Joseph and Musa

I don’t want to give the wrong impression here, but let us say that if you are driving from here to Banyo – 230 km away – you will encounter 5 or 6 checkpoints with either soldiers, police, or gendarmes. Of those 5 or 6 you usually can count on one more giving you some kind of trouble.

I remember the trip I made up there in mid-January with my friend Joan; mostly we did fine but we got to one checkpoint and the surly soldier there hardly looked at our documents – he just said, “Settle, settle,” which means, of course, “Give us some money so we can let you go.” As usual I played dumb, and pestered him about what it meant to “Settle.” Joan finally gave him a tract and he unhappily let us pass.

He was not the only one who was unhappy though. It usually takes a lot to get me angry, but these guys – maybe 10 or 20 percent of the guys we run into – manage to do it without raising a sweat. So, after the trip with Joan I devised a strategy to deal with them.

I decided that the next time I met with a checkpoint Charlie who gave me problems that way, I would tell them that I would pay to pray with them, and then – as my daughter Cari might say – I would “Go all John the Baptist on them” – i.e. telling them to repent, and so on.

I got my opportunity on the way from the seminar we offered on Ministry F*lbe M*slims on Easter Saturday. The first checkpoint we came to, the young soldier stared at my I.D. long and intently, but could not find anything wrong with it. Finally, he gave it back to me and said, “Yes, but we have no water,” which, again, is code for, “We want you to give us some money.”

By this time, though, I had calmed down from my time with Joan and had rethought my strategy. I no longer had a desire to be John the Baptist; I thought I should instead be more like Jesus – and truly, as I looked at this young man, I knew Jesus loved him.

So I told him, truthfully, that I had no water in the truck to give him (which is a real mistake on my part, I should say. I meant to put some in the truck, and simply forgot that morning. Never travel here without water people!), but that I might have something else for him. He looked at me quizzically. I told him if he let me park on the other side of the gate, I would get out and talk with him about it. He seemed a little unsure, but he waved them to open the gate for me.

I parked up past the gate, and got out. He had called over another soldier who spoke better English (his second language seemed to be French), and I asked them their names. They were Joseph and Musa. “Ok, Joseph and Musa,” I told them, “I am a missionary, and I am here to minister to people. Now I know that ministry always costs money, so what I would like to do is to pray for you, and I will pay for the privilege.”

Musa stared at me for a bit, and then translated to his friend. Then Joseph stared at me also. “So, what do you say? Can I pay for you both?” Musa said, “Yes.” They took me into their office (complete with bottle of water in the corner), and asked me to sit down. There was another soldier there who made way for us. It seems Joseph was the leader of this little troop.

I began to pray. Joseph sat and closed his eyes, while Musa stood with his hands raised, open to God, with his eyes open. Musa is a M*slim, while Joseph must have some kind of Christian background, but is clearly not walking with Jesus now.

So, I thanked God for these three guys – including the third soldier who was also sitting, staring at the floor – that God had brought them to this place to be agents of peace, and a blessing to the people. And I thanked God for the gift of his son Jesus, who is for us the water of life, given free of charge, who, when we receive him, makes it so we will never thirst again (having Isaiah 55 and John 4 in my mind as I prayed).

These days (and for many years) I usually pray with my eyes open, so I was looking at all of them as I prayed, with Musa staring back at me. And I was inwardly thanking God that I was able to share a little bit of the good news with this M*slim and these two other fellows. Honestly, after a really good time speaking at this seminar for four hours, this short time of prayer was what really made my day.

All for less than the price of a bad cup of coffee – 6 or 700 francs, which is about a buck and a half. Money well spent that day.

(Just a small caveat here. I would not try this with every corrupt soldier or policeman I meet; some of them you really do not want to mess with [though with all of them, you do want to try to create a relationship if possible], and one needs discernment to see who might be open to such an offer. Joseph and Musa turned out to be open.)

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Hawa’u’s Story: A Case of Mental Health

Sonya and I met Hawa’u (you say it pretty much like Hawaii, only with a ‘u’ at the end) when we made our tour of F*lbe communities back in December, 2017. We were getting a general picture of the communities and trying to assess basic needs. We saw several people who were ill in one way or another, and most we were able to help with very basic medicines (Sonya is a Mom, after all) or to provide the means for them to get to the nearest hospital, about an hour away.

Hawa’u, however, was a different case altogether. She was not ill in a physical senseof the term. Physically she was functioning, but her behaviour for the past year or so, we were told, had been very strange. When we saw her, her hair was not plaited (very odd for any Fulbe woman over here), her face was dark and dirty, her clothes were slightly dishevelled, and she had a wild-eyed look on her face, that went with a wicked-looking and scary kind of smile.

While we were visiting with her family she was relatively calm, and seemed to like the attention she was receiving, but when we went to leave she decided she would follow us out the door, and she was soon running out of control. At the end of that episode she was rolling in the dust and dirt, trying to escape her would-be captors. It was heart-breaking, and the image stayed with me.

All the rest of that month, and into January, I was praying/thinking about Hawa’u, saying something like, “O Lord, what in the world are we going to do? How can we help this girl?” I really had no idea what was wrong or how to help, but I kept on praying that an answer would come.

Finally, in January we were to go on a ‘mandatory retreat’ in Bamenda to meet with other missionaries there. (I put it in quotations like that because at the time I was chafing at the bit – being made to go on a ‘retreat’ when we had only just arrived!). Down in Bamenda we met lots of great folks, but Hawa’u would not leave my mind, and I kept pestering God about her. Then one afternoon, during one of the sessions, one young woman named Mary stood up and let the rest of us know that she and her husband were both doctors specializing in mental health and BOOM – I knew I had my answer.

Later that afternoon I introduced myself to her husband, Dr. Bryan, and explained the situation to him. He was interested and compassionate, but the timing of my next trip up north was a little too quick for him to accompany us (I was leaving the next week). He did say he might be able to diagnose the girl over the phone, if we were able to talk to the family there, so I latched onto that.

Our friend Suleymanu and I drove the two-day, 15-hour journey to Hawa’u’s village the next week, and we met with Hawa’u and her family once again. This time she was morose and mostly unresponsive, and the family looked almost as depressed! With her mother and father, we reached Dr. Bryan on the phone, and he began asking them questions about their daughter’s behaviour: he would ask me, I would ask Suleymanu, Suleymanu would ask them, and then back up the train again.

Given that this was way out in the bush, where Hawa’u would not be receiving any other medical attention, this was excellent treatment for her, and we got a good, comprehensive picture of her condition. From the information gathered, Dr. Bryan was able to give a diagnosis and (after ascertaining that the family could afford and sustain them) prescribe medication for her.

So far so good, but getting mental health medicine turned out to be not the easiest thing. They were not available at the nearest government hospital, nor at the pharmacies where it was. Back in Banyo, however, our CBC hospital proved to have what was needed, so Suleymanu and I, with the help of the mission doctor there, managed to buy the meds and send them off with a taxi driver (7 hours drive away at this point). Then we prayed and waited.

The drugs would take about two months to show a difference, we had been told, so the next couple of months were really a case of “Be still and know that I am Lord” trusting that God knew what he was doing when he put us in contact with Drs. Bryan and Mary.

I am not the most patient type, so after a while I would pester Suleymanu to call up and see how Hawa’u was doing, and eventually we were told that she was talking to people, she was happy and peaceful, and doing the things she and they wanted her to do (it used to be, for instance, that in the morning they would send her to fetch water, and she would spend the whole of day down by the river).

I could hardly believe it, and was counting the days until we could go up and see her again. This time, though, we wanted to go one better and actually take Dr. Bryan with us. He also was wanting to go, since he was anxious to see his patient in person, and see how she was doing.

So – to make a long story a little bit shorter – we arranged to travel north during our semester break. Dr. Bryan’s hospital allowed him to take the time off (not an easy thing), and we made a very quick trip (3 days’ travel, with 1 full day in the village) up.

The doctor was making his rounds with Suleymanu, seeing a lot of people with what might be called general health issues (saving one man’s life in the process, but that is another story). At one point I lost them, and decided to go to Hawa’u’s compound and wait for them there. I was welcomed in and sat chatting with four women there (my Fulfulde is not real great, but it is enough to do that so far). While I was sitting there I took a closer look at the young woman sitting near the door – she looked familiar, but I wasn’t sure.

“Are you Hawa’u?” I asked her. She smiled and nodded. I could hardly believe my eyes. Her hair was plaited and covered, her face was clean and shiny, she was well-dressed, had a nice (not scary) big smile on her face, and just looked like a bright, happy 15-year old. The change was truly incredible, and I praised God for the difference.

Given the culture and context, I am told that a very specific diagnosis is not easy to come by, but Hawa’u’ condition places her on the schizophrenia spectrum. When the doctor came he began to talk with her, and she responded shyly but fully rationally. As far as I could tell, the change was complete.

But the story is not quite over . . .

Later that afternoon we saw another young woman, 23 years old this time, who was in much the same condition Hawa’u had been in. Two years before Salamatu had begun shouting at the things and people around, and one year after that she stopped talking altogether. She had been mute all that time and now we were sitting before her. This time Dr. Bryan could cut out one of the middle-men (me), and ask his questions to the family personally. They did not think Salamatu would take oral drugs, so he injected her with a medication (please know that though I am not reporting it here, he gave advice concerning possible side effects, and all the other things a responsible doctor will do), telling them it would take three days to see any change in her.

The three days were hardest on me, as we had to travel down south the next day, and I was on pins and needles waiting. I will not delay you now though – the folks up there tell us she is now talking, taking care of her children and herself, doing all the things she might normally do, and is very happy with the changes she is experiencing. They are calling it a miracle, and, knowing the various ways that God is able to work, I agree with them.

Since then I have talked to friends in Nigeria who tell me there are more cases like Hawa’u’s and Salamatu’s over there, so I am hopeful we will be able to do some good there as well as time permits and God wills. Dr. Bryan was not able to immediately help everyone he saw, but he certainly helped these two young women – blessing them, their families, and their communities, and I am praying he and his wife will be able and willing to continue the work. Please join me.

Dear Mr. Prime Minister

Greetings to you and your family from one of your citizens now living in Cameroon, West Africa. Given the potential dangers of international travel these days, I trust you will be safely back in Canada by the time you read this.

I have been following your progress just a little since you have been touring India, and an internet news clip from your time there caught my eye. Trudeau family in IndiaI applaud your motivation in wearing the designer clothes (i.e. to raise the status of women internationally), and your attempt to reach out to many peoples while there . . . but if I may be so bold, I would like to give you some caution on those fronts as well, and perhaps an invitation of sorts.

Canada, as we all know, is a pluralist, secular nation, where the separation between religion and state is an accepted axiom. (Speaking as a Christian of the Baptist persuasion, I write this with some sense of pride, since many of my Baptist forebears were persecuted for the way they believed they should practise their religion, and they were in the forefront of advocating for the division which we now enjoy.) What this means is that Canadian prime ministers do not usually need to discuss their personal religious beliefs in public. This has both positive and negative implications, but it does tend to ensure that no one religious group may feel entitled over against any other.

On your recent trip, however – and indeed throughout your political career – you seem to be seeking for a sense of acceptance based on your ability to join together with peoples of all religious beliefs. While this is perhaps laudable, you need to know that for people who sincerely and deeply hold the beliefs that you are wearing on your sleeve (as it were), you do not always represent yourself or our country in the best possible light. A Muslim and a Christian both know (for instance) that you cannot legitimately “pray” in a mosque one Friday, and the next Sunday “pray” in a church. If you do, you look like a spiritual dilettante, who does not know very much about either. (To be sure, some folks may be happy that you have ‘identified’ with them in the short run, but over time you will appear disingenuous and opportunistic.)

My caution is that your mixing of politics and religion will send the wrong signals to very many state leaders who lead religious nations, and who happen to be truly religious themselves (not to mention, many of your own Canadian citizens).

My advice, and invitation, on the other hand, is if you wish to genuinely follow a religious path, and if you are seeking to know which path is the ‘true’ one, then you should seriously pursue that journey (though, probably not when you are in the public eye). I would recommend beginning with the claims of Jesus Christ (admittedly, I am biased); I am sure there are some good, discrete followers of Jesus there in Ottawa who would be happy to instruct you in “the Way,” and allow you to weigh his claim to be “the way, the truth, and the life” for yourself.

Meanwhile, as I am instructed to do, I will continue to pray for you, and for the peace of our nation. Thanks for serving. God bless.

Min Fiji

Some things in language come easier than others, just because of the recognition factor. Fiji, in F*lfulde, is the past tense for “play,” so min fiji means, “we have played.” This is relatively easy for us to recall, because Fiji, the place, is where people go to play (more or less).

So, we have been playing around a bit here. Last semester I joined the Masters Football (i.e. soccer) Team. At first I thought it was “Masters” as in “old guys,” but I was mistaken. There are a couple of us old guys on the team, but it is actually the Masters’ level students here at the seminary.IMG_8144

We had a practise on Monday to shake the dust off from our holiday break. We (that is, those of us who were on time) began at 4 pm with a run around the trapezoid-shaped field. For me this was good, because it allowed me to get used to the field again, remembering to watch out for the little hillocks here and there. It rained a week or so ago, giving us some respite from the dust, so the field was not too bad that way. This little practise field actually has tufts of grass all around it – it makes it harder to run, or pass, or kick, or do anything creative with the ball, but it does help keep the dust down.

We had more guys out than we needed, enough for two teams and to spare, in fact, with guys on the sidelines clambering to play, but our captain/coach was strict – our team was here to practise, and the rest would have to work around that.

The practise turned out to be one long scrimmage, with all the kinks getting out swiftly. Mostly the game is kick and chase, since passing plays are very difficult to execute, and when they do happen everyone is pretty impressed. At the practise game we got toasted, 5-1, but we did not have our regular goal-keeper, so we were not too worried.IMG_8151

Wednesday night was game night, and – wouldn’t you know it – I was late! (Had to wait for another missionary who was coming to get some bread!) So, I sat off the first half and sort of watched my team get out to a one-goal lead. I say “sort of” because, while the regular playing field has some advantages over the practise field, lack of dust is not one of them. The dust there is an inch deep in places, and just walking raises a Pig-Pen-like cloud. When the ball got into a crowd of players, from the sidelines you could see nothing from the waist down.

Finally, I got into the game at half time, but five minutes later received a yellow card from the ref for an illegal substitution. He stalked over, stuck out hi chest, and waved the yellow card in my face – just like you see in the FIFA games on TV.  Then he did the same thing to three others from my team  – we had all forgot to tell him we were subbing on. I thought four yellows was a tad excessive, but then discovered that each yellow card carried with it a CFA 500 fine (about $1); naturally it all made sense :-/

There was another stoppage in play about ten minutes later when a huge white bull with a mind of his own strolled onto the field, followed by some poor guy on a rope. The bull just wanted to join his fellow cows on the far corner, so we all scattered while he made his dignified way there.IMG_8141

I played okay for the half – avoiding potholes, scuffles, getting mouthfuls of dirt, and so on – but was glad I did not play the whole game, because Monday’s practise just about did me in for the week. I made several good heading plays, being careful not to get concussed, and just tried to keep close to my mark. During practise they were careful with how they treated the old white guy, but on game day all bets are off, but I can still usually give as good as I get. Sadly, we all just kissed our sisters that game, winding up with a 1-1 draw.

Later that night we were hard at it with language learning once more, but still min fiji. This time the game was charades, trying to say in F*lfulde what we figured the other person was doing. Now THAT was funny. Ah well – all in a day’s fiji.

Suffering the Doldrums

There are regions on the ocean as you near the equator where the weather can easily turn from squalls to a lasting calm which, for sailors, might be more frustrating than anything else, because it means they are going nowhere fast.  These regions are known as the doldrums (there is a great illustration of the doldrums in the film, Master and Commander). The name has entered into the language of everyday life to signify a period of time where not too much happens, where one might become bored and listless with the routine.

We might be in that period (or, more probably, one of those periods) here in Cameroon. Sonya is teaching in the Primary School several days a week, and then again in the Women’s department, trying to get struggling students caught up with their peers. I am struggling myself to keep at least one or two steps ahead of my own students in the area of Baptist History and Distinctives, along with Old Testament studies.IMG_8126

We are also spending several hours each day poring over little homemade cut-outs with pictures of various actions that we can do, places to do the actions, little clock faces that tell us whether we are doing it in the past, present, or future, and so on (the picture is of Sonya ronda -ing a defter/book on her head as part of our lesson). All of this is to help us in our language learning, as we seek to learn F*lfulde from our F*lbe language helper. (I keep saying we ought to just be praying for the gift of tongues, but for some reason Sonya does not think that is terribly funny.)

None of this is particularly exciting. When we invite individuals to come from our supporting churches to see what and how we are doing, and to check out the ministry, those things are not really what we will want them to experience.

But – the doldrums, at least for a time, are necessary to get to where you wish to go. In the relative calm that is Ndu right now, we have time to focus on the things that simply take time and concentration – to pore over, to memorize, to study, to repeat ad infinitum, ad nauseum (or so it can seem).

So, we must suffer the doldrums – to be patient as we go through them, and endure what must be done (the F*lbe would say it requires munyal). Let me hasten to say that in all of this Sonya and I are neither bored nor listless; it is all interesting stuff, and we are thoroughly engaged – it is just not the stuff that makes exciting reading when you write about it to the folks back home. (I was reading an article the other day about how “boredom” is a product of our modern age, and how it is moral dilemma – since to be bored with something means you have made a moral decision about the topic’ relevance to you and your life, and so on. Fascinating stuff.)IMG_8127

We are happy that it has been relatively calm on the seminary compound, so we have time to go through the doldrums here. It allows Sonya’s Kids’ library program (pictured above) to go forward. I am sure it will not always be like this, but your prayers for the peace of our little town, and the country at large, are appreciated. Thanks so much for your partnership with us here.

Oiling Prayer

Throughout the Baptist Convention in which we work I have been told that the use of oil for prayer is prohibited for several pretty good reasons. The first is its connection with traditional practises, which the church does not wish to encourage. The second is the presence of hucksters and false prophet who make a practise of cheating people by selling them oil, which they claim has all kind of magical properties. The abuse of anything good is really only restricted by the imagination of the turkey willing to abuse it.

In my own practise, however, both in Africa and back in Canada, I have made the decision to use oil when I pray for healing for a few reasons. First, it is scriptural – we are told to do it (see James 5.14-15) – and no amount of abuse ought to make us throw a good baby out along with dirty bathwater.

Second, I have found that the process of anointing with oil underscores for me and those with me the seriousness of what we are doing when we pray for healing. It is possible for prayer for healing (or anything else) to be a kind of ‘throw-away’ event, something of which we may not expect anything to come. But if we really believe in our God, that he is not only kind and compassionate, but also strong and powerful, then we should be expecting him to act each time we come to him with a petition. The act of anointing with oil, for me, helps to pray with a higher level of expectation.

I fully understand our Baptist Convention’s reticence in this area, though. I have seen and heard the frauds sell their holy water and oils, along with the outrageous claims that go with them (e.g., “bury this under your threshold and when you go out you will not contract AIDs, or any other STD; you will get that job, that woman; you will be healed of that cancer,” and so on). So I have stopped carrying my own oil but always use some that is lying around the compound where we are. And I always instruct my translator (lately, my friend Suleimanu) to explain to the people that what we are doing is in obedience to the word of God, and that there is no magic in either the oil or the one paying, but there is power in God to heal.

The third reason I use oil is that it tends to heighten the expectations/faith of the people around me that God will do something through this process. Sometimes I feel that I do not “step out of the boat” enough to really see God at work. In praying for healing, anointing with oil, and offering the explanation that we do, we are putting God’s reputation on the line. Since he is the one who does the actual healing, if nothing happens it will be his business, not mine. This again heightens my expectation that God will work on our behalf – but it must begin with me doing what it is my part to do.

These days the people for whom we pray are very often very poor, with limited access to medical facilities and resources – by which I mean, the resources are often around but at a distance, both economically and geographically (which, again, means at an economic distance). After praying we will also often give some small funds to help people be transported to clinics, or to purchase the drugs needed and so on. We do not pray to the exclusion of giving other kinds of medical aid.

One final thing I will say is that we have seen times when no healing has been forthcoming in response to prayer (I have in mind one young girl up north who is suffering from some sort of psychological disorder or possession), much like Paul speaks of Trophimus (see 2 Tim 4.20). On the other hand, we have also seen God do some wondrous things which, as my old youth pastor used to say, we would not have seen had we not prayed.

Merry Christmas!

It is time to wish everyone a Merry Christmas!

We have just returned from a twelve-day trip up north where we visited about six believing Fulbe communities, ranging in size from just a few families, to whole villages. Our purpose there was several-fold: we wanted to reacquaint ourselves with the people there, and them with us (or, in Sonya’s case, to introduce her for the first time); to inspect their living situation; to teach, encourage, and build up; to pray for the people; and to see what practical assistance could be rendered.IMG_8039

A typical day was one where we woke up in our grass-roofed hut, ate a hearty breakfast of rice with a cabbage sauce, and then began visiting in people’s compounds. We did this from 8 am until 2 pm, walking from one family unit to another; seeing how people lived; anointing the sick with oil and praying for them, sometimes giving money so people could go to the hospital; giving advice where that was needed. At the end of all that one day our friend Suleymanu had to remind us of Jesus’ words to cast our burdens upon him (Matthew 11.28-30), because it would be easy to be overwhelmed by it all. In fact, I will not share everything we heard here, for fear that you too might be overburdened.

The most touching thing came about the 7th or 8th day. When we went to leave one small community where we had found much need, several of the women climbed into our Helix, bearing flour and beans. They were taking them to a family whose head had been stricken with epilepsy, and were going to share what they had with them. I was reminded of Paul’s words: “In the midst of a very severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity” (2 Cor 8.2). Here is the Christmas spirit at work.IMG_8036

Some of the communities are doing very well. They have good, strong leaders who are working together to improve not just their faith but their people’s living situations. In other places the leadership is not as strong, and both faith and people struggle. In one place I spoke on “God’s Will for Communities,” simply listing many of the ways God’s people have organized themselves through the biblical story, plus giving them illustrations from what some other communities are doing. As Suleymanu says, in some places they do not need material assistance so much as practical instruction on how to live.

These Fulbe are a people in transition – from being cattle herders they are settling down as farmers, when they have never done that before. They are like cowboys of the Old West who are trying to bring their women and children into the new world. In some cases they have failed, and have fallen back into Islam, and all that goes with that. The stronger Christian leaders among them are seeking to see that does not happen to any more of them. It is difficult work, but they know what is at stake and are determined. They have tasted the heavenly gift, have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age, and do not wish any to fall back (cf. Heb 6.4-5).

Part of our mission is to help them in this task. Seeing these folks once more, experiencing their gracious hospitality, talking with them in the dim light of their lanterns, reminded me of how worthwhile the mission is. Thanks so much for partnering with us in it. I will do my best to write more on this in the days to come.

Travel Mercies

I had my first Fulbe dream a couple of mornings ago. I dreamed I was with the Wakili and about a dozen or so other folks that I know. We were spread out and trekking along a hillside all heading in the same direction across it. I don’t remember too much more about that part of it, except that I felt happy and privileged to be a part of it – even as I knew it was just a dream.

I have travelled a good bit with the Fulbe by now – even trekking for short distances at times. One thing I have learned from our time in Nigeria is the necessity of praying for God’s help and protection while on the road. Crossing the Donga, 2

I was surprised by it at first. Someone would be driving from one city to the next, or even just one village to the next, and special mention would be made in our prayer meetings that we needed to pray that the journey would be safe and free from harm. This struck me as being excessively spiritual for the first little while – until I began to hear about the accidents on the road.

At this point I have several friends who have died in vehicles on the roads there, and more who have been in accidents. Very few wear their seat belts; fewer still wear helmets on the motorcycles; there is no driving training (a driver’s license is not earned but bought); the roads are generally poor; there are few speed limits posted; and so on.

Of course, as I contemplate what has gone on here in North America, with the most recent tragedies affecting so many innocent victims and their families, I cannot help but think that there are no truly safe places in the world. The best place to be is where we believe we can do the most good, and seek to glorify God there.

All this is on my mind because we are (at the time of this writing) 48 hours away from our own long journey, taking us from Edmonton, Alberta, and our family and friendsIMG_7700 here to Ndu, Cameroon, to new family and friends (some we already know, others I hope to meet soon). It will take about 26 hours, in the air and the airports, before we land in Douala. We’ll reach there on Friday afternoon and drive to Bamenda the next day. There we’ll meet with the Hohns, the Grobs, and the rest of the missionaries there, getting acclimatized for a few days before heading off – finally – to Ndu and our new home.

So we covet your payers during this time of travel and transition. Most of the packing process is done (though I am sure we will find more things to do and take care of in the next day or so), so we are just looking forward to the journey now. Thanks for your partnership along the way. We cannot make it without you. God bless.

Friends with Jesus(?)

Here is a question for you. If you can be God’s, or Jesus’, friend, can he also be your friend? And if you are his friend, and maybe he is your friend, what kind of friendship would that be?

I ask the questions from a pastoral concern (I am a recovering pastor now, not having preached for a couple of weeks, so I am in some kind of withdrawal here). My sense is that too many Christians have conceived of a friendship with God/Jesus that looks like the relationship they have with their BFF, instead of the Almighty God – and this has damaged their Christian walk. Instead of being focussed on obedience and holiness, their concern more often looks like being comfortable and feeling good (which means that things like suffering and sacrifice all too often fly out the window).jesus-thumbs-up21

Consider this passage from John 15, where Jesus is talking to his disciples during the time of his last supper with them.  “My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command.”

This is not your normal definition of ‘friendship.’ If I had a ‘friend’ who insisted that we remain on speaking terms only as long as I did what he or she said, I would soon have one fewer friend. Yet for his friends Jesus commands obedience, and for my part I suffer Jesus saying that to me, and seek to remain his friend. I do this because I recognize that he is my Lord, and not (only) my friend.

That leads to my other question – if we can be Jesus’ friends, based on our obedience, can he also be our friend? My own feelings on this are ambivalent.

Think of the passages where Jesus is said to be the friend of sinners. Here is the whole quote: “The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’ But wisdom is proved right by her deeds.”

Jesus does not deny that he is a friend to sinners, but he does not deny that he is a glutton and a drunkard either. It is as though the accusations are so fantastically false they do not deserve to be answered. We know the latter charge is untrue, but what of the former?

Abraham was said to be the ‘friend of God’ (see 2 Chronicles 20.7), but God was never said to be his friend. Their relationship was what one scholar has called ‘asymmetrical’ – that is, it is uneven, unbalanced. God cannot be a friend to Abraham in the same way Abraham can be a friend to him. I would contend that our relationship with God/Jesus must be seen the same way.

Think of Jesus’ reply to those who said that his biological family was waiting for him: “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” Pointing to his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” (Matthew 12.48-50) Again, a proper relationship with Jesus is based on obedience to God’s commands.

Jesus is Lord, and my relationship with him cannot/should not look like my relationship with any of my other friends. So, while I may speak of Jesus as ‘my friend’ in at least one sense (e.g. he has helped me in times of trouble), I need to work to ensure I do not imagine that friendship is something it cannot be.

It is wonderful to feel close to God the Father through our relationship with Jesus and the Holy Spirit. I believe it is God’s desire and purpose that we be on intimate terms with him – all he has done through the ages has been to accomplish this end. But if we forget the basis upon which our relationship is built – our proper response to God’s action in Christ – then we are building on a foundation of sand and living a lie. Let us be  better than that. Let us be good and true friends of Jesus.

Great-Grandpa’s Church

A 20 year building vision – that’s what they had.

Sometime around 1905 someone among the parishioners at Sacred Heart Parish in Lebret, Saskatchewan, had an idea to build a stone church. 20170827_141722They had a wooden chapel already, but they felt something more enduring was needed. (Their instincts were good – the historic wooden chapel was burned by the Ku Klux Klan.)

My great-grandfather, Napoleon Pilon, was a part of that church. He was a farmer in the region, one of many staunch Roman Catholic believers there. The farmers were an integral part of the vision because for the next twenty years, from 1905 to 1925, they brought field stones from their farms to the building site.

For twenty years that pile of stone grew higher and heavier. Finally, in 1925, the priest of the time, Father Le Coq, looked at it, looked at the men, and said, “Its time.” And they began to build.

With the foundation being laid for twenty years, it took only an extra two to actually erect the building there today – inside dome 38 feet high; ground level to the top of the cross 122 feet high; 145 feet long by 55 to 70 feet wide. 20170827_134228

The building is imposing, and the inside is still beautiful and preserved pretty much in its original state – complete with Tyndall stone, from our old neighbourhood in Manitoba. (An architect has said it would cost something in the neighbourhood of $40,000,000 to build the church today.)

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When I think of it I am impressed by the foresight of the men – and women too, no doubt – who conceived the idea and worked to bring it to fruition during those twenty years of toiling on the soil, digging those big stones out of the ground, hauling them who knows how far. My great-grandfather among them, they were not deterred by the passing of time, or the seeming lack of progress, or the worshiping in a place that wasn’t yet their spiritual home.

I learned all of this from our visit to Balcarres, when we took a small detour to Lebret so I could check out the cemetery where some of my family are buried (including Great-Grandpa, and Thomas Kavanagh, the first white homesteader and grain farmer in Saskatchewan, and a great-something uncle of mine).20170827_130757 The church was closed when we arrived (they had celebrated mass earlier in the day), but there was a sign that told us to call “Bruno” if we wanted a tour.

Bruno turned out to be a marvelous tour guide and raconteur, and we enjoyed listening to him tell the story of the Qu’Appelle Valley, the town of Lebret, and the church. My favorite part was when he was relating the story of the building of the church, and Bruno quoted the words uttered by the priest, “Men – its time.”

A call to arms, a call to worship, a call to work.  In the fullness of time. Twenty years in the making.