December 2011


 
Cat Ba Island is the largest of an archipelago of islands in Ha Long Bay, recently selected as one of the world’s seven new natural wonders. I don’t know what criteria was used in this selection, but it is a truly beautiful place. It is winter in Vietnam, and it is far enough north of the equator here to be cool even in the mid-afternoon. It is not the time of year to go swimming, although we did wade in the water. But we didn’t come here to swim, we came to walk and take a boat ride out into the islands. This afternoon we contented ourselves with a walk around the edge of the bay from our hotel into town. It was a spectacular vista.

Ha Long Bay is dotted with karsts; formations of limestone thrust upward by ancient tectonic movements and then eroded by wind and water into unusual and sometimes lovely shapes, made more dramatic by the scenic bay itself, tranquil and serene, and dotted by fishermen plying the waters in their tiny, ancient boats. The boats themselves are made of rattan, woven bamboo, and sealed with pitch. They are flat and gently rounded and are rowed either forward or backward, as there is no discernible bow or stern. There are larger boats as well, of course, and houseboats which serve either as living accommodation or as floating restaurants, specializing in seafood entrees of dazzling variety.

After walking into town for a lunch of noodle soup, we booked a motorcycle for tomorrow from a young Aussie entrepreneur who seems to have a corner on the expat market. He doesn’t have a lot of competition, as he is the only one who had sufficient English to actually negotiate a deal. I do understand that I am in a foreign country and the locals have every right to their language. However, we have never encountered such a lack of English in any of the countries we have travelled to and it does make negotiating travel details difficult. The young lady in the tourist office had no English whatsoever.

Tonight we have bought a ticket to a local New Year’s Eve party from our new Aussie friend and we are going to use the occasion to celebrate a fulfilling year. Pam has seen her ministry efforts in Cambodia turn into on the ground training. She returned to Canada in time to see the birth of her new grand-daughter and help to nurse our son following his unfortunate accident. We met together in England for a memorable and emotionally uplifting visit with family and then we celebrated our daughter’s truly touching wedding to her fine young fiancé, Greg. This year also saw the end of my previous contract and the purchase of an older vehicle with the bonus due on its conclusion. The car has allowed us a new freedom to see Malaysia, and a new ability to minister to our colleagues. It has been a full year.

We trust that you will have a fun and safe New Year wherever you are. May the Lord direct your path in the coming year; either to a closer walk in His presence if you know Him, or a closer walk toward Him, if you do not. Blessings, gentle reader.

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Hanoi has to be one of the saddest places we have ever visited; sad and drab. The contrast between Hanoi, which won the war, and Saigon, which lost, couldn’t be more clear. Ho Chi Minh City, which even the residents continue to call Saigon, is bright, lively and fun; bustling with life and booming with development. You would never know that it was a conquered town, for it has shaken off that defeat and is looking ahead to a bright future as investment dollars pour into this lovely, scenic city. Hanoi may have won the war, but you would never know it from the attitude of its people, who seem sunk in spiritual despair; faces lined with a hard life of toil and sacrifice that seems to have produce very few tangible results from three generations of war.

Perhaps that is the fuel behind the cultic devotion to the memory of Ho Chi Minh, the man that led North Vietnam to victory over the Americans in a war that both marked and scarred my generation. We went to see the tomb of old Uncle Ho yesterday and it was one of the weirdest experiences of my life. We were hustled and herded like so many cattle in robotic rows up to this enormous monolithic mausoleum that would have done the ancient pharaohs proud. We had to surrender our cameras and silence our phones and then there we were filing past the embalmed body of Ho Chi Minh lit up with a ghostly light like some Halloween ghoul inside his glass coffin. The slightest deviation from the robotic shuffle – hands in pockets, hands behind the back, hats on – was met with physical correction from the two dozen uniformed and armed guards. Pam’s phone, which she had forgotten to put on silent mode, rang shrilly just as we exited and I confess that we both burst into hysterical and nervous laughter. What if that had gone off in the tomb?

Ironically, just half a kilometer away was the little wooden two room house on stilts where Ho studied, met with advisers, and fed his carp. Following the defeat of the French, Ho refused to live in the French-built presidential palace, and left explicit instructions that after his death his body be cremated and the ashes be buried in hills in the north, south and middle of the country. Those who came after Ho clearly had other ideas for his legacy, and without any other religion, since all were banned under Communism, it is not surprising that the legacy of Ho be remembered with godlike reverence.

But it is not just the shadow of their dead god that hovers over this city. It seems to be haunted with other dead ghosts as well: the dreams of a glorious communist future lie in ruins everywhere. The city is choking with its own chemical smog; millions of motorbikes cram narrow streets filled with evidence of a crumbling infrastructure: broken sidewalks, crumbling buildings, electrical posts sagging under the weight of a rat’s nest of wires topped with loudspeakers blasting what we assume to be Communist propaganda. Men urinate openly against trees and walls, families struggle to eat on narrow and overcrowded sidewalks, and everywhere is the presence of uniformed and armed men; security personnel, police and predominately the green tunics of the sullen, unsmiling People’s Revolutionary Army. There is no victory and no dividend of peace in this grey, unhappy town.

The tiny little baby that we left behind with such heavy hearts

Has grown so quickly into a:

Soccer Playing

School going

Travelling

Adventurous

Creative

Gentleman

And a Tender Hearted

Big Brother

Grandma and Grandpa love you, little guy, and wish you all the best on your special day!

Our Canadian Christian friends have recently been expressing their concerns regarding the erosion of civil liberties in Canada in regards to the celebration of Christmas. Their concern is understandable. The birth of Christ is the central event in the Christian worldview. Not to be allowed to recognize this in a society that is purportedly tolerant of all faiths is quite simply intolerable. A pluralistic society surely can not mean that all beliefs are suppressed, but rather that all are celebrated in a spirit of inclusion and, dare I say it, tolerance! Fortunately for us we live in a Muslim country. Muslims recognize that faith is an important aspect of humanity. They would of course argue that their faith is the most important, but this is not the place to quibble about theology. It is tolerance of faith that is at issue in this post.

The Muslims that we have met in Malaysia not only tolerate Christmas, they celebrate it with us! My email inbox is full of Christmas wishes from my Muslim colleagues. Buddhists and Hindus as well wish us a Merry Christmas. The malls are filled with Christmas decorations and the mall music invariably features Christmas tunes. (Our senior readers may be interested to know that we often hear the warm baritone voice of Jim Reeves; talk about a blast from the past!). Of course Christians return the favour at Muslim Eids and Hindu festivals.

The difference could not be more clearly seen than in Singapore, where we have spent the last two days. Orchard Road – the Fifth Avenue of Asia – was aglow in a blaze of glorious Christmas lights hung from every tree and lamp post. Christmas carolers competed with dancers and mimes in using their own particular art to convey the Christmas message. Nativity scenes lined the sidewalks and spectacular Christmas trees adorned every mall concourse and public plaza. It was a glorious explosion of Christmas cheer, and yes it certainly did cheer our hearts to be part of it; to soak it all in.

And what on earth is the harm? And why have we lost this liberty in Canada? The stores in Singapore were packed with shoppers, the restaurants and pubs were alive with people. Every businessman in town was making an absolute bundle, regardless of whether he were Christian, Muslim, Hindu or Sikh. The atmosphere was happy and celebratory. In a month from now they will all be back celebrating Chinese New Year and no one will be offended by that either. We will all offer each other Gong Xi Fa Chai in our best Mandarin and enjoy the week off. When the Mooncake Festival comes around we will give each other mooncakes and money. During Ramadan we will all go to the evening bazaars and buy dates and satay. And during none of these celebrations would anyone ever dream of saying to the other that they had no right to celebrate what was important to them. And if you did not want to celebrate, then no one would be offended either. That is what liberty means, isn’t it?

Well, for the moment we have such liberty in Asia, and we are going to use it to wish you happiness and joy at this most joyous event in the Christian calendar. The birth of the Christ child is not just good news for Christians, but for all of mankind. So a joyous Christmas to all, wherever you are, and in whatever circumstances you find yourself. The gift of Christ is the evidence that God loves mankind beyond all that He has created. There can be no better news than this. Joy to the world!

In this part of the world education is a business. In fact after offshore oil and gas, and palm oil, education is the third largest industry in Malaysia. The competition for students is fierce, and all the programs here at Taylor’s College have to compete, not only with other colleges, but also with each other. For the most part this competition is civil and respectful, but with enrolment and even jobs on the line – for all of us are on yearly contract – our program has to fight for every student we get.

Much of that recruitment is conducted on what is called College Days. The College packs about 60 of us into a large hall and thorough the media direct the parents to come and get us. They do. By the hundreds. It is an exhausting three days during which I seldom get time to take a breath, let alone get lunch. This is followed by three weeks of Open Days; a similar marketing free for all, but in a smaller venue with fewer parents.

Many of my colleagues struggle with the promotion of our program as if it were the burger-of-the-month at McDonald’s. This is not the way that education is “sold” in Canada! But this is not Canada, and when in Rome, one must learn Latin. Although I find this recruitment both demanding and exhausting, I enjoy meeting prospective students and their parents and explaining to them the options available to them. I find it instructive to get back in touch with student and parental expectations. Apparently I am quite good at it, signing up (they call it ‘converting’ here!) 11 new students in the past two days alone. I would sign more if the program were more widely known, but I end up spending a lot of my time just overcoming the reluctance to consider a program that the parents have never heard of. It can be a tough sell.

Taylor’s College originally started in Australia, which also ranks education as its third largest industry. The Australian Program is still top dog at the College, followed closely by the Cambridge A-Level Program which draws upon its British heritage in this former British colony to sells its product. Canadian education is largely misunderstood and underappreciated, so it is an uphill battle just to get an opportunity to speak to parents. I figure if I can get a word in, I can sell them on the program, and my 80% conversion rate – yes, Taylor’s tracks that kind of thing – speaks to my effectiveness in doing so. But having put in six days out of the last seven on this service to my employer, all of it on a ‘voluntary’ basis, it is now time for a few days of R&R, and a chance to celebrate the birth of my Saviour. We are on our way to Singapore in the morning so Pam can touch base with her colleagues at TWR’s head office for a couple of days. I have promised not to talk about my work until after our holidays.

As a footnote to what has been a largely successful period of recruiting, in my enthusiasm to sign a new student, I called our rental agent, Rosy, to see if I could find the young lad some accommodation. Instead, I called Rosey, my sister in England and ended up talking to Claire, her daughter, who was visiting from up north. Imagine our collective surprise, and my delight to be able to get in some Christmas greetings with my family. I believe that is called serendipity. And yes, the student ended up enrolled in our program and I upped my conversion rate. Now if only I could convince Taylor’s to pay me a bonus!

This is my shower curtain. ‘Is that packing tape across the top?’ you ask. Yes it is. ‘Is that duct tape reinforcing the shower ring holes?’ Yes it is. ‘Are you at the end of a 35 year career in teaching that would have seen you making in excess of eighty-five thousand a year had you stayed in Canada?’ Yes I am. ‘So what’s with the ratty shower curtain? You could afford to buy as many shower curtains as you could possibly use.’ Yes, but…. And thereby hangs a tale.

The tale begins, as many of my tales do, with my father. My father was a modeller. I suppose for many of you that means that he glued things together from little kits. Perhaps there might have been a kit or two in the mix, but Dad mostly built from scratch. He built boats by buying strips of wood that he would labouriously shape into hulls and decks; he built train layouts that were authentic down the finest detail, all by hand, from the ground up; he built model racing cars by having a business contacts mold synthetic rubber tyres that were the envy of the club we belonged to; the frames he built himself. That was the kind of modeller my Dad was. And beyond all this physical building, he built into me an understanding that things have value because of the time and love that a caring individual poured into them. Other kids on the block had Dads who bought them things; I pitied them. My Dad built me things, and although he never said as much – for he was a man of few words – he taught me the true value of things.

In the Sixties an entire generation eschewed the possession of things. We wanted to own nothing. We aspired to be like Thoreau on Walden Pond who saw possessions as an encumbrance. We valued relationships and sought spiritual enlightenment. We rejoiced at the oil crisis of the early 70s, for that meant that we would all to learn to do with less, and that would be a good thing. Many of us, myself included, found validation and even salvation in religious convictions, especially those that taught the intrinsic value of humankind, and cautioned against the accumulation of worldly wealth. When I married and began to raise a family, I put many of these principles into practice. We bought older houses and fixed them up, rather than buying new ones. We drove cars that were ten and fifteen years old, and kept them repaired and roadworthy long after their best-before date. We packed lunches when we travelled and ate out infrequently.

When our kids entered their teenage years, we relented for a spell, bought a new house, leased a new van, and did our best not to be an embarrassment or a stumbling block to our culturally sensitive children. But as soon as that brief period was over we went back to an older house and well-worn car and once again divested ourselves of our possessions. When this opportunity to serve God overseas came up, we didn’t balk at the thought of the things we would leave behind, for after a lifetime of eliminating possessions all that we really cared to keep – our photos, our books, and our memorabilia – could fit into a four by four storage box on Wonderland Road. Which brings us to the shower curtain.

Shower curtains have a purpose. They keep the water from the shower from getting the rest of the bathroom wet. And they provide a modicum of privacy. But they have a weakness. Because they are made of relatively thin plastic, the ring holes often tear. Should you replace the shower curtain when this happens? I think not. It is a quick and easy fix to repair the weakness and get many more months of use out of it. Is this minimal expense? Yes, of course it is, but it is also minimal inconvenience to repair it and save both the money and the cost of recycling the shower curtain. While I write this my good wife is with needle and thread altering a pair of shorts that she ‘inherited’ from another. To my mind the difference between repairing and replacing – which clearly can be extended beyond shower curtains and shorts to cars and houses and many other things – is a principle that needs to be more widely practiced.

That principle is best enunciated by the Lausanne Covenant; a statement that I have just recently been made aware of although I have followed it my entire life. It states, “Those of us who live in affluent circumstances accept our duty to develop a simple life-style in order to contribute more generously to both relief and evangelism.” That’s it; simple enough, isn’t it? But what a change it would make to our Western view of wealth if more Christian would adopt it. Perhaps in a world gone mad for things, it would be an effective way to witness of what a change Christ can make in a life. Pam and I haven’t repaired rather than replaced, borrowed rather than bought, divested rather than accumulated, just so we could live in Malaysia in our retirement years. We have done this in order that we might serve those who are less fortunate than us, and show to them the love of God for them in their need. May that God – who choose to come to earth as a helpless baby of an impoverished family of a despised race – meet your deepest human need this Christmas. And may He teach you the true value of things.

I came home from work one Friday evening some years ago and collapsed on my bed exhausted from a trying week of teaching. An hour or so later, somewhat rejuvenated, I got up, showered and changed, and headed out for the evening. My destination was the Blue Boot, a little bar on the corner of King and Richmond in London, Ontario, that occasionally had some good live blues. There was no music – I was too early – just some cantankerous Canadian aboriginals in a heated dispute that led to some broken glass flying in my direction, cutting my hand and driving me in search of another nightspot. I wandered further down King until I got to Kelly’s, an Irish-themed club that featured canned music and dancing; not my usual venue in those days. But the evening was still young and the blood oozing from my hand was not enough to put a damper on the night.

I got in line behind three young ladies engaged in a lively and excited conversation about the evening ahead. Two of them had no interest in the world around them; they were much too self-engaged. But one of them turned around to see who had come in line behind them and I found myself staring into the most compelling eyes I had ever seen. There was something about that gaze – steady, unflinching, unafraid, curious and compassionate all at the same time – that pierced me to the core. I was 27 at the time and I had dated and met dozens of young women since I was 13. As a sidebar, my first serious grirlfriend, Lillian Wauthier, recently ‘friended’ me on Facebook, and remembers me for my kindness and sincerity. I mention this to point out that I was not a superficial dating jerk; I had just never met the person I was looking for. I can tell you that without exception all the women I met carried some degree of conflict in their eyes; some mistrust, some hurt, some qualifier of one kind or another. But here was someone whose eyes had nothing to hide and nothing to fear. I felt I just must meet her.

I mumbled something about being cut by broken glass to explain my napkin-bandaged hand, and when we were let in to Kelly’s, followed her over to the bar and offered to buy her a drink. The place was crowded with people, and of course this young lady – Pam Carter, as I found out that evening – had friends with her as well. But I had eyes and interest for no one else for the remainder of the evening. We talked for possibly three hours about everything imaginable. I found out that she was a psychiatric nurse, which fascinated me, and that she was totally dedicated to her profession and the care of the people she looked after and worked with, which resonated with my own commitment to teaching. I also found out that she was a devout Christian and had been her entire life. As someone who had only just recently accepted Christ as Saviour and Lord, I was excited about meeting a real Christian and seeing how this new faith of mine interacted with the world around me as she told me of her own struggles with her faith, and her relationship with a church that had recently condemned her for how her commitment to her career had impacted her church attendance and ministry.

Throughout the evening I just couldn’t suppress the thought that this was the one I had been looking for; someone with whom I felt a bond of connection that transcended the moment. It was as if I was standing at the threshold of my future. This feeling coalesced when she allowed me just one dance. I found out much later that as a lifelong Baptist, Pam had never danced before. It didn’t matter. What mattered was that I got to hold this strange, wonderful young woman in my arms, gaze into those steady grey eyes, and feel her hand trembling slightly in mine as we moved across the floor. I struggled to stifle the wild joy in my heart that just kept saying, “This is the one, you idiot, Don’t you get it? This is the one!”

That night, November 19, 1976, was thirty-five years ago. This year we had a quiet dinner in celebration as we made plans for the Christmas season. November is always such a busy time for a teacher, which is why it has taken me so long to get this post up. But it would be remiss of me not to mark this moment in our personal calendar; the night we met. For years we kept the details of this meeting quiet, not wishing to offend our Christian friends who might question the sanctity of a marriage that started in a bar. Others who are more mature will recognize that God can speak to any human heart in any circumstance, and He is not offended by where He finds us. Certainly God was in that meeting, and we are so grateful to Him that He not only brought us together, but that He has been in a our marriage throughout the long years we have been together. We can say without question that our marriage was His plan, and that furthermore He is not finished with His plans for us as we seek to be ministers of His love and grace is the country where He has called us. The certainty of God’s purpose for the two of us as a couple have seen us through all the difficulties of our lives. After all, if God is for us, who are we to quibble?

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