Freedom OF Religion or Freedom FROM Religion?

Canada’s laws grant freedom of religion—allowing people to follow the beliefs of their own brand of religion. In Alberta, however, the most popular concept is freedom not of religion but freedom from religion.

Irreligion is not a word that is used much, but the concept is growing rapidly in Alberta. An irreligious person is one who is indifferent and even hostile to religion, especially to those people who believe that God not only exists, but that He wants a relationship with human beings.

An Example from Edmonton
For many decades, the Edmonton city council followed the tradition of a time of prayer before council sessions, in the spirit of James 1:5 “If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you.” They used to invite leaders of different faiths to open the session.

Edmonton, a growing city, faces many huge challenges: adequate low-income housing, public transport and economic development, all complicated by the low price of oil, and federal and provincial governments that keep raising taxes. If ever council members needed wisdom from God, it is now.

This week, however, council voted to scrap the traditional opening prayer, not even opting to hold a time of silent reflection.

The council jumped at the opportunity to get rid of the opening prayer by misapplying last year’s Supreme Court decision against a Quebec town that opened its council meeting with a strictly Roman Catholic prayer.

In Alberta, it appears that irreligion is the accepted creed of those in government leadership.

Meanwhile, Back in the Classrooms
There is still an undercurrent of anti-Christian sentiment about independent Christian schools. Using the pretext of preventing bullying of minorities in all schools, the Minister of Education has been advocating guidelines which are attempts to do away with Christian sexual morality. His demands are based solidly on the sexual revolution started by Kinsey’s flawed studies of human sexuality.

This week the Minister shut down a Christian school in Cold Lake, AB, which administrated 3,500 home schooled students through the Wisdom Home Schooling Society which has been operating since 1997 when it was established in accordance with a mandate from the then Minister of Education.

Overlooked by the current Minister of Education is the fact that independent Christian schools perform better academically than public schools. For instance, this week, the Minister reported that the provincial achievement test (PAT) results showed that last year only 72.2% of Grade 6 students across the province met the acceptable standard for math. This compares with 94% of Grade 6 students in a local independent Christian school who met acceptable standards in math.

The Minister reported that the government is working with post-secondary institutions to improve training for new teachers. Yet Trinity Western University, which successfully trains many teachers for these high achieving independent Christian schools, is constantly under attack by various levels of government for its high moral standards.

x Teacher at PrayerTwo Questions and Two Answers
Why is it that independent Christian schools achieve such high results? It is not because their teachers are paid high salaries. They consistently are paid less than public school teachers. What’s more, Christian school teachers do not have access to the two-billion-dollar pension fund for public school teachers. Teachers in independent Christian schools see their work as a calling from God, they seek to please Him, they pray for the students in their classrooms and their motivation is service, first to God and then to the students and their families.

Why is the percentage of irreligious people rising every year in Alberta—a province that seems to be entering a post-Christian era?

British writer, theologian, and philosopher G.K. Chesterton answered it well a century ago, “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult, and left untried.”

It’s All About Family

God wants all people to know Him, to become part of His Family.

A Bible translator’s main job is, therefore, to translate the Bible so God can introduce Himself to an indigenous people.

And what is God’s first job? To prepare the indigenous people to accept the introducer.

Jack&JoForty-eight years ago, in the spring of 1968, the Canela people of Brazil took the second step in accepting my wife, Jo, and me as part of their native society. They adopted us as members of their families and full citizens of Canela society.

The Canela adoption/initiation ceremony involved lots of red ochre paint, plenty of tree-sap glue and white hawk down all over our bodies. Surrounded by crowds of Canelas, we listened to the chief’s long speech; then each of the sub-chiefs and elders made shorter speeches.

We couldn’t understand a word.

A month earlier, when I first met the Canela chief in town, the Canelas had taken the first step in accepting us. Although he knew only a little Portuguese, he understood that we were ready to live in the village, learn Canela, and help where we could. He pantomimed giving me an injection in my upper arm, and made writing motions. “Yes,” I said, “we will treat sick people and teach you to read and write.”

“You come,” he said.

A few days later, I stood in the centre of the Canela village plaza surrounded by a large group of sombre, silent, serious looking Canela men. I faced a village elder who, leaning on his spear, chanted loudly for long time.

I couldn’t understand a word.

Abruptly he stopped chanting, and shouted loudly, “Prejaka! Prejaka! Prejakaaaa!” at which all those silent men behind me suddenly shouted, “Yuhaaa!”

Major adrenaline rush!

Then they all broke into smiles, grabbed my hands and kept saying “Prejaka, Prejaka, Prejaka.” I finally got it! I had just been given a Canela name—the first step into being accepted into Canela culture.

Later on Jo, and each of our daughters, went through the same naming ceremony. It was a once and for all time event. But over the next few decades, we went through the adoption/re-initiation ceremony dozens of times—each time we returned to the village after an extended time away. And eventually we fully understood all those speeches.

“We have adopted you into our village and into our families. You are even more one of us now than when you first came to us. You now speak our language. You invented a way to write our language and taught us to read and write it, and to count and read numbers. “

“You are training teachers from among our young people. You help them make books for us. You have saved many lives with your medicine, especially our babies. You are family and belong here.”

“Join any festival. Go anywhere in the Canela lands. Take pictures of any of us, and of any of our ceremonies. When outsiders come in just to look and take pictures, we ask them for gifts, but we will never ask you.”

Still true.

Seven years ago, after an absence of nineteen years, we re-visited the village. Yes, once again, glue, feathers, red body paint and a wide-open village welcome to our whole family—fifteen of us—including our eight grandchildren.

God arrived in the Canela village long before we came. He arrived to prepare the villagers so they would adopt us, and make us citizens of the Canela village. God stayed there with us for twenty-two years. When we left, He didn’t leave.

He stayed in the village. He is still there, adopting many Canelas into His Family and accepting them as citizens in His Kingdom.


The Day the Teacher Learned a Lesson

 “Everyone is talking about how you welcomed us and how you turned away from idols to serve the true and living God.” 1 Thessalonians 1:9 (CEV).

“What is God saying to you in this chapter?” I asked Jaco, my Canela friend and best translation helper. His answer astounded me.

He had told me a few days before that he had recently started following Jesus. Wow! The first one! I thought. Now I was having the first “How to Have Morning Devotions” lesson with this young brother in Jesus.

I had picked out a couple of meaningful statements from 1st Thessalonians 1 and jotted them down to “prime the pump” in case Jaco needed some suggestions.

After he read the first chapter of Paul’s letter out loud, I asked, “What is God saying to you in this chapter?”

“Oh, the idea in verse nine, of course!” he replied. “That’s the best verse in the whole chapter!”

What? I hadn’t even noticed anything in verse nine; it sure wasn’t on my “prime the pump” list of ideas!

“Tell me why this is the best verse,” I said.

Jaco went on to explain, “Teacher Paul is happy with those Jesus followers in Thessalonica because they turned away from the dead fake gods to serve our living Father in the Sky!”

“Yes, that’s nice,” I said. “But what about it?” I still hadn’t caught on.

“Look, they are just like me!” Jaco said. “All my life I have been afraid of offending the ghosts of our dead ancestors. But then I turned away from the spirits of dead beings. I turned toward our Father who is alive. He adopted me into His family. I don’t need to concern myself with dead things anymore. Instead, I am following Jesus who died for me and came to life again to prove that He is the Son of the living Father in the Sky!”

Ceremony of the spirit monster masks has been performed for generations. If not done right, bad things will happen.

Ceremony of the spirit monster masks has been performed for generations. If not done right, bad things will happen.

Of course! How could I have been so dumb? I knew that the Canelas, in accordance with their community’s traditional religion, lived in fear of the malevolent ghosts of the dead, constantly seeking to placate them by practicing age-old ceremonies and rituals. Naturally Jaco would identify fully with those Christians in Thessalonica.

It was as if God Himself were teaching me, “My Holy Spirit is well able to teach young Canela believers directly from my Word,” I heard him telling me. “You and Jo just keep on working with them to translate my Word into their language and teach them to read it. I’ll take it from there.”

We did. And He did. There is now a strong and growing church among the Canela.

At times we can become discouraged as we teach people and pray for them to turn toward God. But this experience has shown Jo and me that if we give them God’s Word, encourage them to read it, and pray for them, God will do the rest.

Give Thanks for What?

We Canadians not only celebrate Thanksgiving a month ahead of our American cousins, we started doing so forty years before the Pilgrims landed in Massachusetts.

An English explorer named Martin Frobisher had been trying to find a northern passage to the Pacific through the ice floes of northern Canada. He failed to find a passage, but he did set up a column and said prayers of thanksgiving. He gave thanks, however, not for a bountiful harvest, but for the fact that his ship survived the trip—another ship traveling with him was lost in a storm. Eventually Thanksgiving became a yearly national harvest celebration.

I read the first Scriptural mention of a national time of thanksgiving in Exodus 15 this week. Led by Moses and his older sister Miriam, the Israelite nation celebrated on the eastern shore of the Red Sea. They, also, did not celebrate a bountiful harvest and food in abundance. All they had was leftover bread, and it was only flat, unleavened stuff.

Instead, they sang about their escape from Egypt, about the drowning of their slave masters, and, of course, about their firstborn children being spared when every firstborn man, woman, child, or animal in Egypt died. There was plenty of joy, though no mention of turkey and all the trimmings, and even less mention of ham. That first Israelite national thanksgiving, like Frobisher’s, was a celebration of survival.

HaitiThe same morning, I read this account in Exodus, I saw the devastation hurricane Matthew had caused in Haiti. The category 4 hurricane passed directly over the western part of this island, killing more than 130 people and turning cities into a gigantic garbage dumps. People are still mostly without electric power, running water or telephone. It will take years to repair all the damage.

I wonder what kind of thanksgiving Haitians will celebrate this weekend. Or million or more people who are desperately evacuating eastern Florida and South Carolina. There will be neither turkey nor ham. No cranberries either. Any celebration will likely be a celebration of survival, much like that first thanksgiving recorded in Exodus.

Survival may be a good thing for all of us to focus on in our thanksgiving celebrations. Instead of focusing only on the abundance of food and material things we have and enjoy, we could focus on the terrible things that did not happen to us. For instance:

For the yearly 40,000 kilometres of safe automobile travel, or the accidents we were involved in but we survived. For the fires or floods that did not destroy our homes, or which did, but from which we escaped with our lives. For the cancer that did not strike in our families, or which did, but we survived.  For safe arrival home after travel abroad in high-risk countries.

We live in a dangerous, suffering world. The nightly TV news shows death and destruction in myriad forms. We sit and watch the horrific results of suicide bombings, school shootings, of devastating floods and landslides, of raging fires, of countrywide conflict and the resulting millions of starving, fleeing refugees.

May the TV news drive us to pray for those still in the midst of these disasters. And while we watch, let’s not forget to breathe a prayer of thanksgiving to God that He spared us.