Category Archives: Non-fiction writing

Australia at One Year

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On Wednesday it will be one year since we migrated to Australia.  It’s been a crazy year with a lot of changes for our family.  There have been a lot of adjustments to make and it hasn’t always been easy.  Even though Australia and Canada both speak English (at least in theory), and even though both are Commonwealth nations with roots in the British Isles, they have quite different cultures.

Let’s start with the language.  First, there’s the accent.  The Australian accent varies person to person, but also region to region.  Generally speaking, the Tasmanian version is not too difficult to understand.  Yet I still find myself preferring not to talk to people on the phone simply because it gets frustrating always asking them to repeat themselves.  Honestly, sometimes I just guess at what they’re saying!

But moving here has reminded me that I have an accent too.  Upon hearing me for the first time, most Aussies figure I must be an American.  Because there’s a lot of anti-American sentiment, I often try to drop hints that I’m a Canadian.  The other day I had a new experience.  Visiting one of my parishioners in the hospital, I had a nurse ask me if I was Irish.  I replied, “No, definitely not.  I’m a Canadian.”  And then she repeated back to me what I just said with an Irish accent.  It didn’t sound anything like me — at least I didn’t think so!

Then there is the different vocabulary.  They use different words here for things.  While preaching, I’ve sometimes said something like, “It has to be Christ alone.  Period.”  Well, I soon discovered that “period” here is just something a woman experiences.  So now I say, “Full stop.”  I also reckon that I say words like “keen” heaps more.  And once or twice I’ve been crook, whereas I used to get sick.  Australia is different to Canada.

There are other differences.  On paper, a lot of the traffic laws are similar.  You do have to get used to driving on the left-side, but if you just follow the car in front of you, that’s usually not too hard.  It’s parking that can still be challenging — the different perspective can make hard it to judge the distance from your left wheel to the curb or the lines on the parking space.  One traffic law that is different from most of Canada is that you can’t make a turn on a red light.  That’s actually a good protection for people just learning to drive here.

Both Canada and Australia have traffic laws that give the right of way to pedestrians.  However, here you soon learn that’s just a paper fiction.  If you think vehicles are going to slow down and let you walk in front of them, whether in a parking lot (car park) or anywhere else, you’ll soon find yourself in a full body cast.

What about the food?  I’ve definitely learned to appreciate what’s available here.  There is at least one unique Tasmanian food that I’ve tried:  mutton birds.  They’re very rich and flavourful.  But other foods are quintessentially Australian:  pies (meat), TimTams, cheesy Vegemite scrolls, hedgehog slices, lamingtons, snags (sausages) on white bread.  The fish and chips is hard to beat — and, here in Tasmania, scallops are also very popular and tasty.  Tasmanian oysters are the best in the world.  Another cool thing about Australia is the different ethnic foods you can find here.  There’s a lot of Malaysian/Indonesian/Singaporean.  Turkish stuff is pretty popular too:  kebabs (similar to Donairs/shawarma) and Turkish bread.  But if I’m ever feeling the slightest bit homesick for some Canadian chow, we do have a local food truck that sells poutine.

Canadians love to talk about the weather.  Australians do as well.  But you will notice that they experience the weather quite differently.  This place supposedly had winter from June to September.  What was that like?  The average daytime high was about 14 degrees Celsius.  At night, a few times it went down to zero or just below, producing early morning frost.  We didn’t have any snow here, but there was some in the nearby mountains.  For a Canadian recently transplanted, this was just like a cool spring day in Alberta.  If it’s 14 degrees in the middle of winter, we’re quite happy!  But Tasmanian Aussies experience that differently.  They wistfully look forward to the days when the daytime highs get up to 18 degrees again.  In other words, it takes far less of a temperature shift to change their perspective on the weather.

While this isn’t a cultural difference, I do appreciate the variety of wildlife here in Tasmania.  I find it endlessly interesting.  Just in our neighbourhood, we have a great selection of small marsupials:  wallabies, pademelons (small kangaroo-like critters), and potoroos (even smaller kangaroo-like critters).  What about snakes?  In one year, I have seen one snake and that’s with a lot of walking through the bush.  In the trees, we see parrots, cockatoos, galahs, corellas, kookaburras, and the odd wood duck.  Then there’s the fishing.  Tasmania has some of the world’s best trout fishing — pristine streams and lakes with rainbow and brown trout.  After a hiatus of a few years, I’ve taken up fly fishing again.

There’s far more that could be said.  I haven’t said anything about footy (Australian rules football) or about Australian attitudes towards work and leisure.  What about deadlines and schedules?  Australian interest in politics?  Aussie music could be another post all in itself.  However, I’ll knock off here for now.  Suffice it to say that Australia is different, but (most of the time) I don’t find that a bad thing.  It’s just interesting!  Speaking just for myself, I’ve only really had one bout of homesickness.  It lasted about a week and it was about 3-4 months in.   Do I miss Canada now?  There are some things I miss (and especially family and friends), but for the most part I’m seriously okay with being here.  God has brought us here for a reason and I’m glad to be able to serve him here and enjoy the experience of living in a different culture.  I’m content.


Odontophobic Life Lessons

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Though his name has long escaped me, I will never forget his rage.  We had just moved back to Edmonton after three years in the Canadian north.  My mom was looking for a family dentist and a relative recommended this fellow in a downtown office tower.  Perhaps he developed his drinking problem prior to the recommendation — that’s the only explanation that makes any sense to me.  He was the angriest dentist I’ve ever encountered.  His patience for children was non-existent.  Once the door was closed and I was cut off from my mother, my mouth was supposed to open wide and when it didn’t open wide enough, his mouth opened wide with the most foul cursing I’d ever heard.  It was all directed at me.  Thankfully, Mom only took us there a couple of times — but those times were enough to forever put the fear of dentistry (odontophobia) in my blood.

Our next dentist was a gentle man, far kinder.  However, his dental hygienist was another story.  I called her “Carol the Butcher.”  There was a butcher shop next door and I was quite convinced she went back and forth.  Thanks both to Dr. Drunk and Carol the Butcher, I’ve always had a great deal of anxiety in the dentist’s office.  It can be hard to get past traumatic childhood experiences.  As a result, I’ve always hated going to the dentist:  the blood, the pain, the way my body seizes up in the chair.  I come away sore and worn right out.

Eventually it dawned on me that I could minimize some of my trouble through regular dental hygiene.  Other, more friendly, dental hygienists down the track taught me some helpful disciplines.  I learned that regular brushing with a soft toothbrush was a key.  I couldn’t really floss because I have sensitive gums (and I’m a bit clumsy), but a hygienist recommended some soft inter-dental brushes that could help in cleaning between my teeth.  Regularly using these would make my visits to the dentist a bit less traumatic.  As I developed better habits in dental hygiene (with some helpful tips), I was experiencing far less grief in the dental chair.

So much of our grief in life can be alleviated through developing good habits.  Sometimes we just need to be taught.  At other times, we need to become teachable and it can take some time.  This is true when it comes to dental hygiene, but also when it comes to spiritual hygiene.  I’ve learned that developing good spiritual habits or disciplines is just as valuable to our spiritual health as good habits are to our dental hygiene.  When you ignore your spiritual hygiene, you oftentimes bring grief on yourself.  For example, if you think that you can be spiritually healthy while seldom going to church to be under the Word, you’re just deceiving yourself.  It’d be like thinking that you’re going to have healthy teeth while seldom brushing.  Or if you think that you can be spiritually sound without reading and studying the Bible for yourself on a regular basis, you’re in a dream-world.  It’d be like thinking that your next dental visit will go fine without you having regularly flossed, or using something like an inter-dental brush.  Good hygiene is essential to good health — and it always requires effort and discipline.

My lowest points, spiritually speaking, have always come when I’ve been neglecting discipline in my spiritual life, especially the reading and study of God’s Word.  I will always be thankful for an elder who challenged me on this point about five years ago.  You may think it odd for a pastor to admit this.  It’s true that I’m always busy with the Bible, but usually I’m busy with it for the benefit of others.  Yes, I’ve always gotten some benefit from it too.  But this elder challenged me to be busy with Scripture on a daily basis for my own benefit.  He said, “Have you ever tried reading through the Bible in a year?”  I hadn’t up to that point, but he really got me thinking.  I was getting into good habits for my dental health, but what about good habits for my spiritual health?  And which is more important?  The Lord worked through that elder to introduce me to the habit of reading Scripture every day, two or three chapters, for my own benefit.  Good dental hygienists introduced me to good habits for my teeth; a good elder introduced me to a good habit for my soul.  For both, I’m forever grateful.

Looking for a Bible reading plan to start on a good habit for your spiritual health?  Here’s a place to start.


How I Was (Temporarily) Deceived

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It was back in the mid-1990s.  I was a student at the University of Alberta, majoring in history and minoring in English.  I suspected that my path was leading to seminary — I took a keen interest in matters theological.  When I had spare time outside of my studies, I read voraciously.  To serve my appetite, Edmonton featured a variety of decent used book stores.  My story takes us to one of these.

On campus at the U of A was a large mall — HUB mall.  Student accommodations climbing several floors on each side, there were shops and restaurants on the main floor.  Near one end was a small used book shop.  Between classes I would often browse their selection.  One day in the small “Religion” section, an attractive cover beckoned a closer look.  It was a paperback by Harold Bloom and David Rosenberg.  As I paged through The Book of J, I seemed to be entering a new world of scholarship.  It sounded so erudite and confident.  The book claimed that large swaths of the Pentateuch were not authored by Moses, but by a mysterious author designated as ‘J.’  It took a couple of return journeys to the bookstore to enter a little more into their argument and its conclusions.  One of those conclusions was that ‘J’ was likely a woman.  This was serious scholarship, and I was beginning an academic career — so, like anything published on Facebook today, it must be true.  I didn’t buy the book; after all, I got the gist of it by just browsing and, besides, didn’t have the cash.

Thankfully, my deception didn’t last overly long.  My bus route home from the U of A took me along Whyte Avenue, through the Old Strathcona neighbourhood.  In that neighbourhood were several really good bookmongers.  One of those was Alhambra Books.  I decided to get off the bus near there and spend a half hour or so checking whether they had any new volumes.  Indeed, they did.  There in the tall stacks of Christian books (of which they had many at the time) was a volume from “The Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company.”  Today that company is still around, but their books appear only with ‘P & R’ on the spine.  If you don’t already know what ‘P & R’ signifies, you can miss some good stuff.  But this one had the name of the publisher entirely spelled out and that served my edification, because I knew I was Reformed, so this would probably be a good book.  Besides, it was related to the subject of the previously mentioned book that seemed so persuasive.  The title:  The Five Books of Moses, by Oswald T. Allis.  Subtitle:  “A reexamination of the modern theory that the Pentateuch is a late compilation from diverse and conflicting sources by authors and editors whose identity is completely unknown.”

Oswald Allis introduced me to a solid critique of what is known as the Documentary Hypothesis.  According to this notion, the Pentateuch was written long after the events it purports to describes, not only in Genesis, but also in Exodus-Deuteronomy.  Moses was certainly not the author.  Instead, critical scholars, beginning during the Enlightenment period, posited that there were several authors/editors.  They go by the names J, E, D, and P.  ‘J’ stands for the Jahwist — one of his characteristics is the use of the personal name of God, Yahweh (or Jahweh).  ‘E’ stands for the Elohist — he’s known for using Elohim.  ‘D’ was the Deuteronomist, responsible for much of that book.  ‘P’ was the Priestly source, the one who wrote much of the holiness codes and so on.  Allis ably shot holes right through all of this.  This JEDP stuff could only be held by people who don’t take the Bible seriously as the Word of God.  Obviously, the arguments of The Book of J were built on this Documentary Hypothesis and they didn’t hold any water either.  I would have heard this theory demolished in seminary eventually, but I was thankful to providentially discover Allis already a couple years before.

All of this came rushing back to my mind as I was reading Carl Trueman’s contribution to God, Adam, and You.  Trueman’s task was to survey what modern theology has taught about original sin.  One of the modern theologians mentioned is Karl Barth.  Barth has become somewhat cool, but his doctrine of Scripture leads somewhere a bit warmer.  Trueman highlights one of the problems with Barth:

…Barth sees part of the key to understanding Adam to be an acceptance of the implications of the documentary hypothesis of the Pentateuch, which for him makes it clear that the events recounted should not be taken at face value.  (page 197)

In a footnote, Trueman provides the proof.  Barth is quoted as referring to Genesis 3 as a Yahwistic text, whereas Genesis 2:2-3 is a Priestly text.  It sounds so scholarly and sophisticated — but it is unbelief.  Barth has taken this theory about the Pentateuch and used it to deny the historicity of the creation of Adam.  The Documentary Hypothesis not only emerges from theological liberalism, it also reinforces it.

I’m thankful that Allis came along to steer me away from the abyss.  If there’s any lesson to be learned in this, it’s that when we encounter a new idea in the field of biblical or theological studies, we should be extremely cautious.  This new idea could prove to be exceptionally dangerous.  Especially when you’re a young person, before climbing on board, you’ll want to check and see if people you can trust have critiqued this appealing new idea.  Search for those who’ve offered critiques with biblical arguments and humbly hear them out.  As Proverbs 18:17 says, “The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him.”  It’s wise to hear out what others have said.  And as John says in 1 John 4:1, “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world.”

 


One Night in Imbiribeira

Reformed congregation of Imbiribeira in Recife, Brazil

Reformed congregation of Imbiribeira in Recife, Brazil

On this warm Brazilian evening, the streets of Recife are filled with people.  As my colleague Ken Wieske and I are driving to the neighbourhood of Imbiribeira I catch glimpses of bar TVs tuned to a soccer game.  Who is playing?  I don’t know, but I suspect a local team.  The plan was for Ken to drop me off in Imbiribeira so that I could preach at the Reformed congregation there at 6:00.  He would then head over to the congregation in Prazeres to lead the 7:00 service there.  Everything was going according to plan — something you cannot take for granted in Brazil.

It is about 5:45 or so when we reach the home of Pastor Elienai.  He lives a short ways away from the local metro station and just down the street from the building where the Imbiribeira congregation worships.  The streets are filled with people and the tropical air pulses with loud music.  It’s well after sunset.

I get dropped off at Pastor Elienai’s home because Ken isn’t quite sure where the church building is.  Pastor Elienai has already left, but one of his sons is there and he guides me down the street to the church.  We don’t say a word to each other.  I’m too busy observing everything around me and my conversational Portuguese isn’t that great.  It’s not even a five minute walk to the t-intersection and the church is right there at the very end of the street.  Crowds of people mill around, some of them going to worship, and many others not.

Familiar faces are there to greet me.  There’s my good friend Pastor Elienai and his wife and kids.  A fellow Canadian, Ryan Vandeburgt, is there, along with his Brazilian wife Rachel, and her mother.  Ryan’s brother-in-law Rodrigo is a Brazilian federal police officer whom I’ve gotten to know — he’s there with his wife and kids.  Seminary student Madson is there together with his family.  There are others too, but for many I struggle to remember their names.  Everyone welcomes me warmly.  Speaking of warm, the building is definitely that.  No air-conditioning here!  The fans are going full tilt — which worries me a bit because I’m always tense while preaching with fans around.  I have a fear of fans blowing my sermon notes away!

I have preached at this congregation before, back in July of 2012.  They were then at a different location.  The congregation was noticeably smaller then.  Tonight, as I look, it seems to be at least twice as big as last year.  Talking to some of the members, they chalk it up to the presence and preaching of Pastor Elienai.  He is not the minister of that congregation.  He is a missionary of the Greater Recife Reformed church.  But since he lives down the street he often attends here and preaches.  It’s made a lot of difference.

Before the service begins, one of Pastor Elienai’s sons gives me a hymnal.  It’s the provisional hymnal that’s been in use in the Reformed Churches of Brazil since 2002.  It has a good number of Psalms (many set to Genevan tunes) as well as some hymns.

One of the elders takes the pulpit to open the service.  There’s a call to worship.  The elder asks, “Congregation, from where does your help come?”  The congregation responds with Psalm 124:8.  The elders gives the greeting/blessing with both arms raised and then we sing Psalm 122.  He leads in prayer and then turns the pulpit over to me.  I give some words of greeting from my church in Canada and then we begin with the Scripture reading.  I preach, in Portuguese, on Hebrews 3:1-2.  This is now the fourth time that I’ve preached this sermon, so with the practice I’m starting to get a bit more proficient with the pronunciation.  The congregation appears engaged during the preaching.  I don’t notice any befuddled looks and there’s no laughter at inappropriate moments, so I come away thinking that I didn’t mispronounce anything in a ridiculous way.  At one point, the fan near the pulpit almost commandeered my notes, but my reflexes were quick enough to stave it off.  After that, I preached with one hand firmly on my notes.

After the sermon is over, the elder steps up to the pulpit again to conclude the service.  There’s the singing of Psalm 115.  While that’s being sung, the collection is taken.  Following that, the elder asks Pastor Elienai to lead in prayer, which he does.  The congregation is then asked to rise to say the Apostles’ Creed together.  We sing a concluding hymn and then the elder gives the parting blessing, the Aaronic benediction of Numbers 6:24-26.  The congregation responds with a sung three-fold “Amen.”

Post-service socializing is not a uniquely Canadian phenomenon.  The people in this congregation seem to love to socialize after church.  Like my church back home in Hamilton, these people are still chatting with each other long after the service is over.  There are refreshments to be had, including one of my favourites, the Brazilian soft drink Guaraná.  It’s super cold and carbonated and I feel really refreshed after just a little cup.  After talking with Ryan and Rachel for a few minutes, I head outside.  Rodrigo is out there and he’s on his way home.  He wants to give me a hug and he asks if it’s okay.  I don’t object — in fact, I actually kind of like that thing about Brazil.  Guys here give each other serious man-hugs.  He asks me to give hugs to everybody back home in Canada.

Just down the street, a couple of metro trains rattle past.  However, you can scarcely hear them over the noise of people and loud music.  I walk with Pastor Elienai and his family the short distance down the street to his house.  I’ll have to wait there until about 9:00 for Ken to come and pick me up.  We walk past these street vendors.  When I first arrived, there was a small flame coming out of a stove over there.  The flame is gone now (supper’s over?), but different types of things are heating up.  There’s some type of Brazilian pop music playing and a couple starts dancing together.  The music is really loud, but then from a couple houses over, even louder music begins to drown out the rhythms grabbing the dancers.

We go up the stairs and into Pastor Elienai’s house.  First things first.  He has to show me his study and his collection of books.  I’m impressed not so much with the number, but the quality.  He has a lot of excellent books.  He draws my attention to one book in particular:  a Pentecostal systematic theology.  This one is decidely not excellent.  He points out how the book has six chapters dealing with various topics relating to the Holy Spirit.  There are a couple of chapters about Christ.  But when it comes to justification, there are only three pages!

We sit down and begin chatting.  His wife brings out lots of good stuff for us to eat and drink.  Brazilians excel at hospitality.  Conversational Portuguese is not my strong suit, so our long conversation is a struggle.  But I try to listen and catch as much as I can.

Pastor Elienai was at one time a Pentecostal minister.  So I ask him about speaking in tongues and whether he ever did that.  He did.  I ask him what he thinks about it now as a Reformed minister looking back.  He says that it was a psychological and social phenomenon.  People work themselves into a frenzy and then they begin talking babble.  There’s social pressure in Pentecostal churches to do it as well, and to fit in, you need to do it.  So, according to Pastor Elienai, it is a real phenomenon in a sense, but it’s not from the Holy Spirit.  There’s nothing miraculous about it.

Madson (the seminarian) and his wife are there too and join in the conversation.  Eventually Ken shows up and all of us enjoy the fellowship.  I’ve struggled with some of the words while preaching this sermon previously.  There was one expression at the end of the sermon:  tragedia horrível (horrible tragedy).  The previous two times I butchered it and I’ve been bearing the brunt of jokes about it ever since.  But tonight I said it more slowly and nailed it and I’m thankful that Madson and Elienai make a point of telling Ken.  Success!

Heavy rain begins pounding the neighbourhood right before we leave.  Big gobs of warm tropical rain.  As we leave, the streets are quieter.  There are still a few people out and about with umbrellas, but the music is gone.  Ken and I get in the front of the little Fiat, while Madson and his family sit in the back.  We say farewell to Imbiribeira and head back to Aldeia, some 45 minutes away, on the outskirts of Recife.


The Gospel Under the Northern Lights — Excerpt (3)

The following is an excerpt from The Gospel Under the Northern Lights, a book I’m working on about my experiences as a missionary in Fort Babine, British Columbia.  This is from chapter 4.  The events described took place in 2002.

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Now what I’m about to tell may be hard to believe.  When I’ve told this story to people from Smithers and elsewhere, I usually get looks of “Yeah, sure!”  But I assure you that this really happened and in exactly the way I’ll tell it.  I have witnesses.

I was bringing the stuff for Emma up to Violet’s place.  As I was going up the hill, Lyle and a bunch of other kids jumped in the truck.  I gave them a ride up there.  At the top of the hill, at Violet’s house, there was a nasty black and white border collie.  Skipper was his name.  He was always there and he was always unhappy to see me.  On that day, Skipper attacked my truck.  He bit a massive hole in the sidewall of the driver’s side front tire.  As I got out of the truck, I could hear the air hissing out.  I could hardly believe that a dog could do such a thing.  But it happened.  As Dave Barry would say, I am not making this up.  Before losing all the air, I moved the truck to a flat place for the inevitable tire change.  I brought the stuff for Emma in the house and then got to work on the truck.  I winched the spare tire from underneath and found another flat.  Two flat tires in the middle of nowhere!  Fred William gave me a ride back across and we were able to arrange the transport of two tires via a couple of elders from the Smithers church who were coming to visit us the next day.  That was the day we started keeping TWO spare tires with us in Fort Babine at all times.

Not long afterwards I was at Violet’s place again.  This time for a visit.  I had been watching some videos by R. C. Sproul with my catechism class and Violet mentioned to Rose that she wanted to watch them too.  So we watched the first video together – Violet’s mom Emma was there as well, so was Mary Michell.  Afterwards, we talked.  We got on to the topic of church membership.  I suggested that she could become a member of Wit’at Reformed Fellowship and outlined what that would entail.  She thought it was a good idea and agreed to start taking instruction from me to that end.  So, soon after this, I began regularly instructing her in the basics of the Christian faith.

That meant that I was going up to Violet’s place more often.  And encountering Skipper.  He finally got what was coming to him.  I knew that he was always waiting there to make my life miserable.  I had a couple of cans of bear spray lying around the house.  If you don’t know, bear spray is a high octane cayenne pepper product used to ward off bear attacks.  Apparently it also works well at teaching border collies some respect.  Never had a problem with Skipper after that.  But a word of advice to all you kids reading this (and adults too):  always wash your hands after using pepper spray and definitely before going to the washroom, especially if you’re a guy.  Trust me on that one.