Tag Archives: giving

Jolly old St Nicholas

When I was a child, December 5 – St Nicholas Eve – was an important and tremendously exciting date on our family’s holiday calendar.   In the evening, we children sang our songs to Sinterklaas and put our wooden shoes by the fireplace in expectation that the kindly old man would visit us with gifts of chocolate, mandarin oranges, and other treats.  And he never failed.  At some point during my growing up years, I began to notice some clues that my parents seemed to have a lot to do with Sinterklaas’ annual visit, and it dawned on me that Sinterklaas might not be real.  I remember being quite disappointed at this revelation.

Several weeks later, when Christmas arrived, the centrepiece of our family celebration was a Christmas Eve carol service.  This event took place not in a church building, but in our living room by firelight and candlelight, and was followed by a story which usually conveyed a message of kindness, mercy and hospitality.  And so, in our not-very-devout home, we nevertheless heard each year the age-old story of the coming of Jesus into our world as bringer of forgiveness, light and hope.  Somehow, I absorbed the message that Christmas was not about stuff.  It was primarily about Jesus, and secondarily about showing kindness to each other and to others in need.  My parents were wise enough to realize that it wouldn’t work to completely insulate their children from North American ways, so in deference to the customs of our new land we did also exchange gifts with one another on Christmas Day.  However, I remember the gift-giving as relatively modest – although still accompanied by lots of fun and excitement.

In eighteenth century New York (formerly New Amsterdam), where Dutch and English speaking settlers lived side by side, Sinterklaas morphed into Santa Claus and became part of North American Christmas tradition.  Over the years, many layers of mythology and tradition were added.  My wife having grown up in a more typical Canadian home, the Santa Claus tradition was deeply embedded in her family’s Christmas observances, and as a young married couple we had discussions about how we would observe Christmas.  Both of us wanted the main focus of our Christmas celebration to be on Jesus, not Santa Claus.  I also had a concern about telling our children stories which we would later have to retract.  So, after much discussion in the early years of our marriage, it was decided that in our home, we would give Christmas gifts to one another and to those in need, but there would be no gifts from Santa.

We did, however, read our children a variety of Christmas stories.  Among them were a couple of renditions of the life and deeds of the historical St Nicholas, who was a pastor in Asia Minor (present-day Turkey) during the fourth century AD.  Although it’s difficult to accurately separate legend from history so many years after the fact, the web site of the St Nicholas Centre paints quite a believable picture of what the real Nicholas may have been like.  If the stories are reliable, it seems that Nicholas was known as an advocate for victims of injustice, and a friend to the poor who often gave financial help to those in distress.  Was he jolly, as the Santa Claus legend indicates?  I don’t know, but I hope so.  The Bible says that God loves a cheerful giver.  When our children were young, our family went through several years of living on a very modest budget.  Still, as a father, one of the Biblical values I wanted to impart to my children was the value of giving to those in need.  We used to have an offering box for missionaries, to which our children all contributed out of their allowance and other earnings.   I loved the story of St Nicholas partly because it reinforced this core Biblical value, and helped provide a balance to the consumerism that has infected Christmas in our culture.

My children are grown up now, and two beautiful granddaughters have been added to the family circle.  I love giving gifts to my children and grandchildren.  I know that the best gift of all is Jesus, and I know that he takes great delight in lavishing His mercy on us.  But I also know that he doesn’t care only about me and my family.  He is delighted when our lives overflow with generous love towards those in material or spiritual need.  I’m grateful for the example of Nicholas, a man who was a generous conduit of God’s love to the lost, poor and oppressed.  I want my family’s values to reflect the generous heart of a good God who has taught us that it is more blessed to give than to receive.




Our Toyota Story – Part Two

Well, we got the Matrix to Minnesota as planned  (read Part One of this story here).

We set out on Friday at 6:55 am – five minutes ahead of schedule, which is almost unheard of in the annals of the Hartgerink family.  This momentous feat was only achieved by telling each other that we should really aim to leave by 6:30 am.  So, although we were 25 minutes behind our official target time, we were 5 minutes ahead of our real target time.

Our goal was to be at the facilities of Stonewell Auto Importers and Exporters in Port Huron, Michigan by by 3:30 pm.  To accomplish this, we had to reach the Bluewater Bridge (Sarnia/Port Huron) without any major delays along the road, get through US Customs hassle-free, and then find Stonewell’s facility in an unfamiliar city.  After doing our business with them, we planned to drive another 4-5 hours to Hammond, Indiana (just east of Chicago) where we had a hotel reservation for the night.

I was a bit keyed-up about the whole process.  There had been a lot of paperwork in order to get the Matrix ready for import, and I wanted to be sure that I hadn’t missed anything.  This would be our first time crossing the border not as private citizens but as agents of a commercial vehicle importer.  I was very conscious that everything needed to be in order.  At the same time, we had received many confirmations that this whole undertaking was in God’s will, so although I was keyed up I was also confident.  And indeed God was with us at every step.  Our voyage went amazing smoothly, with many signs of God’s favour along the way.  Every time we needed something, we prayed for guidance and/or provision, and the Lord always answered us.  Sometimes we didn’t even have to pray, because He answered before we asked.

I had my Blackberry with me, and I had a phone number for Chris, the agent from Stonewell who was supposed to meet us at their facility at 3:30 pm.  On three separate occasions along the way, I was thinking “It would probably be good to get in touch with Chris right about now”.  Each time, he called just a couple of moments after I had this thought.  And even though I did well over half the driving on this trip, whenever Chris called, it “just happened” that Marion was driving, and I was able to concentrate fully on his call.  The first time, he called to say he had a job interview in another city that morning, so he might not be able to meet us at the agreed-upon time.  This was not what we wanted to hear!   So, we thanked God for giving Chris a job interview, and asked Him to enable Chris to get back in time to help us finish the import process.  We also asked Him to give Chris favour in his interview.  The second time, Chris called back to say that the interview had gone so well that they had hired him on the spot, and he wouldn’t be able to meet us but he would arrange for someone else.  This wasn’t what we had expected, but it sounded like God’s provision.  The third time (by now I was getting a bit antsy because we were getting close to the border and I still hadn’t heard back from him) Chris called to confirm that he had arranged for someone to meet us.  All we had to do was make a phone call from the bridge after clearing Customs, and his Dad (Jeff) would meet us at the Stonewell shop, photograph our car to show that it had indeed entered the country, photograph the speedometer to show that it registered miles per hour as well as kilometers per hour, and affix a label to our car stating that it had been imported into the USA.

Things were looking pretty good!  Every time we had a concern, it was being met.  Thus far, the Lord had helped us.

We got to the bridge ahead of schedule, which was good.  But this was a critical moment.  We had been told to go through Customs in the commercial lane.  Did this mean we should follow the sign that said “Trucks”?  We decided that this was what we ought to do.  It felt a bit weird to leave the car lane, drive our little Matrix across the bridge in the truck lane, and go whizzing by all the other cars that were lined up in the car lane, waiting to clear Customs.  Then we got close to the Customs gate, and it was our turn to line up, with the other commercial vehicles that were waiting to clear Customs – our little Matrix sandwiched between two massive semi-trailers.  “Are you commercial?” asked a bridge attendant.  “Yes, we’re commercial”.  Weird! Us?  Commercial shippers?  We’re just a Mom and Dad, bringing our Matrix to our son and his wife so they can have a good car for their family!  But to good ol’ Uncle Sam, we were commercial shippers, and our goods were potentially subject to inspection.  Not that they’d find anything … my Mom’s dentures had been cleaned out of the car three years previously, when we received the car from my parents’ estate  🙂

Suddenly the whole process, which had been going so smoothly until now, seemed to slow to a crawl.  There were about six trucks ahead of us, and each truck appeared to be taking between 5-10 minutes to clear Customs.  We were almost out of gas, having decided to wait until we were in the USA to gas up, so we kept our engine turned off except when someone cleared Customs and the line moved.  Would we get there on time?  Would we run out of gas? Would Uncle Sam show kindness to us and let our Matrix into the country?  Would we be able to contact Chris after crossing the bridge?  Would Jeff be able to come and meet us?  It’s easy to trust when all the questions have easy answers.  Real trust is all about unanswered questions.  Real trust is when, after you’ve done everything you know to do, you realize that you still can’t control the outcome, and you choose to rely on the Lord’s promise “It’ll be OK because I’ll be with you”.

Finally we got to the Customs window.  Our car hadn’t run out of gas – yet.  It was our turn.  This was the moment of truth.

The Customs agent looked down on us from what seemed like a great height, as his window was positioned to enable him to talk to semi-trailer drivers who sit about 10 feet off the ground.  After driving up to the window, I could no longer see him at all, but I heard a disembodied voice calling down to me : “Can I help you?”  I shouted back : “I can’t hear you very well!”.   “Get out of the car, then!” the voice called back.  The man seemed helpful enough.  Probably our visit was an amusement – a bit of variety in what must surely be a somewhat tedious job.  (“Guess who I checked through Customs today, dear?”).  Eventually we managed to communicate why we were there, and he scanned our paperwork and told us to go ahead, after a few words about parents who were still giving their kids handouts.  I thought to myself, maybe he doesn’t fully understand God’s generosity – but God did use him to show us His favour!  He didn’t even charge us the usual fee.  Praise the Lord.

Next challenge : get gas and get hold of Chris.  Gas – no problem.  Trying to contact Chris – call failed.  Since my Blackberry doesn’t seem to be working at the moment, try to find a pay phone.  None to be found.  What to do? Pray, of course!  Answer to prayer: “Go to Stonewell’s shop and you’ll know what to do next”.    We got there – almost exactly at our original target time – and someone was already there, waiting for us!  Whew!  Thank you, Lord.  Jeff – a middle-aged guy like me, filling in on a job that he evidently had not done for a while – had a bit of trouble printing the label that had to be affixed to our Matrix to show that it had been legally imported into the USA.  Between Chris (by phone) and myself (in person), we helped him figure it out.  He talked about how hard it had been for his son to find a job, and how grateful he was to be able to help his son out.  I understood how he felt.

The rest was easy.  Long, tiring, but easy.  We got to our hotel – a bit strung out, and desperate for sleep.  We left very early the next morning, and got through (or around) Chicago with no problems, thanks to excellent directions from Keith (Heather’s father).   We had an opportunity to help a fellow traveller who had run out of money at a gas station, and later had a great breakfast at a country diner in a historic village called Cherry Valley, Illinois, where we were quite obviously the only guests from out of town.  We drove for hours through many miles of early fall beauty – fields ready for harvest, interspersed with forests and the occasional city.  We got to Bloomington, got the car cleaned up and ready for its new owners, and had a delightful – if brief – visit with Simeon and Heather.  After a few moments of uncertainty, little Sophie remembered us (“Gamma ! Gampa!”)  and it was a joy to see her again.   The next day, we flew back to Ottawa where Reuben and Jess met us at the airport, took us home and fed us comfort food – just what we needed after a long journey.

So, I am at the end of my tale.  But why, you may well ask, did I bother to recount this particular narrative?

First, it was a great joy to be able to bless my children with this car.  They had not yet been able to obtain a really good family vehicle, and Marion and I had an opportunity to provide them with one.  The rest was simple – just do it!  We are made to give.  Even though my Dad was somewhat of a skeptic in matters of faith, one of the Kingdom values that he modelled very well was the value of generosity.  Many times my parents had helped us out when our children were young and our budget was tight.   To be in a position to do the same for my children – in different forms for each child – is a delight.  To be able to pass on a vehicle from grandparent to parent to child is probably quite unusual, but for me this was a source of deep satisfaction especially because I know it will meet their need so well.

Second, our children give back to us more than they know.  Simeon and Heather’s obvious affection and gratitude, little Sophie’s hugs, playful smiles and games of peekaboo, and Reuben and Jess’ care for us upon our return – these things fill our hearts with contentment.  We are blessed beyond deserving.

Third, as already mentioned, I saw so many evidences of God’s grace along the way.  This visit reaffirmed for me that we are made to give, and if are faithful to give out what God has so freely entrusted to us, He will always bless us.  It also reaffirmed for me that if we are seeking to obey the Lord, He will never leave us high and dry.  It’s easy to believe this about other people – especially those who do great deeds.  It may not be as easy for us to believe it about ourselves, but the Lord desires to show us His trustworthiness in smaller adventures like this one, so that we can rely on Him for the grace needed to take on bigger challenges with joy and courage when He calls us to them.

Every time we step out in faith and rediscover God’s faithfulness, our hearts are being prepared for the next adventure.  I have just learned that our missionary friend Gola has seen a door open for him to travel to India (from his current base in Indonesia) to preach the good news of Jesus, the Saving and Healing One.  Will God provide for him?  Of course.  Will we help him?  Of course.  What else would we do?


Our Toyota Story

For some men, it would seem, life is really all about their toys.  And high on the list of toys is their muscle car.  Or their motorbike.  Or their truck.

Of course, not all men feel this way about cars.  I know guys who couldn’t care less about cars except as a practical conveyance, but who are in love with musicians’ gear – or Apple iProducts – or cameras – or other gadgets.

But lots of guys are nuts about things that go VRRROOOOM, can go really fast and leave everyone else in the dust.  It helps if the car (or bike or truck) is bright and shiny with lots of chrome, because then other men (and maybe some women) will notice them and be impressed – and of course that’s what it’s all about, right?

That’s never been my style.  I’ve always seen a vehicle as primarily a means of transportation.  When it came to buying cars, practicality, affordability and efficiency were – pardon the pun – the driving values.  Marion and I have always agreed completely on this.   When our Taurus met an untimely end in 1998, and we needed a vehicle that would transport a family of six, what did we do?  No SUV or minivan for us, even though that was what everybody was crazy about back then.  Due to life circumstances (living in the country, three drivers in the household) we needed two vehicles, and a van was beyond our budget unless it was our only vehicle, so we leased a Hyundai Accent and bought a used Ford Escort.  A little counter-intuitive for a family of six, no?  But it worked for us.

So when Marion and I began looking for an SUV recently – after three of our four had left the nest, and long after the SUV craze of the 90’s had levelled out – we got a bit of gentle ribbing from our kids (well, a couple of of them at least).  Our motivation for this purchase, however, had nothing to do with style or image, and everything to do with real value.  Having decided to order a camping trailer in honour of our upcoming 35th anniversary (read the story here) – a decision that was prompted largely by the value we place on facilitating special family times with our children and grandchildren – we needed something with a bit more towing power than our 2005 Toyota Matrix, and we needed luggage room more than seating space.  A mid-size SUV seemed like the solution – and the Lord (yes, I do believe it was His amazingly gracious provision) led us to an excellent deal on a beautifully-maintained 2002 Toyota Highlander.  A shout-out here to the folks at our wonderful neighbourhood garage, who provided us with much valuable help in this process.   Thanks, Russ and Bruce !

The really cool thing for me, though, was what we were able to do with our Matrix, a vehicle that we had inherited from my Dad when he died in 2007.  For the past 3½ years the Matrix has been a reliable, trouble-free, economical and practical vehicle for us – the best car we’ve ever owned, hands-down.  Simeon and Heather, meanwhile, have lived with a succession of used vehicles of uncertain history and dubious quality.  Simeon had told me that Heather really liked driving our Matrix when they were visiting last summer, so when I started looking for something with a little more towing capacity for our trailer, with Marion’s agreement I decided to look into the process for exporting a vehicle to the U.S.A.  My thinking was that if possible, rather than trading in the Matrix, I’d like to be able to give it to Simeon and Heather as a gift.

The export/import process proved to be much less complicated than I had anticipated.  There were some details to work through, but it was all doable.  We received a final settlement on my mother’s estate at just the right time, allowing us to buy the Highlander without the trade-in value of the Matrix.  The details came together quite quickly in the end, leading to a flurry of fairly intense activity – the upshot being that we now have our Highlander and later this week, we will be bringing the Matrix through U.S. customs and then delivering it to its new owners in Minnesota.

I suppose in a sense you could call this our Toyota story.  After several embarrassing recalls the past couple of years, Toyota has been trying to rebuild its former image of reliability with an advertising campaign in which long-time Toyota owners tell their Toyota stories.  Marion and I have only been Toyota owners for a few years, but our experience with Toyota products has been nothing but positive.  We LOVED our Matrix, and are looking forward to many years of reliable service from our new (to us) Highlander.

In a truer sense, though, this is a God story, and my real goal with this post is not to promote Toyota but to testify to God’s amazing grace.  I have been overwhelmed with gratitude – and deeply humbled – at God’s undeserved kindness to us throughout this process.

Have cars suddenly become important to me?  No, not really – not in themselves.  They are only a means to an end.  But this particular series of events has brought me great satisfaction because, by God’s surprising and wonderful provision, Marion and I have been able to give one of our children a gift that was ideally suited to his needs, desires and circumstances.   This will be an excellent car for a young family – practical, reliable, economical – and to be able to give it to Simeon and Heather no strings attached is a great blessing.  What is even more of a delight is that they realize they are being blessed – they recognize the value of the gift.

This has prompted some reflection on the giving of gifts to our children.  Like all parents, Marion and I have had numerous opportunities to do things for our children over the years.  Years ago, when we were young parents on a very limited budget, we tried to be as equitable as possible in the gifts we gave to our children.  In this and other ways, we wanted them to see that we were treating them fairly.  Our goal was that all of our children would know themselves to be equally favoured by their parents (and, we hoped, by God).

As the years have gone by, we have not totally given up this goal, but we have also come to see that completely equal treatment is impossible to achieve, and would probably not even be a good thing.  We have continued to do our best to be good to each of our children, and to be as good to each one as we have been to the others – but I can’t truthfully say that we have treated them all exactly the same way.  Partly, no doubt, this is because we are very imperfect parents.  But even if we were perfect parents, we would not and could not treat our children in exactly the same way.  Although we love them all equally, the specific ways in which we deal with each child are different, because each one has a distinctive makeup and needs, carries a particular calling, and is walking through unique circumstances and life experiences.

Isn’t that just how God deals with His children, too?  Legal justice would mean that everyone gets treated identically.  God, however, goes beyond legal justice by showing us mercy, and then goes beyond showing mercy to pouring out grace – undeserved favour and kindness.  By design, and not by mistake, His grace takes different forms in different circumstances and for different people.  The Enemy of our souls tries hard to blind our eyes to God’s kindness, and presents to our minds multiple reasons to complain and find fault with God.   He works hard to convince us – as he did first with Eve – that God does not really have our best interests at heart, but is withholding something from us.

Satan, of course, is the original orphan, and continues to rage at God’s supposedly unjust treatment of him.  As long as we believe His assessment of God’s character, we will always be able to find reasons to feel that we were unfairly treated in some circumstance or other.   It’s true enough that in a fallen world, we can be deeply hurt by the actions of others, and can be the victims of terrible injustices.  Yet in the midst of all this, God is ready to redeem and restore every wrong, turn us from bitterness to blessing, and make us abundantly fruitful.  He has already made a way for our forgiveness and restoration through the sacrifice of Christ on the cross, and He has special and unique forms of grace stored up for every one of us – but His best blessings are available to us only after our eyes are opened, and we turn away from our self-preoccupation, yield control of our lives to His sovereign purposes, and begin to live like sons and daughters rather than orphans.  Then, and only then, can we truly taste and see that He is good.

So what’s all this got to do with our Toyota story?  Marion and I have always sought to teach our children that if they trusted the Lord with their lives and sought to serve Him faithfully, He would provide for them and bless them.  Simeon and Heather took a step of faith in moving to Minnesota almost three years ago without any promise of employment, believing that God had called them there.  Since then, they have sought to walk before God in faith and obedience in a community of believers on the Bethany campus.  The Lord has been faithful to them and has blessed them in many ways, but so far they have had trouble with cars.  Now the Lord has made a way for us to supply this need, and I am overwhelmed with His kindness in enabling us to give them this special gift to encourage them.  I may never give a car to any of my other children, but I am equally motivated to show them God’s kindness in ways that will encourage them to trust Him and move forward towards His vision and purpose for their lives.  My goal for each of my children is that their lives will be so strongly imprinted by God’s grace that they, too will be givers – people of faith who are full of confidence in God’s kindness, and who live their lives with open hands, testifying by their lives that God is worthy to be praised, served and worshipped, and that He is infinitely good to those who trust Him.