pray.

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New Zealand: 11. A first look at Christchurch

Leaving Nelson on Monday morning (bags out at 0700, depart at 0800) we began one of our longest days on the road, travelling down to Christchurch. Christchurch is almost directly south of Nelson, but since the 2016 Kaikoura Earthquake (the second largest earthquake in New Zealand since European settlement began) it’s impossible to take the SH1 highway down the east coast. Instead we had to set off south-west on SH6, then south on SH65 through Victoria Forest Park, then south-east on SH7 before rejoining SH1 at Waipara. It’s a total distance of over 420 km, which Google Maps reckons takes 5 hours 13 minutes, but I guess that would be by car rather than in a 53-seater coach. Much of this route is not designed for the heavy traffic that has been forced to take this diversion since the earthquake, so there were many twists and turns and roadworks along the way.

Although we had various photo stops to look at the view, I didn’t take many photos. Here are some trees, mountains and clouds,

Somewhere on the road to Christchurch

and here is one of the many ‘braided rivers’ that are so characteristic of New Zealand’s landscape.

Braided river

It’s the kind of place I imagined seeing the refugees from Rohan crossing. Instead, there’s just a big orange digger out there in the distance.

When we reached Christchurch, everyone was a bit tired and crotchety. But Alison and I were very keen to try and get into the city centre and have a look at the ‘cardboard cathedral’ which we had heard about when Bishop Victoria spoke to the Oxford Diocesan Clergy Conference in 2014. We knew that we were scheduled to return to Christchurch later in the tour, but we weren’t entirely confident about how much the itinerary at that point might allow us to see. So we decided to walk into the city centre – which turned out to be 4.9 km, and took about an hour. It wasn’t helped by the fact that, as we neared the city centre, there were more and more road closures and diversions where work was still going on to demolish, repair and rebuild in the aftermath of the 2011 Christchurch earthquake. But we found our way to Cathedral Square, where what is left of the original Cathedral stands temporarily derelict.

Christchurch Cathedral in ruins

Then we continued to the site of the transitional cathedral AKA cardboard cathedral. We had hoped it would still be open – the guidebook we had looked at said it was open till 7 p.m. in the summer. The guidebook was wrong! It closed at 5 p.m., and the custodian had just set the alarms and locked up.

Christchurch Transitional Cathedral

Ever since 2011 there have been heated discussions about what to do with the old Cathedral. We got the impression from Bishop Victoria that she might have been of the party which wanted to demolish it completely and build something new. But the heritage faction, who wanted to rebuild the old Cathedral exactly as it was (it is, after all, 130 years old!) appears to have won the day. Perhaps if the original Cathedral had been more thoroughly destroyed they might have been able to do something like in Coventry? – building a modern cathedral alongside the ruins of the old, as a reminder of… well, in this case, the forces of Nature, perhaps?

The custodian gave us a lift part of the way back to the hotel, for which we were very grateful after the long day of travelling.

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