Flatlander Faith

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

Is sincerity enough?

The way I see it, it doesn’t matter what you believe, just so you’re sincere.” -Charles M. Schulz.

I’m not so sure about that.

I once knew a man who sincerely believed that every other resident in his apartment building had been placed there for the sole purpose of spying on him.

People who invested their money with Bernie Madoff sincerely believed their money was safe.

Neville Chamberlain sincerely believed he had achieved “peace for our time” when he signed a pact with Adolf Hitler on September 30, 1938.

Why would we expect sincerity based on delusion or wishful thinking to have any better results in the spiritual realm?

How can killing make the world a better place?

It’s not that long since I posted the following item. It seems fitting to repeat it after the killings in New Zealand. The target this time was not Jews but the Muslim community. The shooter made no profession of Christianity, but events like this should cause us examine ourselves as Christians. How can we make it known to our Muslim neighbours that we are followers of Jesus Christ who told us to love our neighbours as ourselves?

It’s in all the news media  today. A man in Pittsburgh believed the world would be a better place without Jews and this morning he did his part to make it happen.

This seems to be a time-honoured tradition; if you can’t handle your own problems then blame them on somebody else and try to eliminate that somebody else.

Yeah, I said time-honoured; that doesn’t mean I think it’s honorable. It’s a sign of a troubled mind and it’s been going on far too long. The world cannot be made better by hatred and killing. No individual’s life can be made better by acting out his hatred and killing people.

There is an example in the Old Testament that doesn’t involve hatred, just the muddled idea that killing can make things better. Benjamin was a captive in Egypt; Reuben told his father “Trust me. I’ll bring back my little brother. And if I don’t, you can kill my two sons.”

I’m a grandfather, will someone please explain to me how I could be comforted for the loss of a child by the loss of two of my grandchildren? Does that make sense to anyone? Jacob didn’t seem to be impressed either.

Hatred and killing don’t make things better, they only lead to more hatred and killing. Jesus said “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.” He didn’t invent that teaching, He was quoting from the Law given to Moses; the original is found in Leviticus 19:18.

There are two things we can do as individuals to make this world a better place. First is to face our own problems, take responsibility for them and take charge of our own life. The second is to love others, not only in our thoughts but in our actions.

My sympathy to all those who have been hurt by the events in New Zealand.

What does an angel look like?

This question was prompted by my search for an image to illustrate the words of John Milton which I posted a few days ago. I found all kinds of images, but not one that I would fell comfortable using.

The question may seem frivolous, as the Bible does not give a clear description of an angel. There are descriptions of seraphim, cheubim, living creatures in Ezekiel, and living beasts before the throne of God in Revelation. I don’t know if anyone has really succeeded in drawing a picture that accurately represents those descriptions. These beings have some role in God’s kingdom, but just what it is isn’t exactly clear, except that they are continually praising God.

Angels are something a little different. The name means messenger and is used in Revelation to describe the human messenger, or minister, of each of the seven churches of Asia. The celestial angels appear to have the specific responsibility of being God’s messengers to mankind and also protectors of mankind.

In the few mentions we have of an angel appearing to individuals in the Bible, he is usually described as appearing to be a man. That is, the angel appeared to be human. That would preclude wings. Though the other beings are usually described as having wings and flying, angels appear to simply step from the unseen celestial realm into the terrestrial.

Angels appear to have no gender, “neither marry, nor are given in marriage,” thus depictions of angels in sensuous feminine form are clearly false. For the same reason, it is probably correct that angels are never depicted with a beard.

Thus, the best I can do to describe an angel is to describe what is probably not part of his appearance: no wings, not distinctly masculine or feminine. Sometimes an angelic appearance is glorious, often there is nothing startling about the appearance of the angel.

The ministry and purpose of angels is more important than their appearance, for that reason I will quote Hebrews 1:14 as the conclusion:

Are they not all ministering spirits, sent forth to minister for them who shall be heirs of salvation?

Unseen

Millions of spiritual creatures walk the earth
Unseen, both when we wake and when we sleep.
-John Milton

Intriguing book titles

These are two of my recent reads, with titles that seem to need a little explanation. Randy Newman’s book, Questioning Evangelism, is not about questioning the value of evangelism, which might be your first impression. Rather, he is advocating asking questions as a means of evangelism.

Forty-five years ago, Tom Skinner published a book entitled If Christ is the Answer, What are the Questions?  His theme was that we are not helping anyone find salvation if we prattle on with ready-made answers but don’t know what are the pressing questions of the person to whom we are speaking. Randy Newman takes us down that same road, with suggestions of how to deal with some of the pressing questions of our day.

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Yes, Nazis had a conscience. Adolf Hitler was a powerful evangelist for his cause and inspired the masses of the German Volk to believe in his promise of renewed purpose, purity and hope. He proposed himself as the role model of revived German manhood. And yes, he had a hidden agenda. For many years he said very little about his belief that the Jews were the main obstacle to the promised renewal of the German Volk, only dropping hints here and there to reassure those who believed as he did that he was still heading in the right direction.

By the time he got around to putting his final solution into action, he had the German people solidly behind him. When he spoke to a crowd, often for an hour or more, he was very adept at reading their mood and leading them to believe that he alone could bring the renewal for which they longed. In the end, the majority had fully bought into the belief that the only right thing to do was to eliminate those people whom Hitler told them were the obstacle to realizing their dream.

The Nazi Conscience is a chilling book; Claudia Koonz has thoroughly researched the Nazi era and brings to life evidence of how the well-educated German Volk reacted to a charismatic leader who offered them hope.

Why am I juxtaposing these two books, so different in their message? For one thing, I’m not so sure that they are so different. Both books lead me to question the trustworthiness of charismatic leaders who work on people’s emotions. Both books are implicit warnings about having a hidden agenda.

If we are going to share the gospel we need to get to know the people around us, understand their deep questions and longings. We should make sure we understand them before we leap in with an answer. A few thoughtful and considerate questions might help us to understand and lead them to look at things a little differently. That will often be the most appropriate starting point for us.

We should not be looking for the approval of people who think like we do, rather we should try to introduce a new thought to someone who has never looked at things quite that way before. To do that, we need to speak plain English. Slogans and religious jargon that are readily understood by people within our circle are meaningless to those outside that circle.  

A popular saying in our day says : “be the change you want to see in the world.” That’s good advice, as long as we don’t think that we have attained to a higher level of understanding and need to help others to climb up to our level.

Another danger is to think that other people’s sins are worse than ours. We can’t help them if we only want to talk about how horrible their sins are and never admit, seem quite oblivious to, our own sins. Our task is to point people to the Creator and the Saviour, not to ourselves.

Sometimes we hear it said that the people around us are not interested in the gospel. Could the real problem be that we are not interested in the people around us? Randy Newman ends his book on a hopeful note:

I believe that the soil in which we now plant gospel seeds is better fertilized. Plausibility structures are being rebuilt. Assumptions are more favourably disposed in our direction. And the notion that faith is  relevant to all of life is no longer considered nonsense. The opportunities for evangelistic fruit might be about to increase dramatically.

Questioning Evangelism, Engaging People’s Hearts the Way Jesus Did, © 2014, 2017 by Randy Newman. Published by Kregel Publications, Grand Rapids MI, The quote above is from page 259.

The Nazi Conscience, © 2003 by Claudia Koontz. Published by The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge MA

Feeling a bit groggy this morning?

Maybe you should move to Saskatchewan. We ditched Daylight Saving Time more than 50 years ago.

More and more studies are  demonstrating just how useless is this business of turning the clocks ahead one hour. It does nothing to reduce energy costs, which has been its stated purpose from the beginning.

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What it does do is cause more heart attacks, strokes, accidents and depression due to sleep deprivation. Numerous studies show that tomorrow and throughout the coming week there will be a statistically significant uptick in all the unfortunate phenomena just mentioned.

Don’t listen to those who say it must be right because everybody is doing it. India, China, the Philippines and South  Africa have stopped doing it, leaving Europe and most of North America as thee main practitioners of this bizarre practice. Isn’t it time they saw the light and dropped it, too?

Freedom of the will

Freedom of choice means that I am at liberty to do as I please. Nevertheless, I learn every day in small ways that the choices I make have consequences; and the choices that other people make often have consequences that affect me. Why then should I not expect that consequences might not only be immediate, but long-term, even eternal?

God is not to blame when bad things happen, He has given us the liberty to choose freely. Often those choices have unanticipated consequences. The unpleasant consequences of our bad choices should lead us to pause a moment to consider whether God might not have a better way for us.

God does not protect us from the negative consequences of the choices we and other people make. Neither does he force us to choose His way.

Yet God does speak to us, quietly and often, asking us to reconsider the direction we are travelling in life. Some time in our life He will tell us that the bad things happening to us are the result of our bad choices which make us sinners.

It doesn’t work to decide that we will live the way God wants us to live by our own will and strength. But we do have the ability to accept God’s judgment on our sin and ask Him to help us. That is called repentance and when God sees that our repentance is genuine, He forgives us because of the sacrifice Jesus has made for our sin, He adopts us as His child and gives us His Holy Spirit to enable us to make right choices.

That is called the new birth, conversion, regeneration. Those words all mean a change in the way we think and a u-turn in the direction of our life. When we live to please God and to love and help the people around us, we will be far happier than when we were only trying to please ourselves.

This is the beginning of Christian life. Some people stop as soon as they reach this point, thinking this is all there is to Christian life. God wants us to keep on going, learning a little more each day about our own weakness and about God’s will and the blessings that He has for those who really consecrate their lives to Him.

Antichrist

The word antichrist appears in only four verses of the Bible, three in 1 John and one in 2 John. In the Authorized Version it is never preceded by the definite article.  There are mentions of “the spirit of antichrist”, “an antichrist” and “many antichrists”.

Rather than being an individual who appears at the end of time, the Bible tells us that antichrist has been present since the apostolic age. It is a spirit which promotes belief systems that counterfeit true Christian doctrine, offers counterfeit salvation or a counterfeit path to knowing God.

The beast rising from the sea in Revelation 13 is a picture of how the spirit of antichrist works. The beast is a counterfeit of Christ with crowns, titles, power, death and resurrection and demand to be worshipped.

John, who wrote to warn Christians against the blasphemous powers wielded by the empire, identifies the beast as Rome (“the city on seven hills,” c.f. Rev. 17:9). But his images reveal that the power of antichrist residing in the beast is far bigger than Rome. It lives on beyond the first century, to the present and the eschaton, wherever the nature and message of Christ are refuted in the service of fraudulent demands for absolute loyalty.
– Dictionary of Bible Imagery

The brief career of a fervent preacher

Levi Young was born in Eastern Pennsylvania in 1841. The date of his conversion is not known, but he became a member of a small Mennonite denomination at the age of 21. Not long after, he became an itinerant minister and evangelist in that group. He never married.

He was on fire for the Lord, striving to do His will in all things and always ready to speak a word for the Lord. By the summer of 1865 he became troubled about the church to which he belonged and came to the conclusion that he needed to separate himself. In June he travelled to Wooster, Ohio to visit John Holdeman, the leader of another small Mennonite church. He spent several days visiting with Holdeman and other members of his church, then returned home.

Over the following months Levi Young exchanged letters with John Holdeman and received a visit from him. In December he returned to Wooster, Ohio and was baptized by John Holdeman.

From there he travelled with John Holdeman to Wakarusa, Indiana where there was a congregation of Holdeman’s church. They returned to Ohio and on the last day of the year left for Ontario.

It appears that this was at least the second visit of John Holdeman to the Baden, Ontario area as Levi Young identifies several people as brethren in his diary: Jacob Litwiller and wife, bro. Yutzy and bro. Schott. Meetings were held most evenings, often in homes, at least twice in a school house and once in Hamacher’s meeting house of the Evangelical Association. Several times Levi Young mentions that “I preached and brother Holdeman exhorted.”

Levi Young then returned home to Pennsylvania and continued preaching in homes when that opportunity would arise. It is evident from his diary that he was a sick man and growing weaker. He makes plans for the disposition of his goods after his death and the last entry in his diary is from July 13, 1868, breaking off in mid sentence. He died August 14 at the age of 26 and was buried near Coopersburg. It appears likely the cause of death was consumption, now known as tuberculosis.

It is interesting to me that John Holdeman encouraged a newly baptized brother to preach in his evangelical outreach in Ontario. That kind of does away with any picture I may have had of John Holdeman as a stern, authoritarian person. John Holdeman returned to Ontario another 25 times. The members in Ontario mostly moved to various locations in the USA in later years and have numerous descendants in the Church of God in Christ, Mennonite.

Another point of interest is that during the last two years of Levi Young’s life the two families he had the most to do with were Minningers and Stauffers. Thirty years later, in 1898, John Holdeman and another minister visited near Souderton, Pennsylvania and Hiram and Lottie Mininger were baptized, as well as Lottie’s parents, Isaiah and Lavina Stover. Stover is a spelling variant of Stauffer, and Souderton is not far south of the area where Levi Young lived. There were more baptisms in that area in later years; Hiram Mininger became a very active and well-known minister in the Church of God in Christ, Mennonite.

Simplicity of the church

It was a fine summer day in 1627 and I was strolling through Plimoth Plantation when deacon Samuel Fuller fell in step beside me. “The church officials back in England are saying that we have no business calling ourselves a church here in Massachusetts, because we have no minister,” he said.  “But a church is made up of Christian people. They don’t even have a church. Who made them ministers and bishops?”

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Image by OpenClipart-Vectors on Pixabay

Well, OK, the year was actually 1990, the man beside me was an actor playing the role of Samuel Fuller and we were in a recreated Plimoth Plantation, meticulously designed to look and feel like 1627. But I have no doubt that the real Samuel Fuller actually spoke those words.

Later that day, at a family reunion supper, I asked a young lady (a distant cousin) who also worked at Plimoth Plantation, if the modern Samuel Fuller really believed what he was saying. She hesitated a moment, then said “I think he has it in his head, but not in his heart.”

There you have the essential requirement of a church: Christian people. Not people motivated by tradition, emotion, social connection or intellect, but genuine, from the heart, born again Christians.

How can we do that? The short answer is we can’t. Jesus said He would build His church, The real question is how can we discern if a church is being built by Jesus or by people?

The New Testament speaks of believers meeting for worship, but there are no instructions as to what the meeting place should look like. Being as I live in Saskatchewan and it is bitterly cold outside right now, I am thankful for a warm building to use when we meet to worship. But I am wary when buildings become large and elaborate and are regarded with more reverence than the meeting going on inside.

The New Testament speaks of preaching, but never hints that the preacher needs special training, or that he should be paid a salary. The word minister means servant, yet a minister also has a responsibility to watch over the spiritual welfare of his congregation. But if he begins to think of himself as a lord over the congregation, he has crossed a line according to 1 Peter 5:3.

The New Testament speaks of singing, but never hints at the use of musical instruments. Entertainment is not an enhancement of worship, but rather a distraction.

The New Testament also shows that a close relationship between churches or congregations in different places and different countries. One of the warning signs that a congregation is not being built by Jesus is when it is totally independent of any other group.

I have known people who do church at home or who belong to small independent congregations. They appear to have good convictions but they are alone in their faith, there is no one else with whom they can have fellowship. And I have seen what happens to children from these tiny, self-isolated groups. They rebel. Some forsake Christian faith altogether, some find a home in a much more liberal church. They all blame their parents for their strict, legalistic attitude.

But they are missing something. A church does not become more spiritual, closer to Jesus, by ignoring most of His teachings, saying they were for a different era. The real problem was that their parents trusted no one but themselves. That is perhaps the greatest deception of all, to believe that I, and only I, am walking with the Lord.

This brings us back to the beginning. The Church built by Jesus Christ is a church made up of genuine, from the heart, born again Christians. A church where “Christ is all, and in all” (Colossians 3:11).  Part of being a genuine Christian is the grace to see Christ in others, in spite of our outward differences.

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