Category Archives: Non-fiction writing

Delilah’s Lap

Frouwe Helenius Venema — portrait from later in life.

They say combat forges a bond between men, makes them brothers.  That was the experience of Dirk Hoksbergen too.  And if there’s anything that can create a chasm between brothers once bonded by combat, it’s a woman.  At least that’s how Dirk experienced it.

In 1833, Dirk was a prosperous dairy farmer near Wilsum, the Netherlands.  His farm was located just a short ferry-ride across the IJsel River from Wilsum, a tiny village not far from the city of Kampen.  By this point, Dirk had been married to Matje Broekhuis for 10 years.  They’d been blessed with several children, but as often happened in those days, some were lost in infancy.

When it comes to Dirk Hoksbergen, put away whatever prejudiced ideas you may have about farmers.  He was relatively well-educated.  From his youth, he’d been an avid reader, especially of Reformed theology.  His devout father Beert Hoksbergen led him to a steady diet of authors like Alexander Comrie, Wilhelmus à Brakel, and John Calvin.  Dirk also knew how to wield the quill.  To him, writing was like walking, even though his style was often rustic.

So on December 19, 1833, Dirk is sitting at the table in his farmhouse, quill in hand.  He’s been thinking for some time about what he’s about to write.  He thinks about everything his father taught him about the Christian faith and what it really means.  He thinks about what’s become of the Church.  Dirk’s blood pressure soars when he reflects on what’s become of the schools where Dutch youth are taught.  It’s all looking like the manure pile on his farm and he’s ready to do something about it.

Now Dirk has heard of someone else with the same concerns.  Over 100 km to the north, in the village of Ulrum, a pastor named Hendrik De Cock discovered the true Reformed faith.  Though he’d been a pastor for several years, he hadn’t become a Christian until his time in Ulrum.  A parishioner witnessed to him and was one of several means God used to bring him to true faith in Christ.  Now De Cock saw with increasing clarity the corruption in the Church.  He began to sound the alarm.  Though Ulrum was only a village, De Cock’s name was becoming well-known among believers in the Dutch State Church.

So Hendrik De Cock’s Ulrum parsonage is the natural destination for Dirk’s letter.  Dirk thinks to himself, “Surely, Dominee De Cock will be a sympathetic ally.  He’ll understand.  Maybe my letter will even embolden him to more action.”  The letter writing goes late into the night.  By the time it’s finished, Dirk has used up 51 pages.  His epistle is soon sent off to Ulrum.

De Cock is impressed with his dairy farmer correspondent.  Here’s a man who knows his Bible, who loves the old Reformed faith, and who can express himself in writing.   He writes to a friend, “The wise and understanding do not see, yes they are blinder than moles, seeing light for darkness; while a simple farmer shows clearly the state of Church and school, based on God’s eternal and infallible Word.”  De Cock has connections.  He sees to it that Dirk’s letter is published as a booklet and he writes a commendatory Foreword.  With this, these two men become comrades in ecclesiastical combat – brothers in arms.

The first major battle takes place not long afterwards.  Rev. Hendrik De Cock is first suspended and then deposed by the Dutch State Church.  This because he called out the Church’s doctrinal corruption and refused to back down.  Thankfully, the Ulrum congregation stands behind him and on October 13, 1834, they secede from the State Church.  This is the official beginning of “the Secession.”  Other individuals and congregations soon follow suit.

On Wednesday June 3, 1835, Dirk Hoksbergen hosts Hendrik De Cock at his farm in Wilsum.  On that summer day, they talk at length about the situation and what needs to be done.  Together they talk tactics and plot the next move against the enemy.  Later that same day the two men call a meeting for concerned church members in Wilsum.  Sufficient numbers attend that the decision is made there and then to secede and institute a new congregation.  Elders and deacons are elected and installed in a worship service.  But Dirk isn’t among those office bearers.  He’s slated for a more strategic place.  After the meeting concludes, Dirk and Rev. De Cock travel the short distance to the town of Kampen.  They stay overnight.  The next day, June 4, they call together the concerned church members of Kampen.  Some 35 people attend the meeting.  As in Wilsum, they decide right then to secede from the State Church.  A worship service is held on this Thursday and elders are installed – one of whom is Dirk.  In fact, Dirk is recognized as a “teaching elder” in Kampen – he’ll be responsible for the edification of the congregation.  At first he reads sermons written by others, but soon he’s preaching his own messages in the local dialect.

So by the end of June in 1835, there’s not only a seceded congregation in Ulrum, but also in Wilsum and Kampen.  Many other concerned pastors and congregations join them.  Soon there are enough secession churches to have a national synod.

The first synod is held in March 1836 in Amsterdam.  Both Dirk and Rev. De Cock were delegates.  Dirk was soon recognized as being head and shoulders above his fellow elders.  He’s appointed to a couple of committees, including one where he’s serving with his friend Rev. De Cock.  Most of the other delegates fondly refer to him as “Uncle Dirk.”  However, this Synod already reveals a rift among these churches.  It centers on Rev. Scholte and his ideas about church government.  Rev. Scholte doesn’t much appreciate the old Church Order adopted by the Synod of Dort.  He’s doing everything he can to see that this old form of government is left in the past.  That aggravates traditionalists like Dirk and Rev. De Cock.  The two of them are convinced that Rev. Scholte is heading down the wrong track.  At Synod Amsterdam, their view carries the day.  That battle was won.

Or so it seemed.  After the Synod, Rev. Scholte doesn’t relent.  He draws up his own church order and persuades local churches and even provincial synods to adopt it.  He acts as if Synod Amsterdam hadn’t decided for Dort!  This raises the dairy farmer’s ire.

And it leads to another Synod in 1837, this time in Utrecht.  Again, both Rev. De Cock and Dirk Hoksbergen are delegates.  Dirk attends with strict instructions from his delegating provincial synod to “maintain the Synod of Dort with its Church Order without any changes.”  Not that he needs those instructions – it’s his own firm conviction too.  Rev. De Cock, his fellow soldier under the cross, shares that opinion.  Together, they’re not going to back down.

They don’t.  The pressure is enormous.  Because of government persecution, the Synod was actually illegal.  Once all the delegates were in the building, they had to stay there.  For days they were locked down together behind those walls.  No one could leave until it was over.  The 24 delegates bicker and battle for days on end.  The Dutch are known to be stoic, but ecclesiastical warfare can bring the toughest Dutchman to tears.

One morning, Dirk wakes up and can’t find Rev. De Cock.  He searches the building and eventually finds De Cock sequestered in a lonely corner.  He’s sobbing uncontrollably.  Rev. De Cock just can’t cope with the acrimonious Church Order debates.  Dirk comforts his friend with 2 Corinthians 4:17, “For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison.”  Encouraged, they together leave the room resolved to carry on the fight for Old Dort.

But this isn’t a battle they can win.  The numbers just aren’t there – there are only five elders (including Dirk) and one minster (De Cock) on the side of Dort – 6 of 24 delegates.  Rev. Scholte has long been working behind the scenes to convince delegates.  When it comes time for the vote, the Synod says farewell to Dort.  Scholte’s Church Order is accepted.

Dirk and Rev. De Cock travel home together – defeated and disillusioned.  As they sit in the carriage travelling north, it’s Rev. De Cock’s turn to encourage his ally.

“Brother, we mustn’t give in.  There’s too much at stake.”

“But Dominee, how can we do anything now?  Even if we don’t accept this decision, the majority does.”

“Brother, we cannot give in.  We can’t grow weak.  The decision is wrong and we have to stand against it, just like we stood against the State Church.  God will bless our steadfastness.”

“Yes, Dominee, you’re right.  We may have lost this battle, but that doesn’t mean we’ve lost the war.  We must keep fighting for what our fathers gave us at Dort.”

When they arrive in Zwolle, they reach a crossroads and go their separate ways.  Dirk heads to his farm in Wilsum, while De Cock travels back to his church in Ulrum.  Dirk couldn’t have known that this was a parting of ways in more than one sense.

Rev. Albertus Van Raalte had also been delegated to the Synod in Utrecht.  He was on the Scholte side of the Church Order debate.  But he also knew the strategic value of having Rev. De Cock on board – De Cock was hugely influential in the Secession churches.  Even though the Synod had decided, if De Cock was against it, there were going to be issues.

As the Synod concluded, Rev. Van Raalte devised a plan.  Somehow he found a way to make the 200 km journey from Utrecht to Ulrum post haste.  He made it there before Rev. De Cock.  He arrived in Ulrum and went straight to the manse.  There he found Hendrik’s wife, all alone, waiting for her husband’s return.

Frouwe Venema was a sober, serious, godly woman.  She’d been a good helpmeet for Rev. De Cock, supporting him in his battles for the truth of God’s Word.  She was also, as they say, “a force to be reckoned with.”  If anyone could get through to Rev. De Cock, it would be his wife.  She was a reasonable woman and had her husband’s ear like no one else.

Rev. DeCock returns home from Synod.  He walks in and, to his surprise, fresh from Synod too, Rev. Van Raalte is sitting at his table.  He’s been speaking with Frouwe.

“Well, what is this about then?”

“Brother, for the sake of peace in the churches, I came here to speak with your wife.  She’s a wise woman and I think you need to listen to her.”

“No, I think you need to leave.  You and your colleagues have caused enough trouble for me and for the churches.  Go.”

The manse door closes and Rev. Van Raalte begins his journey back to Ommen.  Hendrik glares at Frouwe.

“What were you thinking allowing that man in our home?  He’s a trouble-maker.”

“Hendrik, the Lord teaches us to pursue peace.”

“But not at all costs!  We have to stand for the truth of what the Lord gave through our fathers.”

“Hendrik, there’s been enough fighting.  The churches need peace.  We can’t be constantly dealing with conflict.  Can’t you just give in and give up this fight?  It’s not worth it.”

“My dear wife, I’m tired from my journey.  I need rest.  Enough talking for now, please.”

In short order, Frouwe convinces her husband to accept the new Church Order and give up the fight against it.  Thereafter Rev. De Cock goes on a tour with Rev. Van Raalte to many of the churches still harbouring reservations.  The churches of Wilsum and Kampen weren’t included on this tour.  De Cock and Van Raalte would decidedly not have been welcome.

When word reaches Dirk about De Cock’s change of mind, he feels profoundly betrayed by his co-belligerent.  They’d been through so many battles together.  They’d fought hard against Scholte and his innovations.  They’d strategized together.  They’d wept together.  They were there for one another.  In the carriage home from Synod, they’d agreed that they’d keep fighting.  Now De Cock kicked it all to the side.  All because of his wife.  Dirk’s blood boils at this treachery.  Unlike De Cock he’s not going to relent.  He’s going to still stand with the Dort fathers, no matter what.  Rev. De Cock might compromise, but Dirk never will – and he never did.

Later on in Dirk’s life, the pain of De Cock’s betrayal never subsided.  It was a bitter parting.  In later life, at a certain moment, he writes about how Frouwe persuaded his one-time friend:  “Then he laid his head in Delilah’s lap!”  To Dirk, Hendrik De Cock was Samson robbed of his strength by a cunning woman with Philistines conniving behind the scenes.  To him, it was that kind of betrayal – and it stung.

The Pen is Mightier than the Sword

Wicher Hendrik Bredenhof (1922-2010)

Christians are word people — we’re such because God has given us a book of written revelation.  Christians ought to be those who see the power of the written word, both in terms of reading and writing.  On both fronts, consumption and production, I sometimes wonder whether we’re heading into a dark era.  Where are the readers?  Where are the writers?  There are some, to be sure, but I wonder:  why not more?

I love to read and write.  I especially want to reflect for a moment on the latter love — also in the interests of stirring up the same affection in others.  How did I come to love writing?

Curiously, it was the same way through which I came to love reading.  It wasn’t because of a teacher.  It wasn’t because of my parents.  It was my late grandfather, my Opa Bredenhof.  I was 7 years old.  We were living in the Canadian Arctic, but went down south for the summer to visit Opa and Oma and the rest of the Bredenhof clan.  While I was there, Opa took me to a sort of book store being run out of someone’s house.  I believe it was Mr. A.W. DeLeeuw.  From this store, Opa bought me several books, including this one:

It was Scout: The Secret of the Swamp by Piet Prins.  This pile of books got me into a lifetime of reading.

Opa loved to read and he wanted to pass that on to me.  Opa also loved to write.  Even though English wasn’t his first language, he tried valiantly.  As a member of the Mission Aid Committee, he wrote articles for the Mission News.  Later, he wrote not just one book, but two — including The Gospel Under the Southern Cross, the first book about mission in the Canadian Reformed Churches.  His writing needed the help of a native English editor, but that never stymied him from the effort.

And Opa loved to write letters.  I know because I received scads of them.

Sometimes I struggled to read them and I think you can see why!  Despite his penmanship, Opa was bound and determined to write to his far-off grandson and I almost always wrote him back.

Opa also encouraged me to see the power and value of writing.  One adage he’d often repeat:  “The pen is mightier than the sword.”  Imagine that being said in a heavy Dutch accent and you can hear how it still echoes in my ears.  Opa didn’t come up with it — it apparently originates with English author Edward Bulwer-Lytton.  But Opa repeated it often to his young grandson and it stuck.  I sometimes wonder if it resonated with Opa because of his work as a courier in the Dutch underground during the Nazi occupation.  That work sometimes involved circulating illegal newspapers.  The Nazis hated the written word because of its power to change minds.

When I was in high school, I had zero aspirations to be a pastor.  I had no intentions of making any career of working with words.  My only dream was to turn and burn in a CF-18.  I wanted to be a fighter pilot.  I still enjoyed reading — especially about aviation.  When I had to write for school, I enjoyed it and had some proficiency at it.  But my goal was to “slip the surly bonds of earth.”

God put that goal out of reach by giving me a near-sighted right eye.  That realization sent me into a period of spiritual and existential crisis.  It was just as well — I saw the Air Force as the ticket out of my churchly upbringing.  Instead, through a series of providential circumstances, God graciously brought me to a firm commitment to Christ and living for him.  I really became enthralled with the gospel and with Reformed theology.  How could I share my excitement with others?

Around that time, there was a Canadian Reformed magazine for young people called In Holy Array.

In the May 1991 issue, Rev. Eric Kampen issued a challenge for young people to get off their duff and start writing.  He was realistic about what it would involve:

How do you know if something is being read?  By readers’ response!  That might come orally, in the form of compliment.  That is always encouraging.  But, more often the way one finds out if what has been written is indeed read by someone else is in the form of reactions.  That is one of the “hazards” of writing: someone might disagree with you!  If you never say anything, then you never will get any reactions.  Sometimes people react and strongly disagree, and will let it be known personally, but do not dare to go public.  Others feel compelled to write a letter to the editor.  Others yet will take the time to write an article in response…

…You shouldn’t be afraid to express your sentiments.  It is often surprising how many thoughts and problems you have are shared by others, but no one ever puts them on paper.  We mentioned the “hazards” of writing.  You can’t get around that!  But perhaps, you might help someone else, or you might be helped yourself, in that you find answers to your questions, even if you have to be corrected in some parts of your thinking.  We should also be open to correction, from Scripture of course.

Those words hit the target with me.  Combined with my Opa’s adage, I was ready to start writing.

So I did.  My first article was published in the January 1992 issue of In Holy Array.  It was entitled, “Women in Office: Is It Possible?”  I wrote many more articles for In Holy Array, and then eventually branched out to other magazines such as Clarion and Reformed Perspective.  In the early 2000s, I became aware of this phenomenon known as a “blog” and by 2007 most of my writing was happening via this medium.

I’ve seen that Opa was right about writing:  it is a powerful tool.  It can be harnessed for good purposes, including both edification and entertainment.  Eric Kampen was right too:  sometimes writing can be “hazardous” — but that does keep it interesting!  At least you know people are reading and thinking about what you’ve said.

I want to encourage readers to become writers.  You start by starting.  You learn by doing.  You learn the craft of writing by doing, but also learn heaps more about your subject matter.  I often think of Augustine’s words, quoted by Calvin in his preface to the Institutes:  “I count myself one of the number of those who write as they learn and learn as they write.”  I look forward to reading what you’re writing and learning!

A Day in the Dry Hills of Sabu

The pin shows the location of Sabu between Sumba and Timor. Australia is in the lower right-hand corner.

Our church in Launceston is privileged to support the spread of the gospel in Sabu.  I was asked to go there and represent our church at the ordination of two men to the ministry of the gospel.  Sabu is a small Indonesian island, wedged between the larger islands of Sumba and Timor.  Being in the south of the Indonesian archipelago, it’s physically not that far from the northern reaches of Australia.  Yet, culturally, it may as well be on the other side of the world.

It’s a typical, warm, dry morning as we make our way through the hilly arid landscape up to the church at Taka.  Rocks outnumber trees and the dry, brown dust says this is a tough place to earn a living off the land.  Compared to my current home in Tasmania, the bird and animal life is scarce.

We arrive at the church and already a few dozen people have gathered.  Eventually, they’ll total 150-200 people, filling the building and spilling out the back under a tent that’s been erected for the joyous occasion.  Many attendees are wearing the traditional Sabunese ikat, a woven garment with graphic designs unique to each clan.  They greet each other – and me – by rubbing noses.  As they smile, many mouths and teeth are visibly stained red.  This comes from the habit of chewing betel nuts – which gives a mild stimulant effect.

Amos and Yohanes, newly ordained Reformed ministers in Sabu.

The ordination service itself is familiar to a Reformed believer from anywhere.  It follows the standard Reformed liturgy.  Almost all the singing is from the Psalms, sung to Genevan tunes.  The Form for Ordination seems to be the form used everywhere else.  The men, Amos and Yohanes, are asked a series of questions.  They answer, “I do.”  Then follows the laying on of hands and I’m asked to participate in this, along with all the other pastors present.  Amos and Yohanes kneel on two pillows at the front of the church.  The pastors present (about 8 of us) gather around and we don’t actually place our hands on the brothers, but over them.  Then presiding pastor Pila says (in Indonesian, of course):

God, our heavenly Father, who has called you to this holy office, enlighten you with his Spirit and so govern you in your ministry that you may fulfil it obediently and that it may bear fruit to the honour of his name and the expansion of the kingdom of his Son Jesus Christ. Amen.

After the service ends, a number of people speak a few words.  I’m also given the opportunity to extend greetings on behalf of our church and its mission committee.  I present a gift to each of the newly minted pastors:  Richard Pratt’s He Gave Them Stories (in Indonesian).

We proceed to a house a short way down the dusty road for a celebratory feast.  The ladies have prepared an enormous amount of food to share for lunch.  Besides the obligatory rice, there’s also chicken, some goat, and liver, though I’m not sure from which animal.  For me, the highlight was a savoury pork heart stew with a vinegary sauce.

Joining me as I enjoy this feast are Pastor Windi and Elder Max.  They’re from another Reformed church on the island (Gurijara) and they both speak English fairly well.  Once we’re done eating, they invite me to travel with them to see some more of the island and its Reformed churches.  I hop on the back of Max’s motorbike and away we go.  With me weighing it down, the poor motorbike struggles to get much beyond 40 Km/h.

Elder Max and yours truly.

Max is a high school teacher and his English is good.  He’s quite talkative, even as we’re driving.  Because of his work, he seems to be well-known to many people in Sabu.  Almost every person he passes gets a little beep of the horn and sometimes a greeting or comment.  Before long, we’re at the church building in Gurijara.  This is the largest Reformed church on the island – I’m told it’s about 180 members.  They show me around the simple building and explain how they hope to eventually build a replacement next door.

Before we continue from Gurijara, I have to pause.  By this time the tropical sun is high and intense.  There’s hardly a cloud in sight.  Sunburn threatens and I’ve forgot to bring sunblock from home.  I went to every toko in the town of Seba but no one stocked sunblock.  The closest I could get was some hand and face lotion that included some sunscreen.  I apply that and even if I don’t get much sun protection, at least I smell flowery.

New Reformed church building under construction in Sabu Timor.

Our next stop is Sabu Timor.  We tour the new Reformed church under construction there – it’s going to be a large building once it’s completed.  The foundations are poured and supporting pillars are in place.  The next step is to build the walls, but progress is slow and no one is sure when it’ll be done.  There’s a store next to the construction site, owned by a church member.  We enjoy some water and Max gets some extra air pumped into his tires.  Yeah, it’s not exactly a feathery local riding with him.  But at least I smell nice.

Max and Windi offer to show me the old building in Sabu Timor.  We drive down the road a short ways and then we cut off onto a narrow track.  We drive past the veranda of a home, around the back, and then we’re there.  There are some church members waiting for us. They warmly greet us and we all rub noses.  We sit in some blue plastic chairs and take in the view out of the church and over the nearby ocean.  A refreshing breeze is blowing off the water and it’s a comfortable spot to relax.  Before long, the ladies are bringing in iced tea and a small meal of rice, cabbage, and omelette.

Max points out the most elderly member of the church.  She’s 83 years old and the matriarch of the village.  Everyone in the church is related to her, many of them are her children and grandchildren.  She’s blind in one eye, a little slow in her movement, but otherwise still seems quite alert.  Dressed in her traditional ikat, she quietly strikes a dignified poise.

One of the elders brings his guitar and serenades us with some strumming.  Max asks if I like singing and I say, “Sure, but not everyone likes my singing.”  He suggests we sing, “Silent Night” and we do, and it goes okay — in other words, no one runs away.  Then Windi says we should sing “How Great Thou Art.”  The guitarist first strums out the chorus and then we launch into the first verse.  We get to the chorus and just as we hit the high note at the end of the first line (“Then sings my soul…”), a village dog wanders in and starts howling along.  We all start laughing – all except the village matriarch.  She leaps out of her chair and goes at the poor musical dog.  She chases him out of the church and then, for good measure, takes a small plastic water bottle and hucks it at him.  You can hear the poor dog whimpering off into the shadows.  You don’t mess with the village matriarch when she’s enjoying her music!

From Sabu Timor, we head back to the main town of Seba.  I get dropped off at the homestay and Max heads back to his home in the nearby hills.  Seeing some of Sabu was interesting, enjoying some of the food was tantalizing, but the best thing of all was the reward of meeting God’s people.  It was awesome to share in their joy at the ordination of Amos and Yohanes.  And also getting a glimpse into their lives in this unique place was something that far transcends what you’d experience as an ordinary tourist.

Bizarre Foods of CDO

I went to the Philippines to preach and teach.  And I did.  But those who know me know I had other motives besides.  I enjoy travelling, and when I travel, I explore new food vistas.  I’m one of those adventurous sorts usually up to trying the “bizarre foods” of the world.

So I found myself once again in Cagayan de Oro or ‘CDO’ as the locals call it.  CDO is a city of about 600,000 in the northern part of Mindanao.  Mindanao is a Filipino island often in the news because of its large Muslim population.  Most recently, Muslim terrorists captured the city of Marawi until the Filipino army moved in.  There are certain parts of Mindanao that are no-go zones for guys like me.  But not CDO.

CDO is not in a Muslim part of Mindanao, so it’s relatively safe. This was my third time there and it’s gotten safer – I’m told the new President Rodrigo Duterte gets the credit. As a Westerner, you can certainly walk around most parts of CDO day or night without any worries.  So I did.

My teaching schedule was heavy – for a few of the days I was going for six or seven hours.  But there were breaks, especially a long one over the dinner hour.  On one of these breaks, I slipped out and scouted.  The place where I was teaching was in the heart of CDO.  It was not difficult to find the new experience I was after.

Before coming, I’d made a list of the new foods I wanted to try.  There was dinuguan – a savoury stew made from pork blood.  There was sisig – a sizzling dish made from pig face, assorted spices, and an egg cracked over top right before serving.  Crispy pata – deep fried pig feet.  Except for the last one (which I’d get later), I’d knocked all these items off my list.  One of my favourites, balut (duck egg with the embryo) was something I’d already had several times.  Now I was searching for something else, but I didn’t even know what it was.

I wandered the narrow streets in the downtown.  I danced with the jeepneys, tricycles, motorbikes, cars, and people.  Somehow nobody gets hurt.  I guess Filipinos know how to figure this all out.  They also love their food and down almost every street there’s something.  Some of it is relatively tame and uninteresting, like fried chicken skins or pork rinds.  But then something colourful caught my eye and I knew I wanted to try it.

But I also didn’t want to get sick.  During my last visit to the Philippines I tried a coconut wine advertised as a “cleanser.”  There is truth in Filipino advertising.  Whoever sold me that definitely had shares in toilet paper.

So I scouted the location and then went back to the teaching venue.  The next day I asked if a couple of Filipinos would join me, just to guide me and make sure I don’t eat something I’d regret.  Jim and Samboo – two old friends of mine from Marawi – volunteered to help.  Take a right, take a left down the first street, take the second right and walk about half a block down.  They didn’t know where we were going, but I sure did.  I showed them the grill station that got my attention.

It was a small shopfront with a large grill out front where skewers of meat were being cooked over hardwood coals.  Sadly, I can’t smell much anymore – I had an undiagnosed neurological problem in 2015 that made me lose most of my smell.  But I can imagine that, if one could smell, this would be a delightful aroma.  It was certainly an amazing sight – on one side the grill, on the other all the meats you could choose from to be grilled.  About halfway through the grilling process, the meat would be slathered with a dark red sauce.  I was ready to go all in.  Jim and Samboo gave me the green safety light.

The worst job I’ve ever had was at a chicken processing plant in Edmonton.  I worked on the line eviscerating chickens – a.k.a. gutting them.  Some entrails were saved:  the gizzard, the heart, the liver.  But, as far as I know, the rest was discarded.

Here at this CDO grill station, I spotted skewers of chicken gizzard, heart, and liver.  There were other skewers with little balls of chorizo sausage and still others with the more conventional cuts of chicken.  But there were also skewers with long worm-like organs – chicken intestine.  Now that’s something new!

Jim ordered several of these skewers and then we sat inside and waited for them to cook.  Before long, we had them in front of us.  I tried them all, including the intestine.  It was okay, and I would eat it again, but I wouldn’t rank it up there with the best foods I’ve tried in the Philippines.  There’s a reason why these kinds of foods are sold on the street for just a few pesos – there are plenty of low-income Filipinos relying on these cheaper cuts for their protein.  Not everyone in the world can afford chicken breast.

I appreciate the fact that Filipinos don’t waste what they take from creation.  If a pig gets slaughtered, most of that pig will get consumed.  Same even with the chickens.  While it might be by virtue of necessity, this stewardship is commendable.

Later I was speaking with Kit, our volunteer driver.  I soon found out he was also a foodie – he loves to cook and eat.  During one of our conversations he said, “There’s this guy on TV, he says, ‘If it looks good…’”  Then I finished his sentence, “Eat it!”  Turns out we’re both big fans of Andrew Zimmern, the host of Bizarre Foods.  Zimmern has a couple of episodes about the Philippines, but I don’t think he’s ever ventured down to Mindanao.  So with my CDO grill station experience, I think I may even have one over him.  And no, I didn’t get sick.

Attending a Babine Funeral

I often still think about my few years as a missionary in Fort Babine, British Columbia.  It was an incredible experience, one that has left a mark on me.  To give you an idea of some of what we saw and heard, the following is an excerpt from my 2011 book, The Gospel Under the Northern Lights: A Missionary Memoir.  The events described here took place just a couple of months after we arrived in Fort Babine in October 2000.


Attending a Funeral

Another interesting person we came to know and love was William Duncan.  He was an older single man who lived by himself in an immaculate house.  He had been a fishing guide and still had a passion for fishing, although his health didn’t always allow him to indulge.  When I first met him, he was 67.  He was comfortable talking about the fact that he was a hereditary chief from the Caribou clan.  His hereditary name was We Heh.  He had a lot of insight to give into the culture and history of the area.  He told me Fort Babine used to have one feast hall for each of the four clans, but they slowly deteriorated and disappeared.  Eventually, all the potlatch feasts would be held only in Burns Lake.  As a hereditary chief, Willie tried to attend all the feasts he could and he invited me to join him sometime.  One day I did.

Ted Lowley was a resident of the Lake Babine Nation reserve in Burns Lake and had recently passed away.  His funeral and the associated potlatch were held on December 9, 2000.  Willie was ready when I stopped by at his place at 8:00 in the morning and, together with Fred William, we set off for Burns Lake, via Smithers.  Along the way, we chatted and I discovered from Fred that the current population of Fort Babine was about ninety people living in twenty-six houses.  I also learned there was a lot of animosity between the people of Fort Babine and those of Burns Lake.  There was a strong feeling of alienation and that had to do with the history and the amalgamation process back in 1957.

We arrived in Smithers in good time, filled up with gas, and then headed over to the “Babine Bus Depot.”  That was what a lot of people called the Super Valu grocery store and its tiny mall.  There we had some breakfast together and met up with Adam George, who decided to come with us to Burns Lake.  We were in Burns by noon and went straight to the Roman Catholic Church there for the funeral service.  Approximately five or six hundred people were there for that, mostly native.

After the funeral mass, the coffin was taken to the cemetery.  After a few words from the priest and some sprinkling of “holy” water, the body was lowered into the grave.  As was typical for First Nations funerals, the family was expressive in their grief.  It’s certainly not what someone growing up in a Dutch immigrant community is used to.  It’s not bad; it’s just different and that’s fine.  Later on, all the immediate family members took a turn shovelling dirt onto the coffin.

From the cemetery we went over to the Woyenne feast hall.  Willie had been told that the funeral feast would start right away.  However, there was no one there.  By this time we were getting hungry, so Willie took us out for lunch to a local Chinese restaurant.  Afterwards, we headed back to the feast hall, but there was still hardly anybody there.  We took a tour around the Woyenne Lake Babine Nation reserve, including a look at the local Taj Mahal – the LBN band office.  There were a lot of new houses on the reserve, paved roads, good water and sewer, and a nearby hospital.

Finally, at around 4:00 we went back to the hall and more people were beginning to arrive.  There was lots of standing and sitting around and socializing.  The feast itself didn’t get started until around 7:00.  It began with prayer and then food was served.  We had bannock, soup, and platefuls of all kinds of other good stuff.   While we ate, people were busy making contributions to pay for the cost of the funeral.  There is some reciprocity involved with this aspect of the potlatch – in other words, a person would make a contribution knowing that eventually it would somehow get paid back.  But there were also many instances where people would make contributions with “no-return,” meaning they didn’t want to get paid back.  That was motivated more by generosity than by reciprocity.  The giving of gifts would go on for several hours, but we had to leave early because I wanted to be home by midnight.  The next day was Sunday and we would be up early to make the trip back into Smithers to attend church.  So that was the second time I attended a potlatch.  It helped me to understand more about First Nations culture in this part of BC.

A few days later, we traded in the big blue Suburban for a smaller vehicle, a Chevy Tahoe.  Our days of providing bus service between Smithers and Fort Babine were over.  With our family of four in the vehicle, there was only room for one more person.  The Tahoe was great to drive, although like with every vehicle we had up there, we ended up stuck in the snow and ice more times than I care to remember.  I also became an expert in changing flat tires – in short order I was able to do it in well under 15 minutes.


Interested in reading more?  The Gospel Under the Northern Lights is available here.