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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.