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Saturday, 19 September 2015

The "Imagine" Reality Check: Orphan Care

After having taken a short break, I am resuming this series.  Singer-songwriter John Lennon wrote a song decades ago asking people to imagine a world with no religion as though it would automatically lead to peace and harmony among people.  Through this series I have been exploring the contributions of Christianity to Western culture, some of which have become such "givens" that many do not realize that they came to us thanks to people properly living out their religion.
Freerange stock photo

   It may be surprising to most people that the word “religion” is hardly ever used in the Christian Bible.  One place it is used is in the highly practical letter of James.  Here we find these words:
Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world. (James 1:27)
In this post, I will focus on the way Christians from the beginning were people who looked after orphans in their distress.
   Jesus Christ and his first followers lived in the context of the Roman Empire.  However, they lived within a Jewish enclave of that empire, where many laws, traditions and ways of living continued to be practiced even if they were not universally shared.  When the first followers were dispersed throughout various pockets of the Roman Empire, they may have found a Jewish synagogue or a small worshipping community of Jews by a river side (see Acts 16:13), but Greco-Roman patterns and ethics dominated all of society.
   Greco-Roman attitudes regarding the value and status of women, children and slaves affected their everyday interactions with each other and colored their sense of justice as well.  Because infants and children were not valued, it was common for them to be abandoned at birth if the parents did not want to raise them.  Such children either died of cold or hunger or were seized by slave traders who would exploit them. Christians began to rescue and embrace these infants, raising them with “the aid of the community fund.” [1] 
   Apostolic Constitutions (eight treatises dated from 375 to 380 (Book IV) Section 1. On Helping the Poor refer to the practice within the church for members to adopt and raise any Christian child whose parents had lost their lives whether by martyrdom or natural causes.  Orphanages as an institution began to be opened in the East at the same time as St. Basil was founding hospitals in the early fourth century. 
   A prominent Christian who cared for children in orphanages was George Muller, a German-born missionary who came to London to evangelize Jews.  Eventually he settled in Bristol at a time when a cholera epidemic was decimating the population.  So many children were left without parents that Muller took action and started Orphan Homes.  Eventually there were five of them, without any fundraising or asking for money.  Muller strongly believed that the Lord would provide financially without his approaching any individuals or groups. In all over 10,000 children were cared for in Muller’s homes. [2]
   Christian missions overseas have also often focused on the need to provide care for vulnerable orphans.  This has taken various forms, including adoption (for example, the cases of missionaries Amy Carmichael and Gladys Aylward in India and China, respectively), establishing orphanages, and more recently by organizing and supporting foster care within the child’s own community (such as is done by Visionledd in African nations ravaged by AIDS). 
   As I was researching orphan care, one of the things that popped up in my browser search was a news story about “the first atheist orphanage.”  A group of humanists announced in the February 2015 article that they would open the first atheist orphanage and would rely on crowd funding.  I suppose this really is newsworthy because it admits that faith has motivated the vast majority of homes for orphans.  Furthermore, it shows that through all the years of human history it has taken thousands of years before someone of no religion felt inclined to launch such an initiative.

[1] Will Durant, Caesar and Christ (1944), p. 598; also E. Gibbon, The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire (1900), p. 480.
[2] See www.Muller.org

Monday, 14 September 2015

Coptic Object Lesson

   On the weekend (Saturday, September 12th) the Coptic Orthodox community celebrated its new year.  This festival coincides with a remembrance of martyrs, people who have died for their faith in the present and especially in generations past under the persecution of Emperor Diocletian.  The name Nayrouz refers to martyrs.
   On Saturday afternoon while attending a birthday party I met a Coptic family: a father, mother and two teenage daughters.  The father and younger daughter had been in Toronto that morning at a celebratory conference in honour the festival of Nayrouz.  The younger daughter held out her hand and showed us she had saved a pit from a date she had eaten there.  The older daughter immediately knew why she would do this, and the father quickly explained it to me.  For Coptic people, the fruit of the date palm has a special significance.  It reminds them of the martyrs in the following ways:

  • The outside of the date is reddish-brown, which signifies the blood and suffering of the martyrs
  • The inside of the date is white (as you can see on the image).  This represents the purity of the hearts of those who remained true to their faith even to death.
  • The seed of the date is hard, and it reminds Coptic Christians of the firm and resolute faith that enabled the believers to face a martyr's death.
   I later learned that the importance of martyrs carries over to the Coptic calendar in one other way: instead of beginning the counting of years at the birth of Jesus Christ, they begin at AD 284 and designate each year A.M. (Anno Martyrum), in the year of martyrs.  Thus, in the traditional Coptic calendar the year is 1732.  I realize that the math does not work exactly, but there must be a good reason for that. 

Tuesday, 8 September 2015

Spreading Papers before the LORD

   This is a devotion I shared with my staff colleagues on the morning of the first day of school, but I think it can be applied to many contexts.

   There is an interesting story in the book of 1 Kings about what a king does when he receives a threatening letter. After reading the message from his enemy King Sennacherib, King Hezekiah of Judah goes to the temple and spreads the letter out before the LORD.  He begins his prayer like this:

Lord, the God of Israel, enthroned between the cherubim,you alone are God over all the kingdoms of the earth. You have made heaven and earth. 16 Give ear, Lord, and hear; open your eyes, Lord, and see; listen to the words Sennacherib has sent to ridicule the living God." (2 Kings 19:15-16)

   I love this image of the king physically spreading out this parchment before the LORD.  Of course, God knows what the message is and does not need to read it.  It was a way for the king to surrender the situation to God and to ask Him to deal with it.
   Spreading out papers before the LORD does not have to be limited to those which are sent to us and cause us distress.  Certainly, an unexpected bill or a note sharing bad news would also be appropriate to spread before the LORD and ask him for help. 
   This summer, I literally did the same thing with the class lists as I was preparing them.  I spread these pages out on my desk and asked God to bless the arrangements and the students in each class.  
    Other papers we might spread out before God are our daily and yearly plans, our communications with parents or our marking rubrics.  It's a good practice we can do as a way of surrendering our work and efforts to God's service.

Prayer based on Psalms 5 & 90
Give ear to our words, O Lord.
You have been God before creation; you have guided the formation of our school a generation ago. We are well aware of our smallness in the grand order of things.
This morning you hear my voice; this morning we lay our requests before you and wait in expectation.
Lead us O Lord in your righteousness; make straight your way before us.  Surround us with your favor as with with shield.
As we have prepared many days for this one, please bless your start to a new school year.  Please calm the anxious hearts of students and parents and staff.  We humbly ask you to establish the work of our hands for us, for without You we can do nothing.
In the name of Jesus, Amen