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Thursday, 31 December 2015

Inspired Word for 2016

common things can contribute to jubilee
The past few days I have been pondering which word will be meaningful in ordering my life in the coming year 2016.  In 2014, the word I felt led to hold onto was "hope"; in 2015, it was "balance."  Through circumstances and a song Michael Card released with his 1994 album "Joy in the Journey," I came upon the word "Jubilee."
   Traditionally, we associate the word jubilee with celebrations of milestones like 25, 50 or 75 years for a monarch's reign or a couple's marriage.  The original meaning of this word goes back to the dense book of Leviticus, where a series of instructions is given in chapter 25 about how the Israelite people should conduct their affairs in light of the 50th year, the Year of Jubilee.  They are told that land prices should reflect the number of years until the Jubilee because in that year all land will be returned to its original ancestral owners.  Any person who had accumulated debt, which could also lead to slavery at that time, would have the debt forgiven and be released from slavery.  In addition, the people were to refrain from tilling the ground and, therefore, would eat from the abundance of food stored up from previous harvests. They were allowed to pick fruit and other produce of the land that grew up by itself.
   According to songwriter Michael Card, Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of the Jubilee vision.  When he began his ministry in a remote synagogue in Galilee, he declared that his mission would include bringing good news to the poor, the release of captives, giving sight to the blind, and setting the oppressed free.  Those who have experienced the transforming love of Jesus will set a priority on the same things.
   So, how will I apply these things in 2016? The enduring principles that come from the concept of the Year of Jubilee and that I wish to embrace are as follows:

  • I will be more aware of the fact that everything I have ultimately belongs to God and is mine to use only for a short time.  I will endeavour to hold material things loosely in order to make them available for those who need them.
  • I will further educate myself about human trafficking and bonded labour; I will join with organizations seeking to bring about freedom for modern-day slaves.
  • I know what it is like to have had debt forgiven, both monetary and spiritual.  I will aim to show that same grace to others.
  • Since jubilee has to do with resting in God's provision, I will try to live more in the present moment by being there for and loving my family and the others God has placed in my life. 

Monday, 28 December 2015

Last Look at Balance

   My "inspired word" for 2015 was "balance."  It was something I was striving for as I had various roles.  I will not pretend that I have arrived, but I have made some progress in a journey that I believe will continue into 2016 and beyond.  It seems fitting that a book I finished at the close of 2015 addresses the matter of balance, albeit in a different way.

   I'd like to spend a little time looking at another type of balance that is highlighted in a book by American columnist David Brooks entitled The Road to Character.  Borrowing from Jewish Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, Brooks uses the archetypal names of Adam I and Adam II to define two distinct aspects of human beings.  Adam I, based on the account of creation in Genesis 1, represents humans in relation to the broader environment in which they have been placed.  God gives mankind (both male and female) authority over the other creatures and a task to care for their garden domain.  In contrast, Genesis 2 gives detail about the relational aspects of human kind: how Adam II relates to his wife and to his Maker.  Adam II involves the heart and soul of a person and the development of inner character.
   The Road to Character is not written as a biblical commentary.  Rather, Brooks explores cultural trends and delves into the lives of particular people who demonstrated solid moral character, even if it came at the expense of worldly definitions of "success" and "happiness."  He argues that in the present time (and since about 1945), people in the West have become more concerned about cultivating Adam I traits (getting more education, landing promotions, increasing their salaries, amassing material possessions, working overtime, being successful)  at the expense of Adam II. Having a strong moral compass, which exhibits itself in loyalty to spouse and family, self-discipline, genuine humility and a coherent spiritual awareness, is increasingly rare among the people who are held in high esteem. Brooks asserts:

"It's probably necessary to reassert a balance between Adam I and Adam II and to understand that if anything, Adam II is more important than Adam I" (page 260).
   Brooks brings this point home by aligning Adam I with a person's resume or CV: the record of education, employment and successes that tells only a part of who you are.   Adam II includes the things said about you in a eulogy at your funeral.  These are the qualities one was known for in terms of relationships and consistent, admirable qualities that will be missed the most.

   The persons I most admire, the people I know and love the most are not the ones who were out to conquer the world or who grasped at every opportunity to make personal gains.  No, they were my humble grandparents, who simply and faithfully went about the tasks God had placed before them. They lived without fanfare, leaving behind minimal assets; however, the spiritual heritage they left for me continues to guide me every day.  My parents are still living, and they have likewise chosen the path of humility; they are realistic about human nature but not bitter or hostile to anyone.  Their material success was received as a blessing on their labours; it was shared and never hoarded.  The short biographies that Brooks includes in The Road to Character are an interesting supplement for me, but I am grateful for the living examples of character I will never forget.

Thursday, 24 December 2015

True Humanity

   If we believe that Jesus came into the world, in part, to live the life of a perfect human being, then even his birth tells us something about what is good about being human.  That's where I will begin in this reflection.

  • Jesus was born as helpless and dependent as any infant.  Being helpless and dependent is part of being human.  It occurs early in life; it often occurs at the end of life.  For some dear human beings, helplessness and dependency accompany them their entire journey of life.  However, it does not make them less human.  Various forms of vulnerability are part of our humanity, and we should not see them in and of themselves as things to avoid at all costs.  
  • Jesus set aside his power [1] when it would make him selfish.  When I use the word power here, it includes such things as the potential for fame, knowledge and wisdom, ability to do miracles, authority over angels, and privilege as the son of God.  He had various things at his disposal, which he could have used to give himself a more comfortable life, but he refused to do this kind of thing. Satan tempted him three times in the wilderness to use his power to take a short-cut from God's purpose and plan.  What we can learn from this is that just because we may have certain forms of power (status, citizenship, possessions, position, wealth, opportunity), we are not to grasp these things for selfish ends.  Self-denial shows true humanity.
  • Jesus used his power to bless others.  When I use the word power here, I am thinking of his power of speech, his love, his authority, his heritage, his patience and his masculinity. He used the power of speech to convey truth to people confused and abused by previous teachers.  He used the power of love to forgive the sin of paralyzed man prior to healing him. Jesus used the power of his authority to answer the tough questions of Pharisee, Saducee and Herodian alike in order to set things right.  He used the power of his heritage to connect the writings of Moses, David and the prophets with his ministry.  He used the power of patience to endure all the hardships brought upon him because of the fallout of sin.  He used the power of his masculinity to show honour, respect and protection for men, women and children.  The very reason God has endowed humans with various "powers" is for the benefit of others around them.
  • Jesus represented God in the world.  In the beginning, God made humans in his own image, to represent him on earth and care for fellow creatures.  This high calling had been marred and stained by sin.  Sadly, when pundits say that humans are more cruel to each other than animals are, they are right.  Humans will cut down others who get in their way to attain manifold forms of power: even worthless possessions, fleeting fame, and the first place in a line-up.  However, Jesus came as the "image of the invisible God" [Colossians 1:18].  Jesus was greatly concerned with God's intentions for right living and stewardship of power--image bearing.  That image bearing comes at the intersection of fully recognizing both our power and our weakness.
  • A common way to refer to humans is to call them "mortals."  That is, they have a life span that will come to an end.  Jesus' human lifespan was just over three decades in length.  At cemeteries we can find tomb stones for those who lived just days or months and ranging all the way to those who saw beyond their ninetieth year.  Jesus' life and sacrificial death made a way to attain something more--eternal life.  In the book of Revelation, He promises to those who remain faithful to him that they will "have the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God" [Revelation 2:7].  When Jesus rose from the dead, he had a body that would not deteriorate or decay.  In the resurrection at the fulfillment of all things, our physicality as humans will be affirmed and brought to its highest and best expression.  

[1] I am indebted to Andy Crouch's book Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power (2013).  His way of describing what power is led to this train of thought being further developed by me.

Monday, 7 December 2015

Christmas Plus

   The season of Advent draws together many strands of the Christian story.  We look back at the Old Testament prophecies surrounding Jesus' birth and how they were fulfilled with precision.  We anticipate the second coming of Jesus, an important hope without which our faith would be incomplete.  
   Perhaps less common in some traditions, we also look ahead to the death and resurrection of Jesus. Even the old man Simeon hints at Jesus' painful destiny before the infant is even two months old, when he says to Mary: "And a sword will pierce your own soul too."  Christians are reminded of this reality of suffering when we take communion during Advent.  Christmas truly is a time of joy, but it cannot be completely isolated from what comes before, after and that which we still await.
   Two pieces of music that are commonly performed during the Christmas season embody this "Christmas Plus" idea within them.  Incidentally, they were written twenty-two years apart in 18th century England.  
   The first is "Joy to the World" by Isaac Watts.  Originally this hymn was not written as a Christmas carol, but as a version of Psalm 98.  It does not refer to specific events from the Matthew or Luke versions of the first Christmas, but some of its phrases, such as "Let earth receive her king" and "Let every heart prepare him room," do fit nicely with the idea that Jesus came as king and that his coming requires a response.  Alyssa Poblete even suggests that the song is more about Jesus' second coming than his first:
"So why do we sing this song at Christmas? It is clearly a song about Christ’s second coming—when the full expression of his glory will be revealed. It doesn’t really have anything to do with the Christmas story. Or does it? After all, there is no second coming without a first coming." [1]
Indeed, we cannot properly hail Jesus' birth without also keeping in mind what things will be like when his Kingdom comes in all its fullness, when the effects of sin will all be eliminated, as symbolized by thorns no longer infesting the ground.
   The other piece of music that helps Christians celebrate Christmas Plus is George F. Handel's Oratorio Messiah.  While he originally wrote it to coincide with Lent/Easter, this rich vocal and instrumental work is not out of place at Christmas.  Beginning with Isaiah 40's "Comfort Ye My People" and ending with the heavenly vision of Revelation "Worthy is the Lamb", Messiah gives us a sweeping narrative of God's good intentions for humanity.  
   When we see the Christmas story in its full context, as the songs I just mentioned help us to experience, it also becomes more real.  It is more than just a time to pretend everything in the world is perfect or a season to over-indulge.  Christmas by itself does not work magic.  In the midst of the mess we find ourselves in as humans, we can be assured that God has a rescue plan.  It is a work in progress, and the final ending will be beyond our imaginations!
[1] Alyssa Poblete wrote this on December 22, 2014 in the following blog post Joy to the World

Christmas hospitality

 I was asked by someone in my church to share a story of a past Christmas.  I thought I would include it here as well.

   The Christmas season in North America involves many social gatherings and dinners.  We receive advice from web sites and blogs about how to serve the right foods, decorate in the latest style and create the right atmosphere for our guests to enjoy.  However, what is Jesus’ advice about such dinners and feasts?  In Luke 14:12-14 he says something that we find hard to swallow.  He says to invite people who may not be in our circles, those who don’t normally get invited to these events.  Jesus says we will be blessed if we do this.
   I do not want to pretend that this is what I do every Christmas or Thanksgiving or Easter.  Often I live such an insulated life that I would not even be aware of who needs such an invitation.  Just looking after my own extended family can feel like enough.  However, over the years I have experienced the opportunity and blessing from including people who might not be the typical guests.  I will share one particular Christmas Eve story in hopes that it re-inspire me and perhaps others to find a way to celebrate Jesus’ birthday by following his advice about dinner parties.
   One spring I met a single mother (Kay) and her pre-teen daughter who lived in a subsidized housing complex not far from my rural home.  Kay was bound to a wheelchair and received daily help from a personal support worker.  This initial meeting was followed by me visiting her about once a week, with my pre-school children coming along with me.
   As Christmas got closer, my natural inclination was to invite the two of them over for a meal, but our house was not equipped with a ramp.  Not giving up, we thought of taking hospitality “on the road” and proposed bringing Christmas Eve dinner to the town house and enjoying the meal there all together.  Kay readily agreed.  Her own relatives had not made any effort to include them in a Christmas dinner, it would seem, for many years.
   So it was that on Christmas Eve my husband and I loaded up hot casserole dishes containing chicken, gravy, mashed potatoes and vegetables and bundled children in car seats to go to Kay’s house for dinner.  I also packed a table cloth, grape juice and paper napkins.  Kay’s daughter let us in, not quite sure what to make of this.  She helped set the table, apologizing that not one place setting matched with another.  Even though our forks and knives did not match and the walls bore pock marks from an unwieldy electric wheelchair, our Christmas Eve dinner was a time of warm fellowship.  We brought a Bible and read about the first Christmas before closing in prayer.

   Is there room at your table or in your schedule to include someone who would otherwise be alone this time of year?  It is indeed more blessed to give than to receive (Acts 20:35b)

Monday, 23 November 2015

Words of Support and Prayer for Your Pastor

   In my faith tradition we are very intentional about saying that every lay person has a vocation in which he or she can serve God.  Being a pastor or missionary is not stated as being the highest calling to which one can aspire.  
   Nevertheless, holding this leadership office does carry special weight and responsibility that should not be taken lightly.  Psalm 20 gives us words we can use to support and pray for our pastor(s).  The parts I have adjusted or paraphrased will be found in italics.  This translation of Psalm 20 comes from the New International Version of the Bible.

May the LORD answer you when you are in distress; may the name of the God of Jacob protect you when you are overwhelmed by your office.  

May he send you help from the sanctuary and grant you support from Zion.  May he remember all your acts of service and accept your prayers offered in faith.

May he give you the desire of your heart and make all your plans for the well-being of your flock succeed.

We will shout for joy when you rally us against injustice and will lift up our banners in the name of our God.  May the LORD grant all your requests.

Now I know that the LORD saves his anointed, those he has called to special work; he answers him from his holy heaven with the saving power of his right hand.

Some trust in wealth and some in their good reputation, but we trust in the name of the LORD our God.

Idols and their worshipers are brought to their knees and fall, but in Christ we rise up and stand firm.

O LORD, sustain and uphold our pastor!  Answer us when we call in Jesus' name!  Amen.

Wednesday, 28 October 2015

Undoing Babel around a Table

   The Old Testament tells the story of a group of people who decided to build a ziggurat (tower) to make a name for themselves.  They wanted to reach God in heaven and refused to spread out over the face of the earth as he had commanded.  As a result, God confused their languages.  Communication broke down, and the people abandoned their grand project.  They set out for different areas, and nations arose. The place was called "Babel," from which we have also gained the word "babble," a helpful word for speech that does not communicate meaning.
   Last night the young Iraqi woman who lives with us invited guests for dinner.  A friend she first met while in Iraq was visiting from his new home in the Netherlands, and he was accompanied by his aunt, who had come from Iraq over thirty years ago.
   She did such an amazing job preparing a meal for all of us that if felt like a second Thanksgiving. As we passed the salad, the pork chops and the roasted potatoes, there was an incredible array of communication.  She and her two guests could all speak Armenian and Arabic with one another.  Her friend who lives in the Netherlands could speak Dutch with my husband and me.  All of us were also able to understand English to varying degrees.  During the conversations, even those which not all could understand, there was still a special sense of unity.  Language was not used to exclude anyone because around the table we were all friends.  Once, we paused to talk about a particular Arabic word: saha.  Literally it means "health," but it is used in various ways.  When someone sneezes, you say, "Saha" in the same way we say "Bless you" in English.  It can also be used at the start of a meal, wishing good health and nourishment from the food one is about to eat.  When you add a certain ending, it also becomes a term of endearment.
 After the meal we opened the Bible to read from the book of James.  Maral turned in her own Bible, where she had a column in English and Arabic on each page.  Although we read in English, there was understanding and opportunity to ask questions.  Appropriately, the topic of taming the tongue directed us to communication that blesses rather than curses.
   When we have the Spirit of Jesus among us, we can overcome the barriers that different languages and cultures tend to place between people.  When we seek the One by whom all things hold together, we can begin to experience the "undoing" of Babel.  It can happen at a simple dinner table, where grace and peace are served along with the meal.

Saturday, 24 October 2015

Medication Mistakes

   Medication mistakes happen far more often than we would like to think in hospitals.  According to a 2005 report by Statistics Canada:
 Nearly one-fifth (19%) of hospital RNs reported that medication error involving patients in their care had occurred "occasionally" or "frequently" in the past year. [1] 
   However, medication mistakes are also likely to occur in homes.  Over-the-counter products give dosages and warn patients about taking more than the recommended amounts, but labels can be misread.  Even with the best of intentions, medication mistakes can occur.
   It happened to me on Canadian Thanksgiving weekend.  My daughter had an allergic reaction to an unknown substance, so I gave her a dose of liquid allergy medication meant for children.  My daughter is thirteen years old, so she was at the high end of the dosage: three teaspoons.  The reaction subsided for a time but returned the next day when we were travelling out of town for a family event.
   In my disorganization, I set the medication on the table but not in my purse where it was supposed to go.  Upon our arrival the rash worsened, but only then did I realize I had left the bottle of medicine behind.
   I was able to find a pharmacy a short walk from where we were.  I grabbed a package from the shelf that was in the form of a liquid because my daughter has an aversion to swallowing pills. However, this time it was not a liquid meant only for children; it was called "elixir" and had dosages for children up to adult.  For a teaspoon I was delighted that I had a plastic spoon in my van.  Still in "maximum dose" mode, I gave my daughter four spoonfuls of the liquid.
   Almost instantly her hives disappeared, but at dinner she was acting extremely tired.  When my husband asked me how much medication I had given her, I said, "Four teaspoons."
   He wondered what the suggested dose was, and I pointed out "2-4 teaspoons."  Then he asked to see the spoon I had used.  Using water from the pitcher at our restaurant table, he showed me that the capacity of this spoon was equivalent to a tablespoon, three times as much as intended.
   I felt sick.  How could I have done this to my child?  I had read the label and yet I had made a major mistake.  My sense of familiarity with an over-the-counter drug had kept me from being careful and wise.
   Thankfully there were no other adverse affects on my daughter, and her hives have not returned at all.
   I have no way of proving this, but I believe that God in his providence is able to hold back the full extent of the consequences of mistakes we make.  Many medication mistakes at home or in hospitals may not even be noticed by God's grace, depending upon the drugs involved.
   That knowledge and belief should not make me careless; however, I have a sense of deep gratitude that my daughter's story did not have a tragic ending.  I have also learned to have a fresh and  healthy respect for medicines, prescriptions and otherwise.


Saturday, 10 October 2015

Thanksgiving Menus

   The traditional menu for Canadian Thanksgiving borrows a great deal from the iconic meal shared by the Pilgrims and the Native Americans in 1621.  The roasted turkey, potatoes, along with the vast array of vegetables including squash and corn, come from this harvest festival in New England about one year after the Mayflower first arrived in the new world.
   Certainly, the idea we associate with Thanksgiving is abundance.  For our large gatherings, we prepare much more food than we can possibly eat at one sitting.  People take second (or third) helpings, putting off their diets for the sake of the festival.
   Even before the Pilgrims and further to the north, there was a service of Thanksgiving in 1578 led by pirate/explorer Martin Frobisher giving gratitude to God for his care and provision after a dangerous voyage in search of the Arctic Northwest Passage. This Thanksgiving, which did not occur in October or November, was focused upon protection rather than harvest.
   I wonder sometimes if we are missing some of the context of these first North American Thanksgivings.  Consider the following:

  1. Records from Martin Frobisher's ships show that each week his crew would receive meat on four days and no meat on the other three.  The other rations on board included flour, oats, dried beans and biscuits.  One would imagine that any Thanksgiving meal accompanying the first Canadian Thanksgiving in 1578 would not have been a lavish affair.
  2. The fact that turkey was served at the first American Thanksgiving was not due to marketing or people saving up for weeks to purchase such an expensive type of poultry. Turkey was part of the menu because wild turkeys were abundant in the place where the Pilgrims and Natives were living.  They could easily hunt them, and the meat was tasty.  In that same spirit (choosing something for my Thanksgiving menu simply because it is abundant), I intend to find a way to elevate kale.  Just today, we harvest four "trees" of it from our vegetable garden. (See photo)
  3. Both of these original Thanksgiving events were not about a nebulous feeling of gratitude one stirred up once a year.  They were part of a daily lifestyle of giving God the credit for any blessings that come our way.  Thanksgiving needs to be directed somewhere: any celebration that is missing the element of acknowledging God's role in our lives will fall short of the true meaning of the holy-day.
  4. The first celebrants of Thanksgiving had experienced difficulties most of us could only imagine.  Frobisher and his crew daily faced hostile weather and were far from home and family, and yet they could celebrate.  The Pilgrims had survived one year in the new world, but many of their number had succumbed to disease and starvation.  We do not celebrate Thanksgiving only if everything in our lives is going well.  We celebrate it even though there are really difficult things in our lives.   

Saturday, 19 September 2015

The "Imagine" Reality Check: Orphan Care

After having taken a short break, I am resuming this series.  Singer-songwriter John Lennon wrote a song decades ago asking people to imagine a world with no religion as though it would automatically lead to peace and harmony among people.  Through this series I have been exploring the contributions of Christianity to Western culture, some of which have become such "givens" that many do not realize that they came to us thanks to people properly living out their religion.
Freerange stock photo

   It may be surprising to most people that the word “religion” is hardly ever used in the Christian Bible.  One place it is used is in the highly practical letter of James.  Here we find these words:
Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world. (James 1:27)
In this post, I will focus on the way Christians from the beginning were people who looked after orphans in their distress.
   Jesus Christ and his first followers lived in the context of the Roman Empire.  However, they lived within a Jewish enclave of that empire, where many laws, traditions and ways of living continued to be practiced even if they were not universally shared.  When the first followers were dispersed throughout various pockets of the Roman Empire, they may have found a Jewish synagogue or a small worshipping community of Jews by a river side (see Acts 16:13), but Greco-Roman patterns and ethics dominated all of society.
   Greco-Roman attitudes regarding the value and status of women, children and slaves affected their everyday interactions with each other and colored their sense of justice as well.  Because infants and children were not valued, it was common for them to be abandoned at birth if the parents did not want to raise them.  Such children either died of cold or hunger or were seized by slave traders who would exploit them. Christians began to rescue and embrace these infants, raising them with “the aid of the community fund.” [1] 
   Apostolic Constitutions (eight treatises dated from 375 to 380 (Book IV) Section 1. On Helping the Poor refer to the practice within the church for members to adopt and raise any Christian child whose parents had lost their lives whether by martyrdom or natural causes.  Orphanages as an institution began to be opened in the East at the same time as St. Basil was founding hospitals in the early fourth century. 
   A prominent Christian who cared for children in orphanages was George Muller, a German-born missionary who came to London to evangelize Jews.  Eventually he settled in Bristol at a time when a cholera epidemic was decimating the population.  So many children were left without parents that Muller took action and started Orphan Homes.  Eventually there were five of them, without any fundraising or asking for money.  Muller strongly believed that the Lord would provide financially without his approaching any individuals or groups. In all over 10,000 children were cared for in Muller’s homes. [2]
   Christian missions overseas have also often focused on the need to provide care for vulnerable orphans.  This has taken various forms, including adoption (for example, the cases of missionaries Amy Carmichael and Gladys Aylward in India and China, respectively), establishing orphanages, and more recently by organizing and supporting foster care within the child’s own community (such as is done by Visionledd in African nations ravaged by AIDS). 
   As I was researching orphan care, one of the things that popped up in my browser search was a news story about “the first atheist orphanage.”  A group of humanists announced in the February 2015 article that they would open the first atheist orphanage and would rely on crowd funding.  I suppose this really is newsworthy because it admits that faith has motivated the vast majority of homes for orphans.  Furthermore, it shows that through all the years of human history it has taken thousands of years before someone of no religion felt inclined to launch such an initiative.

[1] Will Durant, Caesar and Christ (1944), p. 598; also E. Gibbon, The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire (1900), p. 480.
[2] See www.Muller.org

Monday, 14 September 2015

Coptic Object Lesson

   On the weekend (Saturday, September 12th) the Coptic Orthodox community celebrated its new year.  This festival coincides with a remembrance of martyrs, people who have died for their faith in the present and especially in generations past under the persecution of Emperor Diocletian.  The name Nayrouz refers to martyrs.
   On Saturday afternoon while attending a birthday party I met a Coptic family: a father, mother and two teenage daughters.  The father and younger daughter had been in Toronto that morning at a celebratory conference in honour the festival of Nayrouz.  The younger daughter held out her hand and showed us she had saved a pit from a date she had eaten there.  The older daughter immediately knew why she would do this, and the father quickly explained it to me.  For Coptic people, the fruit of the date palm has a special significance.  It reminds them of the martyrs in the following ways:

  • The outside of the date is reddish-brown, which signifies the blood and suffering of the martyrs
  • The inside of the date is white (as you can see on the image).  This represents the purity of the hearts of those who remained true to their faith even to death.
  • The seed of the date is hard, and it reminds Coptic Christians of the firm and resolute faith that enabled the believers to face a martyr's death.
   I later learned that the importance of martyrs carries over to the Coptic calendar in one other way: instead of beginning the counting of years at the birth of Jesus Christ, they begin at AD 284 and designate each year A.M. (Anno Martyrum), in the year of martyrs.  Thus, in the traditional Coptic calendar the year is 1732.  I realize that the math does not work exactly, but there must be a good reason for that. 

Tuesday, 8 September 2015

Spreading Papers before the LORD

   This is a devotion I shared with my staff colleagues on the morning of the first day of school, but I think it can be applied to many contexts.

   There is an interesting story in the book of 1 Kings about what a king does when he receives a threatening letter. After reading the message from his enemy King Sennacherib, King Hezekiah of Judah goes to the temple and spreads the letter out before the LORD.  He begins his prayer like this:

Lord, the God of Israel, enthroned between the cherubim,you alone are God over all the kingdoms of the earth. You have made heaven and earth. 16 Give ear, Lord, and hear; open your eyes, Lord, and see; listen to the words Sennacherib has sent to ridicule the living God." (2 Kings 19:15-16)

   I love this image of the king physically spreading out this parchment before the LORD.  Of course, God knows what the message is and does not need to read it.  It was a way for the king to surrender the situation to God and to ask Him to deal with it.
   Spreading out papers before the LORD does not have to be limited to those which are sent to us and cause us distress.  Certainly, an unexpected bill or a note sharing bad news would also be appropriate to spread before the LORD and ask him for help. 
   This summer, I literally did the same thing with the class lists as I was preparing them.  I spread these pages out on my desk and asked God to bless the arrangements and the students in each class.  
    Other papers we might spread out before God are our daily and yearly plans, our communications with parents or our marking rubrics.  It's a good practice we can do as a way of surrendering our work and efforts to God's service.

Prayer based on Psalms 5 & 90
Give ear to our words, O Lord.
You have been God before creation; you have guided the formation of our school a generation ago. We are well aware of our smallness in the grand order of things.
This morning you hear my voice; this morning we lay our requests before you and wait in expectation.
Lead us O Lord in your righteousness; make straight your way before us.  Surround us with your favor as with with shield.
As we have prepared many days for this one, please bless your start to a new school year.  Please calm the anxious hearts of students and parents and staff.  We humbly ask you to establish the work of our hands for us, for without You we can do nothing.
In the name of Jesus, Amen

Monday, 24 August 2015

The "Imagine" Reality Check: Volunteerism

Volunteer work is defined as valuable work done by a person who is not paid.  He or she chooses to give time to help a particular, often charitable, cause.   The concept of voluntary labour is not a world-wide phenomenon.  Even though not everyone in the West participates in volunteer work, there is a sense that such labour is important to society as a whole.  How long as volunteer work been part of Western culture?  I would venture to say that it parallels the spread of Christianity.
   The ministry of Jesus Christ and his first followers was marked by giving of themselves for the benefit of others.  In his parable of the sheep and the goats [1], Jesus implies that the natural outworking of true faith in God would include giving food to the hungry, drink to the thirsty, welcome to the stranger, clothing to the naked, care to the sick, and solace to the prisoner.  All of these actions would be done without expecting anything in return, not even the notice of God as they respond with, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you , or thirsty and give you something to drink?”
   That volunteer work is a legacy of Christian faith in the West can be seen even in the 2014 World Giving Index produced by the British-based Charities Aid Foundation.  Surveys were taken asking people around the world if they had given their time to an organization in the past month.  Among the 24 countries where one-third or more people had done volunteer work, the following was also true:

7 countries are considered part of the West (Australia, Canada, Ireland, Netherlands, New Zealand, South Africa,* USA)

7 non-Western nations have 54% or more of the population affiliating with Christianity (Guatemala, Jamaica, Kenya, Liberia, Philippines, Trinidad and Tobago)

4 are former Soviet bloc countries where subbotniks, [sometimes forced] free labour on Saturdays has been part of the culture since it was introduced by the Communists in 1919 (Belarus, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan)

4 are Southeast Asian countries that had recently been hit by natural disasters, so the numbers may have been higher than a typical year (Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Sri Lanka)

1 has a population 50 % Muslim, 40% Christian (Nigeria)

1 is a largely Buddhist country (Mongolia)

   The most striking information about volunteerism comes from a country that has officially endorsed atheism for 66 years.  The People’s Republic of China has one of the lowest rates of volunteerism, at 6% of respondents [2].
   About fifteen years ago, we hosted a pair of young adults who were part of a Canada-World Youth Exchange.  These two girls (one Canadian, one Russian) had strikingly different attitudes towards the volunteer work that was part of their program.  The Canadian girl who was second generation East Indian considered the volunteer work at a daycare as valuable for its own sake and because she wanted to pursue child care as a career.  In contrast, the Russian girl complained about having to work without pay as she sorted clothing and played with children at a women’s shelter.  Her country may have had social service organizations, but with exclusively paid staff.  To her, volunteering felt like exploitation.  I realize that today in my province a significant portion of high school students may likewise feel exploited that they must volunteer for 40 hours in order to graduate, but I suspect that most of the adults in their lives will help them to see the benefits.
   One last remark about volunteering’s connection to Christian faith comes from a Canadian report entitled “Religion, Participation and Charitable Giving,” published in 1999.  Statistics were gathered comparing the level of participation (weekly, monthly, never) in religious services and the amount of time spent volunteering.  The author found a staggering connection between faithful attenders and volunteer work:

“These weekly attenders who volunteer amount to only 9 per cent of all Canadians, but they account for 39 per cent of all hours volunteered. They are in a class by themselves.” [3]

   When people imagine there’s no religion, do they realize that voluntary labour to help the vulnerable would take a serious hit?

[1] This parable can be found in Matthew 25: 31-46, Holy Bible
[2] The entire report can be found at https://www.cafonline.org/docs/default-source/about-us-publications/caf_wgi2014_report_1555awebfinal.pdf
[3] The full report can be found at http://www.imaginecanada.ca/sites/default/files/www/en/giving/rp_1997_religion_participation_and_charitable_giving_en.pdf

Friday, 14 August 2015

Prosperity Defined

   I'm taking a brief recess from my series "The 'Imagine' Reality Check" to deal with another topic: prosperity.

   My husband and I recently transferred all our banking to a credit union.  This cooperative financial institution has a "Prosperity Project."  In order to engage its members, each branch has been inviting people to write on a round piece of card stock what prosperity means to them.  Some of the definitions I can remember were:

Being rich                                                        Being mortgage-free sooner; retire before age 65

        Being healthy                               Enjoying children and grandchildren

   This week I picked up the Sharpie and wrote a definition of my own:

Prosperity is being able to pay my bills and having enough to share with those in need.

   Please allow me to unpack why, for me, prosperity involves these twin aspects.

1)  Being able to pay my bills
When I can pay my bills, I am living within my means.  I make purchases not according to what I want or according to what my neighbors have.  Instead, I buy things I need at the rate I can afford them.  If that means choosing second-hand items rather than brand new ones, that is part of prosperity.  Prosperity does not go into consumer debt.  Living within my means reduces my stress level because I'm not afraid of bills arriving that I cannot pay.  Unless I will be able to pay the full balance of my credit card on the due date, I do not use it.
   When my income increases, I have the option of continuing with that original standard of living. Living beneath my means can lead to even greater prosperity as I see it in the second half of my definition.

2) Having enough to share with those in need
How can a person feel prosperous if he or she in only grasping for material things for him or herself? I feel prosperous when I can give some of my income off the top for God's work in the world--that feeds the hungry, shelters the homeless, brings good news to the oppressed, and prevents abuses of many kinds.  I feel even more prosperous when, at the end of the month, there is more good that can be accomplished with what has come into my possession.  Prosperity is entrusted to us so that it can be shared.

I'd love to hear your comments about this definition of prosperity.  Does any of it resonate with you?

The "Imagine" Reality Check: Health Care Infrastructure, Part 4: Hospice

   The hospice, a specialized home for those with a terminal illness and their families, is a relatively new part of Western health care infrastructure.  The first hospice was established in 1967 in London, England, but it built itself upon the foundations outlined in my last three posts. 
   Without hospitals, the idea of a hospice as a specialized institution would not have arisen.  The founder of the first hospice and the hospice movement itself, Dame Cicely Saunders, began her medical training during World War II.  She trained to become a Red Cross war nurse at, notably, the Nightingale Training School!  She subsequently added to her education, becoming a medical doctor in 1957.
   Ms. Saunders, according to the Encyclopedia of world biography, was “[a] devout Christian.” When planning the concept of a hospice, she “incorporated opportunities for spiritual reflection into her plan, including a chapel, staff theologians, and prayer time. Yet she remained adamant that religion not be forced on anyone” [1].  She believed that the atmosphere of well-lit and home-like rooms would bring comfort to patients and their families.  More consistent pain control and other palliative treatments would not try to artificially extend life but make the end more bearable.  Due in part to Saunders’ research, palliative care has become a specialized area of medicine.
   Hospice care, according to Saunders’ model is diametrically opposed to physician-assisted suicide or euthanasia since her beliefs were based on the sanctity of human life and the sovereignty of God over one’s lifespan.  It is worth noting that despite its faith-filled beginnings, not all hospice care today continues in that life-affirming tradition [2]. 

[1] Encyclopedia of World Biography | 2005  : Saunders, Cicely.

[2] American hospice pioneer Florence Wald was open to euthanasia, and that has trickled down to some US hospices, according to Kelleigh Nelson’s March 6, 2013 article “Killing us Softly” found at freedomoutpost.com 

Thursday, 13 August 2015

The Imagine Reality Check: Health Care Infrastructure, Part 3: The International Red Cross

   When a disaster happens around the world, one of the first humanitarian groups to respond is the Red Cross (or Red Crescent).  We expect that this not-for-profit group of nurses, doctors and behind-the-scenes logistics workers will reach out to those caught in war, flooding, famine and other calamities.  As of 2015, there are 189 Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, meaning that 189 countries not only value but actively engage with this movement [1]

   Where did the vision come from to start such an organization?  It was born out of the strong Christian faith and concern for humanity of Swiss merchant Jean Henri Dunant.  As he travelled on an official errand, he happened to witness the cruel and needless deaths on a battlefield in Solferino, Italy in 1859.  At the time, he took action to beg with the army leaders to release any captured medical personnel to help save the wounded and tried to mobilize volunteers in neighboring towns to assist as well.  The experience led him to write a memoir and to work with others in establishing an organization that would be neutral and non-discriminatory in meeting human needs.  Although it began in Switzerland, the merit of the idea caught on in many countries of Europe and North America, and beyond.
   The Red Cross organization was founded in 1863, but Dunant did not remain at the helm for various reasons; his business interests went bankrupt, and thus he lost social standing among the other philanthropists who took up his mantle.  It was not until nearly forty years later when Dunant was honored and recognized with the very first Nobel Peace Prize. These words of congratulation were issued by the International Committee of the Red Cross in Geneva:
There is no man who more deserves this honour, for it was you, forty years ago, who set on foot the international organization for the relief of the wounded on the battlefield. Without you, the Red Cross, the supreme humanitarian achievement of the nineteenth century, would probably never have been undertaken.” [2]

[1]  According to the website of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

Tuesday, 11 August 2015

The "Imagine" Reality Check: Health Care Infrastructure, Part 2: Nursing

   The origin of nursing care as we know it began in the early days of Christianity, where males and females offered comfort and practical help to those who were ill.  It modelled itself after the practical care and love Jesus showed to the sick during his ministry.  The progress of this calling, however, was anything but linear.
   Within the monasteries and early hospitals, nurses had an important role.  As things became more formalized with specific “orders” (Hospital Brothers of St. Anthony 1095, Knights Hospitaller 1099 and Franciscans in the 13th century), monks and nuns were trained to the degree that medical knowledge was available.  They were respected for the care they gave to anyone who needed it, free of charge.  Becoming a nun who served the sick was considered an honorable vocation.
Freerange Stock photo
   One of the unfortunate consequences of the Protestant Reformation was that in nations where Roman Catholicism was displaced or outlawed, health care suffered and nurses became devalued.  In Protestant Germany it took 200 years before a revival of nursing took place through the movement of deaconesses.  This movement was based upon a number of models: the deaconess Phoebe mentioned only once in the New Testament book of Romans, the deaconess movement in the Netherlands, the work of the Sisters of Charity affiliated with St. Vincent de Paul and the diaconal movement of Johann Hinrich Wichern within the Lutheran community.  The Deaconess Community established training schools that extended to neighboring countries as well as particular districts within Pennsylvania, Maryland and Nebraska. [1]
   Up until this point in much of Protestant Europe, the position of a nurse was considered one of the lowest possible for any woman.  The pay was meager, and many nurses supplemented their income by acting as prostitutes.  Since the importance of hygiene was not known or recognized, nurses often caught the diseases of those they were treating [2].
   One person whose mission it was to change the face of nursing was a British citizen named Florence Nightingale.  Her family did not support her desire to care for the sick because of the reputation of nurses, but finally in her early 30’s she succeeded in going to Kaiserwerth, Germany to be taught by the Deaconesses.  Using this training and her uncommon insights into effective, compassionate care for the sick, Nightingale became the superintendent of a new London hospital.  Within seven months, she had her sights on becoming Superintendent of Nurses so that systemic changes could be made that centered on training good nurses. In another seven months she was dispatched with a team of 38 nurses to assist the army hospital stationed along the Black Sea in modern-day Turkey.  At this time the Crimean War was taking place, and Nightingale worked tirelessly to minister to the wounded soldiers; she created clean living quarters and the means to provide healthy food so that victims would be able to recover.
   Florence Nightingale was motivated by a sense of calling by God to a life of service, a calling she received when she was just 16 years old [3].  As her life unfolded, the three years between August 1853 and August 1856 proved to be pivotal to the care of the sick starting in Britain and the British military but spreading ever outward to continental Europe and as far away as India.  Nightingale wrote the textbook Notes on Nursing (based largely on exhaustive notes and statistics she had kept while on duty) that was used in her nursing schools.  Even when she was later confined to a small room because of her own health concerns, Florence Nightingale was always active by writing letters, reports, pamphlets and books to improve health care.
   Something essential to a good nurse, according to Nightingale, was good moral character.  Thus, she encouraged nursing students to enjoy poetry and music and to attend church [4]. She saw in the task of nursing a noble vocation, and that vision has led to its present status as a respected profession for both women and men.

[1] For further information, see http://deaconesscommunity.org/our-history/  
[2] Gena K. Gorrell.  Heart and Soul: The Story of Florence Nightingale.  Toronto: Tundra Books (2000), p. 34.
[3] Gorrell, p. 21.

[4] Gorrell, p. 131.

Friday, 7 August 2015

The "Imagine" Reality Check: Health Care Infrastructure Part 1, Hospitals

 Singer/songwriter John Lennon wanted people to "imagine there's no heaven...no religion too." Applying that vision specifically to what the world would be like without the Christian religion, I will examine what it would mean for health care in the West

   I will not claim that Christianity can take credit for all the medical knowledge and advancements that exist in the world.  China, the Indian subcontinent, Egypt and Greece from ancient times held a body of medical knowledge that developed independently of that in Medieval Europe.  One example of their crossing paths occurred when British doctor, Edward Jenner, used the preventative technique of variolation (applying a small amount of a small pox pustule to a skin scratch of a healthy person) common in Chinese medicine.  Eventually, that practice led to the introduction of vaccines for smallpox, followed by other types of vaccines according to the same rationale [1].

   Nevertheless, one of the things we take for granted in our medical system, the hospital, is a direct legacy from Christianity.  Having a specialized facility where very ill people can be cared for when they are unable to stay at home is something we expect to find in every decent sized town or city in the West.  How did this come to be?
Freerange Stock photo
   The first public [where care was given free of charge] hospital was established by Christian leader Basil the Great in the fourth century A.D. in what is now Kayseri, Turkey.  The institutions prior to that one could not truly be called hosptials.  For example, ill people were welcomed in temples of the Greek god Asclepius.  However, there is no evidence that trained physicians attended them; instead the hope for the patient came only in proximity to the god of healing.  There is evidence that if a patient was not expected to survive, he would be turned away at such a temple because it would bring impurity to the holy place. [2] The Romans did have hospitals called valetudinarian, but they were intended for soldiers only.  The state and wealthy people funded these institutions that were deemed crucial to the maintenance and expansion of the Empire.
   When Basil constructed the complex of buildings we could call the first hospital, it was known as a “new city.”  According to Robert Louis Wilken, it “included medical facilities for the sick staffed with nurses and physicians, living space for the elderly and infirm, a hostel for travelers, a hospice for lepers who had been driven from the city because of disfigurement, a church and a monastery” as well as kitchens, baths, stables and storehouses for supplies. [3] Basil the Great was building upon an early tradition within Christian monasteries of the East, where medical care for both monks and members of the community was part of their ministry.  This idea spread to some monasteries in medieval Europe as well.
   The first hospitals in France were established by church leaders and were known as Hotel-Dieu (hostel of God); they particularly reached out to the poor and needy.  Admittedly, some basic knowledge of sanitation in hospitals was lacking during the medieval period, but the idea of quarantine during the Black Plague appears to have been derived by clergy in Vienna going back to the societal laws contained in the books of Moses, especially Leviticus.  The isolation of a sick person so that his illness could not spread to the healthy population, given as a directive from God, was thousands of years ahead of the scientific knowledge of the spread of germs. [4]
   Turning to the new world, the first hospital in North America was built in Mexico City in the early 1500’s and named after Jesus of Nazareth.  In Canada, an order of Catholic Sisters established the first Hotel Dieu in Quebec City in 1639.  The first US hospital would appear to have no religious affiliation since Benjamin Franklin is credited with its founding.  But even this is misleading. Benjamin Franklin cannot be separated from the faith in which he was raised.  He believed that faith had to lead to action and service to one’s fellow man. Says biographer John Fea, “Although he [Franklin] never returned to the Calvinism of his childhood, the religion of his parents leavened much of his adult thinking. Franklin believed in a Creator - God who possessed great wisdom, goodness, and power. This God not only created the world, but sustained it.” [5]
   In my very own city, there are three hospitals, two of which have distinct Christian roots.  Freeport Hospital was originally a sanatorium to treat people with tuberculosis, often called consumption, but the person who spearheaded its founding was Rev. Dr. Oberlander.  This pastor was distressed by the deaths of children and adults in the community and gathered physicians to see if better treatment could be put in place for those struggling with this illness [6].  St. Mary’s Hospital, as its name suggests, was birthed as a ministry of the Roman Catholic Church, through the Sisters of St. Joseph of Hamilton, in 1924.
   Since many hospitals doubled as teaching and/or research centres, many of the medical innovations and standards of care that we are accustomed to also rest on the foundation of the institution of the hospital.


Another fundamental aspect of medical care in the West is the nursing profession.  Next time I will outline the links between nursing care and Christian faith in action.

[1] Kate Kelly. The History of Medicine: Early Civilizations (2009), p. 84-85.
[2] Gary Ferngren. Medicine and Religion: A Historical Overview. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins UP, (20140, p. 91-92.
[3] Robert Louis Wilken. The First Thousand Years: A Global History of Christianity. Yale University Press (2012), p. 159-160.
[4] Leviticus 13-15 can be consulted for more detail.  See also Grant R. Jeffrey, The Signature of God  (1998), pages 145-6
[5] By John Fea. “ Religion and Early Politics: Benjamin Franklin’s Religious Beliefs.” Pennsylvania Heritage Magazine Volume XXXVII, Number 4 - Fall 2011.  Accessible on the web by clicking here.
[6] William V. Uttley. A History of Kitchener, Ontario (1937), p. 404-405.


Thursday, 30 July 2015

The "Imagine" Reality Check: Universities

  The very first universities had a religious basis, with the first three universities ever founded and still in existence being in the Islamic tradition.  Morocco, Egypt and Iran each have a university whose origins go back to the years 859, 970 and 1065, respectively.  Natural sciences and religious studies did not conflict with one another at such schools.
   The next universities to be established outside the Middle East were the University of Bologna (1088 in Italy) and the University of Paris (1096 in France).  These later dates, however, are a bit misleading.  These institutions did not just spring up without a context.  The University of Bologna arose as a centre of the study of law: church law as well as Roman law [1].  Furthermore, the places that become European universities in the 11th and 12th centuries started out as cathedral-based schools.  Here bishops had taken responsibility for teaching the next generation of priests and church leaders from at least the 6th century A.D.  by teaching them the Bible and doctrine but also literacy in Latin grammar.  The University of Paris was anything but secular when it first opened.  It was divided into four sections: Arts, Medicine, Law and Theology, but before attaining a legal, medical or theological degree all students had to complete the liberal arts course of study [2].  In the same way, cathedral schools were also the precursor of Britain’s prestigious Oxford and Cambridge Universities.
   Turning to the “new world,” Harvard was established in 1636 and the College of William and Mary began in 1693, both while America still consisted of a collection of colonies.  Harvard was founded by a group of Puritans who had arrived in Massachusetts just sixteen years earlier.  They recognized the importance of education for the future of the colony and its proper development.  The motto they chose was “Veritas,” Latin for truth.  Its first benefactor, John Harvard, died one year after coming to the new world, but he gave his complete library and half of his estate to the fledgling institution.  In gratitude, it was named in his honour.  The College of William and Mary’s charter said it was to be a “perpetual College of Divinity, Philosophy, Languages, and other good Arts and Sciences.”  Thomas Jefferson attended this school about 70 years after its founding, and at that time all but one of the professors on staff were clergymen. That small fact indicates that higher education and Christian faith were not seen as incompatible during the years around American Independence.
   In New France (now the largely French-speaking part of Canada) Jesuit priests accompanied settlers and adventurers in the early 1600’s.  They established basic schools widely; within 50 years they also had a central institution of higher education to prepare young men to the Jesuit priesthood.  Laval University proudly traces its heritage back to 1663 but on its public site makes no mention of the faith commitment of its first founders.  Montreal’s Concordia University, founded in 1848 as Loyola College, had a similar origin. [3]
   The oldest English speaking university in Canada is located in the Maritimes: the University of New Brunswick.  It was founded in 1785, about a decade after the American Revolution by British refugees, who did not favor cutting ties with the Empire and thus moved northward.  The initial goal of such a school was to give youth a “virtuous education” in the following areas: Religion, Literature, Loyalty and good Morals. It set out to offer enrolment to students regardless of the particular church denomination they might belong to, but it was largely run by Anglican-based leadership. [4] 
   Coming at last to Ontario, Canada, there are now 19 public universities to which students can apply via one centralized system.  Of these, fourteen had a clear faith-based origin, as explained on the “history” section of their websites.  Two examples from the nation’s capital would be appropriate even though they were founded 94 years apart:
1)       University of Ottawa started out in 1848 as the College of Bytown founded by a Roman Catholic bishop.  He handed over the control of the school to the society of Mary Immaculate.  In 1965 this religious institution was renamed St. Paul’s University and the name University of Ottawa was given to the liberal arts program.  St. Paul’s University continues to be affiliated with the University of Ottawa.
2)      Carleton University in Ottawa began in 1942 and boasts being the first “non-denominational” university in Ontario.  That does not mean it set itself up against faith, but that it would not favour any particular Christian background.  The YMCA of Ottawa was instrumental in establishing this school at a time when “YMCA” meant more than a pool and fitness club.  Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) was a community centre that engaged youth in integrating faith in different aspects of life.

   Universities as institutions where young adults can learn specialized skills and take their place in society are highly respected in the West.  The pioneering effort of churches and visionary church leaders cannot be underestimated.  The funds raised to construct the first buildings did not come from government grants but from grass roots people (some of whom had wealth to share) who felt that moral and constructive learning for future generations was important.  Without that heritage starting in Europe, would we really have these schools of excellence today?  While most Western universities have currently shifted their focus away from faith, they would not exist at all if we had a world with no vestiges of religion.

[1] Gerald L. Gutek A History of the Western Educational Experience.  (1995), p. 100-101
[4] http://www.unb.ca/aboutunb/history/historicalsketch.html

Monday, 27 July 2015

The "Imagine" Reality Check: Universal Education

In North America and Western Europe we consider it normal that each child (male and female) be given an education up to the age of 18 at no cost to the parents, but consider educational opportunities for children on other continents:

Education in India (whether by guru or in Islamic madrasas) has traditionally been reserved for boys in the upper castes.  The first group to offer schooling to children of lower castes were Christian missionaries in the early 1800’s.  As of 2010, the Right of Education Act promises to deliver local & universal free education to all children up to the age of 14.  According to an article in the British newspaper the Guardian (May 2013), schools in South Delhi are overcrowded and inadequately staffed.  Culturally, girls are not given the same opportunities to study.  The poor suffer the most because the people of India who are well off opt out of the public education system and pay for private instruction. Provisions for disabled children are minimal. [1]

This nation in Central America offers education up to and including 5th grade, but school uniforms and school supplies are to be paid for by the parents.  When parents are unable to afford these items, children do not attend school.  Often children living in poverty are also kept out of school in order to help at home.  Lack of teacher training and accountability results in lower standards of education. [2]

According to UNICEF,
Schools are struggling to meet the needs of Zambian children. At least 1,500 classrooms per year need to be constructed to accommodate all those eligible. Lowered enrollment rates result from this lack of school places and the long distances needed to travel when schools are in rural areas. Quality of teaching, with so few trained teachers within the educational system, is an issue of concern.
Parents are committed to educating their children but the distance to school and poverty levels mean that poor households cannot manage the cost of students’ uniform and supplies, despite the introduction in Zambia of free basic education to 7th grade. [3]

How is it that universal education up to age 18 has been a mainstay in the West?  The Christian influence cannot be overlooked:

  • Some of the first schools that did not charge tuition fees to students were Jesuit schools in Europe [4].  The Jesuits are a Roman Catholic order that established a system of school starting around 1545 because they saw education and piety being hand in hand.  Contrary to what one might expect, these schools for boys were not primarily aimed at educating new priests.
  • Education for children in England’s working classes was first offered by churches who held Sunday Schools.  These children often worked more than 12 hours per day, six days per week.  They had Sundays off, so enterprising pastor, Robert Raikes [5] saw the opportunity to give these disadvantaged children a chance to become literate and able to function in society.  For about 90 years (1780’s-1870), Sunday schools (which also spread to America and the continent) were more about reading, writing and arithmetic than they were about teaching Bible stories, although the Bible was indeed the reading textbook.  Boys and girls were allowed to attend, and classes were taught by both men and women.  After children had graduated from Sunday School, they had the opportunity to become teachers and leaders as well, providing a form of empowerment. [6]  The state took over in providing daily education to all students, but would it have done so if its success had not been first modeled by Sunday Schools?
  • Edgerton Ryerson, the superintendent for Canada West (the early name for Ontario, Canada), was a Methodist pastor and educator.  His vision for universal, compulsory education for children up to the high school level was the blueprint for the School Act of 1871.  Morality was not seen as an “add-on” but would be taught in and through the subject matter.  Ryerson also valued the existing church-based universities as the destination for high school graduates.


Universities in Western culture are held in high esteem as places of learning and free thought.  Who can we thank for these halls of higher education?

[4] Ignatius of Loyola: Founder of the Jesuits  by John Patrick Donnelly (2004), page131
[5] Raikes was not a single-issue Christian leader.  He was also involved in prison reform and hospital care.

Friday, 24 July 2015

The "Imagine" Reality Check: Humane Prisons

   Singer/songwriter John Lennon wanted people to "imagine there's no heaven...no religion too." Applying that vision specifically to what the world would be like without the Christian religion, I will begin by looking at what it would mean for prisons and punishment.

   First of all, I will begin with three true accounts of what prisons are like outside of North America and Western Europe.  I am indebted to the Voice of the Martyrs and Amnesty International for these stories.

  • In Eritrea (neighbour to the East African nation of Ethiopia), prisoners are tortured through beatings with iron bars.  They are housed in unventilated metal shipping containers that are frigid at night and sweltering hot during the day.  There are no hygiene facilities and the food provided is both unsanitary and inadequate (two breads and dirty water) [1]
  • In the Chinese capital of Beijing, at the Haidian Detention Centre, prisoners are interrogated cruelly and without the advocacy of a lawyer.  Shi Weihan was stripped of his clothes and placed against the wall outdoors in winter time.  His handcuffed wrists were placed behind his neck and hooked to the wall.  Electric shock batons were used on him as well as cold water for hours at a time.[2]
  • In the country of Iran in April 2014, prisoner Farshid Fathi had his foot broken by a guard who stomped on it with his heavy boot to stop him from aiding a fellow inmate who had been beaten.  For three days he was denied medical treatment or any relief of pain. [3]
   Then from history classes, we are also aware of various regimes who have established labour camps where prisoners are forced to do back-breaking physical work for 10-12 hours a day with little in terms of nourishment.  Prisons in England up until the late 1800's were rampant with sickness, overcrowding and filth.

   What brought about more humane conditions in prisons throughout England and its colonies? The influence of two Christian people, who put their faith into action.

1) John Howard (1726-1790) lived in England and experienced first-hand the prison conditions in France when the merchant ship he was on was captured by a French privateer.  At the age of 47 he was appointed High Sheriff of Bedfordshire, becoming responsible for its prison.  When he saw conditions there, he felt compelled to investigate prisons throughout England, Scotland and Wales. He wrote and published detailed and factual reports alerting British society and government for needed reforms.  It took some time for his reforms to be accepted, but he continued to advocate for prisoners and tried to visit other countries in Europe to do so.  According to the biography included on the website of The John Howard Society of Canada, Howard had the following priorities:  

"Clean, healthy accommodation with the provision of adequate clothing and linen; segregation of prisoners according to sex, age and nature of offence; proper health care: these were his priorities. There should be a Chaplain service because he was of his age in believing that spiritual starvation was a major obstacle to reformation of character. Finally, he was a firm believer in the work ethic and the need for prisoners to be provided with work in order that the sin of idleness could be combatted." [4]

   John Howard was motivated by his religious beliefs, rooted in Calvinism and the compassion of Christ for the suffering.  In the same year of Canada's founding (1867), the John Howard Society of Canada formed with a group of Christians ministering to prisoners with spiritual help.  Interestingly, the biography of its namesake that appears on the society's website goes out of its way to distance itself from his narrow-minded views and insults Howard's ideal prison as "a hygenic and well-run zoo."

2) Elizabeth Fry (1780-1845) was a Quaker.  This Christian group was active in social causes and were strong pacifists.  Fry began to be an unlikely leader at the age of 12 when her mother died and household responsibilities fell to her.  When older, she led literacy classes for children who could not afford to attend school and also preached in her church.
   After visiting prisons in Northern England and Scotland, Fry recognized that in the current situation, any prisoner that would eventually be released would be no better than when he or she was arrested.  No attention whatsoever was given to rehabilitation.  Some of her ideas were to instill self-respect in prisoners by giving them responsibilities, education and meaningful work to do.  She had opportunity to testify at a House of Commons committee inquiring into prison conditions.  By raising an issue that many chose to ignore, Fry was instrumental in setting new standards of humane treatment of the imprisoned.
   Local Elizabeth Fry Societies have been established in Canada starting in Vancouver in 1939 to specifically assist women who have found themselves in trouble with the law.  
   I go into a Canadian federal prison for women almost every week.  I see that there are still areas to improve, but when I compare the living conditions to what they have been in the past and what they are elsewhere in the world, I see the blessing of Christians who dared to advocate for criminals. Without the teachings of Jesus being taken seriously by John Howard and Elizabeth Fry and without their courage to speak up, our penal system in the West would be unrecognizable. 

[1] Click on the highlighted words for full article from Amnesty International
[2]video interview with Shi Weihan
[3] More information about Fathi's time in prison can be found here
[4]The full biography can be found here