Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Oh Canada! Day Four

It's almost midnight, everyone is finally asleep. Tara's been having terrible allergy attacks - so I took the kids swimming tonight so she could have some rest. We had lots of fun swimming in a warm pool, but ELIE missed their Mommy! If she had been there with us, she could have helped Jerm with his whirlpool project. Or she could have watched Levi and Isaac swim without their life jackets! Hopefully she'll rest well tonight and tomorrow will be much better. Maybe she was just allergic to Kitchener?

After sleeping in this morning, we eventually made it down to breakfast a bit before 10am. The lady who prepped everything for the buffet at the hotel was very gracious and friendly. Everyone packed up within the hour, and we headed down King Street towards downtown. On the way we stopped by Aunt Nancy's home - she had a box of books for us to peruse. Nancy also had a very old scrapbook of Grandma Beulah that she was eager to show us. The book was from 1924, though the pics in it of foods, flowers, instructions for sewing, cooking, cleaning - and images of kids and parents might have been from a year or two later. Shirley surmised that it was a project from classes Beulah took as a teen while in school, a kind of advanced homemaking course. We enjoyed leafing through it, seeing a bit of Beulah's world so many years later. Jerm found a book of old poems; it included the full version of one that Mum would quote endlessly: "Into each life some rain must fall...". I found a liturgy book for youth services - in it included writings of some great Christians in ages past: Elizabeth Fry, John Huss, Walter Rauschenbusch, George Fox, and others.

When we pulled up to Nancy's home, we met one of her neighbors going for a walk - Maria. Through her thick German accent she pointed out her home just down the street, and she shared how she helped care for Nancy now that her own husband died a few years ago. What a kind and sweet neighbor! The night before Barry had shared how he really appreciated his good neighbors in the past thirty five years. Maria must be one of them!

We pulled away from the neighborhood, waving goodbye to Nancy, and set off down King Street, which took us through downtown Kitchener and Waterloo. It led us to Conestoga Mall where we shopped for some more Canada t-shirts. Then it was off to Port Elgin! The drive took us through familiar towns with odd names: Wallenstein, Dorking, Molesworth, Wingham, Lucknow, Kincardine, Tiverton - too name a few. The biggest change in the landscape was dozens and dozens and dozens of wind-turbines placed all along highway 21. The boys liked looking at them. The final miles from Tiverton through Underwood to North Bruce and onto Port Elgin was a neat experience. It's been so long since we've been back there - and this time Maria gets to join Jerm, Tara and I, along with all our kids. It'll be fun later in the week to go back to North Bruce and check out how the area is different.

After checking into our hotel (they let me use the laundry cart since they didn't have a luggage cart!) we scheduled dinner for Pizza Delight. Shirley Mandigo met us at the hotel to greet us, and she stuck around, helping my folks move in, and then they got chatting! Mum called to make sure that Debbie Vanderkleyn was going to join us for dinner. My van and Jerm's took off early to drive around a bit - we took the kids by our old school, Saugeen Central School. The neighborhood hasn't changed too much, just looks older, not as well kept up in some places - and lots of new houses on the other side of the school. The downtown area doesn't look like it's gotten much TLC lately. But it was still neat to be back. We parked at the restaurant and let the kids play in the playground out behind while we waited for Dad's van to show up.

The feast at Pizza Delight was...well... delightful! And the kids ate free! When the fun was paid for, Shirley took us by the cottage where she is staying with her son Jamie and his family. He came out to greet us - it's been since Ben's funeral that we'd seen him. It was great to see him again. His seven month daughter Lily was inside sleeping, and his wife Nate was down at the beach with the other two boys. We made plans to meet up with Jamie and his family the next day, and then we headed down to the beach to check out the restaurant. It used to be called First Base, and it used to have Garbage Can ice cream. Sadly, it has a dumb name now, and it has not the ice cream I crave. Boo! Oh well, we froliced on the wind-pounded beach, freezing and laughing anyway. Away in the distance we saw a lady with two boys playing in the sand. And then the lady started walking towards us. I walked over to her, guessing maybe it was Jamie's wife, Nate. Which it was! I'd never met her, so it was neat to greet her and introduce her to Jerm, to Tara, to Maria, to Emma, to my Mum and others. It'll be neat to hang out with her and Jamie tomorrow.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Oh Canada! Day Three

It was supposed to be overcast and thundery today. Instead it was a blue sky full of thick white clouds, muggy and hot. This is Canada - it's supposed to be cool here! It ended up being beautiful weather for our traveling today to the ol' Hallman landmarks.

Our first - and most important - point of interest was the home of Cranson and Beulah Hallman, Dad's folks. The two story red farmhouse holds so many memories for me as a child, and plenty more for Dad and Aunt Shirley. Everything was sold a bunch of years ago, a German family purchased it and turned it into a strawberry farm. So much has changed: more trees, different places for the gardens, untended barns, lots more landscaping.

One of the owners graciously gave us a tour of the farmhouse - it was a sad event. What was once a home full of warmth and hard work, of friendship and feasts is now a dirty shadow of its former self. It was neat to remember what the rooms used to look like, where furniture used to be. Jeremy showed Maria where we used to put on Smurf plays in the TV room. Jeremy also reminded us of when Shirley would dress up as Santa Claus and magically appear in the parlor. It was weird how Aunt Shirley always got a headache Christmas afternoon - she was never around when St. Nick showed up.

We wandered around the grounds for awhile, talking to another owner for a bit. The owners graciously let the kids go and pick a few strawberries! And then Dad went and bought a carton! This was after Faye  urged the kids to pick up big rocks from the farm as keepsakes. While scarfing ripe strawberries, Tara pointed out to my boys the barn roof where me and my brothers climbed up on after a huge snow blizzard. Matt climbed up to the peak - at least a fifty feet up! I think Jerm went with him - at least higher then Ben and I. Jerm disagrees. Tara believes Jerm over me! Anyway, we'd climb up, and then slide down. After a bunch of turns we discovered that some of the nailheads sticking up had shredded the bottom of our snowpants. We knew we were so busted. Trudging back to the farmhouse, we wondered what our fate would be. Mom gasped. Dad laughed!

From the farmhouse we piled into the vans and headed towards the Roseville Cemetery next to an old Mennonite stone church. Included there among some of the original Hallmans that had settled in this region of Kitchener was Dad's Aunt Olive and Aunt Myrtle. So were some of Dad's high school buddies. It was obviously a bit of a reflective time for him. From there Dad took us to Cranson's homestead where he was born. Uncle Morgan inherited the house and had a small farm implement business there. Across the road was a large plot of land where the first Hallmans had settled. A neat moment to hear Dad retell some of our family lore.

Further down the road was the home where Dad and Shirley was born - legend has it they entered the world on the kitchen table! Upon pulling into the drive, someone who works at the old farm (it's used for office space and a retreat center now) followed us in, and then showed Dad around. Dad then took Jerm, Tara and I to see the largest walnut tree in the world, and the flat boulder imbedded in the ground where he would smash walnuts as a child. When he showed us the woods out back, he told us how as a little tyke he was out there alone in the early spring kicking logs. One dislodged and rolled onto his foot, trapping him. Fortunately a farmhand was within yelling distance, he saved Dad and carried the sniffling little boy home!

Plans were for lunch in New Dundee, but all three eating establishments were closed on Monday. Too bad for them! After an emergency potty break at the Esso station, we headed out to the New Dundee Cemetery where Cranson and Beulah are buried. Next to them is the tomb of Cranson's first wife Ellie. We also saw the tomb of Uncle Russell and Aunt Eva - they hosted many wonderful Christmas feasts. Tradition included a game of snooker and billiards! They had the coolest house - a secret stairway from their bedroom to the kitchen! Brilliant! Eva - also the name of my neice (Jerm & Maria's oldest), was quite the landscaper. When we stopped by their home later, we remembered how beautiful the land was when it wasn't winter - mature shade trees, tall evergreens, blooming flowers mounded in long stretches, and little pots of colorful annuals placed in clever nooks. And that big green barn! It was a leisurely, meandering drive through the townships of Dad and Shirley's childhood.

To top it all off, we lunched at Tim Hortons - tasty sandwiches and of course mouth-melting donuts. Then off to Canadian Tire - which has become a wannabe Wal-mart + Dicks + Tirebarn. Kind of weird. We were looking for Canada t-shirts. No luck. Off to Wal-mart. More candy, no t-shirts. Old Navy? Yup - some neat stuff on sale, but not everything we were looking for. One last stop - Zehr's at the old Hiway Market. When I was a kid, there was a two-story market there - grocery on the bottom, merchandise up top. As a kid, the only merchandise I cared about was toys, and at age six and seven, the only toys I cared about was Legos. At Hiway Market, they had an enormous display, an oversized diorama of space lego scenes. Me and my brothers would gaze and dream and be inspired. Everything is changed now. But Zehr's grocery has remodeled everything - it's what I grew up with in Port Elgin. And what mattered most now was stocking up on nostalgic foods: Ketchup flavored and Dillpickle flavored potato chips, Mr. Maple cookies, Shreddies cereal, and Tim Horton coffee. Tara went through the candy aisle: Aero pieces (and mint flavored too!), Coffee Crisp morsels, and Smarties!

For dinner Dad tried to find a charcoal grill place, but we couldn't find it. So instead we tried Turtle Jacks - it was just down from our hotel. Great atmosphere and fantastic food (thick fries with white vinegar on the side!). The service was great and it was relaxing to hang out and talk. With stuffed bellies and bags of junkfood, we waddled back to our rooms. The kids wanted to go swimming a bit before a bedtime, but I was too full to play in the pool. It's vacation - too much good food combined with lots of driving around. Fortunately the hotel has a nice fitness center. Tomorrow we can run the streets of Port Elgin and along the beach! 

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Oh Canada! Day Two

With all the sitting and eating we did yesterday, first on the agenda for Tara and I this morning was a visit in the fitness center. It was very kind of Tara to let me sleep in while she exercised first. The kids were up a little earlier than normal, which meant some Sunday morning cartoons - though not in French!

Our first visit of the day was with Roseville United Brethren in Christ Church - it was Family Day! The little church where Dad and Mum were married thirty-nine years ago was packed. Instead of a sermon from Pastor Randy Magnus, a ventriloquist entertained the children and families. They had all the kids sit up front, so when a volunteer with a big smily face was need, Eva got chosen to go up on stage and help out with one of the puppets songs!  It was fun to watch Dad and Shirley surprise old friends with our arrival. It was great to see Great-Aunt Meryl again!

Don and Beth Poth hosted us for a delicious lunch in their stunningly beautiful home and gardens. Their backyard is a breathtaking arrangement of trees and flowers, birdhouses and a fountain, old fences and a large lattice dome over the patio! We wandered around for awhile, taking in the lovingly crafted landscape. Willy and Annie joined us - neighbors to Uncle Russell and Aunt Eva. They also brought a tasty cake from their 60th wedding anniversary. I asked them what their secret was... they said it was a secret! When I asked them for stories about Aunt Eva and Aunt Olive, Willy shared how Eva was so thoughtful - bringing hot cups of coffee out during cold harvest times, and drippy ice cream during the hot hay season.

The weather was muggy (I wore clothes better suited for cold weather...), rain seemed threateningly close, and then the sun came blazing out! Our response was to let the kids (and Aunt Maria) play in the cool pool. Tara, Jerm and I sat around with our feet in the water - very relaxing, until someone urged a reluctant Maria to do a cannonball in my direction. Her incomplete backflip also got me soaked!

It was wonderful relaxing with Don and Beth, getting to know our northern family better. I know my folks were really enjoying the visit. Too soon, though, it was time to dry off, pack up and head to our next hotel so that we could spend the evening with Aunt Barry and Uncle Nancy. Though our next destination wasn't that far away, we traveled many unexpected streets in search of our hotel. Dad even got out of the van to ask different people for directions! We were that lost in his hometown. Somebody had moved landmarks...

The last time I had been to Barry and Nancy's home was with Ben in 1994. We had come up to Kitchener for a big Becker family reunion. We camped out with them in their third floor apartment. One of my best memories in that last year with Ben was the four of us upstairs, hanging out. Somehow we got singing silly Raffi songs. Well, Matt and Ben were doing most of the singing. Probably mostly Ben. At this point he was kind of blind, but still had a wonderful attitude about everything. He was plopped on the floor singing in the most ridiculous voice, booming and smiling and making us roar with laughter.

This time around we hung out in the backyard till the rain drove us indoors. We had fun out there catching up with Barry - he was sharing about some of his dangerous experiences hauling chemicals in his long-haul trucks. He's got the scarred knuckles to back up his story! Christy's husband had his own tales to tell of hauling from B.C. to Nova Scotia, all the way down to Louisiana. We also got caught up on the superiority of Tim Horton's coffee over Starbucks. Some tense moments, but we got past it! :)

When it finally came time for dinner, Nancy served up this amazing broccoli salad. It was THE BEST! Maybe it was the onions and bacon, or the sauce. Whatever it was, mmmmmmm good! And the ice cream for desert - I don't know if I've ever had better vanilla ice cream. Ever. A wonderful surprise, especially when topped with strawberries picked from where Grandpa Hallman's old farm used to be. We'll be going out to the farm tomorrow to show the kids where my dad grew up, and other sites in the area. Today we saw the high school my dad attended - three miles from his house (three miles that he walked!).  More of that kind of stuff in the morning. Should be fun!

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Oh Canada! Day One

I'm watching Eli fall asleep. He's the last one. Emma zonked out right away. Playing in the pool for two hours will do that to kids. After a long day of traveling it was a relief to splash around for a couple of hours. It was even nicer to order room service and lounge the night away. To top it off: Jerm and Maria brought us some Coffee Crisp!

We had planned for an early start this morning - 8am. Eight minutes after, and we were on our way. Once on the interstate, Tara picked up my phone to call the Lake - let them know we'd be there by 9am (on time!). Before she could dial, the phone rang - Faye had forgot something important; Alan was going to meet us at the 24/69 Marathon - could we turn around and meet him. Sure, why not? We're on vacation, we're in no hurry. While we waited, the kids watched a movie, Tara and I read and relaxed. Eventually we made it to the 120/69 Marathon, and then our caravan of Hallman's was headed north.

Except twenty-minutes later we had to make a potty break. Poor Lydia. Tecumseh is a very small town. We got to watch the tail end of a parade. Interesting Americana. Off again, we were, headed north. This time we made it about forty minutes. Poor, poor Lydia. Off again - this time we made it to Port Huron for a late lunch without stopping!

The kids were pretty impressed with the Blue Water Bridge that we crossed into Canada. Lots of oohs and ahhs. We reminded them of the Ben story: Matt would tease when we were kids traveling across the bridge - he would open the back windows of the van and tell Ben to hang on so he didn't get sucked out. This of course made Ben yell and cry. Which of course made the rest of us snicker. When I tried this little trick on Levi, it didn't work.

Once in Ontario, we were on the lookout for a Tim Horton's. At just the right time, we found one. Oh the joy of a delicious donut from Tim Horton's. We will be stopping again! From there it was a straight shot to Kitchener. The last thirty-five minutes of the drive were the worst - sleepiness was hitting... a late night of packing, an early start, and a lonng drive in the afternoon.

Tomorrow we worship in Roseville UB Church, lunch with cousins Don & Beth, and then dinner with Uncle Barry and Aunt Nancy!

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

When Are You A Leader?

Everybody has leadership opportunities everyday. When the time comes to be a leader, will you step up or step away?

In tracking with the developing story of the early church in Luke's Acts of the Apostles, we see a really interesting leadership crisis develop. The apostles had been receiving large sums of money from several individuals who had sold a piece of property. This money was then used to purchase food which was distributed daily to widows in the city. As more disciples joined the assembly of believers, more property was sold, more money was given, and more food was purchased to give to more widows. 

And then some widows were getting more food than others. Some widows either got their food too late or not at all. Success had brought failure. Jewish widows who had grown up in foreign countries, but were now spending their last years in Jerusalem - well they were getting less food than the Jewish widows native to the Holy Land. The apostles leadership of food distribution had failed, and now accusations of racism were starting to emerge. Whoops!

Here's what's interesting: when the apostles here the complaints of the Hellenistic widows, they listen! A great example of when you are a leader. The apostles listened, and they responded - another example of when you are a leader. The apostles called together the disciples in the area and presented the problem to them - another great example of when you are a leader. 

The disciples were given the opportunity to help solve the problem - another example of when you are a leader. The disciples were instructed to select seven men with a reputation of wisdom and being full of God's Spirit. The disciples were given authority to select who would solve this problem - and thus the disciples were also granted responsibility to make sure the problem stay solved. More great examples of when you are a leader. The disciples chose seven Hellenistic men - a fascinating choice (and very wise). Another example of when you are a leader. 

The apostles accepted these choices by the disciples (also very wise), laid hands on them, prayed for them, and let them get to work. The apostles focused on prayer and preaching God's word, the seven deacons focused on daily distribution of food to widows. Now there are more leaders involved in the early church than ever before. When are you a leader? When you use wisdom to solve problems. 

The leadership that we need most doesn't rely on position and credentials. The leadership we want most doesn't stem from organizational savviness and political cunning. The leadership we hope for is rooted in wisdom - knowing what the next right thing is, and doing it right. There are too few leaders worth following these days because there are too few women and men who are willing to figure out what the next right thing is to do, and do it right. We are a generation addicted to convenience, leisure, apathy and narcissism. We look to be led because we are lazy, not because we are committed to wisdom. 

When are you a leader? When you care. You set an example of how to treat humans. When you pray. You seek to be influenced by God who only gives what is good. When you serve. You demonstrate the attitude that disarms rebels and unites the diligent.

When are you a leader? When you hear a complaint, really listen, and then discuss with some wise folks how to solve it ASAP. And then put the plan into action ASAP.

When are you a leader? When you empower more capable people with authority and responsibility by designating focused tasks centered on lifting up those who depend on you. And let them do their work. 

When are you a leader? When you support and affirm the accomplishments of those who work with you, of those whose work depends on you, of those whose work you depend on. 

When are you a leader? Whenever you want to be, whenever you choose to be. 

When are you a leader? When you are working in your home, working in the marketplace, working in the classroom, working in the sanctuary, working in the public square, working in the military. When you take initiative, when you keep your word, when you earn respect, when you fuel loyalty, when you stay patient, when you do your best, when you speak wisely, you are a leader. 

When are you a leader? 

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

A Couple Days Away

It's been a good couple of days of fun. 

Saturday for Father's Day the kids and Tara took me out to eat at Flat Top Grill for a very late breakfast. The pancakes were huge! The omelets were tasty too. We waddled around Jefferson Pointe for a bit, hung out at the fountain for a few seconds, did a bit of shopping, and then we went to the movies. I admit, I cried and cried at the ending of Toy Story 3. What a stunning story. Laughter, adventure, suspense, surprises, betrayal, sorrow, despair, rescue, loyalty, trust, and hope. A great movie. And it was followed by some Cold Stone Creamery. Nice. Once we got home, Levi and Isaac and I played Star Wars Lego Wii for a couple of hours - a dream come true for them, and me! Tara took the other two to  the splash park at Buckner Park to hang out with the cousins from Dupont Road area and Detroit. Later we all got together at Karen's house to hang out, eat too much pizza, play in the backyard, and watch Tiger Woods play some amazing golf. 

Sunday for Father's Day, after a great morning of worship at Anchor, we met Tara's dad at the Arcola firestation for their annual barbecue chicken fundraiser. It's a tradition. All the cousins were there feasting mostly on applesauce and lemonade. And then they had fun playing in the firetrucks. We also got to meet one of the farmhands who is at the center of some very interesting stories. Kinda neat. Then we headed home, cleaned the house, finished packing for the lake, and then got the van loaded up. We spent the muggy evening playing in the lake, feasting with my Dad, and then spending lots of time perfecting our s'more's fire. We sat around the glowing logs until the sun settled low behind the lake, turning the gray clouds a breathtaking hue of pink and red and orange. 

Monday was supposed to be a day to go golfing before Tara and I headed up to Pokagon State Park for a night away. But we slept in late, took our time on the three mile run, and then the weather turned questionable. We missed our window of opportunity to head up to the Elks in Kendallville where Jamil is the head pro. Instead we ended up taking the kids on WetJet rides around the lake, and then some fishing. We went through a lot of worms. And they caught quite a few fish. 

Eventually Tara and I checked into our room at Pokagon and went for a little walk after dinner. We also discovered that they serve really big servings of ice cream. That was a fantastic surprise! I relaxed with a book while she worked on her digital scrapbooking. After our morning run, we continued our simple plan of reading and scrapbooking. Eventually we got some lunch, but then it was right back to "work!" I took a nice long walk on Trail 3 - it takes you up to Hell's Point, the third highest point in Steuben county. This was followed by more ice cream. We soon left, Tara did some shopping at the outlet malls, and then back to the lake to play some more with the kids. The weather was so beautiful and the pleas from the children so irresistible, we both had to get in the lake and splash around. It was a really neat time. 

Now we're home, full from another homecooked meal by my Mum, and ready to relax around the house. A few more days of work, and then off for another vacation. I'm looking forward to doing some more reading this summer. This afternoon I started a John Steinbeck novel, East of Eden. The first few chapters have been compelling. I finished the Tolkein Fellowship of the Ring (for the twentieth time or so) - always an inspiring adventure. I also continued plodding through a tome on Nietschze, The Shadow of the Antichrist - a Christian theologian poking around the anti-Christian philosopher's causes for his tirade. It's thoughtful and thick. I started a new book, it's Edward Gibbons famous work, Christians and the Fall of Rome. Penguin books published a version of it that includes a small section of the classic work - just enough to give you a sense of the historians contribution and bias. It was first published in 1776, so it takes a bit of effort to absorb the verbosity and multi-syllabic words. But it's extremely provocative. My kind of book! Oh how I love reading and discovering and wondering and contemplating and learning and holding a classic book in my hands.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

What Are Christians Capable Of?

It's a loaded question, to be sure. A range of strident and brash atheists have been announcing their preference for the abolishment of religion. They've stretched out a long list of grievances and sins of religion in the past couple thousand years, a list that proves what kind of violence and cruelty Christians are capable of. Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris are three of the Christian-condemners that I've been reading and who have captured some of the public's attention.

What do do when faced with those kind of accusations? I'm certainly not personally guilty of any atrocities done in the name of Jesus Christ. But our history does have recorded the many sins of the church. Obviously the Catholic Church has had to publicly deal with some priests who have disgustingly abused children and teens over the past many decades. What are Christians capable? Great sins and much humiliation.

In the story of the early church as recorded by Luke in the book of Acts, included is a story of Ananias and Sapphira. It's a story set in the middle of incredible miracles and glorious expansion of the church. It's a story of corruption and greed, of selfish ambition and vain conceit. It's a story that shows how easily it is for Christians to ruin a good thing. Whether it is some sinful pastor in the evening news or some crime of the church dredged up from the past, whether it is the gossip of some indiscretion or your own struggle with your private guilt, Christians are obviously capable of sin.

But aren't Christians capable of great good? Aren't Christians capable of generous help? Aren't Christians capable of remarkable service? Of course they are. But we don't highlight these wonderful deeds in order to offset our sins, or prove our worthiness, or further our sense of personal superiority. We Christians are honest about our sinful nature, but we are also honest about our redemption. We Christians are capable of confession, of repentance, of making amends, of restoration, of reconciliation, of humility.

Christians are capable of great deeds, but they are also capable of doing good in everyday circumstances.  Those of us who are Christians often look up to heros of the faith and at the same time underestimate our capability to make a difference for good in our own areas of influence. We too often limit what God can do through us. We dry up our own imagination of what we could accomplish through obedience to Christ and inspiration through the Spirit. We often find ourselves struggling between fueling our personal ambitions while also yearning to become a generous grace-giver and healer. If we are going to be capable of great good, it's going to be because we focus on the Way of Jesus.

What are Christians capable of? What are you capable of?

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The Lost History of Christianity

Sometimes getting a new perspective can really help. When it comes to viewing the role and fate of Christianity in the world and in America, a new perspective would be very refreshing. Philip Jenkins once again provides a new point of view for Christianity in his recent work, The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia - and How it Died.

That's right - a thousand years of Christianity in what is now a hot-bed of virulent Islamic activity. A thousand years of vibrant, intelligent, fruitful, expanding Christianity - and you barely now anything about it. For those of us that know something of church history - we can trace the beginning of our denomination, connect it to either the long history of the Catholic or Orthodox churches, or the Protestant Reformation (which was only about five hundred years ago). Imagine in another five hundred years all Christianity from Europe and North America pretty much wiped out.

Jenkins illuminates the rich diversity of the Middle Eastern Church, it's expansion into North Africa and the far reaches of Asia. It's an inspiring story. And then comes the descriptions of how it was undermined and annihilated. There are some key reasons for why the churches in these regions were destroyed, the main one being violent and ruthless extermination by Islamic forces - as well as other tribal warlords. But even with this kind of unrelenting persecution, there were some churches that still survived, even still to this day. Why?

There are lots of takeaways from the book with implications on how to view global Christianity as well as national Christianity. But here was a key for me: Christianity in North Africa disappeared when Islamic forces intruded because the faith was pretty much held by the urban elites, it never penetrated the many tribal villages in the outlying areas. When the invaders ransacked the city driving off the bishops and urban believers, the faith went with them.

However, in southern Egypt the Coptic Christians faced persecutions that didn't result in their dissipation. Monks of this faith worked tirelessly in serving the poor and establishing churches in many rural and distant villages. They translated the Scriptures and the church liturgy in such a way that the faith became a natural part of the regional life. So even though cities and bishops were distressed, the faith passed on to the next generation in the distant byways.

Other takeaways: the will to dominate and wield a sword goes a long way to changing world history. On a simplistic level, the Middle Eastern, African and Asian churches responded to Islamic swords with prayers. The swords prevailed. The European churches raised their shields and responded with Crusades. Their swords partially prevailed. Also: too strong of a tie between the church and the state usually ends poorly for the church, regardless of the fate of the state.

One more interesting thought that pertains to the study Anchor is doing with the book of Acts: the thousand year history that Jenkins traces is the legacy of the early church. We study Acts 2, we follow the trail of Peter and Paul through Jerusalem and to Antioch and eventually Rome. The church of Jerusalem spread west and north, but it also went south and east. Culturally, the early church we read about in Acts had great affinity with the many different tribes and regions of the East.

The irony: as we post-modern American suburbanites scan the pages of Acts for insights on how to lead our churches, we would refuse to emulate the natural development of that early church as it is recorded in history. The early church developed around patriarchs and metropolitans, around bishops and archbishops, around monks and monasteries. Fat chance we're going to copy that portion of the early church culture that is rooted in the story of Acts. But it is very interesting.

Read the book. For a revealing and provocative look at the history you never learned about the early church, you'll easily work your way through Jenkin's research. It's short, stimulating, and disturbing.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

The Brain: Organ of Science and Spirituality

Before I dozed off this afternoon for my nap, I was catching up on some interesting NPR articles online.  First I perused a story on the retirement of Helen Thomas - some people miss their exit from professional life. Next was a somber article on the Pope begging for forgiveness from God for the terrible abuses. Also read about Carly Fiorina's gaffe - apparently mocking a hairdo can derail political ambitions.

But the really, really interesting online article by NPR was titled: Is This Your Brain On God? It's a fascinating look at the most recent science on spirituality - particularly the role of the brain and chemicals.

Barbara Bradley Hagerty wrote a book on the subject: Fingerprints Of God. The online article is a five-piece, interactive story including excerpts from the book and other sources exploring this subject of the brain and experiencing God.

As a Christian, a pastor, and someone that is kind of spiritual - and as someone interested in science and the ordering of the universe - I'm intrigued by scientists delving into the brain to satiate their curiosity on spiritual and chemical reactions.

Some Quotes from the five articles:
"research suggests that chemicals that act on the serotonin system trigger mystical experiences that are life-altering"
"Some epileptologists believe that many of the great religious figures, such as Moses and St. Paul, had epilepsy. Now neurologists believe they've found the sweet spot for spiritual experience -- in the temporal lobe. Some scientists say the temporal lobe, which is associated with emotion and memory, is the seat of spirituality. It's also where epileptic activity takes place."
"Can prayer have an effect on sculpting the brain? “Neurotheologians” – researchers who are studying the brain science of spiritual experience -- think so."
"Called "psychoneuroimmunology," the idea is that thoughts affect your body. But now scientists -- including those at the National Institutes of Health -- are engaging in research to uncover whether a person's thoughts can affect another person's body."
"Materialists say the visions that people report experiencing when they come close to death are hallucinations. But a small but increasing number of scientists posit that consciousness is related to, but not dependent on, the material brain."

Hagerty notes that for scientists on both sides of the issues, a lot of their conclusions are shaped by their bias towards spirituality and religion. It's hard to have a neutral perspective when it comes to such a personal and mystical topic - plus it's an emerging arena of science. But what is we're really learning?

Does the physical/chemical analysis prove that spirituality is just an extension of our material body? Does it mean there really is no God or goddesses, no nirvana or heaven - our spiritual experiences are manifestations of serotonin or epilepsy? Is religion becoming more and more useless when it comes to ordering life and explaining history?

Depending on your point of view, the scientific data either proves that God is a myth, or it can reassert what we've believed - that spiritual experiences connect us with a Divine Power outside of our material existence. I, admittedly, am already convinced that God exists, I believe that Jesus of Nazareth was resurrected - so I want the science to come alongside and strengthen those positions.

But what I really want to know is the truth, to better understand reality. In some areas, science is very, very helpful. But we are also spiritual people - and sometimes what is most real is what we can't see or touch. There are limits to science, and to spirituality. So when they come together, I want it to be as friends - together we can discover reality.


For most people, the best gift you can present to them is reality. Speak truth. Live with integrity. Be honest.  Keep your promises. Stay loyal. But too many of us dip in and out of reality, preferring to insist on our version of how life ought to be, how we want life to be.

Wisdom is dealing with life as it really is. The challenge to loving people is loving them as they really are - love in the world of reality. Wisdom is what we need to cultivate in order to more skillfully and artfully love as we really are. Thus reality is one of the best gifts you can give.

The Apostles, as they speak about the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, claim to be dealing in reality. They are compelled by what they have seen and heard. They saw Jesus crucified by Roman soldiers. They saw Jesus taken down from the cross by Joseph of Arimathea. They saw Jesus dead. It was crushing reality, but it was real nonetheless.

The disciples were just as perplexed as the next person when Jesus appeared to them. Their reluctance to believe corresponds with our reality - we wouldn't expect a beloved brother to show up a day after the funeral, no matter how much we want it to be true. But Jesus presents himself to them. Through convincing proofs they come to believe that Jesus has been resurrected.

And this changes everything for them. 

If Jesus is really resurrected, it means that God has begun something new in the world. In and through Jesus God has fulfilled his plans for Israel, but he has also initiated a new project for the globe. It's a plan that has its roots deep in history, but now they are branching out in unforseen ways. And resurrection is the starting place.

The book of Acts is about the Apostles proclaiming the resurrection of Jesus. It's the heart of their sermons, it's the stuff they are teaching in the Temple. It's what they are proclaiming as good news. It's what they are getting in trouble for. It's what they are commanded to stop preaching about. It's what they get jailed and flogged for. It's what they talk about when they get scattered across the Empire. And people believe them.

What was it about the resurrection of Jesus that compelled the Apostles to tell everyone about it? 

What if you knew you'd be resurrected? What if you knew that someday God would lift up your body from the casket, stand it up on the ground - a restored, renewed you...? What if you knew that death was not the end for you - that no matter what happened to you in this body and life, God would give you a day to start again?

What if you knew that on the day of resurrection, everything was going to be made new? What if the whole world could start over again? What if the new world of resurrection was also full of reconciliation? Would that be a world worth waking up to?

If reality is the true gift, then most of our thoughts of heaven probably don't correspond with reality. And if you are looking to a pagan world to inform your thoughts about the future - you're going to find a bucket full of fate, destiny, inevitability, powerlessness to change, and survival of the fittest or hopes of pleasure and leisure and abundance. The promise of resurrection presents us with a new alternative for what this world is coming to.

I'm in the midst of learning and studying and reflecting and coming to terms with the resurrection. I've always believed it, but I've not really understood it. All I've heard is about going to heaven when I die. Except that Jesus and the Apostles talk all the time about resurrection and the kingdom of God.

I want to deal with reality. The good news of God is tied up with resurrection. I want to know the truth. I want good news for this life and the one to come. And the more I understand about resurrection, the more confident I become.

Resurrection - be raised up from death. That's what happened to Jesus. That's what God promises to us. To the degree that we don't really understand it, we'd can start learning.

Thursday, June 03, 2010

Too Many S'Mores?

It's possible to have too many s'mores? I had three tonight, and that seemed like too much. But they were all different kinds of s'mores. The first s'more was with an Almond Joy - oh that was sooo good! The second one was with a York Peppermint Patty - that is the BEST! The third was with a Reese's Peanut Butter Cup. It was tasty. I would have had a fourth one, a normal one with a Hershey Bar, but I had to call it quits. Besides I had already eaten two Almond Joys and two York's earlier in the evening. But when you're outside, sitting around a campfire, food always tastes better, it always tastes like more. Until the sick feeling in the gut begins to take over.

It was a lovely campfire, hanging out with the kids and Mum, and the MacFarlanes. The kids all tried roasting their own 'mallows. Levi ended up torching two of his... the first was an accident but I think the second one was for sheer delight. It is kind of neat to see how big the blackened puffball can get. Good times at the lake, especially with a campfire and s'mores.

How do you like to eat your s'mores? We've got a whole summer ahead of us to experiment!

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

What Will Help You Change?

You've become aware of something in your life that needs to change. At first you were ignorant of what was causing the pain. Then you were in denial. But reality has an insistent way of undermining denial and ignorance. The facts add up. The pain becomes unavoidable. You accept the need to change. But what will help you change? Especially when you feel stuck, in a rut, addicted, out of control, weak, shamed, broken, tired, defeated, guilty.

Peter is helping his neighbors and fellow citizens deal with reality: it was our leaders who condemned an innocent man, it was us who let Jesus be crucified for political insurrection and religious blasphemy. The reality of this guilt, of this crime, it prompts a response: continued ignorance and denial, or acceptance of the truth. Peter is fully aware of what the crowd of Jerusalemites are thinking: if we really did kill God's servant, his prophet he sent to us... then we are doomed. Maybe that is how you feel - the accumulation of your life choices has left you doomed, left to fate, forever overshadowed by the weight of your sins.

What to do when the reality of the situation faces you so clearly? Peter brings up an old message to those who are willing to listen: Repent and Return. Change how you think about the situation, change how you think about God. Turn your thoughts back to God's words, turn your actions back to God's way of doing things. Facing reality is helping these men and women want to change, and so Peter comes along them, arm on the shoulder and shouts out: You can do it! God wants you to repent and return! God will help you repent and return! It's doable! Do you trust God to forgive you? Do you believe God will help you? Believe and Repent! Trust and Return!

A bunch of friends were baptized on Sunday. Their whole bodies were fully immersed in water, an action full of meaning. My friends were experiencing what God has promised to those that repent and believe Him - he'll wash over our sins, he'll give us a refreshing new start. My friends reached a point where reality forced them to accept this truth: life will only get harder - will it get harder because I continue down this road of ignorance and denial, or will it get harder because I begin to trust the Way of Jesus and do the next right thing? Peter's friends had the same choice too. And so do you.

What will help you change? One of the ways Peter tried to "in-courage" his friends to change was to remind them of God's unending purpose for their lives. Here's what he reminded them of: "Through your offspring, all peoples on earth will be blessed." Through your life, God wants to bless the world. God has plans to do much good upon the earth through you - but you've got to deal with reality and walk away from ignorance and denial. Again we face the choice of belief: do you trust that God could do a better job than you with your life when it comes to blessing the world? 

Here's how Peter ends his message: God sent Jesus to you to bless you by turning each of you from your wicked ways. You need help in turning away from what enslaves you, you need help to turn to God. That's where Jesus comes in. And that's where Jesus-followers come in. Peter was a Jesus-follower, and Jesus was working through Peter to help free others from their wicked ways. Jesus wants to free you from any and all of your wicked ways. And then once you're willing to let God bless you like that, he'll start letting Jesus use you to free others from their wicked ways.

My friends who were baptized on Sunday and those who have been baptized in the many years past are all working to let God use them to bless others. And one of the best way to bless others is to help them turn away from their wicked ways, with Jesus' help. What will help you change? Maybe knowing that God can use your life, your story, your experiences to help others change. Jesus came to help us repent, to change the way we think; he came to give us a fresh start, to return to God.

You don't have to change all by yourself. Ask for help. Trust that God wants to help you, that he can help you, that he will help you.  My friends at Anchor are the sign that God is doing this work still. And my friends are a sign that if you ask for help, God has people ready to answer your prayer.