Thursday, 6 October 2016

“This is what God has done in my life”

Lau Mussa was stuck. 

Unable to afford school fees to attend school in his home country of Tanzania, and caring for his parents and younger sibling, who were all sick, Lau had no hope for the future. “The only thing I could do to help my family was study hard and get a job,” Lau told students at Smithville Christian High School’s weekly chapel. “But I did not have enough money for school. I thought this was the end of my education. I will not be able to help my family in the future.”

Lau Mussa, speaking at Smithville Christian High School's chapel
Then one night, he had a dream. In the dream, he was in a hole in the ground, desperately trying to get out. Above him, were faces of people – some of whom were laughing at him and some who were extending their arms towards him, but none of them could reach.

“I thought I was going to die,” Lau said, “but I heard a voice inside my heart say ‘Look up again.’ " This time, Lau saw another face, “a strange person I had not seen before. He had white clothes and he was shining. His hand seemed to be long and he reached my hand and took me out of the hole.”

Lau said he did not know the meaning of the dream, but a week later, there were Canadian visitors at the orphanage where he was living, and, because of his ability to speak both Swahili and English, Lau was asked to serve as translator.
Bethany Ricker and David Emiry in Tanzania
Those visitors were Bethany Ricker of Dunnville and David Emiry of St. Joseph's Island, older sister and uncle to current Smithville Christian students Owen and Shasta Ricker. During their time volunteering at the orphanage, Ricker and Emiry learned of Lau’s desire to go to school. They arranged to pay his school fees, and to buy him a uniform, books, shoes and a backpack.

Lau Mussa and Bethany Ricker in Tanzania
“I didn’t understand what was going on, I thought it was a trick,” Lau told the chapel audience. “It was difficult for me to laugh, but at that time, I laughed. It was amazing and amazing and amazing.”

But Lau’s story didn’t end there. After Bethany returned to Dunnville, a plan was hatched with the help of her family, to bring Lau to Canada, so he could study at an Ontario high school and earn an Ontario Secondary School Diploma. His dream is to become a doctor.

Today, Lau, and two other “sisters” from the orphanage, Rachel Mwita and Antonia Silvini, are all Grade 11 students at Smithville Christian High School, learning how to adjust to a life in Canada and an education system that is radically different from what they experienced at home.

Lau is both astonished and grateful for what has happened in his life.

“It was difficult for me to believe what was going on,” Lau said, “but I began to know the meaning of that dream.”
School classroom in Tanzania
School dormitory in Tanzania
Lau said school is different here than at home. “I can ask anything I want and get help. All the teachers are very good and kind. I can’t really believe what is here. I am so happy.”

Lau said Jeremiah 29:11 is comforting to him, and he recited it in both Swahili and in English: “ ‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’

“It doesn’t matter where you come from or what skin colour you have or what kind of life you are living, you have to trust God,” Lau said. “This is what God has done in my life.”

This week’s chapel also featured praise and worship led by student praise team SWAG – Saved With Amazing Grace – who led with “Beautiful Things,” “Waterfall,” and “My Lighthouse.”

Student praise team SWAG at chapel

Wednesday, 13 January 2016

Celebrating the dignity of others

Students at Smithville Christian High School were challenged to consider not only what they think but why they think it.

Christopher Mark D’Souza, an award-winning Toronto educator, songwriter and lecturer, told students they need to be able to think critically about their ideas about race, ethnicity, gender, marital status, sexual orientation or religion – and the many other ways in which people are different from each other.

D’Souza showed a picture of an intricate snowflake and said that just as snowflakes are different from each other, so are people, and there are many aspects of our identity that we can’t change.

“I am brown,” D’Souza said, describing his family of origin. “I am a brown man and I can’t change that, so I may as well celebrate it.”

Similarly, “if someone makes fun of you because of your height or skin colour, or eyes or weight or sexual orientation or gender you can’t change that,” he said. When we are interacting with other people, “respect is not enough,” he said. “You need to honour their bodies and honour who they are, to empower the person you are with to feel better about themselves. We want to promote dignity.”

D’Souza described what it was like for him, a person of colour, growing up in the 1960s, and the hurtful things people said about him at school. He described the repeated acts of vandalism against his family’s cottage that so demoralized his father that the elder D’Souza made the decision to sell.

But then six neighbours came over and told him that they knew who was breaking the windows, and promised D’Souza’s father that the vandalism would end.

“They showed us dignity and they used their power,” D’Souza explained, inviting students to similarly use their power to uphold the dignity of others.

He said it’s important for us to ask if our conduct is replicating stereotypes or interrupting them.

The vandalism made D’Souza and his family think “the whole world was racist,” he said, “but it turns out it was just one family.” Just as the D’Souzas' neighbours challenged the vandals, when we hear people dismissing or degrading others, it’s up to us to say ‘not here.’

D’Souza shared some of the stories and songs he has written about diversity and inclusion, and invited students to consider that when they obey God by blessing others with generosity and acceptance, the world will be a better place.

Jesus taught us to do unto others as we would have them do unto us, he said, and Jesus walked the talk.

“He reached out to the disadvantaged. He hung out with the outcasts, he challenged the hegemony,” D’Souza said.

Principal Ted Harris thanked D’Souza for “giving us lots to think about,” and closed the chapel in prayer, thanking God for opportunities to grow in our ability to respect others “as Jesus himself taught us.”

Student praise team, The Crew, also led in worship with “Holding Nothing Back,” “Heroes” and “My Redeemer Lives.”

Members of The Crew also joined D’Souza in leading the school in singing two of D’Souza’s songs.

Monday, 28 December 2015

Experiencing the love and power of God

God is so much more powerful than we can ever imagine, said Devon Van Hoffen, Class of 2012. Speaking at a recent chapel at Smithville Christian High School, Van Hoffen told students how his 2012 trip to South Africa with the school had a profound impact on him.
After graduating from high school, Van Hoffen returned to Africa with an organization called Hands at Work in Africa, which uses local care workers and volunteers, like Van Hoffen, to develop care plans and provide support and encouragement to meet people’s needs. Van Hoffen has served in Zambia, Democratic Republic of the Congo and Malawi, and is currently working in South Africa and Swaziland.
Van Hoffen said he has seen the power of prayer and God’s hand at work in powerful ways.

“The things you read about (in the Bible) are happening now,” Van Hoffen told students. “Things that seem impossible, God is doing.”

As he lives and works among some of the world’s poorest people, Van Hoffen said he regularly encounters God. “God shows up when you are in a place like that, with nothing, because when you have nothing else, all you can do is look for God,” he said.
Van Hoffen said he used to think God was angry and or upset with him, but he has come to know “how much God actually loves us. His work (through Jesus) is finished, and we are free to go and care for people.”

Van Hoffen told stories of the generosity and hospitality of the people he meets, and of the way God heals people.

“We have God’s love, and we can go and give it to other people, and show the love that only God can give.”

Van Hoffen said when he was a student in high school, sitting in weekly chapels, he had no idea of God’s calling in his life, but during a short-term trip to Belize he found himself praying one night that God could use his voice.
“I felt an arm come around me” and even though up until that point Van Hoffen had not been a good singer, the next day he was able to play the guitar and lead in worship. “It’s weird that God can use a gift I never knew I had,” he said, but God can do the same thing in the lives of all of us.

Quoting Psalm 139:13-16, Van Hoffen said he now understands “the depths of God’s love. It’s so amazing that God thinks about us and knows about us, deeply and personally.”

Van Hoffen encouraged students to make themselves available to God.

“God will make it known to you. God will be able to use you to serve him.” 
Van Hoffen played and sang “No Longer Slaves” by Bethel Music’s Jonathan David and Melissa Helser. 
* * *
Devon Van Hoffen, who has to raise his own support, is holding an information and fundraising event on December 28 at 6 p.m. at Rose City Kids Theatre in Welland. This is a casual, all-ages event featuring praise and worship. Come and learn more about how God is at work through Hands at Work. Refreshments provided.  

Read more about Hands at Work: visit their website.


Friday, 4 December 2015

How should we live?

So if life without God is meaningless, pleasure can’t satisfy us, the world is full of injustice and anxiety is pervasive, how should we live?

The answer to that question can also be found in the writing of the teacher in the book of Ecclesiastes, said Pastor Paul Vandenbrink, during the final chapel of Spiritual Emphasis Week 2015.
“Fear God and keep his commandments, that is the whole duty of everyone,” Vandenbrink said, reading Ecclesiastes 12:13
 “After 12 chapters of questioning materialism, hedonism, existentialism and nihilism it all boils down to one thing: fear me and keep my commandments.” It may seem simple, but it is “piercingly profound.”

Vandenbrink said “fear” does not mean being frightened of a God who is scrutinizing and judging us, but rather a sense of awe-struck wonder, similar to the deep appreciation we feel when we are caught up in the beauty of nature. He said it’s like finding out the piece of jewellery you bought for $2 at a garage sale is the rare work of an exceptional master, and is actually worth thousands of dollars.

“When you come to recognize the magnitude of what you have, you cherish it, you treat it with the respect it deserves. The Bible says that’s what a Christian does with God.”

Similarly, the word “commandments” doesn’t mean a set of rules that ruins our fun times either, he said. Vandenbrink said when he was a teenager he thought God’s commandments meant “I don’t get to have as much fun as I would like, but it’s the price I pay for getting saved. It took me a long time to understand that’s not what it is.”

Instead, he said the commandments of God are the constraints that fit our nature, that help us be the best we can be, to reach our full potential “because God has placed his divinity in us.

“God’s laws are given to us because they fit how we were built.” For example, “how do you decide how you use your sexuality? It’s part of your nature; it’s a powerful, beautiful, dangerous part of who you are.” Just as we look back on our five-year-old selves and realize we had a lot of growing up to do, so Vandenbrink looks back on his 16-year-old self and realizes he didn’t know very much.

“God comes along and says I built human sexuality. I made you, I made it. And you were built to conform to the laws of God that you might flourish,” he said.

“God is not a killjoy. He is the source of joy. Trying to decide for yourself is ultimately a dead end.”

The way to keep God’s commands is through love and devotion to Jesus. Just as a teenage boy might try to find out what a girl likes in order to show his devotion to her, so we can show our devotion to Jesus by knowing what God likes. Just as Johnny Cash sang “because you’re mine, I walk the line,” so we can choose to walk the line because we belong to God and God loves us.

When you see “God’s commands for us as an expression of his desire for us. . . you don’t find it a burden to follow them,” he said.

And Jesus is the best example of a person who kept God’s commands, even going so far as to die for us, he said. We might not think we’re worth it, but because we belonged to Jesus, he walked the line for us.

“Thank you Jesus, for fulfilling the teacher’s advice,” Vandenbrink prayed. “For showing us, and for doing it for us.”

A student praise team led worship with “Thrive,” “Holy (Wedding Day),” “This is Amazing Grace,”  and “Mountaintop.”

Thursday, 3 December 2015

Facing an uncertain future

If life “under the sun” is meaningless and it’s basically unfair, how can we face an uncertain future?
“I am not trying to scare you here,” said Pastor Paul Vandenbrink during the fourth chapel in Spiritual Emphasis Week. “I am trying to push you so the opposite can happen.”
Vandenbrink said in his role as a pastor he has talked with many young people who are experiencing anxiety. He said we are healthier, wealthier and safer than any other culture in history, yet teen suicide is on the rise, more teenagers are taking sleeping pills and more young people are diagnosed with depression and anxiety than ever before.

But in the midst of a society experiencing increasing anxiety about the future, we can turn to the wisdom of the teacher as found in Ecclesiastes 11:1-6.

Instead of saying “hunker down and play it safe, protect yourself, don’t take any risks,” the teacher says the opposite, Vandenbrink says.

He says “cast your bread upon the waters,” which, in a subsistence society, would have been a foolish thing to do. But the teacher is challenging his listeners to think about what God can do. Instead of being cautious and stingy with what we’ve been given, we can choose to be bold, to “use those resources for God, for Jesus Christ.

“You will not be disappointed.”

Vandenbrink said he gave up a good job, a secure salary and a nice house in order to establish a new church, but it took him four years to finally follow God’s call.

“The truth is, most of us are afraid to live boldly,” he said. “But why are we so afraid to step out and try new things for the sake of the kingdom?”

The answer can also be found in the passage from Ecclesiastes: often we are paralyzed by fear of the inevitable. Just as rain clouds deliver rain or falling trees become immovable objects, so the inevitability of failure, hostility or rejection can paralyze us. Others are paralyzed by uncertainty (vs 4), and others are paralyzed by mystery – by their inability to comprehend the work of God “the maker of all things” (vs 5).

The fact is that life is unknowable and uncontrollable, he said, but just as Abraham obediently followed God to move to a new land or just as our vehicle headlights illuminate only a short section of the road in front of us, so we can trust God will show us enough of the way to safely proceed.
“God is in control. Our choices matter, but the final outcome is up to God,” Vandenbrink said. “How liberating is it to know that my decisions matter, but God, who loves me, is directing everything according to his ends.”

Jesus, who was the bread of life, allowed himself to be cast out and to sink under the judgement of sin for us, Vandenbrink said.

“What does Jesus have now that he didn’t have before his birth, death and resurrection?”
“It’s you.
“I promise you, God promises you that you will get a return far beyond anything you could ever imagine if you are faithful and leave rest up to God.”

A student praise team led in worship with “It is Well,” “I Am Free” and “My Redeemer Lives.”

Friday’s final chapel of Spiritual Emphasis Week starts at 9:30. All are welcome to attend.

Wednesday, 2 December 2015

Getting mad at God

Life is difficult and unfair and then you die, said Pastor Paul Vandenbrink at Wednesday’s Spiritual Emphasis Week Chapel. So is it any surprise that people are mad at God?

Continuing his series of messages on Ecclesiastes, Vandenbrink said today’s topic may be the most difficult of all: the problem of injustice and suffering.
In fact, the presence of suffering makes many people question the existence of God. For many people, “a good God is incompatible with the suffering and injustice they see in the world,” Vandenbrink said. For others, the question is even more personal, because of the illness, tragedy and loss in their own lives.

Christians are not immune to these questions or free from anger at God, he said. Often when people find it hard to pray, or don’t have time to read the Bible, or don’t get anything out of church it can be because they are angry or because they believe they can justify themselves.

They think, “I can make it on my own, I can work towards my goal and achieve it. I can make it,” he said. “Then when tragedy inevitably hits” the questions come: Who is this? Who is God? Does he care? Why would he let this happen to me?

The teacher of Ecclesiastes asked the same questions, he said, reading from Ecclesiastes 8:14 –9:16.

The teacher saw the same kind of things we see today: terrorists in concert halls, innocent bystanders cut down in gang violence or children killed in tragic accidents. Good people get cancer and nice people drop dead from strokes. Athletes’ careers are ended by injury, a family’s savings can be wiped out in a stock market correction.

Yet the teacher’s written description of the injustice and suffering he sees is the true Word of God, Vandenbrink said, evidence of God’s own frustration with the presence of sin in the world. “All kinds of bad stuff happens that is not supposed to happen; you cannot avoid injustice. Most of the time we live under the illusion that we are in control, but there is random evil and injustice happening all around us.
“What are we supposed to make of this? There is no rhyme or reason to it. Good, bad, rich or poor, tragedy strikes us all.”

And there isn’t even comfort in knowing that good people have better lives, because “there are lots of wicked people who are sleeping very well at night and Christians who are anxious and not sleeping.”
The final injustice is that the same destiny awaits us all, he said.

“So what is the point of being good? Does it matter if you are good? Does it make a difference if you die a sinner or a saint?”

Vandenbrink said the teacher’s lament offers a clue in 8:17: ‘No one can comprehend what goes on under the sun. Despite all their efforts to search it out, no one can discover its meaning. Even if the wise claim they know, they cannot really comprehend it.

“You and I are too small to understand the ways of God but there is someone above the sun. Our inability to understand doesn’t mean there is no meaning, it just means we don’t understand it.”

Just because Paul Vandenbrink did not understand Grade 10 Math when he was a student at Smithville Christian in the early 1990s (he took the course three times and only got the credit because he negotiated with then-principal Marc Stroobosscher) doesn’t mean the math didn’t make sense. Just as a wild animal trapped in a snare does not understand the efforts of a park ranger to free it so we may not understand God’s efforts on our behalf, he said.

“Here’s the point: God, in some mysterious way, is going to use the suffering and injustice for some greater good. We cannot fully comprehend it, but we can trust that it is true because that is exactly what happened at the cross of Jesus Christ.”
The followers of Jesus who had witnessed his miracles and experienced the power of his teaching would have expected him to throw off the oppression of the Romans and usher in a reign of peace and prosperity. They did not understand how he could be dying like a common criminal.

“Perfection itself suffering the ultimate injustice. It makes no sense, and yet it was the greatest moment of goodness and redemption in all of history,” Vandenbrink said. “He could have avoided it, but it would have wiped us out? Why? Because we are the unjust ones. We are the reason for the injustice.”

In 2 Cor 4: 17 the apostle Paul says ‘our light and momentary afflictions are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.

 “I don’t know what your story might be,” Vandenbrink told the students. Your family may be coming apart. You may be experiencing depression, addiction or loneliness so deep you are sure nobody understands.

“But when you look at the cross it means you have a God who knows suffering from the inside. There is not a pain or sorrow or suffering you can experience that he does not know. And it is only in the gospel of Jesus Christ that you have a God who had the guts to have suffering touch him too.”

When you look at the cross, you see the only perfect person who ever lived facing injustice for you.  “Your suffering cannot, cannot, cannot mean God does not love you.”

A student praise team led in worship with "Chosen Generation," "Heart of Worship" and "Thrive."

 We are grateful for the parents, youth pastors and other guests who join us for chapel. Everyone is welcome. The final chapels of Spiritual Emphasis Week will be on Thursday at 9 and Friday at 9:30. All are welcome.

Tuesday, 1 December 2015

Chasing after pleasure

If life under the sun is meaningless, we may as well try to make our own pleasure, said Pastor Paul Vandenbrink, speaking to students at Smithville Christian High School during the second chapel of Spiritual Emphasis Week.

“That’s what the teacher did,” said Vandenbrink, referring to the writer of Ecclesiastes, who tried it all. Vandenbrink read Ecclesiastes 2:1-11 and 3:9-14. 
1I said to myself, “Come now, I will test you with pleasure to find out what is good.” But that also proved to be meaningless. “Laughter,” I said, “is madness. And what does pleasure accomplish?” I tried cheering myself with wine, and embracing folly—my mind still guiding me with wisdom. I wanted to see what was good for people to do under the heavens during the few days of their lives.
I undertook great projects: I built houses for myself and planted vineyards. I made gardens and parks and planted all kinds of fruit trees in them. I made reservoirs to water groves of flourishing trees. I bought male and female slaves and had other slaves who were born in my house. I also owned more herds and flocks than anyone in Jerusalem before me. I amassed silver and gold for myself, and the treasure of kings and provinces. I acquired male and female singers, and a harem[a] as well—the delights of a man’s heart. I became greater by far than anyone in Jerusalem before me. In all this my wisdom stayed with me.
10 I denied myself nothing my eyes desired;
    I refused my heart no pleasure.
My heart took delight in all my labor,
    and this was the reward for all my toil.
11 Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done
    and what I had toiled to achieve,
everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind;
    nothing was gained under the sun.
* * * 
What do workers gain from their toil? 10 I have seen the burden God has laid on the human race. 11 He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet[a] no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end. 12 I know that there is nothing better for people than to be happy and to do good while they live. 13 That each of them may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all their toil—this is the gift of God. 14 I know that everything God does will endure forever; nothing can be added to it and nothing taken from it. God does it so that people will fear him.

Vandenbrink said the teacher tried it all, but he also tried to be smart about it: pursuing pleasure while engaging his mind because he wanted to figure out what is worthwhile. 

There are two ways of pursuing pleasure, Vandenbrink said, – the “party hard” lifestyle found in verse 3 of the passage and the “build it big” lifestyle found in verses 4 to 9. 

People are still trying both approaches today, he said, using drugs, alcohol or sex to have fun and feel better about themselves, or trying to amass money and prestige.

“Our culture tells us a little bit of booze or dope or sex works,” he said. “It looks good, people seem happy. And on one level, yes, it does work. I am not going to pretend that people don’t have fun living this way.”

But it only feels good for a while, he said. The problem is the next day, when we realize it’s just not cutting it. There’s brief satisfaction, but “what the devil gives you with one hand, he takes away with the other,” he said.

“The Rolling Stones were right. You can’t get no satisfaction.”

Similarly having a family or making enough money to take the right vacations or play enough golf don’t satisfy us either, he said, quoting Jack Higgins from The Eagle Has Landed: “When you get to the top, you discover there is nothing there.”

The problem with pursuing pleasure and the reason why it doesn’t satisfy us can be found in verse 11: God has set eternity in our hearts, Vandenbrink said.

“Inside of us there is a longing for eternity,” he said. C.S. Lewis said we all know deep down we are longing for something that cannot be had in this world; that we were made for another world.

The reason we have this longing can be found in verse 14: God wants us to long for him. Just as Jesus told the Samaritan woman at the well that he could provide living water that would satisfy her thirst, only Jesus can truly satisfy us.

That’s because he knows us and because he loves us and because he suffered and died to save us, Vandenbrink said. “If I find myself with a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy it’s probably because earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy it.”

In the end, what we need is the transformation of pleasure, he said.

“When Jesus is your pleasure, it puts all these other pleasures in their proper place.” Having the latest phone, going on a date with a special someone “are all good things, but they are meant to be signs, pointing you to the greatest pleasure,” which is God. Accepting less than that would be aiming too low, he said, quoting C.S. Lewis. “We are far too easily pleased.”
Vandenbrink read Isaiah 55:1-2.
“Come, all you who are thirsty,
    come to the waters;
and you who have no money,
    come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
    without money and without cost.
Why spend money on what is not bread,
    and your labor on what does not satisfy?
Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good,
    and you will delight in the richest of fare. 

The thing that will truly satisfy us can be bought without cost, Vandenbrink said. “It cost Jesus everything but it is totally free, and it is right there, waiting for you.” 

A student praise team led in worship and small group discussions took place at lunch.