May 2011

What do you think of when you hear the term ‘developing country’? Do images of unimaginable squalor come to mind, open sewers and garbage on the streets? Yes, well that is true. But there is also rapid growth and urbanization happening right across the developing world. You probably feel it back home in the West in the decline of manufacturing and service sector jobs that have gone to developing countries. The world is becoming more equitable, and that means we in the West are going to have to learn to take a smaller portion of the world’s wealth so that others might have a chance. As a Christian I’d have to say that it was long overdue.

I’d also have to say as a Christian I am very excited about another development in the world, and that is the explosive growth of the Christian church. This shot, taken with my phone camera from 100 feet back, shows a fairly typical scene at the churches in Malaysia. These are 75 new members of our church being added this morning. Every month there are 25 to thirty new baptisms, every quarter there are upwards of 75 new believers added to the rolls. With a membership of four thousand already, we are shortly going to have to go to three services.

Other churches in Malaysia are doing equally well. In fact with a Christian population is 12% and climbing, the authorities are beginning to sound alarm bells in the corridors of power. But it isn’t just Malaysia that is experiencing this kind of growth. Across the straits in Indonesia the Christian church has found their voice as well and these two predominantly Muslim countries are beginning to change for the better. China already has more evangelical Christians than the United States, and that number is going to continue to grow, despite the best efforts of the Communist government to crack down.

Nor is this growth limited to Asia. There were approximately 3 million Christians in all of Africa in 1901. In 2001 there were over 330 million. Even more alarming to Muslim authorities there, around 6 million Muslims leave Islam and become Christians every year. Their strength can be seen in the election of a Christian Prime Minister in formerly Muslim controlled Nigeria and the secession of Christian Sudan from the impoverished Muslim north.

All of this sounds a little disconcerting to Christians back home, I know. We are used to thinking of ourselves of the embattled and faithful few. It just ain’t so, folks. Christ is marching triumphant across the developing nations of the world and has even begun to make inroads into the Muslim heartland of the Middle East. It is an exciting time to be a Christian and to witness the phenomenal rise of His church in these days. Didn’t the Lord promise to “build His church”? Well He is! Halleluyah!

When you are a kid, you just took your friends for granted. They were there, next door, when you wanted to play. They were there when you went to school. They were there at Scouts, or the rock band that you were a part of or whatever you were into. They were just there. When you start having a family your friends are the people that are also having a family. They are your work colleagues or the people at church. They are your extended family and their extended families. There is really not much to think about. Some people are more in sync with your interests, so you stick together. Our interests were our kids and missionary activity. The first gave us lots of friends. The other interest was a pretty select bunch, although they are the ones over time that we still stay connected to.

As you age your friends take on an entirely different dimension; they become considerably more important. I’m not exactly sure why this is, but I am sure that it is. Whereas in the past I would consider my freedom to speak out on a topic to be paramount, now I would carefully consider the possibility of offending a friend to be paramount. In the past I would consider what I wanted to do in a particular situation most important, now I would consider what a friend wanted to do to be most important.

Perhaps in my case I am just slow in realizing the reality that we are social creatures, and that friends are an important part of our emotional stability, but I am very grateful for my friends, especially on birthdays. I had a birthday this week, and I had lots of greetings from friends. One friend insisted that we meet in our local coffee shop and then go to our local curry house for supper. I appreciate the kindness, and am grateful for friends that just want to spend a few minutes in my company to cheer me up along the path of life. Thanks as well to my Facebook family and the greetings and encouragement there.

“Beware of the barrenness of a busy life.” This has been attributed to Dawson Trotman, founder of the Navigators, or Socrates, depending on what Google source you follow. It matters not who said it, for it describes many of our lives perfectly, doesn’t it? I know it speaks for mine pretty clearly. Busy? Sure we all know what that is. Barren? Why so? Isn’t a busy life a fulfilling one, not to mention fun? Don’t we stay busy because there are a lot of things we want to do? Where does the barrenness come in? I think it sneaks in, unannounced. It eats away at our most precious relationships, replacing intimacy and loving concern with lists of things to do and places to go.

Before we know it, we have holes in those relationships too large to repair with our meagre social skills, which have also fallen victim of that busyness that places value on ‘how much,’ instead of ‘how important.’ How large a problem is this? Have a look at the divorce rates in the West. In Canada it is 45%, the US 49%, England 53%. But that is nothing compared to Finland’s 56% or Sweden’s 64%. People aren’t talking to each other anymore, they are too busy with their lives, and many of those lives are ending up barren and disappointed. The West is becoming a wasteland of failed dreams and hopes, and that barrenness is shifting to the East to places like Malaysia and Singapore.

What is to be done? Much; most of it easily within our capacity to change. First turn off the telly and read a book, preferably with your significant other in the room. Television promotes passivity; books stimulate conversation. It doesn’t matter what you read. Reading is interactive; good things will come of almost any material. You don’t have to read the same book or even enjoy the same genre. If the book speaks to the human condition, you will find mutual ground of conversation. Don’t get so absorbed in your book that you omit to share, for the Lord intended that we share our journey with each other.

Write. Again it doesn’t matter what. Writing promotes reflection; reflection deepens relationships. I blog, you Facebook. Both are good; in fact any writing – journals, poetry, articles – is good. It keeps us connected to others. I can’t tell you how many times some complete stranger has commented on a blog I have written, expressing how helpful I have been to some particular issue. Praise the Lord, brother. We are here to help each other down this bumpy road. I am encouraged in my relationships by your comment. This is how the Lord ministers His grace: through one another.

Listen. Even to the raucous and nasty. They to have something to teach us even if it is only “there but for the grace of God go I.” But don’t listen to such voices overmuch. Learn what you can, and move on. The world is full of voices: listen to those who journey is much like yours, for there you will find wisdom to help you on your way. Listen especially to the youth. Listen to their dreams, their desire to do good with their lives, to bring honour to their families and make their way in the world. I am so fortunate to have a job where I am surrounded by such voices. They are a blessing and a constant encouragement. If you are young, listen to your elders. Their experience is irreplaceable and eminently practical.

Let yourself be quiet. If you are a spiritual person (all of us are spiritual people; some of us are just aware that this is true) listen to the still small voice of the Lord speaking truth into your spirit. You cannot listen to this voice if you are “too busy.” You must withdraw from that busy-ness. I find the early morning is the best time for this, before the world gets up and going. But after a long spell of being busy all day my spirit yearns to have some extended period of solitude to repair the wear and tear that living in such a distracted world brings. I used to love the summer holidays when I taught in Canada for just this reason. I would seek to find some ‘enthusiasm’ such as gardening or astronomy or renovating to confuse curious onlookers, but essentially these things were just cover for some time alone with God, which to Western minds at least seems a little simple-minded for serious pursuit. You may go ‘canoeing’ for a week, or ‘roller-blading’ in the park. It doesn’t matter what you call it, we all need it. It is that refreshing that allows us to recommit our energies and our care to those we interact with.

Finally, let your spirit bend in the direction of the other. Christians call this prayer, but you needn’t let that put you off. Naming something doesn’t mean that you know what it is. A spirit that is bent toward another will seek to do that other good. A spirit bent toward another will undertake to carry that other’s grief, loneliness, heartache and pain. A spirit that is bent toward another will seek to bring a word of encouragement, direction, or perhaps even rebuke (be extremely careful with that one and make sure that it comes from a heart of love). A spirit that is bent toward another will ask that the God of all mercy will extend goodness to the other beyond your own limited capacity to help.

These are some ways to strengthen the bonds between us. It is a hurting world out there folks. We all need to be developing those relationships that can help us along the road, and make the journey enjoyable for those whose lives we touch. It has been over a month since Pam left for Canada, and a very useful time it has been. For me solitude is a rare and precious gift from a loving God who has yet much to teach me about my relationships with others. I am grateful to God that He has given me some time to reflect on these things and draw closer to the truths He has stored up for me in His word, and in His people.

I am, I regret to say, one of the most ungrateful people I know. This should not be true, but in all honesty it is. I am not sure why this should be so. It is certainly no one’s fault but my own that I have such a critical nature. I am never satisfied; neither with myself, for whatever it is that I do, nor with others for whatever it is that they do. Much of the time I get away with it. I am, after all, a teacher, and it is somewhat expected of me, especially in an Asian setting where the students are as driven as I am. But many times I find my hyper-critical nature gets me into trouble. When this happens, the Bible instructs that “a man ought to examine himself.” (1 Cor. 11:28). So I shall.

Birthdays are a time for reflection. Where did I go; what did accomplish this past year? Where am I going; what do I hope to accomplish in the coming year? Given a gentle nudge by the Spirit in conversation with a friend the other day who has been reading The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin, I have decided to spend the coming year working on The Gratitude Project. I want to read what I can about the subject and start applying it to my life. I am taking as my guiding verses Philippians 4: 6-7, “Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank Him for what He has done. Then you will experience God’s peace, which exceeds anything we can understand. His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus” (NLT).

I sorely need that peace myself, and I need to be reflecting that peace to others I come into contact with. I will be posting to this site my reflections on this subject from time to time as they come to light. I take it as a given that as long as the Lord in His goodness gives me light and strength, I need to walk in His light and grow in that spiritual strength. This I gladly do.

I like to stay busy, even at my age. I get to work at 7am for classes that start at 10:30 and work on marking and prep until I go to class. I get home around five and mark supper and clean up the apartment before I settle down to a book maybe by 7 pm. I get up at 5:30 on Saturday to mark essays and don’t quit until six that night, and then after church on Sunday I will mark until 10 o’clock at night. And the odd thing is, I like it!

Understandably with such a schedule some things get pushed back to a later time, which bothers me intensely. I hate mess. I can hear the contents of the cupboards shouting at me (you understand I am being figurative here, don’t you) through the wood panelling. Yesterday was the birthday of the Buddha and we had the day off. I decided to put the cupboards (and myself) out of misery. I will say in my defence that this was not my original intention. I had planned on helping a friend put together a bookcase. But those plans fell through and there I was with a toolbox in hand looking to satisfy some primeval urge to remodel the cave.

I started by taking everything out of the cupboard and measuring the optimum height for the shelves of that cupboard. Then I drilled the holes for the brackets, cleaned the shelves and put them back, treating them with disinfectant to dissuaded the ants. Then I moved on to the next cupboard. By the time I was done, four hours later, I had shelves I could live with. They are all quiet now, and so am I. Two weekends ago – a long three day weekend in honour of May 1 – I sanded down and painted the security grillwork outside the apartment a mocha brown to match the floor tile in the hallway.

I do miss being able to work with my hands. Like riding a bicycle, Malayasians disdain what smacks of anything less than success. Renovating, even fixing your own car, is seen as lower class. I rather like the Jewish teaching, that a man without a trade is not properly educated. Sure, realigning some shelves and painting the grillwork is nothing like renovating an entire three story, one hundred year old house, but it will do to keep my itching hands quiet for a while. I don’t know why I need to do these things, or drive myself so hard, but I have given up wondering why I am wired this way. I just am, that’s all, and there is no point fighting it. I do feel for those who have to put with me, especially my long suffering wife, who would like nothing better than a quiet husband and a relatively quiet life. Sorry Babe, you got a raw deal. But look on the bright side; at least you have storage space even you can reach and some freshly painted grillwork in the hallway.

That means Happy Teacher’s Day in Bahasa. I heard a lot of it in the hallways in our school yesterday. So did other staff; in fact the lunch room tables were loaded with goodies of all kinds. Students that I taught last semester gave me flowers and cards, and one of my classes, the one pictured here, brought me an enormous cake and insisted on taking a class picture. We were all delighted to take a moment to celebrate our progress as a class together.

I really do enjoy teaching in Asia. I like the curriculum; the opportunity to finally give expression to my life-long love of literature and subtleties of the English language. I like the climate and the opportunities to see a part of the world I had previously only read about. I like being able to support my wife’s important ministry in Cambodia and South-East Asia. But mostly I like the kids.

Asians have not forgotten the importance of family and respect for their elders, including their teachers. Over time this translates into self-respect, for as these kids work hard to please their families and teachers, they grow in competence and ability and see themselves becoming the people they themselves want to be. That joy of accomplishment can be seen on these young faces in the picture.

I have just finished marking their final essay for the term on a thesis they will have to present to their peers and then defend for thirty minutes. They are understandably nervous about the challenge. But I have read their essays, and they have nothing to worry about. This is excellent work, by any standard. Instead of satisfying the requirement that they provide support from nine secondary sources in addition to the two novels they have been asked to compare, many of them have far exceeded that requirement. I have one student who has over twenty citational references from an astonishingly wide range of disciplines.

Marking seventy of these essays is tedious and time-consuming and has occupied every waking minute outside of the classroom for the last week. But it has also been very encouraging to see the growth in research and writing ability that these students display in their work. We only get them for a year in our program, and that year is crucial in their success in university in Canada. It is hard work for all of us. But the students’ genuine respect and appreciation for all that we do for them as teachers is a great encouragement to us to keeping on doing our best for them. It was for me a very Happy Teacher’s Day! Thanks to all my students for making it so.

Getting older is not necessarily getting wiser, although I do think that if you persist in acquiring it (wisdom, not age!) then it does accumulate. For a Christian the accumulation of wisdom has a lot to do with taking account of your own sin nature. I am not talking about committing sin. That is pretty easy to identify, even for non-Christians. But recognizing that, confessing that you are a sinner, and accepting Christ’s punishment as atonement for your past, present and future sins is not the end of the story. “Man is born to sin as the sparks fly upward,” the Bible claims, and I for one admit it. After all, humility is a necessary part of wisdom as well.

Having a sin nature and doing something about it are two different things. My sin nature hasn’t magically disappeared just because I recognized that I had one and called upon the Lord to forgive me. I take it on faith that he has forgiven me, but He didn’t remove my sin nature when He did so. I’m stuck with that until the day I die. It is what causes all the internal anguish of my mind and heart and what interferes with my external relationships with others. It is an ongoing struggle. Some days are better than others; some days are worse. You have one too. It colours the way you interact with the world, just as mine does. If we are both having a bad day when we interact with each other, then the result is bad for both of us.

I’ve been having a lot of bad days lately, probably because I have been taking my sin nature for granted. “Baby, I was born this way,” is just shorthand for “I have a sin nature and I don’t intend to do anything about it.” Which is just plain dumb. An uncontrolled sin nature can do others a lot of damage, and mine has been out of control for some time. I put it down to success. I have been doing really well the last few years. Coming to Asia has been good for me both personally and professionally. I have had a lot of successes over here, and those successes have made me spiritually lazy, as if ‘the gods were smiling on me.’ Well, there aren’t “gods,” there is just one God, and He hasn’t been smiling at me at me in the last little while.

I know this because there is no peace in my heart. ‘Peace in the heart’ is what a Christian uses to determine whether or not they are on the right track. It can be hard to know what is the right decision at the time you are making it. But if you have peace in your heart afterwards, it can confirm or deny the validity of that choice. There are other factors, of course. We dwell in societies. Other people also have sin natures. It complicates the issue. That is why the occasional stretch of solitude is good for the soul. It allows you to sort out what part of the problem is yours.

Suppressing a lack of peace in your heart is easy enough. Alcohol does that for some people. Staying busy with work or social life is effective as well; telly, Facebook, anything will do. A person can put off examining what their heart is telling them for weeks, even years. David did after taking Uriah’s wife Bathsheba and then arranging to have him killed in battle, until he was confronted by Samuel and forced to face what he already knew was true. Samuel isn’t around to talk to these days, but then neither is anyone else. And despite being still very busy, I have had more time lately to assess my spiritual condition than I normally do, and I have come to the conclusion that a few apologies are in order. I could be mistaken; perhaps it is others that owe me an apology instead, but I would rather err on the side of the angels.

So in chronological order, first to my brother Wyn: my apologies for offending you during our last visit in Toronto. I am not completely sure what I did that you found so offensive, but clearly I offended. So I apologize for that. I would like to make it clear that it was my sin nature and my violation of Christ’s law of love that was at fault. His teachings are perfect; I’m the one who is screwing them up. I would also like to apologize to my sister whom I have also offended. Again I am not certain what my particular offense was, but I do know that my own sin nature had a part in it, and I am sorry for that. I hope that I can patch these things up. I only have one brother and sister each.

I would also like to apologize to my son Jon. Now in this case I know precisely what the fault is. I criticized him – publically – for being careless on his motorbike when his wife was about to go into labour. Sorry son, that was my sin nature talking, not your carelessness walking, or riding in this particular case. Anxiety on my part does not excuse my intemperance. Obviously I am concerned when you get hurt. But I do know how seriously you take your parental responsibilities and I know without asking that you were as careful as you possibly could be. I would really, really like it if you would get rid of the bike, because I am finding my anxiety over your safety hard to deal with. But yes, it is your decision to make, not mine.

Finally I want to apologize for taking a shot at my wife over her criticism of my driving. I guess I feel that I have been a poor example to my children with my own driving and I was being defensive. Honey, you deserve better for all that you have done over the years. I know that you are as anxious as I am over this issue, and it is your fear of seeing your family hurt that drives what you say. I do appreciate that the Lord has made it possible for you to be home while I am in Asia, and I am just going to have to do a better job of trusting that your judgment on the ground there is closer to the events that are happening than my judgment several thousands of miles away.

Having said all that, I am aware that I have probably offended some by doing this publically. Sorry about that, but I thought a public mea culpa would be good for my humility. Which in turn would be good for my spiritual growth. See how selfish this all is! But that is the thing about a sin nature. Even when I try to apologize I am going to screw it up, just as your sin nature is going to ensure that you misinterpret what I am saying. That is why we both need a Saviour, and why nothing anyone is ever going to do is going to “earn” our entrance into heaven.

Fortunately for both us, that entrance is already paid for in the only way it could be, by the sacrifice of God Himself. Many times people will then say “and all you have to do is accept it.” But that is simplistic nonsense. What you have to do is spend the rest of your life accepting it, and dealing with your sin nature that wants to control your life, instead of allowing God to guide. To use a metaphor that seems to be very much in view at present, it means that while you are the in the driver’s seat of your life, like any good driver you listen to your navigator. And you let God do the navigating.

A new granddaughter is a wonderful Mother’s Day gift!

Eli was born at 5:51 p.m. and weighed in at a healthy 8 lbs 12 oz and she is lovely.

Nicole spent the day hanging out with Jon in his hospital room on the sixth floor, timing contractions in the comfort of the knowledge that the Birthing Center was just two floors down. Ben and Abi and I dropped by for an afternoon visit and by the time we left at around 3 Nic decided to call in her sister Pam who was her back up labour support given Jon’s limitations.

Once Pam arrived they headed down to get Nic assessed around 4:30. The nurses decided that the baby was still up pretty high and Nic still had a long way to go. They suggested that she do some walking and if nothing happened by 10 she could take a couple of Gravol and get a good nights sleep, so they headed back up to Jon’s room.

Shortly thereafter, Nic’s membranes ruptured and she knew the baby was coming quickly. She got into Jon wheelchair and Pam ran her down to the Birthing Center. By the time the nurse and Pam helped Nic onto the bed, Eli was already crowning . Fortunately Jon was able to commandeer another wheelchair and talked some random guy into running him down and arrived just in time to witness Eli’s birth. Nicole has this mothering thing down to a science.

Eli had some facial bruising as a result of her rather rapid descent past the pubic bone but that is healing nicely. Ben and Abi are delighted that Eli has finely come out to join them. Jon also was discharged home today and all are happy to have there little family together again.

My son Jon has had an driving accident just days before the birth of his new child. He is in the hospital recovering and the family would appreciate your prayers. Nicole is trying to manage her own end stage pregnancy and looking after my son. She would appreciate your prayers as well. My wife is trying her best to cope with managing her two grandchildren while all this is going on, and she could do with your prayers. I am over here in Malaysia trying to cope with my own feelings of helplessness and I would appreciate your prayers as well. It is a good thing the Lord is open all night!

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