Who’s in charge?

(Christian Courier, June 2016)
      When you’re a teacher, you’re a leader. I once attended a workshop where the presenter asked, “Who’s in charge of your classroom?” After two incorrect responses from the audience, I raised my hand and said, “I am.” That’s the answer he was looking for.
      In practical terms, that’s true. The teacher is the de facto administrator, disciplinarian, motivator and strategist of the classroom. A dedicated teacher implements management structures that are intended to promote success for all while building in some flexibility to account for individual student gifts and challenges. For me, anyway, it came down to this: if my classroom wasn’t running well, I needed to change something. It was up to me. I was in charge.
      But most importantly, a Christian teacher longs for her students to follow Christ. When I was busy with the daily nitty-gritty of lesson plans, timetables and recess duty, I didn’t spend much time thinking about the pride and joy I’d feel when my students became Christian leaders themselves. But what a retirement perk!
      Some were destined for leadership. You could tell. Gifted go-getters, achievement-oriented right from the start. Still, it’s gratifying to see them fulfill their promise. Among my former students are pastors, teachers, engineers, nurses and business leaders who travel the world. Students who went on to study longer and harder than I ever could … attaining their MAs and PhDs. There’s a Dordt College education prof among them who wrote me one of my most cherished thank you notes!
      But even more heartwarming are those students who graduated to leadership in ways I never could have foreseen. The class clown, the con artist, the poor reader, the bullied. The students I worried about, cringed at, shed tears over, gave up on.
IMG_1506      Take Scott, for example. Scott* was a slippery kid in Grade 8. He was smart, but didn’t care for some of the work I was requiring of him. He claimed he handed in his poetry project. I didn’t have it. We went back and forth. He was convincing. It was year-end; I was exhausted. Maybe I had lost it? Not outside the realm of possibility. I let it go. Years later, he chuckled as he confessed that he had never completed it. Today Scott is a father of five and a solid leader in my church. He’s been a Cadet Counsellor, catechism teacher and deacon several times over. Now he’s an elder. His sincerity and maturity astound me and fill me with thankfulness to God.
      Yes, I praise God for all the unanticipated leaders. The unruly and unmotivated who grew into Sunday school teachers and Gems counsellors. The shy and insecure who became loving fathers and strong mothers. The rebellious — now faithful doers of the Word. If I could have peered into the future, perhaps I would have fretted less, laughed more.
      But our culture is goal-oriented and results-driven. Leaders are particularly susceptible to this pressure. In a recent blog post (perspectivesjournal.org) RCA pastor Brian Keepers reflects on this, referencing The Radical Pursuit of Rest: Escaping the Productivity Trap by John Koessler. Keepers notes, “Our ‘culture of productivity’ assumes that busier is better and that devotion equals more activity.” He quotes Koessler: “No matter what we are doing now, we should do more. No matter what we have done in the past, it has not been enough.”
      As Christians, especially as Christian leaders, we’re invited to turn from this flurry of activity, rest in the Lord and surrender ourselves to his care. And not just ourselves, but, hallelujah, the whole world. This is not to encourage shirking or to condone slacktivism. It’s to inhale the blessed assurance that it’s not all up to us, after all. We’re only temporarily in charge. Keepers frames it, simply, as faith. “We trust that God will take care of us and that the world will go on even without our activity and effort. This makes rest, at its most fundamental level, an exercise of faith.”
      As a footnote, Christian leaders, let’s learn to follow. The day comes when the student is the teacher. Let’s relinquish control with supportive grace. Let’s embrace the miracle of God’s Spirit poured out even in these days to raise up and equip new leaders. To quote Jean Paul Richter, the 19th century German writer: “How calmly may we commit ourselves to the hands of him who bears up the world.”
 *Thanks, Scott, for permission to share our past and present.

Housing God

(Christian Courier column, May 2016)
     April 14th marked the 20th anniversary of my father’s death from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. I journaled throughout his ten-year illness in the hopes of someday writing a book about it. Maybe I’ll still get to that, but if I haven’t managed to do so in 20 years, what are the odds?
     Once I had a conversation with friends on this intriguing topic: “Who are the five people in your life who’ve had the strongest impact on your faith?” Topping my list was my dad. It would take – you guessed it – a book to write about his influence on me with appropriate clarity and comprehensiveness. But here’s a teaser.
      Dad wasn’t preachy. The closest thing to a sermon might be an emphatic declaration, punctuated with a pointing finger, that you can’t expect a man who is hungry and has no shoes to listen to the gospel. First, you feed him and give him shoes; then you tell him about Jesus. He had a pronounced bias toward a “social gospel.” So I wasn’t completely surprised when, many years after he was gone, Mom revealed to me that her father had once called him a “communist.” As a young whippersnapper working in a cement factory, Dad had the temerity to criticize management and speak up on behalf of the employees. He always sided with “the little man.” No surprise, really. He grew up on “margarine street,” a disparaging Dutch phrase for government-subsidized housing.
      When asked to serve his church, Dad didn’t hesitate. He helped organized the Cadet program in Sarnia’s Second CRC and also in the Wyoming CRC, serving there as the club’s first Head Counsellor. Mom still has the faded certificate commending his dedication. He was an elder in both of those churches, too, and served a term as Board Chair for the John Knox Christian School Society.
      Dad’s convictions extended beyond his CRC community. Once he met a desperate and penniless Scottish family stranded at the Sarnia train station. He invited these strangers into our home and they stayed with us for several weeks. He spoke up at his local union hall promoting Sunday as a day of rest. Later in life, as a hog farmer, Dad regularly donated pork to widows.
Off to church.      These commendable examples of Christian witness were but the public expression of Dad the family man. He loved our mom. He valued her work as mother and housewife. He complimented her meals in our presence and made sure we understood that a clean and orderly home was not a gift to be disrespected. It all sounds a bit too good to be true, I know, but I do have the corroborating testimony of five siblings.
      He treated us kids well, too, patient, encouraging, never given to harshness. I’ll confess I was the most challenging. One night I skipped Young Peoples to meet up with an unchurched guy. I was careful, I thought, to return to church in time to get picked up. I hid in the washroom waiting for the right moment to join the others as they exited the classrooms. Suddenly I heard my dad’s voice. Alas, he’d come early and discovered I hadn’t been there! By the time I worked up the courage to face him, he’d already left.
      Flummoxed, I ended up at a friend’s house and had to call for a ride home. Dad said nothing as we drove in the inky night. Finally, turning into our lane, he quietly expressed how disappointed he was in me. He didn’t ask where I’d been or what I’d been doing. I may have mumbled a half-hearted “sorry,” I don’t recall, but his merciful restraint reverberates in my memory.
IMG_1836     When I was a child, our church constructed a Wayside Chapel for Travelers that stood for decades on the highway, a shining jewel box when lit up at night, stocked with tracts and a taped sermon by Rev. A. DeJager. Dad helped build or maintain this miniature church (we’re no longer sure which), a storybook edifice that charmed me whenever we drove past.
     Suddenly I understand. Dad is that church. A “little man” housing God. An everyday Christian hostel. Come stay with us, soup’s on, pick out a pair of shoes.
Dad wasn’t perfect. He made mistakes. But that’s for the book. Here’s today’s takeaway: Weary, perplexed Christian parent, take heart. You are foundation, tabernacle, temple. Glory is your cornerstone. Have faith, keep faith: “This is the victory that has overcome the world, even our faith” (1 John 5:4).

What a book can do

(Christian Courier column, April 2016)

I can’t recall the title, but I clearly remember the first book that awakened me to suffering beyond a bloody nose or schoolyard snub. It was a small blue hard-covered book about the 16th century Spanish siege of Leiden. I sobbed to my mother: “Those poor Dutch people were trapped! They were starving! They ate dogs, cats and rats!” I was just a kid, but I’d discovered empathy.

Books continue to be a God-given opportunity for me to meet, understand and love my neighbour.

kinew_reason_you_walk_cvr[1]The Reason You Walk by Canadian journalist Wab Kinew is the unsentimental account of a father and son relationship inhabited by colonial subjugation. Kinew’s father, Tobasonakwut, endured a litany of horrors at St. Mary’s Indian Residential School. He was given a new name, Peter Kelly. Every aspect of his native culture was demeaned — his appearance, his language, his religion, his traditions. He was strapped for offenses he didn’t understand. He was sexually abused by both men and women, vilified by a nun even as she raped him. He witnessed the beating of his closest friend by white men and ran, in vain, to get help. The nuns insisted later that the boy had died of tuberculosis.

Tobasonakwut’s suffering remained private for much of his life. But the childhood nightmare dogged his marriage, his parenting and his emotional health. Gradually, determined to retrieve his dignity and his cultural heritage, Tobasonakwut achieved a remarkable transformation, becoming a national leader and advocate for his people. In 2009 he travelled to Rome to meet Pope Benedict XVI, offering him a feather as a symbol of reconciliation. Kinew sums up his father’s legacy: “He had grappled with his pain, with his anger, and with his grief. Now, we had seen him conquer those things with love, a love he extended to his fellow human beings, including some who had hurt him.”

51fb-u69ShL[1]Katherine Boo’s book, behind the beautiful forevers, is an expose of life in the seething “undercity” of Mumbai, a sprawling slum beside its elegant airport. Abdul, a Muslim trash picker, one of ten children, is supporting the family because, as he says, his father is a man who is “too sick to sort much garbage, not sick enough to stay off his wife.” Abdul’s beleaguered future is thrown into even greater jeopardy when he is wrongfully accused of murder. We also meet Asha, slumlord by virtue of her body and her political savvy. Her ruthless scamming has but one goal — a college education for her talented daughter. Ironically, her “most-everything girl” ends up despising her, still trapped in Annawadi because of her mother’s fraudulent schemes.



Behind the beautiful forevers is a galling read. Boo demonstrates how brutish economic conditions give birth to morally unconscionable realities: “The poor blame one another for the choices of governments and markets and we who are not poor are ready to blame the poor just as harshly.”

25622897._UY1217_SS1217_[1]The Illegal is Lawrence Hill’s latest work. Olympic-hopeful Keita Ali, a black marathon runner, grows up in dangerous Zantoroland. His journalist father is murdered for documenting political corruption. With the help of an unscrupulous sports agent, Keita escapes to Freedom State.

As a person with illegal status, Keita becomes enmeshed in complexities. Worse, his sister Charity has been kidnapped in Zantoroland and is being held for ransom. Keita takes huge risks, competing in public races to win the money he needs to free his sister. His terror is compounded as various individuals all want a piece of him — politicians, criminals, reporters and athletic promoters.

The fictional, futuristic setting of The Illegal allows Hill free rein to explore current issues without pinpointing particular countries. But to my mind — perhaps because I read it immediately after the impeccably researched beyond the beautiful forevers – the novel lacks the rigorous believability the subject matter demands. Nonetheless, it’s a gripping story that highlights the difficulties refugees face as they flee oppression.

Each of these books fostered my empathy for those who are different from me. My neighbourhood is expanding; so is yours. Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “Nothing that we despise in the other man is entirely absent from ourselves. We must learn to regard people less in the light of what they do or don’t do, and more in light of what they suffer.” I have a choice to make. Will I avert my eyes from the suffering of others or will I choose to be a good Samaritan? Educating myself is a step in the right direction.