March 2011

Our son David left town yesterday, off to Bali to spend a week in a timeshare condo there with a friend from Canada. His time with us was short, but very much a blessing. It is so good to see family from home. Only those who live and work overseas away from family can really understand what a joy it is to spend even a couple of days in the company of your children when you haven’t seen them for ten months.

Not that Dave is much of a child these days. Watching him and Pam walk side by side down the sidewalk was a giggle. To think that this strapping young man was born at less than six pounds and was birthed by a woman he now dwarfs is hard to process without some degree of wonder. Truly life is full of surprise and delight.

Dave is such easy company. He was basically happy to do whatever we wanted. Want to see the Aquarium? Sure. Want to check out the mall? Why not. Want to play of game of cribbage? Yeah, that would be great. Whatever. It made entertaining him very relaxing and enjoyable. Just for the record, and so we get it recorded for posterity, Dave not only beat us both at crib, he skunked us by a pretty comfortable margin.

Shelley, a colleague, was kind enough to cover two of my classes so I could spend most of the day with my son. We did check out the aquarium and our timing was good enough to catch them feeding the turtles and sharks. We got to Times Square, the enormous ten-story mall in the heart of the city, and Low Yat, the six-story digital gadget mall. We ate lunch at an Irish pub in KL’s Soho district and watched the lights come up on the Petronas Towers from the SkyBar in the Trader’s Hotel. We had a good day.

Pam and I like our life in Malaysia. We are doing some good and making a difference in the lives of the people the Lord has called us here to serve. We would, frankly, go anywhere He asked us to. We were even willing to go to the far corner of Pakistan, at the edge of the Himalayas. But He sent us here instead, and we are happy that He did. But gosh it is so wonderful to see our children, even if only for a few days, and just to bask in the joy of their company and touch once again their lives that are so intertwined with ours. It makes living here possible.

Our son David arrived from Calgary this afternoon, a little tired from the long flight, but none the worse for wear. We of course are delighted have our middle son with us, albeit briefly. We took the detour through Putra Jaya, and the obligatory tour of the place where I work before we headed home to our little condo to clean up before dinner.

It was great to get caught up on his news, and just to soak in his company. After a brief clean up we went out for dinner to Italiannes with some of the staff from the school. We brought some fruit for breakfast and a dumb film at Rip-Off Videos for $3. Battle for L.A. was so bad we had to flip it off after three minutes.

That was fine, because we were all done for the night anyway. We have a full day ahead planned in downtown KL and are looking forward to showing Dave around.

March Break, or Reading Week, has been a staple of the teaching calender for as long as I can remember. It was originally planned, as far as I can tell, as an opportunity for teachers to do some marking of student work and some reflection on the direction their courses were taking while giving students an opportunity to do the reading that is fundamental to intellectual success.

Of course, people being who they are, much of this week – including my own plans, I might add – has been focussed on getting away for a week’s holiday. Teachers in Canada are fond of heading somewhere south, the Caribbean or Florida, to get a break from the long Canadian winters. Considering that teachers already get some of the longest holidays in the professional world, this has been a matter of some resentment among the non-teaching population.

This past week instead of going away I spent the week executing the original intention of this break: I marked student work and did some planning. I have to say that I found the whole exercise refreshing and rewarding. I got to sleep at a reasonable hour each night in my own comfortable bed and got up to work early as I normally do. I did a reasonable amount of marking each day, 10 eassys (five hours) and 10 journals (two hours), and have just finshed early this morning. I am not tired and I am not frustrated. I had plenty of time to read and watch the news, and time to visit and chat with my wife and plan our little holiday to England this summer.

Normally I try to do this while I am teaching, marking until late in the evening or spending every waking moment in a marking marathon on weekends. By taking advantage of this week to mark I have greatly increased my enjoyment of this necessary task, and greatly reduced my stress. I have almost certainly done a better and fairer job of marking, as I have had the time to reflect and recheck my comments and my marks.

I have also had the leisure to truly appreciate the fine work that some of my students are doing. I spend a lot of time preparing my classes for writing. This essay has probably taken close to an hour in counselling for each student, prior to their submission, going over each detail of their outlines and drafts and providing individual as well as class instruction on MLA format, thesis selection and argument structure.

The results of this effort have been extremely rewarding. I have students with a two page bibliography for a 2000 word essay, all fully in-text cited and fully relevant to their arguments. I have marked essays that could be submitted for proof of competence in an application for a Master’s program in English. I have read some junk too, it is to be said, but the majority of these students have written essays that have been a joy and delight to read; it certainly was not a wasted week!

I have also had the time to share some laughter and some fun with Pam with whom I have just celebrated thirty three years of marriage. I find her company to be all the rest I need these days, and rejoice that a loving God has brought us together to be partners and encouragers on this voyage of discovery called life. God has richly blessed us this week with so many answers to prayer. I trust that your March Break has been as rewarding and as fruitful.

Dear Sweet Abi

It seems impossible that three years have passed so quickly and you have grown into such a beautiful, happy and chatty little girl.

We miss you so much but love it when we get to visit with you on Skype over breakfast. That is so much fun.

Hope that you have a very nice birthday and we can’t wait to see your Dora cake. Grandma will come to visit you very soon now.

Love and Kisses
Grandpa and Grandma


We are approaching the four year mark of our time in Malaysia. With approval in place for a new, two year work permit that will keep us here until at least July 2013, we have decided that we need to set aside some time for family this year.
Last week I made one final visit to Cambodia prior to my going back to Ontario for a lengthy visit that will begin with the birth of a new grandbaby and end with our daughter’s wedding, hopefully with a rendezvous in England in June. I was only in Phnom Penh for three days but I managed to use it pretty effectively. My goal was to lay the ground work for the things that need to move forward while I am away.

Wednesday morning was spent in the TWR office reviewing the new performance development plan that we have drafted and will pilot with the Cambodia team. It is a very simple format that is meant to be a working document that will move the team toward a more reflective and practical way of assessing their learning needs and developing a strategy to move them forward. A late and extended lunch with a wonderful Christian Khmer doctor ended with a plan to form a monthly discussion group that would open the door for developing a friendship and mentoring relationship with the doctors from RHAC as they work though their understanding of how spirituality and moral values impact the physical health of their patients. I then headed off from there to have a social visit over supper with Dr V and her husband.

On Thursday morning I met with Lesley who is an Irish HIV/AIDS nurse who will be helping with the next round of training. We went out to meet the TWR team and were treated to lunch by the guys in honour of Women’s Day. I was able to take Lesley to meet Dr V and some of the staff and to get a plan in place for the next training scheduled for the end of May. We also got some details in place for two visioning seminars and visits with the local government leaders in the area that we will do our pilot, that Bill and Su Min will do the beginning of April.

After dropping Lesley at the airport, I spent a lovely evening with friends from Ontario, Stephen and Beth and their director, Brian McConaghy who is the Founding Director of Ratanak International. It was good to compare notes on projects in Cambodia with those who share my passion for the people of Cambodia and I look forward to working together in the future.

Spent Friday at TWR office, flight back to KL, quick visit with Steve’s colleagues at Jalan Alor and then dinner downtown to celebrate our 33 anniversary. This week we had a TWR colleague from Singapore come to stay with us for a few days while we set up some details for a new project. Had a great visit and even got to crash an evening of an OM leadership conference and met some new KL contacts. Lots more to do to prepare for the trip home but at least we are finally free to look at some of those details.

One of my students caught me strumming before class began. I don’t do as much of this as I would like. We do have a lot of material to cover in this course and I do not wish to waste my students’ precious time. But perhaps before the term is over I might do a couple of songs.

A Reader Writes:
In Cioccolanti’s book “the last words of Buddha” he raises eye opener Buddha teachings but does not specifically identify the source of his referenced material from Buddhist literature. Have you verified the source of this particular article? this Kampee Khon reference?

My Response:
I’m no expert on comparative religions. Nor do I think that all religions except my own belong to the ‘refuse of history.’ Left to my own devices, I probably would have drifted into quasi-Taoism like so many in my generation. I liked its gentle, ephemeral nature and its whimsical approach to the divine. But revelation intervened. I had an encounter with God – there is no other way to say it – and it changed my life.

So with my early interest in Eastern religions I have done a fair bit of research, and I would ask you to consider the following:
1. Many religions have myths involving the sacrifice of God’s son to atone for sins in one form or another. It is not inconceivable that such myths were prevalent in the East before the arrival of Buddhism and have survived and been syncretised into Buddhist teachings
2. Gautama (Buddha’s birth name) is actually Persian in origin. There was briefly (two years) a Persian ruler by the name of Gautama.
3. Jewish teaching, including most of what is now the Old Testament, arrived in Persia with the Jewish exiles following their captivity and the destruction of Jerusalem about two hundred years before the birth of Buddha. Such teaching would have included the prophecy about the suffering Saviour of the world, including His wounds (cf. Psalm 22, Isaiah 53).
4. Even if Buddha’s natal family did not have Persian ties, the cross pollination of such important religious matters as the Torah contained could not have failed to be widely disseminated in cultures that were centered around their belief in the nature of the divine.

So to answer your question: no, I do not have concrete proof of the assertion, and since I do not read Khymer, am not likely to find it. However, given all that I have noted above, it does strike me as possible on a number of counts. God is not only fair, He will be seen to be fair when He reveals all to us on the Day of Judgement. Surely He has not left Himself without a witness prior to His appearing in bodily form in 30 A.D. on the streets of Jerusalem. The Torah/Old Testament is full of hints, revelations and prophecies concerning His appearing and His ministry while on earth. It seems most reasonable to me to assume that He has done likewise in other cultures and teachings, including Buddhism.

Tremendous events have been happening in North Africa and the Middle East. On December 17 a young Tunisian street vendor by the name of Mohammed Bouazizi set himself on fire to protest the ongoing harassment by local officials of his vegetable cart by which he supported his mother, uncle and younger siblings, including one who was at university. He couldn’t afford the weekly bribes the police and others extracted, and after his final arrest and subsequent humiliation, took his own life.

His death sparked a protest that led to the overthrow of the Tunisian president Zine El Abidine. Inspired by the events in Tunisia protests broke out across the region, resulting in the overthrow of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and the imminent demise of Libya’s long reigning strongman Moammar Gadhafi. From Algeria to Iran, formerly submissive Muslims are calling their leaders to account for generations of corruption and despotism. What on earth is going on?

The roots of this unrest go back to the roots of Islam itself. The word Islam is loosely translated “submission” and a Muslim is “one who submits.” Unlike Christianity, which calls for an intelligent consideration of the options and an ongoing dialogue with the Almighty, Muslims have always had to face the strictures of a doctrine that has called them to what for all intents and purposes amounts to volitional slavery. That doesn’t make for good citizenship, and historically there has not been much accountability built into Islamic rule. Of course the ruler should himself submit to Allah, but if he doesn’t, only Allah can do anything about it. The only legitimate justification for the overthrow of a ruler is if the ruler does not follow Islamic teaching. Even secularists like Mubarak and Gadhafi are wily enough to cloak themselves in the robes of Islam when it suits them to do so.

The Shah of Iran was not so clever. His secular lifestyle sparked a revolution that did not seek to replace him with someone that was more open to dialogue with the people he ruled, but only someone who adhered more closely to Islamic teachings. The lessons of this kind of “revolution” have been exposed to the world’s just censure for more than thirty years. The possibility of the countries of the North Africa and the Middle East following this pattern is still an open question.

But perhaps we are witnessing something else. I am reminded of the words of American President Barack Obama’s speech in Cairo on June 3, 2009. He said at that time, “No matter where it takes hold, government of the people and by the people sets a single standard for all who hold power: you must maintain your power through consent, not coercion; you must respect the rights of minorities, and participate with a spirit of tolerance and compromise; you must place the interests of your people and the legitimate workings of the political process above your party.”

Unlike many presidents before him, Obama actual set about to anticipate, plan for and welcome that change when it came. In August 2010, after months of planning in various committees he issued Presidential Study Directive 11. This document cited “evidence of growing citizen discontent with the region’s regimes” and warned that “the region is entering a critical period of transition.” The president asked his advisers to “manage these risks by demonstrating to the people of the Middle East and North Africa the gradual but real prospect of greater political openness and improved governance.”

The reaction to Obama’s handling of the events of the past few months have been mixed, with some commentators claiming that he has been indecisive. On the contrary, he has actively promoted the changes we see unfolding, and has prepared his government for them. He is managing the situation with a combination of carrot and stick that so far has not cost a single American life, yet has done more to change the governments of the region than Bush’s Iraq extravaganza has done in eight years (4.7 million refugees, 2.7 million internally displaced people, an estimated 600,000 deaths, a cost approaching 3 trillion dollars). I have been watching these events unfold for months, and have not heard a single negative comment directed towards America by the people (the deposed rulers have been less than pleased), nor a single American flag being burned.

Of course not all the credit goes to Obama; other factors have been at work. The proliferation of social media and the plurality of views available on the internet have had a part. There is also the ticking time bomb of governments who have encouraged large families and even paid considerable sums of money to ensure that outcome only now to be faced with millions of unemployed youths with plenty of expectations and not many prospects. Nor as Christian am I oblivious to the fact that particularly since 9/11 millions of Christians have been praying and encouraging a genuine dialogue with moderate Muslims who deplore the violence that has come to characterize their faith. Surely as God lives, those prayers have been having an effect as well. The strictures of my faith encourage me to hope for the best.

Malaysia has not signed the 1951 United Nations Convention on the Status of Refugees (one of the few countries in the world that has not), so refugees in this country are by Malaysia’s definition of the word, illegal. This means that they cannot officially work and they cannot attend school. There are refugees in this country, however. Some come from Burma, thinking that their Muslim faith will earn them some consideration in this largely Muslim country. Some come from as far away as Somalia, for the same reason. They eke out an existence in the corners of Kuala Lumpur, trying to avoid notice and trying to get both an education and a job until they can find a country that will accept them and give them status.

The Canadian teachers in our program have undertaken to help them out where we can. We collect computers and school equipment for them, and cash donations every once in awhile. And we transport eight or nine students over to the school three days a week to help out with the teaching. This week was my turn to accompany the kids and provide some teaching for the adults in the school.

There were thirty-five to forty adults packed into the ‘classroom’ with nothing but a fan and a small opening for a window to break the stifling heat. I taught syllabic structure, an important component for ESL learners, although I didn’t tell anyone that I was doing so. Instead I told them that I was teaching them Haiku. Haiku is a very structured form of poetry that depends upon an understanding of syllabic structure to succeed. You don’t always tell your students the real purpose of the lesson. A little ‘smoke and mirrors’ helps the show to work.

I taught them other forms of poetic structure as well, just to get them used to the idea. I taught them iambic and trochaic forms in William Blake’s ‘London’ so that I could give them the message that it was the duty of writers to criticize the organizations that rule them if they were acting in an unconscionable manner. I taught them ‘Lochinvar’ so they could clap out the galloping rhythm of anapaestic metre and hear the message that arranged marriages should be trumped by love. Yes, this is clearly a little subversive of me. But thinking is, by its very nature, a subversive activity. We do a lot of that in English.

I also taught them ‘Row, Row, Row Your Boat’ to teach them spondaic and dactylic rhythms and to let them have a little fun in singing a round. But mostly the kids and I taught them that in a caring society refugees should be treated like people. They should not be forgotten and isolated, hidden away from society’s view and care. We hope that message gets through to the students in our program as well. Who are the refugees where you live?