May 2014


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The greatest joy in my life was being a father and raising children. I know this is true for a lot of our readers who have shared the triumphs and the tragedies of being responsible for precious young lives in their care: an awesome responsibility and privilege. I think very few of us were emotionally and physiologically ready for the task when it happens. But I know that for me the experience was transformational. For a woman I suppose that moment begins when she discovers she is pregnant, and therefore has several months to prepare herself. A man may only look on in wonder and admiration as his wife adapts to this new reality inside her. His moment comes when he holds this tiny child for the first time. Ladies, give your man all the time he needs at this point. He is going through in seconds what you went through in months; it can be a little overwhelming.

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Those child raising years can be a challenge as these tiny, totally fearless little creatures grow, and learn about the world around them. Caring for them and teaching them how to navigate their way through an often dangerous and disappointing world is not an enterprise for the faint-hearted, or the self-absorbed (which perhaps explains why so many twenty- and thirty-somethings don’t). But it is wonderfully rewarding and vastly entertaining. When they finally make it through those awkward teenage years and embark upon their own adult lives, there is an exhilarating sense of accomplishment and relief, mixed with joy, and a fair bit of regret.

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Why were you in such a rush to get through? Now that you see the end, why didn’t you take more time at the beginning? Now you understand the importance of so many things, can you go back and have another try? Well, yes you can. You can be a grandparent! Which is what we have been doing at our son’s place just outside Seattle, Washington. Amid all the reading and telly, walks to the library and trips to school was a birthday party for their youngest, Eli, who just turned three. She is, like many young girls, enamoured of being a princess, and her gifts – largely a selection of books and dolls centred around Disney’s Frozen – reflected that very powerful social theme.

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I have some issues around the essential narcissism of that theme, but I’ll leave that for another time. For the moment it was enough to see our young granddaughter – struggling with her tears at the pain of some new teeth coming in – feeling loved and cared for as her siblings and friends celebrated her birthday with presents and games and singing. Our daughter-in-law made another cake icing extravaganza in honour of the occasion, and to see Eli’s little cherub face light up in shy joy at its presentation was lovely to behold.

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The most fun, however, was watching and listening to the girls singing along with the music from Frozen. The movie has some strong and catchy tunes, and even the guys enjoyed singing Olaf’s signature song “In Summer.” I personally like the poignant and wistful “Do You Want to Build a Snowman.” But there is nothing quite so delightful as listening to three- and four- and five-year-old girls belting out “Let it Go” at the top of their tiny lungs. There is something so charmingly incongruous about a three-year-old swinging her arms about defiantly and singing the line “I can’t hold it back anymore!” Just what have you been restraining for those three long years, sweetie?

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They say that grandchildren are the reward for not having given your teenaged children what they so richly deserved at the time. That is of course overstatement for effect. Raising teenagers can be as rewarding as raising children. I think that grandchildren are an opportunity to remember what it was like to raise children yourself; to revisit that joy and reward, and to treasure childhood all over again. There is nothing in my experience so filled with the tenderest love. Those who miss out on this experience miss the sweetest part of life.

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M Obama Forgive my digression in the midst of a very nice family holiday, but I was drawn to a recent article by former National Post columnist Mark Steyn who goes all apoplectic over the picture of Michelle Obama posted here. Poor Mark. He really does dip his toes in the obtuse and ridiculous, doesn’t he! Desperate to find something to criticize in the sane and restrained foreign policy of the current American government (Bring Back Ronald and his Rayguns!), he lashes out at the First Lady for showing some solidarity with the girls abducted by swinish Muslim rebels in Nigeria.

Finding this a useful starting point, his rhetoric takes flight, condemning all diplomatic nuance as so much perfidious twaddle. Metternich would not be amused, neither would the indefatigable Bismarck, who steered his country to geopolitical prominence from practically nowhere with consummate skill. Without him it wasn’t long before Germany stumbled into the disastrous WW1. But then, as I have noted before, Mark is primarily a social critic with little aptitude for history and those who are fond of his flowery histrionics undoubtedly know even less.

In contradistinction to the disappointing Mark Steyn, here, gentle reader, is how history moves. Eras or epochs have certain central ideas that govern and define them. The illuminating Paulo Freire calls these central ideas “themes.” Marx referred to them as a “theses” and postulated that each era’s thesis was opposed by a competing “antithesis” and through dialectical struggle a new synthesis emerges. Others see these central ideas as a civilization’s narrative; a story it tells itself about who and what it is. However you wish to construct it, theme, thesis or narrative, what characterizes an age is its ideas, not its actions.

Those who fulminate against inaction and the promotion of debate, dialogue, and discussion are missing the point. Attacking Iraq, Afghanistan or Syrian accomplishes the sum total of nothing. They are a meaningless drain on the economies of the world, making a few Machiavellian manipulators rich and marginally slowing the tide of history, but only changing it in the dogma of the dim-witted.

Did Darwin kill anyone? Start any wars? Overthrow any governments? Who has had greater power in writing the narrative of this present age? Did Martin Luther King or his namesake, Martin Luther start wars or movements? Did Marx launch rockets or words? As dismissive as Steyn and others who call for action of any kind so long as it involves invasion or conflict, this is not the way that intelligent and social beings who form civilizations develop. The Obamas apparently understand this

It is undoubtedly comforting to some to think that it will only take one more war to put our enemies in their place and for our way of life to triumph. That is the dream of the adolescent and uninformed. We will not defeat our enemies with war, but with words. It is the strength of ideas, of concepts, of ideologies that turn the tide of history. There is a growing consensus that the kind of neolithic brutality that we see in Syria, in Northern Nigeria, on the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan is just so yesterday. It doesn’t need action as much as it needs contempt and ridicule. And yes, solidarity with those who are oppressed.

We flew from Kuala Lumpur on Wednesday, taking a route through Taipei in Taiwan for the first time with EVA. The carrier is nothing special, eight seats across on our flight and packed all the way back. But the service was decent and the in-flight entertainment worked. The bonus for us was the terminal in Taipei which was clean and efficient. The longer flight from KL meant a shorter flight to North America, and anything that reduces the length of that monster is appreciated.

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Jon and Nic and the kids were waiting for us at the other end and it was a total delight to see them all. Ben was good enough to vacate his room for our stay, and we have been quite happily ensconced outside of Seattle since then, confining ourselves to walks to the school and the grocery store and going no further than the valley for church yesterday. If you were to ask us what we having been doing, I’m afraid it wouldn’t amount to much. And that, I suppose, is precisely the point.

Going home doesn’t mean you dash around doing all the things you miss, because quite frankly there isn’t much of that we miss. What we miss, and are getting stocked up on, is simply sitting around chatting with our kids and grandkids and fitting back into their lives. Having a barbeque on the deck, and a ride on our bikes around the block; having a meal together and snuggling on the couch reading a book with the grandchildren. These are the things that you can’t get anywhere else.

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We went out for dinner at a very nice restaurant overlooking the water, and then took a walk around the locks that are still much in use nearby. We watched for a while as the boats went through and the bridge went up, and then we had a look at the fish ladders that have been built nearby so that the salmon can swim downstream and out to sea in the Spring (late May), and upstream to spawn in the Fall (September). The grandkids have been a constant delight with their chatter and their cheer. We both love that uncluttered take on life. When we were talking through our options for the year ahead, Pam said at one point, “We’re not quite sure what we are doing.” Eli, the youngest, said in exasperation, “We’re eating supper, grandma!” Love the statement of the obvious!

Family, friends and former students; that is about the sum of it, I’m afraid. Nothing terribly exciting; nothing terribly new. But irreplaceable. And being away from them is the cost of serving the Lord in a foreign land. I can’t imagine how it must have been in the early days when missionaries got home once every four years. How did they ever manage to leave again? We are finding that an entire year is just too long, especially when the little ones are this age. We are missing so much!