Category Archives: Non-fiction writing

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.

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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.

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


The Streets of Brazil

My wife and I are on the tail end of a two-week stay in Brazil — my fourth time and her first.  The occasion was the invitation for me to speak at a couple of conferences on the topic of evangelism.  We’ve flown a lot of miles over this vast land, but have also driven a fair bit.  Driving on Brazilian roads is full of surprises.  Let me describe some of what we saw.  To clarify, I was never the one driving.  In most of the following, Rev. Ken Wieske was our chauffeur, a missionary with 17 years of driving experience on the streets of Brazil.

We started our Brazilian adventure in the capital city, Brasília.  The capital was designed from scratch and founded in 1960.  It’s comparable to Canberra in Australia — another planned capital.  This is the neatest and safest Brazilian city I’ve visited.  Perhaps Brazil wants to make a good impression on the foreign diplomats who reside there.  Traffic in this city is fairly tame, at least from what we witnessed.  However, we did spot a motorcyclist laying on the road, having just been hit by a van.  He appeared lifeless — was he merely unconscious or dead?  We couldn’t stop and didn’t find out.

As safe as Brasília is, there are areas in the metropolitan region that can be sketchy.  On our way to and from a speaking engagement at the Reformed church there, we travelled through one such area.  Like in other large Brazilian cities, at night you do not stop for red lights.  If you stop for a red light after dark, you’re inviting trouble — perhaps a car-jacking, maybe a simple robbery at gunpoint, or worse.

Our next stop was the city of Belém, way up north near the mouth of the Amazon River.  Apart from some congestion, we didn’t witness anything out of the ordinary in this city.  One thing that was extra-ordinary was the change in the weather from the first time that I visited in 2012.  In 2012, I spoke at the Reformed Conference hosted by the Central Presbyterian Church of Pará.  Then, five years ago, you could depend on the tropical rains to arrive every day at about the same time:  4:00 PM.  People would even make social arrangements before or after “the rain.”  Today I’m told that doesn’t happen anymore.  When (or if) the rain comes, it comes after dark.  I’m told that this is the result of deforestation in the Amazon rain forest.

After enjoying the wonderful hospitality of the brethren in Belém, it was down south to Recife.  We flew to the northeast of Brazil, and then drove down the coast.  Along the way south to the beach town of Maragogi, we passed through a police checkpoint where drivers are often stopped for bribes.  This time they had already nabbed some poor schmuck on a motorbike and so we got past.  Maragogi was the location of the 26th annual Puritan Project Conference.  As in Belém, I spoke here on the topic of evangelism, along with a bunch of other speakers.  It was a super time of fellowship with old and new friends and also a great opportunity to foster the growth of the Reformed faith in this country — people had come to this event from almost every state in Brazil.  There were even some attendees who’d flown in from Portugal.

The drive home on Friday was, let’s say, interesting.  The distance from Maragogi to Recife is approximately 133 km.  Normally, it should take about 2.5 hours.  We left Maragogi around 3:00, but didn’t arrive at our accommodations until past 10.  The first three-quarters of the drive was smooth enough.  But then about 40 km out of Recife we hit a massive traffic jam.  It had been raining for about two days and some of the streets in Recife were flooded.  This backed up traffic to about 40 km out of the city.  We were trapped in the world’s largest parking lot.  Escape options were few and questionable.  Google Maps suggested alternative routes, but Google never tells you what those alternative roads are really like:  are they dirt roads littered with flooded pot-holes or do they take you through a favela?  We stayed on the main route.

As we were moving slowly along, guys were on foot wandering amongst the cars, trucks, and buses, selling water and popcorn.  We were behind a bus when we suddenly heard what sounded like a gunshot.  I know what a gun sounds like and that was very similar.  When it happened, the bus seemed suddenly to drive erratically.  However, as it turned out, it wasn’t a gunshot, just somebody’s car back-firing and the bus just happened to be jockeying for a faster lane.  Some time afterwards (was it an hour?  Two?  Time stood still), a fellow on a motorbike was weaving his way through the vehicles and bounced between the one Rose was travelling in and their neighbour.  He just kept going.

On our last Saturday, we attended a 40th wedding anniversary celebration for some Brazilian friends, Manoel and Telma Canuto.  This was in Boa Viagem, a Recife neighbourhood.  On our way there, we saw a bus stopped by the side of the road with several police cars parked around it.  Three guys were up against the wall with their hands interlocked over their heads.  In 2017 so far, there have been over two thousand (2000!) hold ups on Recife city buses.  In the past week, there was a 24 hour period when there were 13 such incidents.  It’s not unusual for shots to be fired in these incidents and for people to be injured or die.  Life is cheap here.  In this instance, the evildoers were somehow stopped and apprehended.

The streets of Australia and Canada are incomparably safer — and for that we ought always to be thankful.  However, streets all over the world have one thing in common.   Wherever you go in the world, you see countless people on the streets and they’re all traveling somewhere.  They’re also going somewhere in the spiritual sense.  All are either on a broad road leading to destruction or on a narrow road leading to life.  One road is congested and full of traffic, the other is comparatively less-traveled.  Whether in Australia, Canada, Brazil (or wherever), we’re living on a mission field.  Our calling is to be God’s instrument to direct traffic off the broad road and onto the narrow road.  I’m glad that work continues to be done in Brazil and seeing it done here makes me even more intent on seeing it done where God has placed me too.

 


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.”