Thursday, July 31, 2014

The Big Question

Most of us can look back at our lives and pinpoint certain events that were pivotal in our growth and development. There have been a few of those in my life and I expect that there will be a few more since I still have plenty of growing and developing to do before I’m done. However, I am thinking of one particular event, probably the most significant in my life. I know that it affected me at a profound level and shaped my entire future. The memory jumps out at me, still crystal clear after 40 long years…

It was the final exam in my grade 11 Ancient History class. Odd?  Well, perhaps, but Roger McCombe was not your average teacher. He was quirky and unconventional and we never knew what he would come up with next. We could show up for class to find him wearing a toga or encouraging us to build a chariot to compete in a race at an annual Classics Convention. He made learning fun. He was a teacher who genuinely cared about his students and I think he believed that getting us to ask questions was more important than getting us to recite a lot of facts.

One day he announced that each of us would be scheduled for an appointment the following week and we would be taking our final exam one at a time. We had one week to prepare and it would be an oral exam consisting of a single question. All we had to do to receive a passing grade was demonstrate that we’d given the question serious thought. Serious thoughts take time so he gave us the question in advance. It wasn’t complicated and no one had to write it down. He simply asked “Why do you think you were put on this earth?”

I was 16 years old and above all things, I wanted my life to matter. That question rattled around in my head and I wanted an answer far more than I wanted a passing grade. I needed a place to think so I climbed the hill behind our house and found a rocky vantage point where I could look out over the treetops below. We weren’t a religious family. We were Catholics but we hadn’t attended church in years. I believed in God but all I knew about him was what I’d seen in movies like The Ten Commandments or Ben Hur. It occurred to me that if there was a reason for my existence, God would know. Maybe what I needed to do was just ask him.

I had my very first encounter with God on that hilltop. By the time I came down I knew what my answer to the big question would be. When my turn came I walked in and sat across the desk from my teacher and looked him in the eye.

“I was put on this earth to experience joy,” I said. He raised an eyebrow so I tried to explain. “I’m not talking about fun or even happiness. I think joy is something far deeper than either of those and I think that it comes from God.” There was a pause while he waited to see if I had anything more to add but I shook my head helplessly. That was it. It took less than 30 seconds. It was one question but it was an exercise that shaped the course of my entire life.

I think Mr. McCombe knew his question had the potential to do that. It wasn’t really a final exam after all. It was his final gift.

(image courtesy of Master isolated images/


Thursday, July 17, 2014

Things I've Learned from my 90 Year Old Father-in-law

This past Saturday we celebrated my Father-in-law’s 90th birthday. You might think that he’d be ready to take it easy at his age but you’d be wrong. He may have slowed down considerably but that just means it takes him longer to do the things he insists on doing.

He still lives in his own home and heats it with wood. He cuts and moves his own firewood and makes the trip down to the basement to stoke up the stove several times a day all through the winter. He scoffs at any suggestion that he use the electric heat the house is equipped with. He keeps a garden and still drives his tractor and his ATV. He is working at ploughing and seeding down a field this summer and he has every intention of going hunting again this fall. It’s the highlight of his year. Now that he’s had both hips replaced he’ll actually be able to hunt without using his walker. He loves the bush and always takes the time to scatter acorns or walnuts so that new trees will grow.

Change comes hard to him as it does to most people his age. Some might call him stubborn but I prefer to think of him as strong willed and determined. I’ve learned a thing or two from him as I’ve watched him cope with getting older.

1.      Just because I can’t do a thing the way I could when I was younger doesn’t mean I should stop doing it. I just need to learn to do it in a new way. Where there’s a will, a way can generally be found. It might not be pretty but who cares?

2.      Everybody needs some sort of work to do no matter how old they are. Having something to accomplish helps get us out of bed in the morning and gives us a sense of achievement at the end of the day.

3.      Life should always be more about what I can do than what I can’t.

4.      I should never give up on the things that are important to me.

5.      A sense of humour always helps.

6.      Family makes a difference.

7.      As long as I am alive I should be planting things for the future.

Not long ago Bev’s Dad asked him to help put fences around some of the young walnut trees that sprouted from the seeds he’d planted. He didn’t want the deer to eat them. He also had more acorns he wanted to scatter. He is a remarkable man.

It made us think of a Greek Proverb we’d seen recently. “A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.”

Friday, July 4, 2014

The Secret to Contentment

We are heading up north this week to visit my brother Dave. He has recently retired and moved to a tiny home that he built for himself on the edge of a wooded section of a friend’s farm. There is no driveway. He has to walk a kilometer or so from the spot where he parks his car. He has no electricity and no plumbing and no internet or phone line. There is an outhouse and eventually he will dig a well. For now there is a trail through the bush to the river for summer bathing and all his drinking water has to be hauled in from town. He does have a woodstove and a tiny propane fridge which he considers the height of luxury. There is also a propane camp stove. He has his books and his guitar and he is content.

I am looking forward to experiencing a taste of his life but I can’t help wondering if
I could ever be content with so little. It’s one thing to visit for a couple of days when you know you can go back to showers and flush toilets, electric lights and emails at the end of it. Could I give up those comforts more permanently? I’m not so sure.

There is a secret to being content. Paul talks about it in Philippians 4. He says that he has “learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.” If Paul learned it maybe I can too.

Genuine contentment is a rare thing in our culture where everyone always seems to be striving for more. More comfort, more money, more entertainment, more recognition, everything bigger, better, more up to date… The list goes on and on. I am not immune. I know I often confuse the things I want with what I actually need. If I’m not careful I can slip into the habit of comparing my life to someone else’s and wanting what they have rather than what I’ve been blessed with. That’s a sure path to chronic discontent rather than gratitude, peace or joy.

Perhaps learning the secret to contentment isn’t all that complicated. I expect, like anything else you want to learn well, it will take practice. I can practice not making those cursed comparisons. I can also cultivate a habit of thankfulness. I’ve learned that gratitude is often a choice rather than a feeling. Last but not least, when I take a closer look at that passage in Philippians I see that Paul went on to say that the secret lay in knowing that he could handle any and every situation through Christ who gave him strength. With practice I will discover that to be true for me too.
I’ll try to remember that when I have to make a midnight run to the outhouse in bear country.