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Saturday, 26 April 2014

Recycled Orchestra: Music from the Soul

   Last night I was privileged to hear youths from Paraguay perform orchestral pieces on instruments made from items reclaimed from the landfill of its capital city, Asuncion.  The "Recycled Orchestra" from the slum of Cateura actually boasts 160 members, but just 16 are taking part in this Canadian tour.
   I first read about the ingenuity of this orchestra through an associated press article in December 2012.  I was so inspired that I kept it.  The orchestra is the brain child of its conductor, Fabio Chavez, a music teacher and social worker.  At first, he had only five instruments to share among the many interested youngsters.  Then, he recruited Tito Romero and Nicolas Gomez to build brass, woodwind and stringed instruments out of the resources brought to the city dump.  I testify that the sounds these instruments produce are as authentic as they are unique.
   As the conductor allowed various students to introduce themselves and their instruments, the audience was told which raw materials went into each one.  A 30 litre can that used to contain vegetable oil forms the body of the cello, while the downspout of an eaves trough, assorted buttons, handles of metal spoons and guarani coins became an alto-saxophone.
Photo of cello and player courtesy of Rebecca Bertrand

Close up of saxophone courtesy of Rebecca Bertrand

   The music performed by this ensemble included Frank Sinatra, the Beatles, Henry Mancini and Pachelbel. The conductor, who used head, lip and eye gestures to direct his orchestra, accompanied them on his metal-based guitar (see bottom of next photo).  The concert was closed by traditional music from Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay and Bolivia.
Foreground: Fabio Chavez, conductor, and 15 year-old player of the upright bass.  Photo credit: Rebecca Bertrand.
  Mr. Chavez shared many jokes and insights through a translator, but one thing he said sticks with me.  He said, "Talent is evenly distributed among humanity, but opportunity is not."  When the audience was invited to contribute an offering instead of an admission fee, they were helping to extend opportunity to the youth in the Cateura slum to have a better future than their parents, who work in the toxic environment of the landfill site.

Not a Waste: the Short Life of Bartholemew Ziegenbalg

   Bartholemew Ziegenbalg is not a household name. Born in Germany in 1682, he spent more than one-third of his life in India among the Tamil people.  He was recruited by, of all people, the king of Denmark because he was eager for people in his colony to be taught the Christian gospel.
   The postage stamp (right) was issued in India on the 300th anniversary of the missionary's arrival. This nation recognizes that Ziegenbalg's mission work was anything but self-serving or imperialistic. He eagerly learned the Tamil language and read its literature. He even produced an annotated bibliography of 161 pieces of Tamil literature.  The capacity for printing, which had been lost in this region for 38 years, was revived by Ziegenbalg in 1712 (see this website for more).  He translated the New Testament into Tamil by 1715, and when he died four years later the first eight books of the Old Testament were also completed.  He and the missions organization that backed him were interested in encouraging an indigenous Christian church, not one which simply imitated European cultural patterns.
   By relying on the rich resources of God available through prayer, he dealt with opposition from colonial officials and local Hindus as well as facing imprisonment for four months.  When Ziegenbalg died at the age of 35, it was evident that he had used the knowledge, gifts and grace entrusted to him for the glory of his Lord.  To see a photo of the church building constructed in 1718 and still in use today, go here.

Wednesday, 23 April 2014

Stove-top Apple Dessert

   I never know what to call this dessert.  I never encountered it until my husband requested I make "apple dumplings" for dessert.  I searched my cookbooks and found a recipe with this name.  It involved wrapping apple slices inside pastry and included a generous cinnamon sauce.  I made it and presented it with a smile. While my husband enjoyed it he did tell me it was not the kind of apple dumplings he meant.

   I had to go to the source, his mother who had made this dessert during his growing up years.  When I sized up the method of preparation, I began calling it apples with dumplings.  The apples are cooked in a saucepan, and muffin-like batter is set on top to resemble dumplings.  No matter what it's called, I can see why my husband likes it.  Here is the recipe in case you'd like to try it as well

Part 1:
In a saucepan, melt 1/4 cup margarine.  Stir in 1/2 cup brown sugar and 3 Tbsp flour.  Add 1.5 cups of water while stirring and cook until thickened. Add 4 cups chopped or grated apple and 1 Tbsp lemon juice. Remove from heat.

Part 2:
In a bowl, sift together 1 cup flour, 1.5 tsp baking powder, 1/2 tsp salt, 1/2 tsp cinnamon.  Add 1/2 cup brown sugar.  In a measuring cup, combine 1 beaten egg, 1/4 cup milk and 2 Tbsp melted margarine.  Add wet ingredients to the dry ones.  Drop by spoonfuls onto the apple mixture.  Return pan to the stove and bring to a boil at medium heat.  Simmer at reduced heat for 20 minutes.  Serve warm.

Friday, 18 April 2014

Do Good Things Come in Threes?

   How much validity does the expression "Good things come in threes" have?  I've also heard the opposite: "Bad things come in threes," such that a person who has had two things go wrong in her day was still expecting a third to make it complete.  I would venture that such statements are based on a type of superstition that stops counting after three.  Each day or event, depending on our outlook, can have numerous good or bad aspects to it.
   That being said, there is something special about the number three that goes beyond the formula for fairy tales (three wishes, three characters, three incidents) and the rules of baseball.
   Since it is Easter weekend, I'd like to share about the "three days" between Good Friday and Easter Sunday.  Jesus predicted more than once that, similar to Jonah's sojourn in the belly of the fish, he would be "three days and three nights" in the heart of the earth (Mark 12:40).  After that, he would rise again.
   The modern, Western reader may be perplexed, as I used to be, about how this timing exactly works. When we think of three days and three nights, we think in terms of 72 hours.  However, when you look at the Gospel accounts, Jesus' time in the tomb was much less than this.  Could Jesus have made a mistake? Was he exaggerating just so we'd see a parallel between his experience and Jonah's?
   Then I read about Jewish reckoning of time.  When we approach any text, we should be aware of the historical and cultural context in which it was written.  So, when a Jewish person speaks of "a day," it can mean 24 hours or any part thereof.  A part of a day is considered a whole in the way time is measured.
   There's one more thing.  While we measure a day from midnight to midnight, the Jews still consider the day beginning at sundown.  When we look again at the account of Jesus' death we see the following:

  • He was crucified on Friday, during which there were three hours of darkness in the middle of the day. Jesus dies in late afternoon, and his friends take his body to the tomb before sunset.  There is concern to do this quickly because the Sabbath is approaching. Friday counts as "Day 1."
  • It states in Luke 23:56b, "they rested on the Sabbath in obedience to the commandment."  This is "Day 2."
  • The Sabbath ended at sunset, but no activity would have been undertaken in the dark.  Thus the women got up "very early in the morning" on the first day of the week (Sunday) to bring spices to the tomb.  When they arrive the tomb is already empty. Some time during the night Jesus overpowered death.  That makes "Day 3."
The words of a Puerto Rican folk hymn, translated into English, refer to "good" and "three":

Oh how good is Christ the Lord!
On the cross he died for me.
He has pardoned all my sin,
Glory be to Jesus.
Glory be to Jesus!
Glory be to Jesus!
In three days he rose again.
Glory be to Jesus.

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Ten Years of Provision, Part 4 (Durability)

   When your income is squeezed, finding that what you have is lasting much longer than you had expected is just as valuable to you as a windfall of cash.  When Moses reminded the people of their time in the wilderness, one of the blessings he recounts is "Your clothes did not wear out and your feet did not swell during these forty years" (Deuteronomy 8:4).  Our experience was perhaps not as extreme; of course, it was also much less than forty years.  However, such blessings should not be overlooked.  Here are just a few examples:

  • Winter coats, snow pants and backpacks our children wore lasted up to three seasons.
  • A vacuum cleaner that someone else put out for garbage day missing a handle and a cord ten years ago was repaired by my husband.  It continues to be our only vacuum.
  • Our GMC minivan, purchased in 2002 when it was already five years old, keeps on trucking.  Its odometer passed 200,000 kilometres this past weekend.*
  • Several times when my son and I went to the optometrist our prescriptions stayed the same; no new glasses were needed.
  • Bed sheets, towels and mattresses did not need to be replaced for many years.
  • Our current washing machine, which we purchased used about seven years ago, has required about $10 worth of repairs in the past month but does not need to be replaced.
*Because we walk, bike or use public transit to get to work, this is shockingly low for a vehicle of its age.

Related post: Minivan Not for Sale (also the most-read post on providenceplace)

Would you care to share an example of your own?  Leave a comment.

Saturday, 12 April 2014

Ten Years of Provision Part 3 (Multicultural Awakening)

   The communities where I used to live were quite homogeneous with regard to race and ethnicity.  Although I have been open to people of different cultural backgrounds, the opportunities for such exchanges were limited in small Ontario towns.
   Moving to a city that has over a quarter-million residents and that also happened to be one of Canada's top destinations for immigrants and refugees meant being exposed to a whole new demographic.  We were struck by hearing conversations in languages other than English in public places, from public transit to the grocery store.  On our street many near neighbours spoke English as a second language or had members of their households who did not speak English at all.  An act as simple as bringing over a plate of cookies in order to say "Hello" was sometimes misunderstood and rejected.
   With this new reality and a desire to make cross-cultural connections we enrolled in a volunteer program that matched us with another family new to Canada.  We were to meet together regularly doing low-cost or no-cost activities in order to became acquainted with each other.  We could help with practical problems ranging from how to use a fork to how to deal with telemarketers phone calls.  Conversations about the differences between life in their home country and Canada were enriching for us and our children.
   One of the first friends I made in my new city was another young mom who, with her husband, deliberately moved into a high-density neighbourhood to minister to its people.  Rental apartments are the only choice for those who are just establishing themselves in a new country or who struggle with poverty.  My friend and her husband determined to live out "love your neighbour" in this context, accepting and appreciating the different clothing styles, accents, names, customs and ways of preparing food.  They learned to pronounce people's names correctly as just one way to respect and honour them.  They set the standard for how I wanted to treat those who were of a different culture.
   This friend had a Persian contact who was writing a paper in engineering.  He asked her to read it over and make any suggestions to improve his work.  My friend also passed the document to me.  Little did I know that was to be the beginning of an unusual side business that has grown mostly by word of mouth.  While I never claim to understand all of the engineering jargon or equations, I am somehow able to detect when something is awkward or missing the right punctuation.  I say, "Insert 'the' here" and "I think you mean..." when a word is clearly the wrong one.  Most of my clients are from an Iranian/Persian background.  On the first day of spring, we exchanged greetings of  "Happy Nowruz" (Iranian New Year).

Related Post: Opening the Door

Monday, 7 April 2014

Ten Years of Provision, Part 2 (Building Networks)

   One significant need we all have is a network of people we can trust and go to and those who encourage us when we are down.  When we move to a new location, building a network takes time and involves being open to people we don't yet know.  We did have a small head-start, since my sister and my husband's cousin lived there already.  They could answer some of our early questions.
   In the small town we moved away from my husband had many family connections, and our church community was also a big part of our lives.  That is why spending a Sunday in our new city while we were arranging Bible college enrollment and other details was important to us.  It was not really about "church shopping," as some people term it.  We decided to attend a morning service at the congregation close to where we were hoping to live that was part of the same type of church we were already familiar with.  That Sunday morning there was a guest preacher full of zeal along with heart-felt congregational singing; we knew the Holy Spirit was at work there, and there was no doubt this was the place for us.  After the service coffee was served in the gymnasium.  There a senior lady noticed we were visitors.  Sharing a little bit about why were moving, she launched into an encouraging story about God's provision for her own son who, mid-life and with young children, returned to school to become a pastor.  It was easy to feel that these were "our people" and that we would be loved here.
   My husband had a strong feeling about not misusing this network.  It would have been easy to approach the deacons and find out if any of the business owners were looking for an employee. Instead, he applied for jobs that may not consider his years of experience in a family-run business.  In hindsight, he said working in the retail sector for over two years taught him as much or more about dealing with real people as his Bible college courses in counseling did.
   Building up the church network meant becoming involved.  We joined a planning group for summer outreach, a construction-themed Vacation Bible School.  We took our turn helping in the nursery on Sundays.  We invited families and our children's new Sunday school friends over.  We wanted to be a blessing; as we did so we also found ourselves being blessed.
   Another network we were deliberate about cultivating was Christian school.  Up until our move, I had been home-schooling our son at the kindergarten level, with the intent of sending him to Grade 1 in the fall. Since we were moving in April, that would be a five months without many peer connections for him, so we made inquiries about enrolling our son in Kindergarten for the months of May and June.  The school approved our request, and this helped our family integrate into another welcoming community. Later, when all our children were enrolled, it was also the place I could resume my teaching career.
   My next post will share how we were blessed by moving to a specifically multicultural city.

Related posts:
(choosing the school) Room for Special Needs
(going back to teaching) Turtle on a Fence Post

Friday, 4 April 2014

Ten Years of Provision, Part 1 (House and Job)

April 6, ten years ago my family and I moved 170 kilometres west of our previous home base, to the city where we now live.  I know that we live in a mobile society, where people often relocate for reasons of work or opportunity.  Still, our move was a little different.
   Three weeks prior to moving, we had no housing lined up.  The day we moved we had no job prospects either.  What in the world were we thinking?
   We knew God had called my husband to a change in direction. No longer would he work in the family business he had always known nor live in the house he had been brought to as a newborn.  It was a time to step out in faith and see where God would lead us.  To make a transition into more of a helping profession would require education, so my husband enrolled at a Bible college that offered a one-year certificate program (part-time, it would take two years in all).  He started to complete some prerequisites by correspondence so that in September he could begin the program.  The plan was to find part-time employment and cash in some of our retirement savings to supplement this meagre income.  Since our youngest child was just over a year old, I would continue to be a stay-at-home mom and earn a little child care income.
   Finding housing was a story in itself.  We had made contact with a cooperative housing project in the early winter and arranged to take a unit they would have available April 1st.  However, in the middle of March the superintendent called and informed us that the tenant whose unit we were to get was fighting the eviction notice and everything would be delayed.   This did not give us much time to spare.  The next available opportunity, when my husband had to take a work shipment into Toronto in the wee hours of the morning, he continued west to the city we would move to.  He called a property management company from the yellow pages (its name was Provident) and asked if he could see some rental units that were available.  The agent would be doing a tour with another potential client and invited him to join along.  They looked through several three bedroom semi-detached houses that all had a similar layout.  The rent would be just under $1000 per month, but all the units available for viewing were set for a May 1st move-in.  "Well," the agent said, "there is one unit set for April 1st, but we can't look at it.  We did not give the current occupants 24 hours notice."  My husband told her he would take it, sight unseen.
   The next thing this company wanted to know was employment information.  There was none to give. Next, proof of savings.  Most of our savings was not in a traditional bank, so it took some extra time to verify that it was all legitimate.  On March 17, we received a call from our new landlords that everything was in order. One more glitch they were concerned about was that it would not be repainted in time for an April 1st move-in. That was fine, because our plan was to move on the 6th anyways.
   Within two weeks of moving, my husband found a job at minimum wage (then $7.00 per hour) at a retail store.  Those first two years we always had enough to pay our bills.  Thus began journey that was humbling and faith-strengthening at the same time.
Related post:
Making Ends Meet

Grace Notes

   In the early 1990's I was convinced after watching a particular documentary to cut all ties with mainstream, popular music.  Rock music at its core led to rebellion and disorder.  This posture of condemnation was relatively easy for me to accept because I wanted to live according to God's standards and this black-and- white way of looking at a genre of music was at least simple.  It did not demand discernment.
   More recently I have been enlightened about the problem with such a posture of condemnation.  Andy Crouch says of a posture: "It is the position our body assumes when we aren't paying attention, the basic attitude we carry through life" (Culture Making, 2008, p.90).  Having this one stance does not give us the flexibility to respond appropriately to a wide range of musical  offerings, as just one example of culture.  When we condemn, we will never have the opportunity to see grace notes in mainstream music.  Using three examples of musical groups I used to listen to and enjoy, I'd like to share some of the notes of grace I found when looking more closely.


When I recently attended a concert that combined a symphony orchestra with an ABBA tribute band from Sweden, I readily admitted to my children that ABBA's music was not very deep lyrically. This pop group from the 1980's sang mostly about relationship triumphs and tragedies to very catchy melodies.  I attended this concert with my two sisters as a nostalgic outing from our younger days.  For one of their encore pieces, the orchestra and tribute band played "Thank you for the Music."  When the lead vocalist introduced the song, she dedicated it to the original ABBA, which had provided them with the music they were performing. But if you think back to the original ABBA, who were they saying "Thank you" to? Some of the words are:
Thank you for the music 
The songs we're singing
Thanks for all the joy they're bringing
I've often wondered how did it all start
Who found out that nothing can capture a heart
Like a melody can
Well, whoever it was, I'm a fan.
   I call this a grace note; even though the songwriters do not name God, they recognize that music is a gift. When you receive a gift, you say "Thank you."  God is the inventor of music and its ability to capture a heart. When I hear or hum this song, I can direct it towards "the giver of every good and perfect gift" (James 1:17).


   This was another of the bands I enjoyed in my teens and early twenties.  Between 1970 and 2002 the band released eleven albums, but the style changed somewhat with the departure of Roger Hodgson in 1983.  While most Supertramp songs feature the traditional rock piano, drums, guitars and the less traditional saxophone, one song I'd like to highlight is accompanied only by a 12 stringed guitar.  "Even in the Quietest Moments" is the reflection of a human being when all the noise of our radios and televisions is silenced. Some striking lines are as follows:
The music that you gave me
The language of my soul
Oh Lord, I want to be with you
Oh won't you let me come in from the cold
And though your door is always open
Where do I begin, may I please come in, dear 
   Songwriter Hodgson has an ambiguous "you" and "dear" that cannot be directed to any human person.  His references to sun, rain, the stars and the ocean are hints of the transcendent.  Who is he talking to but a sense of creation/Creator that he is unable to fully grasp?  He knows there is more to this world than what meets the eye.  And yet he admits to being distracted: "For there's a shadow of doubt/That's not letting me find you too soon."  A person who knows this Creator can legitimately use this song as a prayer.

Eagles and Don Henley

   I used to know all the Eagles songs by heart.  Some are quite scandalous, such as "Take it Easy" with its casual attitude to relationships-- "I've got seven women on my mind/Four that wanna own me/Two that wanna stone me/One says she's a friend of mine" followed by a drive-by encounter with an eighth. Yet, on one of Don Henley's solo albums, he features a poignant song about forgiveness called "Heart of the Matter." Another grace note is his version of the 1880 hymn "The Unclouded Day."  
O they tell me that he smiles on his children there
And his smile drives their sorrows away
And they tell me that no tears ever come again
In that lovely land of unclouded day

His original audience may not have even known it was a hymn!  Yet this song represents the longings any human can identify with, a place where the Sun of Righteousness smiles upon us so that there are no more tears. 

   Here's where I come to a conclusion.  Christian musicians do not have a monopoly on spiritual songs. While I support Christian contemporary music, I am growing more favourable to performers who play in both churches and taverns.  Canadian singer-songwriter Jacob Moon says it well, "God's really just opening some doors for me to share my faith and my point of view, and just be a visible Christian amongst people who don't have any faith, or any particular faith, or a bunch of different faiths or whatever it is" (Christian Week article "Moon goes 'undercover' with tribute to musical heroes," by Aaron Epp, March 2014).  Music can be a place where we can find common ground and unexpected grace.