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Friday, 23 December 2016

Surprising Contrasts in the Nativity Story

   The well-known details of Jesus' birth in Bethlehem are repeated in the carols that are played through sound systems in shopping malls and sung in churches during Advent.  We know of mangers, and shepherds and wise men and a star they followed.  It's familiar and comfortable to many of us. I'd like to point out some surprising contrasts in the nativity story that might help make it fresh and new for you this Christmas.
1)  The first contrast is the sign the shepherds were given.
   When the shepherds were told to look for a child, they were given two things to look for: the babe would be wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.  We imagine Jesus' birth taking place at a cold time of year if we live in the West, so it would be obvious to us that a newborn be clothed.  However, what we know of Mary and Joseph is that they were poor.  Not all Hebrew parents could afford clothing for their babies. Yet somehow, clothing was provided for their son so that he could "wrapped snugly in strips of cloth," as the New Living Translation puts it.  The shepherds would have heard these two descriptions of the baby and wondered at the contrast.  If the child was clothed (indicating a level of wealth), why would he also be in the feeding trough for animals?  When the shepherds found baby Jesus, the story they spread about a newborn well dressed but kept in an animal's feeding box would have caused their listeners to marvel as well.  What would become of a child like this? One who had attributes of wealth and humility at once?
2) The second contrast is in the reactions of King Herod and the Magi
   King Herod's palace was not far from Bethlehem, about 3 miles away.  In fact, Bible teacher Ray VanderLaan points out that Bethlehem was literally in the shadow of the sizable building called the Herodian, one of Herod's palaces [1].  The child Jesus was born close to the man who ruled as king, but went unnoticed by him until "Magi from the East" came to Jerusalem asking for one born "King of the Jews." Some Christmas songs have led us to think that these men were "kings," but they were educated people (sages, familiar with the stars).  The Chinese word used for the Magi is the same word that is used for "professors."  These learned men from the East probably came from Persia or modern-day Iran.  The sheer distance they were willing to travel in order to honour a royal child contrasts sharply with the short distance Herod sent his soldiers to try to destroy a royal child.
3)  The third contrast lies in the three gifts the Magi brought
   The gospel writer Matthew tells that the gifts the Magi brought were gold, frankincense and myrrh. In our modern day, the value of just one of these gifts is readily apparent.  We know that gold is a commodity of great worth and that it does not deteriorate the way some other metals do.  But what of frankincense and myrrh? Incense was used in the Jewish temple as a form of worship; its aroma represented the prayers of the people rising up to God; however, the Magi may not have known of this specific aspect of Judaism.  Myrrh was an oil used in embalming the bodies of those who died. Could it be that this gift of myrrh hints at the final purpose of Jesus' birth: that he would die for the sins of the world?  These distinct gifts were all high in value, yet the gift of myrrh seems to highlight something of Jesus' mission in a way that the other gifts do not.

I encourage you to look deeper into the Nativity story yourself and look for other surprising elements and contrasts.  Imagine you are reading it for the very first time, and it will never get old.


[1] Article by Ray Vanderlaan https://www.thattheworldmayknow.com/in-the-shadow-of-herod-article

Wednesday, 14 December 2016

Tribute to a Man of God named Adrian

   Last month I took time off to attend a memorial service for a church planter I met 13 years ago.  At that time I had no idea how much he would influence the direction of my life.  It's not that he led me to faith in Jesus, but he had a contagious vision for community engagement that had not been a key part of my life to that point.  We were moving to his city from a smaller town and were intrigued to join the launch team of a brand new church poised to reach out to the community.
   He invited us to his home, where my husband and I met with him over coffee and told him the story of why we felt called to move 150 kilometres away from our existing home.  The day we moved into our rental house, he was there to help unload boxes from the moving van.  This man walked the talk.
   He shared with us the vision that Christians could reach out to their neighbours through existing community groups.  One of those was the YMCA Host Program. We signed up to be a Canadian mentor to a family new to Canada and met a wonderful couple and their son from Iran.  For almost a year we met with the family regularly to walk alongside them and help them with the cultural transition.  The program was brilliant and had been running in the community for years.  When we were finished our "term" with this couple, we connected with two other families.  One was from Sudan and the other from China. These people continue to have a place in our hearts.
   He told us about a small scale ministry to refugees that needed volunteers, and I volunteered there for two years.  That exposure to the needs of real people behind the news reports grew compassion in me, culminating in opening my home to a person fleeing oppression in the Middle East.
   In the handout I received at Pastor Adrian's memorial service it said of him that he was "an accidental and intentional mentor to many."  The description "accidental mentor" resonates with me; this man was probably unaware of the influence he had on my life because circumstances and providence led us not to join the church he was planting. We did not have regular contact with each other, but whenever he came as a guest preacher he demonstrated enthusiasm for caring for other people, especially those on the fringes of society.  He taught me what it can look like if ordinary believers get involved in their communities and not simply attend functions where they will meet people of the same ethnic or socio-economic group we are part of.  His influence lives on, even as he lives on in the arms of his Saviour.
 

Wednesday, 19 October 2016

A Trailer of Blessing

 
Vintage photo of "the Trailer"
When I was growing up I never associated a trailer with poverty or with camping.  My grandparents lived in a mobile home/trailer from the time my parents got married in 1969 until my grandmother moved into a nursing home in the late 1990's.  It was parked on a secluded lot just under a kilometer from my childhood home.
   When we went there on Sundays after church it felt like a cozy home.  In some ways it even seemed luxurious. Nobody else in my rural neighborhood had an air conditioner like they had in the trailer! The kitchen had a propane stove, an almond refrigerator and a dining table. The living room was carpeted and held a couch, a rocking chair, two armchairs and an old shortwave radio. There was a spare room with a single bed, a three piece bathroom, my grandparents' bedroom and a little shed attached to the side for the chest freezer and assorted tools. My grandmother kept it tidy, and there were fun things we could do there as kids: coloring books, a few picture books and sitting with the adults.
   How my grandparents came to live in the trailer I learned later.  You see, the house where I grew up used to be their house.  When my parents got engaged, my grandparents were willing to sell the house to them.  However, my grandfather had another idea that was less appealing.  He wanted to put a mobile home for himself and his wife along the end of their lane way!  My grandfather had a controlling personality, and he also felt a measure of responsibility towards my dad who had some challenges managing stress.  He was going to have difficulty letting his son be an independent adult.
   Fortunately, one of my uncles saw the problems inherent in having in-laws living so close to a young couples starting out.  He did some research about the 100 acre farm in hopes of finding a different corner to locate the mobile home.  He discovered that part of the 100 acre farm became separated from the rest of the parcel when the township changed the path of the road decades before because the original steep incline was a winter hazard.  Historically, this little slice of a lot belonged to the farm's holdings and was the perfect spot for my grandparents' trailer home.
   The relationship between my mom and her in-laws was strong.  Visits were common.  It was the perfect distance for a walk with the baby carriage when my sister and I were born.  It was the perfect outing for us when we were 10 and 11 years old and my mom needed some time to herself.  "Why don't you walk to Oma's house and pick her some wildflowers along the way?" she would suggest. Once when our house was full of overseas guests, I slept in her guest room for three weeks and biked back to the farm in the morning for breakfast.
   When I drive past trailer parks, I don't think to myself that the people who live there are underprivileged.  My grandparents were always content with the space they had, and they took good care of it.  When I go camping and see similar trailers serving as summer homes, I can imagine them being year-round homes.
   After my grandfather passed away and my grandmother moved to nursing care, the trailer continued to serve others.  A local pastor used the space for a retreat.  A single man made it his home for a period of time.  Today, the trailer is unoccupied and the roof has rusted through.  It has lost its former glory.  But I still think of the blessing that trailer was to my relatives and how its location served my parents by giving them space to start a life of their own.

Monday, 10 October 2016

An analysis of leadership in the film "The 33"

   The film entitled "The 33" commemorates events that took place in a Chilean copper and gold mine in the Atacama Desert between August 5, 2010 and October 13, 2010.  Thirty-three miners were trapped underground when a large part of the mine collapsed, blocking the way out.  The details of how they survived and were ultimately rescued are shared in this 127 minute movie.
   Since I am taking a course on leadership, I took note of how both the miners and those on the surface demonstrated leadership in this story.  I realize that not everything dramatized in the movie actually happened, but I still think we can learn some things about what leaders do and do not do.
Underground Leaders
   Without individuals taking leadership after the mine collapse, the outcome would have been much different.  In the film, we have the shift leader Luis making sure all the men made it to "The Refuge" because it was the safest place.  He had earlier tried to speak with his boss about broken mirrors in the mine that were indicators of shifting rock and thus danger to the workers, but his warnings were ignored.
   When the men realize that the radio is broken, the first aid kit is not fully equipped, the ladders in the ventilation shafts do not go up to the very top and that there is only food enough for three days, they are ready to despair.  Their company has not taken good care of them to this point, so how could they expect anyone to try to rescue them?  At this point Mario speaks with conviction and says, "I choose to believe that we will get out of here."  He is not the shift leader, but he inspires confidence in the other men.  They entrust him with the key to the food cupboard and accept the rationing plan he makes in order that the canned tuna and other staples will last as long as possible.
   During the time between being discovered alive and actually being taken out of the mine, the media finds out about Mario's leadership role.  He is offered an exclusive book deal; when the other miners find out about this they become upset.  In their minds, he has lost his status as a leader because they feel betrayed.  However, Mario ultimately determines not to sign the book deal and tells the others he has not done so because he wants them all to remain "brothers."  Mario, then, shows himself to be an ethical leader they can trust.
   Jose is another leader, a spiritual leader.  He prays with the men and counsels them.  When one of them is caught in the ravages of alcohol withdrawl, Jose is gentle with him and helps him overcome this demon.
Leaders on the Surface
   The first so-called leader we encounter is the boss at the Copiapo mine.  This man had the power to prevent the trauma that these miners endured.  He was given clear evidence that seismic activity was making the area unsafe, but all he could think of was quotas of copper and gold he wanted the workers to extract.  He was so focused on production numbers that he failed to see the human beings being placed at risk.  After the collapse, he makes excuses and begins to name the psychological problems that some of the miners have, hinting that they will kill each other before any rescue plan can be expedited.  This person is a leadership position loses his authority as the government takes over the rescue operation.
   When the Minister of Mining, Laurence Golborne, addresses the Chilean president, they discuss that the mine is privately owned. There is no legal obligation for them to get involved, but the moral obligation is given weight.  The Minister of Mining goes to the site to assess the situation.  By seeing the human face of the family members calling for answers, he stops at nothing to try to reach the trapped miners.  When the chief engineer tells him there is only a 1% chance that the drills will be able to reach The Refuge due to the drills veering off course because of depth and the hardness of the rock they are going through, the Minister of Mining says they try anyways.  When the chief engineer has given up because none of the attempts thus far had yielded any results and because he can't imagine the miners could still be alive after so many days underground, the Minister of Mining urges the workers to learn from the mistakes of earlier attempts and try again.
   The Minister of Mining and the Chief Engineer both dedicate weeks of their lives to this effort. They forego sleep and the comforts of home because they are bound to the mission of rescuing every last man from the depths of the mine before it becomes too late.  The willingness to accept help and expertise from a variety of nations contributes to the happy result that not one man was lost.
Divine Intervention
   The rescue of the Chilean miners could not have happened without the leaders among the miners themselves or the leaders of the search and rescue operation from the surface.  Nevertheless, the miners themselves and the President of Chile acknowledged that the happy ending for these miners was none other than God's miraculous intervention.  The miners turned to God in their time of desperation.  Family members and strangers prayed that these men would be found and brought back to the surface.  The miners wrote on one of the walls "God was with us." Priest Juan Carlos Sansadrai, who was ministering to families in Chile reported "It's been a trying time, but faith can move mountains" [1].

[1]   "Faith Plays Key Role for Trapped Chilean Miners, Families," CNN. 9 September 2010. from the original on 8 July 2011. Retrieved 10 October 2016.

 

Saturday, 8 October 2016

Pitching a Tent near Benton Harbor

   From the body language of the folks we met in a church foyer in St. Joseph, Michigan, the adjacent town of Benton Harbor was considered to belong to "the other side of the tracks."  We already noticed that it was an impoverished community with run-down homes, shabby looking businesses and streets in need of repair as we drove from our camp site to the church on the Sunday morning.  We received a warm welcome as visitors but the looks became curious when we told them we had camped the previous night in Benton Harbor.  We may as well have told them, "We pitched our tent near Sodom" because of Benton Harbor's reputation for crime. The conversation quickly became uncomfortable.
   The phrase "Lot pitched his tents near Sodom" is used in Genesis 13:12 as a criticism of Abraham's nephew.  He chose to live near the city renowned for wickedness because he coveted the fertile land that could be found there.  Over time, he adapted himself more and more to its mindset and became comfortable in the city itself.  His daughters were married to men from Sodom, and when the warning came from angels that Sodom would be destroyed imminently, Lot had a great deal of difficulty taking action.  In fact, the angels had to take him and his household by the hand to lead them out.
   Our decision to spend a night at Eden Springs Campground in Benton Harbor was made even though we had heard some negative things about the city.  However, we had a richer perspective because of one of my classmates at a summer course I took in Iowa.  She was the principal of a Christian school intentionally planted in Benton Harbor.  She and a group of Christians did not "pitch their tents" in Benton Harbor because they were lured by worldly values.  Rather, they saw the great need of the mainly African-American population and endeavored to provide Christian education to families regardless of their financial situation.
   The River of Life School reflects the ministry of Jesus, who entered our broken world.  When John 1:14a says, "The Word became flesh and lived for a while among us" (NIV), the original Greek word translated as "lived for a while" is the same one that means "pitched his tent."  When the Old Testament was translated into Greek 130 years before Christ (the Septuagint), the exact same word is used for Lot's action and that of Jesus.
   Our motives for living in close proximity to the broken people and places in our world make all the difference.  With the Holy Spirit to guide us, we can live faithful lives no matter where we make our dwelling.

Friday, 12 August 2016

Identifying with King Hezekiah

http://www.supercoloring.com
   A slightly obscure story in the book of 2 Kings 20 has to do with one of the good kings of Judah, who reigned from approximately  715  BC to 686  BC.  The prophet Isaiah was given a revelation to share with a seriously ill King Hezekiah that went as follows:
   "This is what the LORD says: Put your house in order because you will die; you will not recover."
Period. End of discussion.  Except that like his forefather David (when told his infant son would die), he turned to God and begged for a different outcome.  And so, the startling news came to Isaiah before he had even left the palace after delivering his first message.  He is now to tell Hezekiah some details about how to be healed and a promise that God would extend his life by 15 years.
   Have you or someone close to you outlived a doctor's prediction about life expectancy?  The first such person I can remember meeting was Mr. D. On July 28, 1979, Mr. D. was injured by a sudden explosion of the propane line while checking out a faulty propane furnace at the Newcastle Block plant, which he owned .  Miraculously he was able to retreat from the building to his home next door after which he was rushed to hospital and eventually arrived at the Scarborough Burn Unit with 3rd degree burns to 40% of his body.  Those close to him did not expect him to survive, yet the churches in his community mobilized and cried out to God for healing and restoration.  When this gentleman shared his story and King Hezekiah's at a school-wide chapel service in 1995 he had already gratefully received more than his "extra 15 years" [1].
   Another parallel to Hezekiah's story was shared in a funeral eulogy written by my uncle.  The tragic occasion was the funeral of his 17 year-old son who had been struck by a rogue bolt of lightning after a storm had passed over the island where he had been camping.  This uncle recalled the time when the same boy was just two years of age and ravaged by malaria in Nigeria.  The medical missionary father did not think his son would live to see the next day, and yet he did.  This perspective on a teenager's short lifespan demonstrated the grace that had been given all of them for a full 15 years. Hard as it was to let go of this young man, there was a recognition that he could have been taken in childhood.
   Next, a man at my church had had a serious heart attack in middle age and was given three months to live.  When we last spoke he was over 65 years old!
   My final example came from the Pentecostal preacher I heard at an open air service in cottage country this summer.  He told us about a child nicknamed "Zero Percent."  Before this boy was born, the doctors had told his mother that there was 0% of him surviving to term.  This preacher was approached by the child's father, who was understandably distressed at the prognosis and the pressure placed on him to give consent for an abortion.  The two of them poured out their hearts to God and trusted in God's power to do the impossible.  In fact, the preacher told the expectant father that the figure of 0% was good news in a way because if the child survived, everyone would know God had done it.  If, instead, the doctor had said there was a 2% chance people could have credited the 2% chance as the reason for his survival rather than a miracle.  Not only did the pregnancy reach term, but this child is living a completely normal life with his grateful parents.
   Doctors are often asked to give timelines when a terminal illness has afflicted a person, but all of these are subject to the Life-giver's sovereign plans.  He alone can number our days aright (Psalm 90:12a).


[1] The event of Mr. D's accident is told briefly in this archive of the weekly newspaper called The Canadian Statesman dated August 1, 1979:  http://vitacollections.ca/claringtonnews/2843209/page/2

Saturday, 6 August 2016

Waste Land?

   I'm sure most people have driven on a divided highway that has patches of grass between the lanes bound in opposite directions.  Many of us see the overgrown grass, Queen Anne's lace and red clover and think to ourselves how messy it looks.  Couldn't someone trim this wasteland to make it look nicer?
   Last month my husband and I had the opportunity to go to Iowa, a state in the mid-western United States.  We were surprised at how non-existent such wasteland is there.  As far as the eye can see neat fields of corn or soybeans fill the landscape.  The grass along the road side is not allowed to get out of control; most farmers cut and bale it into hay.  All this cultivation looks pleasing to the eye, but something is missing.  There are very few birds or butterflies to be seen as you drive along these paved roads where light traffic is the norm.
Corn and soybean crops; the grass at the side of the road is also baled as hay.
   The reason for my being in Iowa in the first place was to take a course called "Issues in Education." My husband who joined me for the road trip seized the chance to ride his bicycle on the relatively even terrain for five days.  In the cultivated areas, even traveling at a slower speed he still did not see much wildlife except at an abandoned gravel pit. The photo below shows a variety of wildflowers. What the photo does not show were the ten plus varieties of birds he was able to see there, including red-headed woodpeckers that we don't see in Ontario, Canada.
Biodiversity in ... an abandoned gravel pit.

   This is more than a lesson in biodiversity or ecology.  Sometimes in our drive for efficiency, we squelch creativity.  Sometimes having packed schedules there's no room to notice someone who needs our help.  Productivity-driven mindsets can marginalize relationships.  Pushing students to study and cram from early in the morning until late in the evening makes them less than human. For life to flourish, there needs to be space for the unplanned, the spontaneous, the sometimes unruly.  It's something I need to take to heart.  How about you?

Thursday, 21 July 2016

Turtle on a Fencepost-Revised

  I first read this phrase in the devotional by Charles R. Swindoll, entitled The Finishing Touch.  He, in turn, was quoting a Presbyterian pastor by the name of Dr. Robert Lamont.  In his youth, Dr. Lamont had seen the strange sight of a turtle being suspended on a fence-post.  No doubt, this was the work of a prankster and not that of the turtle itself.  He applied this idea to himself as well: “Where I am right now is not the result of my efforts; only God can be credited for lifting me to this place for His glory.”
   This is the story of my career path.  I got my first teaching job at a brand new school even though I was late for the interview.  There were a lot of unanswered questions about this school and how I would teach four grades in one room, but I felt led to accept the job.  Less than one month in, I was asked to become the principal at the age of 23.  This was nothing that I planned, but I continued on for three years.
   I was privileged to stay home with my children for eleven years and did not know exactly how I would re-enter the teaching world.
   Then I became a Kindergarten teacher in the most unexpected way. Kindergarten would have been the last grade level that I would have chosen for myself. Yet on the Friday before the Labor Day weekend in 2008, I received a phone call from the principal of a local school asking me to consider taking a 40% position in Junior Kindergarten, starting in a few days.  Honestly, I did not understand why he would call and offer this position to me other than desperation and my resume being on file.  I had no experience in teaching students this young, and I styled myself as an upper elementary teacher.  He asked me to think and pray about it and return his call with an answer in a few hours.
   I have always had a strong sense of vocation, being called to do particular things at particular times in my life.  During my prayer time, this is what came to my mind once again.  This phone call was none other than a call to surrender my plans to God’s plans.  I trusted that He would equip me since I did not consider myself at all prepared for this great adventure with four year olds.
   When there was an internal opening for vice principal of school management at my school, I didn't intend to apply until a colleague encouraged me to do so.
   In June I embarked on a journey to earn my Masters of Education from a small Christian college in Iowa, mostly through online courses.  When I arrived on the campus earlier this week and saw its buildings and considered its history, I again felt like a turtle on a fence-post.  People I've never met sacrificed, prayed and had the vision to begin this school, and I am blessed to reap the benefits.
   But even more than my career path, I feel like a turtle when I think about my humble beginnings as a simple farm girl.  God has enabled me to study at some of the best schools in Canada, teach in small and large Christian schools in Ontario, have articles published, become married to a wonderful man, become a mother to three gifted children, and so much more.
   I am a turtle on a fence-post.

Friday, 8 July 2016

What's in a Gesture?

 
Gestures are culturally understood ways of communicating without words.  Some occupations rely heavily upon gestures such as airport ground crews and police officers directing traffic at a disabled stop light.  In any situation we need to know what a gesture means in order to interpret what the person using it intends or is signalling to others.  For example, an index finger movement that says "Come here" in North America is insulting to a person from South Korean because in that nation the same gesture is used to summon dogs.
   One gesture infants learn early is to grasp and object tightly and not let it go.  We might even consider it a God-given reflex for their safety and survival.  As we grow older we may continue to grasp things physically and metaphorically.  Holding onto things and refusing to release them, then, becomes a way of expressing control and possessiveness.
   In the Scriptures we encounter a patriarch whose very name refers to the act of grasping.  Jacob, the younger twin, was born literally grasping the heel of his elder brother.  That image has become synonymous with "deceiver," as Jacob illustrated by trickery and wanting the best for himself.  When Jacob had become an adult, he preyed upon his brother's birth right at a vulnerable moment when Esau was famished and would give anything for a bowl of stew.  Later, abetted by his mother, he grasped the blessing of the first born that also rightfully belonged to his brother.
   In Jacob's narrative, he is not the only one seeking his own advantage.  His father-in-law Laban grasps fourteen years of Jacob's labor in exchange for his younger beautiful daughter.  Both of his wives grasp at various schemes in order to bear children in order to compete for Jacob's affection. His favored wife Rachel holds onto her father's idols even when she has rejected this man's authority over her life.
   During his life, we catch glimpses of Jacob being weaned from his tendency to grasp.  When he flees from a vengeful brother he recognizes the presence of God and worships him.  On the eve of a reunion with that same brother, Jacob is terrified of how he will be repaid.  He begins to realize his schemes can undo him; at daybreak God gives him the new name Israel meaning "He wrestles with God."
   By the time Jacob-Israel reaches 130 years of age he has experienced many things, including the 20+ years of grief over losing his favored son Joseph and then the surprising news that Joseph is still alive and ruling Egypt.  We see a very different man in a moving scene in Genesis 48.  His vision is dim with age, but he says with gratitude to the son he had mourned, "I never expected to see your face again, and now God has allowed me to see your children too."  There's no hint of Jacob coming to this moment of beatitude by his own striving or scheming.  He knows the truth expressed later in James 1:17a--"every good and perfect gift is from [God] above"--and he receives it with the gesture of open hands.
   It took a lifetime for Jacob to change from being a grasper to a receiver.  What kind of gesture characterizes your life today?

Friday, 24 June 2016

The Core Matters

Apples in a bowl
   This week I brought a bowl containing different varieties of apples into my classroom. Unlike the image above I also had one green pear and one deep red nectarine among them, but I had turned them in such a way that they might be mistaken for apples.  I asked my students to tell me from a distance (they at their desks and the bowl at the front of the room) what was in the bowl. A couple of them saw the green apple and wondered if there might be a lime in the bowl.  One near the front said she saw the shape of a pear.  One at the very back of the room gave the answer I was hoping for: "a bowl of apples."
   I began by removing the yellow, green and red apples first.  We noted that they were all apples even though their surfaces were different colors.  I sliced two of them to reveal the "star shaped" core and dark brown seeds. Then I admitted that I had hidden two non-apples in the bowl.  To make the difference clear, I cut the nectarine lengthwise as well. We observed that the core was quite different, housing a single pit.  The pear, when divided in half, clearly had a different interior with distinctive seeds.
   My purpose for the lesson/devotion about fruit was to illustrate a truth about churches.  My students in 5th and 6th grade are starting to wonder about different types of churches and what they believe. On the outside (either the building's architecture or the liturgy/worship), churches might appear to be very different.  A child might assume, mistakenly, that if a particular church is not quite like the one he is familiar with then it must not really be a church.  
  How do we know for sure?  Like the fruit, we could determine its identity by the core.  What is the core that defines a church?  
   I introduced them to the Apostle's Creed, a summary statement outlining the "core" doctrines to which all Christian churches hold and which they profess.


     At times we might see something from a distance that appears to be a church.  The people enter a building, where they sing, pray and receive instruction.  However, if the core is not there--if one of the central tenets of the Apostle's Creed is rejected--it is not truly a Christian church.  It may be a religious gathering, but it is not a Christian one.
   One student asked a perceptive question.  He asked about a particular denomination saying, "What about this church, which also believes that a human authority is equal to the Bible?  Can that be a church?"
   I picked up one of the apples and a bit dramatically hurled it to the floor.  After picking it up, I asked the students what had happened to the apple.  They said, "It's bruised now."
   "Is it still an apple?" I pressed them.
   "Yes," they replied.
   I went on to explain that every church has some problems, some things that are not they way they are supposed to be.  Because churches are filled with sinners, there will always be a bruise or blemish somewhere, but that in itself does not disqualify the church as long as the core remains intact.
   In a world where many things are judged by external appearance or visual appeal, I wanted to convey the importance of considering the core or heart of something to determine its true worth.
 

Friday, 17 June 2016

What happened to Holy-days?

   I vividly recall attending a Christmas program over 10 years ago in which a youth group acting out a skit.  In this skit certain characters considered Christmas as "just another excuse to party."  The purpose of the actors was to hold up this mirror to the audience for self-reflection.  Is this what our holidays have become?
   Christmas, Easter, even the few lingering "Saints Days" that appear on secular calendars have strayed far from their original intentions. St. Valentine's Day often celebrates lust instead of love, while St. Patrick's Day is associated with overindulgence in beer while wearing the colour green.
   I'm quite certain that my fellow Canadians who celebrated the Victoria Day long weekend gave little or no consideration to the former monarch after whom the day was named.  It is a time to party with profuse amounts of alcohol and fireworks even if nobody knows why.
   As our culture disregards the foundations of western civilization, we are not only losing the meaning of the red letter days on our calendars.  We are also having every day hijacked by all kinds of different interest groups so that today (June 17th) is simultaneously dedicated to eating your vegetables, apple strudel, flip-flops, cherry tarts and a particular brand of root beer.  How are pondering or celebrating these material things supposed to benefit anyone, except perhaps the healthy daily discipline of eating vegetables?
   While the examples cited here may seem innocuous, I originally began this post in reaction to the Social Media created day that encouraged people to send nude photos of themselves to a friend.  I did not want to search its exact name because I didn't want to add to its popularity.
 
   What happened to celebrating a day simply because "this is the day the Lord has made"?
 
   One way to assess a culture is to look at what it celebrates and how it does so.  What observations have you made about the shift in special days?

 

Saturday, 14 May 2016

Conspiracy Uncovered

   Three years ago at this time, the first arrest was made in horrific murder case in Ontario, Canada. As the trial now heads into its fourth month in a Hamilton court room, I looked back in my journal entry of May 18, 2013 to see that I made a connection to Psalm 64 amid these events.
   Psalm 64 documents the conspiracy of wicked people against the psalm writer.  These wicked are callous and cavalier.  They presume that neither human authority nor deity will hold them accountable for what they are doing.  However, the psalm writer also notes that God will have the final word.  He will not let them get away with evil, and points out that "their own tongues will ruin them."
   The following is what I wrote three years ago:
This week we saw the painful result of a wicked conspiracy.  Three or more people plotting the downfall of an innocent man.  One has been caught; the others remain at large and as yet unidentified.  Lord, give the police all the tools they need to catch up with these evil doers.  You know where they live; please let them be brought to justice before another victim is involved.
Lord, "turn their own tongues against them" and bring them to ruin:
  • what they said on the phone
  • how they boast to others about what they've done
  • how they have maligned You and those made in your image.
Let people seek You out in this unspeakable tragedy.
As the trial has unfolded, I have seen these prayers begin to be answered.

Monday, 2 May 2016

A Missing Mission

   In my year-long exploration of the theme of Jubilee, I have been reminded over and over of the Jubilee-mission that Jesus declared during a synagogue service at the start of his ministry.  He opened the scroll to Isaiah and read:
"The Spirit of the Lord is upon me for he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim that the captives will be released, that the blind will see, that the oppressed will be set free, and that the time of the Lord's favor has come" (Luke 4:18).  
 He then made the controversial statement that this prophecy was fulfilled in their hearing.
   Jesus passed on this mission to his followers, but Christians have often been selective about which parts they would carry out.  Outreach to the poor has been well documented from the beginning of the church: food, clothing and shelter have been provided to the less fortunate in Jesus' name in every nation where there is a Christian presence.  This "good news" to the poor provides for material needs as well as spiritual needs.  The disadvantaged are often most receptive to hearing about God's love and rescue plan as their day-to-day existence leaves little room for hope.
   The reference to the blind being given their sight represents all the efforts to assist a wide variety of medical needs that exist in the world.  Medical breakthroughs allow surgeries to be performed that actually do restore the sight of those blinded by cataracts, that enables those with infections or birth abnormalities in their bones to be able to walk and move normally.  Technologies, such as wheel chairs, hearing aids, leg braces, eyeglasses and so many more are available to allow flourishing for those afflicted by particular physical problems.  Finally, medicines and vaccines can prevent and treat many diseases that would otherwise maim or kill their victims.  Christian ministry that involves hospitals and clinics for those who would otherwise be unable to access such help also started early and have expanded in impact as medical knowledge has advanced from many quarters.
   Release to the captives and freedom for the oppressed was another part of the mission Jesus outlined, but this part has not been as consistently pursued by his followers.  We can point to movements where Christians have been at the forefront of opposing injustices, such as ending the African slave trade (led by William Wilberforce), the civil rights movement under Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., prison reform under John Howard and Elizabeth Fry and advocacy for the falsely imprisoned through Amnesty International.   These movements took an incredible amount of effort and perseverance to achieve gains on behalf of the marginalized--effort measured in decades rather than in months.
   Through reading Gary Haugen and Victor Boutros' book The Locust Effect, I have been convinced that good news for the poor and sight for the blind needs to be strategically accompanied by efforts to bring justice to captives and oppressed peoples.  I had been blind to it before but as I think about it I have known example of how injustices in developing nations undercut efforts to help the poor:

  • About 15 years ago we were sponsoring a child through a well-known international development agency.  One day we received a letter informing us that this little girl had moved out of the district in which they were working in Guatemala.  The reason?  Her father had murdered her mother, so this girl would be living with an uncle and his family.
  • When I went on a service trip to the Dominican Republic I was shocked to see private security guards with shotguns patrolling outside of malls and grocery stores.  All windows on the middle class homes have bars on them to prevent break-ins, and locked gates secure the compounds of schools and other institutional buildings.  The poor, just struggling to make ends meet, cannot pay guards or afford to secure their properties.
  • Also in Dominican Republic we were made aware of a school that had bathrooms quite a distance from its single classroom.  For safety reasons, they pleaded with our group to fund the construction of a secure and nearby washroom for the real safety of boys and girls otherwise at risk of being attacked.
  • A gentleman I met at a music recital several years ago had traveled to Pakistan numerous times.  He shared with me his observation that within the culture of Pakistan there is the presumption that little girls exist for their brothers to molest. 
  • Rates of girls attending school are less than boys attending school.  I have heard this many times, with the explanation that when funding is limited they choose their sons to get an education.  Another part of the picture is that parents consider the risk of girls traveling to school to be too great; they want to hold them close to home so that will not be attacked or raped.
   Relief and development organizations do tremendous work.  I have no doubts about that.  They show compassion and bring economic empowerment to the people they care for, regardless of their beliefs.  However, without a proper justice system, where laws to protect all citizens are enforced by honest police officers and where trained lawyers advocate for the poor, the poor will remain vulnerable and trapped in poverty.  Haugen and Boutros explain that everyday violence: domestic violence, robberies, rapes, false imprisonment by police, beatings, bonded labour [slavery], and sex trafficking harm more poor people every year than those harmed by wars, floods, earthquakes and severe storms combined.  Despite the magnitude of the problem, it remains hidden.
   There are groups making local progress in targeted areas where the need is greatest, and that is where hope comes in.  My daughter and I sponsor a young girl in the capital city of Dominican Republic so that she can attend school and be well provided for.  When I learned that International Justice Mission has an office in that city to target sex trafficking, I knew that our little girl's future depends on supporting that initiative as well.  
   It's time for people of good will to take up this missing mission.  Training local systems of law enforcement and providing funding for social workers to rescue those who have been abused can turn the tide.  Such initiatives, in tandem with agricultural and vocational know-how, access to medical care and micro-loans, can be used by God bring about the fullest measure of "good news" for the poor.
   

Saturday, 26 March 2016

Faithfulness & Risk

   Children need to be informed about risk.  Their natural curiosity about the world and their lack of experience that certain activities can bring about dangerous consequences is one of the important reasons God gives them parents to guide and warn them.
   Even when we have become adults and know how to be safe from most preventable catastrophes, we tend to be averse to risks of all kinds.  Insurance policies, cellular phones and home security systems further minimize risks for those who can pay for such services.
   About a decade ago, a pastor introduced me to seeing risk in a completely different and much more positive light.  From other reading I have done since then I have begun to see a close relationship between risk and living faithfully in this world.  Here is some of that journey:
1)  In my tradition a pastor who is being considered for hire at a church comes to preach a Sunday sermon prior to the members of the congregation voting "yes" or "no."  What is typical is that this pastor will choose one of his well rehearsed sermons, one about which he or she has received encouraging feedback and presents this one to the prospective parishioners.  However, Pastor D did not do this.  He would have used a familiar sermon, but he felt compelled to write a custom-made message based on the parable of the talents.  Not only did he preach a sermon about risk, but he put that into practice in the very act of preaching it.  In this parable, the character who plays it safe and buries his talent (then a sum of money) in the ground is strongly condemned.  Those who take the talents entrusted to them and develop them are praised.  The application for us was that avoiding risk is not the way Jesus wants us to order our lives.  Making the most of opportunities He gives us will entail ventures that may not always feel "safe."
2)  Author and speaker Andy Crouch has taken the two concepts of authority and vulnerability and placed them in a chart to create four quadrants.  Low vulnerability and low authority is labelled as "withdrawing", but it could also be called safety.  An example of this can happen in the type of retirement where a person goes from cruise to excursion but does very little in the way of meaningful action.  Another form of safety comes when a person has a great deal of authority over others and because of wealth experiences very little vulnerability.  This person feels that he or she is invincible, and the result is exploitation towards those lower in status. The ideal place to be, according to Crouch is where both authority (meaningful action) and vulnerability are both high.  To be fully human we need to acknowledge and not fight against the limits placed upon us as human beings.   Something my family did in 2015 would seem risky to many people.  We opened our home to a person we knew almost nothing about: a young woman fleeing a war-torn nation as a refugee.  And yet, from oldest to youngest we all agree that the eight months she lived with us made us individually and as a family more compassionate, flexible and patient, more into the people God wants us to be. This risk led to flourishing for not only ourselves but for the person we embraced, and the ongoing relationship will continue to shape us.

https://paulwilkinson.files.wordpress.com/2016/02/andy-crouch-strong-and-weak.jpg?w=235&h=232


3)  Clay Water Brick by Jessica Jackley, which I just finished reading, also talks about risk.  Jackley was co-founder of the non-profit organization KIVA, which allows everyday people to provide micro-loans to entrepreneurs around the world.  The stories she shares about these resourceful individuals who raise chickens, learned to bake their own bricks and operate market stalls are meant to teach all readers, business-minded or not, that opportunities are meant to be picked up.  Finding the right match between our passions and the needs around us (the definition Fredrick Buechner gives to vocation or "calling") involves becoming vulnerable.  We may not always get it right, but in the process we learn and grow.  Doing what is familiar and conventional has its place, but stepping out into uncharted territory when that is God's clear call on one's life will bring struggle and growth.
   Pursuing further education is another risk at my doorstep, but seeing it as an opportunity for growth changes my perspective and lends me courage.

Wednesday, 9 March 2016

The Golden Rule and Giving

   We generally agree that giving is a good thing.  After all, Jesus is quoted by the Apostle Paul as having said, "It is more blessed to give than to receive."  Still, it is quite easy for giving to go wrong. To avoid each pitfall below, the golden rule of doing to others what we would have them do to us is instructive.

1.  Giving can become a matter of pride
   When one is in the position of being able to give to another, it is possible to look down upon the recipient of that charity as being less valuable.  The "needy" can be made into an object rather than being seen as a human being with feelings and dignity.  The giver should call to mind that everything with which he or she has been blessed ultimately came from God and is not to be a matter of pride. In our lives we will experience times when we need the help of others and times when we can provide help for others.  Seeing everyone, no matter their level of need, as someone created in God's image will help us avoid becoming arrogant.
   An example of a good practice I am aware of is that performed by the development agency World Vision.  Every community where it seeks to work by bringing relief and development, its representatives meet with community leaders to determine what assets the community already has.  It consults them as well as to what their hopes and dreams are for the community so that a true partnership is forged based on humility and mutual respect.

2.  Giving can be thoughtless
   Thinking that people in need should be grateful for any old thing given to them can lead to thoughtless giving.  Such giving is seen during food drives when dented cans and products past the best before date are donated.  Clothing given to the needy is sometimes ripped, soiled or missing buttons.  Whatever a person plans to give should be something they themselves would be willing to receive.
   I am reminded of an episode in a radio drama where a young boy wins a new bike.  He knows of another child in need of a bike, so he plans to give him his old bike.  As a surprise, he leaves it at the curb of the needy boy's laneway only to have the garbage truck take it away.  In the end, he is convicted to give his brand new bike to this other boy, and he follows through.  It is a great story because it challenges one's natural inclinations.  It's easy to give away what one doesn't really like or need anymore.  The attitude of "What's mine is mine" can be overcome by living out the golden rule.

3.  Giving can be impersonal
   When we give a monetary donation, it can easily become another financial transaction, not unlike paying the utility bill.  When an amount of money is given through an agency, the personal impact of that gift is often brief and momentary.  A computer generated thank you letter telling how much the gift is appreciated does not genuinely allow the donor to see who benefited or how.
   The fourth grade class at my school recently learned how giving can be personal and more authentic. The framed photos of two Ugandan girls are front and centre in their classroom as a reminder of the reason they raised over $2,500 CAD: to sponsor their life-saving surgeries. Not only was money sent, but notes of encouragement and many prayers for their recovery and well-being continue to be offered.  A long-term personal connection has been made between the donors and the ones they helped.

Having the right posture when giving makes all the difference.  Humility, thoughtfulness and relationship elevates any gift from being a mere transaction.

 

Saturday, 20 February 2016

When "Cheap" Makes me Cringe

   Most of the time I am able to convince myself that I am not a contributor to the world economy and its materialistic values.  Because I purchase almost all my clothing second-hand, I can say I am one step removed from the fashion industry and the exploitation of textile workers overseas.  Since I do not own a hand-held electronic device that is designed to become obsolete in a short period of time, I can tell myself that the way electronics are made and distributed is not my issue.  Except that in the past 30 days, I realized that I am an unwilling contributor to the world economy that wants everything cheap.
Exhibit A: Computer Modem
   The modem we had been using for our DSL internet connection stopped working last month.  Our internet provider was willing to mail us one for $75 plus $10 shipping, but we thought we would check local stores instead.  My husband found a modem for less than $30 before taxes.  What a great deal, I thought for a moment. But then I began to feel bad.  How could this bundle of electronics cost so little?   The shipping cost, the labour cost for the manufacture, the labour cost for the vendor, the labour cost for the person who unloads the shipping container and the profit margin all add up to $27 and change?  Something is wrong here.
   I thought back to when I first moved to this community and there was so much buzz about the Blackberry Company.  People were eager to work for this technology company, except those on the assembly line working 12 hour shifts actually assembling the phones.  Wherever there is greed, there is also injustice [1].

Exhibit B: Undergarments
   One of the clothing items I do not buy second hand is obvious.  When shopping for more of these last weekend, I found myself questioning their source.  Product of China, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Indonesia, Cambodia.  When I look at the seams, stitches and elastic, I wonder how hard it is to make a pair of underwear.  With the right equipment, workers might be able to finish a pair in a few minutes.  But what kind of conditions do they work in?  Do they get breaks?  Is there a boss who keeps demanding a higher work quota?  I don't know the answers, but I remember when the garment factory in Bangladesh collapsed three years ago.  Some companies may try to distance themselves from unjust labour practices, but I cannot grasp how the price of some types of clothing is less now than it was 30 years ago. 
   If I go to the big name stores, there are no options for buying Canadian or American made undies.  I caved in this time, but next time I will do whatever it takes to buy fair trade underwear, even if they cost $17 a pair.  

I'm just one person.  I can't change the world system, but I can strive to make more ethical purchases. And I can share my angst when I am unsuccessful.

[1] The link between idolatry (greed is just one idol) and injustice is a main theme of Andy Crouch's book Playing God. 

Wednesday, 27 January 2016

Providence and Washing Machines

   The title of this post seems incongruous at first glance, but I assure you there is a connection.
During my adult life I have never purchased a washing machine, but I've always had one in my dwelling.  They have never been terribly flashy.  At times they have had issues of functionality, but by interesting providential circumstances a newer machine would come into my possession.
   For just under a decade we used the suds-saver washing machine that "came with the homestead" that my in-laws moved out of and left for my husband to live in.  When we moved away two hours to the west, this appliance was put in the U-Haul with our other basic possessions.
   About one year later, the machine was not sounding happy.  All of the lubricant had leaked out, and the transmission had almost broken.  We did only small loads to preserve its limited capacities and began searching for a replacement.  Since we were living on just my husband's part-time wage (he was a student, and I was staying home with our three young children), a used washing machine was our only prospect.  However, every newspaper ad we followed up with had units that were in even worse shape than our own: filthy inside and out, detached lids or something out of antique shop.
   One Sunday evening, our children asked, "Can we drive home a different way?" after the church service. As we took a longer detour around the subdivision, we spotted a white washing machine out for garbage day.  The next morning (actually 3:00 AM),  my husband drove there again for a closer look.  It had a broken agitator, but it was a similar model with a functional transmission!  After his December exams, he gave the old washing machine a transmission transplant that extended its life for two full years.
   When that washing machine finally gave up the ghost, a patron of the food bank where my husband was then working told him he had a washing machine in his house that we could have for free.  This gentleman used to pick up appliances put out for garbage day to repair and then sell.  From 2007 until the end of 2015, this one served us well.  Yes, it occasionally did not spin out the second load when two loads were washed back to back, but resettling the damp clothing and turning on the spin cycle again would work just fine.
   At the start of 2015, because we knew it would eventually quit on us, we decided to start saving up for a new washing machine by setting aside $100 per month until we reached our goal.  At least twice during that period when we had accumulated $300 to $400, we came upon an urgent need and gave away this appliance fund.  After the second time it happened, we felt led to stop saving up for a washing machine.
   Last fall, our brother-in-law told us he had a washing machine he did not need.  Some folks had moved into a house and wanted new appliances even though there was nothing wrong with the existing washer.  They asked our brother-in-law to please take away the washing machine and give it a good home.
   In October we removed a seat from our minivan to make room for the washing machine and drove it to our house.  Not surprisingly, about a week later the old washing machine broke decisively. There was no stress about where to get another one quickly.  Even in the mundane things, I can see God's care over our family.  It's not because we are better than anyone else.  We give God the glory.

Friday, 15 January 2016

Ways to Pray

   War Room, the latest faith-based film by the Kendrick brothers, highlights the importance of prayer.  Audiences across North America were shown how a family is transformed by humble prayer, done in one's closet.  The idea of praying in a secret place (an inner room or closet) is introduced by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount.  This was a strong contrast to the prayer-as-public-performance that the Pharisees had popularized at that time.
   The movie War Room gives some guidance around how to pray.  Using prayers in Scripture and making them our own is helpful.  Specific requests that we record on paper can help us remain focused and we also feel encouraged when God acts in response to those prayers.  I wanted to share a few other ideas not shown in the movie which I know have been helpful to some people:

  • Pray when folding laundry.  As you pick up an item, pray for the person it belongs to.  This can be a good way to pray for one's immediate family.
  • Pray when doing sewing, knitting or crocheting.  These arts seem to be making a come back. The process of stitching can make us focus our thoughts in a way that sitting to watch TV never could.  If the item being crafted is intended for a particular recipient, prayers can be offered for that person. 
  • Pray while colouring in an adult colouring book.  When you switch colours, you could pray for a new person.  I recently wrote names into the designs of some of the pages of my book.  As I add hues to each section, I lift a prayer for the person named there.
  • Pray while falling asleep or when you wake up in the middle of the night.  Ask God to bring people to your mind who need His special care at that moment.
  • Pray by writing in a journal.  Writing prayers to God works well for some people, but it is not for everyone.  If our prayers are about very personal things, we may be uncomfortable with the thought that they might be found and read by others some time in the future.  
  • Read and speak the Psalms.  Become aware of the types of situations and needs fit with each Psalm and then use these to voice your praises, sorrows and requests for justice.
Please leave a comment if you know of another way to pray that is not mentioned here.