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Adult non-fiction, Book Reviews

The Gospel Comes With a House Key: an instructive, inspiring, downright intimidating look at Christian hospitality 

by Rosaria Butterfield 2018 / 240 pages

*****

This is a scary book. I have heard of several people putting it down after only reading a chapter or two of it, feeling overwhelmed by Rosaria Butterfield’s seemingly heroic examples of daily hospitality to her numerous neighbors and friends. As Carl Trueman states in his recommendation, “She sets the bar very high - and there is plenty of room here for disagreement on some of the proposals and details.” But fear not! As Trueman goes on to say, “The basic case, that church is to be a community marked by hospitality, is powerfully presented and persuasively argued.” Think of it this way. One of your friends just memorized the entire book of Ephesians. You think that’s admirable, but it sounds like more than you can handle. Yet, there are some verses in Psalm 4 that you want to memorize because they comfort you, so this reminds you to do it already. Or maybe your cousin enthusiastically tells you he is part of a “Read the Bible in 90 Days” group that really helped him see the connections between Scripture portions and helped him improve his Bible-reading habit. But when you hear he was reading one hour each day, that sounds like more than you can do. Yet, his example encourages you to increase the amount you are currently reading. Rosaria Butterfield’s The Gospel Comes With a House Key is about using hospitality to spread the gospel. It is about loving your neighbor as yourself and thus spreading God’s love, peace, and salvation to the dying world that is next to you. It is about viewing where you live as the location where God placed you and figuring out how you can, as the saying goes, “bloom where you are planted.” Whose house is it? Hospitality is similar to the Greek word philoxenia, which means “love of the stranger.” The hospitality Rosaria is encouraging is not about inviting your relatives and fellow church members over for coffee or soup and buns on a Sunday, or taking them a casserole at a difficult time. What Butterfield is talking about is what she calls “radically ordinary hospitality.”

Those who live out radically ordinary hospitality (ROH) see their homes not as theirs at all but as God’s gift to use for the furtherance of his kingdom. They open doors; they seek out the underprivileged. They know that the gospel comes with a house key. They take biblical theology seriously, as well as Christian creeds and confessions and traditions…. Engaging in ROH means we provide the time necessary to build strong relationships with people who think differently than we do as well as build strong relationships from within the family of God.

Cost in time and money But how can we manage this, when we are already so very busy, and finances may be tight? Rosaria gives the answer:

Practicing ROH necessitates building margin time into the day, time where regular routines can be disrupted but not destroyed. This margin stays open for the Lord to fill – to take an older neighbor to the doctor, to babysit on the fly, to make room for a family displaced by a flood or a worldwide refugee crisis. Living out radically ordinary hospitality leaves us with plenty to share because we intentionally live below our means.

In other words, we may need to learn to leave some space and not to schedule every moment of every day, filling it up with things that we desire to do. Those who become parents find that life cannot follow a strict schedule, because children have a way of barfing, bruising themselves, or battling with siblings that is always unscheduled. In the same way that we scaled back our desired goals then, we ought to do it to allow for hospitality. If we truly believe that we should “be there” for others, then we may need to be open to the unusual and unexpected. On the other hand, it is possible as well to set aside a period of time each week in which you reach out to your neighbors. Rosaria and her husband started this by putting a picnic table on their front lawn on Thursday evenings and providing food for whoever wandered by and wanted to join them. This eventually grew into a well-attended and beloved activity for a lot of their neighbors, but it started with one dinner time. If you don’t have a house or a picnic table, why not try to visit a neighbor or invite a coworker to have lunch or dinner with you? As for cost, all of our money comes from the Lord – might He not want you to allocate some of it for the hospitality that He asks you to do? Rosaria writes:

Daily hospitality can be expensive and even inconvenient. It compels us to care more for our church family and neighbors than our personal status in this world. Our monthly grocery bill alone reminds us that what humbles us cannot hurt us, but what puffs up our pride unwaveringly will.

But what if we run into people who have different viewpoints than ours? What kind of example will that be for our children? Here is where we really need to believe that hospitality is something that God calls us to do.

The truly hospitable aren’t embarrassed to keep friendships with people who are different. They don’t buy the world’s bunk about this. They know that there is a difference between acceptance and approval, and they courageously accept and respect people who think differently from them. They don’t worry that others will misinterpret their friendship. Jesus dined with sinners, but he didn’t sin with sinners. Jesus lived in the world, but he didn’t live like the world. This is the Jesus paradox. And it defines those who are willing to suffer with others for the sake of gospel sharing and gospel living, those who care more for integrity than appearances…. the sin that will undo me is my own, not my neighbor’s, no matter how big my neighbor’s sin may appear.

What will I say to them? If you feel like you don't know what to say to a stranger, just remember that people always like to talk about themselves. Get to know them. Ask about their interests and try to find a common ground in gardening, cars, sports, cooking, knitting, reading, or whatever. If they have a difficulty they are enduring, offer to pray for them before you end your visit – just a simple prayer. Be friendly. This isn’t the type of evangelism where you have to lead them down the Romans Road and get them to sign on the dotted line at the end of your time together. Jesus is the one who saves. The Holy Spirit will draw some people to God, and we are just planting or watering the seeds. We may or may not get to do the harvesting. But the reason we want to be hospitable is because people need to be rescued from their sin, just as Jesus rescued us from our sin. We are living examples of what God has done, and what He can do for others. Hospitality, then, is a chance to put God’s work in us on display.

Radical hospitality shines through those who are no longer enslaved by the sin that once beckoned and bound them, wrapping its allegiance around their throat, even though old sins still know their name and address.

Used by God Rosaria gives a list of how she hopes and prays that her book may inspire us to: Use our home, apartment, dorm room, front yard, gym, or garden to make strangers into neighbors and neighbors into friends and friends into the family of God Build the church by living like the family of God Stop being afraid of strangers, even when some strangers are dangerous Grow to be more like Christ in practicing daily, ordinary, radical hospitality Be richly blessed by the Lord as He adds to His kingdom Be an example of what it truly means to be a Christian to the watching world Have purpose, instead of casting about for our own identity, or wondering what to do with our time Conclusion Let’s not be sidelined by fear that people will hurt us or that we won’t know what to do or say. Using our home regularly to show hospitality brings glory to God, serves others, and is a way of living out the Gospel. It may seem sacrificial, but then aren’t we called to die to ourselves and live for God? So don’t be afraid to read the book. Be inspired, and pray over what God would use you to do.

Remembrance Day

War through the eyes of a child: Alice Kuik shares her memories of World War II

“The horror and sacrifices of those who endured a war must be recorded and remembered. If we fail to do so, we will soon take peace for granted and exaggerate small inconveniences.” –  Jan Hendrik Luiten

A CHILD OF WAR My birth must have been a moment of mixed emotions for my parents. To be sure, I have every reason to believe that they were delighted with the arrival of their first-born child. However, my birth took place just three months after the German army had invaded the Netherlands. I was not born in a country where we could speak freely or go outside without worry. No, I was born in a country that was tightly controlled by an enemy. Fears and secrets were a normal part of my life. I was born a child of war. Yet, the horror of war was not unbearable for me. I endured it with acceptance and resilience. This remarkable ability to take things in stride had two reasons. First of all, I did not know what it meant to live in peace. I was not able to compare my current situation to better days. War was all I knew. But the second reason was more significant. At all times I felt supported by people who cared for me. My mother absorbed my fears when she took me in her arms. The members of our extended family provided emotional support and practical help. And, last but not least, I was comforted by the prayers that were spoken at meals, at church, and at times of great concern about loved ones. It is to honour my parents and family members that I feel compelled to share my story. I understand now that their practical helpfulness and their natural loyalty were expressions of their love for God. By their actions they unwittingly taught me that the Lord can always be trusted, and that He always hears our prayers. Even when the enemy is constantly harassing us. THE WAR COMES HOME My memories of the war would not have been so vivid if my parents would not have provided a hiding place for a Jewish couple. But they did, and soon the Germans suspected it. Without delay they placed our house under surveillance. I was completely unaware of the hiding place. But the stress of being watched by the Germans without knowing the reason for their suspicion had a deep impact on me. Mind you, my parents did not seek the danger. Their defiance of the Germans happened as a natural outflow of their faith in the Lord and their love for the neighbour. Our family belonged to the Reformed church in Enschede. Their minister was a man whose faith showed itself in his works. He had taken it upon himself to obstruct the plan of the Nazis to eradicate the Jews. Not only did he preach this conviction from the pulpit, but he also practiced it. With relentless determination he collected the names of the Jews who were short-listed for transportation to the death-camps. He then carefully selected members in his congregation who would be suitable to hide these Jews. It is telling of my parents that they were among those whom he selected for this onerous task. Of course, I was too young to know what was going on. But even if I had been old enough, my parents would not have discussed this matter until I was asleep in my bed. I can imagine that my father was immediately convinced that this was a task that the Lord placed on his path. My mother probably thought so too, but my father’s conviction allowed her to voice the objections. Where do we hide them? We cannot risk putting Alice’s life in danger! And we have no idea how long this war will last! What if the Germans find out? Then we will all die! What if the Jews get sick? And how do we keep it a secret? But soon all the concerns faded to background. My parents were already making plans. A hiding place could be constructed upstairs. The cupboard in the spare bedroom could be enlarged toward the back. Soon the construction started, with the help of my father’s brothers. The back of the original cupboard was replaced with a door that could be locked from the side of the room under construction. Attention was paid to details. The newly created space was decorated with brown-yellow wallpaper. I remember that wallpaper distinctly because after the war my sister and I used to play with our dolls in that room. But of course I do not remember anything of the construction. Neither was I aware of the fact that my parents had opened their home to Alfred and Reina Hen, whom they soon affectionately referred to as “our Jews.” And so it happened that my parents, Jan Hendrik Luiten and Geertruida Klos, became personally involved in the Second World War. NOISES AND WHISPERS I have no early childhood memories of a carefree summer evening, or of a cheerful family gathering. No. My first memories consist of unpleasant noises. I could clearly hear them in my bedroom when my uncles and aunt visited my parents. It sounded as if they were all talking at the same time, at the top of their voices. Through the closed door of my room I could feel the tension. Something was wrong. My uncles were very agitated. They were discussing the war. They always talked about the war. I got the impression that the situation was getting worse. The voices of my aunts sounded very worried. Once in a while I could clearly hear them sigh. All the voices together sounded restless. It was oppressive. I wished my mother would come to my room. The daytime had bad noises too. There was one sound in particular that scared me. It was quite different from the secretive talking of my family. This sound came from outside. It started as a rhythmic rumble in the distance. As it came closer I could sense its vibration in the air. Then the group of marching German soldiers appeared in full view. Proudly they paraded through our street, loudly stamping their boots to the beat of a song. The sound of the song was aggressive. I vividly remember the words “Ach wehr fahren, ach wehr fahren gegenüber England,” “We will make war, for sure, we will make war with England.” It made me feel terrible. I felt the fear in my stomach. But the most alarming noise may well have been the roar of the fighter planes. I could already hear their faint drone when they were still far away. Slowly the faint drone turned into a deafening rumble, right above our heads. Then it faded away again, like a ripple. It left me wide awake and worried. At the time I did not even understand that these planes were bombers on their way to a target. To my surprise I noticed that the sound of the family gatherings at our house was changing. The uncles and aunts still visited us. We needed each other. But they started to whisper, afraid to be heard. To me their muffled voices were much more unsettling than their loud noises had been. It was clear that my family needed to be very cautious. They were on guard, constantly. No-one else was allowed to hear what they were talking about. Someone could be listening in! A German soldier, or a traitor. It was very unsettling. I tried to be brave. But it was not easy. [caption id="attachment_7419" align="alignright" width="229"] Alice's father, Jan Luiten[/caption] WITHOUT MY FATHER Little did I know that my family had good reasons to be on guard. Not only did we hide two Jews, but my father had made the decision to join the Resistance. Both were serious infractions of the German rule of law. Both were punishable by death. After my father joined the Resistance he did not come home anymore. Often we did not even know where he was. This was very difficult for us. We felt lost and lonely without him. Thankfully our extended family continued to look after us. My grandfather supplied us with bread from his bakery. Another relative, who owned a branch of the well-known grocery chain “Spar,” always made sure that we had a sufficient supply of groceries in the house. My mother’s younger brother and his wife, who were childless, visited us often. Together our relatives were a source of light in these dark days. Not surprisingly, the Germans noticed that my father stopped coming home. His absence seemed convincing proof to them that we were hiding Jews. As a result our family was placed on an even higher level of suspicion. At any time of the day a group of Germans would come to our house, banging on the door with great force and shouting, "Wo Sind die Juden?" "Where are the Jews?" But, however thoroughly they searched our house, they did not find Jews. In no uncertain terms they questioned my mother about my father. Boldly she would enter into an argument with them, explaining that they had no reason to be suspicious. With brave determination she dodged their questions about my father, calmly stating that she expected him home in the next day or so. My mother would always take extra time for bringing me to bed on days that the Germans had searched our house. "Where is Papa?," I would ask her. She could not say. But she prayed with me, and sang songs. Her soothing voice helped me to feel safe again. It was during these dark days that my sister Hinke was born. One morning it was not my mother who called me out of bed, but Tante Aaltje, my aunt. I was very surprised. I was even more surprised when I noticed that my mother did not come to the breakfast table. She was staying in bed. That was not like her at all. But, thankfully, Tante Aaltje took charge of the things my mom usually did. She was also the one who told me that I had received a sister. I did not know what to think. Where did the sister come from? Where would she sleep? Tante Aaltje suggested that I should see the baby. But I was not sure. Everything felt unreal and scary. Soon I realized that things had changed. My mom and I were not together anymore. We were joined by a little person who needed care around the clock. It was sad that we could not tell my father about our baby sister, because we did not know where he was. Would things ever become normal again? I kept asking about my father. And I always received the same answer. We did not know where he was, or when he would come back. We were not even sure if he was still alive. Over time this uncertainty became our new normal. We accepted the pain of not-knowing and forced ourselves to carry on. For my mother this new normal included looking after the Jews upstairs. Then we received the devastating news that my father had been caught by the Germans. He had been transported to a concentration camp in Germany. I did not fully know what that meant. But I did understand that his situation had become dreadful. And that he might die. I felt lost. I wanted to cry. Everybody seemed numb. The silence did not feel right. But at that moment there were no words. Only sighs. And silent prayers. THE WORST OF TIMES The news that my father had been caught changed the way I looked at things. I gave up hoping that he might come home soon. I started to imagine how we would live without him. I was sure that my mom would manage well. The evidence was clear. She kept looking after her regular commitments. She took care of my sister. She kept our house tidy and clean. And she prepared the meals with the groceries that our family provided. At the time I did not understand how lonely she must have been. One day I noticed that my mother took a tray with food upstairs. I was confused. Maybe she brought it to her bedroom for a late-night snack. But I could not figure out exactly where she took it.  I sensed that it was not any of my business to ask about it. But boldly I asked her anyway. “Mom, where are you going with the food?” Without blinking an eye my Mom answered, “I am looking after a sick dog.” That was exciting! It had never occurred to me that the secret would be a surprise for me! My imagination soared. Soon my mom would take a healthy dog downstairs, and I would have a playmate. I would take the dog for walks. I could look after feeding him. And maybe he could sleep in bed with me. At the first opportunity I shared the exciting news with my friend next door. The friend hastened to tell her mother. At that point the situation took an unexpected turn. My friend’s mother rushed over to our house. She talked to my mom in a hushed, but agitated voice. Only after the war I was told what transpired in the conversation. The neighbour lady explained to my mom that soon the whole neighbourhood would know that she was bringing food upstairs for a sick dog. But they would very likely understand that we did not have a sick dog upstairs. And not all the neighbours could be trusted. My mother should be careful not to draw any attention to our house. We were already under suspicion! But I think that the Germans had made up their mind already at that point. Their suspicion that there were Jews in our house was all but proven. They were dead-set on finding them. One day we heard the loud singing and stamping of marching soldiers in our street. It stopped at our house. We were holding our breath. But soon all doubt was removed. After a loud knock a large number of German soldiers barged inside. Suddenly the house was filled with dark-grey uniforms and Wehrmacht army caps. My mother placed her arms securely around me. The soldiers searched for a long time, especially upstairs. But again, their search was unsuccessful. Venting their anger they grabbed my mom by the throat and kicked her into the hallway closet. Then a soldier looked at me, picked me up and threw me into the cupboard too. Another soldier started to kick me viciously. I felt the blows of his heavy boots on the lower part of my back. It was hurting badly. Their kicks damaged my spine. For life. The incident in the closet changed me. It destroyed my hope that things would get back to normal. I lost my childlike optimism. The Germans would undoubtedly come back to our house. My father was gone. Dead maybe. My back hurt. I was concerned for my little sister. I was confused by the secrets. But I felt safe with my mom. And I loved it when the relatives came. Thankfully my family had an inner resilience. They had a faith that passed understanding. I felt that. NO MORE WAR A while later I noticed that the conversations of the relatives were changing again, slowly but surely. But this time it felt like a good change. Their voices became less hushed and more cheerful. Excited even. Other things changed as well. The German soldiers were not marching through the streets of Enschede anymore. Their bragging songs had stopped. Then the exuberance broke loose. The war was over! It took a while for me to understand what it meant to live without fear for the enemy. The marching Germans had disappeared. There were no strange secrets anymore. But there were surprises. One day my mother called me to the kitchen. Two people were sitting at the table. A man and a woman. I had never seen them before. My mother told me that these people were Jews. They had lived upstairs in a secret room. My eyes must have been wide with surprise and my mouth probably fell open. The Germans were right then. We had been hiding Jews. Our Jewish guests turned out to be good company. It was very nice to have them in our house. Not much later the relatives began to discuss the Dutch Resistance workers in the German concentration camps. Supposedly many of them had started to walk home from the camps. That was very good news! Filled with new hope I asked my mother when my father would be coming home. To my disappointment she told me that we could not be sure that he was coming back. He could have died. In the camp. Or on the way home. That worried me. But I remained hopeful. My hope started to soar when my mother told me a few days later that trains had been arranged to bring the liberated prisoners home. A train was scheduled to arrive at the Enschede railway station once a day. Names of passengers could not be provided. Although there was no certainty that my father would be on one of the trains, this was very good news. On the day that the first train was to arrive we got up early. It would take us about an hour to walk from our home on the outskirts of Enschede to the railway station in the centre of town. And we surely did not want to be late. We left the house in high spirits. My sister sat up in the stroller which my mother pushed with joyful determination. And I walked, hopped and skipped the whole way. As we came closer to the railway station we met several other excited people. This would be a day of happy reunion. It could be. We knew that not everyone would come back. But we wanted to be hopeful. We arrived at the train station plenty on time. The wait was long. But finally we could see the train in the far distance. It came closer and closer till it screeched to a halt. The doors opened. Strange-looking men came out. Their eyes were hollow and their bodies had points sticking out at the shoulders, the hips, and the knees. All the women looked closely to see if they recognized these strange men. Soon shouts of joy filled the air. But my mom was not showing any excitement. However hard she looked, she was not able to pick out my dad. Slowly it started to dawn on us. He was not on the train. The way home seemed very long. My mother was crying. But the next day we went again, in good cheer. We were convinced that this would be day that my father would have made it on the train. If he was alive. But again he was not there. On the way home I looked at my mother. She was crying. And so it went, for what seemed an endless number of days. Every morning again we left hopeful; and every afternoon we came home sad. Then the trains stopped coming. My mother was informed that the transportation of liberated prisoners to Enschede was completed. I decided not to believe any rumours anymore. The devastation of false hope was more hurtful than the nagging pain of hopelessness. I tried to stop thinking about my father. Life continued. I helped my mom and I spent time with my friends. One day I was playing in our backyard with some of the neighbour girls. Suddenly we heard happy shouts and laughter coming from our house. My mother appeared in the door opening and started calling my name. I ran over to her, curious to hear what was going on. “Alice! Sweet girl! Dad has come home!” What? Really? I could hardly believe it. Overjoyed I rushed inside. I ran into the kitchen. There was a man sitting at the table. I stopped in my tracks. Was that my father? He talked to me. “Hi Alice,” he said. “I am so glad to see you again. Mom was right. You have grown into a beautiful girl.” Gently he reached down to hug me, but I drew back. This man could not be my father. He did not look one bit like the wedding picture that we had treasured so dearly during his absence. And he stank terribly. I was scared. I looked up at my mom, and ran away. My mom did not call me back. At the end of the day she asked me if I would kiss my father goodnight. But I couldn’t. The next morning “our Jews” joined our family for coffee. We had a nice time with each other. It was clear that Mr. Hen and the man who said he was my father knew each other well. My supposed father used Mr. Hen’s nickname, “Frans,” rather than his formal name “Alfred.” It made me think. I was still not sure that this strange man was my father, but I was starting to consider the possibility. Mr. Hen must have been watching me. Turning towards me, he said, “Alice, do you trust me?” I had to think about that for a minute. Then I nodded. “Very well,” he continued, “Would you believe me if I said that this strange man is your father?” After a pause, I nodded again. Mr. Hen had one last question. “Would you give your father a little kiss to show him how happy you are that he came back?” I decided to stand up. Slowly I walked over to my Dad. He smiled at me. Then I did it. I gave him a little kiss. It was scary. And it was good. I was only five years old when I reconnected with my father. But the connection lasted till death parted us. And his memories are alive in my heart. From this moment on “our Jews” became our honourary relatives: Uncle Frans and Aunt Reina. It took time before my Dad was ready to share his story with us. He never told us the whole truth. He was not able to. He left out the most painful, most disturbing parts. He did not want to relive them, and he wanted to spare us the extent of his misery. And no one prodded him. He did, however, share the story of his liberation from the concentration camp. The Resistance workers in the concentration camp were never officially informed that the Germans had surrendered. But when the rumours of the German capitulation were eventually confirmed, the prisoners started to escape in small groups. My father and two other captives decided to undertake the journey home together. It was not an easy trip. Much of their physical strength had been lost due to the hard labour, mistreatment and malnutrition during their camp years. But they were helped along the way by German farmers. They discovered that many Germans had hated the war. These people were grateful for the opportunity to provide hospitality to the survivors of the camps. After several weeks my father and his two friends arrived at the border-crossing between Germany and the Netherlands, not far from Enschede. It was a very emotional moment. Soon they would embrace their loved ones again. They did not know what had happened to them in their absence. Maybe not all of them would have survived the war. But they trusted that the Lord, who had stood by them in their dark hours, would also have cared for their loved ones. In that confidence the three men traveled their final miles back to their families. THE WAR REMEMBERED The war may have been over, but its horror continued in my soul. Throughout my childhood I relived the fear that I felt when the roaring fighter planes dropped their bombs on our town. For many years I had nightmares about the sight and sound of these low-flying bombers. In these dreams I vividly heard the rumbling roar of bombs that fell on homes and stores, reducing them to ruins. I would wake up in a sweat and run to my mother’s bedroom. She comforted me with tight hugs and soothing words. I did not know at the time that these bombings were accidental droppings by American planes that missed their targets in Germany. After the war our family stayed in close contact with Uncle Frans and Aunt Reina. They found a place to live not far from our home. This provided us with the opportunity to visit each other regularly. Together the families reminisced about the hiding years. I was impressed to hear that Uncle Frans had kept himself busy with reading as well as writing. Together with other Jews who survived the war they decided to rebuild the synagogue in Enschede. When the restoration was completed they invited my parents for a tour. To their joy my parents accepted the invitation. Soon I was old enough to help Aunt Reina with small housekeeping chores. There was always something to do, the more so after the birth of their son. On Saturdays I had a special task. They did not do any work on that day of the week as it was set aside as the Sabbath. They could not even switch on a light. However, they did not object if I performed this task for them. Aunt Reina then treated me to a piece of delicious cake which she had baked the day before. Eventually the three of them emigrated to Toronto, where Uncle Frans started a successful tailor business. But their immigration did not prevent us from staying in touch with each other. My Dad needed to regain his strength. But in due time he, my mother and our dear relatives were all convinced that he was ready to return to work. Without delay he contacted the textile factory where he worked before he was taken prisoner. It was a great joy for him to hear that his previous position was available! I am sure that it made his transition from captive Resistance worker in a concentration camp to fulltime employee much easier. The fact that I passed his place of work every day on my way to and from school made it even more wonderful. What a big difference for me, from fearing that you might never see your father again, to walking by his workplace twice a day. I was very happy. A number of years later my brother Andre was born. We were very excited, and exceedingly thankful for our abundant blessings: health, family, friends, food, employment, and now a baby brother who was born in a time of peace. Several years later our family of five emigrated to Carman, a small town in Manitoba. Our correspondence with Uncle Frans and Aunt Reina gained a new dimension. We could understand their situation much better having experienced an emigration ourselves. My mother sealed the mutual friendship when she traveled by plane to Toronto. She was a brave, loyal woman. And my father was proud of her.

****

[caption id="attachment_7420" align="alignright" width="250"] The house today: Alfred and Reina Hen hid in the attic[/caption] Several decades later it was me who made a historic trip, together with my husband Bert. We had decided to pay a visit to the country of our birth. One place we were sure to visit was Enschede. I was eager to show him the place where I was born. It was not difficult for me to find the old family home. “Bert, here it is,” I said. As I was saying these words, the present merged with the past. This was the place where I was born. In this house the Jews were hidden. Here it was where I had suffered the fear of separation from my father. Here it was that I endured the house-searches by the Germans. Here it was that I was kicked into the hallway cupboard by German soldiers. As I was sharing these stories with my husband, the front door opened. A woman stepped outside. “Are you looking for someone?” she asked. “No, this is the place where I was born,” I answered spontaneously. Immediately the woman opened the door wide and invited us in. But I was hesitant. Would it be appropriate to accept her invitation? Would I not impose on her privacy? But Bert put a bit of pressure on me. He would not want me to have regrets later, and he was curious to see the house. I felt a bit tense as we walked through the front door. Tentatively I looked around. The house was not as big as I remembered. But I recognized the hallway, the door to the living room, the kitchen. We went upstairs. The lady explained that her husband was working on some renovations. With anticipation I turned my head to the place where I expected the entrance to the hiding place. But all I saw was a wall with holes and loose boards on the floor. The husband was taking the hiding place out, board by board. Then, with a shock, I noticed that the brown-yellow wallpaper was still covering the walls. “This is the hiding place,” I uttered. “Our Jews lived here.” “Really?” the lady called out. “Please tell me more about your parents, and about the people that lived here in hiding.”

****

Throughout my life I have often reflected on the war in the Netherlands. At the time I saw it through the eyes of a child. I feared the marching Germans. I was worried about my father. But I found comfort and safety in the arms of my mother. Now I have reached the age of the strong. Over the years I have learned to see the magnitude of the Second World War. Entire nations lived in fear. Many Jewish families were killed. Healthy young men died a horrible death, on both sides of the war. And wars continue to be waged. Yet, I have also learned to trust the Lord. We do not have to fear. He is our shield and our tower, our comfort in life and in death.

This first appeared in the Nov/Dec 2018 issue.

Theology

Mike Ditka and Abraham Lincoln’s temporary comfort

Pithy bits of folks wisdom are everywhere – kitchen counters, business meeting room walls, even email tag lines display sayings like "Everything in moderation, and moderation in everything" or "Actions speak louder than words." Usually, there's some truth to these aphorisms, but this past week, when I received a promotional email from Thinkspot.com, I was struck again by how insufficient they often are. Thinkspot is the Facebook alternative that Jordan Peterson and others are trying to put together, and in this email they shared examples of the content they'll have, including one nugget from a Beta user touting the merits of the mantra: "This, too, shall pass." Football fans of a certain age might remember that phrase from famed Chicago Bears coach Mike Ditka. When he was fired he told reporters and fans again and again that, “This, too, shall pass.” The aphorism seemed a comfort to him that no matter the pain and disappointment he was feeling, it was only going to be temporary. Ditka attributed the phrase's origins to the Bible, but it can’t be found there. Instead, there is a connection to Abraham Lincoln, who, while not taking credit for it, also thought it a fantastic line. In an 1859 speech he presented it to an audience of farmers, perhaps because of the frequent ups and downs of their weather-dependent occupation:

“It is said an Eastern monarch once charged his wise men to invent him a sentence to be ever in view, and which should be true and appropriate in all times and situations. They presented him the words: ‘And this, too, shall pass.’ How much it expresses! How chastening in the hour of pride! How consoling in the depths of affliction!”

The reason Ditka and Lincoln and many others have been helped by this phrase is that there is truth to it. Whether we’re changing our sixth dirty diaper of the day, or celebrating with family and friends at our wedding, it is worth reflecting that both are only temporary. Knowing it is only for a time can help us endure trials and keep us grounded in triumphs. But, like so much of man's wisdom, this aphorism gets it only partly right. This is the stoics’ comfort, which keeps us from falling too low only by keeping us from rising too high. But Christians know – and need to share with the world – that not everything will pass. There is a lasting joy, and a complete comfort, to be found in knowing that whatever else might be temporary, our God is, always was, and always will be. As David in Psalm 23 proclaims:

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD forever.

 

Book Reviews, Children’s fiction, Teen fiction

BOOK REVIEW: Brave Ollie Possum

by Ethan Nicolle 373 pages / 2019 If you were ever a scaredy-cat, or if you might have one in your family, this could be a fun story to read together... though you might have to do so during the daytime, with all the lights on. It's about nine-year-old Ollie Mackerelli, who is so afraid of things that go bump in the night that he's taken up permanent residence in his parents' bed. This is about how he learned to be brave. But his transformation doesn't happen quickly. Things start off with cowardly Ollie running to his parents' bedroom yet again to crawl under the sheets with them. That's a safe place to be, but it does come with a cost: three people in a double bed leave his dad with bags under his eyes and a scowl on his face. He wants to know when Ollie is going to grow up and stop being afraid of imaginary monsters. Then, mysteriously. Mizz Fuzzlebuzzle, a very strange, very large lady shows up at the Mackerellis' door. She offers to take their son to a "special go-away fun place where children like Ollie can be taken and all his fears will be gobbled up." Who is this lady? Her card says she specializes in "professional anti-scary therapy and comfortology." Desperate, the sleep-deprived parents hand off their son to the expert, hoping she'll be able to help. But here's the twist: Mizz Fuzzlebuzzle isn't actually an expert in anti-scary therapy. She's actually an ogre. And all those bumps in the night? It's her pet monster making them. Ollie was right all along! But being right won't get him out of the clutches of this ogre. And to make matters worse, she wants to eat him. It turns out scared children are an ogre delicacy. But despite being scared, Ollie gathers enough courage to spray the ogre with one of her own magic potions. Sadly, ogres aren't susceptible to magic potions. People are, though, so when the ogre spits the potion right back at him, Ollie is transformed into a creature that passes out in the face of danger: Ollie becomes a possum. The rest of this rollicking tale is about Ollie, with the help of some animal friends, learning what true courage is: that it's not about being unafraid, but about facing our fears and going on anyway. The author of Brave Ollie Possum is one of the folks behind the Christian satire site Babylonbee.com so the book is every bit as funny as you might expect. Another highlight is the artwork. This is a full-size novel, but it could almost be called a picture book, with fantastic, fun illustrations every three pages or so. CAUTION The only caution I'll note is that this book about being brave is, at times, scary. I think it might be the book I am most looking forward to reading to my children, but there is no way I could read this as their bed-time story, or even in the middle of the day. I'm going to have to wait a bit, probably until they are all at least nine. CONCLUSION But for kids over ten and over, particularly boys, this will be so much fun. And for certain 9-year-old kids who are scared of what goes bump in the night, this could be a good day-time read with mom and dad to help a little one learn what being brave is all about.

Christian education - Sports

Winning at all costs?

Does sport build character? And what does the way you play sports reveal about your character?

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I recently had the opportunity to substitute teach a high school physical education class. Not knowing a single one of the students, I divided the co-ed class into two random teams for a game of soccer. Within seconds of team creation, I heard moans and groans regarding how the players were divvied up: “This isn’t fair, we’re going to lose!” “Sir, I think you should change these teams because they have Jim AND John on their team!” “We may as well not even play.”

Of all the statements I overheard, that last one really struck me. Participation in the activity was only viewed as worthwhile should losing be avoided. The victimized attitudes of these youth were tangible for the duration of the class, with many of the players from the “losing side” displaying anger and resentment following the game. Garbage cans were kicked, pinnies spiked, locker doors slammed, walls slapped, curse words mumbled. I felt hated; after all, I was the dumb substitute teacher who made unbalanced teams that resulted in a lopsided 4-2 soccer “blowout.”

What sports can foster

There is a widespread assumption that participating in sport is automatically beneficial for kids. After all, they can learn teamwork, cooperation, self-discipline, and perseverance, among many other great positive values. Among Christians, too, sports are promoted as a means of building virtuous character.

However, minimal research evidence exists to validate this belief. On the contrary, sport participation has a proven tendency to promote and develop less desired character traits: selfishness, hostility, greed, jealousy, hatred, violence and alienation.

The truth is, in a sport setting people often act out in ways that would be completely unacceptable in any other setting. Sporting arenas function as special spheres where the rules of life often do not apply. We can see this in the normalcy of violence in Canadian ice hockey participation and fandom.

Whether as active participants or merely spectators of sport, we need to consider whether we shine as a light for the Lord. As a fan, do we thrive on the hockey fights and scraps? Does that get us jumping up and down in our seats? As a participant, is it possible for us to bear the mind and love of Christ while donning a killer instinct? Do we really believe that this aggression towards our opponents reflects Christ-like love?

Cross-checking and chirping at another person would seem like a strange way to express your love towards them. Lacing up to love your enemy seems less frequent than lacing up to squash your enemy. I’m not bashing our own hockey leagues; I know very little about what goes on there – I just know that I saw a 13-year-old boy drag his opponent to the ground in a headlock in order to score a goal on the pitch during a high-school PE class. I know this infiltrates our own turf and our own rinks.

Performance-based worth

In the world of modern sport, personal identity – personal worth – is grounded in performance. In this glorification of the self, losing is equated with insecurity, powerlessness and a sense of “non-being,” which threatens the very purpose of an individual’s life. As the saying goes, you are only as good as your last game.

This value has affected our own sport circles, despite Christians readily preaching that God loves them despite the result of their play. We claim our identity is grounded in Christ, yet, for the sake of upping our game-time performance, we prefer to keep compassion and other-centeredness on the periphery of our competitive lives. Many Christian athletes have a tendency to compartmentalize their faith and exclude it from competitive sport, and are more willing to compromise their faith than withdraw from activity. There is a valid concern that our children are more interested in becoming like Crosby than like Christ. Though modeling the behaviors of others can serve as a valuable educational tool, sport, like money, has become an idol for many, leaving me to wonder if we could cast it out of our lives completely, or if our identity, too, has become participation and performance-based, rather than grace-based.

Can Christians compete?

So are sports beyond redemption? Should we just avoid playing in them and watching them?

To answer these questions we need to examine the idea of competition.

Competition is closely tied to participation in sport. Competition is commonly understood as an effort to gain or win something by defeating or establishing superiority over others who are trying to do the same; you are striving to outdo someone, to better someone. Competition is based on comparisons: Who is fastest? Who is strongest? Who is best? Of course, competition goes far beyond sport: we see it in the classroom, in the office, in our homes. We are constantly striving to outdo others. Such comparisons can dangerously lead to a loss of perspective, bitterness, jealousy and putting yourself before others.

The problem with this typical view of competition is that pursuing superiority over others (thereby making others inferior) directly collides with the Christian ethic of servanthood, as Paul instructs us in his letter to the Philippians 2: 3-4:

“Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others”.

It doesn’t read that we can do some things out of selfish ambition. Jesus Christ modeled humility for us so that we would embrace it in all facets of our lives. We are called to deny ourselves, humble ourselves and boast in our weaknesses and shortcomings. How is this possible in competitive sport?

A different sort of competition

Competition, by its nature, has been suggested to be inherently immoral because it is selfish, egoistic and means treating others as obstacles to be defeated. But is that what competition has to be?

When we look at the historical origins of the word, we learn competition means “to strive together, to come together, to agree, to coincide.” Note that historically competition echoes cooperation, as it doesn’t mean “to strive against”, but rather “to strive with.

The emphasis in sport, therefore, ought not to be winning, but a mutually acceptable quest for excellence through challenge. This is important, so let me repeat it: competition need not be about winning. Instead it can be about a mutual quest for excellence through the challenge your opponents present you.

Competition is defensible in sport given this social contract, mutual quest and voluntary engagement. So, a reformed perspective on competition would be to understand it as a collaborative, mutual striving together towards something excellent, where opponents honor their opposition and cooperate to bring out the very best in one another, as when iron sharpens iron (Philippians 2:3-4; Proverbs 27:17).

Some Christians have tried to recast competition and eliminate some of the negatives by talking of it as being primarily about competing with oneself. But this ignores the relational essence of competition, and by removing the interpersonal dimension, it is no longer competition at all. We are relational beings, and the Christian competitor is not only striving for personal excellence and realizing individual potential, but also the potential of their opponent. The hindrances we face in competition, the opposition, are not objects and barriers to be overcome – they are people. The experience is indeed a celebrative experience, and we should be able to experience that shared joy with others. Opponents are made in God’s image too. In loving our opponents while we compete, we are putting them before ourselves.

Do you rejoice with your opponents’ accomplishments? If Jesus was your teammate, how would you cooperate with him? More, if Jesus was your opponent, how would you act towards him?

If triumphing over opponents was the sole purpose of contests, competition would be incomplete and a “winning-at-all-costs” mentality, including cheating, would be both justified and necessary. On the contrary, joyful experiences, the desire and striving for excellence, the concern for achieving competitive balance, fun and enjoyment, all function as goals that transcend the zero-sum experience of beating opponents. The pursuit of fun is improved with the avoidance of alienation and violence.

Many of the problems seen in our sport and play are not necessarily intrinsic to sport itself, but rather find roots in our own sinful human nature and an unhealthy obsession with winning. As emotions, enthusiasm and passions are invested so as to create more competitive fun, circumstances all too often and easily dissolve into undesired outcomes. Sport alienates people because it too easily disintegrates into self-serving and self-seeking actions. It is this possibility that players risk when they participate in competitive sport and play, and need to be on guard against.

Sport vs. play

When you strip away the rules and organized structure of sport, you are left with an inherently playful activity. When people are engaged in sport, they are described as “playing.” Play doesn’t serve a utilitarian end – children engage in play not because it will get them something; they play simply to play. In sport, the joy of play has been replaced by a need to win, and an over-emphasis on winning costs us the playful and joyful elements of sporting activities. Currently, sport is not being played – it is being consumed. The current model of sport is business-oriented, and the inherent playfulness within sport has been lost, which is why many Christian scholars are calling for a rejuvenation and recovering of that play-ethic. A win-at-all-costs philosophy is a glaring distortion of God’s desired purpose for our play.

There is irony in sport organizations that claim, “It is not about winning or losing, but about having fun.” The irony is that we actually have to state this as a mandate! If we have to deliberately instruct participants to express something other than the natural impulses stirred in the game, it is a pretty sure sign that something is wrong with both the game and the people participating. Of course, this is no surprise given out flawed human nature; yet this all the more emphasizes how we structure our games and what we teach our youth.

Such mandates are noble intentions, but are often poorly executed; change doesn’t happen with a declaration. If this is indeed the primary purpose of your sport organization, would it make sense, then, to actually keep score? What purpose does it serve? You’ll say, “but kids will keep score anyway.” Absolutely – our me-culture is teaching them that this is important and is the “goal of sport,” and therefore highlights why it is extremely important that you reorient that purpose. Children will lie. And cheat. And disrespect. Participating in sport, regardless of a certain mandate, will not teach them that winning isn’t as important as having fun or being active. You must teach them that.

The odd anomaly in the sport system gets this. The Canadian Soccer Association has recommended eliminating league standings for youth under the age of 12. As of May 2013, B.C. Soccer stopped posting scores and standings from U12 tournaments. Likewise, in a recent U12 tournament hosted by a Surrey soccer club, scores were not kept, no winners and losers announced, no trophies or medals handed out. These approaches encourage broader youth development instead of a “win-at-all-costs” model. Coaches will then equalize playing time, experiment with different positions, encourage “free play,” and children are free to make mistakes without feeling pressure from teammates, coaches, and parents for their shortcomings.

So too, especially in reformed circles, I would expect to see an appropriate rewards system. What do we teach our youth when we reward them with an icecream or a doughnut after they scored the game-winner? What would happen if instead they took that $2 and dropped it in a charity jar? Emphasis ought to be on cooperative play and displaying love and respect to your teammates and opposition. Since the emphasis is on this, winning is not discussed and merely functions as a by-product. So, which do you typically applaud: your child’s respect for and inclusion of others, or your child scoring a goal? What would happen if we counted passes made instead of goals scored? By applauding and celebrating certain behaviors, we teach our kids about what we believe matters most. So, the next time your child walks off the pitch, I urge you to say one of these things: “I love watching you play!” “Let’s go thank your coach!” “Can I get you something to eat?” “That looked like a lot of fun!”

Winning isn’t the problem

To keep things clear: winning isn’t the problem. The issue is why a person wants to win. If you or your child desire first place in order to demonstrate your superiority, or claim supremacy, or to protect your ego, competition will often deteriorate into ethical and moral lapses. Instead, foster a desire to win that translates into great effort, support for others, testing and developing one’s limits and exhibiting the core values of your community. Sports can teach our youth about who’s number one, or who is actually Number One; they can teach children to bend rules, or obey them; and they can teach children that opponents exist to be victimized, or to be loved and respected. On their own, sport and competition will not teach these things naturally. Sports do not educate youth – people do.

True Christian joy can be expressed aesthetically and playfully in thankful celebration to God. Just like “listening” is important in music, and “looking” is important in art, “feeling” is important in sport. As Christian athletes sharpen their skills, the beauty of their artwork (their expressions of creativity and imagination) may be a blessing to themselves and to others. Our bodies are temples of the living God, so we ought to treat them as such – not idolizing them to superior heights, but taking care that we are using them to glorify God. The real challenge will be in whether or not that joy persists even when losing…even when “failing” or performing poorly.

We must set aside personal egos (deny ourselves), accept and acknowledge failure as normal (humble ourselves), and play as if love and respect were verbs.

“If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever loses his life for me will find it. What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul?” – Matthew 16:24–26

Legendary basketball Coach John Wooden challenges us all with his words: “I don’t want to tell, based on your actions, whether you outscored your opponent or whether your opponent outscored you.”

Conclusion

After reflecting on how those students reacted towards me after I selected those teams on that glorious sunny afternoon, I realize that I wasn’t hurt by the bitterness expressed towards my decisions, nor was I disappointed that they began to hate me. Mainly, I just felt discouraged. I’ve seen a lot of different behaviors in various sport systems through my young career. I’ve participated in sport since I could hurl a toy across the playroom; I’ve coached sport at pre-school, elementary, high-school, university and national levels; I counsel athletes and performers regularly as part of my job. Sport pays my rent and feeds my family. What discouraged me about this incident was that this was not a public school or a secular sport club; it was our own Reformed Christian School. These were Christians at play. In that moment I recalled Coach Wooden’s sentiment: “Sports do not build character; they reveal it”. So, what are they revealing in you, and those you influence?

This article first appeared in the July/August 2014 issue. If you liked this article you might also be interested in our other sports-related articles: When we understand our opponent isn’t our enemy….Boys and sports, A Good Coach is Crucial: the potential and danger of school sports teamsSports teams are important for our Christian schools, and Daughters in sports.

Questions for discussion

1. Children can learn all sorts of lessons from sports.

a) What are some good ones?
b) What are some bad lessons?

2. What can parents do to encourage the former and discourage the latter?

3. Of the four reasons listed below to be involved in sports, which should be given priority in our Christians schools? How might we choose to order these from most important to least important?

a) So that students can learn to be very good at that sport
b) Because sports is a means by which we can teach students other things, such as teamwork, leadership, discipline, compassion etc.
c) To help students stay physically fit
d) For the sheer joy of playing.

4. What are the qualities of a good Christian coach?


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