January 2010

Steve and I were happy to get away to Australia for a couple of weeks, but our vacation came at a bit of an awkward time for me in that I am in the midst of writing a proposal for funding for a new program for TWR Cambodia

Once again I have reached the point in my work that I can go no further without the input of the Cambodian team. So for the third time in this project, I will spend a week at the TWR office in Phnom Penh. During the first visit we just really launched the idea for an HIV/AIDS program and had some general discussions about the challenges the Cambodian teams face as they regularly confront the questions of their listeners. Following that visit and for the next two weeks, I did some background research on the situation in Cambodia and began to write up my research in rough form while the individual teams there looked at the needs of their particular target audiences.

On my second visit in early December, we went through the proposal guidelines step by step and I took notes of the discussions. We were also able to meet with several organizations that we hoped would be interested in partnering with us and received very positive responses from each of them. Since then I have been compiling all of the information and combining it with my previous research into a proposal, using the format required by the funding agency. I have a first draft prepared, minus some very specific information that the team will need to provide. I am grateful for a very gifted and knowledgeable English teacher as a husband who has helped immensely with editing and formatting the document.

I have chosen this week to go to Phnom Penh as it will allow me not only to meet the funding deadline, but also give me the privilege of being with the Cambodian staff to celebrate their 10th Anniversary. What a joy it will be to celebrate with this dedicated team who constantly amaze me by how such a small team can deal with the extent of the work they have accomplished.

I would appreciate your prayers for my safety, for a successful conclusion to the nearly two months of work I and others have put into this proposal, and to a joyous celebration of what God has been able to accomplish through TWR in Cambodia through the lives of ordinary people touched by His extraordinary grace.

There were a few more minor incidents at churches on Sunday; more vandalism, but no more buildings were gutted. In fact the incidents seem to have served as a bit of a wake up call for the nation, as many newspapers began asking “Is this the road we want our nation to be on?” Representative of the desire to re-establish civility in this issue is this article from Kuala Lumpur’s daily, The Sun:

In the wake of Molotov cocktail attacks against several churches since Friday, there has been an outpouring of goodwill and offers of assistance to the Christian community. Admirably, in the face of the attacks, one message which resonated in many churches during services over the weekend was the call for calm and forgiveness, and resisting any urge for revenge and retaliation.

Metro Tabernacle church senior pastor Rev Ong Sek Leang, whose church in Taman Melawati was torched on Friday, told a press conference after Sunday services in a rented building,“What happened was caused by only a small segment of the people. It was great to see people of all communities, faiths and social levels reaching out to help. It really reflects what Malaysians are about. It is a clear message to our nation that we are a well-integrated and connected family,” he said, visibly happy with the outpouring of goodwill and assistance offered to the church in its hour of distress.

On Saturday, Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Abdul Razak announced that the government will give the church RM500,000 for its new building near Batu Caves. Yesterday, Ong also received a RM100,000 donation from CIMB Group CEO Datuk Nazir Razak, towards Metro Tabernacle’s new building which is expected to cost RM1.5 million. Nazir said the CIMB Group was happy to provide assistance for the restoration of the church. “I speak for all at the CIMB Group that we condemn acts of violence, especially those that desecrate places of worship and dishonour the bonds of respect and tolerance upon which our nation is based,” said Nazir, the brother of Najib.

Elsewhere, Christians attended Sunday service as usual, unbowed by the incidents as at least three more churches were targeted in Taiping, Miri and Malacca. About 1,000 worshippers at the Catholic Church of Assumption in Petaling Jaya, which was targeted by the arsonists, were briefed by parish priest Phillips Muthu on the incident. “I told them we don’t want to blame any people, any quarter, any religion. We are peaceful and we are here to offer our prayer for the nation,” he said at the church, where a firebomb damaged part of the grounds. “Of course we are afraid after the incident, but life has to go on.”

Meanwhile, six Muslim NGOs yesterday offered their assistance and support to their “Christian brothers and sisters”. Executive secretary Datuk Nadzim Johan said the NGOs, were prepared to give a hand to their Christian counterparts should they need assistance. “Looking at the current situation, we are taking proactive and pre-emptive measures to offer our services to the public and also help the government to ensure peace in the country,” he told a press conference. He also invited Christian leaders to sit together with them and discuss ways they can collectively avoid divisive issues so that all Malaysians can continue to live in peace and harmony.

We would ask our regular readers to pray for peace in Malaysia, that the work of God may go on unimpeded, and that Christians would continue to follow Christ’s admonition to “Love your enemies.”

I’m sure many of you have been reading the recent string of articles about Christian churches being firebombed in KL, and are wondering what the ruckus is all about. Well it’s complicated. I can do no better than quote from Gwynne Dyer’s recent article on the subject. Once again, it is a Canadian journalist that seems to be able to take the longer and more balanced view.

In the late ’80s, when I was in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia, a friend suggested that I drive out into the desert near Jubail to see the oldest extant Christian church in the world. Its existence embarrassed the Saudi government, which prefers to believe that Arabia went straight from paganism to Islam. It confirms the assumption of most historians that Christianity was flourishing in the Arabian Peninsula in the centuries before the rise of Islam. So what did these Arabic-speaking Christians call God? Allah, of course.

I mention this because last week the Malaysian High Court struck down a three-year old ban on non-Muslims using the word Allah when they speak of God in the Malay language. The court’s decision was followed by firebomb attacks on three Christian churches in Kuala Lumpur on Thursday night. On Friday, protesters at mosques in Kuala Lumpur carried placards reading “Allah is only for us.”

Prime Minister Najib Razak condemned the attacks on the churches, but he supports the ban on Christians using the word “Allah” in Malay and is appealing the High Court decision. Parliamentary Opposition leader Lim Kit Siang simply observed, “The term ‘Allah’ was used to refer to God by Arabic-speaking Christians before Arabic-speaking Muslims existed.” Of course it was. Arabic-speaking Christians predate the rise of Islam by 300 years, and what else were they going to call God? The word “Allah” is a contraction of the Arabic definite article al- and the noun ‘ilah, which means god.

This Arabic word was imported into the Malay language by converts to Islam, which arrived in the region several centuries before Christianity. All ethnic Malays are considered to be Muslim under Malaysian law, and are legally forbidden to convert by criminal sanction, but there are numerous Malay speakers, especially in northern Borneo, who are Christian and not ethnically Malay. They also use the word Allah for God.

What’s the harm in that? Why are Malaysia’s Muslims so paranoid? The real paranoia, alas, is ethnic. Malaysia is an ethnic time bomb that has turned itself into a peaceful and prosperous country by a huge effort of will. The original population was mostly Malay, but under British rule huge numbers of Indian and Chinese immigrants were imported to work the mines and plantations.

By independence, Malays were only 60 percent of the population, and much poorer than the more recent arrivals. They resented the past, the present, and the probable future. After several bouts of anti-Chinese and anti-Indian rioting, the country arrived at its current, highly successful compromise. The Malays dominate politics, but the Chinese and the Indians thrive in trade and commerce–and most people understand that they are ultimately in the same boat, which is called Malaysia.

The state spends a lot of money to raise the living standards of the Malays, and gives them preference for housing, university placement and government jobs. They haven’t done badly out of this deal, but nevertheless they feel perpetually insecure. Since they are all Muslims, while few other Malaysians are, they also feel their religion is under threat. Some respond by being aggressively intolerant of minorities.

Not all Malays behave this way. Major Muslim organisations, including the Islamic political party, PAS, have agreed that the other “Abrahamic religions”–Christians and Jews– may call their God Allah in Malay. But it’s getting ugly, and it’s high time for the Malaysian government to stop playing along with the extremists. The Christians, Hindus, animists, and others who make up 40 percent of Malaysia subsidize the poorer Malay-Muslim majority. Few of them will ever convert to Islam, but they are not its enemy either. Malaysia has achieved a fragile but workable compromise that gives its people a good life. It should not endanger it so frivolously.

We have just returned from a wonderful vacation in Australia, so naturally thoughts of travel are on my mind. Travel is for Pam and I a precious privilege, and one that we do not take lightly. We are fortunate to be able to see so many new places, and meet so many new people.

But no matter where in the world we go, there is always one person that we are bound meet: ourselves. I read a story a long time ago that has stuck with me for many years. A simple story that illustrates this simple truth. It goes like this:

In a place far away there lived a wise old man at the edge of a city. Early one morning a traveler approached who asked him what the people who lived in his city were like. The old man responded with a question: “What are the people like where you come from?”

“The people where I come from are greedy and mean, boring and arrogant. Whenever two of us get together it usually ends in a quarrel. That is why I left.” The man shook his head and sighed: “What bad luck you are having, for I’m afraid you will find people here much the same way.”

Later in the day the old man greeted another traveler who asked the same question: “What are the people like in your city?” The old man replied as before, “What are the people like where you come from?”

“Oh, the people where I come from are wonderful. They are generous and energetic, kind and understanding. Whenever two or three of us get together, the joy we feel at being in each other’s presence is multiplied and overflows into laughter and sometimes music and dance.” The old man replied, “What good fortune awaits you, for here you will find that people are much the same way.”

May your travels this year take you to places filled with people who are ‘generous and energetic, kind and understanding,’ for then you will be where you should be.

Sleeping in a bed felt good, and having access to the internet in the lobby before anyone was awake was a bonus. Breakfast for me was all fruit, something that I had sorely missed while we travelled through the parched outback of Oz. Then it was off on our bicycles again, this time to explore the park behind the hotel, where we found a little cafe overlooking the park and stopped for coffee.

Then we ventured into the city itself. Perth is one of the oldest towns in Australia, and it has done a fine job of preserving its historic buildings and incorporating them into a modern streetscape. Several blocks of the core are blocked to traffic, although service vehicles have access through a system of metal posts that can be retracted into the pavement and are activated by a computer console on one of the posts. Many of the stores were closed for New Year’s which limited traffic and gave us easier and safer access to the city.

Perth is truly a lovely town, well laid out, with bus and rail lines all interconnected, wide boulevards showing off its clean and tidy buildings, and plenty of trees for shade. There are also the most playful sculptures scattered throughout its streets, a bit like what you find in Basel. But after several hours of this it was time to head back to the hotel to pack for home. We decided to take the camping chairs back to KL with us, but souvenirs were not on our list of priorities for this trip, so packing was pretty easy. We crashed at 7 pm and woke reluctantly at 2 am for our flight.

Perth’s airport is pretty small, but we were surprised by how many people there were at that hour. Air Asia was up to its usual efficient best, and we were airborne right on time, and back in KL by noon. Wish I could say that we were happy to be home, but that is the problem with great vacations: you hate them to end! Thanks for tagging along on our journey. I have uploaded the pictures that were meant to accompany these posts, and Pam will load the Flickr bar with the rest when she gets the time. Now it is back to our regular lives, which incidentally are pretty great at the worst of times, and a new year to plan and pray for.

This morning it was clean-out-the-camper day, and we did our usual thorough job with basins of warm sudsy water for the inside and a further wipe down on the outside for good measure. The reward for all this work was that we avoided a cleaning charge when we returned the van. Considering we put on 4,700 kilometres in our two weeks of travel, some of it on the hard-packed red dust that passes for roads in many parts of the country, that was no mean accomplishment.

We caught a cab from the rental place to our hotel, and were pleasantly surprised by how nice it was, and how well situated, right down by the water beside a lovely little park. We also found out that the hotel had guest bicycles, much to our delight. We quickly dumped our stuff in a small, but pleasant room and borrowed a couple of bikes to explore the city. Bike paths line Perth, and we were able to ride through the park and down to the pier for a coffee and a lovely view of the harbour. From there we were able to catch a ferry across the harbour for three bucks. On the other side we continued to cycle down the path to the golf course, where we crossed the bridge and cycled back into a stiff wind to our hotel.

Perth is a beautiful city, with great views of the harbour from many places around town, lots of parks, and bike paths everywhere. The air is so clean and dry after the cloudy haze of KL. That dryness comes at a price, however. We learned that Perth had not had a single drop of rain for the entire month of December. The tapwater here, as in every place we have visited in Australia, is so chlorinated it is virtually undrinkable. We had supper at the hotel and watched the firework celebrations in Sydney on television. That was about all we could manage for New Year’s. Hope yours was great. We are exhausted!

We asked our neighbours in the campsite last night about the bars across the front of most vehicles we see in Oz. They explained that they were used to protect the front of their vehicles from being damaged by hitting the kangaroos that stray out onto the roads at night. They call them ‘roobars.’ Although we tourists see the kangaroos as exotic and sweet, the locals view them as a virtually uncontrollable pest. We haven’t seen that many live ones, but dead ones litter the sides of the roads over here the way that racoons do in south-west Ontario in the spring.

We finished our drive north again to Perth through some pretty dry wheat country, stopping for tea in the picturesque little town of York. We intended to come into Perth through Toodyay, but the road was closed due to a major fire in the area that had already destroyed twenty homes. Fire and the lack of water are a constant backdrop in this arid country, and really impact the way they see the environment in Oz. They recognize that it is fragile, and take pretty good care of it. We have been impressed with the cleanliness of the countryside and the abundance of parks and nature preserves, all well-managed and cared for.

We toured the vineyards of the Swan valley and had a picnic supper in park down by the river in Guildwood. After a lengthy and circuitous drive through the north end of the city we did manage to find Scarborough Beach, too late to see the sun descend into the ocean, but not too late to admire the view and say goodbye to the fabulous Australian coastline. There are countries in the world with longer coastlines – Canada, for one – but none that have such almost endless and fantastic beaches.

We had passed a self-serve carwash on the way to the beach, and returned to give the van a good hose down before we turned it in tomorrow. The camper was a wise choice for this trip, allowing us to see almost all that we had wanted to see, at our own pace, and with a good supply of creature comforts. Given the cost of accommodation in Oz, the camper made sense, some sites being as cheap as $18 for the night, and most of them around $25 to $30. Even a cheap hotel room is four times that.

Back in our site we went online to find that Steve’s Mom – who turned 90 this past year – has had a fall and been admitted to hospital with a broken hip. We are uncertain what the prognosis is at the moment, but that is certainly not happy news to hear as the year draws to a close. However, knowing my Mom, that will not be the end of her story. She has been a fighter her whole life, and I expect she will soon be scolding both nurses and doctors with her imperious manner, bless her. At least I hope so.

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