Memorial Stones

These stones are to be a memorial to the people of Israel forever- Joshua 4:7b

When the children of Israel had crossed over the Jordan River they set up a memorial made of stones. It was to remind them of the way God had led them across the Jordan River to the Promised Land. Joshua told the Israelites that when their children asked them what the stones meant they were to tell them about the difficult journey their ancestors had completed.

In Frankfurt Germany I saw stones that also serve as a memorial. They are called ‘stumbling stones’ and have been created by a German artist named Gunter Demnig. Outside the last known residences of Holocaust victims, Demnig replaces some of the regular sidewalk bricks with gold stones engraved with the names of the people who once lived there.  Demnig hopes as pedestrians walk along the sidewalk they will ‘stumble’ over the gold plated stones, look down, read the Holocaust victim’s names and remember the people who died so tragically. One set of five stones I saw in Frankfurt was at the site of the 1940’s residence of the Zuntz family who died in Auschwitz. Two of the sons escaped and live in Israel. They came to Frankfurt to attend the installation of the gold stumbling stones outside their former family home.  Demnig began this project on his own, but now many private donors and government agencies are assisting him and you can find his memorial stumbling stones in many European cities.

It is important to remember both positive and negative events in the history of nations, families and individuals, to learn from them and pass those lessons on to future generations.


God’s Good Lightning

His lightning lights up the world- Psalm 97: 4

On the evening of Sunday, September 13, 2009 we had an unforgettable lightning storm in Hong Kong.  The weather observatory reported later that 13,000 strikes of lightning had animated the sky in a two -hour period. I was in church at the time and the pastor stopped speaking. The congregation sat and marveled at the amazing display as God illuminated the world in brilliant bursts of electric light.

Although we tend to think of lightning as a negative thing, that night it was something beautiful. We didn’t dread each strike but looked forward to it, ready to be awed once again at its power and radiance. I’ve learned there are positively and negatively charged lightning strikes. Positive ones are ten times more powerful than negative ones. I’ve also discovered there are more than a dozen different kinds of lightning.

We live in a world of negativity. People, and the media in particular, tend to look on the dark side of things and project pessimism about the future. Those of us who believe in God and follow Jesus Christ have a powerful message of positive hope that we can use to ‘light up’ our negative world in much the same way as the psalmist says God’s lightning lights up the world. Just like there are many different kinds of lightning so each of us has been given different abilities we can use to light up the world in our own unique way.

Respond: God I want to use my gifts and talents to light up the world with your hope. Illuminate me so I can be a positive force wherever there is negativity.

Note: The photo below is by David Thompson. It was taken September 13, 2009 in Hong Kong and won an award from National Geographic. 

St. Paul and Galileo

I have fought the good fight…………I have kept the faith.

2 Timothy 4: 7

Paul persisted in his ministry even though his public teaching and healing often got him into trouble. He wrote 2 Timothy while under house arrest for creating a civil disturbance. Rembrandt’s painting Apostle Paul in Prison illustrates the scene. Paul, an old man with a thinning white beard, receding hairline, bulky brown layers of clothing and a wrinkled face sits on his bed.  Propped against the blankets is a sheathed sword, a symbol of his days as a persecutor of Christians. Piled on the mattress are a bulging portfolio of correspondence and a worn suitcase, reminders of Paul’s prolific letter writing and widespread travels. Paul has one sandal off and one on, perhaps indicating he has one foot firmly planted in this world but is ready to step into the next. Rembrandt creates a cold, dark room but the warm sun shines in through the window lighting up Paul’s face. He looks serene and thoughtful. Paul writes in a thick notebook he holds on his lap. One can almost imagine he is penning the words…. “ I have fought the good fight….I have kept the faith.”

I saw the residence in Florence Italy where the scientist Galileo lived the last years of his life under house arrest just as Paul was in Rome. Galileo was convicted of heresy for insisting the earth revolved around the sun. Grieving the recent death of his beloved daughter, he grew blind and died a prisoner in his own home, watched constantly by guards. He refused however to give in to those who wanted him to refute what he knew to be true. Galileo ‘fought the good fight- he kept the faith.’

God I want to live my life in such a way that each and every day I fight the good fight and keep the faith.

Canada Geese- Lessons Learned

God sets out the entire creation as a science classroom, using birds……….. to teach wisdom. Job 35:9 (The Message)

On my early morning walks in Ottawa along the city’s Rideau River I spotted many Canada geese that had come up on the grassy shore to spend the night. Canada geese are beautiful birds.  I used to teach a science unit about them to my elementary school students and I learned many things about these elegant looking birds.

Canada geese mate for life and are monogamous. They have a close family bond. Young remain with their parents for a full year and both mother and father take equal responsibility for nest building and child care. Together the pair teaches, guards, and feeds their youngsters until they are ready to fly off on their own.

Canada geese are great communicators. They have a large repertoire of vocalizations each with different meanings.  Some scientists believe they have also developed a whole range of non-verbal actions and signs to use for effective communication.

Canada geese protect one another. I read an account of a Canada Goose who attacked a hunter on a horse after the marksman had shot his mate. The angry goose swooped down on the unsuspecting fellow and knocked him out of his saddle to the ground.

Canada geese fly in a V formation to help their fellow flyers. As each bird flaps its wings it creates an uplift for the bird behind it. When the goose leading the formation is tired it rotates back into the V and another goose flies up to the point and becomes the leader. Geese in the back of the formation honk to encourage those in front to maintain their speed.           When a goose gets sick, or wounded, two other geese will drop out of the formation and follow it to provide help and protection. They will stay with the ailing goose till it can fly again or it dies.

Just as Job 35:9 says, the birds God created can teach us many valuable lessons about how to live wisely. The Canada Goose is an excellent role model when it comes to living according to Biblical principles.

God make me a keen observer of your creation. May I see the life lessons you have provided in the living things with whom I share the planet. 

A Good Night’s Sleep

Thereupon I awoke and looked, and my sleep was pleasant to me.  Jeremiah 31:26

A good night’s sleep is surely one of life’s greatest pleasures. I spent a week in Sabah, Malaysia on the island of Borneo. Sabah is described in brochures as being “a paradise here on earth” One of the reasons I’d have to agree with that statement is because of the wonderful nights of rest I had there. The sound of the waves from the South China Sea washing up on the shore provided a lovely lullaby each evening. In the morning I awakened to the delightful symphony created by the birds and insects of the rainforest. Spending my days hiking, swimming and kayaking made me tired in a good way. Far from the pressures of work and the twenty four hour bustle of the noisy city of Hong Kong my sleep was indeed pleasant.

Jeremiah writes to the Israelites at a time when many of them might have had some trouble sleeping. They may have been plagued by a guilty conscience because of the way they had been living. Nightmares about the Babylonians may have disturbed their peaceful slumber. Worry about their future and that of their children could have caused insomnia. Jeremiah paints a picture of hope for them by telling the people of Judah about a time when their lives will be different. He describes a future in which they too will glimpse a bit of paradise. They will sleep peacefully and awake refreshed.

God, sometimes the problems in my life create such a racket in my head that I can’t sleep. I know that placing my trust in you and my future in your hands will give me the peace of mind I need to have a good night’s rest.

A House of Blessing

…We bless you from the house of the Lord. -Psalm 118:26b

London’s Mennonite House is a place of blessing where visitors are restored and inspired. It was founded in 1953 as a residence for foreign students refused admittance to British university dormitories because of their race. Over the years its mandate has grown and changed. Today London House is the home of Bridge Builders, a conflict resolution and mediation service that has conducted hundreds of seminars and consultations to ease difficult situations in churches, businesses and families. Bridge Builders helps equip pastors and other leaders with conflict resolution skills. London’s vibrant Wood Green Mennonite Church began as a small worship group in the Mennonite House.

My husband and I received a warm welcome from the volunteer hosts when we stayed in a Mennonite House guest room on our visit to London. The lovely treed grounds have a prayer hut and labyrinth for those seeking a place for quiet reflection. There is an extensive library of resources about Anabaptism and peacemaking. Visitors can take advantage of the interesting seminars offered on topics as varied as The Comfort of Quilts, Encounters with Jesus and Subversive Spirituality.

We were in London shortly after the 2005 subway bombings. Mennonite House had prepared a thoughtful reflection on how pacifist Christians could respond by caring for victims, learning more about Islam, praying for the perpetrators, encouraging political change, examining our own actions and looking to God for blessing and strength.

Psalm 118 talks about blessing people from the house of the Lord. London’s Mennonite House is a place where people can find God’s blessing in many different ways.

God open the doors of my heart to warmly welcome your Spirit. May I reach out to others and be a blessing to them.

Sai Wan War Cemetery

He was led like a lamb to the slaughter”- Isaiah 53:7

He rests in God’s beautiful garden, in the sunshine of perfect peace.” Those words are on the tombstone of Private Percy Iles, a 25-year-old soldier from my home province of Manitoba, who lies buried in the Sai Wan War Cemetery in Hong Kong. He died during the Japanese invasion and occupation of the city, which began in December of 1941.

Sai Wan truly is a beautiful garden. It sits high on a quiet scenic hill that slopes gently towards the South China Sea. It is not hard to invoke God’s presence in such a lovely, peaceful place. When I visited it on a balmy morning recently the sun was shining. In the powder blue sky, huge hawks swooped among wispy clouds. Tiny yellow butterflies lit on some of the tombs while friendly gecko lizards flitted over the tops of others. Song birds were chirping in the lush flowering trees.

I walked slowly along the endless rows of stark white granite stones, each representing a soldier who died defending Hong Kong during the Second World War. About a hundred of the 2,000 gravestones mark the final resting places of men from the Winnipeg Grenadiers regiment, my home city. I read the names and inscriptions on each of their markers and realized many were teenagers or in their early 20s, the same age as my own sons. Tears came to my eyes as I thought about the mothers of these boys receiving the news that their children had been killed or captured by the Japanese. In the midst of a cold prairie winter did those grieving women struggle to imagine what it was like in this hot, foreign, far off place where their sons had been sent to die?

Each time I visit Sai Wan I am reminded of the words from Isaiah 53:7, “He was led like a lamb to the slaughter” because that is exactly what happened to the soldiers who died from 1941-1945 during the Japanese invasion and occupation of Hong Kong.

Winston Churchill knew Hong Kong was indefensible against the formidable Japanese military. He decided, however, that holding off the enemy there for as long as possible would show support to China’s Chiang Kai Shek. The Winnipeg Grenadiers had just returned from garrison duty in Jamaica and had no front-line battle experience, yet they were one of the regiments chosen by Prime Minister Mackenzie King to represent Canada in Hong Kong. Along with the Royal Rifles from Quebec City they joined troops from England, India, Scotland, the Netherlands, Singapore and Hong Kong in what was almost sure to be a losing battle. Military equipment which was to accompany the Canadian troops never reached Hong Kong. Intelligence reports about the Asian post which were to have been sent to the Canadian commanding officers somehow ended up in Australia. Unbeknownst to the British, Japanese intelligence officers had infiltrated their ranks in Hong Kong almost a year before and had been gathering information. Thus, Japan was well prepared when they began their assault on Dec. 4 only hours after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Despite their lack of experience and supplies the Allied soldiers fought heroically, holding the city until the 21st when they telegraphed Prime Minister Churchill and asked permission to surrender. He refused and so they fought on until Christmas Day when the Japanese finally captured the city.

Those soldiers who had survived the battle might have wished themselves dead. The Japanese entered military hospitals, raping nurses, shooting doctors and bayoneting the wounded to death. Prisoners were housed in filthy, cramped quarters described as “the foulest imaginable.” They received little food and no medical care. During the four years of the occupation some captured soldiers were even shipped to Japan to work as slave labourers in factories. The many who died as prisoners are buried along with their comrades in the Sai Wan cemetery.

Visiting Sai Wan and remembering what happened in Hong Kong during the Second World War is for me a moving reminder of the futility of war and the need for people of faith the world over to work for peaceful means of resolving conflict. Many of the Manitoba soldiers who died in Hong Kong were from religious families. This is clear as you read the fallen men’s grave markers. You can see how their loved ones were struggling to make sense of what happened. “We cannot Lord thy purpose see” says the tombstone of Private G.A. Rutherford. Many Manitoba families have inscribed spiritual messages on their sons’ gravestones.

“The Lord is my Shepherd.”

“God takes our loved ones from our homes but never from our hearts.”

“He died fighting for God and right.”

“Redeemed by the precious blood of Christ, ever with the Lord.”

“The Lord watch between me and thee when we are absent from each other.”

Although families obviously gained comfort from their faith as they mourned their sons, so did those who grieved for the men and women from other countries and other religions who died defending Hong Kong.

Sai Wan is a curiously ecumenical place. Soldiers from all the nations who fought in Hong Kong lie there together. Although in life the religious differences of these people might have separated them, in death they share a bond that seems to transcend those differences. From the inscriptions on their gravestones you learn that Hindus, Muslims, Catholics, Jews, Anglicans, Sikhs, Buddhists, Dutch Reform, Greek Orthodox, Methodists and Presbyterians are all buried at the Sai Wan cemetery. The soldiers there continue to draw people of different faiths from many places in the world together as they come to pay their respects

Perhaps in their own way the fallen soldiers of Hong Kong are on a mission of peace that transcends their death. Looking over the sea of tombstones at Sai Wan fills the visitor with a fervent desire to do their utmost to prevent such a tragic loss of human life from being repeated. It also gives one a glimmer of hope for the future. If soldiers from so many different religious backgrounds could unite in a common purpose, perhaps in our present day, people of faith can also rise above their differences to save our world and bring it to a place of peace and understanding.

Jesus Wept

Jesus wept.      John 11:35

In the city of Jerusalem I visited the Dominus Flevit Temple. It is also known as the Tear Drop Temple because its roof is shaped like a teardrop. The temple was designed and placed on the Mount of Olives to remind us of Jesus’ tears. The Bible records two times when Jesus cried. Once was at the death of his good friend Lazarus and another was when he was overcome with sorrow because he knew what was going to happen to the people of Jerusalem. The Tear Drop Temple is said to be built on the very spot where Jesus wept for his people.
There are times when we all need a good cry. We may be moved to tears because things aren’t going well in our personal lives or in our work place. Sometimes our tears are a reaction to the loss of someone or something we love or because we’ve lost an opportunity we may never have again. I often cry when I know I have done something wrong and I am feeling terrible about my mistake. My tears are especially abundant when I realize my error or bad behavior has hurt someone else.
We may cry out of sympathy for someone who is experiencing hardship or tragedy. We may cry because we feel helpless and frustrated at our inability to bring about positive change in the life of a person we care about.
Sometimes our tears are bittersweet. We may cry at a child’s wedding or graduation. We are happy for them but at the same time we feel sad that they are growing up, becoming independent and that our relationship with them is changing.
There is nothing wrong with tears. They are not a sign of weakness. Tears are a way to express our emotions, a sign of our humanity and vulnerability. American writer Rita Schiano says “Tears are God’s gift to us. Our holy water. They heal us as they flow.” Jesus knew that. We need to remember it too.

The Sea of Galilee

“You of little faith, why are you so afraid?” Then he got up and rebuked the winds and the waves, and it was completely calm. Matthew 8:26

When I visited Israel I took a boat ride on the Sea of Galilee. It was here that Jesus calmed the storm. He and his disciples set off on the lake after a very busy day of preaching and healing and teaching to get away from the crowds and take a rest. Jesus immediately fell asleep in the boat but was awakened by his disciples who were afraid of the storm. Unlike his disciples Jesus was able to rest despite his hectic schedule that day and all the problems he had dealt with.
Sometimes we are like the disciples. It is hard for us to feel peaceful and calm when there are so many distractions and worries around us, perhaps our work, our family, our finances, our health or our many responsibilities.
The day I was out on the Sea of Galilee, our group leader asked us to deliberately turn our minds away from all our concerns and take some time to just reflect peacefully and calmly on our relationship with God. This wasn’t easy. Although I tried to block it out, I could still hear the sounds of traffic on the highway near the sea. I could hear someone’s i-pod music and the chatty voices of tourists in neighboring boats.
I had to concentrate to focus on more peaceful things like the soothing sound of the waves lapping up on the sides of the boat, the sight of a bird skimming the water and even the beat of my own heart.
If we want to deal constructively and positively with the problems and concerns life sends our way it is important for us to foster an inner peace, a peace that can come when we focus on God and the hope and healing a relationship with God can bring to our lives.
St. Francis of Assisi once said “Before you can proclaim peace with your lips you must be careful to have it even more fully in your heart.

Bearing Fruit

……… I will plant it, in order that it may produce boughs and bear fruit…………… Ezekiel 17: 23

I toured Rideau Hall, home of  Canada’s Governor General in Ottawa. Dignitaries on official visits have planted trees in the surrounding park. Their names are recorded on brass markers at the base of each tree trunk. Many trees have grown large and their boughs stretch wide and high. The people who planted these trees are far from perfect, but God has used them to bear fruit with their lives and make a positive difference in the world.

I saw a sugar maple planted by Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s first democratically elected president. This  anti- apartheid activist spent twenty- seven years in prison and became a worldwide symbol of hope to those fighting for freedom and equality.

Diana, Princess of Wales has a tree in the Rideau Hall Park. This popular British royal used her notoriety to draw the attention of the world to the needs of people with AIDS and the victims of land mines.

John F. Kennedy planted a flourishing red oak tree. Kennedy inspired the establishment of the United States Peace Corps. The organization has sent 200,000 volunteers to 140 countries to help those in need.

There’s a tree planted by  Kofi Annan of Ghana, the former Secretary General of the United Nations.  He won the Nobel Prize for his efforts to bring peace to conflicts in Iraq, Yugoslavia, Nigeria, Libya, East Timor and the Middle East.

The people who have planted trees at Rideau Hall are examples of the process described in Ezekiel 17. The growth of a tree is used as a symbol to describe how God takes the lives of ‘tender’ imperfect people to become trees that ‘bear fruit’ and  bring hope to many.

God I know you don’t only use celebrities and world leaders to bear your fruit in the world. You can use me too. Help me see ways I can ‘bear fruit’ today.

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