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Wednesday, 19 October 2016

A Trailer of Blessing

Vintage photo of "the Trailer"
When I was growing up I never associated a trailer with poverty or with camping.  My grandparents lived in a mobile home/trailer from the time my parents got married in 1969 until my grandmother moved into a nursing home in the late 1990's.  It was parked on a secluded lot just under a kilometer from my childhood home.
   When we went there on Sundays after church it felt like a cozy home.  In some ways it even seemed luxurious. Nobody else in my rural neighborhood had an air conditioner like they had in the trailer! The kitchen had a propane stove, an almond refrigerator and a dining table. The living room was carpeted and held a couch, a rocking chair, two armchairs and an old shortwave radio. There was a spare room with a single bed, a three piece bathroom, my grandparents' bedroom and a little shed attached to the side for the chest freezer and assorted tools. My grandmother kept it tidy, and there were fun things we could do there as kids: coloring books, a few picture books and sitting with the adults.
   How my grandparents came to live in the trailer I learned later.  You see, the house where I grew up used to be their house.  When my parents got engaged, my grandparents were willing to sell the house to them.  However, my grandfather had another idea that was less appealing.  He wanted to put a mobile home for himself and his wife along the end of their lane way!  My grandfather had a controlling personality, and he also felt a measure of responsibility towards my dad who had some challenges managing stress.  He was going to have difficulty letting his son be an independent adult.
   Fortunately, one of my uncles saw the problems inherent in having in-laws living so close to a young couples starting out.  He did some research about the 100 acre farm in hopes of finding a different corner to locate the mobile home.  He discovered that part of the 100 acre farm became separated from the rest of the parcel when the township changed the path of the road decades before because the original steep incline was a winter hazard.  Historically, this little slice of a lot belonged to the farm's holdings and was the perfect spot for my grandparents' trailer home.
   The relationship between my mom and her in-laws was strong.  Visits were common.  It was the perfect distance for a walk with the baby carriage when my sister and I were born.  It was the perfect outing for us when we were 10 and 11 years old and my mom needed some time to herself.  "Why don't you walk to Oma's house and pick her some wildflowers along the way?" she would suggest. Once when our house was full of overseas guests, I slept in her guest room for three weeks and biked back to the farm in the morning for breakfast.
   When I drive past trailer parks, I don't think to myself that the people who live there are underprivileged.  My grandparents were always content with the space they had, and they took good care of it.  When I go camping and see similar trailers serving as summer homes, I can imagine them being year-round homes.
   After my grandfather passed away and my grandmother moved to nursing care, the trailer continued to serve others.  A local pastor used the space for a retreat.  A single man made it his home for a period of time.  Today, the trailer is unoccupied and the roof has rusted through.  It has lost its former glory.  But I still think of the blessing that trailer was to my relatives and how its location served my parents by giving them space to start a life of their own.

Monday, 10 October 2016

An analysis of leadership in the film "The 33"

   The film entitled "The 33" commemorates events that took place in a Chilean copper and gold mine in the Atacama Desert between August 5, 2010 and October 13, 2010.  Thirty-three miners were trapped underground when a large part of the mine collapsed, blocking the way out.  The details of how they survived and were ultimately rescued are shared in this 127 minute movie.
   Since I am taking a course on leadership, I took note of how both the miners and those on the surface demonstrated leadership in this story.  I realize that not everything dramatized in the movie actually happened, but I still think we can learn some things about what leaders do and do not do.
Underground Leaders
   Without individuals taking leadership after the mine collapse, the outcome would have been much different.  In the film, we have the shift leader Luis making sure all the men made it to "The Refuge" because it was the safest place.  He had earlier tried to speak with his boss about broken mirrors in the mine that were indicators of shifting rock and thus danger to the workers, but his warnings were ignored.
   When the men realize that the radio is broken, the first aid kit is not fully equipped, the ladders in the ventilation shafts do not go up to the very top and that there is only food enough for three days, they are ready to despair.  Their company has not taken good care of them to this point, so how could they expect anyone to try to rescue them?  At this point Mario speaks with conviction and says, "I choose to believe that we will get out of here."  He is not the shift leader, but he inspires confidence in the other men.  They entrust him with the key to the food cupboard and accept the rationing plan he makes in order that the canned tuna and other staples will last as long as possible.
   During the time between being discovered alive and actually being taken out of the mine, the media finds out about Mario's leadership role.  He is offered an exclusive book deal; when the other miners find out about this they become upset.  In their minds, he has lost his status as a leader because they feel betrayed.  However, Mario ultimately determines not to sign the book deal and tells the others he has not done so because he wants them all to remain "brothers."  Mario, then, shows himself to be an ethical leader they can trust.
   Jose is another leader, a spiritual leader.  He prays with the men and counsels them.  When one of them is caught in the ravages of alcohol withdrawl, Jose is gentle with him and helps him overcome this demon.
Leaders on the Surface
   The first so-called leader we encounter is the boss at the Copiapo mine.  This man had the power to prevent the trauma that these miners endured.  He was given clear evidence that seismic activity was making the area unsafe, but all he could think of was quotas of copper and gold he wanted the workers to extract.  He was so focused on production numbers that he failed to see the human beings being placed at risk.  After the collapse, he makes excuses and begins to name the psychological problems that some of the miners have, hinting that they will kill each other before any rescue plan can be expedited.  This person is a leadership position loses his authority as the government takes over the rescue operation.
   When the Minister of Mining, Laurence Golborne, addresses the Chilean president, they discuss that the mine is privately owned. There is no legal obligation for them to get involved, but the moral obligation is given weight.  The Minister of Mining goes to the site to assess the situation.  By seeing the human face of the family members calling for answers, he stops at nothing to try to reach the trapped miners.  When the chief engineer tells him there is only a 1% chance that the drills will be able to reach The Refuge due to the drills veering off course because of depth and the hardness of the rock they are going through, the Minister of Mining says they try anyways.  When the chief engineer has given up because none of the attempts thus far had yielded any results and because he can't imagine the miners could still be alive after so many days underground, the Minister of Mining urges the workers to learn from the mistakes of earlier attempts and try again.
   The Minister of Mining and the Chief Engineer both dedicate weeks of their lives to this effort. They forego sleep and the comforts of home because they are bound to the mission of rescuing every last man from the depths of the mine before it becomes too late.  The willingness to accept help and expertise from a variety of nations contributes to the happy result that not one man was lost.
Divine Intervention
   The rescue of the Chilean miners could not have happened without the leaders among the miners themselves or the leaders of the search and rescue operation from the surface.  Nevertheless, the miners themselves and the President of Chile acknowledged that the happy ending for these miners was none other than God's miraculous intervention.  The miners turned to God in their time of desperation.  Family members and strangers prayed that these men would be found and brought back to the surface.  The miners wrote on one of the walls "God was with us." Priest Juan Carlos Sansadrai, who was ministering to families in Chile reported "It's been a trying time, but faith can move mountains" [1].

[1]   "Faith Plays Key Role for Trapped Chilean Miners, Families," CNN. 9 September 2010. from the original on 8 July 2011. Retrieved 10 October 2016.


Saturday, 8 October 2016

Pitching a Tent near Benton Harbor

   From the body language of the folks we met in a church foyer in St. Joseph, Michigan, the adjacent town of Benton Harbor was considered to belong to "the other side of the tracks."  We already noticed that it was an impoverished community with run-down homes, shabby looking businesses and streets in need of repair as we drove from our camp site to the church on the Sunday morning.  We received a warm welcome as visitors but the looks became curious when we told them we had camped the previous night in Benton Harbor.  We may as well have told them, "We pitched our tent near Sodom" because of Benton Harbor's reputation for crime. The conversation quickly became uncomfortable.
   The phrase "Lot pitched his tents near Sodom" is used in Genesis 13:12 as a criticism of Abraham's nephew.  He chose to live near the city renowned for wickedness because he coveted the fertile land that could be found there.  Over time, he adapted himself more and more to its mindset and became comfortable in the city itself.  His daughters were married to men from Sodom, and when the warning came from angels that Sodom would be destroyed imminently, Lot had a great deal of difficulty taking action.  In fact, the angels had to take him and his household by the hand to lead them out.
   Our decision to spend a night at Eden Springs Campground in Benton Harbor was made even though we had heard some negative things about the city.  However, we had a richer perspective because of one of my classmates at a summer course I took in Iowa.  She was the principal of a Christian school intentionally planted in Benton Harbor.  She and a group of Christians did not "pitch their tents" in Benton Harbor because they were lured by worldly values.  Rather, they saw the great need of the mainly African-American population and endeavored to provide Christian education to families regardless of their financial situation.
   The River of Life School reflects the ministry of Jesus, who entered our broken world.  When John 1:14a says, "The Word became flesh and lived for a while among us" (NIV), the original Greek word translated as "lived for a while" is the same one that means "pitched his tent."  When the Old Testament was translated into Greek 130 years before Christ (the Septuagint), the exact same word is used for Lot's action and that of Jesus.
   Our motives for living in close proximity to the broken people and places in our world make all the difference.  With the Holy Spirit to guide us, we can live faithful lives no matter where we make our dwelling.

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?