Tag Archives: healing

Wanted: Weak Christians (5 of 5)

This is the final post of a series called “Wanted: Weak Christians.” Here are the other posts:

Wanted: Weak Christians (1 of 5) — Introduction
Wanted: Weak Christians (2 of 5) — Who Are They?

Wanted: Weak Christians (3 of 5) — How Are They Indispensable?
Wanted: Weak Christians (4 of 5) — Advice to the Strong
Wanted: Weak Christians (5 of 5) — The Power of the Powerless


He is blind and has been blind since birth. He can neither see nor speak, though occasionally he laughs. His head is large, and his hands are small. His legs are twisted, and his feet are as tiny as a five-year-old’s. He can’t learn. He can’t even lift his head. He has to be spoon-fed and sponge-bathed, and someone has to change his diapers. Sometimes he has convulsions, rattling not only the frame of his bed but the hearts of those who love him…

Who would think that in that bed was the power to move presidents? Who would think that muteness could be so eloquent? That blindness could open so many eyes? Who would think that so many lives would be uplifted by someone who couldn’t lift his own head?

You would. You would think those things. If you had been to Oliver’s room…

So writes Ken Gire, in his forward to Christopher de Vinck’s memoir about his brother, Oliver.  Few books have moved me as powerfully as this one.

Gire continues:

From the bed in Oliver’s room comes a glimmer of Bethlehem. If you will not look away, you will see something of what was revealed in the straw and swaddling clothes of the manger.

You will see the power of the powerless.

It is the way God works in a world that idolizes strength and worships the means of attaining it. “His strength is perfected in weakness,” is the way the Bible puts it. And weakness is what you find when you come to Oliver’s room.1

The book is called The Power of the Powerless. Henri J. M. Nouwen writes the introduction:

Chris… writes about… people who by many are considered misfits, vegetables, tragic flaws of nature, people about whom many feel that it would have been better if they had not been born. But for Chris these people are God’s messengers, they are the divine instruments of God’s healing presence, they are the ones who bring truth to a society full of lies, light into the darkness, and life into a death-oriented world.2

If the words of Gire and Nouwen resonate with you, read de Vinck’s book for yourself.   His brother Oliver illustrates the central point of this blog series: “weak” people are indispensable in Jesus’ church.

“In patristic thought the theme recurs that believers need those to whom they can show active care, protection, support, and love,” writes Thiselton. “Otherwise they cannot serve as Christ served ‘for others.’” 3 We need “weak” Christians, and God intentionally composed Christ’s church to include them.

“The church is a school for sinners, not a museum for saints.”4 This witticism, Thiselton notes, “underlines that a church made up only of self-styled ‘gifted’ elite would not be the church of Christ.”5

IS WEAKNESS ALWAYS GOOD?

Weakness and mutual suffering are not the sum total of God’s purposes for us, of course. His eternal design includes much more. That body you inhabit, which is the scene of so much dishonor and weakness? “It is sown in dishonor; it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power” (1 Cor. 15:43).

Even now, what was true of the blind man in John 9 is also sometimes true of us: He was born blind, not because he or his parents had sinned, true enough, but also not because God intended for him to remain blind his entire life. Rather, he was born blind “that the works of God might be displayed in him”—the works, that is, of God healing him and thus demonstrating that Jesus was sent from God (John 9:3).

If this blind man had resisted being healed by Jesus, his weakness would have missed its purpose. What about us?

And should we really lump all forms of weakness together as equal? Surely it is not only the “strong” who should seek to become skilled physicians of the soul who can distinguish between different soul diseases. Those who are “weak” must likewise seek to be honest about the mix of physical, emotional, and spiritual causes of their weaknesses, submitting to God’s grace for each.

It is also true that, though weaknesses need not destroy our usefulness in the church in general, they may limit our usefulness for specific missions. Well-meaning Christians won’t always agree when this is the case; recall Paul and Barnabas splitting ways over John Mark (Acts 15:37-40).

We do not know what sort of weakness (spiritual? emotional? physical?) caused Mark to “withdraw” from the “work” of Paul’s first missionary trip. Whatever the cause, Paul experienced Mark’s withdrawal as an indication that he could not be trusted to persevere in the hard work of traveling gospel ministry. Yet Mark’s life contains many lessons for both “weak” and “strong” Christians. Consider:

  • Barnabas took Mark with him on a mission trip to Cyprus; quite likely he proved useful there under his cousin Barnabas’s softer leadership.
  • Mark later proved to be “very useful” to Paul “for ministry” (2 Tim. 4:11).
  • Mark was humble enough that, despite having been rejected by Paul, he was willing to again be one of Paul’s “fellow workers” (Phm. 1:24).
  • Paul was humble enough to call Mark “very useful,” to count him as a “fellow worker,” and to make a special point of insisting that others “welcome him” (Col. 4:10).
  • Mark’s great usefulness was revealed most powerfully when he wrote his Gospel.

Was it wise for Paul to refuse to take Mark along on his return missionary trip? We really don’t have enough data to answer that question well. What we do know is that “weak” Mark proved indispensable to the Church for all ages.

Mark’s story also suggests that “weak” Christians may grow in strength and usefulness. Similarly, right after our key passage about God honoring the weak, Paul urges us to “earnestly desire the higher gifts” (1 Cor. 12:31). We should not assume that God intends for us to remain lacking in new gifts that could equip us for new forms of service.

LOVE, WEAKNESS, AND THE GOSPEL

But something is even more important than “the higher gifts.” Something is better even than if all of us possessed all the gifts, better than if we all appeared strong and bursting with honor. “I will show you a still more excellent way” (1 Cor. 12:31).

That more excellent way is the way of love (1 Cor. 13). And in this broken world, love blossoms most fragrantly in Christ’s body when we do not each possess all the gifts that are most honored among us. Love blooms most fully when some of us appear weak.

And so we rest in God’s design. “God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose” (1 Cor. 12:18).

If simply getting out of bed in the morning to feed your family requires every ounce of your of faith, then perhaps God says of you as Jesus said of the widow who put two small coins into the temple offering box:

Truly, I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them. For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on. (Luke 21:3-4)

Perhaps this widow overheard Jesus’ words. If so, imagine how honored she felt!

Witherington reminds us that the same sort of honor must be given to the seemingly weak within the church:

Paul’s word about giving more honor to the weaker members of the body of Christ, the less “presentable” ones, needs to be heeded. He believes that even these folk have essential gifts and functions to exercise. It is a mistake to bring the world’s evaluative system into the ekklēsia and to set up an honor roll that favors the more presentable and dignified, or those with the more outwardly showy or dramatic gifts. Paul believes that the body of Christ is only truly strong when it gives special honor and attention to its weakest members. The more presentable members do not need such attention.6

In offering honor to its weakest members, the church displays something that is essential to the gospel message itself. Listen to Paul’s description of those whom God has gathered around the “folly” of cross:

God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. (1 Corinthians 1:27-29)

Paul was speaking, in part, about himself. Later he contrasts himself and the other authentic apostles with the arrogant Corinthians:

I think that God has exhibited us apostles as last of all, like men sentenced to death, because we have become a spectacle to the world, to angels, and to men. We are fools for Christ’s sake, but you are wise in Christ. We are weak, but you are strong. You are held in honor, but we in disrepute. To the present hour we hunger and thirst, we are poorly dressed and buffeted and homeless… We have become, and are still, like the scum of the world, the refuse of all things. (1 Cor. 4:9-13, emphasis added)

Again, this “weakness” was not a distraction from Paul’s ministry. Nor was it a mere happenstance, a set of circumstances that was neither here nor there. Rather, this “weakness” was essential to the nature of the gospel Paul was preaching. It was essential for the display of God’s grace.

Jesus’ weakness in the manger was an essential element of the gospel story. His weakness on the cross was crucial for our salvation. Just so, our weakness today remains an indispensable part of the good news of God’s mighty kingdom.

“My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness,” the Lord assured Paul (2 Cor. 12:9).

The Lord’s assurance is for us, too. Therefore we, like Paul, can respond with courage: “I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.”

Are you weak? Do others consider you weak?

Do not despair. Your weakness is exactly what God needs to complete his composition.

He chose you. He placed you. His design is that “the power of Christ” will “rest upon” you.

You may appear weak, dishonorable, and even unpresentable. But you are indispensable.

God needs you. Your weakness is God’s gift to his church.

(Dare I preach this even to myself? “God needs me. My weakness is God’s gift to his church.” I believe. Help thou my unbelief!)

Trust the Artist. Someday we will see that every shadow has enhanced his glory and our joy.


Thank you for reading this blog series. I would love to hear your feedback. What is your experience of strengths and weaknesses in the church? Where have you seen Christians do well or poorly in how we honor the “weak” among us? What have I missed in my exposition? Please share your insights in the comments below. Thank you!

  1. Ken Gire, foreword to The Power of the Powerless, by Christopher de Vinck (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1995), 9-10. Bold print added.
  2. Henri J. M. Nouwen, introduction to The Power of the Powerless, by Christopher de Vinck (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1995), 18.
  3. Thiselton, ibid., 1008.
  4. On page 287 of The Thiselton Companion to Christian Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2015), Thiselton credits this quote to “J.C. Wand.” Though I have not been able to find the original source, my research confirms that this Wand is otherwise known as John William Charles Wand, Anglican bishop of London after World War II.
  5. Thiselton, First Epistle, 1008.
  6. Witherington, ibid., 263.

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A Heart that Bears Fruit for God (4 of 4)

This is the final part of the sermon I shared this past Sunday at Followers of Jesus Church Atlanta. Here is my outline for the blog version of the sermon:

Part 1: What Is “Fruit”?
Part 2: Two Kinds of Hearers
Part 3: Isaiah 6 and Hardness of Heart
Part 4: Four Kinds of Hearers and One Goal


FOUR KINDS OF HEARERS AND ONE GOAL

With the interpretation of his Parable of the Sower/Soils (Matt. 13:18-23), Jesus expands the picture from two kinds of hearers to four kinds. We do not have time to unpack each kind of soil (hearer) in detail, but will observe several key points.

Only the first soil mentions “heart” (Matt. 13:18). Only first and last soil mention “understanding” (Matt. 13:18, 23). But it is clear that all soils represent hearts in various conditions of understanding or not understanding. The four soils suggest a range of receptivity to the message of the kingdom and a range of levels of understanding.

This is a more nuanced picture than the “insiders” and “outsiders” division of the earlier verses, but the parable interpretation still ends up with only two groups: those who bear fruit and those who don’t. Life prior to the final judgment is messy, so it’s not always clear who is “inside” and who is “outside.” And it takes time even for healthy plants to bear fruit. Yet only when there is good fruit do we have assurance that God has granted true understanding.

This point must be underscored: What counts before God on the day of judgment, according to this parable and the next in this chapter, is that we bear fruit. Merely experiencing some initial joyful growth of the word in our hearts is not enough. Fruitfulness is utterly essential! “You will recognize them by their fruits. Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father…” (Matt 7:20-21).

How much fruit? Perhaps a hundredfold, perhaps sixty, perhaps thirty. The amount may depend on how much you seek to understand, and it may also depend on what God has entrusted to you. But bear fruit you must, and bear fruit you “indeed” will, if your heart truly understands the word of the kingdom of heaven.

The first soil most closely matches how Jesus has described the unbelieving crowds. They hear the word but don’t understand it. One new idea is added: Here God’s judgment is carried out by him permitting Satan to remove the word from their hearts. Humans and angelic forces each possess agency, yet God is sovereign over all.

The second and third soils invite the most personal reflection, for they fall between the extremes of full unbelief and fruitful understanding. These soils depict things that may prevent those with false or inadequate understanding from achieving fruitfulness. Consider the rocky soil: If we don’t truly understand (grasp on a heart level, fully believe) Jesus’ kingdom teachings about the blessings of suffering for him (Matt. 5:10-12), then our growth will be short-lived and our lives will prove fruitless. And consider the thorny soil: If we don’t understand Jesus’ kingdom teachings about our caring heavenly Father and the superlative value of eternal rewards (Matt. 6:19-34), then we will be choked by the “anxiety of the age” and the “deceitfulness of riches.”

Brothers and sisters: Are there ways that we might be rocky or thorny soil? Are we quickly shaken by tribulation or suffering for Jesus? Are there days when we are consumed by cares and anxiety? Have we bought into the never-ending lie that we will be a little happier, a little more secure, if only we achieve a little more earthly wealth? How might these blindnesses, these false kingdoms, be ruling our lives? What do you think?

But all is not lost if we see in ourselves some of these tendencies! Jesus’ parable invites all who have ears, to hear! Indeed, the other parables in this same chapter can help us understand the needed kingdom truths. The parables about the weeds (Matt. 13:24-30, 36-43) and about the nets (Matt. 13:47-50) fortify us against the dangers of the rocky soil by reminding us that good and evil people need to coexist until the end of time, and that the true tribulation we must fear is the final judgment. The parables about the mustard seed and the leaven (Matt. 13:31-33) similarly encourage patient endurance. The parables of the hidden treasure and the pearl (Matt. 13:44-46) remind us of the joy and inestimable value of the kingdom, far greater than any earthly anxieties or riches that could turn us into thorny soil.

Thus, the rest of the parables are designed not only to hide kingdom knowledge from unbelievers, but also to give true disciples increasing understanding, so we can avoid proving to be either rocky or thorny soil. Our response to the parables reveals what kind of soil we are. Will we take up the challenge to have ears and hear?

Brothers and sisters: Our goal must be to be “good soil.” We must pray for deep understanding of kingdom realities—the sort of understanding and faith that grips our hearts, produces profound repentance, opens the door for deep healing, and results in plentiful fruit!

Nabeel Qureshi was a Muslim who became a Christian after years of difficult searching that stretched his mind, will, and emotions. I listened to his story by audio book this week. I was challenged by his example of seeking after God:[1]

  • How his dad heard some of the same apologetic arguments that Nabeel heard, but how he, unlike Nabeel, was unable to see his own deceptive thinking.
  • How Nabeel realized multiple times that he needed to count the cost and decide if he was truly willing to conform to whatever truth God may show him.
  • How Nabeel realized only after the fact that sometimes he was subconsciously not allowing himself to believe some things because of the costs that would come with true belief.
  • How it took diligent searching over many years with several stages of increasing belief and repentance before Qureshi came to a saving knowledge of Jesus.
  • How even after Nabeel acknowledged Jesus’s true identity in prayer to God, more diligent search was required to come to secure healing and fruitfulness for God.

We should not confuse gaining a heart that understands with simply becoming a Christian. No, the call to understand is not simply about becoming a Christian, but about being one. It takes continued growth in understanding for continued fruitfulness. We need to grow in knowledge, in faith, in having our hearts seized and transformed by the King of the kingdom of heaven. This will lead to ongoing repentance, healing, and fruitfulness.

So let me end as Jesus ended, with a question: “Have you understood all these things?” (Matt. 13:51). That is: Have you followed with your ears and your minds? Did the words I shared ring true in your heart? Are you allowing them to grasp you deep inside and stir up a new vision of reality? Do you believe what you have heard? Have you been moved to repentance? Have you already begun to ask God for deeper healing and more fruitfulness?

If yes, then I give you Jesus’ words: “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house, who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old” (Matt. 13:52). Treasure the truths you have heard today, both the old ones and anything that may have been new for you. Thank God for the gift of spiritual understanding! Bring out your treasures frequently, admiring them and sharing them with others. If you do, you have God’s promise: You will indeed bear fruit and yield “in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.”


Do you have any feedback on this exposition of Matthew 13:1-23? Your responses are welcome in the comments below!


[1] See Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus: A Devout Muslim Encounters Christianity, book by Nabeel Qureshi.


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A Heart that Bears Fruit for God (3 of 4)

This is the third part of the sermon I shared on Sunday at Followers of Jesus Church Atlanta. Here is my outline for the blog version of the sermon:

Part 1: What Is “Fruit”?
Part 2: Two Kinds of Hearers
Part 3: Isaiah 6 and Hardness of Heart
Part 4: Four Kinds of Hearers and One Goal


ISAIAH 6 AND HARDNESS OF HEART

This brings us to Jesus’ quotation of Isaiah 6:9-10:

14 “Indeed, in their case the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled that says:
‘“‘You will indeed hear but never understand,
and you will indeed see but never perceive.’
15 For this people’s heart has grown dull,
and with their ears they can barely hear,
and their eyes they have closed,
lest they should see with their eyes
and hear with their ears
and understand with their heart
and turn, and I would heal them.”'”

Jesus quotes something God foretold to the prophet Isaiah about Israel in about 700 BC and says it has been fulfilled in the Jewish nation of his own day. We should probably not think of this passage as being prophecy in the same way as the Micah passage about the Messiah being born in Bethlehem (Micah 5:2). Rather, it is typology—the hardness of Israel toward Isaiah and his message is a picture that was repeated in even fuller measure by the hardness of Israel toward Jesus and his message. If God’s words were true about Israel in Isaiah’s day, how much more true were they about the evil generation who rejected Jesus!

God spoke these words to Isaiah when he first called him to be a prophet. God told Isaiah to tell his people, “Keep on hearing, but do not understand; keep on seeing, but do not perceive.” This was a warning to Isaiah’s hearers about how his message would affect them. God told Isaiah, “Make the heart of this people dull, and their ears heavy, and blind their eyes.” “This [was] not God’s planning in advance to make Israel sin; instead, it [was] his confirming them in their repeated, freely chosen decisions to reject him.”[1]

As Israel heard Isaiah’s message and rejected it, their hearts would only become more “dull” or hard, until they had no spiritual hearing or sight left and were fit only for destruction and exile. Only a “stump” or “holy seed” would remain. As commentator Oswalt summarizes, “Isaiah is to speak a message that will harden the people’s hearts and prevent them from being healed.”[2] But that is not the full picture. Oswalt continues:

Isaiah is called upon to preach a message that, given the already-hardened hearts of his generation and several of the following, will only push them farther away from God. But some will turn, among them faithful followers of Isaiah, who will preserve his words until the day when the cauterizing fires of the Exile fall and there will finally be a generation willing to listen. Then real healing will result, and the stage will be set for the promised Messiah to come… The only hope of healing for these people is in near total destruction… Their religion is already half-pagan, and if they are allowed to continue, they will ultimately be completely pagan and all of the revelation will have been for nothing. But God is not going to allow that to happen, either to his revelation or to his people. So the cleansing must be frighteningly thorough. But afterward, when the forest has been felled and even the remaining stumps have been burned, one of those stumps will still have life in it.[3]

Given this context, it is clear that when Jesus quotes Isaiah here in Matthew, he is not merely making a dry observation that the crowds around him have poor hearing or are intellectually dull. Rather, he is warning that the Jewish nation as a whole is beyond recovery, that God has turned his back and is withdrawing the opportunity of national repentance. The nation is headed for inevitable judgment!

We are talking about having a heart that understands and bears fruit. Our words understand and heart appear twice in this Isaiah quote. First, Jesus warns that the crowds will “never understand” (v. 14). Why? Because their “heart” is dull—it has been hardened by repeatedly hearing and rejecting the word of the kingdom. This hardening is part of God’s judgment, which he has given “lest they should… understand with their heart and turn, and I would heal them” (v. 15b).

Notice the sequence in the last two lines of the prophecy: understanding with the heart leads to turning (repentance). Then comes healing, so that we can “bear fruit in keeping with repentance” (Matt. 3:8). In sum the following sequence depicts what God longs for his people: understanding –> repentance –> healing –> fruit (doing God’s will).

But here God is preventing that sequence from even starting! He is making repentance, healing, and fruit-bearing impossible, by making understanding impossible. Osborne again:

“In essence [God is saying], “I want them to remain this way lest….” Their guilt has produced a sovereign judgment, and Jesus’ use of parables is part of that judgment. The parables as riddles will stymie any possibility of “turning” back to God. They have committed in effect an “unpardonable sin”…, and God has turned his back on them! The parables will shut their eyes and close their ears.”[4]

This Isaiah passage is quoted other times in the NT, and not only in the parallel passages in Mark and Luke:

  • Jesus quotes the same passage in John 12:40, in a passage summarizing the unbelief of the Jews who rejected him. This passage, significantly, uses the word “believe” as a synonym for “understand.” In other words, the sort of understanding that Jesus requires for us to be fruitful goes far beyond mere mental assent. To really “understand” is to have something grip your heart so powerfully that you are utterly convinced it is true and worth revolutionizing your entire life for.
  • Paul quotes this Isaiah passage at the very end of Acts (Acts 28:25-27), as evidence that God is sending his salvation to the Gentiles, since most Jews would not “believe” the gospel.
  • Paul quotes similar language from Isaiah and Deuteronomy in Romans 11 (cf.  Is. 29:10 and Deut. 29:4 with Rom. 11:8), as part of an extended discussion (Rom. 9–11; esp. Rom. 10:16-11:10) explaining God’s election and Israel’s stubborn ignorance. (See also the Is. 53:1 quote at Rom. 10:16, an Isaiah passage also quoted in the John 12 passage referenced above.)

This hardening of Israel against Jesus is one of the great mysteries of the New Testament. Why would God prevent his people from understanding the gospel of the kingdom? Commentators do their best to explain:

“God’s judicial hardening is… a holy condemnation of a guilty people who are condemned to do and be what they themselves have chosen.”[5] (D.A. Carson)

“‘Hardening’… represents divine surrender of human beings to their rebellion.”[6] (Mark A. Seifrid)

After such heavy thoughts, Jesus pivots to a blessing:

16 ‘But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear. 17 For truly, I say to you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it.’”

Did the disciples really see? Did they really hear with understanding? In the next chapters there are multiple times where we read that the disciples did not understand what Jesus said (Matt. 15:15-20; 16:5-12; 17:9-13). But we also read that they sought and received explanations from Jesus until they did understand, and that God the Father revealed to Peter the understanding that Jesus was the Christ (Matt. 16:17).

This refines our image of our two kinds of hearers: (1) There are those who refuse to believe and are denied understanding; and (2) there are those who are willing to believe and are gradually granted increasing understanding.

But here Jesus is saying the disciples are not just more blessed than the unbelieving crowds. They are even more blessed than the faithful saints of old!

This gives us another glimpse into how God grants or withholds understanding: God sovereignly withholds understanding at times not only in response to the hardness of people’s hearts, but also because of his divine timetables of salvation history. Even good hearts are sometimes not given as full an understanding as they desire. But the disciples are incredibly blessed, possessing the double gift of soft hearts and of being alive at the time of the revelation of the Messiah!

(And we, too, are similarly blessed!)


Your responses are welcome in the comments below!


[1] Craig L. Blomberg, “Matthew,” Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2007), 46-47, comment on OT context of Matthew 13:14-15.

[2] Oswalt, John N.. Isaiah (The NIV Application Commentary) (Kindle Locations 2562-2563). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.

[3] Oswalt, John N.. Isaiah (The NIV Application Commentary) (Kindle Locations 2612-2622). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.

[4] Osborne, Grant R.. Matthew (Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on The New Testament series Book 1) (Kindle Locations 9523-9526). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.

[5] D.A. Carson, The Gospel according to John, Pillar NT Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1991), 448-49, comment on John 12:39-41.

[6] Mark A. Seifrid, “Romans,” Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2007), 670, comment on Romans 11:8.


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