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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.

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

A giving scale

      People give things away for various reasons.  Taking examples from donations received at food banks and thrift stores, we have a window into a few of these reasons:
  • Frank wants to be seen as doing the right thing.  When some teenagers come to the door at Hallowe'en asking for non-perishable food, he finds something in his pantry that he wouldn't eat anyway.  It might be past the "best before" date, but he doesn't bother to check.  At least he helped his neighbors, right?
  • Sam and Julie have just merged two households, and they have more than one slow cooker, two toasters, two blenders, etc.  How do they decide which one is given away?  They keep the newest or cleanest one for themselves and donate the other one to a thrift store.
  • Bill would like some positive publicity for his business, so he writes out a check for the food bank in the amount of $2,000. He wears a cap with his business name on it and invites a newspaper reporter to join him when he delivers the donation to the food bank. His picture appears in the next day's paper with the caption: "I've always believed in giving back to the community."
  • Linda is thinking about the recipient when she gives.  She has a cute jacket that her children have outgrown, so she washes it and makes sure it is in good repair.  She donates it to a thrift store, knowing another child will enjoy it.
  • Doug and Anna had a yard sale to de-clutter their garage, basement and attic in June.  The only put out things that were clean and useful.  The proceeds of the sale went to a charity.  Anything they had left from their sale was going to be taken to a thrift store.  They organized similar items into boxes and brought them to the receiving door of the thrift store, where the staff checked things over.  One box was not accepted because the thrift store already had too many Christmas decorations in storage.  Doug and Anna were fine with that and planned to donate that box in late November.
  • Dennis gets a turkey from his boss every Christmas.  They have been filling up his freezer because he doesn't actually like turkey.  Finally, he decides to take the turkeys from the past three years to the food bank.  He's glad for the extra space he now has for steaks and burgers.
  • Melissa and her family decide to give $100 worth of food to people in need.  They contact the food bank and ask which food is needed the most.  They go to the grocery store and load up their cart with $100 worth of peanut butter, which also happens to be on sale.  They carry on to the food bank to make the delivery.  They talk to the staff and greet some of the patrons while they are there.
  • Greg is overwhelmed as he tries to move all of his belongings from a house to a small apartment.  The possessions he has accumulated over the years now feel like a curse.  He sees two categories of items: 1) what he really values and wants to keep and 2) junk he has to get rid of.  Greg's municipality has a limit on the amount of garbage can be put at the curb each week, so he loads up a friend's pick up truck twice with category 2) items and leaves them at the thrift store donation area even though it's after hours.
Which donors do you most admire?  Go and do likewise.

Saturday, 8 April 2017

Inquiry and the question "What is Truth"

   Using "inquiry" as a teaching method has become trendy in recent years.  "Inquiry" in this sense means using students' questions and interests to drive instruction.  In fact, using questions to teach has been a natural part of human development.  Think of any personal experience you've had with a curious pre-schooler and the barrage of questions she asked.  The Greek philosopher Socrates used questions to teach the young people of Athens, while Jesus asked and was approached with hundreds of questions recorded in the Bible.
   One of the questions that Jesus was asked came from the Roman governor Pontius Pilate during Holy Week.  When Jesus told him that he can come into the world to testify to the truth and that "everyone on the side of truth listens" to him," Pilate asks, "What is truth?"
   We are not sure if Pilate was trying to make light of the serious topic, as in "What does truth have to do with anything?"  He may also have been moved by Jesus' succinct and non-political aims.  Either way, Pilate does not expect an answer.  In our world today people may wonder about truth but they don't expect to find it.  This is the dilemma of the agnostic.  For those who teach "inquiry" from that worldview, I imagine it must be unsettling at times to appear to be leading students to truth even when one does not believe there is any absolute truth.
   So, even though Jesus does not address Pilate's question directly, we can find 25 special declarations of truth in John's gospel that Jesus introduces with the formula "I tell you the truth" (or as we may remember from the KJV "Verily, verily, I say unto you").  Here is just a sample of things to take particular notice of:

  • Before Abraham was born, I am!
  • Everyone who sins is a slave to sin.
  • Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am my servant also will be.
  • The Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does.
  • Whoever hears my words and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life.
Something to think about: Why is truth so important?