Antiquarian Anabaptist

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

Don’t believe everything a machine tells you

One of my bookkeeping clients received the following missive from the Canada Revenue Agency:

Re: Source deductions arrears
      Balance:  $0.00

Thank you for your recent payment of $-,—.–. (there were actual numbers on those blanks which I shall not reveal for reasons of client confidentiality.) This has reduced your account, but you still have an outstanding balance of $0.00.

We would appreciate it if you would pay this amount within 14 days.

This was obviously a computer-generated letter. Too bad that whoever developed the software didn’t endow it with the ability to compute that a balance owing of $0.00 means the account is paid in full.

Of course, those of us who are not machines but highly-spilled writers would never make mistakes like that.

Would we?

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A step forward, a step back

We found a house to rent just a few miles from church. I started working for Ed Klassen’s carpenter crew. Things were working out well for me; I wasn’t so sure how this was going to work for Chris. I was still a young Christian, trying to sort things out for myself and didn’t know how to be much help to her.

The big sticking point for Chris was that she knew these Holdeman Mennonites believed that if you were a Christian there had to have been a starting point, a new birth. She thought she didn’t have anything to tell and wouldn’t be allowed into the church.

Sure, there had been those times as a young girl at camp where the counsellor had led her in praying the sinner’s prayer then assured her that now shew was saved. Then she had those nightmares when we were first married that the end of time had come and she wasn’t ready. The General Conference Mennonite preacher had assured her she was fine. Her testimony before she was baptized in that church was that she had always wanted to be a Christian. That had been enough, and it would have been enough for the Conservative Mennonites. But she knew that wasn’t going to work here.

As I remember it, when I came home after my first day’s work, Chris met me with the news that minister Bennie wanted to visit with us. Lillian, his wife, had visited with Chris during the day and they had talked about the changes in our lives over the past few years. Lillian thought there was something there that sounded like a new birth experience.

We had supper and went over to Bennie and Lillian’s. Chris recounted the event she had told Lillian earlier that day. She had always believed that she was a Christian. About a year earlier she had felt that God was asking something of her that she was not willing for. She had outright refused. Then the awful truth dawned on her for the first time in her life – she was lost. She had knelt down and prayed, promising to do whatever God asked of her. At that she felt complete peace.

Since she had always thought she was saved, she had not understood this experience as the beginning of her Christian life. But as we talked it over it became clear to all of us that this had been unlike anything she had experienced before. This was where she was born again and became a child of God.

This was a new beginning for both of us. We were now fully united in faith and knew we were where God wanted us to be.

Linden was a big congregation; there were a lot of people for us to get to know, and lots of children Michelle’s age. She celebrated her fourth birthday October 28, 1975.

I had always known that carpenter work was a bit of a stretch for me, but it was the kind of work that was available. My allergies left me with an insecure sense of balance. Working on a roof was almost torture, but I forced myself to do it as best as I could. I managed to cope for a couple months, but late in November the allergy problem kicked in with a vengeance. It started with sneezes and snuffles, developed into a sinus infection and then I lost my voice. With antibiotics I was feeling fine in about a week and started back to work. Before the end of that week I was as sick as I had been the first time.

Okay, this line of work just wasn’t for me. Perhaps there might have been something else for me in the Linden area, but it seemed like we should go back to Moose Jaw.

The return to Moose Jaw was a detour from our route to the church, but it was soon evident that there was a need at home. My father’s dementia rapidly becoming worse, the burden on my mother was too much for her to bear alone.

We settled into life in Moose Jaw once again. Chris went back to working at the senior’s residence; I worked for Dennis on the farm the next two summers. In between time I taught Michelle to read. I know I wasn’t as patient and kindly a teacher as my mother had been, but she did learn. Then she could read the little books that Julia had given me when I was her age.

My father went into a nursing home and my mother went to visit him almost every day. I drove her sometimes, but there was no use trying to visit with my father. He didn’t know who I was anymore. He still knew Mom and my uncle Art, his youngest brother. But I guess I came along too late. Dad was 50 when I was born and that event didn’t seem to be in his memory bank anymore.

We went to church at Hague or Bredenbury about once a month. It was a three hour trip to get to either place. I remember one trip to Hague on a very cold winter day. We were driving a 1972 Toyota Corolla, a very small car in that era. We found that the heating system was just enough on that frigid day to keep the windshield clear or to keep ourselves warm, but it wasn’t up to doing both. The choice was obvious, we had to see where we were going. It wasn’t a comfortable trip.

We enjoyed the Sundays in those small congregations, the fellowship, the opportunity to worship with fellow believers, and looked forward to a time when we would be free to move into a congregation.

Is technology dehumanizing us?

The Machine Stops, by E.M. Forster depicts a future age in which technology is able to supply all our needs. People live in individual underground compartments, all their needs are supplied by the all-encompassing machine at the push of a button. Direct person to person contact is unheard of, having been replaced by electronic means and that permit one to see and speak to any one of his or her thousands of contacts at will.

Wars, conflicts, and crime have ceased, weather on the surface of the planet is of no consequence, thus there is no news. New ideas are to be feared, but events of history and nature are discussed endlessly and third or fourth hand ideas about those events are deemed to be the most trustworthy. The population never changes. Births and deaths are by permission of the machine; permission to die is only given when there is a birth. A mother’s responsibility ends when a child is born.

One person finds a way to get outside the machine to the surface of the earth. Before he is dragged back below ground by the repair mechanism of the machine, he realizes there still are a few people living out there. His longing for freedom is unfulfilled and eventually the all powerful, self repairing machine breaks down and everyone living in their individual cell of underground paradise dies.

A chilling forecast of where our society is headed? Perhaps. The story was written in 1908 and is a short novella with three chapters.

There is a lot of hand-wringing in our day about the influence and effects of technology. After reading this book I began to wonder if we might have things backwards. Is technology dehumanizing us? Or are we willingly surrendering our birthright of being fully human? Is our desire for convenience and security just a camouflage for the repugnance we feel at the inconvenience of having to interact with other people?

What about those of us who call ourselves Christians? We all give verbal support to the goal of spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ to all the world. At the same time, some of us are repelled by cities because of all the people. We would prefer to live in an isolated rural setting and be as self-sufficient as possible. Which of these conflicting ideas is the true expression of our heart’s deepest desire? What does that say about our faith?

The Jews of Jesus’ day despised the Samaritans, to the point of considering anything touched by a Samaritan to be defiled. Jesus used all sort of creative ways to try and jar people out of that rut.

For those of us who are members, or who attend, the Church of God in Christ, Mennonite, the Sunday School lesson for the coming Sunday looks helpful. It is based on Hebrews 13 and has a lot to say about hospitality, including to strangers. It says: “The love of Christ will move us to enlarge our circle of friends.”

The best way to avoid becoming dehumanized is by frequent face to face contact with other humans. Technology offers us a way to maintain an appearance of a wide circle of friends without really having to listen to them. It is that unwillingness to listen to others, the desire to avoid admitting there might be anything valid about their point of view, that is dehumanizing. Technology is the enabler, but not the real problem.

The education of a bird lover

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When we moved to our current home ten years ago, I put up a post that was clearly visible from our dining room window and hung a bird feeder. In other places where we have lived that kind of feeder drew a variety of interesting little songbirds. Here it drew mostly magpies and grackles, noisy and greedy birds who scattered the seeds looking for the ones they wanted, and scared away the small birds. We stopped filling that feeder.

We had more success with a thistle seed feeder hung from the same post; we love to watch the goldfinches float down from the trees and compete for a spot on the feeder.

We put a hummingbird feeder on the other side of the house and it didn’t take long for the little hummers to find it. Occasionally an oriole would come and drink from it. I saw an oriole feeder at Canadian Tire – same principle as the hummingbird feeder but larger holes. It seemed like a great idea; I bought one.

The first summer it attracted wasps, who prevented any birds from coming near. Many of the wasps managed to crawl down the tubes to get closer to the nectar, and drowned. It turned out to be an effective wasp trap, but that hadn’t been our intention. This year we tried the oriole feeder again. Within a couple days there were a bunch of dead flies floating on the nectar inside. We took that feeder down and gave up on it.

Yesterday I took down the unused birdseed feeder, drove a spike through a scrap wood block and screwed it to the bracket the bird feeder had been sitting on. Then I impaled a half orange on the protruding end of the nail. It didn’t take long for an oriole to find it. They seem to be happy, and so are we.

Time to make a decision

At least I thought we had exhausted all the possibilities in trying to find a church that still believed and lived the old Anabaptist faith. Could I have missed something? Or had I misunderstood something?

If I was honest with myself, I had felt more at home in congregations of the Church of God in Christ, Mennonite than anywhere else. But the fear of being deceived was holding me back from considering whether this church might be what I was looking for.

Just what does “one Lord, one faith, one baptism” (Ephesians 4:5) mean? I went alone to pray and ask God to help me see what the Bible really taught about the church. As I rose from the prayer, I felt a need to read again what Menno Simons wrote about the signs by which the true church of God could be identified. He listed six:

1. By an unadulterated, pure doctrine.
2. By a scriptural use of the sacramental signs.
3. By obedience to the Word.
4. By unfeigned brotherly love.
5. By an unreserved confession of God and Christ.
6. By oppression and tribulation for the sake of the Lord’s Word.

As I read them this time, and considered all the churches we had known, it was suddenly crystal clear that there was no other church to which even one of these signs could be applied. We had met many friendly and helpful people, they seemed from the outside to get along well together. But could it be called unfeigned brotherly love when they didn’t really trust each other? Many churches talked about the new birth, and about spiritual unity. Yet they baptized anyone who said they had been born again and had communion at appointed times, even though they were not fully at peace with one another.

These thoughts were pointing me strongly toward the Holdeman Mennonites. But what about the claim of exclusivity? Once again, I looked to see what Menno said. It wasn’t hard to find and again I understood something I had missed before. Here is what Menno wrote:

Reader, understand what I mean ; we do not dispute about whether or not there are some of the chosen one’s of God, in the before mentioned churches ; for this we, at all times, humbly leave to the just and gracious judgment of God, hoping there may be many thousands who are unknown to us, as they were to holy Elias ; but our dispute is, in regard to what kind of Spirit, doctrine, sacraments, ordinances and life, Christ has commanded us to gather unto him an abiding church, and how we should maintain it in his ways.

Menno obviously believed there were many Christians in other churches; he was not saying that there was only one church in which one could be saved. But he was concerned that other churches were offering comfort to the unsaved and not guiding and supporting those who were saved.

My heart was settled. I knew where God wanted us to be and where I wanted to be. I made several two hour trips to visit a minister in the Linden Congregation of the Church of God in Christ, Mennonite and knew that was where I wanted to be.

This was too abrupt a change in direction for Chris. She was frightened and not at all willing to make another move. She felt at home where we were and was sure that I was deceived. We hashed this over many times without getting any closer to seeing things the same way. The possibility that we might have to part ways loomed before us.

Finally we knelt together and prayed about the direction we should take. When the prayer was finished, Chris said she still felt the same apprehension about the direction I was taking, but she would go with me.

The night before we left, the bishop and his wife invited us for supper. Before we parted, he had one last warning for me. “You have expressed some misgivings in the past about the Holdeman church. I share those misgivings. We have never seen it happen that a church could drift from full obedience to the truth and recover itself. When a church has drifted, it is time to come out and start over again on the gospel ground.”

As I listened to those words, I realized the bishop understood a church to be merely a man-made entity. What he meant as a warning I took as a confirmation that God was leading me to a church where He was doing the building and the refining.

Faith based service

I got to chatting with some of the younger generation at the lunch after my cousin’s funeral on Tuesday. (In this case, younger means somewhere around 60.)

Ron is executive director of an organisation that flys volunteers into remote northern communities to conduct Vacation Bible School in the summer and to maintain contact at other times in the year. They also hold Bible Studies with the youth in these communities, sometimes go into the schools to pray with the students and teachers. The people in these communities are mostly Dene, Cree and Ojibway. The outreach is well received, the Vacation Bible Schools reach 5,000 children every summer and the communities are supportive.

Jackie (not her real name) was the executive director of a faith-based addictions rehab centre. This was largely government funded and several years ago the government decided to pull their funding. An attempt was made to raise enough money through donations to continue, but it didn’t work out.

The government said they wanted to fund evidence based programs, not ones that were faith based. I wondered about that, especially when Jackie mentioned that many of their clients were dealing with guilt issues. That would probably be the sticking point. From the psychological point of view, feelings of guilt are the problem. Counselling is geared towards helping people free themselves of such feelings.

As Christians, we acknowledge that sometimes there are guilt feelings that torment the mind but have no real basis in actual guilt. At other times, the only effective way to be set free of guilt feelings is to recognize that we really are guilty. Then it can be possible to be forgiven and to forgive others. That is the way of deliverance. Don’t expect governments to understand that. At lest not in the times in which we live.

Thanks be to God, there are still many faith-based organisations out there that are funded by donations and are doing effective work that is beyond the reach of psychology and government.

Haircuts and history

From December 1975 to June 1978 my wife and I lived in the upstairs suite in my parents home in Moose Jaw. I mostly went downtown to Jake Folk to get my hair cut. On occasion I went to Harold’s Hair Inn, just a block and a half from home. Despite the fancy name it was an ordinary barber shop where Harold Willfong gave the fastest haircuts in town.

In 1978 we moved to Ontario. When we came back to Saskatchewan 20 years later we settled in Saskatoon, but my Mom was still living in Moose Jaw. She was 90 years old by now and I made frequent visits to check up on her.

This was often an opportunity to get a haircut. Harold’s Hair Inn had moved to the basement of the Co-op shopping centre and Harold was semi-retired, only cutting hair three days a week. The other three days the cutting was done by another barber of the same age.

After a year or so we realized Mom couldn’t live on her own anymore and moved her to Saskatoon to live with us. That ended my Moose Jaw haircuts. Until Tuesday of this week.

We were in Moose Jaw for the funeral of a 94-year-old cousin and I hadn’t had time to get a haircut before going. The phone book said that Harold’s Hair Inn was still in the Co-op basement. This couldn’t possibly be the same Harold, he was already an old man the last time he gave me a haircut 18 years ago.

I went to the Co-op, walked down the stairs and looked in. It was the same Harold. He has to be at least 85 years old now. He’s not as fast as he used to be, but I got the best haircut I’ve had in years.

And we visited. Harold’s father was a half-brother to Art Wildfong, born at Hespeler, Ontario in 1895 and one of the pioneers of the Craik area where I grew up. Art Wildfong’s descendents still live and farm there.

Going even farther back, in the 1860’s there was a church of the Evangelical denomination located on the farm of John Hamacher near Baden, Ontario. John Hamacher’s wife was a Wildfong. Her neice, Susannah Wildfong, was married to Peter Wenger. The Wengers were also members of the Evangelical denomination. This was basically a German-language Methodist group, as the Methodist Church required all congregations to use the English language exclusively.

At some point in the late 1860’s Peter Wenger and his wife joined the Church of God in Christ, Mennonite. They moved first to the congregation at Wakarusa, Indiana. Then in 1874 they, and most of the Wakarusa congregation, moved to Hesston, Kansas, becoming the first congregation in that state. There are many descendents of Peter and Susannah Wenger in the church today, including a number of ministers.

Years ago I went to the Mennonite Historical Library in Waterloo and searched Ezra Eby’s Biographical History of Waterloo Township. That book says the Wildfong family came from Germany and were originally of the Moravian faith. I wonder if Harold knows anything about the family history that could connect the Wildfongs and Willfongs who came to Craik with Susannah Wildfong? I need to go back sometime for another haircut.

Another dead end

I began checking out other varieties of Mennonites, and there were a lot to choose from. Many of them turned out to be Mennonites in name only, and a little embarrassed about being encumbered with the name. Nevertheless, many of them had a deep affection for the Low German language and culture. I didn’t, so I stroked them off my list.

There were several groups of Conservative Mennonites and I obtained some of their literature. A hope began to grow in me that I had found what I had been looking for: churches that held to the old Anabaptist-Mennonite faith but did not claim to be the only representatives of that faith.

One day we had a phone call from Mervin Baer. He and his wife were passing through Mooses Jaw and staying at a motel a few blocks away. Would we be interested in coming over to meet them. I recognized the name, Mervin was from McBride B.C., a bishop and well-know leader in Conservative Mennonite circles.

Mervin and his wife were friendly and warm people, we hit it off right away. In the course of our visit Mervin mentioned that he had recently visited at Belleville, Pennsylvania. “There is a group of Old Order Amish people there who have been born again and have formed a new congregation entirely made up of born-again peole. That’s proof that you can have a spiritual church without joining the Holdemans.”

That was music to my ears. We had another visit from Mervin several months later, then began to visit the nearest congregation of that group, about two hours away in Alberta. They were friendly and welcoming and we really hit it off with one couple in particular. We decided to move there and join that group. In the summer of 1975 we quit our jobs, packed up and moved to Alberta.

It didn’t take long for me to feel that I had fallen down a rabbit hole into a place where nothing was what it seemed at first to be. It started the evening we arrived. We were invited to have supper with the bishop and his family. He had two daughters still at home, around 18 and 20. They were church members and Chris asked one of them when she had become a Christian. “I don’t know, I just kind of grew into it.”

As if that wasn’t shocking enough, we found that there had been a falling out between husband of the couple we had liked so much and Mervin Baer and they had up and moved away.

The women here wore cape dresses, a full dress with an extra piece of material over the front for modesty’s sake, and white mesh head coverings. Chris had adapted her wardrobe to their standard before we moved. The men were clean shaven and wore a plain coat on Sundays. This was a suit jacket without lapels or a collar that buttoned all the way up the front. I shaved off my beard, but never adopted the plain coat.

They had a little booklet of church standards that governed the clothes you wore and how you were to conduct yourself. People wanting to join the church were on probation for six months. If you wore the right clothes and behaved yourself you could then become a member. I began to notice that people watched each other closely for any deviation from the standards, and many young people did try to push the envelope without being too obvious about it.

One Sunday the bishop preached on how wearing plain clothes was proof of being born again. My heart sank, I saw that we had hit another dead end. The people here were friendly and earnest. I was sure that a couple of them were born again, the others were mostly just following the rules. Visitors would come from other plain groups and be welcomed as brothers and sisters. After they had gone we would hear what the local people really thought of them.

What now? Chris thought I was losing t way. She had formed a close friendship with one of the ladies and didn’t want to leave. I knew we had to get out, there was no way we could live a real Christian life and have any chance of passing it on to our daughter in a place such as this. But where could we go? We had exhausted all the possibilities.

Memories of Panda

Panda was our number one furry friend for over 15 years. We got her from a street cat rescue program when she was about six months old. She was part of a litter of long haired black cats found in an abandoned car in a back alley. She grew into a magnificent Maine Coon cat and lived with us in our last three homes.

In our first home, she would perch on the back of the couch, part the vertical blinds with her paw  to look out on the driveway and watch for our return.

She was the same age as our oldest grandchild and all our grandchildren learned from her that gentleness and kindness were the  keys to inspiring trust.

After spending hours at the computer I would turn around and see her on the floor quietly watching me. As soon as I made eye contact she was on her feet leading me to where I kept her brush and comb. A little time spent grooming her made her happy and gave me a needed break. She loved to be vacuumed, the air current through her long hair must have felt good.

The first evening afterwe moved onto this acreage she went outside to explore. When she didn’t come back we went looking for her with flashlights. We went all over the yard, searching and calling her. Finally we gave up and went back to the house. There she was, calmly sitting on the front step, as if to say “Where have you guys been? I’ve been waiting for you.”

I like cats because they are free. They could survive as feral anaimals but choose to make their home with us. They don’t often come when they are called, but when they feel like it they will jump on our lap and purr contentedly.

If I accidentally stepped on Panda’s tail or paw she would give a loud squawk, but that was all. She never believed that I had done it deliberately and it didn’t affect her trust in me. She would calmly sleep through sudden loud noises and commotions in the house, but if a can of salmon was opened she would wake from her sleep, wherever she was, and show up to ask for a share.

Yesterday we took her to the vet and had her put to sleep. Over the past few months she has lost weight until she was just skin and bones. Her blood pressure was high and her kidneys were failing. The vet gave us medicine and at times it seemed to be helping. Finally we had to face the reality that the things we were doing to try and relieve her distress were only causing her more distress. It is a relief to know her suffering is over.

I hope that I have learned something about respect and trust from my relationship with Pand that will transfer to my relationships with people.

In memory of Julia

Julia was 18 years old when I was born. We were cousins, but she seemed more like an aunt to me. She started teaching in a one room country school in the fall of that year, taught for two years, then married Ed. Their first child, Doreen, was born a year later.

Ed & Julia lived a few miles from us and we often got together. As a young lad I was painfully shy of girls, with the exception of Doreen. I guess we saw each other often enough that I felt no need to run and hide from her. Ed and Julia had four more children, incluidng another girl, Edith, born on my eighth birthday.

I suppose it was Julia’s teacher instincts that led her to encourage my early interest in reading. Most of my little books for beginning readers were gifts from her.

When I was nine, we moved a couple of hours away, but our contact with continued through frequent letters. We eagerly looked forward to the times that we could get together again.

Time went on, I grew up, got married and moved to Eastern Canada. My parents retired and moved into Moose Jaw. My father died, leaving Mom a widow. Ed and Julia retired and moved into Moose Jaw. As Mom grew older, Ed and Julia kept tabs on her and helped her in many ways. They were often the ones who took Mom to the train station or airport for her annual trips to visit us, then picked her up and took her home on her return.

Mom had always had difficulty walking and the time came that she used an electric scooter outside of her home. When Mom was almost 90, Julia phoned to say that she was concerned about Mom living alone. Mom’s eyesight wasn’t very good anymore either, and Julia had seen her crossing the busy street at full throttle on her scooter, and sometimes cars had to stop quickly to let her pass.

Chris and I began to talk about returning to Saskatchewan. We came back for Mom’s 90th birthday and Julia repeated her concerns and we could see for ourselves that the time had come that we would need to take a more active part in caring for my mother. Ed and Julia weren’t able to be as much involved with Mom anymore, as Ed had been diagnosed with cancer.

Five months after Mom’s birthday we were back living in Saskatchewan. We settled in Saskatoon and Mom lived with us for some time, then spent her last year in a nursing home. She was almost 99 when she died.

We saw Ed and Julia occasionally on visits to Moose Jaw. Several times Ed was declared free of cancer, but soon they would find another spot. He had numerous surgeries and treatments and bore it all patiently. We felt in him a readiness for it all to be over and to go and meet his Lord. That happened in 2004, shortly after Julia’s 80th birthday.

Our contacts with Julia since then have not been as frequent as they should have been. She continued living in her own home for a few years, then moved to a suite in a senior’s residence, then to a nursing home and then to another. We have visited her in all those places and often joined the family for birthday celebrations. The last time we saw her was on her birthday in February of 2017. I believe she knew who we were, but doubt that she remembered after we left.

Julia died yesterday at the age of 94. I was going to say that another piece of my life is gone, but that’s not at all true. All the contributions she made to my life in my growing up years and after are still there. Her warmth, her kindness, her care, are part of what shaped me.

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