Flatlander Faith

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

The Emperor’s New Clothes and Donald Trump

In the tale The Emperor’s New Clothes, by Hans Christian Andersen, a vain emperor is approached by two men who claim to be master weavers. They offer to make him a marvellously fine set of clothes from material that only they know how to make. This material has a unique characteristic, it is invisible to those who are unfit for office or not very intelligent.

After many days they present this new garment to the Emperor. He cannot see it, but is afraid to appear stupid or unfit for his office, so he praises its beauty. All his courtiers do likewise. A great parade is announced for the Emperor to display his marvellous new wardrobe and all the people are informed of its magical quality.

The parade begins well, the people exclaim about the beauty of the emperor’s garment. Then one little boy yells “The emperor has no clothes!” Slowly the people catch on that they have been duped; but the emperor and his courtiers, afraid to admit that they too have been duped, continue the parade, stepping more proudly than before.

This tale is an apt metaphor for the current state of our Western democracies and Donald Trump is the bratty little boy who called out the flim-flammery of our intellectual, cultural and political elites. Most media outlets are willing participants in this effort to portray the direction pursued by these elites as the only right way to think.

A photo from the Republican convention has stuck in my mind. It showed one of the attendees holding a placard that proclaims “Trump digs coal.” I think that neatly captured the appeal of Donald Trump. While the elites were talking about climate change and clean energy, they never said anything about how that might affect the livelihood of people in the coal mines and coal-fired electricity plants. Trump understood the concerns and fears of the people so casually dismissed by the elite and aimed his campaign at them.

Conrad Black writes a weekly column in the National Post, one of Canada’s national newspapers. When Trump first announced his candidacy Black was almost a lone voice in considering this to be a serious run for president, with a good chance of succeeding. Black wrote that Trump was not a buffoon, he had the understanding and skills to win, and that he would make an effective president. Now he has published a book: Donald J. Trump, A President Like No Other. The book details Donald Trump’s early life, his business career, the presidential campaign and his first year in office.

It becomes clear from the book that Trump’s bid for the presidency was not a spur of the moment decision, or just another publicity stunt. In fact, the activities of Trump that were dismissed by the elites as publicity stunts were actually a calculated plan by Trump to make his name known to ordinary Americans. This includes his TV show, his sponsorship of beauty pageants and pro wrestling and other activities that kept his name in the public eye.

He was willing to bide his time for years until the opportune time when he would have the best opportunity to win. Meanwhile, people were becoming more and more dissatisfied with the lack of direction in the country. Jobs were exported to Asia, unrealistic programs were announced to combat climate change, twelve million people were in the country illegally, governments alienated traditional allies and tried to cosy up to enemies, and no one would publicly admit that most terrorists were Islamic.

Trump is not anti-Hispanic; he just wants people to enter the country legally. He received a larger portion of the Hispanic vote than Hilary Clinton. He is not a misogynist and most women recognized that; he received more votes from white women than did Hilary Clinton. He is not anti-Muslim; he just doesn’t want to open the borders to anyone who is radicalized and a potential threat to the country.

Trump has let North Korea and Iran know that he is not going to play the diplomatic game by their rules. He is not a bully, but is not willing to let the USA be bullied by erratic and dangerous dictators.

Conrad Black does not portray Donald Trump as a thoroughly admirable person; he does not gloss over any of his past or present missteps. On the other hand, Black points out the hypocrisy of those who are opposed to Trump and are still trying to portray him as a dangerous and erratic madman. The elite is not willing to admit that they have no clothes, they still say that things would be better if people would just listen to them. Black’s conclusion about Trump is that “he is a man of his times, and his time has come.”

Something similar has happened in France, where Emmanuel Macron, who had never been elected to any political office, ran for President a year and a half ago, without the backing of any political party, and won. He then formed a new party that won a large majority in the French parliament last summer. Macron is a smoother man than Trump, but has many of the same objectives.

I am not writing to urge political activism, rather to urge Christians to avoid jumping on popular bandwagons of political correctness. Most of the programs advanced by the highly educated and sophisticated elite, in Canada and other countries, are not ways to make life better for the general population. They are simply means to convince us poor ignorant people to trust them to run things, for their own benefit. Pray for our governments, we live in treacherous times.

Donald J. Trump, A President Like no Other, © 2018 by Conrad Black. Published by Regnery Publishing, Washington DC

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The Wise Old Mother Cat

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On this International Day of the Cat, it seems an opportune time to clear up some misconceptions about the relationship between cats and humans.

From the human standpoint the relationship seems frustrating. We can’t train our cat to do anything, she won’t even come when we call.

From the cat’s standpoint, the relationship is working out well. We open the door for her when she wants to go in or out; we provide the kind of food she likes; we give her a warm place to stay when it’s cold outside, and all the other amenities for a good life.

You see, we humans tend to understand this relationship all backwards: humans have never domesticated cats, they have domesticated us.

It goes back thousands of years to when our human ancestors in the fertile crescent began to plant crops and build houses. The ancestors of our cats lived there too and soon realized the opportunities these human innovations provided for them. Mice and rats foraged in the fields and especially loved the places where grain was stored. And when humans stayed in one place for any length of time their dwelling places became magnets for mice and rats. Wherever humans lived there was a constant supply of food for cats.

During this time, a Wise Old Mother Cat gathered the many generations of her offspring together and began to teach them how to make the best of this opportunity.

“These two-legged creatures are taking notice of the way you reduce the number of mice and rats that eat their food and trouble their homes. If you act wisely, they will become your friends and protectors.

“Be wary of them at first, all are not kind. But if one of them acts kindly toward you, show your appreciation by purring. They love that sound. Don’t use your claws and teeth to protect yourself unless your life is in danger. They will learn that you intend them no harm and will begin to trust you.

“When that happens, don’t be afraid to enter into their homes and show that you trust them in return. It will take many years, but in time they will become your friends. If you act affectionately to them, they will do the same to you. Little by little, over time, you will be able to train them to provide everything you need for your comfort and happiness.”

OK, I admit it, the Wise Old Mother Cat is a legend (created by yours truly). But can anyone deny that something much like this has happened?

What is a talent?

Jesus told a parable of a man going to a far country who distributed talents to his servants. The talents given in this parable were money, not ability, for it says that He gave “to every man according to his several ability” (Matthew 25:15).

After generations of misunderstanding this passage we have come to understand talent to mean ability. This is not such a bad thing, and there’s nothing we can do about it anyway. But it is a serious misunderstanding to interpret the parable to mean that when we become Christians God will give us some new ability that we never had before. That is not taught in this parable, nor anywhere else in the Bible.

What this parable does teach is that God wants us to develop the abilities that we have so that they can be employed for the good of His Kingdom.

I was thinking of this the other day as we were in Saskatoon. Our first stop was at the Christian book store. I am impressed with all the staff here, but I’ll just mention one. This store has a loyalty program which requires the person at the till to enter the customer’s phone number. Tanaya never asks for my phone number, but the cash register slip always comes out with my name on it and a summary of my loyalty account.

This young lady obviously has a phenomenal memory, but that’s only part of it. I do not get preferred treatment over other customers, she makes every one of us feel that we are especially welcome in the store. We say she has a special talent for the job she is doing.

I don’t believe that this is a talent that was given her at the time of conversion, or any other particular moment. It is rather the result of her efforts to develop the abilities she had in a way that would be of helpt to thers.

The same day we had dinner with our friends Ray and Ruth. Ray is an accomplished artist; he has made his living by other means, but has been able to sell some of his art work for good prices. As a child he had an ability to see things around him in a way that allowed him to draw accurate representations.

His third grade school teacher remembers drawings of birds and animals on the margins of his school work. He has studied to refine and deepen the ability he began with. He painted a 60 foot mural in the church which he attends that depicts the history of the world from Creation to the Last Judgment. He also has a talent for teaching basic art techniques to children and people of all ages.

Finally I had an appointment with my eye doctor. This man has given me numerous injections for macular degeneration, which is now stable, and has done cataract surgery on both my eyes. His skill is the reason I can still see to type this post. Someone at the CNIB once told me that this doctor is the best in Western Canada for diseases of the retina.

For each one of us there is a way that we can develop whatever natural ability we have and put it to use in God’s kingdom. We should not feel that we are helpless until God grants us some special talent. Let us not despise the ability we already have, no matter how insignificant it may appear to us, and be ready and willing when He gives us an opportunity to put that ability to use for His honour and glory.

Family

We can choose our friends, but we can’t choose our family. We can conceal things about our past from our friends, but our family knows the real story. And we know theirs.

My cousin Ted was 80 on Thursday. Friday evening a few of us got together to celibrate and share memories. Ted’s next older brother, Dennis, was there too. Ted is 3½ years older than I am, Dennis 4½. That was huge 70 years ago, it doesn’t matter anymore.

Their Dad was a brother to my Dad, their Mom a sister to mine.There are differences between us, but they are small; our DNA must be pretty much identical. Ted and I both have trouble with respiratory allergies and with exczema, that seems to run in the family.

Our families always did a lot of visiting back and forth when we were young. Today all three of us are church-going Bible-believing people. It wasn’t always that way and we know things about each other’s history that we don’t talk about anymore. There are some differences in the way we understand the Bible and Christian life, but our experience of the transforming power of Jesus’ love draws us together.

Our daughter and her family were part of the gathering Friday evening. She talked about growing up in an Ontario congegation where all her friends had cousins living close by. Michelle could say that she also had cousins, but they were back in Saskatchewan. I was an only child, my wife was raised apart from her siblings and we have never been all that close to them and their children. Michelle calls Ted and Dennis her uncles and has a good relationship with their children, her cousins. I  didn’t realize just how much that has meant to her until she talked about it Friday evening.

Family — I can clearly see my cousin’s faults, but they are much like my own and it seems that we are together in the struggles of life. We know all kinds of embarrassing stories about each other, but we never talk about them — except for some of the really funny ones. I guess we’re just thankful that the Lord has watched o0ver us and brought us safely this far in our lives.

Paul, the master apologist

Being an apologist for the Christian faith may sound like expressing our regrets for being Christians. The true meaning is quite the opposite; it means being able to talk about our faith without fear or embarrassment, and to always be ready to “give an answer” (apologia) to those who ask about it.

The apostle Paul believed that the salvation that had been freely given to him made him a debtor to others. He owed it to the civilized and the uncivilized, the learned and the ignorant. (Romans 1:14) to tell them the good news of salvation . His faith in Jesus Christ empowered him to speak and write without shame or reticence (verses 15 & 16).

In order to fulfill this obligation he became all things to all people, able to relate to all people, no matter what their religion, ethnic origin or social status.

He used examples from the popular culture of the day to describe how a Christian should live. The Olympic Games had been held for over 800 years at the time of his ministry. So Paul spoke of Christian life as a foot race, an effort to reach the goal; and he spoke of the training, discipline and temperance that were required of an athlete.“They do it to obtain a temporal crown, we an eternal.”

He spoke of wrestling, explaining that our opponents in the wrestling match of life are not other people, but spirits and powers from the realm of darkness.

The Roman Empire extended over southern Europe, North Africa and Eastern Asia. Roman soldiers were seen everywhere, ready to maintain order. Paul spoke of the discipline required of a soldier and how he must not entangle himself with things that would hinder his service.

In Athens he was brought before the philosopher judges on suspicion of introducing a new god. Athens had many gods but the law forbade anyone trying to add more. Paul began by mentioning the altar to an unknown god and saying that he was just explaining who that unknown god was. He then proceeded to piece together ideas and quotations that were familiar to the Epicureans and Stoics, leading up to a declaration that God would judge the world by one who had been resurrected from the dead. The men sitting in judgement had followed his reasoning up to this point, but now some mocked and others wanted more time to think about what they had heard. One of the judges believed, along with a few other Athenians.

Paul did not try to tell Gentiles that they first needed to learn to think like Jews to understand the story of salvation. He made himself familiar with the Gentile culture and used everyday things to explain Christian faith and life.

We don’t have to immerse ourselves in pop culture in order to follow Paul’s example. Yet, if we hold ourselves completely aloof from the people around us, how are we going to be able to talk to them? A good place to start would be to ask them questions, show an interest in their lives, rather than hoping they will be interested in us.

Peter writes that we should be ready to answer everyone that asks us the reason of the hope that we have. (1 Peter 3:15). Often we will catch subtle hints that people want to know, but don’t quite know where to begin or how to ask. Most people have preconceived ideas about Christians and will try to fit us into the framework of what they think they know. Here is an opportunity, not to unload a long explanation, but to tell a story or make some allusion to how the longings expressed in popular culture are in fact groping towards answers that can only come from faith in Jesus Christ.

Apologetics is best done by building a relationship with others and treating them with respect. We are not teachers with all the answers, just ordinary people with insights gained from our relationship with Jesus and with fellow believers.

Telling about our failures and how we learned from them will put us on the same level as others and make them feel that the kind of Christian faith we have is not something beyond their reach.

Charles de Gaulle and Christian apologetics

(First posted four years ago.)

Why do I think that talking about Charles de Gaulle will help to understand the purpose of Christian apologetics? Follow me as I try to explain.

The First World War was mostly fought on French soil, meaning that the people of France bore the greatest share of the war’s death, destruction and despair. After that war the French military and the government decided that they could protect themselves from a future German invasion by building massive fortifications along the border between the two countries – the Maginot Line.

Charles de Gaulle, as a young officer, realized it would never work. He told the generals that they were preparing for the previous war, that the next time the enemy came he would not come the same way as the last time. He proposed that rather than stationary fortifications the army needed battalions of light armoured vehicles – fast moving tanks that could respond quickly wherever a threat presented itself. He even wrote a book outlining his vision. The generals didn’t take this upstart very seriously, yet recognized his ability and humoured him by forming one such battalion, promoting him to general and putting him in charge.

In 1939 German panzer divisions with overwhelming numbers of tanks swept through Holland and Belgium and into France. De Gaulle’s battalion performed valiantly, but was heavily outnumbered and had little effect. Nevertheless, it was now evident that de Gaulle had been right.

What does this have to do with Christian apologetics? Let’s consider 1 Peter 3:15: “But sanctify the Lord God in your hearts: and be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you with meekness and fear”. Three words, “give an answer,” are used here to translate the Greek word apologia, from which we get the word apologetics. Are we prepared to give an answer anywhere, any time, to “every man”? Not a specially prepared and rehearsed answer, but one that responds to the question that is asked?

Does it sometimes seem that Christians have a bunker mentality, somewhat like the French witth the Maginot line between the wars? We hide behind slogans and catch phrases, and avoid situations where we think we might face embarrassing questions or even ridicule. How can we prepare ourselves to face unexpected challenges?

Our task in defending the Christian faith is not to stave off critics with lengthy prepared answers, or even short prepared answers. Our task is to respond to the questions that people really have. Tom Skinner, the Harlem preacher, made this point forty years ago with a book entitled If Christ is the Answer – What are the Questions? Tom Skinner made the point that the first question someone asks is usually not the real question. We will need to ask questions in return to help uncover the real questions that people have.

This is why I have made the comparison with de Gaulle’s advocacy of a flexible defence that could move to wherever the danger was. We don’t use tanks in Christian apologetics, we use the Bible, the sword of the Lord. We should not use it as an offensive weapon, firing indiscriminately at everything that looks like it might be a threat.

Peter says to give an answer with meekness and fear. The Louis Second French translation says gentleness and respect. All these words imply humility. We are not trying to intimidate others with our superior knowledge. They will respect us more if we admit we don’t have all the answers. That could open the way to study the Bible together.

When God first promised the land of Canaan to Abraham He told him in Genesis 13:17: “Arise, walk through the land in the length of it and in the breadth of it; for I will give it unto thee.” The Bible is our heritage today and we should read through the length and breadth of it; become familiar with the lay of the land so that we will be able to point out the landmarks to others.

The military analogy can’t tell the whole story. Other people are not our enemies. If they act like enemies, it is due to the influence of the powers of darkness. Those powers are the real enemy, and our calling is to help people lose confidence in those destructive spiritual forces and turn away from them. We are not engaged in a battle where there will be a winner and a loser, we are not trying to score points. The point of apologetics is to lead people to consider what the Bible has to say and then let the Word of God and the Spirit of God do the heavy work of bringing light and conviction into their hearts.

What if the French leadership had listened to de Gaulle? What if the German Panzer divisions had been met by equally numerous, well-armed and swift moving French tank battalions? The Second World War might have ended very quickly, sparing millions of lives.

What if every born again Christian today was equipped and willing to confront the forces of darkness and “give an answer” for their faith? How many lives could be saved?

A church of nobodies

Historians appear to believe that wherever there was something important going on there must have been some big shots behind it. When they look at the history of Christianity, the Catholics and Protestants had all the big shots. Since they find no big shots on the side of those we call Anabaptists, they assume that nothing was happening.

But the very essence of Christianity is that there can be only one big shot, and that is God Himself. Even Jesus did not conduct Himself as a big shot. That was the problem the Scribes and Pharisees had with Him; they wanted a Messiah who would sweep away the Roman oppressors and rule the world from Jerusalem. Dispensationalists are in full agreement with that, and say that since His plan was foiled the first time the earthly kingdom will be established at His Second Coming. The problem with that line of thought is that it would make Jesus a fomenter of sedition and provide just cause for the Romans to execute Him. But Jesus said plainly “My kingdom is not of this world”, and the Roman governor found no fault in Him, going so far as to wash his hands of the whole affair.

So Jesus is not our big shot. He is the most important man in the history of the world, but a nobody in the eyes of the world. His followers, from the apostles to the present day, have also been nobodies.

We should not, however, read too much into the opinion of the Sanhedrin that the apostles were unlearned and ignorant men. The apostles were fluent in Aramaic and Greek, knew the Scriptures better than most of us do today, and were well acquainted with the Greek culture around them. But they were not learned in all the petty intricacies of rabbinic interpretations and regulations.

Once we stop looking for the big shots in the movement variously known as Donatist, Cathar, Anabaptist, Waldensian, etc, it becomes obvious that there was a whole lot going on. Thieleman van Braght scoured the ancient records and published his findings in the Martyrs Mirror.

A more recent book is The Anatomy of a Hybrid by Leonard Verduin. The hybrid in the title of the book refers to state churches which united secular authority with spiritual authority, beginning when the Roman Emperor Constantine professed Christianity and then assumed authority over the Roman Catholic Church. Verduin is a thorough scholar who shows clearly the evidences of a continuing alternate church movement from the time the hybrid first departed from the faith once delivered to the saints. He points out that the Mennonite movement began in locations where the Waldensians had recently flourished.

Another facet of looking for the big shots is evident in the attention church historians pay to councils of Roman Catholic bishops, called by a Roman Emperor, to decide matters of essential Christian doctrines. I believe those matters were decided long before the councils by the Holy Spirit working through a bunch of nobodies.

Let the world have its dynamic and charismatic preachers. We pray that they will do some good in making known the saving gospel of Jesus Christ. But we fear, as Menno Simons once wrote: “so long as the world donates such splendid houses and large incomes to their preachers, the false prophets and deceivers will be numerous.”

Africa rising

What picture comes to your mind when you think of Africa? A remote village of mud huts with scantily clad people scratching their subsistence from the soil with hand tools? Or modern cities with skyscrapers, factories, hospitals and universities?

Both scenarios exist, but far more people live in the cities. Nigeria is the largest country in Africa, with the largest population. There are 20,000 millionaires in Nigeria nd 20 billionaires.

The wealthiest man in Nigeria is Aliko Dangote with interests in the manufacture of cement, sugar and petroleum products. The fourth wealthiest person in Nigeria is Folorunsho Alakija, a lady who started out as a fashion designer and now also has investments in the oil industry. She has created a foundation to help widows and orphans through scholarships and business grants.

Nigeria has one of the world’s highest rates of university graduation. Emigrants from Nigeria are among the most successful immigrants in Canada, the USA and the UK.
I believe it was at least 10 years ago that someone said that the heartland of evangelical Christianity is now in Africa, not North America. Nigerian churches see North America and Europe as mission fields. In Saskatoon, our nearest city, there are five or six congregations of the Redeemed Christian Church of God, including one French-language congregation. There is also a congregation of the Deeper Christian Life Bible Church. The Anglican churches in Africa, Asia and Latin America have severed all ties with the Anglican Church of Canada and the Episcopal Church in the USA and are now guiding the establishment of a new Anglican movement in North America that is more true to the Bible, especially in the area of morality.

What is true of Nigeria is also true of other African countries in varying degrees. It is true that there is still much poverty in some places, but economic growth rates are astounding.

There are acts of terrorism in various places by hard line Islamists. I have no prophetic vision of how this is all going to play out in coming years, but I wonder if these acts might not a last ditch attempt to hold back the tide that they see sweeping over Africa.

Is it time to take a fresh look at Africa and African people? The evidence shows that these black-skinned people are in no way inferior to white-skinned people. We are equals, in intellect, in faith, in management ability, and we should respect each other as equals.
International aid has done more to hold Africa back than to help it move forward. Emergency aid in time of disaster is always in place, but it would probably be best to have it administered by local people as much as possible. Sending used clothing and mosquito nets may give us a worm glow, but does it undercut the local production of those goods?

Surely it’s time to revamp our selection of mission hymns. The idea of carrying the gospel to “every dark land” has always given a skewed idea of mission work; we need to find better ways to describe the practice of being ambassadors for Christ. The call to proclaim the faith once delivered to the saints and to make disciples in all the world has not expired. But we render ourselves unfit for the task if some illusion of superiority still lingers in the way we relate to others.

Amazing grace

That saved a wretch like me
I am not wretched because of things others have done to me, even though those things may have been horribly wretched. I am wretched because of the things I have done, the choices I have made.

God is not a sadistic puppet master who made me do bad things, then condemned me to eternal punishment for doing them. There were always better choices available to me, but I always wanted to blame someone else for my wrong choices.

Eve did not force Adam to eat of the fruit. The serpent did not force Eve to pluck the fruit and bite into it. God did not force Satan to rebel against Him. None of these things were pre-determined. Neither were the bad choices that I made. I am wretched because I deliberately made those bad choices.

‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear
It was hard to see that it was grace that brought me face to face with my wretchedness, that made me feel the crushing weight of my guilt and fear the utter hopelessness of my situation. Yet without that I would never have made the next step.

I admitted to myself and to God that all my problems were of my own doing, nobody had pushed me, all my problems were caused by choices I had made.

And grace my fears relieved
Suddenly, unexpectedly, that crushing weight of guilt, and the fear of God’s judgement were gone. God’s grace had come down and I was forgiven and free.

That is why grace is so amazing.

Reality

  1. This is my Father’s world. I did not ask to be here. I cannot choose to be in another world. This is it and I may as well make the best of it.
  2.  I am made in my Father’s image. Even though I am earthly, like the animals, with all the capacity for savagery that entails, I am also a spiritual being, able to know and communicate with my Father, with all the wonderful possibilities that provides.
  3.  This world, this life, is not all there is. Voices are coming to me from beyond this world, alluring me to discontent, envy, anger, rebellion. Other voices, softer voices, urge me to love and be loved. My destination after this life depends on which voices I choose to listen to and obey.

This is reality. I may wish it wasn’t like that; I may choose to believe that it is not like that. But in the end, I cannot escape reality. Denying reality will not make me happy, now or ever. Happiness is only to be found in living in this world as it really is, not as it may appear to be or as I would wish it to be. Happiness is to be found in living to make others happy, not just in looking out for myself.

There are people around me who do not accept reality – many people, probably most of the people I meet. They show it by their attitudes, the way they choose to live their lives. Yet underneath the mask there is still a person made in the image of the Father. A person who is sometimes capable of great acts of kindness, a person who might be touched by the kindness of others.

It is not up to me to unmask them, or tear off their anti-God armour, only the Father Himself can do that. Words and acts of love and kindness will do more good than cutting words of criticism. They are receiving altogether enough criticism already. And underneath that hard shell there is still the image of the Father and the realization that their rebellion against Him is not working out as they thought it would.

To show love and kindness is not to accept their rebellion against the Father. It is to show them that genuine happiness is found when we are ready to live the life that the Father made us for.

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