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Monday, 24 February 2014

A Christian Response to Hunger Since 1983[1]

   Each week the church I attend takes an offering for needs in the community or the world at large.  Next Sunday is the time for the annual gift for the Canadian Foodgrains Bank, a cause that is one of my favourites for four reasons:
  1. The Canadian Foodgrains Bank is one beacon of the way Christians of various denominations can work together.  Fifteen national church bodies, Protestant and Catholic, evangelical and mainline, rural and urban, are demonstrating that partnering for the benefit of the world’s hungry people makes a huge difference.
  2. The donations made by Canadian citizens are matched by the Canadian government through Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development Canada (formerly known as CIDA).  Not only that, in the the thirty plus years of its existence the Canadian Foodgrains Bank (CFGB) has influenced government policy to “untie” the food aid it gives.  Up until 2004 aid from the Canadian government came with the stipulation that it had to be purchased from Canadian farmers and then shipped to the area of need.  Due to the persuasion of CFGB and its supporters, that policy has been changed so that people facing disasters can be given food grown as local to them as possible.  This speeds up the response and supports farmers in the developing world at the same time.
  3. CFGB is not just about feeding people in a time of famine, war or natural disaster.  It also provides training in agricultural techniques that are based on naturally conserving the fertility of the soil, sustainable irrigation systems and better yields from small spaces.  When appropriate this organization works with the communities to set up infrastructure programs.  In exchange for the labour of the local people, the workers are paid in food rather than currency.  This gives dignity to a person in need because the food is not simply a hand-out.
  4. As a bank, this organization keeps some of its funds in reserve so that when a disaster occurs it can respond immediately.  It will appeal to donors, but it does not need to wait for them in order to get started.  I have confidence in the way CFGB delivers aid to hungry people, from Syrian refugees to subsistence farmers in Nicaragua and beyond.
    Woman receiving food aid in Niger in 2012, from CFGB photo gallery
Please share what your favourite charity is and why.

[1] This is the tag line of the Canadian Foodgrains Bank.  Its website is www.foodgrainsbank.ca

Friday, 21 February 2014

Two sides of Camel Controversy

The following New York Times article, reprinted in the Waterloo Region Record on February 15, 2014, makes a claim that seems to undermine the historical reliability of the book of Genesis.  In an effort to be fair, I am reprinting the article here followed by my analysis.

Camels had no business in Genesis

By John Noble Wilford 
There are too many camels in the Bible, out of time and out of place.
Camels probably had little or no role in the lives of such early Jewish patriarchs as Abraham, Jacob and Joseph, who lived in the first half of the second millennium B.C., and yet stories about them mention these domesticated pack animals more than 20 times. Genesis 24, for example, tells of Abraham's servant going by camel on a mission to find a wife for Isaac.
These anachronisms are telling evidence that the Bible was written or edited long after the events it narrates and is not always reliable as verifiable history. These camel stories "do not encapsulate memories from the second millennium," said Noam Mizrahi, an Israeli biblical scholar, "but should be viewed as back-projections from a much later period."
Mizrahi likened the practice to a historical account of medieval events that veers off to a description of "how people in the Middle Ages used semi-trailers in order to transport goods from one European kingdom to another."
For two archaeologists at Tel Aviv University, the anachronisms were motivation to dig for camel bones at an ancient copper smelting camp in the Aravah Valley in Israel and in Wadi Finan in Jordan. They sought evidence of when domesticated camels were first introduced into the land of Israel and the surrounding region.
The archaeologists, Erez Ben-Yosef and Lidar Sapir-Hen, used radiocarbon dating to pinpoint the earliest known domesticated camels in Israel to the last third of the 10th century B.C. — centuries after the patriarchs lived and decades after the kingdom of David, according to the Bible. Some bones in deeper sediments, they said, probably belonged to wild camels that people hunted for their meat. Sapir-Hen could identify a domesticated animal by signs in leg bones that it had carried heavy loads.
The findings were published recently in the journal Tel Aviv and in a news release from Tel Aviv University. The archaeologists said that the origin of the domesticated camel was probably in the Arabian Peninsula, which borders the Aravah Valley. Egyptians exploited the copper resources there and probably had a hand in introducing the camels. Earlier, people in the region relied on mules and donkeys as their beasts of burden.
"The introduction of the camel to our region was a very important economic and social development," Ben-Yosef said in an interview. "The camel enabled long-distance trade for the first time, all the way to India, and perfume trade with Arabia. It's unlikely that mules and donkeys could have traversed the distance from one desert oasis to the next."
Mizrahi, a professor of Hebrew culture studies at Tel Aviv University who was not directly involved in the research, said that by the seventh century B.C., camels had become widely employed in trade and travel in Israel and through the Middle East, from Africa as far as India. The camel's influence on biblical research was profound, if confusing, for that happened to be the time that the patriarchal stories were committed to writing and eventually canonized as part of the Hebrew Bible.
"One should be careful not to rush to the conclusion that the new archeological findings automatically deny any historical value from the biblical stories," Mizrahi said in an email. "Rather, they established that these traditions were indeed reformulated in relatively late periods after camels had been integrated into the Near Eastern economic system. But this does not mean that these very traditions cannot capture other details that have an older historical background."
Moreover, for anyone who grew up with Sunday school images of the Three Wise Men from the East arriving astride camels at the manger in Bethlehem, whatever uncertainties there may be of that story, at least one thing is clear: By then the camel in the service of human life was no longer an anachronism.
The New York Times


   The title of the article makes a bold statement with no nuances.  According to the 2013 study of camel bones in two locations in the Middle East, we are told that camels could not have figured in the stories of the Patriarchs Abraham, [what about Isaac], Jacob and Joseph.  However, this piece shows a lack of investigative reporting and a huge assumption.

Lack of investigative reporting

   The article states that camels are mentioned more than twenty times in Genesis, but it fails to explore the first mention in Genesis 12: 16.  Contrary to what the article would lead us to believe not everything documented in Genesis took place in Palestine.  Looking closely at the text above, we can see that Abraham acquired his camels in Egypt.  There is firm evidence in a 1998 study by A.S. Saber, “The camel in Ancient Egypt” that “camel entry into Egypt after its domestication in Arabia was found between 2500 and 1400 B.C.”  The Bible depicts Abraham and his descendents as nomadic people, so the fact that they interacted with other cultures and civilizations should not be shocking to anyone.  When Abraham returned to an area in the Negev, Bethel and Ai, why would he leave his animals behind?  Certainly there were no climate reasons why the camels from Egypt could not live in a different region.

Huge assumption

   The article bases its conclusion upon dating of the “earliest known domesticated camels in Israel.”  There could be other remains buried across the more than 100,000 square kilometers that comprise modern-day Israel and Jordan.  Moreover, evidence from the era of the Patriarchs may not have survived to the present day.  A principle in archaeology is that “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.”[1]  Why, then, would archaeologists and journalists be so quick to say all mentions of camels in Genesis are anachronisms?  The prerogative of an archaeologist is to share what is found, not theorize based on what is not found.
   Finally, the last paragraph of the article takes another jab at biblical historicity by presenting a caricature of the account of the Magi, “whatever uncertainties there may be about that story.”  The Scripture in Matthew 2 never mentions the mode of transport this group, whose number is never limited to three, used to travel to Bethlehem.  Greater thoroughness in reading what the Bible actually says would help journalists and Christians alike.

[1] Cosner, Lita.  “Camels and the Bible” on www.creation.com 11 February 2014.

Wednesday, 12 February 2014

Dominican Republic #4: Local Food Movement

   As part of our service trip I took part in, we were treated to a “day away” from our construction work.  On the Saturday we were taken into the picturesque mountainous interior of Dominican Republic with Rancho Baguite as our final destination.  It is located near the town of Jarabacoa.  This ranch offered a variety of  eco-attractions, including walking trails, white water rafting, horse-back riding, fishing and a butterfly garden.
   I went horse-back riding along with two others from my group.  When we returned to the dining hall, one of the owners approached us, offering some freshly roasted macadamia nuts that had been grown and processed on site.  When she asked, “Would you like to see the plantation,” I assumed she would show pictures from her laptop.  Instead we were taken a stone’s throw from the dining area to their extensive vegetable gardens and fledgling plantation.
Kale grown outdoors
Kale in pasta dish served in buffet
   This ranch grows nearly all the vegetables and meat served in its buffet-style restaurant.  We saw rabbits being raised for meat and to provide natural fertilizer for the gardens.  The co-owner pointed out kale that would be used in the pasta dish featured for lunch.  Other healthy plants were producing cabbage, lettuce, peppers, cucumbers, eggplant and beans.  This was a welcome sight as our travels in the capital did not allow us to see any land under cultivation.
Macadamia nuts used for seed
Transplanted seedlings about a year old
    The plantation of macadamia trees was also of great interest.  A six year-old macadamia tree is twice as tall as an average adult and began producing nuts four years before.  The processing occurs in a small building that contains an industrial steel drier to reduce the moisture content of the macadamia nuts from 20% to 1-2%.  A simple press is also used to extract macadamia oil, which is rich in Omega-3.  The processed nuts are used by a local bakery.
   As I pondered the agricultural model being shown at Rancho Baguite, I realized that every culture’s food began as a “local food movement.”  When we think of Korean food, it consists of fish, pickled cabbage and rice precisely because these are the readily available raw materials the people had to work with for millennia.  Likewise, Russian borscht is a product of the plentiful root vegetables, including beets, that can be grown in a cooler climate and will keep through the winter.  The North American reliance on imported food is a symptom of our affluence.  We feel restricted by a “100 mile diet,” but most of the world’s population has no other choice.

   A few times during our stay in Dominican Republic we were given single serving packages of Oreo cookies or jars of peanut butter imported from the U.S.  That made me uncomfortable.  As a North American I am part of a system that does not encourage local food, and over-packaging has become a status symbol abroad.

Friday, 7 February 2014

Not a Waste: The Short Life of Samuel (Kaboo) Morris

Photo taken from Wikipedia site
   The short life of the young man born Prince Kaboo in a tribal area of Liberia, West Africa had a tremendous impact.  The exact year of his birth is unknown because birth records were not considered important at that time and in that place, but the best estimate is 1872 or 1873.  At the age of about fourteen he had been taken captive by a rival tribe in payment of a debt.  While he was being savagely beaten a light appeared before him and a voice told him to "Rise up and run."  The light never left him as he traveled many days through the jungle and finally reached the coast at Monrovia.[1]   
   When a fellow worker at a coffee plantation invited Kaboo to an English-speaking church, he could not understand a word spoken.  Yet he sensed a divine presence and was convicted of the need to give his life to his Heavenly Father.  He prayed out loud because he was “talking to [his] Father,” but the others in the workers’ lodge objected and sent him to pray elsewhere.  Becoming a follower of Jesus, a missionary lady gave him a new name, Samuel Morris.  [This was the name of the missionary’s benefactor.]  After working about two years as a house painter, Samuel sensed God calling him to preach to his own people.  The missionaries told him he first had to be educated in America.  While today we would disagree with this approach, God is sovereign and had an even greater plan. 
   Samuel was undaunted when he learned how far away America was and how much it would cost to travel and be educated there.  He trusted his Father to provide for everything.  He asked permission to sail aboard a ship and was firmly denied by the captain several times until his persistence gained him passage.  Not only the hostile captain but also many crewmen came to faith during the voyage to New York.[2]
   In New York, Samuel met up with Stephen Merritt, a minister to the homeless who had been suggested as a resource by the missionaries in Monrovia.  With his help, Samuel was enrolled at Taylor University.  When the school was undergoing financial struggles, Samuel encouraged them to pray.  Remarkable answers resulted; those who heard Samuel speak or prayed with him experienced spiritual revival. 
   After thirteen months at Taylor University he contracted pneumonia.  He never recovered from this illness and passed away on May 12, 1893.  He was at peace with the fact he would not be able to return to his homeland with the gospel because he was assured that others would go in his stead.  Inspired by his life and testimony, many students at Taylor did just that.
   University President Thaddeus Reade said of this young man, “Samuel Morris was a divinely sent messenger of God to Taylor University. He thought he was coming over here to prepare himself for his mission to his people, but his coming was to prepare Taylor University for her mission to the whole world. All who met him were impressed with his sublime, yet simple faith in God.”[3]

[1]Samuel Morris: A Spirit Filled Life by D.E. Reed, published in 1908, page 12;  reprinted at http://www.pleasantplaces.biz/books/reed_samuel/0012.php
[2] Hero Tales by Dave and Neta Jackson, 1996, page 96.
[3] Reported on the website of Taylor University: https://www.taylor.edu/about/heritage/samuel-morris/the-samuel-morris-story.shtml

Wednesday, 5 February 2014

Dominican Republic #3: From Sponsored child to Translator

   During the short-term service trip that I took part in last month, our group was assigned a translator, a 36 year old man named Victor.  Through our conversations with him, we came to know his story.
Victor, left, lends his phone to track down a missing piece of luggage.
   When he was a young child Victor’s mother was heavily involved in witchcraft.  People would come to his house to have their fortunes told and to get spiritual help when they were in trouble.  He remembers seeing his mother in fits where demons came over her.  She was absolutely opposed to Victor, her firstborn, reading the Bible or having any contact with Christianity.  Thus for his first years he was ignorant of the true God.
   For some reason, his mother softened a little when there were prospects for Victor to go to school.  The only way the family could afford education was through child sponsorship with Compassion®.  One of this agency’s stipulations was that the child be permitted to attend Bible classes on Saturdays.  Even though it meant Victor would be exposed to the Bible, his mother went along with it.
   Victor came to know the Lord through these classes.  At the age of five or six he recognized he had the talent for memorizing Bible verses.  He continued his education; he is grateful that eventually his mother also became a believer in the one true God and turned away from her previous practices. 
   Currently Victor acts as a host/translator for the teams sent from Canada to assist COCREF (a federation of 16 Christian schools).  He was incredibly patient with us, explaining nuances of the Dominican way of life.  He also pitched in with the construction work, although it seemed to go above and beyond his role.  Since this job as host and translator for work teams is seasonal, he also does written translations for Compassion® when children and their sponsors correspond with each other.  Depending on the week, he will translate between 200 and 400 pieces of correspondence for this agency; he is paid by the piece.  He told us that about 50,000 Dominican children are sponsored through this agency.
   Victor is a praise team leader at a large church that was founded by Korean missionaries.  He also speaks some conversational Korean.  He and his wife have four children; the youngest is a girl whose name is based on the Hebrew word “Jireh,” associated with God as our provider.

   My youngest daughter and I jointly sponsor a Compassion® child in the Dominican.  Even though it didn’t work out for me to visit the girl we sponsor, my experience with Victor confirmed the long-term impact such a sponsorship can have.

Saturday, 1 February 2014

Dominican Republic #2: Questions

Prior to this trip I was asked to write a series of devotions that reflect upon questions asked in the Gospel of John.  Each day the team gathered to read the Scripture and then shared thoughts and sang along with the guitar we brought along.  Here is one of these devotions that applies to most of us.
“Lord, what about him?
Read John 21:18-24

   Peter has been given a glimpse into his future as a follower of Jesus.  As a strong willed and dominant personality, Peter has made decisions and set out a course for his life, but Jesus says a day will come when he will suffer greatly for the testimony of his Master.
   And so the question comes on Peter’s tongue, “What about him?”  He sees another one of the eleven and would like to know his destiny.  Isn’t this part of our human tendency, to want to know what will happen to others, partly out of concern but also partly out of idle curiosity?
   Jesus is clear in showing Peter that what happens to the other disciple is not his business.  The most important thing is that Peter keeps following Jesus.  He redirects the focus of Peter’s life to Himself instead of side issues and comparisons.  The journey will be different for each of God’s children, and that is OK.
  At times when one child in a family is singled out to do a particular chore, the quick response is, “Well, what about my brother?  What about my sister?  Why do I have to do all the work around here?”  It can be easy in our families and workplaces to see and magnify inequalities or to grumble about something that is not fair.  However, first we need to focus on Jesus.  In light what he endured for us, we may reconsider the situation or we will approach it with more gentleness.

Be still and know that I am God
Be still and know that I am God
Be still and know that I am God

-from Psalm 46:10a