Antiquarian Anabaptist

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

A fading faith

[This is one of my earliest posts on this blog, dating from four and a half years ago.]

For twelve years we lived in a little village in Ontario.  Directly across the street from our home was the United Church manse.  The minister and his wife were a pleasant older couple, professional and polished.  There came a Christmas Day where we were all snowbound after a three-foot snowfall that began the day before.  Some people’s children couldn’t make it home for Christmas, family gatherings were cancelled.  In the evening, after the storm had ended, the minister and his wife invited their neighbours to gather in their home.  We appreciated the gesture, but this was about the only time we really had occasion to visit with them.

Eventually, they moved on and were replaced by a young couple with small children.  These people were different — not much polish, but downright friendly.  We visited on our way to the corner store while waiting for the mail, in their home, in our home, our daughter babysat their children, they sent their children to our congregation’s Vacation Bible School.

I began to realize there was something else different about this United Church minister: he appeared to be a man of genuine faith.  Over the course of our visiting his story came out.  He had been raised in a locale that was pretty solidly Roman Catholic.  In his youth, he had searched for answers to his inner spiritual need and had met the Lord.  He no longer felt at home in the Catholic church and the only alternative in the area was the United Church.  He had joined that church, went to theological college and become a minister.

During that time a TV program did a show on the practice of excommunication.  One half dealt with the practice of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the other half with the Church of God in Christ, Mennonite.  They interviewed a few people who had been expelled from the church and who seemed to relish the opportunity to vocalize their bitterness.  The next time I talked with my neighbour from across the street, he mentioned seeing this program, then said, “I have only one question.  Is there a way for someone who has been excommunicated from your church to become a member again?”

I explained that it was indeed possible and that most of those who were excommunicated were later re-accepted into full fellowship in the church.  The church only excommunicated those who had lost contact with God and the purpose was to awaken them to the seriousness of that loss and move them to re-establish their relationship with their Lord and Saviour.  I also explained that I had never observed that those who had been excommunicated and re-accepted carried any stigma among the brethren.  The re-acceptance was genuine and complete.

His response floored me: “I wish we could do that in the United Church of Canada.  I wish we could say to our people that this is what we believe and if you don’t believe it and live by it, you have no right to be members here.”

Another time this minister told me, “I believe there are nine real Christians in my congregation.”  I think I could have guessed the names of the ones he was thinking of.  Most of them were older, in their seventies, and I sensed something in them that closely resembled what I felt from this minister.  I think there must have been a lingering evangelical witness in parts of the United Church during their youth and they had caught something that carried on to the end of their lives.  There was also one younger couple who were born again during the time that our neighbour was ministering in the local United Church.

The years have gone by, the newly-converted young couple moved to a more evangelical church, the older true-hearted folks have passed on without passing their faith to their children.  The minister too died suddenly some years ago.  His wife was also our friend, but I don’t believe she ever shared his faith.

The United Church of Canada appears to be slowly dying.  One would be hard-pressed to find much trace of spiritual life among the adherents.  Neither is there much social advantage to be found anymore in attending the United Church.  Rural churches have been closing and consolidating for several generations.  Urban churches are declining in membership and beginning to ask for help to maintain their magnificent buildings.

Sadly, I am seeing the same kind of rot developing in churches that were once considered evangelical.  People are transferring from church to church in search of one that will be more spiritual than the last one.  Whole congregations are transferring from one denomination to another for the same reason.  What is the answer?

The old cat and the old door

When Panda was a young cat, she loved to explore the great outdoors and often wasn’t ready to come in when we wanted to go away or to lock the door for the night. My wife discovered a surefire remedy — kitty treats. She only had to rattle the bag and Panda would come running. That served our purposes and we were happy to have found a way to call her in.

But we soon found that she now expected to be rewarded every time she came in. Whether she came of her own accord or was called, she would immediately go to the place where the kitty treats were stored and would not move until we paid up. In her mind, this was now written into her contract and we owed it to her.

As time went by Panda got older, and so did the house. A leak above the front door caused the frame to rot and we sealed off that door. The side door now became our main entrance. I tried to patch the leaky roof, not very successfully, and looked for someone to do some repairs. Everyone was busy on big jobs, no one seemed interested in this dirty job. Plus, I really thought the rot had probably spread beyond the door frame. Finally, after five years, someone came, saw the damage was not as bad as I had thought, patched the roof, replaced the door frame and our door is better than new.

Panda grew older, wasn’t so often interested in going out anymore, and had ceased to ask for treats when she came in. Our two younger cats never knew there was supposed to be a door just off our kitchen and dining room. They still run for the side door when they want to go out and are slowly adjusting to the idea that we might let them in by the front door.

But Panda remembers. She knows all about this door, and she knows that when she comes in this door we owe her some kitty treats. She has taken to going out much more often than she has for a long time. She only stays out a couple minutes, it is now December and she likes to be warm. But every time she comes in that door she heads straight for the place where we keep the kitty treats. They are in her contract, after all.

Why Couldn’t I Be The Healthy One?

I decided to reblog this post from a year ago to explain why there has been so little activity on this site lately. I have draining sinuses, a sore throat, achy legs, a fog-filled brain and have gotten very little sleep. I have been taking Buckley’s cold capsules (decongestant, antihistamine, acetaminophen,etc.) and thought I was winning the battle. It didn’t work this time. I think that by now I have made it through the worst part, though.

Antiquarian Anabaptist

It was the morning after my father’s funeral and my cousin Dennis and I were sitting at a table with my mother looking at old photographs. Here was a school phot from when I was in Grade 2 in a one-room school. There were two little boys in the front row, one bright-eyed, smiling and healthy-looking, the other wearing a heavy sweater and making a feeble attempt at a smile. Impulsively, I pointed at the healthy looking boy and said “That was me!” Dennis gave me a funny look, then said, “No. That was David Harlton. This is you over here.” And he pointed at the sickly-looking boy.

Of course he was right. I think that I just wished that for one moment in my life I could believe that I was the healthy one.

I had frequent bouts of colds and flu as a child and was well-acquainted with…

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Keeping the faith

Most Amish trace their families back to Mennonites from the Canton of Berne in Switzerland. An Old Order Amish bishop once said to me, “There must have been a special strength of character in those Bernese Anabaptists that has enabled their descendants to keep the faith for hundreds of  years.”

The Amish divided from the Mennonites after some of them fled from persecution in Switzerland and resettled in Alsace. Some of the main issues were that  church members should not wear moustaches or buttons. (Soldiers had moustaches and buttons in those days were much like jewellery, made of silver, gold and other costly materials.) In my friend’s view, the fact that the Old Order Amish still shave their upper lip and fasten their clothes with hooks and eyes was evidence that they were keeping the faith.

John Holdeman was also descended from Mennonites who originated from the Canton of Berne and was also concerned about keeping the faith. His idea of the essentials of the faith was quite different, though. The concerns he mentioned were that only truly born again people should be baptized and that parents should have a proper love and care for their children that would guide them to avoid the dangers of youthful immorality.

John Holdeman’s concerns were shared by a few others in the Mennonite church of his day, but most seemed to think all was well. Almost 160 years ago those who felt that the old church was drifting away from the faith began holding separate services. That was the beginning of the Church of God in Christ, Mennonite.

John Holdeman’s first book was entitled The Old Ground and Foundation. That title portrays his concern to maintain the purity of the faith that has been handed down since Apostolic times. The essentials of that faith never become stale and outmoded, it can be adapted to every nation and era, yet still be the same faith. We cannot bind it to fashions and forms of a past era without deforming the faith and rendering it powerless.

An abiding church

“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 Elijah; 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 Simons, 1554

This statement reveals a fundamental difference between the historic position of the Anabaptist/Mennonite faith and other faith traditions. We are concerned that the faith be transmitted unchanged in spirit and life from one place to another and from one generation to following generations. Granted, there are Mennonite denominations which have majored in preserving cultural traditions to the detriment of genuine faith. This is a departure from the faith.

As I look at other denominations, the change and decline of their faith during my lifetime is something that, if it had been foretold 50 or 60 years ago, I would not have believed possible. Even the Anglican Church of today bears faint resemblance to the Anglican Church of which I was a member in my youth.

It has been ever thus. My paternal ancestors were English Puritans who in 1638 removed to Massachusetts in search of religious liberty. When churches were established in the towns of Massachusetts, membership was restricted to those who could tell of an experience where the Lord forgave their sins and spoke peace to their hearts. Feeling assured that God would bless their commitment by leading their children to the same salvation, they continued to have their babies baptized.

Alas, the Christian experience is not automatically transmitted from one generation to the next. The majority of those children did not get converted. In 1662, a Synod of the New England Congregational churches enacted a new policy. Those who had been baptized in infancy but had not come to a personal experience of saving faith were members and could have their own children baptized, as long as they professed the doctrines of Christianity and lived a life free from scandal. However, they would henceforth not have the right to vote in church affairs, nor to take part in the Lord’s Supper. This is known as the Halfway Covenant.

A few years later, John Stoddard began to admit all members to communion in his church, considering the sacrament  a means by which the grace of God was extended to mankind and arguing that it was not right to refuse the means of grace to those who were most in need of it. Despite opposition from the Cottons and Mathers, this position spread to other churches and by 1700 all Congregational churches practiced open communion, making no distinction between the converted and unconverted.

The New England Congregationalists had now come full circle to the position of the Church of England that their fathers had felt the need to flee. Then in 1748 Jonathan Edwards, Stoddard’s grandson and his successor in the pulpit at Northampton, Massachusetts, announced that he could not admit members to communion without evidence of saving grace.

This was the beginning of the Great Awakening which revitalized New England Christianity. In later years, others opted for Unitarianism or just abandoned any pretense of Christian faith. And the circle goes round and round.

This is the merry-go-round that Menno wanted to avoid. And so do we in our day. Our desire is for an abiding church where the true faith will be taught and lived by our grandchildren, and their grandchildren.

Hazards of cross-cultural ministry

At a worship service in Québec the visiting minister rose to begin his message. He had just heard us singing in an unfamiliar language but the melody was familiar and he felt he had found a common thread to connect  with the congregation. He began by referring to several words of the English hymn he thought he had heard.  The brother who was interpreting first explained in French that the minister was referring to an English hymn, then gamely tried to express his thoughts as clearly as he could in French.

As the minister continued with his message, he kept coming back to the words of the English hymn and the interpreter valiantly tried to create something coherent out of those thoughts in French. Those of us who were bilingual smiled inwardly, others listened in respectful bafflement.

That is a common stumbling block in cross-cultural ministry. Every major language has a number of hymns that are unique to that language. Some hymns have been translated into many languages. How Great Thou Art is a Swedish hymn that is familiar to people in many other languages. A Mighty Fortress is our God originated in German and is likewise known to many people in their own language. However, differences in grammatical structure and rhythm often make it  next to impossible to create an exact translation. Thus, new songs are written in other languages, expressing more or less the same thoughts.

More hazardous yet for a preacher venturing to speak to people through an interpreter, often a completely different hymn is set to a tune that is familiar to the speaker in his native language. That is what happened in the incident mentioned above. The words of the song we had been singing bore no resemblance at all to the words that had been playing in the preacher’s mind.

Just a little reminder that in cross-cultural ministry we first need to try to understand before we try to make ourselves understood.

Barbarians at the gate

What remains to be seen is whether Donald Trump and his friends are the barbarians or the best defense against a barbarian takeover. I would suggest we take a long walk and wait a while to see. Let’s say about 100 years.

By that time historians should have a clearer view of what has happened. For sure, we shouldn’t count on it that the people who told us a Trump victory was unthinkable and impossible will now be able to explain what his victory will mean.

For a little perspective, let’s consider the situation of Israel several thousand years ago. First Alexander the Great conquered all the countries around the Mediterranean and into the Middle East. His empire then split into three empires competing for supremacy and Israel was trampled underfoot by armies coming from all directions. Eventually, the Romans brought the whole Mediterranean area under their control and set up an Edomite puppet as king of Judea.

The result was that the Greek language became the lingua franca of the whole area, the Roman road system and the rule of Roman law enhanced trade and travel over the whole area, and the sceptre had decisively departed from Judah.

This was the fulness of the times, the stage was set for the coming of the Messiah and for His gospel to spread with amazing speed throughout that whole area. Do you think any of the pious Jews who were awaiting the coming of the Messiah saw any of those barbarian invasions as part of the necessary preparation for His advent?

Let’s not be too quick to believe we understand what God thinks of the current political landscape.

Follow on to know the Lord

A teenage girl is convinced that she is pregnant and about to become the mother of baby Jesus, even though her mother, her doctor and an ultrasound all assure her that she is not pregnant at all. Why is this news? I suppose the media think this is one more way of poking fun at Christians, even though no real Christian would believe such a thing. Wouldn’t it be much better to pull a veil of respectful silence over the poor young lady and her delusion?

Granted, there are some credulous people who claim to see the face of Jesus in a blotch on the wall and are convinced it is a sign of something or other. Even if Jesus said He was not in the business of giving signs.

A lady of our acquaintance called us and ecstatically announced that she had been about to light a cigarette when she heard an almost audible voice saying “Stop!” She was convinced that our Lord had singled her out for a special touch of His grace. But she went ahead and lit that cigarette and many more after it.

A man had an unmistakable message from God in his younger years, calling him to repent. He never did repent, yet he went to his grave believing that he had a special relationship with God, because God had once spoken to him.

The missing element in all these accounts is the failure to follow on to know God. Visions, dreams and voices could be genuine attempts by God to get our attention. But they do us no good if we do not follow on to know Him.

God does not save us in our sins. He asks us to repent so He can forgive us and set us free from the clutch of our sins. He is not trying to take all the pleasures of life away from us, He wants us to exchange the pleasures that have painful consequences for everlasting joy. He promises to give us a more abundant life. But we have to follow on to truly know Him to experience that abundant life.

Raised eyebrow Christians

I was going to write supercilious, but that’s just a fancy latin word meaning raised eyebrows. So I decided to speak plain English.

There was a time in my mid-twenties when I was quite sure that everyone who claimed to be born again thought they were better than anyone else. Then there came a time in my life when everything was going wrong, at work and in my personal life. I wanted to run away and start over somewhere else, but I had already tried that a few years earlier and it didn’t work. My troubles were my own doing and there didn’t seem to be a way out. I mulled this over and over in my mind. There is much more to the story, but I finally came to the point of believing that God was real and I was a sinner. I prayed for forgiveness and for help to find a way through my troubles.

The only immediate change I was aware of was that the turmoil was gone and I believed I could find a way through my troubles. Over the next few weeks I realized that more had changed, my attitude, the things that I thought were important and the things I wanted to read. Eventually it sunk in that this was what the Bible called being born again.

Years have passed. After many years of being a born-again Christian, I see that I am also in danger of being one of those raised eyebrow Christians who thinks he is better than others.The gospel is so plain and simple, why can’t they grasp it? Why do the short-lived pleasures of the world have such a grip on them?

Why do I find it so hard to remember that I was once like they are? Even the apostle Paul needed to remind himself what kind of man he had been before he met the Lord on the road to Damascus. He reminded others, too, of what they had been: “Such were some of you.”

I need to remember that if it was possible for me to be saved, it is possible for anyone. I need to communicate that to others, not just by words but by attitude and action. I am not made of any better material than others, they are not made of inferior material, the only difference is forgiveness through the blood of Jesus Christ and the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

And I need to ditch the Christian jargon. It has become so familiar, but there was a time when it was an unknown language that made me feel that Christians though they were above me.  I don’t want to make someone else feel that way.

Maple bug lament

box-elder-bug

Boisea trivitatta – box elder bug – commonly known as maple bug in Saskatchewan

They come marching into the house in fall. They can fly, but mostly I see them plodding up the walls, down the walls, across the ceiling, across the table, across the back of my hand. They are so light-footed that I don’t feel them; I just happen to look down and there it is – way too close for comfort.

They are a parasite of the Manitoba Maple, or box elder tree, in the summer. Then in winter they come looking for a warm place to stay. They do little harm to the maples; when they come into the house for winter they don’t bite, eat, breed, buzz or smell. They are actually cute little guys, one could grow to enjoy having one around for its picturesque appearance.

But you never have just one. They settle by thousands in the wall cavities of older homes. It wouldn’t even be so bad if they would stay there, but they feel the warmth inside the house and come out to investigate. I patrol the house with the hand vac several times a day and collect a couple dozen. The next day there are a couple dozen more.

They lie low in the dead of winter, though one or two might show up on a sunny day. In the spring they are gone and you never notice them on the maple trees in summer. In the fall they swarm on the sunny side of houses, looking for a place to come in.

They are so much a part of our life here on the prairies that it seems there should be a song about them. Did Stompin’ Tom ever write one? If he didn’t, somebody else should.

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