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Friday, 24 August 2018

Hidden Figures, Part 2: Old Testament

   The 2016 film Hidden Figures follows in the footsteps of The Help (2011) and The Butler (2013) in telling the stories of people that were not considered worthy of telling in the 1960's because of deep and systemic prejudice.  These movies resonate with "ordinary people" and show that human dignity and ability are not restricted to those in the limelight.
   As more stories surface about instrumental but overlooked individuals, I asked myself if there are stories of foreigners, women, children or servants in the pages of the Bible.  Indeed, they are there, but it is sometimes our summary retellings of these stories leave them out.  Let's take a closer look at some Old Testament characters that God includes in his story.

In the story of Abraham: Eliezer of Damascus

   Abraham is a wealthy man of the Middle East who was called by God to be an exemplar of faith and whose faith would pass on from generation to generation among a tribal group known as the Hebrews or later as the people of Israel.  Our summaries of Abraham's life tell of his remarkable journey without a clear roadmap, the promises made to him, the miraculous way he became a father at the age of 99, and his obedience in offering Isaac on an altar at God's command.  After these events, we would add that Abraham got a wife for Isaac so that the line would continue.
   The Scriptures, however, devote a full chapter to the agent God used to secure a wife for his son.  Although he isn't named in Genesis 24, he appears to be the same "chief servant" Abraham mentions nine chapters earlier as Eliezer of Damascus as the one who would inherit all Abraham's wealth if no child were to be born of his body.
   Eliezer's task was daunting: he was to take a significant journey, find Abraham's relatives and find a suitable bride for his master's son.  The weight of the transaction was not lost on Eliezer, and he himself becomes an exemplar of faith.  His bold prayer seeking God's guidance in finding the right woman for Isaac is moving and full of wisdom.  He asks for a sign that will point out the right young woman.  One who would offer him hospitality at her family home and offer care for a stranger's camels was someone with a heart of kindness and patience.  Each camel can drink 200 litres in a short time, but drawing water from a well a bucket at a time would have been time consuming!
   When Eliezer returns with Rebekah, it is clear that his mission has been successful.  Isaac takes her as his wife, and the promise moves forward.  It does so through the faithfulness of a servant. 

In the story of Moses: Miriam

   One could say that Moses was a hidden figure that God brought out of obscurity to lead his people, but my focus here is on his older sister Miriam.  When Moses was an infant, she stood by to watch as his mother desperately floated him on the Nile River in a papyrus basket, hoping to keep him alive despite the Pharaoh's edict that all male children be drowned.  One might say, "What was the use of watching the basket?"  The likelihood of the baby surviving crocodiles or hippos was remote.  Even if the basket was untouched by beasts, how long could a baby survive without human care?
   But Miriam's task was indispensable as the story unfolds.  When Pharaoh's daughter sees the basket, she recognizes a Hebrew baby within it.  Instead of hostility, however, she has pity.  Instead of observing the rules of the Egyptians, she follows a higher norm that considers the arrival of the basket as a gift of the Nile god, one which she will not refuse.  Miriam's quick thinking and shrewd negotiation with Pharaoh's daughter has the result of Moses being nursed by his own mother and for payment.  Thus, Moses in his most formative years is taught the ways of the God of Israel before he enters the palace and its treasures of learning.

In the story of Joshua: Rahab

   Conquering the Promised Land fell to the leadership of Joshua, after Moses passed away.  On the other side of the Jordan River, fortified cities and well-equipped armies are not about to surrender to a band that had been wandering in the wilderness for about 40 years.  Joshua sends out scouts to learn more about the people of Jericho, the nearest settlement.  Somehow these two found an inkeeper named Rahab.  In that culture, an innkeeper doubled as a prostitute.  The Israelite men may have shocked Rahab in that they were seeking only information, whereas the "pagan" Rahab certainly shocked the men by knowing so much about the LORD and by her reverence for Him.  She hides them when local intelligence determines that foreigners have entered the city, and she boldly requests  a promise of rescue when God will grant them victory over her people. (See Joshua 2.)
   A hidden figure of ill repute and her entire household are all that is spared of the city of Jericho.  They become part of the Israelite people; Rahab herself is married by Nashon, who may well have been one of the unnamed spies.  Rahab remains unhidden in the New Testament, where she is mentioned three times: once in the family tree of  Joseph, the earthly father of Jesus of Nazareth, once in the Hebrews 11 list of faith heroes and once in the book of James.

In the story of David: an Egyptian slave 

   Before he ascends the throne, a "hidden figure" plays an important role in the life of David, a one-time shepherd and youngest son of Jesse of Bethlehem.  Perhaps because of his own humble beginnings, David does not scorn a man found half-dead as he pursues a band of raiders who have burned his city and taken all that was dear to him and his men--their wives and children.  There is reason to pause and dish out scarce supplies for this foreigner in order to hear his story.  Great dignity is given to the helpless man in this account: he is an Egyptian slave of ruthless Amalekites, who left him behind when he became ill (1 Samuel 30).  He is willing to guide David and his followers to the camp; his only plea is that they do not kill him or hand him back to his masters.  David's reputation of integrity to this point assures the readers that the silence on this point means that David did indeed keep his word to the slave and did him no harm. Due to the help of this slave, David recovers everything and everyone that had been taken.

In the story of Naaman: a servant girl and other servants

   Naaman is a foreigner to the people of Israel, an army general for ancient Syria.  Despite his status in worldly terms, we would hardly expect to find his story in the pages of the Bible.  Syria and Israel were military rivals, but Naaman does not receive mention because his tactics were a threat to the people of God.  Instead, he comes to Israel because he seeks healing from leprosy.  Now, Naaman would never have come up with this plan on his own.  Leprosy was by definition incurable at the time; it was a death sentence.  However, an Israelite girl who had been taken captive by the Syrian army and who worked as a domestic servant for Naaman's wife suggests that he see the prophet Elisha in the land of her birth.  Despite Naaman's prestige, he listens to the advice of a hidden figure.
   As the story unfolds we see that Naaman still would not have received healing from leprosy if left to his own devices.  The instructions of Elisha, given by a messenger, seem undignified to Naaman so that he is ready to refuse and return to Damascus in the same diseased and hopeless condition.  It is his servants who convince him to see reason and overcome his pride.  And thus Naaman dips seven times in the Jordan River and catches a glimpse of the glory of Yahweh, the God of his enemies.

These examples are just a few of the "hidden figures" that God does not overlook in the story of redemption.  Feel free to leave a comment about any other Old Testament characters that fit this category.


Wednesday, 15 August 2018

Hidden Figures Part 1: A film connecting to a Bigger Story

   The successful book and film Hidden Figures tells the true story of women who were instrumental in the American space program in 1962 and onward.  This film came out in 2016, but it continues to generate income and capture hearts because its message connects to a bigger story in our culture, including Black Lives Matter and #MeToo.  The discrimination faced by Dorothy Vaghan, Mary Jackson and Katherine Johnson based on gender and race is tackled head-on.  Alan Shepherd and John Glenn are household names, but without a vast team of support staff at NASA there would be no rocket, no launch and no successful re-entry.  The three women documented in the film give us another angle to explore the operations at NASA's site in Virginia in light of a budding civil rights movement, the infancy of the IBM computer and the hopefulness of the Kennedy presidency.
   The clever pun in the title--figures--denotes both persons and the mathematical operations they performed, and that is how this film points to an even bigger story than early efforts to further opportunities for women and Blacks in America.  The rooms filled with engineers and human computers remind us that most people remain anonymously in the background when great achievements happen.
   Think, for example, of the first man to make it to the North Pole.  This achievement is given to one person, named Robert Peary.  The first Western person to climb Mount Everest, with cameras to prove it, was Sir Edmund Hillary.  However in both cases we easily forget that without their Inuit and Sherpa guides, respectively, neither of these triumphs would have been recorded.  Hundreds of porters were involved even further behind the scenes to carry the 13 tons of baggage to the base camp at Everest [1]. In the case of Robert Peary, there were other hidden figures besides the team of Inuit men who guided him.  There was African American Matthew Henson who has only recently been recognized as instrumental to the success of the trek and also Captain Robert Bartlett, who may have been deliberately left at a base camp so that the glory would not have been shared with him.
   Upon reflection, no invention or accomplishment can be claimed by any one individual.  Not only the network of people around him or her need to be acknowledged but also the technologies and advancements that have paved the way.  Staying with the examples already cited, technologies like the Inuit inventions of sleds and warm clothing, navigation systems, mountain climbing equipment, such as crampons and snow goggles were essential.
   Such acknowledgements are seen, to a certain extent, at awards ceremonies where recipients name or refer to the people who have helped them along the road to their achievements.  Nevertheless, even in the smaller achievements that we take pride in, it is good to remember that we could not have done these difficult things alone or without infrastructures we take for granted.  Admitting this is not just humility, it is honesty.

[1] See the photo caption on https://www.theguardian.com/travel/gallery/2013/may/23/mount-everest-first-successful-ascent-in-pictures

Tuesday, 3 July 2018

When Pride Masquerades as Gratitude

   I'm becoming convinced that pride is deeply rooted in human beings, like the original sin.  It's not a survival instinct like the troglodyte brain, but it is persistent as well as subtle.  What often motivates us?  Wanting to be better than someone else, even if that someone was ourselves yesterday or last week.  We see this clearly in some of the challenges people set for themselves around diet and exercise. A desire for growth is one thing, but hidden within it can be the deadly sin of pride.
   Another hiding place for pride is gratitude.  Yes, you heard me correctly.  A year ago I came across the following quote from C.S. Lewis that I have not been able to shake:
Now what I want you to get clear is that pride is essentially competitive--is competitive by its very nature...Pride gets no pleasure out of having something, only out of having more of it than the next man.  We say people are proud of being rich, or clever, or good- looking but they are not.  They are proud of being richer, or cleverer, or better looking than others. [1]
   This prideful gratitude is quite obvious in the prayer of the Pharisee that Jesus mockingly includes in one of his parables: "God, I thank you that I am not like other people--robbers, evildoers, adulterers--or even like this tax collector.  I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get" [2].  This man is using a prayer to recite his assets in deliberate comparison to those he considers less.
   Do we ever do this?  Whenever we thank God for food because some people don't have food, we're getting dangerously close.  When we express gratitude for a warm and cozy bed while calling to mind that others do not have this luxury, is it not pride?  When we thank God that our church is in a good financial situation while other churches are closing down due to insolvency, is it not pride?
   I remember years ago reading an editorial from an agency that shares information in the West about the persecuted church.  The writer was bemoaning the fact that most people's first reaction to hearing his presentations about Christian persecution was to be grateful that they are not being persecuted!  They were missing the point of compassion, action and prayer for the brothers and sisters who are suffering.
   I'd be the first to admit that cultivating a life of gratitude is helped by perspective that people in other places or times in history have lived through horrific things.  Yet, what we have is not because we are somehow better.  Humble gratitude defies pride and seeks for ways to share one's bounty with others, not loudly or by seeking fanfare.
   Prayers of thanksgiving should be a daily occurrence in the life of a believer, but these words should not involve comparison to what others have or don't have.  Some words of thanks I'm starting with today:

  • for a car to get to an appointment 
  • for the design of our bodies that allows us to walk, write, smile and speak and the opportunity to using our walking, writing, smiles and speech to pass on a blessing
  • for the process of dry grains of rice turning into a tasty food with just water, salt, and about 20 minutes of heat
  • for the example of Daniel in the Scriptures who testified: "This secret has not been revealed to me because I have more wisdom than anyone living but for our sakes who make known the interpretation to the king and that you may know the thoughts of your heart" [3].
   Mindfulness of the needy will show up in another part of our prayer, or else it's incomplete:
  • please enable those who don't have suitable transportation to get to places they need to go, and open my heart to being willing to help in practical ways
  • please strengthen my mother-in-law for whom walking and writing are increasingly difficult
  • please bless the rice farmers around the world with a good harvest and that they too may be nourished by the food they produce.

[1] C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (San Francisco: Harper, 2001), p. 122, as quoted in Timothy Keller's book Every Good Endeavor.
[2] Luke 18:11-12 (NIV)
[3] Daniel 2:30 (NIV)

Saturday, 26 May 2018

A Breakfast Prayer

Dear Lord,

Thank you for this food in my bowl that I could easily pour from a container in my pantry and moisten with milk from the refrigerator.  Thank you for my husband who prepared the granola.  Thank you for those who planted the walnut trees long ago and far away in California, and for those who harvest them as seasonal workers.  Thank you for the ingenious folks who got the coconuts down from the towering palm tree, split it open and made its nutty flavours available to me in the temperate zone. Thanks for the olive oil pressed in the Mediterranean, bottled and shipped across the ocean. Thank you for the oats grown on domestic soil, processed and transported to my local grocery store.  Thank you for the corn syrup to sweeten the mixture and the farmers who cared for the cows that were milked. 

For the ceramic bowl and the stainless steel spoon, durable, reusable and developed by artisans in their own right, I pause to give you thanks.

Surely, this serving that I consume in less than 10 minutes required orchestration that deserves applause.  Teach me the discipline of a grateful heart.

In Jesus name,

Saturday, 23 December 2017

Christmas Inferences

 As accounts of a person's birth go, the story of Jesus contains minimal details.  Of the four gospels, two of them do not refer to the circumstances of Jesus' arrival on earth, and the two that do talk about the nativity focus on somewhat different aspects.  Due to the brevity of both accounts, we have made inferences by taking the details that are mentioned and then filling in the gaps based on our best guesses of how things must have been in those days.  Those inferences we make are based on our cultural practices as well as traditional ideas passed down over the centuries through religious songs, art and habits.  Many of these traditions are rooted in Western Europe before much archaeological study was done about the Middle East and the way of life in Palestine.  For example, the Christmas poem by Christina Rossetti entitled "A Christmas Carol" (1872) makes assumptions about the weather at the time of Jesus' birth based on the climate of the United Kingdom in December:

In the bleak mid-winter
Frosty wind made moan;
Earth stood hard as iron,
Water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow,
Snow on snow,
In the bleak mid-winter
Long ago.
Today, we are quite certain that Jesus' actual birthday was not in December.  No matter what the season, there would not have been snow and ice due to the moderate climate of Bethlehem.

The Manger

   Besides being in Bethlehem, we know very little about the place where Jesus was born.  It is stated in Luke 2:7 that "there was no room for them in the inn," so we know he was not born in a lodge or guest house.  The details that the baby was "placed in a manger" has led to an inference that most people may not realize is absent from the text.  For many, the word "manger" and "stable" are synonymous, but this deserves a second look, according to Dr. Kenneth Bailey.  This man of God passed away in 2016, but he left a significant book entitled Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes.  By living in the Middle East for forty years he became familiar with customs and practices that made him see the reference to Jesus being placed in a manger differently.

  • When we hear about an animal's feeding box, we automatically think of a barn, where animals live separately from humans.  However, Middle Eastern families in small villages shared space in their home with their small herds of sheep and goats.  Therefore, access to a manger could have been close to where people were living.  It is not inconceivable that Jesus was born in a private home that had one wing where animals could get shelter when needed.  The resourcefulness of using a manger to house a baby does not mean that there were donkeys, cattle and sheep surrounding the birthplace of the Lord.
  • Middle Eastern hospitality is extreme.  Welcoming a stranger, especially one who is about to give birth, is expected in Middle Eastern culture.  When we imagine the innkeeper offering a stable to Mary and Joseph, such a thing is unthinkable to the Palestinian person.  If the shepherds had found the infant Jesus in a place we see depicted on Christmas cards, cold and dark and smelly, they would not have left rejoicing as they did.  Instead, they would have taken Jesus to a better and proper location or petitioned home owners nearby to have compassion and welcome the holy family.  Recently, a children's Christmas play was shared in which the child playing the innkeeper breaks character and calls after Mary and Joseph, "You can have my room."  If a child would offer them her bedroom, would not someone steeped in the culture of hospitality have opened his home to those displaced because of the census?

The Magi

   While the gospel of Luke tells about humble shepherds coming to see the Christ child, Matthew's account tells of Magi from the East.  Our inferences regarding the Magi have led to fanciful speculations:
-The song "We Three Kings of Orient Are" names Melchior, Balthasar and Gaspar/Caspar, based on a traditional text dating to about 500 A.D and considers that they were kings of Persia, Arabia and India, respectively.
-Because there were three gifts, it is presumed that there were three Magi.
-Nativity scenes place the Magi around the manger with the shepherds.
-The mode of transport was by camels.

   A few corrections to these ideas can be found by better understanding the times. Magi were not royalty, but they were a class of people who were well educated and influential.  Perhaps the title of "professor" helps us better understand who they were, as this word is used in the Chinese Bible to designate these men of the East.
   Any long journeys to be undertaken by men of rank like the Magi would have involved a complete entourage of servants.  Three men travelling this distance would want others with them to provide security, food, animal care and other logistics.  They may have used camels, but we don't know for sure.
   If we believe that the Magi and the Shepherds both came to adore the infant Jesus together, we would note that Matthew 2:11 says "On coming to the house..."  Jesus was staying at a house when the Magi arrived.  As I suggested earlier, he was also likely staying at a house when the shepherds came.  
   The fact that Herod decreed that all infant boys below the age of 2 years were to be killed to ensure the baby Jesus, the one "born King of the Jews" would be among the victims seems to suggest that Jesus was no longer a newborn when the Magi came to see him.  However, the ruthlessness of Herod that is documented in other history books means it would not be surprising if he chose the round number of 2 years of age as the cut off just to be sure this threat to his throne would be disposed of.


   My notes here about the manger and the Magi are not meant to dismiss all of the traditions and songs based on questionable inferences.  However, I hope that was we read and hear the accounts from Matthew and Luke, we can remember that they happened in a time and culture different than our own.  When we read between the lines of Bible stories it is good to be informed about what the original readers would have understood by it.  I am grateful to scholars like Dr. Kenneth Bailey, Dr. Paul Maier and Joe Amaral who have most recently enlightened me in this way through their books and published interviews.

Saturday, 2 December 2017

Helping hands amid car troubles

   Last month, the minivan pictured at the right had to be sent to a place of no return--the scrap yard.  For 15 years it had been our family's single and reliable vehicle, but things began to change this fall.
   First, our garage alerted us to the fact that the frame and the body were no longer connected.  There was a serious risk that our engine could suddenly drop down, so we prepared ourselves for the inevitability of a repair estimate that would be too high and thus cause us to give up on the vehicle entirely.  To our surprise, there was a local business that did this exact repair for about $600.  During the days when we didn't feel safe driving it and while it was being repaired, kind friends of ours lent us their minivan.  That allowed me to accompany my daughter on an overnight camping trip with her environmental science class.  We are grateful.
   About ten days after the repair job, we planned to drive two hours to my husband's hometown so that we could attend a family funeral for an uncle the next morning.  On our way, we planned to stop in a nearby city and visit a member of our church who had been hospitalized there for some time.  As we neared the hospital, the car stalled without warning.  After restarting it a couple of times and limping to the hospital parking lot, we parked and the engine quit again, this time for good.  We decided to go into the hospital and visit with our acquaintance and see if things would be better when we returned to the parking lot.  We had a nice chat with her, and then went out to check on the vehicle.  Again, it would not start.  Not having cell phones, we were glad that the hospital had a pay phone in its foyer so that we could call a tow truck.  The friendly gentleman and his 9th grade son were there shortly to pick us up with enough space for the three passengers we had been traveling with.  The tow of 25 kilometres was only $120.  It was raining, so after dropping the minivan at our garage, the driver offered to bring us to our front door as well.
   During this incident, we discussed together how grateful we were that we had not headed straight for the 4-lane highway to get to my husband's home town that night.  If the minivan had quit abruptly there, we could have been hit by high speed traffic around us.  Even if we could have safely moved onto the shoulder, we would have had cars speeding past us and been at the mercy of the nearest tow truck who noticed us in distress. 
   The crank shaft sensor was the culprit for the stalling engine, and it was quickly fixed at a minimal cost.  We were hopeful that the vehicle would have a good stretch of health before the next repair, but it was not to be.  About a week later, it stranded us again in the early evening.  In this case, a friend was driving on the same road, in the opposite direction.  She noticed our distinct vehicle with its four-way flashers on and recognized my husband by his height.  She turned around and then followed us as we sputtered to a side street, where the engine completely quit. When we realized she was there behind us, we were so grateful to get a ride home, from which we could call a tow truck.
   This time, we finally saw what objectivity would have probably seen much sooner.  This vehicle was becoming a money pit, and it was time to say "Good bye" to it.
   The same couple who loaned us their minivan in October, allowed us to borrow another of their vehicles for one more week until our purchase of a Toyota compact car was finalized.  In the midst of all the car troubles, we knew that God was caring for us through circumstances and people.

Wednesday, 19 July 2017

Models of Radical Hospitality

   In the West, Hospitality has become an industry rather than a a trait of home owners.  Even though North American homes have many rooms, they are rarely made available to someone from outside. The recent trend of airbnb, by which people can share space in their homes for a fee, may be more of a manifestation of disruptive capitalism than hospitality.
   To find models of radical hospitality, opening your home to someone lacking shelter in a way that does not seek kickbacks, we must go back.  In the contexts that I share, radical hospitality was not offered by scattered individuals, but it was a community ethic, a way of life.

Abraham and three guests

   This story is told in the Hebrew Bible, Genesis chapter 18.  Three guests come to Abraham, a nomad living apart from any settlement.  The location given refers to the landmark of "great trees of Mamre."  If you read this narrative carefully, you will notice that the word "hurried" is used to describe Abraham's activity in greeting them, selecting a choice calf for dinner and instructing others to prepare meat and bread for the guests.  Whatever this elderly man had on his agenda that day was displaced by the visitors who came to him.  Caring for them with the best of what he had to offer preceded small talk; Abraham stood nearby while they ate and waited politely for them to finish before finding out the purpose of their visit.
   The welcome and hospitality he showed to these visitors was typical of the Ancient Near East. Travelers relied on residents to assist them with basics of food, water and shelter for survival;  it was understood that everyone will sometimes be in a position to receive as well as to give.  This was reciprocity extended to a wide community, paid forward because it was the right thing to do.

John Calvin's Geneva 

   At a hymn festival I attended this week in honour of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, various historical anecdotes were shared between songs.  One item mentioned that I found striking was that John Calvin fostered radical hospitality in the city of Geneva, Switzerland. For those unaware of details of Calvin's life, he was forced to flee his native France and found refuge in Geneva.  It was his adopted home, but as he found himself a religious and civic leader there, he encouraged the care and reception of refugees from all over Europe.  When single and also when married he allowed people to board in his home.  When members of his congregation were expanding their homes (often by adding another story on top of the house), it is said that Calvin encouraged them to include a bit more room for refugees to be housed.  Geneva in the 1500's was truly a haven to those displaced by religious persecution because its citizens en masse practiced radical hospitality.

Netherlands and Denmark during World War II

   Radical hospitality was apparently in the DNA of many Christian people in the Netherlands and Denmark shielded Jewish people in their homes to protect them from enemies in the Third Reich. The acts of Corrie Ten Boom and her family, popularized by the book and film The Hiding Place, were not exceptional in their minds.  Great networks existed of those willing to risk their lives to provide hospitality to the oppressed.  In Denmark, likewise, a resistance movement enabled hundreds of Jewish people to be hidden and then successfully smuggled in fishing boats to neutral Sweden until the war ended.  The crisis of the time required courageous hospitality, and many in these nations rose to this challenge.


   There are some people who still practice radical hospitality in our day.  My parents come immediately to mind.  Even though they have now downsized to a bungalow, they still have two rooms for guests.  Since their home is just steps away from a large high school, they were approached by parents of a young man wondering if their shy 9th grader could eat lunch at their home once a week for the year.  Those weekly visits filled a need for the boy and eased his transition to secondary school.
   A man in my city who has been an advocate for the poor and giving them tools to better their lives was recently featured in the newspaper for suggesting "tiny houses" might be a solution to homelessness.  One of the outreaches he oversees is a lunch cafe in which at risk individuals are trained to prepare and serve food, where the tasty vegetarian fare is affordable even to street people and where there is ample space for people to socialize, read or play a piano.  This is a way to offer radical hospitality.
   During the refugee crisis (which continues even when the news media have moved on to other stories), Pope Francis urged every Catholic parish in Europe to host a family of four as a realistic solution.  If they did this, the needs of refugees would be well provided for.  That his suggestion (and his own example of receiving displaced persons at the Vatican) was considered remarkable, shows that believers have room to grow in this area.
   May these examples inspire you to do what you can to show that you care more for others than for your own comforts. After all, that's what the Gospel's radical message entails.