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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.