December 2010

Back home has been suffering in the snow. Lucan, where Pam grew up, had 154 centimeters (five feet) in three days. My sister and her family in England have had their fair share of challenges with record levels of snow fall as well.

Thames Valley where I used to teach has had three snow days in a row before Christmas. This in a board where for twenty years I went without a snow day (we don’t quit easy in our part of the country).

Of course our grandkids enjoyed playing in all this white stuff. It’s their parents and Canadian grandparents who had to shovel it and drive through it and get stuck in airports trying to get home in the middle of it.

We hope that everyone gets home safely for Christmas, and enjoys a good hug with their kids and maybe even a chance to build a snowman or two before this stuff all melts away. And don’t forget the hot chocolate when you get inside.

One of our delights has always been entertaining our friends and family. During the course of our marriage we have tried to do as much of it as our time and budget would afford. It is not cheap, and it does take a fair bit of effort. But we look on it as a ministry, enjoy it for what it is, and look at the cost as a love offering. We will never forget the times that our dear friend Carol Stagg would invite the two of us and our three children over to their house in Bangladesh. Her hospitality was like a warm hug on a cold day; it was such blessing. That is what we try to do.

Last night we had the staff over for the evening. The reason, not that we needed one, was the birthday of a colleague. But with Christmas around the corner and Grad due tomorrow, it was more of an opportunity just to share some food and some music and be surrogate family to the expats here who feel the season pretty keenly. Pam did her usual marvelous job of preparing little goodies that included salmon and shaved egg roll-ups, garbanza and eggplant dips, an assortment of fresh fruit and custard – including star fruit and papaya, dragonfruit and blueberries – and a host of other small goodies. There was more than enough food to go around.

We looked at pictures and discussed travel plans, and then we sang Christmas carols for well over an hour. I had run off some song sheets, and with another colleague to help me out on guitar, we played through just about every Christmas song we could think of. No one was in a hurry to leave, and it was a most enjoyable evening, filled with laughter and good cheer. Smiles were still in abundance today, evidence that we had accomplished our purpose in spreading a little joy around the staff. If we also spread a message about God’s love for mankind through the carols, then that would be a blessing as well, wouldn’t it!

Somewhere back in the colonial days a Scot by the name of William Cameron wandered off into the boonies of central Malaysia and discovered the highlands and valleys that still bear his name. Others followed, and finding the soil and climate suitable, introduced tea plantations using cuttings and expertise from Sri Lanka and India. A commercial enterprise and a desirable resort location ensued. We took the opportunity yesterday to make another trip.

We took along a couple of friends to split the cost of the car rental and to get them out of the city to a place they hadn’t seen yet. I have mentioned in these posts before how much I enjoy driving, so you know I was looking forward to getting out myself. My Dad learned to drive from Raymond Mays ( ), the leading British driver of his day, and remained an extraordinarily competent driver to the end. I don’t claim to be anywhere near as good as Dad was, but I’m no slouch either, and the Highlands are as good a workout as you can get locally.

Getting out of KL is always a bit of a trick, but through dogged determination to avoid the congestion, we have found the Guthrie Corridor, a little known and underused expressway that takes you 40 kilometres north of the city before joining the E1 that goes to Ipoh and Penang. The E1 itself is wide and pleasant with plenty of rest stops along the way, but Highway 59 that winds its way to Cameron Highlands is 60 kilometres of switchbacks along narrow tarmac with no shoulder and a sheer drop on the downhill side.

The worst problem though is the trucks that lumber up the road and the scaredy cats that dog their heels all the way up. The trucks are not that big a problem; leapfrogging six cars to then get by the truck is more so. The trick is to get an early start so there is not much traffic coming downhill. You also need to take advantage of the dogleg-left-then-right switchbacks that allow you to see the maximum distance up the road. There are no straight stretches, so this is the best place to pass. The worse possible place to remain is behind another vehicle, because then you are placing your safety in the hands of that driver’s competence, and that vehicle’s brakes! The whole exercise requires maximum focus, and I guess that is why I like it. I don’t enjoy video games; they are much too boring and repetitive. Give me a challenging drive any day.

Although my Dad was my instructor, I learned most of my competence driving cab for two years in Toronto. It was that experience that taught me that the safest and least frustrating thing to do was not to drive with the traffic, but to drive just slightly faster. This enabled you to weave in and out of the traffic much like paddling a canoe though the rapids. If your boat is going the same speed as the water around you, you cannot steer; you have to be going a little faster than water to direct the boat. The same is true for traffic. You don’t want to race through traffic; that is dangerous and stupid. But you do want to be able to steer safely through it. I could tell you all about mirror placement too, but then I would be getting tedious, wouldn’t I!

We had a very pleasant day, including tea, shopping and a fabulous lunch and then drove home in a torrential downpour with about ten feet of visibility. I had already chosen a safer route out of the Highlands knowing that I did not want to be on the downhill side of Highway 59 going home. Highway 181 is a new road to the north of the Highlands with paved shoulders, but even still it was a 1500 meter drop in the space of 40 kilometres, so there was a lot of driving to do. Once we got to the E1 things weren’t much easier. Within a short space of time we encountered an impasse: a bus had skidded in the downpour and done a 180 into one of the huge ditches that line the roads over here. The passengers were huddled in the pouring rain and although it didn’t look there were any injuries, there was a bit of tricky driving to get around the emergency vehicles and negotiate the Malaysian drivers who seem to be at a bit of a loss when the unexpected happens around them.

We found the link back to the Guthrie without any trouble and the exit off the Federal Highway to our own neighbourhood, despite the total lack of signage. I was fortunate to catch a vehicle coming out of the very rare parking spots around Taj Curry House where we intended to get a bite of supper, and pulled into the narrow spot with one swing, no mean feat with all the cars doubled parked, and edged within an inch of the curb. My passengers thanked me for a safe trip through tricky terrain and were effusive in their praise of my driving. Pam’s comment after thirteen hours of driving? “Not parked too square in that spot, are you!” Ah well, no man is a hero to his wife.

It has been almost five weeks since I was last in Cambodia, not by choice but of necessity.   Even though I was careful to get a 48 page passport when I renewed just over two years ago, my travel schedule is such that the passport had run out of pages and needed to be sent to Ottawa for replacement.  Although it was frustrating to be tied down, it did allow me the opportunity to get caught up on a number of thing s that there is usually little time for. 

I am happy to be heading back to Cambodia for a full week of meetings with contacts both old and new.  Both Steve and I strongly believe that the main purpose of our work is that of planting seeds.  Whether that is introducing new information or ideas, challenging ingrained ways of thinking or viewing the world or building networks, envisioning new ways of building relationships or simply encouraging others to plan creatively it is all essentially the same.  Whether in the context of education or healthcare, the needs are great.

However, we are not great. We are just simple people, filled with weakness and doubt, trying to do what we can to help. We definitely do not think that we are wonderful in any way. But we have both committed ourselves to a simple idea: that a God who loves us wants us to show that love in a tangible way to those whose needs are greater than our own. We have some skills that we bring to the task, but there is so much that we cannot do. We recognize that if God is not in what we do, all our effort will amount to nothing.

So once again I would ask for your prayers for me this week: that all the plans that I have made will bear fruit; that meetings will take place; that others will see the need to step into the many gaps in this project and take their part; that God would give me the physical strength that I need for this week; and that He would bless in the lives of those who are working to make Cambodia strong again.

Marx wrote over 150 years ago that the capitalist system would collapse on its own in the near future, torn apart by cycles of boom and bust that would grow in intensity until the whole facade fell in. He might have been a guilty of some overstatement, or I might be guilty of misunderstanding the nuances of his central thesis. I am no economist, and certainly not a Marxist, but the latest global downturn shows no signs of abating in the near future. Recently Ireland, formerly thought to be an economic tiger, has had to come mewling to the EU for a bailout, and Portugal and Spain look set to follow suit. The American economy still struggles with plus 10% unemployment – enough to provoke a backlash at the ballot box in November – and other Western economies are not faring much better.

Yet the very rich don’t seem to be suffering much, as a recent Canadian study shows. In fact the top 1% of the rich take a whopping 30% of our country’s wealth, squeezing the middle class lower on the economic ladder. This is not the anomaly that it seems to be, but rather a return to the historic economic picture that has characterized mankind since Babylon. Those of us who have grown up in a post war world would be advised to study human economic history. The middle class, from which democracy and civil liberty arose, is a relatively new institution, and might already be passing away as suddenly as it appeared. As many of Christian liberties are tied up with civil liberty and democracy, Christians in particular ought to pay attention. To be obsessing about gay marriage and abortion policy while quite literally the farm is being sold right under our feet, is particularly near-sighted and naive. We are being played by clever politicians – the window dressing of the rich – while the store is being robbed.

I could go on, but there is plenty of information out there about this and you don’t want this sound like a screed anymore than I do. Besides, I am more interested in what the proper Christian attitude ought to be. The first thing is to realize how this will affect your children, and seek to ameliorate the damage. Know that they are being played just as you are. The distractions of sport and entertainment, the drive to buy trinkets and squander what precious little resources they have; your children are just as much under pressure to do this as you are, and they both more susceptible and less able to help themselves.

That is where our responsibility comes in. Those of you who are middle class contemporaries with us have lived through the most egalitarian economic times in all of recorded history. We have been financial comfortable in a way that this coming generation will never know. We owe it to them to help them get established. They basically have no chance otherwise. When we were starting out a house cost about a year’s gross family income. Now it is three to five times a family’s gross income. We paid the 5% necessary in downpayment to get a first mortgage without having to borrow a cent. Now the downpayment is 20%, and the house prices are astronomical. Your children will not even so much as get a foot in the door if you are not prepared to help.

Secondly there is the propaganda angle to deal with. The rich will tell you that they have made it on their own and that if our children were strong and independent they could too. But that is a huge lie. In order to get started in business the rich lean heavily on their parents who understand that they only way to be rich is to start rich. The fiercely independent young buck fighting through odds to make it in the world is just another marketing idea of the rich to keep the poor in their place. Only the poor and middle class get no help. That is why they remain poor. We have to help our children and especially help them to see through the propaganda. The Bible teaches that parents are to lay up for their children, not the children for their parents (2 Cor. 12:14). Be a Biblical parent: help your children get started in life.

Thirdly you have to teach your children the value of money. The rich buy assets with their money, the poor buy liabilities. You have to show through your example that buying assets is the way to go. Don’t indulge in trinkets yourself; be self disciplined and instruct your children to be the same. They may not listen at first and you may have to bail them out of their nonsense before they ‘get it.’ So bail them out. Presumably they have learned their lesson and are ready to choose a more rational route through life. You don’t have to leave them in poverty as punishment. Surely ‘not provoking our children to wrath’ (Eph 6:4) means helping them financially when they need it, and most importantly, not rubbing your help in their faces either.

Finally, be patient and loving. Know when to offer to help and when to be supportive. Keep strong in yourself and keep fighting to be healthy and industrious. Yes, it turns out that life is a lot longer and harder than we imagined when we were younger. ‘Do not be weary of well doing,’ since it is not only for your children that you labour, but for the Lord (Gal 6:9). Be informed about the world and the forces that are seeking your hurt and the hurt of those that you love, and be proactive in your response. Seek to educate yourself and others around you, for these are important issues and there is something for you to do. Commit yourself to be an agent of change to as many people as you can help, and may the Lord help you.

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