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Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Holy Week Surprise

   During Holy week, it makes sense to read passages from the Bible that deal with the events that occurred in the last week of Jesus' earthly life.  As well, we can read the reflections that others have written in response to those events.  I was planning to do the latter and involve my family for our devotional time after lunch on Palm Sunday.  As I prepared to open the book of reflections, my husband asked me, "Don't we read the Bible now?"
   At first I took offense.  I was not suggesting we not read the Bible anymore at our meal time devotions.  It was only for this week that I intended to read the reflections of an author I respect and who has good insights into Christ's suffering.  Besides, the place we were reading in the Bible, the book of Nehemiah, had nothing to do with Holy Week.  We could go back to it later, I reasoned.
   However, my husband's gentle prompting to "let the Bible speak" prevailed.  Nehemiah chapter 13 was where the bookmark was.  I began reading and quickly came to the part where a priest who had been put in charge of the temple store rooms was renting a large store room to an opponent of God's people as a kind of storage locker. [1]  Nehemiah was upset that this large room intended to store grain offerings and other items vital in the worship of God was now holding household items belonging to Tobiah, the Ammonite.  What did Nehemiah do?  He "threw all Tobiah's household goods out of the room" (verse 8) and had it purified and returned to its proper use.
   One of the significant events of Holy Week is recorded in the Synoptic gospels, where Jesus enters the temple and overturns the tables of those who have turned the courtyard of the Gentiles, a place of prayer for non-Jews, into a money-making racket.  Nehemiah and Jesus are both part of a tradition that reforms Temple worship and practices.  The words of Psalm 69 apply to both of them in addition to their author David: "Zeal for your house consumes me."
From Wake up Call's Facebook page
   This first surprise of Holy Week was the reminder that the Scriptures have one author, who fits it all together.  The challenge of this surprise is to re-examine my zeal for the things of God and the proper worship of His holiness.  How will I respond when I discover that big name evangelists have made million-dollar empires from the Kingdom of God?

[1] Apparently, having more possessions than can fit in your house is not only a modern phenomenon.

Thursday, 26 March 2015

Prayer for the Falsely Accused

   During the season of Lent, we remember the suffering of Jesus.  One of the ways he suffered was by being falsely accused.  He was called a blasphemer because he forgave sins and claimed that God was his Father.  He was accused of performing miracles by the power of Satan.  His actions motivated by genuine love were interpreted as a threat to the order established by the religious leaders.
   To a lesser extent, Jesus' followers may experience some of this type of suffering as well.  A kind gesture may be taken as emotional blackmail.  When a relationship has gone sour, one party is apt to recall a skewed version of events and put words in the mouth of the other party that were never spoken.  In countries like Pakistan, a Christian believer can be accused of uttering blasphemy against Mohammed when a neighbour simply wants to do away with him.  This crime is punishable by death. How can we deal with these things?
   The Psalm-writer David knew that he should go to the Lord with these things.  Twice in Psalm 35 he calls out, "Contend with those who contend with me."  Becoming defensive with our accusers is not likely to be productive.  It is only the Lord who can change their hearts.  Jesus also could have spelled out to the High Priest exactly what his mission was, but those whose hearts are hardened cannot accept anything we might say in response.  There may be times to get the help of a lawyer to defend us, but our ultimate hope is not in crafty arguments or affidavits.
   On behalf of those falsely accused today, I pray this prayer, based on portions of Psalm 35:

Contend, O LORD, with those who contend against your people.  Take up a shield and come to their aid.  When ruthless witnesses come forward and question them about things they know nothing about, let the truth come forth.  When others make themselves the enemies of your people without cause or hate them without reason, give your people poise, the ability to stand in your grace.  LORD, you have seen all this.  You know the whole situation, not just from a limited human point of view.  Please vindicate the righteous so that those who gloat now may recognize their own confusion.  Give your people patient endurance when relief does not happen right away.  When the truth becomes known and affirmed, we will all give you thanks in the great assembly. Heart-felt worship will result when lies are no longer tolerated or accepted.  Thank you for giving us the Truth that sets us free, your Son Jesus Christ.

Tuesday, 24 March 2015

Not a Waste: the Short Life of Blaise Pascal

   It has been about six months since I last wrote a short biography in this series.  Researching the life of Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) was more formidable than I expected.  He lived during a tumultuous era in France when kings and cardinals were both rising in power. Since the king cared about religion, and the religious leaders who advised him cared about power, there were bound to be some compromises.

   The life of Blaise Pascal was full of seeming contrasts.  He was a mathematical genius who never attended school.  He embraced a lively faith in God at a time when the "wise men" of his time were dispensing with the supernatural entirely.  While Pascal was firmly devoted to the Roman Catholic Church, he wrote a series of anonymous open letters defending beliefs about grace and free will that were being denounced by influential Jesuit priests and the Pope himself as "crypto-Calvinist" [1].  He struggled with illness and weakness throughout his short life of 39 years; however, he refused to give in to self-pity.  One example of his focus on others and their needs was that he invited a homeless family to live in his house with him during his final months.
   Blaise Pascal was home schooled by his father √Čtienne, who recognized the boy's academic brilliance from the time he could speak.  Originally the elder Pascal was going to wait until Blaise was 16 years old before teaching him any formal mathematics, but when the 12 year old  showed an interest in geometry and then figured out on his own that the angles of any triangle add up to 180 degrees, his father changed the curriculum to include math after all.  At the age of 21, Pascal invented a calculator that could add, subtract, multiply and divide up to eight-digit numbers.  He saw the practical value of an adding machine to save the tiresome work of tax collectors and landlords. Although scholars agree about Pascal's genius, it was matched with perseverance.  He made fifty prototypes of his "pascaline" before he was satisfied enough to present it to the public.  He also did thorough investigations about vacuums and added to the branch of math we call calculus.
   Blaise Pascal is a delightful example of a person was intellectually gifted and yet recognized the limits of reason. His experience of Jesus Christ came via being immersed in Old and New Testament Scripture and the church fathers, including St. Augustine.  He had two distinct experiences one might call conversions--times when he had a memorable encounter with God that led to a change in his focus--one at age 23 and the second at age 31.  He rejected a faith that was merely academic, and he criticized the Jesuit order for becoming so worldly that it could justify moral practices clearly forbidden in the Bible.  Ambitious to the end, Pascal desired to write a work elevating vibrant faith in the eyes of the well educated and moral men of his day.  These incomplete bits and fragments were published after his death under the name of Pens√©es (Thoughts).
   One of Pascal's works, a "Prayer to ask God to make good use of sickness," I quote here in part.  It demonstrates his submission to God and acknowledgment that He determines our life span and the ultimate value of our work:
Lord, whose spirit is so good and so sweet in all things, and who are so merciful that not only the blessings but also the misfortunes that come upon your elect are the fruit of your mercy, grant me the grace not the question as a heathen might the state to which your justice has reduced me.  You gave me health so that I might serve you, and I made a wholly profane use of it.  Now you send me sickness in order to correct me; do not allow me to use this as an excuse to irritate you by my impatience....And since the corruption o my nature is so profound that it spoils even your favors, see to it, oh my God, that your all-powerful grace makes your chastisement salutary for me.  See to it, oh my God, that I worship in silence your adorable providence upon the conduct of my life; that your scourges console me; and that, having lived undisturbed in the bitterness of my sins, I taste the heavenly sweetness of your grace during the beneficial illness with which you have afflicted me.

[1] Blaise Pascal: Reasons of the Heart by Marvin C. O'Connell.  Published in Grand Rapids by Eerdmans in 1997, page 146. The doctrine under debate was related to a published work by Bishop Cornelius Jansen (1510-1576) entitled Augustinus, which highlighted St. Augustine's ideas of grace. It led some Roman Catholics to be worried about the spread of what they saw as a Protestant idea. Jansenism, as it was called, was firmly rejected in France in 1661 when all priests, nuns and monks had to sign a statement condemning it or be stripped of their office.

Saturday, 21 March 2015

Avoiding Palm Oil

   My youngest daughter wrote a persuasive essay this winter sharing the reasons palm oil is harmful to people and the environment.  Here is an excerpt of what she had to say:
People that live in the Indonesian rainforest are losing their livelihood, because of palm oil plantations that take over the forest.  Most of the people facing this problem are the indigenous people that live in that area.  The working conditions in the plantations are dangerous and unsafe.  Children are forced to work, as they carry heavy loads, pull weeds and other very laborious work.  I feel unhappy when I think about that people who want the plantations are taking advantage of the indigenous people in a bad way. Sometimes, the government of Indonesia thinks that the plantations are good, because they create jobs for the citizens.  However, Indonesian palm oil plantations are breaking human rights, making child labour and paying inadequate wages.   
How have we changed our lifestyle to reflect this knowledge?  It has not been simple.

1)  We searched the labels of all different brands of margarine and discovered that all of them contain palm oil.  Therefore, we have begun using butter instead of margarine for all of our home baking and cooking.  One family member still prefers the taste of margarine on bread, so one tub of margarine remains in our refrigerator.

2)  We have to be vigilant when buying processed foods, especially cookies and crackers.  Sometimes we forget to check the label if something is on sale or we have a coupon for it.  Our list of products to "no longer buy" keeps growing.  It means that we are baking more of our own cookies.

3)  A convenience food that we have been relying on for many years is instant chicken or beef stock that you make by adding water to dissolve a cube or powder.  However, this is invariably made with palm oil.  Not only that, it contains monosodium glutamate, a flavour enhancer that can make people overeat (or cause headaches for those with sensitivities).  It was time for us to learn to prepare our own stock for soups and stews.  When I prepare a whole chicken in the crock pot, I now reserve the liquid, add water from boiling vegetables, a whole onion, a tomato or two and salt and pepper to taste.  It is then simmered on the stove for a couple more hours and then strained to remove the large bits.  In winter, I set the pan outside to cool so that the fat can easily be skimmed off when solidified.  The broth can then be frozen in reused yogurt containers or ice cube trays until needed.

   All of these changes require a little more work and expense on our part, but to continue using a product we know harms indigenous communities abroad would violate our consciences.

Friday, 13 March 2015

Who Can Say This, Part 2

   A certain sentence containing three words can easily roll off our lips without thinking through what it really means.  The simple phrase I'm talking about is "I love you."  Love's varied uses has caused its meaning to be blurred.  When we say we love cheesecake, it's different than saying we love a person.  When we express love, is it a feeling in the moment or a commitment that will endure?
   While popular songs express romantic love freely, I wonder if we ought to be more guarded in how quickly we say that we love another.  One country singer crooned, "I'm gonna love you forever and ever, forever and ever. Amen," but sadly his marriage ended after nineteen years.  Others sing "My love for you is true," but all human love falls short of what it sets out to be.  Who lives up to the promises made in most love songs?
   One honest musician I encountered via a pirated cassette given to me in the mid 1990's comes right out and says,

I could never promise you on just my strength alone
That all my life I'd care for you, and love you as my own
I've never known the future, I only see today
Words that last a lifetime would be more than I could say

But the love inside my heart today is more than mine alone
It never changes, it never fails, never seeks it's own
And by the God who gives it, and who lives in me and you
I know the words I speak today are words I'm going to do [1]

   In that same spirit when my husband and I were getting to know each other, we were conscious of meaning what we said.  I knew that the first time he said, "I love you," it meant that something bigger was just around the corner.  About one week later, he asked me to marry him.  The desire to make a commitment to each other has always been tempered with the humility that only with God's love inside of us will we be able to fulfill our vows as we ought.  The kind of love expressed in 1 Corinthians 13, a love of action directed by the will rather than feelings, is God's love.  Amazingly, by God's grace, we are not only invited to receive God's love, but we also become able to love with God's love.  That's the only way we can say "I love you" with authenticity.

[1] Lyrics found http://www.elyrics.net/read/d/don-francisco-lyrics/i-could-never-promise-you-lyrics.html" 

Friday, 6 March 2015

Guest Post by Samuel: The Fable of the Fox and the Hare

I am grateful to Samuel and his parent who gave me permission to share this original fable he wrote for my Grade 4 writing class.

The Fox and the Hare

    One day the Hare skipped around the forest. It was peaceful during that day, until the Hare ran into the Fox.
   “Good morning Hare,” said the Fox
   “Good day to you too,” said Hare.
   “Do you know anywhere to eat?” replied Hare.
   “Well, there is one place I know where to get food,” said Fox.
   Where?” said Hare. 
   Then the Fox replied, “In the bear’s cave.”
   The Hare asked, “How did you get the food from the Bear?”
   Then Fox replied, “The Bear always goes hunting in the afternoon, so when the Bear has a nap after hunting I can go in and sneak some food.”
   Hare said, “Can I try?” 
  “Sure,” said Fox.They both went off to the Bear’s cave, and Fox told Hare to go in quietly, “Hurry up or the Bear might hear you!”
   The Hare rushed inside without listening to the Fox and snapped a twig which woke up the Bear.
   The Fox thought in his mind, “This is perfect; I thought this would happen.”
   The Bear started to growl and scared the Hare. The Hare tried to run away, but the Bear chased him. 
   The Fox hid behind a rock outside the cave and then entered the cave. It was safe for him to eat the food, which he did while watching the Bear chase the Hare.

             Lesson: Never believe everything you hear.

Thursday, 5 March 2015

Who Can Say This, Part 1

   Last weekend I went to a symphony concert that incorporated the music of the fold duo Simon and Garfunkel through two gentlemen who performed their music in a similar style. It was a tribute to the musical talent of Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel who found success during the late 1960's until they parted ways in 1970.
   Their most popular album "Bridge Over Troubled Water" sold over 25 million copies, and it is about this title track that I'd like to reflect for a few moments.  (These lyrics come by way of  the MetroLyrics website.)

When you're weary, feeling small
When tears are in your eyes, I'll dry them all (all)
I'm on your side, oh, when times get rough
And friends just can't be found
Like a bridge over troubled water
I will lay me down
Like a bridge over troubled water
I will lay me down

When you're down and out
When you're on the street
When evening falls so hard
I will comfort you (ooo)
I'll take your part, oh, when darkness comes
And pain is all around
Like a bridge over troubled water
I will lay me down
Like a bridge over troubled water
I will lay me down

   The words of this song are uplifting.  They give us a picture of someone who promises to be ultimately loyal, no matter what else may happen.  When there are no other friends, this speaker will be the friend who goes the extra mile.  Whenever there are tears and hurts, this speaker will comfort and be there.
   Who can truly say this to another human being?  Even the most loyal person cannot dry every tear we cry.  Furthermore, spouses are not constantly in our presence.  Who actually sits with the person on the street and comforts them and never leaves their side?  I realize the lyricist is using hyperbole, an exaggeration to make a point about the depth of his love for someone.  As humans we long for the promises made in this song to be authentic, to be experienced so as to have serenity and security.
   We have heard stories of ultimate loyalty, such as the sisters of Charity who give their presence to the hurting and dying.  We also have the account of an especially tender-hearted man, J. Robertson McQuilkin, who left a prestigious job as president of Columbia Bible College to care for the needs of his wife who suffered from Alzheimer's disease.
   However, the only one who can truly say and mean these lyrics are the Triune God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  God's presence with those who trust in Him never fades.  Furthermore, Jesus is the ultimate bridge, who laid down his life so that our "light and momentary troubles [will achieve] for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all" (2 Corinthians 4:17).