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Friday, 12 August 2016

Identifying with King Hezekiah

   A slightly obscure story in the book of 2 Kings 20 has to do with one of the good kings of Judah, who reigned from approximately  715  BC to 686  BC.  The prophet Isaiah was given a revelation to share with a seriously ill King Hezekiah that went as follows:
   "This is what the LORD says: Put your house in order because you will die; you will not recover."
Period. End of discussion.  Except that like his forefather David (when told his infant son would die), he turned to God and begged for a different outcome.  And so, the startling news came to Isaiah before he had even left the palace after delivering his first message.  He is now to tell Hezekiah some details about how to be healed and a promise that God would extend his life by 15 years.
   Have you or someone close to you outlived a doctor's prediction about life expectancy?  The first such person I can remember meeting was Mr. D. On July 28, 1979, Mr. D. was injured by a sudden explosion of the propane line while checking out a faulty propane furnace at the Newcastle Block plant, which he owned .  Miraculously he was able to retreat from the building to his home next door after which he was rushed to hospital and eventually arrived at the Scarborough Burn Unit with 3rd degree burns to 40% of his body.  Those close to him did not expect him to survive, yet the churches in his community mobilized and cried out to God for healing and restoration.  When this gentleman shared his story and King Hezekiah's at a school-wide chapel service in 1995 he had already gratefully received more than his "extra 15 years" [1].
   Another parallel to Hezekiah's story was shared in a funeral eulogy written by my uncle.  The tragic occasion was the funeral of his 17 year-old son who had been struck by a rogue bolt of lightning after a storm had passed over the island where he had been camping.  This uncle recalled the time when the same boy was just two years of age and ravaged by malaria in Nigeria.  The medical missionary father did not think his son would live to see the next day, and yet he did.  This perspective on a teenager's short lifespan demonstrated the grace that had been given all of them for a full 15 years. Hard as it was to let go of this young man, there was a recognition that he could have been taken in childhood.
   Next, a man at my church had had a serious heart attack in middle age and was given three months to live.  When we last spoke he was over 65 years old!
   My final example came from the Pentecostal preacher I heard at an open air service in cottage country this summer.  He told us about a child nicknamed "Zero Percent."  Before this boy was born, the doctors had told his mother that there was 0% of him surviving to term.  This preacher was approached by the child's father, who was understandably distressed at the prognosis and the pressure placed on him to give consent for an abortion.  The two of them poured out their hearts to God and trusted in God's power to do the impossible.  In fact, the preacher told the expectant father that the figure of 0% was good news in a way because if the child survived, everyone would know God had done it.  If, instead, the doctor had said there was a 2% chance people could have credited the 2% chance as the reason for his survival rather than a miracle.  Not only did the pregnancy reach term, but this child is living a completely normal life with his grateful parents.
   Doctors are often asked to give timelines when a terminal illness has afflicted a person, but all of these are subject to the Life-giver's sovereign plans.  He alone can number our days aright (Psalm 90:12a).

[1] The event of Mr. D's accident is told briefly in this archive of the weekly newspaper called The Canadian Statesman dated August 1, 1979:  http://vitacollections.ca/claringtonnews/2843209/page/2

Saturday, 6 August 2016

Waste Land?

   I'm sure most people have driven on a divided highway that has patches of grass between the lanes bound in opposite directions.  Many of us see the overgrown grass, Queen Anne's lace and red clover and think to ourselves how messy it looks.  Couldn't someone trim this wasteland to make it look nicer?
   Last month my husband and I had the opportunity to go to Iowa, a state in the mid-western United States.  We were surprised at how non-existent such wasteland is there.  As far as the eye can see neat fields of corn or soybeans fill the landscape.  The grass along the road side is not allowed to get out of control; most farmers cut and bale it into hay.  All this cultivation looks pleasing to the eye, but something is missing.  There are very few birds or butterflies to be seen as you drive along these paved roads where light traffic is the norm.
Corn and soybean crops; the grass at the side of the road is also baled as hay.
   The reason for my being in Iowa in the first place was to take a course called "Issues in Education." My husband who joined me for the road trip seized the chance to ride his bicycle on the relatively even terrain for five days.  In the cultivated areas, even traveling at a slower speed he still did not see much wildlife except at an abandoned gravel pit. The photo below shows a variety of wildflowers. What the photo does not show were the ten plus varieties of birds he was able to see there, including red-headed woodpeckers that we don't see in Ontario, Canada.
Biodiversity in ... an abandoned gravel pit.

   This is more than a lesson in biodiversity or ecology.  Sometimes in our drive for efficiency, we squelch creativity.  Sometimes having packed schedules there's no room to notice someone who needs our help.  Productivity-driven mindsets can marginalize relationships.  Pushing students to study and cram from early in the morning until late in the evening makes them less than human. For life to flourish, there needs to be space for the unplanned, the spontaneous, the sometimes unruly.  It's something I need to take to heart.  How about you?

Thursday, 21 July 2016

Turtle on a Fencepost-Revised

  I first read this phrase in the devotional by Charles R. Swindoll, entitled The Finishing Touch.  He, in turn, was quoting a Presbyterian pastor by the name of Dr. Robert Lamont.  In his youth, Dr. Lamont had seen the strange sight of a turtle being suspended on a fence-post.  No doubt, this was the work of a prankster and not that of the turtle itself.  He applied this idea to himself as well: “Where I am right now is not the result of my efforts; only God can be credited for lifting me to this place for His glory.”
   This is the story of my career path.  I got my first teaching job at a brand new school even though I was late for the interview.  There were a lot of unanswered questions about this school and how I would teach four grades in one room, but I felt led to accept the job.  Less than one month in, I was asked to become the principal at the age of 23.  This was nothing that I planned, but I continued on for three years.
   I was privileged to stay home with my children for eleven years and did not know exactly how I would re-enter the teaching world.
   Then I became a Kindergarten teacher in the most unexpected way. Kindergarten would have been the last grade level that I would have chosen for myself. Yet on the Friday before the Labor Day weekend in 2008, I received a phone call from the principal of a local school asking me to consider taking a 40% position in Junior Kindergarten, starting in a few days.  Honestly, I did not understand why he would call and offer this position to me other than desperation and my resume being on file.  I had no experience in teaching students this young, and I styled myself as an upper elementary teacher.  He asked me to think and pray about it and return his call with an answer in a few hours.
   I have always had a strong sense of vocation, being called to do particular things at particular times in my life.  During my prayer time, this is what came to my mind once again.  This phone call was none other than a call to surrender my plans to God’s plans.  I trusted that He would equip me since I did not consider myself at all prepared for this great adventure with four year olds.
   When there was an internal opening for vice principal of school management at my school, I didn't intend to apply until a colleague encouraged me to do so.
   In June I embarked on a journey to earn my Masters of Education from a small Christian college in Iowa, mostly through online courses.  When I arrived on the campus earlier this week and saw its buildings and considered its history, I again felt like a turtle on a fence-post.  People I've never met sacrificed, prayed and had the vision to begin this school, and I am blessed to reap the benefits.
   But even more than my career path, I feel like a turtle when I think about my humble beginnings as a simple farm girl.  God has enabled me to study at some of the best schools in Canada, teach in small and large Christian schools in Ontario, have articles published, become married to a wonderful man, become a mother to three gifted children, and so much more.
   I am a turtle on a fence-post.

Friday, 8 July 2016

What's in a Gesture?

Gestures are culturally understood ways of communicating without words.  Some occupations rely heavily upon gestures such as airport ground crews and police officers directing traffic at a disabled stop light.  In any situation we need to know what a gesture means in order to interpret what the person using it intends or is signalling to others.  For example, an index finger movement that says "Come here" in North America is insulting to a person from South Korean because in that nation the same gesture is used to summon dogs.
   One gesture infants learn early is to grasp and object tightly and not let it go.  We might even consider it a God-given reflex for their safety and survival.  As we grow older we may continue to grasp things physically and metaphorically.  Holding onto things and refusing to release them, then, becomes a way of expressing control and possessiveness.
   In the Scriptures we encounter a patriarch whose very name refers to the act of grasping.  Jacob, the younger twin, was born literally grasping the heel of his elder brother.  That image has become synonymous with "deceiver," as Jacob illustrated by trickery and wanting the best for himself.  When Jacob had become an adult, he preyed upon his brother's birth right at a vulnerable moment when Esau was famished and would give anything for a bowl of stew.  Later, abetted by his mother, he grasped the blessing of the first born that also rightfully belonged to his brother.
   In Jacob's narrative, he is not the only one seeking his own advantage.  His father-in-law Laban grasps fourteen years of Jacob's labor in exchange for his younger beautiful daughter.  Both of his wives grasp at various schemes in order to bear children in order to compete for Jacob's affection. His favored wife Rachel holds onto her father's idols even when she has rejected this man's authority over her life.
   During his life, we catch glimpses of Jacob being weaned from his tendency to grasp.  When he flees from a vengeful brother he recognizes the presence of God and worships him.  On the eve of a reunion with that same brother, Jacob is terrified of how he will be repaid.  He begins to realize his schemes can undo him; at daybreak God gives him the new name Israel meaning "He wrestles with God."
   By the time Jacob-Israel reaches 130 years of age he has experienced many things, including the 20+ years of grief over losing his favored son Joseph and then the surprising news that Joseph is still alive and ruling Egypt.  We see a very different man in a moving scene in Genesis 48.  His vision is dim with age, but he says with gratitude to the son he had mourned, "I never expected to see your face again, and now God has allowed me to see your children too."  There's no hint of Jacob coming to this moment of beatitude by his own striving or scheming.  He knows the truth expressed later in James 1:17a--"every good and perfect gift is from [God] above"--and he receives it with the gesture of open hands.
   It took a lifetime for Jacob to change from being a grasper to a receiver.  What kind of gesture characterizes your life today?

Friday, 24 June 2016

The Core Matters

Apples in a bowl
   This week I brought a bowl containing different varieties of apples into my classroom. Unlike the image above I also had one green pear and one deep red nectarine among them, but I had turned them in such a way that they might be mistaken for apples.  I asked my students to tell me from a distance (they at their desks and the bowl at the front of the room) what was in the bowl. A couple of them saw the green apple and wondered if there might be a lime in the bowl.  One near the front said she saw the shape of a pear.  One at the very back of the room gave the answer I was hoping for: "a bowl of apples."
   I began by removing the yellow, green and red apples first.  We noted that they were all apples even though their surfaces were different colors.  I sliced two of them to reveal the "star shaped" core and dark brown seeds. Then I admitted that I had hidden two non-apples in the bowl.  To make the difference clear, I cut the nectarine lengthwise as well. We observed that the core was quite different, housing a single pit.  The pear, when divided in half, clearly had a different interior with distinctive seeds.
   My purpose for the lesson/devotion about fruit was to illustrate a truth about churches.  My students in 5th and 6th grade are starting to wonder about different types of churches and what they believe. On the outside (either the building's architecture or the liturgy/worship), churches might appear to be very different.  A child might assume, mistakenly, that if a particular church is not quite like the one he is familiar with then it must not really be a church.  
  How do we know for sure?  Like the fruit, we could determine its identity by the core.  What is the core that defines a church?  
   I introduced them to the Apostle's Creed, a summary statement outlining the "core" doctrines to which all Christian churches hold and which they profess.

     At times we might see something from a distance that appears to be a church.  The people enter a building, where they sing, pray and receive instruction.  However, if the core is not there--if one of the central tenets of the Apostle's Creed is rejected--it is not truly a Christian church.  It may be a religious gathering, but it is not a Christian one.
   One student asked a perceptive question.  He asked about a particular denomination saying, "What about this church, which also believes that a human authority is equal to the Bible?  Can that be a church?"
   I picked up one of the apples and a bit dramatically hurled it to the floor.  After picking it up, I asked the students what had happened to the apple.  They said, "It's bruised now."
   "Is it still an apple?" I pressed them.
   "Yes," they replied.
   I went on to explain that every church has some problems, some things that are not they way they are supposed to be.  Because churches are filled with sinners, there will always be a bruise or blemish somewhere, but that in itself does not disqualify the church as long as the core remains intact.
   In a world where many things are judged by external appearance or visual appeal, I wanted to convey the importance of considering the core or heart of something to determine its true worth.

Friday, 17 June 2016

What happened to Holy-days?

   I vividly recall attending a Christmas program over 10 years ago in which a youth group acting out a skit.  In this skit certain characters considered Christmas as "just another excuse to party."  The purpose of the actors was to hold up this mirror to the audience for self-reflection.  Is this what our holidays have become?
   Christmas, Easter, even the few lingering "Saints Days" that appear on secular calendars have strayed far from their original intentions. St. Valentine's Day often celebrates lust instead of love, while St. Patrick's Day is associated with overindulgence in beer while wearing the colour green.
   I'm quite certain that my fellow Canadians who celebrated the Victoria Day long weekend gave little or no consideration to the former monarch after whom the day was named.  It is a time to party with profuse amounts of alcohol and fireworks even if nobody knows why.
   As our culture disregards the foundations of western civilization, we are not only losing the meaning of the red letter days on our calendars.  We are also having every day hijacked by all kinds of different interest groups so that today (June 17th) is simultaneously dedicated to eating your vegetables, apple strudel, flip-flops, cherry tarts and a particular brand of root beer.  How are pondering or celebrating these material things supposed to benefit anyone, except perhaps the healthy daily discipline of eating vegetables?
   While the examples cited here may seem innocuous, I originally began this post in reaction to the Social Media created day that encouraged people to send nude photos of themselves to a friend.  I did not want to search its exact name because I didn't want to add to its popularity.
   What happened to celebrating a day simply because "this is the day the Lord has made"?
   One way to assess a culture is to look at what it celebrates and how it does so.  What observations have you made about the shift in special days?


Saturday, 14 May 2016

Conspiracy Uncovered

   Three years ago at this time, the first arrest was made in horrific murder case in Ontario, Canada. As the trial now heads into its fourth month in a Hamilton court room, I looked back in my journal entry of May 18, 2013 to see that I made a connection to Psalm 64 amid these events.
   Psalm 64 documents the conspiracy of wicked people against the psalm writer.  These wicked are callous and cavalier.  They presume that neither human authority nor deity will hold them accountable for what they are doing.  However, the psalm writer also notes that God will have the final word.  He will not let them get away with evil, and points out that "their own tongues will ruin them."
   The following is what I wrote three years ago:
This week we saw the painful result of a wicked conspiracy.  Three or more people plotting the downfall of an innocent man.  One has been caught; the others remain at large and as yet unidentified.  Lord, give the police all the tools they need to catch up with these evil doers.  You know where they live; please let them be brought to justice before another victim is involved.
Lord, "turn their own tongues against them" and bring them to ruin:
  • what they said on the phone
  • how they boast to others about what they've done
  • how they have maligned You and those made in your image.
Let people seek You out in this unspeakable tragedy.
As the trial has unfolded, I have seen these prayers begin to be answered.