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Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Year-end Book Review

   Booked is an unlikely title I picked up in the non-fiction section of my church library this month. Its simple title and the shadowy image of a pear on the cover did not seem especially promising. However, it brought me back to my love of English literature, both its poetry and prose, that I studied voraciously at university.  Like its author, Karen Swallow Prior, I had particular plans to go into a certain field of study (for me, political science), but the encouragement of an English professor and a recognition of the value of English as a subject led me to change those plans.
   In this work Ms. Prior traces out the real-life lessons that came to her via great works of literature, whether written for children or adults.  In the process, readers find out a good deal about how Prior's interesting life story, the literature she has studied and her Christian faith have intersected.  They will have opportunity to reflect upon the way in which key books have also influenced them.
   Even though I have read just over half of the works that Prior deals with (Charlotte's Web, Jane Eyre, Tess of the D'Urbervilles, Death of a Salesman, and all of the poets), she made the other chapters just as compelling.  On my "to read" list for 2015 I have now added Madame Bovary, Great Expectations and Gulliver's Travels.
   By understanding that old books deal with universal topics, we can continue to be enriched by them.

Tuesday, 30 December 2014

Guest Post by Lyndall: Internet Wrangling

My niece Lyndall has written this thoughtful piece about how to use the Internet responsibly.  Her title offers a helpful metaphor when dealing with something in our lives that requires us to have the kind of discipline and purpose that are also needed when herding unruly livestock. 

I struggle a lot with getting distracted online. As I write this, I’m fighting the temptation to go check Facebook. I’ll often go online for one specific thing, and before I know it I’ve gone down five different rabbit trails and spent an hour online. This has been an ongoing struggle for a number of years, but I’ve come up with a few suggestions that have helped me manage my time online. I’d like to share them with you. Now, this absolutely does not mean I have everything figured out, but I am learning.

So here are some guidelines and suggestions that I use to help manage myself online. (Note that I call them suggestions. If I call them rules, my sin nature automatically wants to disobey them. And then I’m fighting both the distraction of the internet and the sin nature, which is exhausting.)

1. Be intentional. This is what I consider the most important point. If I think about why I’m going online, and actually have a plan, I’m far less likely to get distracted and fritter away time. If I connect to the internet mindlessly, I’ll use it mindlessly. Forcing myself to think beforehand also reveals when I’m going online out of boredom or procrastination, and helps me to reconsider my decision. Go online with purpose.

2. Write a plan to keep you on track. This is closely related to being intentional. I find a list helps me to not be as easily distracted by links or scrolling through home feeds on sites like Facebook.

3. Recognize that the internet sucks energy and creativity from you. Generally, the internet takes energy rather than giving refreshment. This is not true in all circumstances, but if I am passively taking in information, or mindlessly scrolling through Pinterest, I find it has the same effect on my brain as watching TV. Also, reading articles online requires energy to process and think about what I’ve just read. This leads me to my next point. . . .

4. Go online to contribute, not consume. What is my aim for being online? Do I just want to catch up with the latest happenings on Facebook, or will I comment on other people’s pages and encourage them? Do I read this article just to add to a bunch of random facts in my brain, or will I think about it, work to understand, and contribute to my store of knowledge? Am I just collecting these craft ideas, or will I actually use them in real life? This point is related to being intentional.

5. Set certain days or times to go online. If I don’t have a certain time to go online, I’ll connect whenever the whim hits. But if I know I’m going online after supper, this gives me time to think about what to do, and compile a list. I also try to set Pinterest and Facebook days, when I allow myself to go on these websites and scroll through the home feed, and do a bit more browsing. Usually, not a whole lot has happened on the sites in the past 2-3 days since I last logged in, and I didn’t miss that much.

6. Read home feeds backwards. Pinterest and Facebook both have annoying home pages. The home feed seems infinite, like you could scroll down for days. To keep myself from scrolling for hours, I will click down a set number of clicks first (say, three), and work from that point up to the top (newest posts). As a bonus, you’re then reading things in chronological order!

7. Tell your friends and family your internet-usage plans. I’ve posted things on Facebook that say things like “For the next while, I’m only going to be on Facebook on Wednesdays and Saturdays”. Then, when I think about going on Facebook on Friday, I think, “Oh no, what if someone sees that I’m online and I’m not keeping my word”, and that helps keep me in check.

8. Set a timer, if you have to. I haven’t done this yet, since I don’t know where our timer is—but I’m sure it would be effective.

9. Don’t beat yourself up if you got distracted. Do better now.

10. Make it physically more difficult to go online. Turn off the WI-FI when it’s not in use. Log out of websites, so it’s harder to access them. I find that if I’m going on Facebook because I’m bored or lazy, then logging in can be a deterrent, or at least it makes me think about why I’m going online. Also, I changed my password to something that reminds me to use the internet intentionally.

11. Finally, and very importantly, Pray. James says, “You have not, because you ask not.” So many times I got depressed and upset that I got distracted again. But then I realized that I hadn’t asked God to help me use the internet intentionally. Try asking Him for help. It can be that simple.

Those are my suggestions. In short, Use the internet intentionally.  I’m still learning this. I hope you’ve found my suggestions helpful. What methods do you use to keep yourself focused online?

Monday, 22 December 2014

Listening to the Words

   Christmas music has been playing on the radio where I live for more than three weeks.  The station we are most likely to tune into is a local Christian one.  Not only the carols likely to be sung in church are played, but also some of the light-hearted wintery songs like "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" and "Winter Wonderland" performed by various artists on their Christmas albums.
   One apparently harmless song has also received airplay: "Do they Know it's Christmas?" by BandAid, recorded in 1984.  Originally a fundraiser for famine victims in Ethiopia, it continues to be popular at this time of year.  The song even talks about God and prayer, so why would anyone object?  The lyrics say, "Let's say a prayer/Pray for the other ones", but at the very end of that stanza we hear the callous words, "Well tonight thank God it's them instead of you."
   I must have listened to this song dozens of times over the past thirty years, but I never caught that phrase until this year.  What is this line supposed to mean?  When we hear of the misfortunes of another person, our prayers should NOT go first to gratitude that it is not us. Instead we ought to be pleading with God for that other person's relief.  It is all too common that as humans we turn this around.
   Lyricists Bob Geldof and Midge Ure who were behind the effort to raise money for famine victims did not add to compassion when they included that line.  There's no explanation in the rhyme scheme for the way they ended the second stanza.  Yes, they came up with a song that sold over 3.7 million copies (statistic from 2012) and created a foundation called "Band Aid Charitable Trust." However, the song's message (not to mention the stereotypes about Africa as a whole being a place "Where nothing ever grows/No rain nor rivers flow") has done harm.  It has reinforced the secular attitude that says "Thank God" flippantly when someone else suffers or even worse gives the impression that this is what Christians say and think in the face of suffering..

Friday, 19 December 2014

Dona Nobis Pacem

   The three Latin words Dona Nobis Pacem (give us peace) are often sung at this time of year. Choirs of children and adults utter the plea that God grant them a sense of peace.  Not just absence of war, but true harmony with the people in our lives and most of all with God Himself.  The angels message of Peace on Earth continues to be prominent in our Christmas celebrations.
   However, the first mentions of God giving peace (shalom) come well before the Christmas story. The desire for peace and wholeness has been with us a very long time, and the blessing God told Aaron and the priest to place on the people in Numbers 6:24-26 includes peace:

The LORD bless you and keep you;
The LORD make his face shine upon you and be gracious to you;
The LORD turn his face toward you and give you peace
(emphasis mine)

   As I was pondering this blessing I noticed that each of the three statements begin with "the LORD," the word for God that means he is the faithful promise keeper, the personal being "I AM."  The source of this series of blessings is important because we so often seek peace and blessing elsewhere.
   Each of the three statements contains two gifts that God is bestowing on the people, for a total of six gifts.
  • blessing (well-being)
  • keeping (preserving our lives, guarding our steps)
  • his face shining upon us (favour, like a smile that fills us with a sense of belonging)
  • grace (something we do not deserve in the least)
  • his face turned toward us (attentiveness, we are noticed, we are not just a number)
  • peace (harmony in our relationship to Him and others around us)
   One thing my grandmother used to stress about going to church, even when you might not get anything out of the sermon or even if you were a foreigner and the service was held in a language you did not know, was that at very least you would receive "the blessing" pronounced by the pastor at the closing of the service.   At the end of the liturgy I have grown up with, the Benediction is given by the pastor with upraised arms.
   Attending a church service Sunday after Sunday is a way that we ask God to "give us peace."  And when that Blessing is pronounced, we may open our hands to receive it.

Thursday, 11 December 2014


   One of the hardest things in life to deal with is lack of progress.  When the work we are doing does not seem to make any difference, we easily give way to despair.  No matter how hard we try, our efforts seem to be in vain.  I'm reminded of the punishment of the mythical character Prometheus whose daily task it was to roll a heavy boulder up a steep hill only to have it descend to the bottom again so that he could do it again.  There is also the psychological torture used in various concentration camps where workers are required to move a pile of dirt by hand one day and move it back to its starting place on the next.  The lack of progress becomes a lack of purpose.
   The other day I was heartened to read a statement of progress from of all people, philanthropist and businessman Bill Gates. We tend to think of poverty in the world as enveloping millions of people whose identities merge together into an impersonal blob.  When we receive appeals to help the poor, we may have the sense that no progress is being made.  From our perspective it seems that the same people and nations are always facing the same problems of drought, malnutrition, lack of access to clean water, and so on. What will our meagre resources do to help in this colossal task?
   The statement of progress said the following:

By almost any measure, the world is better than it has ever been. People are living longer, healthier lives. Many nations that were aid recipients are now self-sufficient. You might think that such striking progress would be widely celebrated, but in fact, Melinda and I are struck by how many people think the world is getting worse. The belief that the world can’t solve extreme poverty and disease isn’t just mistaken. It is harmful.  

  Gates then goes on to challenge three myths people believe that can slow progress in helping people escape extreme poverty.  You can read these in the 2014 Gates Annual Letter along with viewing pictures and graphs that show specific ways in which incomes, health and longevity have improved in most countries around the world.
   I do not attribute all of the progress to sheer human effort, because I know that only with God's blessing can our meagre efforts attain anything.  Neverthless, I am encouraged our global village has fewer neglected citizens.  That sense of progress makes me more hopeful and, paradoxically, more generous.

Friday, 5 December 2014

When You Can't Afford to Give

   This time of year is associated with giving.  Giving gifts to your friends and family has become an integral part of Christmas celebrations.  Charities appeal to donors to consider the needs of the less fortunate, and rightly so.  But what if a person finds him or herself in a position of being unable to give?
   This question presupposes that giving is a matter of material things.  We think that if you are poor, you can't give, but this is so wrong.  Giving has so many forms that are accessible to people of all ages and economic situations.  In fact, much can be learned from the way in which people in so-called "poor" countries give generously.
   This month I challenged myself and my family to do an intentional act of giving each day.  Most of these do not require having a bi-weekly or monthly salary.  Giving begins in the heart.  When the heart practices giving even when money is tight, that heart will be ready to give to an even greater extent when circumstances turn around.
   Check out some of the ideas we came up with:
  • Do a chore at home that is not really your job.  Do not draw attention to it.
  • Think about a duplicate of something you own and find a way to give your extra one to someone who has none.  (Inspired by John the Baptist's advice in Luke 3:11
  • Find something in your closet that you have not worn or used for 6 months or more and give it to a centre that ministers to refugees.
  • Re-gift something that you've received but do not use.
  • Gather all the change in your house.  Put it in an envelope and then leave it in the mailbox of a neighbour, who you think could use it.
  • Create a coupon offering to use a talent or ability and give it to someone else.
  • Give a little more than usual to the Sunday offering.  Think about the people who are benefiting from the offering and pray for them.
  • Spend the equivalent of what you spend on milk (or some other thing you always need in the house) on non-perishable food and donate to a food bank.
  • Give a compliment to someone you meet.
  • Call a family member or friend on the telephone who you have not seen in a while.  Listen to how their day was.  If it is a local call on your land line, it is free.
  • You have probably "stolen" a pen from a public space at least once in your life.  Plant to deliberately leave a pen somewhere that people are likely to need one.
  • Give away an orange.
  • Give a thank you note to someone who does a thankless job.
  • When you prepare a snack today, make a second one to give to a co-worker, classmate or family member.
  • Give part of your lunch break to pray for or with someone.
  • Lend a helping hand by carrying something for someone or opening a door for someone.
  • Write an encouraging Bible verse on a small card and leave it somewhere for someone to find.
  • Offer someone a ride or give someone a bus ticket.
  • Pick up two pieces of trash you see lying around indoors or outdoors and put them in the right place.
  • Lend a book you've enjoyed to someone else, and don't expect to get it back.
  • Give time to someone by playing a game or listening to a song together.
  • Scrape someone else's windshield or shovel someone else's driveway.
  • Give a music CD you've enjoyed to another person you think might also enjoy it.
  • Drop off a small care package for a person who has to work on Christmas Day (hospital, nursing home, public works)
  • Leave a box of tissues in a place where people outside of your family might need them.
  • Make a hygiene kit or two for someone in need.  Bring it to a local community centre for distribution.
  • Give away any partial gift cards you have.
  • Give a mug with a surprise inside to someone in your neighbourhood.
  • Invite someone over for lunch, dinner or dessert.
  • Make something (a card, baked goods, or a craft) and give it to someone.
  • Take a picture and send it to someone electronically or in the mail.
If you have other ideas about how to give, I'd love to hear them.

Friday, 28 November 2014

Words and Reality

   One of my high school English teachers was adamant that I take philosophy in university.  She noticed in my writing that my way of thinking would be amenable to this area of study.  The four philosophy courses I took (Introduction to Philosophy, Philosophy of Language, Asian Philosophy and Philosophy of Education) all expanded my mind and contribute to the way I "see" things around me.
   One key term that Dr. Theodore Plantinga, now deceased, impressed on his students was "reification."  It means how we can make a concept into "a real thing" by the fact that we talk about it or give it a name.  For example, the fictional sport of quidditch from the Harry Potter series of books has been "reified."  Even though it cannot actually be played in the way that Rowling envisioned it, quidditch is now a defined thing that people are able to talk about and imagine.
   When humans invent a word, it is almost as if they bring it into existence in some way.  Of course, God Himself from the beginning had this ultimate power.  By using words, He brought the universe and its component parts into existence.  He continues to bring about new realities for those who trust in Him.
   I find words so fascinating and pay attention to words in different languages.   Four non-English words come to mind as illustrations of the relationship between a word and reality.


   This Chinese character and word means "elder brother."  When I first learned that this language has a separate word for an older brother and a younger one, I was intrigued.  It tells something about the importance of age in Chinese culture. During my research I came across the suggestion that the small square (symbolic of the mouth) appears in this character (and not in that of younger brother) because the eldest male in the family would be a kind of spokesperson on behalf of the family.   This idea of designating family relationships by age also presupposes a family size larger than one or two.   As I explored further, I discovered that in Chinese, there are distinct words for aunts and uncles, depending on whether they are older or younger than your parent.  In addition, the word of aunt, uncle, grandmother and grandfather also includes the information about whether they are part of the mother or father's side of the family.  Each role in the family is valued not generically but in terms of age and the precise relationship between one nuclear family and another.


 This word belongs to a Nigerian tribal language called Tiv.  My aunt and uncle lived among these people for more than five years when I was in early childhood.  They explained to me (or at least in my presence) that when Bible translators came to this tribe, they had great difficulty because one of the key biblical concepts, love, had no equivalent in this language.  Without a word for love, how could the missionaries fully express God's character?  In the end, they combined two word to form the concept dooshima, literally "good heart."  Wherever the Scriptures referred to God's love, the idea of "good heart" was substituted.  And as the people became infused with the concept of what a "good heart" is and looks like, I am sure they could apply it to their marriages, parent-child relationships, and beyond.  


   This term appeared untranslated from Aramaic in the Latin Vulgate Bible as well as many early English Bibles because there was no equivalent word for what it is expressing.  Think of  Matthew 6:24 in the King James Version:
  “No man can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will hold to the one and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon" (emphasis mine).
   Simply translating this word into the English "money" as some more modern Bibles have done does to get at the deeper meaning of wealth and riches as a force that vies for our affections and attention as a rival to God Himself.  There is a system underlying monetary transactions and the desire for gaining more and more wealth that is insidious and warrants the separate name of mammon.


   This Japanese word/concept means waste or uselessness. [1]  Within Toyota's manufacturing plants, the word muda is used to instill in all its employees a consciousness of waste  The company wants to avoid any waste that comes as a result of overproduction, unnecessary transportation, defects, waiting, and so on.  Not only is muda avoided in the production of a vehicle, the plant I visited in Cambridge, Ontario has made the notable achievement of producing zero land-fill waste.  Products are recycled and reprocessed, with labelled bins all around the plant.  Biodegradable cutlery and plates are used in its cafeteria.  This one word is the basis for an ethos of stewardship for all kinds of resources, human and material.

   Even though I do not speak Mandarin, Tiv, Aramaic or Japanese, I am grateful that they have words for certain ideas so that they can be discussed and thus become a part of reality.

[1] http://www.thetoyotasystem.com/ explains this part of the car company's way of doing things.

Friday, 21 November 2014

A Different Kind of Gift Catalogue

From World Vision.ca
   Christmas Gift Catalogues began arriving in my mailbox a few weeks ago, from various charitable organizations that seek to empower the needy around the world.  As I was paging through them, I was thinking about the types of gifts that can be purchased.  I realized that most of them are gifts that continue to generate resources rather than drain one's resources.  For example, a fruit tree will result in the growth of fruit for many years to come, with some care. The gift of a sewing machine, likewise, can be used to make useful products and provide an income for its recipient.
   I wonder if this quality of being generative is overlooked in the gifts we choose to give in North America.  In fact, so many of the gifts people consider desirable have the opposite quality.  For instance, a cellular phone continues to consume one's resources after the purchase price has been paid.  I marvel at the expense of monthly plans that people put into their budgets as a given!  Vehicles and battery-operated toys also continue to require money to keep them going.  Finally, hand-held devices that supply the user with portable music need to be refreshed with new tunes as the owner gets tired of the old ones from six months ago.
   So, for what it's worth, I came up with a list of gifts for children that could be considered generative in a North American context.  They ask the recipient to be active instead of passive.  They open up possibilities for the receiver to pass something on through learning, cooperation, an act of service or earning money.

  • a snow shovel 
  • a woodworking tool
  • vegetable seeds, potting soil, gardening tools and/or space for a garden
  • a piggy bank
  • enrollment fee for a babysitting course
  • a bicycle, new or used
  • "How to" books: cooking, crafts, repairs, building, card making
  • a musical instrument
  • games that require more than one player
  • music lessons
  • kitchen tools
  • any uplifting book that is age appropriate
  • sports equipment
  • building toys, like LEGO®
  • sketch book, drawing pencils 
  • a journal to write in 
  • knitting needles or a crochet hook with yarn
  • supplies to make jewelry, cards or art
   I know that not every gift we give needs to be generative, but it is good to at least think about the short and long-term impact of our presents.

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

The Link between Grace and Hope

   You might recall that in January I determined that the theme of 2014 for me would be "Hope."  I did not mean "hope" in the weak and half-hearted way it is often used in conversation, "I hope you actually listen to me this time."  No, the hope I am talking about is strong and based on truth upon which you can build your daily life.
   I've been thinking about this lately: true hope is linked to grace.  Let me give you a couple of examples:

Isaiah 40

   I appreciate the oratorio Messiah by G.F. Handel.  I begins with a number of pieces taken from the text of Isaiah 40.  Its first words are "Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, says your God.  Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned..."
   In this passage, God is speaking to a people who are being sent into exile for their acts of disobedience.  According to John Calvin's commentary on Isaiah 40:1, the verb "says" ought to be rendered "will say."  In other words, despite the difficulties and trials that the people will experience, God will speak comfort to them.  A time will come when they can make a new start.  God will forgive them and give them a true hope to rely upon.
   As readers of this passage so many centuries later, we are the recipients of this grace today, not in some future time.  This opportunity to be forgiven and given a second chance is here for us right now. It enables us to walk in hope.

The Butterfly Circus 

   This short film illustrates the link between grace and hope in a powerful way.  A character named Will is treated as a freak in a circus sideshow; the showman introduces him as "a man who God Himself has turned his back upon."  Will has no limbs (and is played by Nick Vujicic) and is treated as an undeserving excuse for a human being.  Will despairs that this is the only life for him, to be gawked at and to be attacked with rotten fruit because he can do nothing to defend himself.
New born butterfly, Aug. 2014
   But then Mr. Mendez, a person of grace, enters the story.  He comes close to Will and says just three words directly to him, "You are magnificent."  Will reacts by spitting in his face.  However, Mr. Mendez takes the blame on himself and withdraws to his own circus, one that sees the ability of each performer.
   As the story unfolds, Will becomes open to the possibility of hope and leaves the place where he is being exploited.
   Where the harsh, merit-based way of thinking takes special note of how persons do not measure up to strict standards, grace sees intrinsic value, possibilities and a new beginning.  Those who have been shown such grace need to extend it to others, sharing with them the basis for true hope.

Saturday, 15 November 2014

Providential Songs

  Providence does not always involve something physical, like food or clothing.  The greatest incidents of providence in our lives may be when a word of comfort comes to us that we really need at that moment.  It may come through a Scripture passage, the words of a friend or the words of a song.

I Lift My Hands

   When my sister’s husband was in the hospital due to a serious accident, a certain Christian song by Chris Tomlin seemed to be playing whenever she was driving to visit him.  It seemed as though the words were aimed exactly at her need.  The first part of “I Lift My Hands” goes like this:

Be still, there is a healer
His love is deeper than the sea
His mercy, it is unfailing
His arms are a fortress for the weak

Let faith arise
Let faith arise

I lift my hands to believe again
You are my refuge, You are my strength
As I pour out my heart, these things I remember
You are faithful, God, forever

Cry out to Jesus

   Another true story of an occasion when a song spoke just the words a person needed to hear is explained in Third Day's song "I Need a Miracle." A man in desperation planned to take his own life, but a song on the radio made all the difference.  The elderly parents of the man who experienced this incident came to a Third Day concert and told the band members that it was, in fact, their song "Cry out to Jesus" that God used to bring comfort and new hope to their son.

He lost his job and all he had in the fall of '09
Now he feared the worst, that he would lose his children and his wife
So he drove down deep into the woods and thought he'd end it all
And prayed, "Lord above, I need a miracle"


He turned on the radio to hear a song for the last time
He didn't know what he was looking for, or even what he'd find
The song he heard gave him hope and strength to carry on
And on that night they found a miracle
They found a miracle

How Firm a Foundation

   Finally, a song that touched me when I was at an evening church service during college was "How Firm a Foundation."  I found that I could not really get out the words because at that moment the words were as the voice of God speaking directly to my heart.  It dealt personally with a struggle I was having about whether God was really enough and how much he really cared.

How firm a foundation, you saints of the Lord,
Is laid for your faith in his excellent Word!
What more can He say than to you He has said,
To you who for refuge to Jesus have fled?

"When through the deep waters I call you to go,
The rivers of sorrow shall not overflow,
For I will be with you in trouble to bless
And sanctify to you your deepest distress."

Is there a song that has particularly touched you when you most needed it?  Please leave a comment.  Anonymous comments are an option.

Monday, 10 November 2014

First Sermon

   On the weekend I was going through some of my old papers and came across a handwritten sermon that I wrote fourteen years ago, when my firstborn was less than two years old.  Actually, it's not really a sermon.  It was a "talk" to be given at a hospital chapel service.  My mother-in-law was organizing the service and the pastor who usually did this part of the service had a conflict and could not be there.  With some trepidation I gathered together some thoughts on prayer and put them down on paper.  What made my delivery all the more intense was the fact that the pastor actually showed up expecting to give the message and he listened along with the frail hospital guests!  It remains relevant all these years later, so I offer it for consideration here.

   I'd like to talk to you for a few minutes about prayer.  I've been thinking about how we learn to pray and why we pray.
   I brought my son along with me, and he is almost two years old.  My husband and I have been teaching him to pray since he could sit up in a high chair.  Before he would eat the first bite of food, we would say a simple prayer of blessing, helping him to fold his hands and especially emphasizing the word "Amen."  Today these mealtime prayers are part of his pattern of life.  He often has his hand fold before we do and says, "Pray now?"  He can say many of the words by himself.  He also now prays before going to bed at night.  Prayer is something ordinary and common throughout the day for him.
   Many of you may remember a parent or grandparent or Sunday School teacher teaching you to pray simple prayers--grace before meals, and later, perhaps, the Lord's Prayer.  But is prayer just for children?  When children are very young, prayer seems to be natural for them.  Their eyes are wide with amazement at the snowflakes falling or at the twitching nose of a live rabbit.  They are awestruck at the beauties of creation when we adults are so used to them that we stop noticing them or thanking God for them.
  Sometimes we may think that prayer is something we outgrow, something we leave behind like the training wheels when we can ride a big bike.  As we get older we think we can manage on our own and we don't need to pray to God anymore.
   But the lesson I want to teach my son today and for the rest of his life on earth is that we are dependent on God.  Prayer is a realization of this dependence, for we thank God for things we never knew we needed--2000 years ago He sent His son Jesus to earth to rescue us from our evil thoughts and words and deeds.  We were not alive then, but God was thinking of us in His amazing love when He did this.
   We thank God for the sun, which begins each new day.  We have no power to make it shine, but He made it to give light and warmth and even to produce the food we eat.
   We thank God for each breath.  We do not have to think about breathing most of the time, but it continues because of how God designed our brains to work autonomously.
   We are dependent upon God in too many ways to list them all.  Even when we are young and strong, earning plenty of money and seemingly controlling our own destiny, we still need God and we still need to pray.
freerange stock photo
   Maybe you continue the childhood pattern of prayer today and reap its blessings.  But if not, it is never too late to start praying or to start praying again.  God is real and close by.  He loves us and wants to hear about our joys, our struggles and our needs. Not only does he have a listening ear, He has the power to do something about our struggles and pain.  But we do have to ask him.  We need to depend on Him, not on ourselves.
   There is a true story in the Bible, the book of Truth, about a very evil man.  This man was so band that he was condemned to be killed for his crimes of robbery.  As he was nearing the end of his life, he realized that the man being executed beside him was a holy man.  He realized as others insulted this man named Jesus that Jesus was really a king.  He said with simple trust and without knowing very much about God or the Bible, "Lord, remember me when you come into your Kingdom."  He prayed only one sentence, and this thief was told, "Today you will be with me in paradise."
   Even if you don't know all the answers, even if you have done things you wish you could change, even if you have lived most of your life depending on yourself instead of on God, it is not too late to pray. Speak to God in your own words and He will hear and answer your prayer of faith.

Saturday, 8 November 2014

Words of Love and Duty: Remembering Oma (Nov 22, 1907-Nov 8, 2003)

   Eleven years ago today my Oma on my mom's side went to be with the Lord.  I'm not always a date-conscious person but this morning I woke up thinking of my Oma.  She, along with her husband, raised ten children and all of them are still living today.
   My aunts and uncles were reminiscing with each other via email regarding some of things they can still "hear" her say as they go about their daily lives.  Some of these proverbs have surely been passed on to their children, prefaced by, "Oma used to say..."  From their amalgamated lists of memorable sayings, I selected four of them, which are related by the theme of love and duty.  Since they are being presented in translation from Dutch, please bear with me.

 "What you do in order to help out today becomes your job tomorrow"
This was a warning to be careful what we take upon ourselves.  These tasks could become permanently assigned to us. She probably spoke from experience, especially growing up in a culture where honour and doing your duty were highly valued.  If you refused to follow through with your duties, you could experience a sense of shame.

"You can still do this for your mother"
This was a prompt to recognize that the relationships and things we take for granted are temporary. Whatever unwelcome chore was being urged on the child was reframed as an opportunity to serve the one who brought you into the world and who someday will not be there anymore.

"Later on you will regret it, and then you won't be able to do it anymore"
My Oma's life experience taught her to seize moments and opportunities in order to minimize later regrets.  The awful thing about regrets is that it is too late to make them right.  Better to live in such a way that we avoid them all together.

"The place where love dwells is where the Lord sends his blessing"
She had an awareness that love and blessing were connected.  Her home and the atmosphere around the table when I would go to visit exuded love and acceptance.  I had a sense of being blessed by being in her presence, because the Lord was her source.

Perhaps there's a word of wisdom from one of your forbears you'd like to share as a comment. 

Monday, 3 November 2014

St. Peter's Fish

Our fish ready to go back to church
   An orange fish with a coin slot at the top "lived" at my house for two weeks.  It was part of a North American campaign for the Christian Reformed Church that has been raising funds to relieve world hunger since 1979.  We were encouraged to fill it up and return it to church on November 2nd.  Cheques and bills were also welcome but in envelopes rather than in the coin bank.
   As we read specially written devotions around the table with our children, the question came up, "How did the idea of Peter Fish come to be associated with this world hunger offering?" Nineteen years ago the plastic fish banks were introduced to add something visual and fun to this worthy "World Hunger Offering."  Along with the fish was the Chinese proverb, "If you give someone a fish, they eat for a day.  If you teach them to fish, they'll eat for a lifetime."  The philosophy of this world hunger program has always been more about equipping people to grow their own food than it has been about hand-outs.
   But there is a further connection between money and "Peter Fish" that gave me pause to think this past week.  In an obscure passage in Matthew 17: 24-27, Jesus told Peter to go out and catch a fish so that they could pay the temple tax that was required of them.  It was not so that Peter could sell the fish, as he had would have done in his career as a fisherman.  Instead, the fish he caught had a four drachma coin in its mouth, the exact amount needed to pay the tax.  According to a book entitled Customs and Manners of Bible Times (1987) by Ralph Gower, the type of fish Peter caught is known as a tilapa fish or nicknamed "St. Peter's Fish."  It has the curious behaviour of carrying its eggs and later the hatchlings in its mouth. As the fish grow, the babies will venture out but still return to the safety of the mother's mouth.  However, when the mother fish wants to keep the young from coming back into her mouth, she picks up an object (preferably a bright one) [1] to indicate "no room."
   Some may say that knowing this information about the tilapa fish makes the whole story of Peter's finding the coin in its mouth less miraculous.  For me, it tells me something about the foresight of God.  Knowing from all eternity that Peter and Jesus would need this particular coin, he designed a type of fish to live in the Sea of Galilee that would be inclined to find and hold a bright object in its mouth. The original creation had no currency or coinage, but God knew that people would use the metallic resources in the earth to stamp into things of value that we would exchange for goods and services.  Not only that, God provided for our family in such a way that we could fill two fish and also write a cheque to help meet a great need in our world.  Praise God from whom all blessings flow!

[1] Gower, page 131.

Friday, 31 October 2014

Guest Post by Lori: Find a Penny

  This post comes from someone I have never met, whose name is Lori.  She writes a blog entitled Hope Feathers, which is filled with insights about daily life, faith and hope.  Lori lives in Maryland, is married and has three daughters.  She has been a teacher and still works at a school, but not in the classroom.  She graciously gave me permission to include this piece that she entitled "Find a Penny."

Photo courtesy of Hope Feathers

If you know me well, you know that if I find a penny on the ground, I will hand it to you and say, “Don’t forget. God provides.”

You might be tempted to look at me out of the corner of your eye with that “OK, thanks, I guess. What happened to the traditional, ‘Find a penny, pick it up, all day long you’ll have good luck’ rhyme?”

When I was in college, I attended a women’s bible study led by an authentic, compassionate woman who loved teaching about the Lord. She felt such a calling to teach and lead women that she left her job to start a women’s ministry in Nashville. She spoke about the risk involved in this decision  especially in terms of a regular paycheck. Some months she wasn’t sure if there would be enough money to pay all of her bills, but week after week, month after month, there was always enough.  She still experienced days of worry when she questioned her decision and wondered if she was doing the right thing. One day in particular, she felt especially hopeless. As she tried to convince herself that a 9-5 job would be so much easier, she looked down and spotted a penny on the ground. As she bent down to pick up the coin, she heard in her head, “God provides.” She shook her head and walked to her apartment.  Waiting at her door was a bag full of groceries and a note of encouragement from a woman she hardly knew. A note was attached:, “I hope you don’t think this is strange, but I was at the store and felt like I should share these groceries with you for some reason…”

And so it began. Coins became a great reminder that God would help if she continued to trust Him. This didn’t mean that she would have all of the material things she could ever want. It didn’t mean she would never wonder about how she would pay her bills, but over and over again, she saw the truth in those two words, and she began to trust that God would provide for her.

I watched firsthand what it looked like for someone else to trust God and to see Him provide in ways that I never imagined possible. Every time I spotted a coin, I  reminded myself that “God provides.” My girls roll their eyes a bit whenever we are walking in the street, and I find a dime.

I gleefully do a little dance (for their benefit of course) and as I hand one of them the coin, I say, “Girls, you know what this means!”

They respond in that “WE KNOW, MOM” voice and indulge me a bit with “God provides,” but they giggle a little too, and they are also learning that it’s true. Not that God provides everything they want, but He will give them what they need.

We have seen it on the days when everything happened just like we hoped, but we have also seen it during times of struggle, days of uncertainty, and moments of loss. Even in seasons when we looked at each other through our tears and wondered about unexplainable suffering in the lives of those we love, we have been comforted by countless stories of God being close in the darkest moments.

Hoping the next time you find a penny, you might be reminded of something more than luck.

Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Two Men Named Saul: A Study in Humility

"I believe that the first test of a great man is his humility. I don't mean by humility, doubt of his power. But really great men have a curious feeling that the greatness is not of them, but through them."
~John Ruskin, British writer 1819-1900

photo from http://www.lawrencewilson.com/how-to-be-humble/
The first man named Saul we meet in the Bible is taken aback when the prophet Samuel addresses him as the first king of Israel, and one on whom the hopes of the nation are set.  He says in 1 Samuel 9:21, "But am I not a Benjamite from the smallest tribe of Israel, and is not my clan the least of all the clans of the tribe of Benjamin? Why do you say such a thing to me?"  Saul passes this initial test.  He has no ambitions to become king or even be a leader among Israel.  He saw his own weakness, not his height (he was a head taller than his peers) or impressiveness.

   We know what happened to Saul and that somewhere along the line he began to feel entitled and grasped his position with such fierceness that he feared rivals, including his son-in-law.  Taking 3,000 soldiers with him he pursues David relentlessly.
   A second Saul of the tribe of Benjamin becomes part of God's story in the book of Acts.  His initial demeanour is proud and hard-nosed--a Pharisee who shunned others for being less righteous than himself.  He takes a delegation to the Damascus synagogue in order to arrest followers of Jesus.  
   However, God humbles him on the road, causing him to become blind and helpless.  When he regains his sight he becomes a new man, one who is ready to be an ambassador for Christ to the far reaches of the Roman Empire and among non-Jews.
   Saul is renamed Paul (meaning "little") even as he takes the lead in missionary journeys with Barnabas and later with Silas and Luke.  He receives a thorn in the flesh that further reminds Saul of his weakness.  His missionary achievements and his visions of heaven do not make him proud.
   By God's grace, Paul passed the test of a great man to the end, even though he would have failed it at the beginning.
   Wherever God has placed us in some level of authority (as a parent, in our workplaces, church work, etc.), we need to retain that "curious feeling that the greatness" is not of us.  God is the source, so a posture of submission to him is fitting for all leaders.

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Antidote for Envy

   In my last post I reflected on the destructiveness of envy, but I did not want to just leave it there. What can we do when we are tempted to envy?  How can we extricate ourselves from this "green eyed monster"? [1]
   Since envy is self-focused, one important way to avoid it is to be God-focused.  A wonderful example of this comes in the biblical story of John the Baptizer.  At first he had been very popular, with crowds gathering at the riverbanks where John cried out for the people to change their ways. He encouraged people to be baptized to show they were ready to live a new life devoted to God. However, Jesus comes along and John's following shrinks dramatically.  Others tell John, "Rabbi, that man who was with you on the other side of the Jordan...well, he is baptizing, and everyone is going to him."
   John is not offended by the popularity of Jesus because he recognizes that "A man can receive only what is given him from heaven." [2] In other words, God is the one who determines what any person has, whether talents, intellect, wealth, possessions, status or anything else.  When we hold a grudge against someone for something he or she has simply because we ourselves do not have it, we show a subtle resentment towards God.  John is content with his role as the one who prepared people's hearts for the Messiah, and he now steps into the background.
   We befuddle ourselves by begrudging what God has given to someone else.  We have to trust God to hold these individuals accountable for how they use what has been given to them.  Those who have more of anything will be judged by God, not us, as to how they used or abused those things.  It is not our business.
   Jesus makes this truth clear in one of his last conversations with his disciple Peter, in John chapter 21. Peter has just been given a glimpse of his future and how he will suffer for the name of Jesus.  He then points to another disciple and asks, "Lord, what about him?"  Jesus redirects Peter's attention with, "[W]hat is that to you?  You must follow me."  It is not our job to see what everyone else is doing or what they have.  It is our job to follow the Master.  He will give us the strength to do it!

[1] In Shakespeare's play Othello, envy is described in this way.
[2] John 3:27, NIV

Saturday, 18 October 2014

The Poison of Envy

   The word envy has an interesting back story in English.  It comes from the Latin "in" + "videre", meaning literally "to see into."  In the seeing, hostility rises within a person because what he sees is not within his grasp.  Envy comes to us not through the sense of smell, hearing, taste or touch.  It comes by a twisting of the sense of sight.
   So much beauty comes to us through the windows of our eyes, but the envious person is not inclined to give thanks for it when it belongs to someone else.  Envy can also make it impossible to look into the eyes of that rival with anything other than hatred and anger.
   An illustration of the self-destructiveness of envy comes by way of pastor and writer Thomas Lindberg:

Two shopkeepers were bitter rivals. Their stores were directly across the street from each other, and they would spend each day keeping track of each other's business. If one got a customer, he would smile in triumph at his rival.
One night an angel appeared to one of the shopkeepers in a dream and said, "I will give you anything you ask, but whatever you receive, your competitor will receive twice as much. Would you be rich? You can be very rich, but he will be twice as wealthy. Do you wish to live a long and healthy life? You can, but his life will be longer and healthier. What is your desire?"
The man frowned, thought for a moment, and then said, "Here is my request: Strike me blind in one eye!"

   Envy can be fed and nursed so that it dominates one's entire life.  The same is true of many sins that separate us from the goodness of God and those around us.  I am reminded of a passage in C.S. Lewis' children's book Magician's Nephew.  The magician in this story is Uncle Andrew, who has immersed himself in magic for evil purposes, using children to test his theories about other worlds. His ingrained selfishness makes him unable to receive and recognize the greatest goodness that Aslan, the lion, would offer him.  Aslan remarks, "But I cannot tell that to this old sinner, and I cannot comfort him either; he has made himself unable to hear my voice. If I spoke to him, he would hear only growlings and roarings. Oh, Adam's son, how cleverly you defend yourself against all that might do you good!"
   When we pervert the gift of sight into an opportunity to begrudge others the things that God has allowed them to have, we drink the poison of envy.  It hurts us more than anyone else.

Thursday, 16 October 2014

Dessert for Breakfast

   An episode of the audio drama "Adventures in Odyssey" contains the funny incident in which a man has been locked out of his own house because of an argument with his wife.  He seeks shelter next door and is welcomed inside by a family in a flurry of activity, trying to leave for church on time for a change.  The mother of the family offers this visitor breakfast with the stipulation that he help himself to whatever he might like.  Unfortunately for the family, this man decides to cut a piece of cheesecake as a topping for a bowl of cereal before she can utter, "Except the cheesecake."
   We instinctively know that desserts, rich in sugar and fat, are not the best way to start the day. What we eat for breakfast ought to be more healthy.  If we are honest, we would also say that sugary and fat-laden desserts are not the best way to end the day either.
   That's why 90% of the time the things I serve for dessert would also be acceptable for my family to eat for breakfast, if there are leftovers.  Here is my "Top Ten" list of dessert-breakfast crossover foods:

  • home made muffins with fruit (applesauce, blueberries, bananas or cranberries)
  • yogurt with fruit
  • yogurt with granola
  • pudding
  • fruit salad
  • oatmeal cookies
  • brownies made with black beans and whole wheat flour
  • apple crisp
  • yogurt and fruit smoothie
  • home made applesauce

Would you ever eat leftover dessert for breakfast?


Friday, 10 October 2014

Open Dialogue

   Where in our society is it possible to have open dialogue about faith?  I really wonder sometimes. Despite the rhetoric of accepting all people and practicing tolerance, what seems to be happening is that we don't talk about faith at all.  For fear of offending someone, we say nothing.  We pretend that faith does not matter to society at large because it is a private belief.  
   This situation is not necessarily new.  When I attended teacher's college in North Bay, Ontario, I did not know anyone.  Of course, when you meet someone new you might not automatically start talking about your most deeply held beliefs.  Nevertheless, I felt as though there was a conspiracy of silence about anything related to faith.  It took months before I found out for sure that there were other Christians in my program. Everyone seemed reluctant to disclose, including me.
   A few years ago a mainstream author who writes books for older children and young adults came to speak and share at the Christian school where I teach.  I was struck by something he said to me privately before the group session began.  He said he felt more freedom to speak at our school than he did at public schools.  This gentleman has visited hundreds of schools.  Why would he say such a thing?  It is totally the opposite of what someone outside looking in would think.  The Christian school does not have to be a place where faith is shoved down anyone's throat.  Rather, because it is a place where faith is affirmed as a natural part of everyday life, it can be OK to talk about the full range of human experience.  People are not so easily offended by differences of opinion; there is room to debate.
   This week I was taking Day 2 of a Health and Safety certification course in a city about 45 kilometres away. I carpooled with another participant, whom I met the previous week.  On our two hour round-trip we had respectful and open conversations about a variety of topics that were all related to faith.  She practices Judaism, but because we both were up front about where we were coming from, we could appreciate each other's experience and opinions.  She expressed frustration that whenever she has been invited to share in her child's public school about a Jewish holiday, the things she felt free to talk about were the surface and cultural aspects of the holiday, rather than the actual meaning of the holiday itself.
   Everyone is guided by some kind of faith, even humanists whose faith is placed in themselves and human abilities.  When faith is acknowledged instead of ignored in schools, children can learn how to express themselves without offending and to ask the big questions they long to hear answered.

Tuesday, 7 October 2014

31 Days: a Discipline and a Joy

   One of the bloggers I follow mentioned at the end of September that she would take part in a "31 Days" challenge.  She would write and post a blog every day in the month of October.  She shared the website that originated this challenge and encouraged others to join her in this.
   I did go to that website and explored what it was all about, but in the end I decided it was not for me, not this year.  However, it set me on a slightly different 31 Day challenge.  During the month of September my times of reading and meditating on God's Word were inconsistent.  I could blame the adjustment to my new job responsibilities and balancing all my roles at home and in the community, but instead I blame my lack of discipline.
   I have set a goal for the month of October to read one chapter of the book of 1 Samuel (chosen because it has exactly 31 chapters) and then write in my journal about one nugget in that chapter that especially struck me.  It was not about posting all of these reflections publicly but re-learning a daily discipline in my spiritual walk.  That being said, I would like to share the nugget from Day 3.

1 Samuel 3 Verse 19

"The LORD was with Samuel as he grew up, and he let none of his words fall to the ground."


   The phrase "The LORD was with" appears in different parts of the Bible, in reference to Joseph (sold into slavery by his brothers),  Moses and Joshua (leaders of the Israelites).  That word "with" is such a common word that we can quickly gloss over it.  We would hardly say that this preposition is a key word in the verse, but it actually is important.  Writer Marilyn Chandler McEntyre states about any preposition "we love [it] for its startling power to affirm and reframe relationships" [1].  The fact that God is "with" a person tells us that He cares to come alongside us despite the fact that we are imperfect and weak.  The notion that God is "with" us is further elaborated in the very name "Immanuel" by which Jesus came to be "God with us" is a fuller and more tangible way.
   The second half of the verse is also remarkable.  God let none of Samuel's words fall to the ground.  None.  There is consistency of character in this servant of God.  He was a steady leader that all Israel could count on.  The expression "fall to the ground" reminds me that when things fall to the ground, they are not valued, they get lost and forgotten.  They may be trampled or destroyed.  They surely will bet wet, dirty or tarnished.  The ground is not a place we put items we care about.  In contrast Samuel's words were heeded, upheld, sustained, able to be used and not wasted.
   May it be that my words and meditations not fall to the ground, not because I am so eloquent but because I strive to be in tune with the LORD.  Amen. 

[1] From her book Caring for Words, page 36.

Monday, 29 September 2014

Publishing Doubts

   Over the past few decades a new genre of books has come to the forefront.  Not only are there personal accounts of high profile atheists who have turned to faith.  Seemingly trying to counter them are accounts of high profile Christian pastors and teachers, who have rejected their previous beliefs and embraced at least a departure of from the historic Christian faith or atheism.  Just a few examples of the latter are Charles Templeton's Farewell to God (1996), John W. Loftus' why i became an ATHEIST (2008) (this is how the title is actually written), and John Suk's Not Sure (2011).
   As a proponent of freedom of speech, I would defend the right of any of these people to share their thoughts and ideas with whomever wishes to read them.  However, I do wonder if our post-modern quest for authenticity and individual enlightenment has fueled something less than wise.  When a person holds a position of trust and authority, that influence is a powerful force for good or ill.  Long ago the psalm writer Asaph recognized this fact. [1]  He was an older man who experienced a period of time of doubt and oppression in which he recalled, "I envied the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked" (Psalm 73:3).  He points out that if he had given voice to these doubts and his sense that his obedience to God was a waste of time, he would have betrayed God's "children" (verse 15). The musicians in the former Christian RAP trio DC Talk, aware of their influence, asked in one of their songs, "What if I stumble, what if I fall, what if I lose my step and make fools of us all..." (1995).  They felt that responsibility to uphold the faith even when they may have had personal doubts from time to time.
   I think Asaph had it right.  He "entered the sanctuary of God" and began to look at life from a God-centred perspective.  He was able to overcame his doubts and fears.  After he escaped from the trap of faulty thinking, he could share the story with those around him and actually strengthen the faith of God's children in the process.
   While it is good to be honest with our children or those at an earlier stage in their faith walk, it would be wise to be selective in the things we share about our doubts.  Bring the doubts to someone mature in the faith who can walk through them with you, not those whose faith could be destroyed by your questions.  One drawback of online interactions, I think, is that some things better kept in a private journal are shared with "the world."  That includes some of the bumps in the road we face. Patiently trust God to work through these things and in the end you will have a story to tell that builds up rather than tearing down.

[1]Appreciation goes to Rev. B. De Jonge who eloquently spoke about Psalm 73 on the evening of September 28, 2014.

Friday, 26 September 2014

Product Assessments

   While I try to prepare most of my food from scratch, there are some things that are not realistic to produce in a home kitchen.  I'd like to share three prepared food products that make sense to me and end with a bit of a rant about one product that makes no sense.

Product Endorsements

    This relatively new product combines peanut butter with chocolate.  I will admit that one of my favourite combinations on two slices of bread is one side peanut butter and one side chocolate/hazelnut spread.  Two problems I was having with the most popular chocolate/hazelnut spread were that it was imported from Italy and that it contained palm oil, a type of oil that causes much harm to people and the natural environment as it is extracted from oil palm trees.  The good news about Kraft "Peanut Butter with Chocolate" is that it is free of palm oil and is made right here in Canada.  Its sugar and saturated fat content is about half that of the leading chocolate/hazelnut spread and it has twice the fibre.  I do not always have this product in the house, but when I do I feel good about eating it.

   For breakfast I'm inclined to eat oatmeal porridge prepared with pieces of dried apricot, as my husband has perfected the recipe over the years, but when I want a dry cereal only two of them meet my standards.  One is Post Shredded Wheat, original version, because of its short ingredient list--just Canadian whole grain wheat.  Most cereals are so sugar coated and artificial tasting, in my opinion. Surprisingly, the Post cereal company started out in the 1890's by manufacturing hand-operated machines they hoped to sell for household use. Only later did they begin to market their shredded wheat biscuit as a ready-made product to sell in stay-fresh packages. [1]

   The second type of dry cereal that qualifies as nutritious and worthwhile is Weetabix.  It used to be imported from Great Britain until it began to be produced in Cobourg, Ontario, Canada several decades ago.  Its short ingredient list (four items) and its judicious use of organic cane syrup are in its favour.  Furthermore, it sources its wheat from within 50 kilometres of its plant and thus shows a commitment to sustainable practices.


   One product that makes no sense to me is one I see regularly in student lunch boxes AND classroom trash bins.  Fruit in squeeze pouches smacks of over-packaging and waste.  The lids, when removed, are a choking hazard for young children and it's questionable whether they can be recycled at all.  A percentage of the contents of the squeeze package can never be eaten because it adheres to the sides of the package or the eater is lazy about emptying the pouch.  In the quest for designing "healthy" fast food snacks that do not need a spoon to eat, we have compromised too much.

[1] This information came from the following website http://postfoods.ca/our-brands/post-shredded-wheat/our-story/

Please leave a comment with a product you either particularly like or particularly dislike.

Friday, 19 September 2014

Not A Waste: The Short Life of Keith Green

Cover of songbook
   Keith Green was born in 1953 in New York City; from a very early age he showed much musical promise.  He had perfect pitch at the age of two, could play the ukulele at age five, played guitar and piano, wrote his own songs and signed a recording contract when he was just eleven years old.
   In those days record companies did not know how to market young musicians, and this led to some disappointment for Keith as a teenager.  He ran away from home and explored all kinds of spiritual avenues to make sense of life.
   In 1975, he embraced faith in Jesus Christ and began writing music to reflect this new beginning in his life.  His passionate plea to whomever was in the audience was to live for God wholeheartedly. In the years following his conversion, Keith Green released five albums.  He was not interested in making money but gave away his music and made his concerts free (a free will offering was taken). That attitude of ministry included opening his home to people trying to turn their lives around such that it was nicknamed "the Greenhouse," a protected place where growth could occur.  Along with his wife, they also produced literature and began an organization called Last Days Ministries.
   Keith Green's life on this earth was brought to a sudden halt by a plane crash in 1982, which also claimed the lives of two of his children.  He was only 28 years old at the time.
   Although he died over thirty years ago, his influence lives on and many of his words remain prophetic.  Even then, some of the music known as "Christian contemporary" did not seem to line up with Jesus' way of doing things.  I leave for your consideration a paragraph from a pamphlet he wrote entitled "Can God Use Rock Music?":

    It isn't the beat that offends me, nor the volume - It's the spirit. It's the "Look at me!" attitude I have seen in concert after concert, and the "Can't you see we're as good as the world?" syndrome I have heard on record after record. Jesus doesn't want us to be as good as the world, He wants us to be better! And that doesn't mean excelling them in sound, style, or talent - it means surpassing them in value - in our motives for being up there on stage, in our reasons for singing our songs, and especially in who we're singing for! If there's anything wrong or worldly at all about so-called "Christian rock," it's the self-exalting spirit and attitude that comes across so loud and clear in many of the records and concerts today.  [1]

   Keith Green's example of humility and the plainspoken message remains a model of what music ministry ought to be.  

Monday, 15 September 2014

"Do you see this woman?"

   The title question is just one of many penetrating questions Jesus asks in the gospels.  He is speaking to a prominent religious leader about a nameless woman who has caused a stir at a dinner party with her mixture of tears and perfume.  The religious leader sees the woman as an immoral interruption, but Jesus sees her as a human being, penitent and eager for a new life.  (See Luke 7:36 and following.)
   I was challenged by this story as it was presented by a friend at a Bible study based on Bad Girls of the Bible by Liz Curtis Higgs.  How often do I see my husband or my own children as an interruption when I'm in the middle of editing a paper, preparing dinner or checking my email?  I need to really see them, not just carry on with what I was doing.  They deserve much more acknowledgement than I have been giving them lately.
   I will turn off the screen or set down the potato peeler and look into their eyes.  Like Jesus, I want to value them above my agenda items.  So help me God.

Thursday, 11 September 2014

Open Letter to an Inmate

   Each week I receive a lesson from a different Canadian inmate who is completing a Bible correspondence course.  After I mark the lesson, I write a personal letter to encourage him or her. There is a place in each lesson for questions to be asked.  This week, the question was asked "Is the New Testament more important than the Old Testament?"  Others may have wondered about this too.

Dear J_____,

   Thank you for the lessons you sent in this week.  They were well done.  It is great to see your good attitude regarding prayer: that no matter the physical place where you may be, you can close your eyes and go deep within to talk with God.
   You asked "Is the New Testament more important than the Old Testament?"  First of all, I should say that I am not an expert on everything biblical.  In university and to the present time I do study the Bible and try to learn as much as I can about God and his Word.  My short answer to your question is that we should not pick one at the expense of the other.  The New Testament is usually the place to begin when someone has no background in the Bible at all.  We share the life of Jesus because He is the Son of God who came to earth and spent his life of about 33 years among the people around the territory of Israel.  Everything in the Old Testament is leading up to the coming of Jesus, so that makes it very important as well.  Especially in the book of Matthew, there are so many quotations from the Old Testament because he wants to show the readers how Jesus' life fits with God's plans for humanity since the beginning in Genesis.  To fully understand Jesus' life and the culture of his time, the Old Testament books of Genesis, Exodus, Psalms and Isaiah are key.
   In the same way, the Old Testament by itself might not make as much sense to the reader who has not read the New Testament.  They will be missing the sequel of God's plans, who is Jesus.  These two parts of the Bible belong together.
   Some people try to point out a big difference in these two parts of the Bible by saying the Old Testament is about "LAWS" and the New Testament is about "GRACE."  They say that God is harsh and judgmental in the Old Testament, but loving and merciful in the New Testament.  When you read the whole Bible you can see that God's character is consistent in both testaments.  For example, in the Old Testament we read (Psalm 103:8-9) "The Lord is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love.  He will not always accuse, nor will he harbor his anger forever..."  In the New Testament, Jesus says in Matthew 12:36, "But I tell you that men will have to give account on the day of judgment for every careless word they have spoken." God cannot tolerate wrongdoing, but he extends mercy to the wrongdoer.  Justice and grace can go together!
   You also asked if Cain and Abel were twins.  In Genesis 4, it says Cain was the firstborn.  "Later she [Eve] gave birth to his brother Abel" seems to put some distance between their births and indicates they were not twins.
   I hope you will continue to complete these lessons and grow in your understanding of Jesus.

Your sister in Christ

Saturday, 6 September 2014

Gaining Perspective

   When something new comes into our lives, our self-talk helps us to either cope well or cope poorly. Change is inevitable, but even changes we perceive to be positive, such as the job promotion, getting married, or purchasing a house bring with them a level of stress, according to psychologists. How much more so when change is deemed to be an intrusion to a well-ordered life.
   For myself, I have consciously sought a broad perspective when examining change in my life. Here are two examples I'd like to share:

First teaching job

   After I graduated from teacher's college in 1994, I was offered a job at a brand new school with an enrollment of just 27 students.  Knowing that one-room schools had been the norm in my dad's generation made me relieved that my assigned classroom would consist of only four grades, from Grade 5 to Grade 8.  Other people had done this, including one of my uncles.  He actually taught Grades 4-8 in one classroom for a number of years, so I decided to spend a few days with his class before school let out that June.  I gleaned classroom management tips to help me with a tough assignment for even a veteran teacher.  By the time school actually started that fall, class assignments shifted so that I had only Grade 6, 7 & 8.  About one month into the school year, the board of directors, which consisted of parents at this privately funded school, recognized the need for one of the teachers to take on the role of principal.  Yes, I was still a rookie teacher, but I was single and energetic and felt this was something God had called me to do.  At least a few people who heard what I was doing frowned upon it.  Because I chose to see my situation as being within the realm of things that ordinary people have dealt with, I was able to cope. (I don't mean to say it was sustainable because after getting married it really was too much for me, and I resigned at the end of the third school year.)

Short Notice   

   One time when I was on the "Welcome and Hospitality" Committee at a former church, I was given a couple days notice to find hosts for over a dozen choir members from India.  Through an oversight the pastor forgot to share this information with me until that late hour.  First, I was overwhelmed with the task.  The group was also expecting a catered dinner at the church when they arrived in the evening.
   I took a step back and broke the task down.  I began to focus on the needs of the people coming on this choir tour and found a way to create three sleeping spaces in my own house.  I called people from my committee, who I felt would be open to hospitality, and persisted beyond that list when some said they could not do it because they did not have enough notice.  I thought of the early church which provided hospitality so freely because hotels and inns had a reputation for immorality.  
   After I had made all the sleeping arrangements, I thought about which busy women would answer the call to cook a meal for those they considered strangers.  I looked in my More With Less Cookbook and found two simple stew recipes (one vegetarian) that I could double and make at home.  I informed the contact person that the choir should come to my residence instead of the church for dinner.  When I think about it now, it turned out to be such a blessing to be able to serve a meal to these people, even though all the bowls did not match.  I heard them perform later that night and was incredibly moved to help them in what I began to see was just a small way.

Questions that give me Perspective amid Change

  • How did people in Bible times deal with similar circumstances?
  • How do/did people manage (without a car, without mattresses, without a washing machine) in other places and times?
  • Where can I find support to help me?  How can I rely on God?
  • How can I find something positive in this situation?
  • How can I become more understanding of the struggles of others through this situation?
  • Is this a "first world problem"? (from the title of Craig Kielburger's pocket size book, Your Grandma Follows You on Twitter and other First World Problems We're Lucky to Have.) 

Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Amazing Grace

This post is based on a devotion I led with my staff on the first day of school.  The theme we are exploring this year as an entire school is "Amazing Grace," including the story behind the popular hymn.

Luke 4:22a: "All spoke well of [Jesus] and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his lips."

   We may be quite used to the combination of the words “amazing” and “grace.”  But when something is “amazing,” it is not just one more synonym for “good” that people use to indicate something they like.  Amazing means it’s something that takes us aback, something unexpected and startling.  Grace is truly like that because it’s not the typical way the world operates.  Merit is the criterion for bestowing honour, and when you mess up you have to pay the consequences in full.  But when God loves us despite our flaws and forgives us despite our insurmountable sin debt, we are amazed.  When it dawns on us that, as Blaise Pascal said, “God owes us nothing,” then we see everything around us as gift, as grace.

   This essential quality of the God we serve makes its way into the names parents in our community choose for their children.  Grace is a common first name and middle name for girls.  So is Hannah, the Hebrew word for grace and its variations that include Anna, Annita and Anica.  A pastor I heard about wanted to give each of his children a middle name that means “grace”; in addition to "Grace" he also chose "Karis" (Greek) and "Hesed" (a rich Hebrew word for grace something translated as "loving kindness") as names.

   But we must never separate grace from its Source—that’s what we learn from another common name, one that has an odd silent letter.  You would think the name John should be simply spelled J-O-N, but the "H" is right there in the middle.  The original Hebrew Yohannan means “God/Yahweh is gracious”, and over time it has been contracted with the "H" remaining as a kind of apostrophe and unexpected reminder of grace.  Some examples of variations of the name John are Ian, Sean, Ivan and Jean as well as the feminine forms of Yvonne, Jane, Janette and Juanita.  Whether our names reflect it or not, God’s grace is embedded in each one of us and in each one of our students.  When our eyes are open to the many-fold expressions of God’s grace, we will keep being surprised and amazed by it.

Saturday, 30 August 2014

Synergy: Thoughts on Romans 8:28

My apologies to my regular readers that it has been so long (11 days) since my last post.  The reality of my new roles at school meant working almost full time for the past two weeks, even though I'm actually a part-time employee. 

   A comforting verse in the Bible is Romans 8:28, which states "All things work together for good for those who love God."  The Greek for "work together" is the root word of our English word "synergy."
   An online dictionary [dictionary.reference.com] gives this definition for synergy:

 the interaction of elements that when combined produce a total effect                                          that is greater than the sum of the individual elements, contributions, etc.

Synergy takes place in the body when multiple muscles and nerves work together to achieve health and wellness; likewise, particular medications can work together to promote healing.  

   The first time I remember encountering the English term "synergy" was about twenty years ago when I studied the book Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Steven Covey as part of a course.  The sixth habit that he laid out is entitled "Synergize."  He explained that working with others and accepting their different viewpoints and backgrounds enables people to solve problems and address issues in a way that could never occur if each person worked at them separately.
   During the past week I have observed synergy at work.  My school colleagues and I were led in a two-day workshop on Restorative Practices.  At the heart of this philosophy of relating to people is to give opportunity for people to speak face to face with a clear structure so that everyone is respected and listened to.  When a conflict has occurred and harm has been done, all the parties can be brought together to share how they have been affected.  Each individual also contributes to the way things can be resolved or made better.  When you participate in a restorative circle/conference like this, you cannot predict in advance how the disclosures of the people around the circle will affect the others, or how synergy will occur to bring about a measure of healing.  We were taught as facilitators-in-training to trust the process and to trust the stakeholders involved to arrive at an agreeable solution.
   During our lunch break on the second day a film of a restorative conference was shown.  In 2004 six young men had burned down Mood's Bridge, a historic covered bridge in Pennsylvania.  These young men wanted to meet with members of the community to express their remorse for what they had done. Both the offenders and the community members could have their say without interruption.  It was very moving as the community members who had initially been very angry accepted the regrets and sorrow of the young men and encouraged them to become builders in the remainder of their lives, not destroyers.  The agreement that the conference came to included each offender paying for a sixth share of the cost of rebuilding the bridge.  They would also put in hundreds of hours of volunteer labour in its reconstruction.  While the young men did serve a short sentence in jail, the synergy of the restorative conference led to a more satisfying resolution of their crime than punitive measures alone.  [The bridge has now been rebuilt in the style of the original.]
Image from wildblueberries.com 
   Getting back to Romans 8:28, the synergy that the Apostle Paul is talking about is slightly different.  Here he is pointing to the experiences in a believer's life, the ups and downs, the conflicts and the triumphs, the false accusations and the blessings.  All of these work together or synergize for the ultimate GOOD of those who love the Lord. God is able to take all the pieces that do not seem to fit together and by his Holy Spirit works them together for a purpose.  That purpose involves developing character, which is more valuable than material gain.