Thursday, April 25, 2013


Grizzo lay close to the fire.  It was warm and inviting on a cool night, and like every campfire, it bore an invitation to mystery, and to communion.  Giovanni, as most other 12 year old boys at a campfire tend to do, practiced his fire twirling skills with the biggest stick he could find, much to his mother’s concern.  I must confess, it was I who had gotten him started.  I’d taken a twig and gotten its end glowing in the fire, and began to write my name and make golden glowing circles in the dark.  Of course, the boy had to take it to the next level, and soon he held the biggest stick he could manage, both ends glowing in ember and spinning through his hands like a Samoan fire dancer.

Mariella prepared the water she had fetched and set the small metal pot next to the fire to boil.  Some time in the next hour or so it would be bubbling.  Armando gathered more wood from among the trees lining the hill on which we sat.  Their camp rested in the field on a gentle slope, just off the path to the chapel of San Damiano, and their tent stood a few metres away.  A clothesline stretched between the nearby row of trees, and a few shirts bounced in the breeze and glowed gold in the fire’s light.  As Armando returned with another armful of wood, Grizzo pricked up his ears.  I scratched those ears and petted his neck.  I was glad, very glad, that I had said yes to this invitation.

Giovanni took a break from his stick twirling, and hunkered down to poke at the fire. The plastic rosary around his neck caught the firelight, the cross swaying thoughtfully and glowing faintly.  The sky was quiet, the moon was hidden somewhere among the trees, and every now and then a fruit bat swooped past the edges of the firelight.  To my left, and in the back of my mind, Francis sat with his closest friends, their faces smiling and lit with the same holy glow our own fire bestowed.  No electric lights lit the plains at the foot of their hill, but the same small city rested above the both of us, and the same small church sat at our feet.

Armando stretched out a small blanket that would eventually serve both as Mariella’s kitchen and our dinner table, and she began preparing tomatoes and other garnishes I couldn’t quite see in the dim light.  At long last, the small pot of water had come to a boil, and Mariella began mixing it with cornmeal.  Armando offered me wine.  I gratefully accepted, and he poured it into a small plastic cup, offering me a disposable chalice of deep, red joy.

“This wine is, ah, ‘Barberesco’,” he said.

“Ah,” I said.  I recalled the photo we’d taken together earlier in the evening, of our little group of bearded tramps.  If I could milk a joke a little further, especially one in a foreign language, I had to.  “You mean ‘Barbosco’,”  I mused, stroking my chin and recalling the term for a beard and a vagrant.

To my delight, Armando laughed loudly.  “Barbosco!” And he repeated the bad pun for Mariella. “Italian-italian-italian, ‘Barbosco’!” he said, and laughed again.  Clearly, I’d struck gold with this one.  I glanced over at the other campfire.  Francis and the brothers were laughing, too.

Eventually Mariella’s meal was ready, and we bowed our heads and joined hands for a simple prayer of thanks, and four hands made the sign of the cross over four hearts, in common reverence.  “Amen,” we said.  (It works in every language.)

I tasted the cornmeal and tomato concoction.  It was perhaps the best thing I’d tasted since I’d come to Italy.  “This is very good,” I said, my taste buds enraptured.  “Um… Delizioso!  What is this called?”

Armando translated my question for his wife.  “Polenta,” she replied.

“Very old, Northern Italian meal,” Armando added.

“Polenta,” I repeated.  “So good!”

Armando refilled my small cup of wine, and Mariella’s and his own, and a little for Giovanni, too.  Sparks rose to the stars, and we all stared into the fire as we ate Mariella’s meal.

Our plates were soon cleared, and we sat back, satisfied, and drank deeply of the night air.  Armando rose quickly, as if inspiration had struck, and said, “One moment!”  He disappeared into their tent.  He returned, and in his hands was an old guitar, and an even older songbook.  It was in English, printed some time in the early 70s, and it was full of almost-forgotten folk songs.  He opened the book, and found his glasses, and began to strum the chords to ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’.  We stumbled through the words, his thick accent flavouring the lyrics like oregano.  We laughed and clapped at our song’s conclusion.

Armando offered me the guitar.  “You play?” he asked.  I smiled as I reached for the guitar, and clumsily strummed through the one song I know: Johnny Cash’s ‘I Still Miss Someone’.  After some gracious applause, I returned the guitar to Armando.  He strained his eyes at the songbook and his mouth at the English words as I held the book for him, and we sang ‘Kumbayah’ (yes, ‘Kumbayah’) and ‘Down by the Riverside’ and the fragments of half a dozen other old tunes.

As this small group of poverelli sang into the night under the Umbrian stars, I glanced again to my left at my unseen companions.  Francis and the brothers were singing, too, and all of our faces were aglow with the gentle, holy flame of joy.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Easter & Ecuador

Another guest post from my Dad...

Twenty years this October, my son Andre entered into heaven and all its glory, with Christ forever.  Finally he gets to meet grandpa Alford, Grandad and Grandmother and Oma as well as so many other friends and relatives (Matt 8:11). But it’s because of what Christ did on the cross, which we celebrate as Easter.  Christ gave his life for mankind that Andre and all our family have the Hope (confident anticipation) of being together for eternity.

At Easter a few years ago I was very struck by how young men Andre’s age looked up to their fathers as Andre did to me.  I wish all sons and dads had the hope (confident anticipation) from God’s word of being together forever.  It’s one thing to know about Christ, but to actually have Christ indwelling is the answer. 

There are many people I admire and thank for what they have meant to me over the years.  My grandfather, who never learned to read or write, once said to me, “You know Gary that tree,” the old willow in front of Gramma and Grampa’s house,  “it sure didn’t just make itself.”  He would talk about the cows and the beauty of the farm. I don’t think Grampa ever got farther than Owen Sound, about 400 miles from home, but he was impressed by Gods handiwork and he gave credit to God for all he had.  He was Anglican, and used to say he could not understand why people always read the same prayers each week from the prayer book.  Gramps was a talker and he thought we should pray like we talk.  “Just say to God what ya have t’say.”  And he did.  I used to be impressed just to see him on his knees in prayer every night. I guess that’s why I think keeping the gospel simple is important and also why I know that education alone is not an answer.  “Education without salvation is damnation to creation.”

I also admire my brother, who argued, talked, discussed and finally proved to me the truth and the trustworthiness of the Bible, and what it said I needed to do to be saved.  Did accepting Christ make me perfect? No, not in man’s eyes or in my eyes, but yes, in Gods eyes, perfect to be “able to be used for the purpose intended”.  Perfect that I might glorify God . Even the angels rejoice when one person becomes born again.   (Luke 15:7-10).

Andre made that decision too, and because of that (and the fact that Aaron and Josie have also made that decision) we are promised from God’s word to spend eternity together in heaven.  This is a promise from God and His own written word. Not a church leader, not just a wish we have, not because we gave money, and not just a feeling . I know I don’t deserve it but Christ paid my price on the cross (Romans 5:18).  Adam caused us to be separated from God by the one sin (since I and all mankind was created in Adam). Likewise, one Man, the Man Christ Jesus, paid for my salvation by willingly taking my place on the cross (Romans 5:12)

In the garden it was ‘God with man’ and sin caused him to separate from us.  But when we now accept Christ for salvation it is no longer just God with us, or alongside of us, it is actually Christ in us, the hope (confident anticipation) of glory (Colossians 1:27).  We gain more in our salvation than we even lost in the garden.

Christ not only died for mankind but also for all of creation.  Even if life was to be found on other planets it is covered by the blood of Christ. Christ the great redeemer.  Don’t sell him short.  There is none better or more powerful than Christ.

As years go by I’m more and more interested in seeing others come to a knowledge of salvation.  It’s been 20 years since Andre went home to be with the Lord, and I can honestly say that barely a day has passed in all those years that he hasn’t crossed my mind.  Andre loved cars as I do, and when I wanted a way to do something in memory of Andre one of the first things I decided was to do a car in memory of Andre . 

I’ve enjoyed showing the Mustang (“NVR DRTY”) at shows.  Because of the display board with Andre’s car and the Mustang on it and the words there, I get a chance to brag not only about my car, but about a good son.  I’m able to let others know that they can look forward to eternal life with loved ones if they choose too follow God’s Word.

Recently I have had the opportunity and been blessed to spend time with Aaron on two mission trips; one to Thailand and most recently with I-TEC in Ecuador.  I should mention that Josie was planning to go on both trips, but when we had booked the Thailand trip Oma was ill, and when we booked Ecuador another dear friend was ill, so Josie chose to stay home to be available if any need arose.  (Josie is a whole other story: a gift from God that I can’t live without.)

Like showing the Mustang and then telling about Andre, when I show pictures of our mission trips I get to brag about Aaron.  (As well as tell people how much he is like his dad. Talented, edukated, smart, good-looking, etc., etc., etc.)  As I have experienced Aaron working with the homeless or street kids, I see that people all over the world need to know what Christ has done for them and how Christ can make the difference in their life too.  Aaron could be making a lot of money in the secular world as he has many talents whether singing, acting, writing or many other areas, but I know (and he knows) God’s will for him is to be with the homeless and the down-but-not-out.  Josie and I have met people who are the results of Christ working in the lives of people, people who have been touched by God’s gift in Aaron. 

On this last trip, Aaron and I helped and fitted 15 people with new glasses– older folks and kids as well– through I-TEC’s “I-SEE” program.  Others on the same team pulled 12-14 teeth (“I-DENT”), some repaired equipment (“I-FIX”), and even more gave medical attention to those in need (“I-MED”).  All this was done to help people see the hand of God at work.  I hope I am able to continue to promote what I-TEC,  Aaron, and others are doing.  I’m not begging for money but if anyone is interested, I’m very impressed with I-TEC as a mission, and would encourage you to give to them either with your time or your finances.

I’ve got to say how impressed I was with the group we were with on our trip, too. The young people were so dedicated to the Lord’s work.  Respect was present at all times. I’d be so proud too have any of these guys or gals as a son or daughter.  I’d love to be able to write a few pages about each person I met on the trip . Each was special in their own way.

Josie and I plan to go together on another mission trip next year.  I would like to purchase an I-SEE kit as well as an I-DENT kit and be able to leave them with a group we would visit so they can be used by the people in their own village.

If I can be remembered for anything in my life, I hope I’ll be remembered as a “rope holder” for at least one person.  In the story in the book of Acts, when Paul was let down over the wall, we never found out who was holding his ropes.  But if that person had not done their job, Paul may not have been able to do his job either.

                                                                LOVE IN CHRIST
                                                                          Gary Alford

Distracted. Some Thoughts About Compassion & Suicide

A guest post from my Dad, Gary Alford:

Any time I read a story or see something about a father and son, it lingers with me, always causing me to put myself into the situation.  When I recently read about Matthew Warren’s suicide, son of Pastor Rick Warren, I again put myself in that situation. I was happy that Matthew was now comforted by the Lord, and home with his Lord Jesus Christ.  But I was very saddened to think of what his family was suffering in their loss.

What can one person of insignificance offer? Maybe I could say the right thing, but in the wrong way.  If so I ask anyone to understand that my words may come out wrong, but I feel pushed to say something and I hope it is helpful in some way.

Years ago, my wife and I were in the monument business.  We always called them “monuments”, not tombstones.  I always said that monuments are erected because there was a life, tombstones are put up because there was a death.  The cross was the greatest monument ever.  I see it as a monument because it is more than just something showing the death of Christ, it also signifies the resurrection and the life.

On one particular day I was heading to see a family about a monument for their son.  He had committed suicide and it was really bothering me as I drove.  How do I talk to them?  What are they going through?  Why did this happen, Lord, Why?  Is there a reason?  As I was driving, I looked down at a small piece of paper on which I had written directions.  All of a sudden I looked up and, YIKES!, I was on the wrong side of the road!  I could have killed someone coming the other way.  I could have killed myself!

While in the monument business I enjoyed on a few occasions giving grade 5 classes a talk about monuments and their history.  But the best part was the opportunity to teach respect.  After my experience on the road, I made sure I always included this story in my presentation.  I used to ask this question:

“If I’m driving down the road and I’m looking at a piece of paper and trying to read what is on it and I go over the yellow line and hit another car, what caused the accident?”

The answer was, “You did, Mr. Alford.”

Then the question was “Why?”

Answer, “You went over the line.”

Then there was always that little guy or gal who would have the answer I was looking for:  “Mr. Alford you weren’t paying attention to your driving.  You were being distracted.  Your attention was diverted just long enough to cause an accident.”

Isn’t it somewhat the same when it comes to suicide?  My attention being on the wrong thing, a piece of paper, could have resulted in my death.

Usually suicide happens because someone has simply put their attention on the wrong thing in their life.  It is so easy to be distracted.  People’s attention gets fixed on their problems or circumstances and it may result  in their death.

I always tried to leave the kids with the idea that there is another way.  Remember to re-focus.  Think about those who love you, and about how others feel if you’re not there for them.  I would paraphrase Phil 4:8, which says “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.”  Then I would ask them to tell me about good thoughts.  That was fun.  I got to hear about dogs, cats, uncles, aunts, and fun adventures.

Most times, the kids would offer to help someone they felt was in need of a friend.

How many times do we stop to think about others more than ourselves?  How can I help someone to see life differently?  How can I help them to see what is good?  Christ did not heal by proxy.  He did more than send a message to Mary and Martha.  He travelled to Bethany, stood by the grave and wept.  (John 11:34, 35)

Romans 12:15 says, “Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.”  If I can’t do anything else, I sure can weep for or with any Dad or Mom who has experienced a son or daughter’s death.  But I also want to rejoice with them for their reunion that is yet to come.

Rick Warren has experienced the thrill of meeting large crowds of people, but nothing will match that reunion with his son when they finally meet again in eternity.  Praise the Lord.

Do we believe or understand how much we as Christians have, not only in this life but also in the life to come?  We have the Creator of all we see in this earth and in the heavens.  We have the very God of Heaven.  We have the hope of eternal salvation.  We have the full knowledge of God’s promise of a family reunion.

Let’s not look down on suicide any differently than any other cause of death.

Does God cause or allow one kind of death but not another?  I think not.  Circumstances of a sin-cursed earth result in death.  If the tree hadn’t been there, if the car had perfect brakes…  If the brick had not fallen from the building…  If... If... If…  A brick falls because a building is getting old.  The heart fails because our body is getting old.  When Andre died, I often heard the phrase “God took him.”  But to me it’s not weather or not God took him, but that God has him.

When a person dies from cancer, heart failure, dementia, or so many other reasons, we say the body breaks down.  Well, so does the brain; it’s just another part of the Fall.  A brain that’s not able to function properly may cause mental illness, or in some cases it may cause suicide.  Why?

As the hymn that I hope will be sung at my funeral says, “We’ll talk it over.”

We’ll talk it over in the bye and bye
We’ll talk it over, my Lord and I
I’ll ask the questions, He’ll tell me why
When we talk it over in the bye and bye

Often the sins we are committing or involved in go on without anyone knowing.  People don’t even know we have a problem.  It’s just that suicide is so final.  I think in so many situations in life, if we were given a chance to rethink our problems, or to see the effects of what we are about to do, we would change our thoughts immediately.

Proverbs 23:7 says, “As a man thinketh, so is he.”  It all starts with our thinking.  We can’t blame anyone or anything other than the thoughts that draw us further and further down a certain path. Why do we so quickly condemn those who have committed suicide, when in many or most cases it is the result of a sickness or disease?

Can you imagine how much better off we would be if we did for ourselves what we have given over to the government to do?  The reason I mention this is that I hear a lot of talk about what people feel the government should be doing for the mentally ill, yet we fail in so many ways to be honest with ourselves and see us-- me and you-- as being both the problem and the problem solver.  The Lord says that a man who fails to provide for his own is worse than an unbeliever. (1 Timothy 5:8)

I saw a small glimpse of Matthew Warren’s compassionate heart in one of the articles.  It was an encouragement to me.  His dad Rick Warren told how Matthew reached out to others who were hurting, and that he seemed to know when someone else was hurting or in pain.  Matthew’s life has a reason.  Let’s remember what he gave in his time on earth, but also that he is still giving.  He is more alive now than ever.  I’m changed by his touch of encouragement.  He who suffered was able to help and see the need in others.  He has now passed that touch to others.

Yes, Andre’s death has caused me to see things differently and to understand more what others are going through.  In Andre’s case it was an accident, a momentary mistake on his part, but I feel some of the same pain as the one who has had a son or daughter involved in a suicide.

And just as Andre’s death has changed me, so also has Aaron’s life.  Aaron is what I wish I could be every day.  So gifted in so many ways.  (Aaron, don’t change my words when you correct this!  Remember, “Children obey your parents.”)  I am so glad to have gone to Thailand and Ecuador with him, meeting street kids and other children in need, and having my heart broken by their precious smiles.

Both of our sons have been a blessing from the Lord, but God has also added other parents like us, and along with parents have come brothers and sisters.  I’m trying to say that I would love to have a huge family gathering some day.  You’re all invited.

With all this in mind, I encourage you to get out on the street.  Get out of that comfortable pew.  Get down to the street where the rubber meets the road and live among us.  Rejoice with those who rejoice, mourn with those who mourn.  We all need each other.

In Christ,

Gary Alford

“Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”
- Matthew 11:28

Friday, April 12, 2013

Building Something Beautiful

They were silent now in the dark, but the flurry of questions and the litany of complaints brooded in the air around them like the smoke and the sparks of their campfire.  Everyone was ready to get on with the revolution, with the coming of the Kingdom here and now, and he didn’t seem the least bit interested. He let the silence stay for a moment longer until at last he spoke.

“My Dad was a carpenter.  I remember being in his workshop when I was a boy.  I wanted to make a box for my mother.  Something to keep her jewelry in.  I was very little, and it was years before I realized she’d never even worn any jewelry, but in my mind she sparkled, so I suppose it made sense to me.  In any case, I was very determined.  

"So I asked my Dad if he would help me make one.  I was so eager to get it made.  The second he’d finished squaring off the corner on a little piece of wood, I’d slap it in place and ask for a nail.  But he would slow me down at every step.  And every time I thought we were finished with each part, he would show me another little detail to take care of.  I remember him saying, ‘Slow down, son.  We’re not in a hurry.’  He took my fingers and ran them gently across the flat of the wood, and I saw that it needed a little more sanding.  So he took my hand and showed me how to sand more finely.  Then he’d help me see that a corner wasn’t quite true.  He’d crouch down next to me, with his breath on my cheek, and help me line it up just so.  Eventually, I stopped just trying to finish the thing, and I started to enjoy the rhythm of creating it.  And that’s what it was. Creation.  You’d never guess the amount of work that goes into creating something so simple as a wooden box.  But I began to notice these little things for myself, and I began to take pleasure in refining them.  I remember my Dad so well, saying it in that low old voice of his,  ‘Slow and sure, son.  Take your time.  Steady, slow and sure.  We’re building something beautiful here.’ ”

The sound of twelve men in silence is a rare thing, but here it was.  The fire popped an ascending spark into the dark sky. 

“I’m in no hurry to build this Kingdom, my friends.  Time is fleeting, but it’s only time.  My Dad in heaven gives it to us as water from a stream, and we receive it so, to refresh us.  And we build his Kingdom the way my earthly father helped me build that little box.  Slowly.  Sure, but slowly.  We take care of the details.  We love one another.  We’re building something beautiful here.”

Thomas spoke up quietly.  “Did she like it?  The box?”

Jesus smiled.  “It’s still sitting on her mantle.  Empty, as far as I know, but still sitting on her mantle.”