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Friday, 30 March 2012

Who Needs Neighbours?

Living in a major city for the past eight years has given me a different perspective on neighbours than I had previously.  When I lived in a rural area my neighbours were farther away yet known by name.  We were aware of needs and helped one another. 
   My short street is lined with detached and semi-detached homes, but it takes considerable effort to have a conversation with the people who live inside them.  It seems that many urbanites do not feel the need to form relationships with their neighbours.  It could be that since people are so mobile it is not worth the effort to meet new people.  I wonder if another factor is a sense of self-sufficiency--if I have a problem, I can use my phone, my car, and my money to fix it.
   But I’ve also learned that this mentality is not true of everyone in a city.  One family living nearby was going through a difficult time of unemployment and came to our door regularly for food items, gas money, bus tickets and the use of our telephone.  About a month ago when a door had been left open in our van and the battery died one of our neighbours willingly gave us a boost.  Cooperation when shoveling snow after a big storm is another way that I’ve recognized that we really do need our neighbours even in the city. 
    I don’t know which side of the “need” equation I will be on next, but by greeting the people along the street and making small talk I acknowledge their worth and standing in an anonymous suburb.

Friday, 23 March 2012

Buying Hope

   I have never bought a lottery ticket.  The advertisements paint a picture of having all one’s dreams come true.  I know that the jackpots keep growing despite my failure to purchase.  I have a problem with lotteries for a number or reasons, but basically I refuse to believe that hope is something to buy or sell.
   Lotteries are not the only vendors of “hope.”  I’m beginning to see loyalty and rewards programs, even prizes printed on paper coffee cups in much the same light.  We no longer buy something for the sake of that item—we also want to buy the hope of getting something more.  Points, air miles or free gifts have become one more factor in our decisions of when and how to make purchases.  These programs feed my human tendency to desire material things and to expect things to provide for spiritual needs.

   “This is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance (and for this we labour and strive), that we have put our hope in the living God, who is the Saviour of all men, and especially of those who believe.” 1 Timothy 4:9-10

Monday, 19 March 2012

Providence Defined

   I’ve been reading a thick biography of one of my heroes, Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  This Christian pastor from Germany confronted the Nazi government and its attempts to usurp the church’s authority and remake that church in its own image.  In this book, I was startled to read that Adolf Hitler had a sense that Providence was with him when some of his evil plots were successful.  How could he use this word?  For Hitler, Providence was an impersonal force, a kind of good karma that showed him he was on the right track. 
   Biblical providence is never separated from the God who is the provider, not just of good things but also hardships.  The best explanation of providence that I know comes from a 449 year old catechism first written in Heidelberg, Germany:
Question:  What do you understand by the providence of God?
            Answer:  Providence is the almighty and ever present power of God[1] by which he upholds, as with his hand, heaven and earth and all creatures,[2] and so rules them that leaf and blade, rain and drought, fruitful and lean years, food and drink, health and sickness, prosperity and poverty--[3] all things, in fact, come to us not by chance[4] but from his fatherly hand.[5]

[1] Jeremiah 23:23, 24; Acts 17:24-28.
[2] Hebrews 1:3.
[3] Jeremiah 5:24, Acts 14: 15-17; John 9:3; Proverbs 22:2.
[4] Proverbs 16:33.
[5] Matthew 10:29

Friday, 16 March 2012

Give or Receive, Part 2

How did my grandmother manage when the war reached its height of deprivation?
     When the war was almost over, in the winter of 1945, things got much worse.  They had six children now, and six of my grandmother’s adult relatives moved in with them too.  Slowly her store of food began to shrink with more mouths to feed, and people continued to knock on the door as well.  Her husband had a business where he would often be able to swap goods and add to the food supply, but that last winter he was too ill to work.  So the food stocks could not be built up again.
     Yet the Lord always provided.   There was a kind of soup kitchen set up at the butcher shop, and each family could get cabbage soup from there according to the size of your family.  There was also an underground movement where they secretly slaughtered cows and then cooked them into a nourishing soup for the school children.  Twice a week her children were allowed to go there for a hot meal.  Her eldest son also helped a dairy farmer after school, and that farmer allowed him to pour a bit of milk into the lid of the milk can for him to drink.  In these ways they made it through that difficult winter before the liberation.
     Even in difficult times there were blessings we could give thanks for.  In her life she tried to live generously even if she didn't have much and was never put to shame.  Jesus words were real to her!

Monday, 12 March 2012

Give or Receive, Part 1

Jesus’ words are recorded in the book of Acts:  “It is more blessed to give than to receive.”  My grandmother was aware of such blessing.
     She was born in 1907 in a fishing village in the Netherlands, and there were 10 children in her family growing up.  Her own mother was good at stretching her father's small weekly salary.  There was food on the table, and they were able to stay out of debt.
     She shared with me the days of the Second World War.  She was married and had children of her own.  She kept a large pantry of supplies to look after her family, non-perishable things like dried beans, oats, barley, flour, and so on.  Because of the war, sometimes people walked from the city and knocked on strangers' doors asking for food.  When they knocked on her door, she would give them a package of oats or a bag of barley to help them out.  As the war went on, they received ration cards in order to get groceries.  She had five children at that point, so always had plenty of these cards.  Each card allowed her to get a certain food item, such as potatoes or rice.
     One time she met a woman on the train.  Her husband was in the hospital with a serious stomach problem.  The hospital food during the war was even worse than usual!  This lady said, “If only I could get some rice for him; this is just what he needs to recover.” 
     “Well,” she replied, “I have vouchers for rice, and I would like to help you with that.”  Taking them from her purse, she handed them over.  She never expected that later on her eldest son would receive a bicycle from this family.  It turns out the man who was ill owned a bike shop!
     She was sometimes more generous than her husband would have liked.  At one point he said, “Pretty soon we won't have anything for ourselves,” but she was never worried about that.

Friday, 9 March 2012

Opening the Door

I grew up in a farmhouse with an “open door policy,” thanks to my mother’s gift of hospitality.  Not only employees and delivery drivers but also stranded motorists, Jews and Greeks (who bought my parents’ furs) were invited in for coffee or Dutch soup with homemade bread, depending on the time of day.  At least one bedroom was designated a “guest room,” ready at short notice for whoever might need it.
     My parents’ openness to others has enabled me to open the door to many cultures without getting on an airplane.  Developing friendships with immigrant families from Iran, Sudan and China through the YMCA Host Program and providing space for people from as far away as Russia, India, Spain and South Korea has enriched to my world-view.  How else would I know that the division of Sudan into “Christian South” and “Muslim North” is oversimplified?  (Our friends were from the border region and despite being Muslims suffered at the hands of the Northern regime.)   How else would I overcome Western stereotypes and assumptions about other parts of the world?  Despite the potential for misunderstanding and momentary inconvenience, opening the door is a wonderful way to gain understanding of our human family.

Friday, 2 March 2012

"Adapts to new situations"

This week I completed Term 2 report cards for my class of Junior Kindergarteners.  While there are academic expectations for four year-olds, the “personal and social development” benchmarks are arguably just as important.  One category that I’ve been reflecting on is “adapts to new situations.”  Young children (and adults too) are comfortable with routines and may not adapt well when changes occur.
   I’ve been asking myself how well I adapt to new situations.  Through this self-check, I put myself in the shoes of my paternal grandmother, who was born on March 2, 1905.  At the age of 50, her husband decided their family with eight children should emigrate from Holland and go to Canada, which in Oma’s mind was “the wilderness.”  Talk about new situations--the weeklong sea voyage, a lack of English language skills, seven weeks without their belongings because their crates had been sent to the wrong town and a large draughty house that included the bachelor farmer who had hired them for the first year. 
   When I interviewed her about her life at age 88, Oma told me one more remarkable detail about their start in Canada.  The farmer who had agreed to pay them $90 per month for farm labour gave them only half that amount when my Oma asked for it.  She thought to herself that maybe he would make up for it the following month, but the same thing happened again.  A resourceful woman, she decided to ask for their pay every two weeks, and that was how they earned their full salary.
     In the same interview, she said, “I didn’t really want to go [to Canada], but slowly on I got used to the idea.”  Her adaptive qualities continued to be felt by her children and grandchildren as the years rolled on until her passing at the age of 96.  She never mastered English, but I give my Oma high marks for adjusting to change with grace and contentment.