Wednesday, 17 August 2016

Beyond my wildest expectations

Late night fun in Douglas, MA
They say God doesn't give you more than you can handle. Every time I felt maxed out, he piled it on even more. Stretching me beyond my wildest dreams and expectations.
I can do it, I thought. Six days, plus or minus 50 teens, volunteer work. No problem. It will be over before I know it. SERVE. Douglas, Massachusetts. I was ready. Bring it on. I had something to prove.

Last Saturday, I rolled out of Burlington with 15 young people and 2 parent leaders. I had 8 hours of driving ahead of me to Douglas, MA, so I had plenty of time to mentally prepare. I had spent several evenings studying the devotional material that I would have to lead my small group with, and even downloaded the suggested study guide. I was prepared. Or, at least, I was prepared to fake it really well if I had to. I was going to a week long event with 50 random teenagers from Southern Ontario and approximately 15 youth from the greater Boston area. I had this. Game on.

Sure. I had some expectations. I wanted to know what it meant to have a relationship with Jesus. The prelude to the study guide told me we were going to discover that very thing. Don't get me wrong - I have known Jesus as my Lord and Saviour for some time now. But, truthfully, I really didn't know what it was to have Jesus in my heart. I didn't know what it felt like to have an ache in my heart for Jesus. We were going to study the book of Mark. You know...Mark...the guy who didn't include the birth of Jesus, but jumps right to his hairy and locust-eating cousin John the Baptist. Yeah. That Mark.

What I didn't realize is the first verse of Genesis and the first verse of Mark are very similar - they are both about new beginnings. Genesis 1:1 describes the beginning of creation. Mark 1:1 describes the beginning of God's redemption of creation through Jesus. Mark dramatically describes Jesus' break through into humanity and his simultaneous assault on manmade laws and godless institutions, while at the same time, offering love and hope to a motley crew of twelve and massive crowds eager to listen to him. Through Mark's account of Jesus' teaching and ministry of healing, we came to learn how Jesus' life was an example of how we should live and what we should strive for. It was about our new beginning when we surrender all to him.

We were challenged to think of those things that occupy our thoughts for a majority of time. We wrestled with what it means to follow Jesus, to take down our false walls of refuge, and welcome the stranger, the homeless, the poor, the anxious, the wealthy, the visible minority, the drug addict, the sex worker, the teen who tries to remain invisible, everyone...every shape, size, colour, social one of Christ's own. And, if we don't, we're no better than the Pharisee shaking his head when Jesus healed a man on the Sabbath. That's right. Hard to hear. But I'm often more Pharisee than Christian. More hypocrite than authentic.

Joel and the Canucks - my team!
I'm seeing Jesus more clearly. I saw him around the camp fire as we sang. He was present in the surprising peacefulness of Boston. He was in the laughter as two cultures learned to love and accept each other. He was in our van when we were singing at the top of our lungs. He held the hands of anxious teens. He was in Noah, Joel, and Ben - guys I may never see again but I know I'll spend eternity with. He was with my three children as I watched them from afar. He kept my wife safe while she stayed home alone. He was our traffic guide, our night watchman, and our storm shelter. He was in the hospitality of our hosts. He was in the smiles of custodians and principals. He was present in our small group - Joel and the Canucks - as we shared our personal stories and trials and triumphs. He was in the friendly 'hellos' of welcoming teens. He was in the 'good byes' and hugs of new friends. And he was in Andrew. My good friend, and brother, Andrew.

Minutes before we left to return home, I walked back to the row of cars, and sat down on a bumper. I cried. Not in sorrowful sobs, but with joyful tears. I thought I came to find Jesus.

I had it all wrong...he found me!

Sunday, 12 June 2016

Crawling off the altar with reckless abandonment

I had one of those moments this morning. One of those 'aha' moments. One of those times when you say, "Oh, well, if you would have put it that way I would have understood a long time ago."

It's the first few verses in Romans 12 (NLT), where Paul writes, "And so, dear brothers and sisters, I plead with you to give your bodies to God because of all he has done for you. Let them be a living and holy sacrifice--the kind he will find acceptable. This is truly the way to worship him." I've always understood (except not always) what was meant by the instruction. Because of the mercy God has granted me, my life ought to reflect his perfect holiness, perfect love, and perfect justice. You're with me, right? It's a tall command. It's a command that many of us struggle with. I know I do. I'm reminded daily of how I fall short of loving - intentionally loving - others. It's hard...because quite frankly there are a lot of unlovable people in this world. And, each time I fail to live up to this instruction I feel failure and regret.

But this is where my 'aha' moment comes in. This morning, while not at my usual place of worship, the pastor put it this way - "everyday, we keep crawling off the altar." Then it clicked. It's like falling off the proverbial wagon. I slip up. Lots. As much as I lack love, I'm probably just, if not more, as unlovable at times. I'm well intentioned; I want to make changes in my life, but then I hit a bump and I'm thrown off. So it is with being a living sacrifice - by daily sacrificing our lives to Christ we're climbing up the side of the altar and saying, "Here I am, God. Warts and all. Please help me to love and to be loveable. I know I'm going to slip, but I also know that tomorrow morning I'll look up, and I'll see you're face and your outstretched arm. You'll say, "Let me help you up. Take my hand. It's a new day. It's a new dawn. It's a great day to be a living sacrifice."

I want to. I really do. I want to love, be kind, and reflect God's love. But I know I'll manage to crawl off the other side when I think no one's looking at some point during my day. It's just a matter of time. I'll scale down the side of the altar, indulge in some unlovable behaviour, realize I made a bad choice, beat myself up for a while, then finally look up when I can't bear my own self deprecation, and there'll be that familiar outstretched arm.

"Let me help you up," he'll say.

And just like that. I'm looking for a latch that's come undone and a quick way off this pile of rocks.

Sunday, 24 April 2016

For three answered prayers and for four...

My brother Mac from Bangladesh
A month has passed since I started working for International Needs Canada as a Donor Development Officer and the learning curve is no less curved! Have you ever been on a roller coaster that loops several times in a row and then repeats the loops but only in reverse? That's what it feels like having spent 25 or so years in the horticultural field...and when I say 'field' I literally mean 'field'... and then moving to the world of non-profit, no 'jeans allowed', small office environment! To be fair, the staff have been very welcoming, cordial, and patient. Oh, and did I say patient? The more I learn is just an affirmation of how much I really don't know about the world! And the more I learn about my new job, the more I hear God whispering the words from Proverbs 3:5 not "to lean on my own understanding".

I forgot...did I say patient?

So, aside from all the patience rendered my way, God answered one of my prayers in a very dramatic way, which is making my transition 'slightly' easier. Let me explain. I have shared with my colleagues, friends, and family that one of my concerns starting at International Needs Canada was my inexperience and the sense of detachment I feel as it relates to the needs of the developing world. Frankly, I've never experienced wanton hunger, abject poverty, and religious persecution. Sure, I've been hungry when dinner is late, upset that I can't afford to travel abroad, and slightly irritated that Christmas has become so commercial, but...really? My lifestyle is far from being on the top needs list of the United Nations. Nevertheless, part of my job is to effectively relay the needs of the poorest of the poor to those with monetary means here in Canada, and ultimately secure financial support without having stepped foot into a third world nation. And that's what I prayed - that God would help me genuinely appreciate those needs.

It's funny. But I'm usually the last one to see how God answers prayer! It took me a few weeks to figure out that God gave me just what I needed. I was only two weeks on the job and I was assigned to travel through southwestern Ontario with Mac Adhikary, a colleague from Bangladesh, and visit supporters of his ministry. Unbeknownst to me, having Mac sit beside me for hours at a time was an answer to my prayer. Since he was my 'captive' passenger, I was able to listen to Mac's story - and through his story I've come to know one of the most humble, God fearing, witness for Jesus that I've ever met.

Amid our travels and during visits with supporters, I listened to Mac as he shared stories of hope that he and his staff have brought to the orphans and street children of Dhaka, Bangladesh. Mac's gentle demeanor drew his listeners in closely and together we 'wiped the tears, fed the hungry, clothed the naked, bathed the unclean all in the name Jesus Christ. Unwavering in mission, Mac and his team are quite literally the hands and feet of Jesus...and God provided me a 'captive' passenger so I could experience the same and speak of His grace and love as if I've personally walked the streets of Dhaka.

As a further testament to his passion for the children he serves, when Mac was about to leave for the next leg of his journey, he didn't tell me to keep raising funds for his ministry or give me any other advice on development work. He only had this to say to me, "Brother Henry, keep serving our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ and His work will be accomplished." I smiled. God answers our prayers in ways we can't imagine. That was another answer to's not up to me to do it alone.

Thank you Brother Mac. Safe travels.

Until we meet again.

Friday, 25 March 2016

It's Friday. But Sunday's coming.

It's Friday. But Sunday's coming.

These few words have been floating through my mind since I woke up this morning. Good Friday has always felt a little different from all the other days of the year, and this year was no different. Amid all the 'noise' this world offers, we hope for a new beginning...for new life...for the eternal Sunday that will be when Jesus returns.

It's Friday. But Sunday's coming.

While preparing to start my day, I glanced at the news feed on my phone. I was reminded of the brokenness that we all endure on level or another - whether personally, communally, or globally.

Rob Ford.
Jian Ghomeshi.
Ice Storm.
Parkinson's Disease.
Zika Virus.
Food insecurity.

It's Friday. But Sunday's coming.

This morning's service gave me another opportunity to feel Jesus' presence. I had an opportunity to participate in the Lord's Supper - or Holy Communion - in a way I've never done before. I was a 'cup bearer' - meaning I held the cup containing juice, which participants dipped their piece of bread into before eating. While they dipped their bread, I was to say to each guest, "The blood of Christ shed for you."

The blood of Christ shed for you, Wilfred.
The blood of Christ  shed  for you, Rudy.
The blood of Christ shed for you, Harrison.
The blood of Christ shed  for you, Jane.

I would have liked to have added:

It's Friday. But Sunday's coming.

The blood of Christ shed for you, Sonja.
The blood of Christ shed for you, Darlene.
The blood of Christ shed for you, Elliot.
The blood of Christ shed for you, Allan.

It's Friday. But Sunday's coming.

The blood of Christ shed for me.
The blood of Christ shed for you.

Did you hear that faint rumble? No, it's not the ice falling from tree limbs and roof tops, it's the angels preparing to roll the stone away from Jesus' grave.

It's Friday.

Sunday's coming.

Friday, 11 March 2016

Jeremy Scott Vanderlaan - a YES to Life, a YES to Love.

Jeremy Scott Vanderlaan
She sat across from us at the kitchen table - bewildered, scared, and terrified. I still remember how the tears flowed down her face, staining her cheeks. Carrying the weight of an unknown future, my sister in law, Teresa, relayed news from the doctors, all of which we hoped we'd never hear.

First, she was told he'd never walk. Then, she was told her baby boy would never hear or see. There was nothing the doctors could do.

We cried with her...but in an almost unimaginable way she was alone in her tears that day. While her son, Jeremy, laid in the ICU of McMaster Hospital's neo-natal ward clinging to life, her husband and Jeremy's father, Scott, laid on the 4th floor of the same hospital fighting Non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.

Swimming with Dad (Scott Vanderlaan)
So, surrounded by a few family members, Len, my brother-in-law, in a moment of uncertainty and unfamiliarity, asked if he could pray. He prayed for Scott, Teresa, and Jeremy. He prayed for mercy, healing, strength and courage. God heard his prayer that day. Maybe his prayer wasn't answered the way we wanted it, but God answered. He answered with a mighty 'Yes'. He said 'yes' to Scott and 'yes' to Jeremy.

It was more than that, though - it was a 'Yes to Life'... a 'Yes to Love'.

On March 13, my nephew, Jeremy Scott Vanderlaan, will celebrate his 16th birthday! On a day when most teenagers race out of the house to get their driver's license, Jeremy will sit in his chair with his family at his side. Teresa will spoon feed him is cake. Scott will watch with deep compassion and love. And his brothers - I can't forget his devoted brothers: Isaiah and Mason. They will sing 'Happy Birthday' to their big brother, Jeremy.

Jeremy was born very premature on March 13, 2000 and weighed only 2 lbs at birth. Doctors and nurses fought valiantly to save this little life. His survival was a miracle. But Jeremy suffered from oxygen deprivation at birth and lives with a severe form of Cerebral Palsy as a result of injury to his brain. Jeremy's Cerebral Palsy is classified as a Level Five - meaning that he has severe head and body control limitations. He requires extensive use of assisted technology and physical assistance; and is transported in a manual wheelchair. He cannot achieve self-mobility by learning to operate a powered wheelchair.
Hanging out with Mom (Teresa Camera Vanderlaan)
Thankfully, the doctors' prognosis was wrong! Jeremy can see, he can hear, and he can laugh! While Jeremy is fully dependant on others for everything, we have become dependant on him. In his observant silence, and in his infectious laughter, Jeremy blesses our family get-togethers in ways unimagined. His Aunt Denise has developed a unique bond with him that lights up the room when they are together. Singing "Row, row, row your boat" is a favourite activity of his and he laughs with delight as Denise sings the last line "throw your teacher overboard and listen to her scream. AAAAHHHHH." No sooner does he stop laughing and he's asking for more "Row, Row, Row". I have heard Denise sing this song many times, and with each rendition, it seems it's the first time Jeremy has heard it. I have also watched with admiration as Teresa's family cares for him as if he was one of their own children.

Several weeks ago, while celebrating family birthdays together, I asked Teresa if Jeremy would want an ice-cream bar. I never anticipated her response - "I don't know. Try it", she said. Although, I wasn't planning to feed Jeremy myself, I was challenged by her reply. I've spoon fed my own children when they were very young, but have never fed a teenager. So, pretending I knew what I was doing, I started to feed Jeremy some of the ice cream. He loved it, and with his mouth open, he wanted more! Before I knew it, he had finished the dessert. I don't know if he ate more than what landed on my clothes and the floor, but it was a moment I'll never forget. My soon to be sixteen year old nephew allowed me to do something reserved mostly for his mom and dad. He allowed me to participate in his enjoyment of that chocolate covered ice-cream bar!
Fishing with brothers, Mason (left) and Isaiah (right)
Teresa and Scott, Isaiah and Mason, are some of the most blessed people I know. Life and times have been, and can be, difficult for them. Raising two young boys with a teenage son, who requires 'round the clock care, is challenging at the best of times. However, they are blessed with a son who loves them unconditionally, and their love for him knows no bounds. Their family has been given a special gift. Through Jeremy's life, they are able to see beyond the frills and empty promises that our world offers. Jeremy's dependency reflects our own dependency for love, affection, and acceptance from and by those we call family.

Thank you Scott and Teresa. Thank you for being model parents as you care and provide for your family.

On March 13th, it's not about his mom and dad or his brothers. It's about Jeremy. I know when the time comes for the candles to be lit, the birthday song to be sung, I'll look over and see something in his parents' eyes that I've seen a thousand times. It'll be a look of admiration mixed with overflowing love and I'll hear the hear the unspoken words, "Yup, that's my boy."

Happy 16th Birthday, Jeremy!

Now, shove over and save some cake for the rest of us!

(Photo credits: Denise VanderLugt.)

Sunday, 14 February 2016

Home at last

It's neither the drive-to, the walk-in, nor the sit-down that makes it familiar. It isn't the artwork on the wall, the colour of the carpet, or the smell of coffee that reminds me. It's the man up front; and he doesn't have to speak long before I know I'm home again.  It's with these words: "Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ" (Philippians 1:2) that I can breathe easier and silently acknowledge ... ah .... 'Home Sweet Home.' It's awesome! Every Sunday, I have the privilege of  hearing God's greeting! The words are always the same (well mostly), but it's my queue to bow my head in humility - just like I observed my own Dad bowing his head to receive the greeting. To me, bowing my head allows me to silently pray, "God, my father, thank you for your invitation. I'm not worthy to be here...I've sinned against you...but you love me...and have invited me in." It's a "Welcome home. I'm happy you're here" hug ... every week!

There's something very welcoming about coming home. Familiar sights, sounds, and smells gently remind us of the place where we belong. (You can almost hear John Denver's 'Country Roads!') Think about how many songs in all music genres refer to going home as a highlight of Christmas and Thanksgiving celebrations. The mental picture of a home where music softly plays, a fire crackling in the wood stove, the smell of home-made apple pie filling the air, and children running freely throughout the house is very familiar...and comforting. These images create a certain homesickness that most can identify with. And we crave for that void to be filled.

I think that God has placed something else in each of us - something that only he can fill. Some people try to satisfy their itch with 'stuff'; thinking that toys will bring contentment. Others, will try to find satisfaction in 'snuff' i.e. drugs and booze to fill the void. Yet, a third group will try 'smut' - consume pornography - to escape reality. Still, others will overeat, shop, or exercise to excess. I've thought about this often in my own context as I've struggled to find lasting contentment. And, sometimes, I wonder if this constant drive within me is an ache that can only be filled by Jesus. Because, there's a place when that itch vanishes... and it seems to vanish every Sunday morning when I hear God's greeting at 'home'.

Returning home from FLA!
You know what's better than God's greeting? Nothing, actually. But, there's something special about God's blessing that is spoken over us at the end of each service. As the minister speaks, I'll close my eyes, extend my open hands, and symbolically receive God's blessing. And, here's the best part - when the words: "The Lord bless you and keep you; The Lord make His face shine upon you, And be gracious to you; The Lord lift up His countenance upon you, And give you peace" (Numbers 6:24-26) are spoken, I've occasionally caught a glimpse of one of my kids extending their hands, too. And, I know they've come home. Home at last. Thank God, they're home at last.

Sunday, 31 January 2016

Like a bird with a lion's heart we let them go

We have been preparing for this moment for years...we just didn't know it. Every time we dropped them off at a friend's house, a movie, or at the mall, we were setting the stage for the big one. Today, we watched our children pull their suitcases toward an airport's security clearance - together, but apart. Together as brother and sisters; but apart from us, their parents. This is a moment that will be etched in our memory just like the first day we brought our children home from the hospital. Sure, parents of all times have watched their children take flight, but until it's experienced it's a foreign concept.
As parents, we live in tension. We bemoan the fact that time goes so fast. "I can't believe how time flies" is the expression heard around the world, millions of times per day, as each birthday is celebrated. We look at old pictures and home videos and wish we could turn back the hands of time and recapture the days when our children crawled along the floor. But at the same time, we look forward to milestones in our children's lives such as graduations, weddings, and new births. Inwardly, we long for the hugs and kisses our children used to give us. Outwardly, we're training them for life on their own - knowing that their full independence is our goal.
It's an old and often used image of a mother bird pushing her young out of the nest, but it models our lives so closely. During the early days and weeks of  new life, in all types of weather, the mother works night and day, evades predators, protects her nest, and scavenges for morsels of worm and weed to feed her young. And then the day comes - and only she knows - when the time is right for her fledglings to leave home. It must be a bird with a lion's heart that can push her baby out forcing it to fly. If it fails to fly, it will die. So, she has to be sure it's ready for the first flight.
We didn't push our kids out of the house this morning. They were eager to leave! As parents, we've tried to give them the tools for survival and life skills to flourish. Are they fully ready to live alone without us? Probably not. Hopefully, not yet! But they're close. Close enough that we didn't include special notes in their luggage the way we did when they went off to summer camp or a friend's cottage.
God has been good to us. He has graciously given us three beautiful children that are now testing their own wings and are flying solo. For a few days, we'll be empty-nesters. But by God's grace, they'll fly back to us...on a wing and a prayer.
Here's hoping time flies!

Sunday, 3 January 2016

2015 - The Year of "Barb and the Italian Chef"

The year was was just three days ago...and it goes something like this...loosely.

On August something, in their not-so-collective wisdom, my family renamed our family pet. (Actually, I'd like to see the official stats on the success of renaming pets. But I digress.) You see -  our cat, Smartie, began to sneeze in uncontrollable fits. These fits lasted so long that she could not finish her food or even sleep, and she became lethargic and 'un-catlike'. In fact, things like running up the stairs and leaping on to the top of our fridge - a.k.a. her lair lookout - became impossible feats for the four-footed, flea-less feline. Smartie, in her dopey state, wasn't so smart...and one of my kids, whom I will mercifully leave unnamed, decided Smartie was having a mid life crisis and needed a new name! And on one summer day, this child announced unceremoniously, I might add, that Smartie shall be called 'BARB' for she shall come, go, and sneeze as she pleezes! So, in the summer of 2015, Smartie became Barb. Frankly, I haven't heard any complaints from 'Barb' on this matter...except for the occasional litter box 'miss', which is probably more about her than us!

And what about the Italian Chef? Well, didn't you hear? He pasta-way! Yup. That's it. I've got nothing more on this mysterious, mustachioed, Mediterranean maschio. But for a week or so this summer, the same, previously mentioned, unnamed child spoke kindly of this fictional character, and at every opportunity reminded those who would listen of his unfortunate fate! The answer never changed - he always pasta-way!

And then came along Apple, iPhones, and group chats! Just around the same time as Smartie became Barb, and when we would hear of the Italian's demise, a group family chat was formed.  We couldn't just go with 'The Vanderlaan's', or 'HWKAJ', or anything normal. Nope - the same child (who will still go unnamed) decided that our group name shall be 'Barb and The Italian Chef'! And as life has a way of adding humour along the way, the name stuck!

For me - this family chat name is more than an ice breaker or funny story. It's more than that - it's about family. It's what connects me to my wife and children. I'm forever grateful that God has blessed my life with these remarkable, intelligent, beautiful, and funny people...and cat. In 2015, amid some major life changes and trials, God has also awarded me with irreplaceable moments of humour and laughter!

As for Barb - after a few trips to Dr. Albert, she's back to lurking us - enjoying her lavish, lazy lifestyle atop her lair lookout whilst uttering the occasional lewd and lascivious laugh...uh...meow.

Oh, what was that noise?

"I'm coming, Barb!...And what would you like, m'lady?"

A stumble, a tear and a rainbow

Greeted by a surprise rainbow on Mom's birthday! It was at a dressed up gravesite that 40 or 50 people gathered around last Tuesday,...