Author: Julius de Jager

Executive Director

Bread and Wine

I had the privilege of witnessing my grandson’s first participation in the Lord’s Supper in church recently. He joined me, my wife and his older brother in leaving our pew to file up to the elders serving the meal. The elders bent low to serve him, as he is only three years old. He reached for the bread and his grandmother thoughtfully picked up his cup of grape juice. We re-entered our pew, placed our tiny glasses of juice in the pew holders and sat back with the piece of bread in our hands.

We waited.

He sat still, eyes wide open, watching the people filing back to their seats. He listened as our pastor resumed the litany of the service.  All the while his little fingers explored the small square of bread in his hand.

When it was time to join with the entire congregation—to eat the bread and to drink from the tiny glass of juice—he watched the pastor intently and carefully followed his example, consuming the elements in unison with us all.

As we placed our glasses down, he looked at us and asked quietly, “Is there more?”

Grandmother said that this was all. He seemed disappointed.

I could not say anything.  I was so struck by the meaning of his question.

Perhaps he wondered why there was so little in this meal, as he always had a plate full of food elsewhere.  Did he wonder why this special meal was so sparse? I doubted whether this was a Dickensian moment; he is not a starving orphan.

My hope is that his question came from a desire to feast at the Lord’s table. I wanted to say, “Grandson, there is so much more waiting for you. A lifetime of partaking and blessing!” I wanted to hug him and show him his bright future, to be living as a child of God.

The moment passed. We stood to sing and receive the benediction blessing. He fidgeted like any other three-year-old boy. He was impatient to go to the fellowship hall to have his cup of lemonade with the other children.

What a Sunday service!

It is my prayer that all children will long for and embrace the gift of Jesus Christ.  He is our Saviour and Lord.  We want to love him and serve him. We remember him best in the bread and the wine.

My grandson caught his first taste of Christ that day.  I will never forget it!

Godly Laughter in our Darkness

“And just as the angel had sung his celestial song for her, she sang a song for Elizabeth.

‘My soul’, sang Mary, ‘O cousin, my soul doth magnify the Lord. My soul rejoiceth in God my savior. He is keeping his promises to me. Elizabeth, I am going to have a baby!’

So then – in the middle of the gloomy world there were two women laughing.  They laughed til they couldn’t laugh any more, and then they began to weep for gladness.

And God looked down from heaven and saw them. And the Lord God smiled.”

So writes Walter Wangerin, Jr. as he re-tells the Christmas story in his book, The Manger is Empty . In these lines, he captures the spirit of Advent—the Old Testament anticipation of light while in darkness, and our own expectation of salvation amid desolation. I encourage you to borrow my copy and read this story for yourself, along with the many other profound pieces in this small book.

It is my hope and prayer that you will all experience such laughter this Christmas.  We can easily turn our celebration of Christ’s birth into a somber contemplation of the theology of the divine made human.

We can hear the voices, can’t we?

“Yes, we are celebrating Christ’s birth, but this is serious business!”

“Enjoy the presents but don’t think of them in church as we hear Luke 2 being recited.”

What I love about this story that Wangerin unfolds in the pages of his book, is the story of an authentic Mary who knows the anticipation of the Jewish nation as any child of the synagogue should.  On these pages, she experiences the epiphany of what the angel’s message truly was—that God’s ‘Good News’ had finally come; that the miracle of a virgin birth is the first light in a dark world; that she was going to have a baby!

That surprise, that delight and that darkness-shattering ray of hope is in the heart of our Christmas celebration as well.  I hope you catch Mary’s excitement and wonder again for the first time this Christmas!

October 31st is coming.

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For most folks, it is the season to celebrate Hallowe’en. The stores have been selling Hallowe’en merchandise ever since Thanksgiving Day. Neighbourhoods are changing. Each weekend, more morbid lawnscapes are being erected. Carved pumpkins decorate front porches. Skeletons protrude out of the ground. RIP gravestones tilt toward pedestrians. Down-right scary images can be seen everywhere.

Is Hallowe’en harmless? Admittedly some Hallowe’en practices are fun.  Dressing up as story book characters or creatures is fun anytime the kids decide to do this! Each year, my wife and I see delightful children in the cutest of costumes begging for our candy: two-year olds as lions; five-year-olds as Star Wars storm troopers; ten-year-olds as Snow White or medieval knights.

Some come as zombies.

What continues to disturb me more about Hallowe’en each year is a growing fascination with death and morbidity. The walking dead. The threats to harm. The frightening scenes covered with blood. Who enjoys this? What mind wants to dwell here? What are we telling the children?

I have slowly resigned myself to the fact that I cannot change the culture in my neighbourhood. I may want to celebrate something else on October 31, but the public culture dominates what my neighbors will do with that date. I may want to reflect on the Reformation Act of Martin Luther back in 1517, but who shares this conviction down my street? Many Christian friends do not want to focus back 500 years anymore.

So I will have the bowl of candies by the door in a few days.  My wife and I will gush over the cute little ones at our door.  We will greet the neighbors and wish them a great evening. We will be neighbourly.

But…I do wish it were different. Death and dying to me is the Evil One’s last attempt to dissuade us from the Grace of God. My  experiences with death involve tears, sadness and a broken heart for loved ones lost. The older I get the more I experience this. Jack-o-lanterns do not help. Watching my young grandchildren react with fear and nightmares after a walk around the block angers me. Seeing the usual crop of horror movie ads get progressively dark makes me wonder if we now live in a pagan culture.

Maranatha, Lord Jesus!

Ubuntu

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While listening to the latest CD from the Mars Hill Audio Journal, I heard a reference to an African proverb that caught my attention. It read, “I am because we are”. I have since learned that this proverb is called Ubuntu and its full description is better stated as “I am what I am because of who we all are”.

According to Ubuntu, we all share a common bond and it is through this bond―through our interactions with our fellow human beings―that we discover our human qualities. Ubuntu is about sharing gifts, resources and relationships so everyone is enriched. Ubuntu asks the question, “How can any one of us be happy if others are sad?”

Doesn’t this sound like the covenantal relationship that we often refer to in our Christian circles? We believe that we are bound in relationship with God and live within His promises. We live in close community with others as fellow believers. Christ calls us to care for one another. We are our brother’s keeper.

As we begin a new school year, let’s embrace the spirit of Ubuntu in our school communities. Teachers working together with each other, with support staff and administrators. School boards working together with committees, staff and principals. Students working together on learning projects and extra-curricular activities. Rather than being self-focused, let us be group-centred. Rather than striving to win, let us be better together.

I further believe we need to think in Ubuntu terms when we consider our OACS school family. Some of our schools have been blessed with great leadership, great programs and good locations. They are flourishing schools that are growing in size and diversifying in local leadership. Other schools are not doing as well as they would like.

The OACS has always known that our services are used more by schools with urgent needs and that this list changes significantly from year to year. For years, OACS member schools have understood that their good years contribute valued membership resources for those members that may need the OACS more. Ubuntu in practice!

Let’s continue to practice the value of Ubuntu in our school communities this year: both locally and across our OACS membership!

Happy New School Year!

Affirmation and Excellence

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I attended the graduation celebration at Sonrise Christian Academy in Picton last evening. The event was held in a small country church in Bloomfield. The school community—grandparents, parents, students and pre-school siblings—all found a place in the sanctuary. Excitement was in the air. Smiles and greetings were shared as people found their places in the pews.

The violinist struck a chord and we all stood up to witness the procession of the graduates—all two of them. They were followed by the teaching staff, with Principal Julie Scrivens stepping up to the podium with words of welcome. We settled in for the celebration of Christian learning.

What followed was a beautiful display of care and affirmation. Each student in the school was featured on the stage as they transitioned to the next grade. Junior Kindergarten to Senior Kindergarten. Grade three to grade four. Not one was missed. Words of encouragement and hugs by the teachers made eyes sparkle.  Parents positioned themselves for photos. Students beamed. Applause was given for each child. It was wonderful!

Next, a long list of awards was presented. A grade one student won the Language Arts Award. One of the graduates took the Excellence in Math Award. There were awards for Athletics, Creation Studies, High Academic Achievement, and several other achievements as well.  The Timon Award, presented to the most improved student, is named after one of the original seven deacons appointed by the early church. Some awards are academic and some are relational; all focussed on aspects of Christian learning!

The evening concluded with a celebration of the two girls in grade eight who were graduating to high school. Both were diligent students and school leaders. Diplomas were given. There was a bit of roasting, led by teachers. A prayer was offered by a church youth leader. Each contributor to their evening was thanked with flowers and hugs by the graduates.

In our conversation after the celebrations, I shared with Principal Scrivens that a graduation event tells the story of the school and its vision. Sonrise Christian Academy invests deeply in its students. Although it is a small school in a small town, it is a vibrant community—a Christian community that affirms each of the students and holds learning to a standard of excellence.

Congratulations to Mina and Alexa. Congratulations to Principal Scrivens and the teaching staff.  Congratulations to the Sonrise school community.  You have run the race of another school year.  Rest for awhile in the joy of the Lord.

My Warbler Surprise

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Last Sunday morning I decided to wander into my back yard for a few moments before attending church. I was standing quietly on my deck and enjoying how the garden perennials were beginning to emerge.  The hostas were pointing up in thick pencil-like shoots, and little white flowers were popping up under the pine tree.

While scanning the gardens, I noticed a flutter of wings and began searching for the bird—a birder’s instinctive response. Sure enough, a little bird flew down onto the lawn. But this was no house sparrow! There before me was a beautiful bird with a bright blue colouring. Its throat feathers were a deep black. What was it? It appeared to be a warbler—but which one? Certainly not one I’d seen before. Such a remarkable bird in my back garden!

Out came my copy of the Sibley Bird Book. The little bird was quickly identified as a black-throated blue warbler. I had never seen one before, and was thrilled to have a new entry into my log book.

I need to admit that I am a beginner birder. I have been spotting birds and recording them for a few years now. For me, the thrill of spotting birds is deeply connected to my love of creation. As a boy, I loved hiking in the coulees along the Oldman River in Lethbridge, Alberta. Our family vacations have taken us to many wilderness and national parks in Canada and the USA. Currently, my current role as OACS Executive Director takes me to many places for conferences and meetings—and my binoculars and bird books usually come with me.

I used to wonder what attracts so many to this hobby. Attending to the amazing variety of birds is one way I celebrate God’s creation and His creativity. He cares for the little sparrows, colourful warblers, dabbling ducks and soaring hawks. And, I was reminded once again that He cares for me as well.

A Cross in the Telephone!

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When I arrived in Stoney Creek in 1985 to assume my new assignment as principal at John Knox Memorial Christian School (JKMCS), I was not at all surprised to see that I had a rotary phone in my office. Rotary phones were still commonplace, especially in a school that ran frugal budgets. I had one in Peterborough and in Stratford, so I did not expect anything different in my new school.

Like all new principals, I had to memorize my new school phone number: 643-2460. I had to get the phone number for Rhema Christian School out of my head and get 643-2460 in.

At some point in my tenure at JKMCS, we upgraded our phone system to create a way to use a new technology—the fax machine. We replaced the old phone and installed a new one. Gone was the rotary dial; in was the new touch-tone dial pad. The numbers were in three rows of three with the 0 below the 8. It took a while before I clued in that the numbers, 2-4-6-0 on a touch-tone phone, actually form a cross: 2 at the top centre, 4 and 6 at the ends of the second row with the 0 as the bottom of the cross in the fourth row. Each time someone with a touch-tone phone wanted to speak me at the school, he/she had to make the shape of a cross to do so. Many calls came in from community members as well as from others inquiring about the school. How fitting that everyone made the sign of a cross before contacting a Christian school.

Thinking about this, I had to smile. This cross in the phone was a God thing! He knew our number was going to be 643-2460. He knew that when the number was assigned, there was nothing unique about it for the first 25 years of the school’s existence. But then our technology changed. The fax machine came in and the touch-tone phone now revealed a beautiful thing that the Lord had quietly placed in the potentiality of our old phone number.

How many more potentialities for good has the Lord quietly inserted in our technological lives? To what extent do we see uses of technology that bless us and our communities as the Lord intended all along?

I struggled to transition from a pen and paper world to a keyboard world while serving at John Knox Memorial. I could not think while keyboarding and found the experience frustrating. But then I broke through the mental and physical barriers. I could think, compose and keyboard all at the same time! I also could design and structure my documents. I could save electronically. In later years, I could email and then Skype. I was more intensely engaged in community as communications technology opened new ways to talk, share and message.

My work patterns shifted and the work of my office assistant shifted even more dramatically. No longer did I place handwritten pages in her inbox; she was free to take on new administrative tasks.

I recall a story of Amish discernment around a difficult choice they needed to make. The government required that in order to accept the bulk milk from the farmer, all dairy farms would have to have milk coolers—no exceptions! Since the Amish lived off the grid, this decision would have a huge impact on their income and lifestyle. After debate and discernment, the Amish leaders encouraged their farmers to run electricity to the barns and install the coolers. When asked why they did so, they replied that their agricultural livelihood—the way they lived as families and together as community—would wither if they rejected the use of electric milk coolers. It was better to engage with this new technology on their terms than refuse to consider it at all and see their way of life fracture.

We need to be discerning of technology to ensure that we remain faithful humans in this engagement. But we should also remember that the Lord has placed so many potentialities, technological and others, in His world that we still need to discover. Many technological advancements are helpful in our homes and offices as well as in our schools and classrooms. The OACS itself employs advanced technology so we can be better in community, leadership and service.

I encourage you to consider where God’s blessings may lie in the use of technology. How can we continue to live better together?

The CBC Was My Inspiration

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One never knows where inspiration will come to us from in our busy lives.  One Sunday, my wife and I were traveling to Toronto after church to visit my daughter and her family.  I tuned into CBC and caught the morning program “The 180 ” with Jim Brown. He shared several interesting segments, but one in particular caught my attention.

Toronto writer Julie Green was featured, as she reflected on the wisdom of her decision to raise her son without religion. She commented on how she and her husband had decided to live a secular life and how they rejected baptism for their son. As her son grew older, she began to wonder if she had made the right decision. Was she adding more confusion into her son’s life by omitting a Christian upbringing? Would a life without clear Christian values undermine his development? Listen to Julie as she describes her dilemma:

As she continues to reflect on the choices she’s made, and the impact they’ve had on her son’s upbringing, Julie comes so close to acknowledging the right decision for her son! She seemed to catch the values of a Christian upbringing and the strength of a Christian’s faith. She understood that by choosing to raise her son outside of a community of believers, she was giving her son an impossible task of discernment for meaning without a religious foundation.

I was fully anticipating that she would conclude her reflections by sharing that the family decided to return to their church community. But, she didn’t.  She actually affirmed, proudly in fact, her rejection of faith as a valued contribution to the good life for her son.

As much as I was sad about Julie’s decision, I believe that there are many young people, like her, struggling with the deep issues of faith and belief in a secular society. I believe our Christian schools, and especially the bond of a faith community of students and parents, attract young families seeking meaning in their lives and for the lives of their children. Many are returning to their church communities.  Others are one or two generations away from a Christian family experience.

The lesson for us in the Christian school movement is to be open to the seeking out of these non-churched families. How many have quietly come alongside your Christian school community and have initiated contact?  How many more have done the same but did not have the courage to knock on the door? Did you notice them? Are we truly welcoming these families?  Do we make it easy or difficult for them to join our community?

What would we say or just quietly do to help a “Julie” return to her Christian yearning, and to make her and her children feel welcome in our Christian school community?

Science and Religion

Recently I attended a Cardus Hill Lecture Series event held in the Glen Gould Studio in Toronto where Father Raymond de Souza interviewed Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks. The conversation was centred on Sacks’ recent book, Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence. The evening’s conversation was fascinating and the audience broke into applause several times in appreciation of the wisdom and wit of Rabbi Sacks. For example, when asked to comment on Pope Benedict’s restatement of Pope John Paul’s description of the Jewish faith community as “our elder brother in the faith”, Rabbi Sacks smiled, paused a moment and then replied that only a pope can correct a pope! We roared with laughter. What a great evening to listen and learn from gifted individuals!

Towards the end of the evening, after many pithy epitaphs and observations had already been shared, Rabbi Sacks stated one more that caught my imagination. In a conversation piece about the troubled relationship between science and religion, he shared, “Science takes things apart to see how they work. Religion puts things together to see what they mean.” As a lifelong Christian educator, this comment resonated deeply with what I believe about the nature of Christian education.

Education has long been about educating students to be enlightened scientists―students mastering the skills of literacy and numeracy to be able to pull things apart to see how they work. Public education holds high the ideal of fully mastering the world though scientific education and the result is the phenomenal growth in knowledge that leaps forward year after year. Public school education focuses on information and knowledge―laudable goals for educational institutions.

Mastery of basic skills that leads to advanced exploration and knowledge in sciences, humanities and the arts is central to the character of any school. However, this is where the limitations of a naturalist view of learning begin to appear. In the sciences, the facts are the facts! In the humanities, the story of human interactions cannot be understood by just the facts―something else is at play here. Worldview issues enter as life narratives compete for dominance. The Arts shift further away from “the facts”. Already in the primary grades, the Arts move quickly beyond mastery of technique and engage authentic artistic expression comes that from the inner person.

Rabbi Sacks caught the subtlety of the way religion and science operate. As science takes apart, religion puts together. The inability of public education to stay in its neutral, scientific mode as it engages in more than scientific work in all its curriculum areas underscores the reality that people are religious beings. We are so curious to discover HOW but always pine for resolution of WHY.

Our Christian schools are schools of learning about God’s world. From year to year, we dig in, pull apart, explore, measure and experiment to understand how God’s world works. We learn from the Master Builder how to be builders and creators ourselves. Just think of the variety of the careers that our graduates are engaged in today! Mastery of skills and beautiful work sustains our supporting families with income and satisfaction. However, in the midst of our playful digging, serious investigating and giving expression to our understanding, we have always incorporated “being still”. Being still is the reflective aspect in learning where we ponder the WHY and consider our faithful response. We are a people that have always affirmed the deep integration of our faith into our learning. We pursue the HOW through engagement with information and knowledge and discern understanding of the WHY to grow in wisdom and put them together faithfully before the face of God.

Leading Together

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I recently attended a Christian Schools Canada board meeting in Edmonton, where I heard a reflection upon a passage of Scripture that I’ve read many times before. And yet there are those times when something in a verse hits you for the very first time.

The reading was from 1 Chronicles 12. It is a well-known passage, in which David and men from the tribes of Israel are at Hebron, gearing up for battle. David had been banished from the presence of Saul, and had therefore been isolated in the wilderness. He was an appointed leader, but he was alone.

God sent men over to David to help fulfill the promise he had made—that the kingdom would be handed over to him. Men from each tribe came ready to battle for the kingdom, with shields and spears, “fully determined to make David king over all of Israel” (verse 38).

But the verse that caught my attention was verse 32, where we read, “…and from Issachar, [came] men who understood the times and knew what Israel should do.” What struck me was the plurality of it. It wasn’t a man from Issachar that knew what to do—it was the men of Issachar.

Usually, when we think of wisdom that comes from the Lord, we think of a prophet or an overseer—one person that God has given wisdom to, in order to lead others in His plan for them all. What caught me here in this verse was that this was a whole community of men that understood something deeply, all at the same time.

CelebrationIt got me thinking…that’s exactly it! That’s what we, as a community, are looking for—a common vision among a group of people. That’s what creates a movement. If I reflect on this in terms of the leadership of the OACS, the view changes from that of a “service” or an “institution”, and moves it towards something bigger—a community that shares a vision. A vision that we all understand, so that wherever we are in that community, we are speaking the same language and sharing the same goals.

It amazes me, when I picture it—there were not just a few men of Issachar that understood the times and knew what to do. There were two hundred of them! And they all had a common understanding of what to do. They all understood it. And that was the vision that led David and the men forward into the battle, that would result in the fulfillment of God’s promise for him and for the kingdom of Israel.

What a vision for the OACS! Imagine if we actually had seventy and more schools that shared a similar vision for Christian Education, because we “understood the times” and “knew what to do”.

Yes, there are individual prophetic voices that are in leadership—we need those individuals that fill a role of leadership in our schools. But if we could reciprocate that leadership, a sort of “speaking, catching, speaking back, and sharing,” it could turn towards a more collective leadership, or community-based leadership that reflects the unity of the men of Issachar.

How do we do that? I think we have to be consistent in our vision around Christian education, and find an inter-connectedness. The OACS should not aim to be a “Moses-figure”, being the leader and assuming the rest are followers. The goal is to provide a more integrated, community sense of leadership, so that at any moment any one person could step forward and provide the leadership, because we all “understand the times” and “know what to do”.