What’s so Merry about Christmas?

Recently I had the chance to crash a Christmas dinner dressed as Santa Claus, and after being exposed by the kids, embark on a short but thought-provoking discussion about Christmas entitled What’s so Merry about Christmas?  A friend videoed it all and since it fits with this series of Christmas posts I thought I would share it in this one. (15 min)

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For more in-depth treatment of historical and prophetic aspects of the Christmas story see the following posts

Where does ‘Christ’ in Jesus Christ come from?

Jewish Rabbinical Testimony: The Son of a Virgin from the line of David

Hold the Eggnog Christmas is in trouble!  Considering Dawkins’ claims against the Gospel accounts of the Christmas Story

The Subsequent Life Lived: Signature of the Virgin Birth



Jewish Testimony: Was Jesus the son of a virgin from the line of David?

In my last post I explained where the title ‘Christ’ came from, and I opened up an age-old can of worms: was Jesus of Nazareth the ‘Christ’ predicted in the Hebrew Old Testament? That’s a great question to mull over in the Christmas season.  I used Psalm 132 to show the origin of the prediction that the Christ was to come from the line of David.  You can see that it was not a Christian idea or invention since it has its source in the Hebrew/Jewish Psalms written 1000 years before Jesus was born and the controversy surrounding him exploded onto his world.

Was Jesus really from the line of David?

But the New Testament claim of ‘fulfilling’ this prophecy seems certainly suspect.  The reason that Matthew and Luke include the genealogy of Jesus in their gospel accounts is that they want us to see a fulfillment of this Jewish prophecy in Jesus.  But who is to say that they didn’t just make up their genealogies to get a ‘fulfillment’?  That would be a more natural explanation than ‘Divine’ fulfillment.  Many of us confronted with this question just leave it at that and either believe or not based on pre-existing biases.  But hold your verdict!  The case is not fully heard and the jury should still be out.

It helps when trying to find out what ‘really’ happened to seek the testimony of hostile witnesses.  A hostile witness was on-hand at the scene in question but does not agree with your overall belief or conclusion and thus has motive for contradicting or refuting the steps you take to reach your conclusion.  Suppose there has been a car accident between persons A and B.  Both blame each other for the accident.  But suppose person A says that he saw person B texting just before the accident.  Person B has no motive for agreeing with Person A on this point, and if he does admit that yes he was texting just before the accident then the judge and jury have good reason to at least bet that person B was texting since the hostile and eye-witness parties agree on this point, and person B has nothing to gain and only to lose by agreeing to this point.

In the same way, sifting through hostile historical sources can help move us much further along as to what really happened in the controversies and events of Jesus.  In that light I found it interesting when I studied the noted and distinguished scholar F.F. Bruce’s work Jesus and Christian Origins outside the New Testament. (1974  215pp.).  In that study, he identified and analyzed Jewish Rabbinical references to Jesus in the Talmud and Mishnah.  He noted the following rabbinical comments about Jesus:

Ulla said: Would you believe that any defence would have been so zealously sought for him (i.e. Jesus)?  He was a deceiver and the All-merciful says: ‘You shall not spare him neither shall you conceal him’[Deut 13:9]  It was different with Jesus for he was near to the kingship”  p. 56

FF Bruce makes this remark about that rabbinical statement

The portrayal is that they were trying to find a defence for him (an apologetic note against Christians is detected here).  Why would they try to defend one with such crimes?  Because he was ‘near to the kingship’ i.e. of David.  p. 57

In other words, the Jewish rabbis did not dispute the Gospel writers’ contention that Jesus really was in the line of David.  Though they did not accept Jesus’ overall claim to Messiah and were hostile to the Gospel claims about him, they still affirmed that Jesus was in the royal line of David.  So we know that the Gospel writers did not simply make that up to get a ‘fulfillment’.   The hostile witnesses agree on this point.

What about being born of a virgin?

Now we may not react too strongly against the claim that Jesus was from David.  After all, there is always a distinct statistical possibility of this being true ‘by chance’.  But born of a virgin?!  There is no possibility of this happening ‘by chance’.  It is one of: a misunderstanding, a made-up fraud, or a Divine Happening – no other option exists.

Luke and Matthew quite clearly state that Mary conceived Jesus while she was a virgin.  And Matthew ups the ante by quoting and claiming that this was a clear fulfillment of a prophecy from Isaiah (ca 750 BC) which said:

Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel (i.e. ‘God with us’) Isaiah 7:14 (and quoted in Matthew 1:23 as a fulfillment)

Isaiah shown in historical timeline.  He lived in the period of the rule of the Davidic Kings

Isaiah shown in historical timeline. He lived in the period of the rule of the Davidic Kings

Virgin or Young Maiden

It is at this point where plausibly natural explanations come to mind.  If you dig just a little bit (as some do) you learn that the Hebrew (הָעַלְמָ֗ה transliterated haalmah) which is translated to ‘virgin’ above in English could also mean ‘young maiden’, i.e. a young unmarried woman.  Perhaps that is all that Isaiah ever meant to say, way back in 750 BC, and given some pious ‘need’ on the part of Matthew and Luke to venerate Jesus they misunderstood Isaiah to mean ‘virgin’ when he really meant ‘young woman’.  And given the untimely (yet convenient for the ‘fulfilled prophecy’ plotline) pregnancy of Mary before her marriage it neatly developed into a ‘divine fulfillment’ centerpiece in the birth story of Jesus.

Many have recounted some such explanation to me over the years, and on the one hand I can’t refute this explanation – after all proofs about being a virgin or not are difficult if not impossible to frame.  But, for a fact, the story is not this simple.  Because we saw in the last post that the Septuagint was a Jewish translation of the Hebrew into Greek that was done in 250 BC – two hundred fifty years before Jesus was born.  How did these Jewish

History of the MSSs that give us modern Bibles inc. LXX and Dead Sea Scrolls

Old Testament manuscript timeline: Septuagint (LXX) is translated ca 250 BC

rabbis translate Isaiah 7:14 from the Hebrew into the Greek?  Did they translate it as ‘young woman’ or ‘virgin’?  What amazes me is that though scores of people who I have talked to about this seem to know enough to dig into the fact that the original Hebrew can mean either ‘young woman’ or ‘virgin’, not one among these scores has ever brought up the witness of the Septuagint.  When you look there you see that it is rendered unequivocally and categorically as παρθένος  (transliterated parthenos), which means ‘virgin’.  In other words, the leading Jewish rabbis of 250 BC understood the Hebrew Isaiah prophecy to mean ‘virgin’, not ‘young woman’ – over two hundred years before Jesus came on the scene.

I find this so interesting because why would a group (seventy of them according to tradition) of leading scholars make such a seemingly ridiculous and far-fetched prediction that a virgin would have a son. If you think it is because they were superstitious and unscientific in that day then think again.  People in that era were farmers.  They knew all about how breeding worked.  Hundreds of years before the Septuagint Abraham and Sarah knew that after a certain age menopause kicked in and childbearing was impossible.  No, scholars in 250 BC did not know about the periodic table of elements or the complete electro-magnetic spectrum, but they understood how animals and people reproduced. They would have known it was out-on-a-limb, naturalistically-defying, to predict a virgin birth.  But they did not retreat, they did not hedge their bets and make it ‘young woman’ in the Septuagint.  No they inked it in black and white that a virgin would have a son.

And now consider the fulfillment part of this story.  Though it cannot be proven that Mary was a virgin, she was remarkably in the only and very brief stage of life where it could at least remain an open question.  This was an age of large families.  Families with ten children were not uncommon.  Given that, what was the chance that Jesus would be the oldest child? If he had had an older brother or sister then we would know Mary was not a virgin.  In our day when families have about 2 children it is a 50-50 chance, but back then it was closer to a 1 in 10 chance.  In other words, the chance was 9 out of 10 that the ‘fulfillment’ should just be dismissed by the simple fact that Jesus had an older sibling – but (against the odds) he didn’t.

And now layer the remarkable timing of the betrothal onto this.  If she had been married just a few days the virgin ‘fulfillment’ could again simply be dismissed.  On the other hand, if she had not yet been engaged and was found to be pregnant she would not have had a fiance to care for her.  In that culture, as a pregnant but unbetrothed woman she would have had to fend for herself – if she had been allowed to live.

Mary’s Context

It is these remarkable and unlikely set of ‘coincidences’ that make the virgin explanation impossible to disprove that strikes me. As I showed above these coincidences are not expected, but rather they exhibit that same sense of balance and timing, especially given the virgin prediction in the Septuagint, that show plan and intent – that of a Mind.

If Mary had been married for some time before Jesus was born, or if he had older siblings, then the hostile witness of his opponents would surely have brought that out.  Instead it seems that, once again, they defer to the gospel writers on this point.  FF Bruce notes this as he explains how Jesus is referred to in the rabbinical writings:

Jesus is referred to in rabbinical literature as Jesus ben Pantera or Ben Pandira.  This might mean ‘the son of the panther’.  The most probable explanation is that it is a corruption of parthenos, the Greek word for ‘virgin’ and arose from Christian references to him as a son of a virgin   (p57-58)

Today, as back in Jesus’ time, there is plenty of hostility to Jesus and the claims of the gospel.  Then, as now, there was significant animosity to him.  But the difference in hostility is that back then they were also witnesses, and as hostile witnesses they did not refute the very points that they should have been able to, had these points been made up or in error.

But the story does not even end there.  Even those hostile to the supernatural claims about Jesus admire him for the life he lived on a purely human level.  People may debate his divinity, but rarely do they argue about his morality.  And it is at this point, that once again the grudging acceptance of those hostile should cause us to pause and ask:  Where did he get this different morality from?  The acclaimed moral life lived is also a signature of that disputed Virgin Birth.

Does God Exist? Does He bless?

Recently I had the privilege of doing a public presentation at McMaster University entitled “Does God Exist?  Does He bless?”.  A friend of mine video recorded it and I have the presentation finally uploaded.  I have the 1 hour presentation segmented into different videos.  (If you prefer to watch the entire presentation as one video please go here.)

Old Testament: A fully backed up library

The first (9 minute) section,  gives an overview of authorship and the manuscript textual basis supporting the Old Testament, emphasizing the implications of the Dead Dea Scrolls to this question.  I start here because in later sections I will show the interplay of themes, where signs point to events hundreds of years before they occur as evidence that a Divine Being has sent a message in the books of the Bible.  The information in this first section is foundational to appreciate this.

The Riddle of the Binding of Isaac

This section (14 min) probes into the riddle of the binding of Isaac.  I show that this is a message that is acted out and this message is coordinated by events thousands of years later – showing that no human mind could be behind the message.  It is a Signed message from God pointing to sacrifice of Jesus – at the very same spot.

The Passover Riddle

The next (13 minute) section shows the account of the first Passover, at the time of Moses, as a Sign pointing to the sacrificial death of Jesus 1500 years later.  It is such a Sign because this events inaugurates the Jewish calendar and starts an annual festival, called Passover, where Jews killed a lamb in memory of the blood of the lambs of this first passover that saved them from death.  Jesus was executed precisely on that same day.  It is too much of a stretch to say that by coincidence that the man, entitled the Lamb of God, would have his blood save us from death on that very same day.

Ancient & Modern Witness Outside the Bible

The obvious rebuttal to the thrust of my argument in the above sections is that the Gospel accounts of Jesus were made up to ‘fit’ these Signs.  But we have secular historians, outside the Bible, that affirm the historicity of where and when Jesus was sacrificed. (12 min)

Dr. Dave Brock’s Story

Dave Brock, a chemistry prof at McMaster shares his personal story of his journey from atheism to trust in Jesus in this 5 minute section.

Conclusion: Your opportunity to Respond

In this 2 minute conclusion to the evening I give an opportunity to respond, like Dave Brock did, to the invitation of Jesus

Here is a short article explaining the meaning of the sacrifice of Jesus in the Gospel

Why would God allow suffering and death? Part 2

In my last post I posed the question as to why God would impose the Curse on the world. The hellish misery and death is one of the primary arguments used today to contend that there is no Good God. It was my experience in Africa contrasted to Canada that gave me a glimpse into why He may have done so.

Living in Africa

After high school, I took a year to live in Cameroon, Africa, where I worked in a machete crew that would hack its way through the steamy and dense jungle in straight lines to measure forest inventory. I was one of the crew that wielded a machete to clear a path. It was excruciatingly back-breaking work in the hot and humid jungle – wacking the vines, going straight through huge walls of thorn bushes, up steep slopes. We wore thick rubber boots (protection against snakes) and when we were done the day’s work we were exhausted.

The co-workers on the inventory team were simple and poor blue-collar men, on low wages trying to provide for their families. We became friends and I would regularly visit them after work. They lived in tin roofed, two-room huts/shacks by the road with no plumbing of any kind. I would sit with them on their mud floors, hearing the rats scampering in the darker recesses of the huts, eating their food. At times it was lizard tail, other times dried rodent of some sort, and bananas and other fruit growing around them. They shared their huts with a large family, there were lots of kids, often sick with something, and of course the elderly. The village ‘idiot’ was there. He was insane and would walk around naked, babbling some random ‘thoughts’. They could not put these kinds of folks away in care like we can here.

At one point we started to investigate the Bible together. It was at their suggestion after they had seen me reading my pocket Testament on one of our breaks deep in the jungle. We were an unlikely grouping; an upper middle-class, educated, white, Swedish-Anglo 18 year-old exploring the gospel with middle-aged, married, ‘simple’, Bassa tribe, African men in their huts. In the context of this study that went on through the year they surprised me. Though uneducated they astutely wondered why, if God was so good (as the Bible says He is), was the world around them so difficult, life so hard, things so unfair, health so fickle, the poor (themselves!) always exploited, work so tiring etc. They wrestled through the same issues, asking the same questions that Ehrman and the rest of us educated in the West ask. But what I noticed about my machete-crew friends contrasted so sharply with my experience in Canada at university.

Compared to Canada

After my year in Africa, I went to Canada for university studies. Here I was among my own: western, rich, educated, young, intelligent, healthy – by any global standard, and certainly my machete-crew friends. And once again there were some discussions regarding the gospel on the go, in the cafeteria, or the dorm, as part of university life. And the same questions were raised. But it was different now. In Africa, my friends were themselves in the experience they were asking about, and they asked from a posture of humility, feeling the personal relevance of the gospel solution to their situation and willing to wait patiently for it. They were, in a phrase, poor in spirit.

In Canada, my friends had never ever personally experienced one day of real hunger through their entire lives; they had not had real and personal brushes with death because the medical system rescued them long before anything got serious; they had never experienced one day of back-breaking labour in such heat; they had lots of gadgets to amuse themselves with.  So they asked the same questions with a totally different attitude. They were defiant and taunting, and would use these questions, not to see if there were answers, but to presume that there was no answer and to keep the gospel at arms-length. They were, to borrow a phrase, not poor in spirit. Thus they could dismiss the whole thing and continue living their lives the way they wanted to. The intellectual questions were the same, but the difference in attitude between Africa and Canada was so palpable to me – because here in Canada my friends felt very little personal need.

I would go to the university cafeteria (offering various hot meals, drinks and desserts available to us in all-you-can eat quantities, three times a day, seven days a week) with my friends amidst cursing of the poor food quality, grumbling that there was a wait in the line, and complaining when the ice cream ran out that day. The conversation revolved around which girl, amongst those we could see, would we ‘do’ and in what ‘position’, and if she was ‘worth’ it or not. The cursing would make sailors blush. Favorite events were the Roman Toga parties where everyone spent the night in drunkenness, debauchery and girl-swapping all night. Bootleg videos of a woman having sex with a horse; and a man with a rabbit – while killing it – made it around our dorm. I knew girls who were raped. Fires would be lit in the dorms for fun – so they could watch the firetrucks come in the middle of the night. Having piranhas as pets, so we could see hapless goldfish destroyed in a frenzy every week, made great sport. In one drunken party a guy fell out the 3rd floor window headfirst to his death on the pavement below; I awoke to see them mopping up the blood outside my window the next morning. The end of the year would be celebrated by busting doors and windows, and throwing TVs out the windows unto the ground below. “Yes indeed”, my friends would declare, shaking a fist at God, “He is unfair and unjust and has made a mess of the world”!

We may smile at the antics of university life and chide that most of us smarten up when we graduate and have the responsibility of a job, raising a family, paying a mortgage, and keeping our ‘Molson muscle’ belly from getting too big. And that is precisely the point. These things do smarten us up, but these are effects from the Frustration of the Curse. It is work responsibilities that the Curse has instituted to cause ‘sweat on our brow’ and ‘painful toil’. It is the heart-breaking and tiring process of raising children that comes from the Curse. It is aging that the Molson muscle represents – again from the Curse. It is the unavoidable and inevitable approaching of death that even keeps us moderately meek – again from the Curse. My friends in Africa were in touch with this all the time, and thus were open in some ways that my Canadian university friends were not. My friends in university could so mitigate the effects of the Curse for that period of their lives – thus their hearts remained hard.

Consider that the advances of technology and wealth that we in the West enjoy are only appreciated because they mitigate (temporarily) the brunt of the Curse from our experience. Medicine mitigates against sickness, cosmetics hide the effect of aging, scientific techniques supply us with an abundance and variety of food, technology has reduced the ‘painful’ aspect of work to the extent that we now are used to thinking in terms of ‘careers’ that can satisfy our desires, rather than provide for daily necessities. The motive for advancement in science and technology is never about gaining wisdom. We have the same motive that drove the magicians and alchemists of the Middle Ages (though with more success). We want to master Nature so that Nature’s sting on our lives is reduced. All my friends went to university so they could ‘get a good job’ – they were not interested in learning for learning’s sake – but with a good job they could enjoy all the benefits of a lessened Curse.

Now I am not against that, and I think our advancements are good. But they do not soften our hearts; it is the hard knocks of living in the Curse that do that – for me and for the others I have seen life’s sterner hand upon. I find it interesting that mostly in the West, amongst the rich and wealthy of the world, do we find this issue (of pain and misery in the world) advanced as an argument against the existence of God – the very ones who do not experience The Curse to the same intensity as our brothers across the globe and back in time do. The loosening of the grip of the Curse on our lives has hardened us.

And with that I get a faint glimmer of perhaps why God has brought about the Curse on the world in the first place. Without it we would never ever bother listening to hear God’s call no matter what. In imposing the Curse He faced the choice between having no people ever listen to him versus some listening and others calling Him evil. Personally, I am thankful he chose the latter option.

Why would a Good God allow Suffering and Death?

I had used the story of Pinocchio, his destiny hanging in the balance, to help us see the stark and eternal contrasts between the two roads that opened up before us with our forebears’ rebellion in the Garden. And God, with his veiled foreshadowing of the coming Redeemer at the dawn of history, wanted us to see and choose this path of redemption that He would carve out for us. But there was a more immediate problem that God had to deal with.

Adam and Original Sin

In his Declaration of Independence something in Adam changed. As I went over in Corrupted (Part 2) … Missing our Target, immediately after his defiance he tried to cover up. He would not accept responsibility. What Adam started we continue because we have inherited that disposition. Some misunderstand the Biblical account to infer that we are blamed for the rebellion of Adam. In fact, the only one blamed is Adam (ex. Romans 5:14) but we do live in the consequences of that rebellion. We can think of it genetically. As our parents have had genetic mutations, we receive them and, in turn, pass them on to our offspring.  Similarly, through characteristics passed from parent to offspring we have inherited this mutinous nature of Adam and thus innately, sometimes unconsciously, but still willfully, we continue the uprising that he started.  This is what is meant by Original Sin.

Adam – Head of Human Race

We can also think of it in terms of headship. The following real situation helped me start to better understand what the Bible means when it says we are ‘in’ Adam. In recent times several Canadian provinces have been involved in high-stakes negotiations with aboriginal groups over their logging, fishing and hunting rights. At the heart of the negotiations lies the fact that several hundred years ago British generals signed treaties as British representatives on behalf of the Queen and British Empire with the then-living aboriginal leaders over the rights that the British Empire would grant them. In short, treaties were signed back then and the parties are now negotiating over the implications. What is interesting is that no one today had any say in the treaties signed back then, yet all parties today are bound by them. It is no use to protest, “But I did not sign the treaty”. In fact, there was not even a Canada (or provinces) back then, yet the Canadian government still has legal and moral responsibility to uphold (though they may not like it, and do find it economically inconvenient) what the treaties stipulated. In a very real sense, the British general of yesteryear was representing every Canadian who would ever live. These men, whoever they were, created a reality for Canadians living today that we must abide by. In this sense we can say that Canadians living today were ‘in’ those generals who signed back then and are thus bound by the treaties they created. These generals form a headship for Canadians today with respect to these ancient signed treaties.

Similarly, when a nation goes to war with another, it takes only one, the Head of State, to declare war and all citizens of that state, whether they like it or not, are then implicated. When US President Roosevelt declared war on Germany and Japan in World War II, all Americans were at war with Germany and Japan. American citizens were ‘in’ Roosevelt and what the Head of State put in effect applied to all. In similar ways, the Bible tells us that we are ‘in’ Adam. He is Head of Man and the Declaration of Independence from God that he started implicates us all.

God’s Obliges

And God, true to the essence of freedom of choice, respected Adam’s decision. His love for Adam was not some sort of co-dependent ‘need’ for him. But God, in his overall plan to redeem us, which He declared in that veiled manner using the promise of the coming offspring, also set things up so we could better ‘see’ the destiny toward which our Independence was taking us. Adam (and descendants) needed to understand, in a real sense needed to feel, the consequences of their rebellion and the start of their own pseudo-jurisdiction. As Adam was corrupted by his rebellion, God cursed the world he lived in so he could get a taste of what life apart from God would be like. As God said to Adam:

“…the ground is cursed because of you. All your life you will struggle to scratch a living from it. It will grow thorns and thistles for you, though you will eat of its grains. By the sweat of your brow will you have food to eat until you return to the ground from which you were made. For you were made from dust, and to dust you will return.” (Genesis 3:17-19)

Lives of people would now be marked by frustration, struggle and finally death. But this was not done out of spite. We wanted a Divorce and God is obliging with an initial Separation. The Divorce will come and it will be Permanent (more on that later), but for now He is helping us feel the consequences of our Separation. When a rebellious teenager wants to move out of the parents’ house, the parents may oblige, but to help them see consequences they do not pay the teen’s newly acquired rent. The teen needs to experience the full implications of their new autonomy. Then they may realize it was not so bad at home after all – and may decide to come back. In a similar way, since we chose independence from God, and He is in actual fact the source of life, we needed to get a taste of what death – being apart from God – would be like. God was setting the stage so we will perhaps come to our senses, lay down our arms, and re-enter the new covenant with Him.

In other words, God partly obliged our desire for autonomy by bringing about frustration into our world that would give us a taste or feel for what existence Divorced from Him would ultimately entail. Often referred to as the Curse, it is explained Biblically in the following way:

19 The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed. 20For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God. 22We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. 23Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. (Romans 8: 19-23)

It states that ‘the creation was subjected to frustation’, i.e., it was imposed on it by God. This ‘frustration’ is its universal ‘bondage to decay’ – mutation, disease, death (and extinction) in the biological world, and increasing entropy or disorder in the physical world. Things run downhill, wear out, rust out, break down – both the creation and we ourselves are ‘groaning’ in this state. Notice though the causal connection. Verse 19 says the creation is waiting for the ‘sons of God to be revealed’ for (v.20) it had been frustrated. Therefore the ‘sons of God’ must have been key to the original imposing of the frustration. When mankind became corrupt God placed a frustration on the world – a Curse. The revealing of redeemed humanity, now the ‘sons of God’, like the return of Pinocchio to Jepetto, will herald the release from this frustration.

But why was that done? This Curse would include all the hellish things of our current existence, chief among them: aging, sickness, pain, and death. And here we come to some diametrically opposing views. Many today, including well-known skeptics use this as a primary argument against God. Bart Ehrman, arch New Testament critic, succinctly expresses this view in his statement:

“There came a time when I left the faith … because I could no longer reconcile my faith in God with the state of the world that I saw all around me … there is so much senseless pain and misery in the world that I came to find it impossible to believe that there is a good and loving God who is in control”  Bart Ehrman, Jesus Interrupted. 2010. p. 17

Why would God arrange things in such a way as to give Ehrman and others such ammunition, and indeed such unspeakable wretchedness in the lives of so many? My experience living in Africa and then returning to Canada gave me a glimpse into why He may have done this … in my next post.