Flatlander Faith

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

Category Archives: Faith and life

Two sisters

Two sisters from a dysfunctional home. Both married at 15, now in their sixties. Let’s call them Kathleen and Karen to keep things straight.

Kathleen’s husband was prone to drunken rages and she bore the brunt of those rages. She finally left, feeling her life was in danger, and took their children with her. She was divorced at 21, lived with several other men, had one more child.

One of those men sexually abused her daughter. The daughter died of cancer at the age of sixteen, her oldest brother came to the funeral handcuffed to a police officer. All the boys had scrapes with the law. None of them ever married, but all have children. Kathleen is unable to have any contact with the children of one of her sons. Neither is he.

Kathleen has lived on welfare most of her life. Her life is a shambles, yet she talks freely of how God has sustained her and occasionally goes to church. She feels she has done the best she could under the circumstances. Her only friends are people in the same circumstances as she is, or worse.

Karen is still married; her husband has provided well for them. They have two daughters, both happily married. Not long ago Karen was diagnosed with lung cancer. Her daughters and sons-in-law rallied around, providing rides to all her appointments and supporting her in every way. She is cancer free, now, but her husband is undergoing cancer treatment. Once again the family is there for them.

Karen never talks about God, but somewhere she got the idea that her life could be different from the life of her parents. Kathleen seemingly never did.

We wonder what made the difference. Could it be the three years that Karen spent in the home of her aunt and uncle before she started school? That wasn’t perhaps the best of homes, but it was light years better than her parents home. The acceptance she felt from her husband’s family must have helped, too.

Still, it is one thing to see that your life can be better than the life of the family you grew up in, It is quite another thing to make that difference happen. Karen was determined, she did what she could to make it happen.

We look at people like Kathleen and say “Don’t they know any better?” I don’t believe they do. I’m sure they have an inkling that things should be different, they wish things could be different, but they have no support, no one to turn to, if they would want to change. What are we to do?

Telling them about faith in the saving power of Jesus Christ is an important part of the answer. But is faith enough? Let’s paraphrase James:

“If a neighbour be forsaken, and destitute of love and affection, and one of you say unto them, depart in peace, be ye encouraged and filled with love; notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to emotional wholeness; what doth it profit? Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone.” (Adapted from James 2:15-17).

How well do you know God?

How well do you know your neighbour? Perhaps you think you know quite a lot about him, but do you really know him? Do you know what makes him tick, what things motivate him, what things give him joy or sorrow? Do you know what he’d like to tell you about how you could be a better neighbour?

How well do you know God? Perhaps you read the Bible and pray every day. Do you hear God speaking when you do that, or is it just something a good Christian is supposed to do? Do you hear God telling you what He’d like to make of your life? Do you hear Him telling you about things He really wishes you would do differently?

When you read the Bible, are you just wandering to and fro, picking the prettiest flowers, the shiniest stones? Do you ever wonder why some people seem to find so much more? Or do people sometimes tell you something they say they found in the Bible and it just don’t seem right, but you don’t know how to find out for yourself?

Let’s start from square one: the goal of reading the Bible is not to learn nice stories about God; it is not to learn about the future: it is not to discover a set of rules to guide our life; it is not to equip ourselves to argue or debate with others. The only purpose for reading the Bible is to get to know its author and to know what He wants us to do here and now in this time and place in which we live.

It has always been the people who were small in their own eyes who accomplished the most for God. Noah spent 100 years building a huge boat. Do we understand how ridiculous that was? Water falling from the sky – that had never happened in the entire history of the world. Yet here was this old guy saying that God was going to send rain to wash the world of all the sin that was happening. I imagine the people scoffed at his foolish words and actions.

Finally the boat was built and stocked with food for all the people and creatures that would ride out the flood. Just more foolishness. Then the animals started coming to the ark. I suppose those who saw thought it strange, but what did it prove? Noah did not exclude anyone from coming into the ark to be saved, but finally God shut the door. And the deluge came. We know a lot about this foolish old man who built the ark, and nothing at all about those who perished in the flood, however great they may have been in their own eyes.

King Saul started out small in his own eyes, but the romance of being king soon began to grow on him. He didn’t come to a good end, either. It is still that way – those who develop a sense of how important and needful they are for the work of God, cease to be useful to God.

The vitality, the purity and the growth of the kingdom of God depends on the vitality, the purity and the growth in faith and obedience of each individual member of the kingdom. “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16). Let’s read it all, chapter by chapter, book by book, the whole Bible, over and over. Let’s read it in bite-sized pieces so that we can grasp what is happening; let’s read the whole story in sequence so that we can grasp the context and see the larger picture.

Let’s read it prayerfully, asking God to reveal to us step by step what He wants us to see, what we need to see for this particular moment and place in time. As we do so, we will develop an acquaintanceship and a relationship with God that grows deeper all the time. He will reprove us, instruct us and encourage us, as long as we are obedient in each small step of the way.

Self-surrender

The story of Joseph is one of the most thrilling in the Bible. A misunderstood boy is rejected by his brothers, sold into slavery. Then he is falsely accused, put into prison and forgotten. Someone promises to help him, but he too forgets as soon as he is out of prison. Yet in the end this unfortunate lad is crowned with glory and power and becomes the benefactor and protector of his brothers.

It’s a wonderful story. But most of us are so dazzled by the pomp and glory achieved by Joseph that we completely miss another story happening in the shadows. Yet this other story is more important in the history of God’s people and in the story of redemption.

I am talking about the story of Judah. Judah was the fourth son of his father, the fourth son of Leah, the wife that Jacob hadn’t really wanted. Rachel, the mother of Joseph, was the great love of Jacob’s life.

But when the chips were down, when the ruler of Egypt had told them they needn’t bother coming to buy food again if their youngest brother wasn’t with them, it was Judah who laid his life on the line to save his family from starvation. He told his father he would do everything in his power to bring Benjamin home again, and if he failed he would bear the reproach forever. Jacob’s heart was touched, he trusted Judah and gave permission for Benjamin to go.

Then the ruler of Egypt declared that Benjamin was his hostage, he would not allow him to return to his father. Once again Judah stepped forward and put his life on the line. He told the ruler of Egypt to take him as hostage in place of his younger brother. He told of the promise he had made to his father and how it would be more than his father could bear if Benjamin did not return home. This melted the heart of the ruler of Egypt and he revealed himself as their brother Joseph.

And this is where Judah became the leader of the family. Just before he died, Jacob blessed his sons and said of Judah:

Judah, thou art he whom thy brethren shall praise: thy hand shall be in the neck of thine enemies; thy father’s children shall bow down before thee. Judah is a lion’s whelp: from the prey, my son, thou art gone up: he stooped down, he couched as a lion, and as an old lion; who shall rouse him up? The sceptre shall not depart from Judah, nor a lawgiver from between his feet, until Shiloh come; and unto him shall the gathering of the people be. Binding his foal unto the vine, and his ass’s colt unto the choice vine; he washed his garments in wine, and his clothes in the blood of grapes: his eyes shall be red with wine, and his teeth white with milk. Genesis 49:8-12.

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King David was of the tribe of Judah. Like his ancestor, he cared more for the well-being of his people than he did for personal honour and glory. Jesus was of the lineage of David and of the tribe of Judah. He went beyond the examples left by both in surrendering his life so that all mankind might be saved. The cross, the supreme sacrifice, was foreshadowed in the life of Judah. How can we overlook it?

Who is on the LORD’S side?

Then Moses stood in the gate of the camp, and said, Who is on the LORD’S side? let him come unto me. And all the sons of Levi gathered themselves together unto him. Exodus 32:26

Only a few weeks after being miraculously delivered from oppression in Egypt, the Israelites build themselves a golden bull, say it is a representation of the God who delivered them and begin a riotous celebration.

When Moses came down the mountain and saw what was happening he stood apart from the camp and called for those untainted with this heathenish abomination to come out to him. It appears that only the Levites had fully abstained from participation. He tells them “Put every man his sword by his side, and go in and out from gate to gate throughout the camp, and slay every man his brother, and every man his companion, and every man his neighbour” (verse 27).

It is not specified in the text, but it is to be assumed that the Levites had observed those who were the principal movers of this imitation of pagan worship. Three thousand people were slain.

This was a brutal lesson, but the only means of preventing this idolatry from taking hold of the whole people. We must remember that this was the very beginning of God calling out a people to be His representatives in a world where idolatrous abominations were the norm.

It wasn’t until the New Testament era that the Holy Spirit was given to all believers. During the whole era of the Old Testament the Holy Spirit was given to only a few. It was still possible for all the people to be led of the Spirit, providing they were obedient to the teachings of those prophets, priests and kings who were Spirit-led.

Believers of the New Testament era have a tremendous advantage, yet we are equally tempted to stray from the narrow way out of a misguided love for family, popularity, position or pleasure. Jesus still calls us to come apart from all these and consecrate ourselves fully to Him and to His cause. Sometimes He uses strong language, telling us we need to hate members of our own family, meaning that we must hate any pull from loved ones that would draw us away from Him.

He goes beyond even that and tells us to hate our own flesh. This is not to be interpreted as a life of severe asceticism; in another place He tells us to love our neighbour as much as we love ourselves. That is, inasmuch as we are concerned to provide for our own physical and spiritual needs, we should have the same measure of concern for those needs in those about us.

Who is on the LORD’s side? When we become followers of Jesus, we are enlisting in the service of the Eternal Creator, Lord and Saviour. It is a great and noble calling. Let us consecrate ourselves to His cause, laying aside all that would render our cause obscure and confusing to those around us and could eventually hinder us from reaching our heavenly home.

Holy violence

And from the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent take it by force. (Matthew 11:12)

The tax gatherers and heathen, whom the scribes and Pharisees think have no right to the kingdom of the Messiah, filled with holy zeal and earnestness, seize at once on the proffered mercy of the gospel, and so take the kingdom as by force from those learned doctors who claimed for themselves the chiefest places in that kingdom. He that will take, get possession of, the kingdom of righteousness, peace, and spiritual joy must be in earnest. All hell will oppose him in every step he takes; and if a man be not absolutely determined to give up his sins and evil companions, and have his soul saved at all hazards, and at every expense, he will surely perish everlastingly. This requires a violent earnestness.

-Adam Clarke, Commentary on the Bible

Sometimes a light surprises

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Image by Piet van de Wiel from Pixabay

Sometimes a light surprises
The Christian while he sings;
It is the Lord who rises
With healing in His wings:
When comforts are declining,
He grants the soul again
A season of clear shining,
To clear it after rain.

In holy contemplation,
We sweetly then pursue
The theme of God’s salvation,
And find it ever new:
Set free from present sorrow,
We cheerfully can say,
Let the unknown tomorrow
Bring with it what it nay.

It can bring with it nothing,
But He will bring us through;
Who gives the lilies clothing,
Will clothe His people too:
Beneath the spreading heavens,
No creature but is fed;
And He who feeds the ravens,
Will give His children bread.

Though vine nor fig-tree neither,
Their wonted fruit should bear,
Though all the fields should wither,
Nor flocks, nor herds be there;
Yet God the same abiding,
His praise shall trill my voice,
For while in Him confiding,
I cannot but rejoice.

-William Cowper

Mixed up about the Gibeonites

God had miraculously led the children of Israel through Jordan and to victory over Jericho and Ai. Before them now were the mountains; the nations in those mountains greatly outnumbered the Israelites and they were men of war. These were the people who had so frightened their fathers forty years earlier; the challenge before them was formidable.

Up in their mountain stronghold, the people of Gibeon had gotten the message that God planned to give this land to the Israelites and they believed that He could and would do it. They also knew that God had forbade the Israelites to make any covenant with the people of the land. So they hit upon a ruse, sending a delegation pretending to come from a far country and wanting to make a league of peace between their people and the people of God.

Of course it was deception, and yes, Joshua and the elders of Israel were tricked into doing what God had told them not to do. And yet, what was the result? Bible story lessons make this a great issue. But what evidence can they point to of God’s displeasure?

The kings of the Amorites called out their armies to attack Gibeon in order to prevent the Israelites from gaining a foothold in the mountains. God told Joshua to go to the defence of the Gibeonites and promised to deliver the attacking armies into his hands. He rained hailstones that killed more of the Amorites than Joshua’s army, He made the sun stand still in the sky until the victory was complete. Over the next few days Joshua and the Israelites attacked and vanquished all the Amorite cities. Far from punishing the Gibeonites, God had used them as the key to the conquest of the whole southern half of the promised land.

Now the kings of the north, Hittites, Perezites, Jebusites and the rest of the Amorites and Hivites, gathered together to prepare an attack on the Israelites. Joshua and the army marched north to attack the gathered armies and once again God gave them a decisive history. Now they were masters of the whole land. They had not destroyed all the people of the land, but there were no longer any mighty armies to stand against them.

As we read the whole story, the inescapable conclusion is that God blessed the Israelites for accepting the Gibeonites. Yes, they came with a deceitful story, yet they did it because they recognized the greatness of God. They submitted willingly to the conditions laid upon them by the elders of Israel, knowing that the alternative was death. Joshua 11:19 says: “There was not a city that made peace with the children of Israel, save the Hivites the inhabitants of Gibeon: all other they took in battle.”

We can natter on if we wish about the wickedness of the Gibeonite deceit and the wickedness of the people of God in falling for their treachery. But we won’t find anything in the Word of God to back us up.

It is true that God did instruct the people in Deuteronomy 20:17 : “But thou shalt utterly destroy them; namely, the Hittites, and the Amorites, the Canaanites, and the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites; as the LORD thy God hath commanded thee.” Are we blaming God for not sticking to His word even when one group of those people willingly submitted to Him? God later told Jeremiah: “At what instant I shall speak concerning a nation, and concerning a kingdom, to pluck up, and to pull down, and to destroy it; if that nation, against whom I have pronounced, turn from their evil, I will repent of the evil that I thought to do unto them” (Jeremiah 18:7-8).

The story of the Gibeonites is a vivid portrayal of the redemption that God offers to all mankind when we accept His judgement on our sins. It is a story of God’s providential care of His people in leading them to victory and of his mercy to the heathen in drawing them to find salvation with His people.

The Gibeonites did not become slaves to the Israelites. Read the story carefully, they became slaves of the Levites for the service of the tabernacle. There was mercy even in this. Their work was menial, but it was for the service of God and it protected them from oppression and mistreatment. It is likely that the Gibeonites are included among the people later called Nethinims.

There came a time when King Saul thought he would do God a service by wiping out the Gibeonites. Because of this God sent a three year famine in Israel in the time of King David. The famine ceased when seven of Sauls grandsons were hung. I don’t read this as revenge. This was the most effective means of getting the message out to all Israel that the slaying of the Gibeonites was entirely Saul’s idea and contrary to the will of God. Nowadays Twitter may be quicker, but often not much kinder.

Let’s not be like Saul and condemn the Gibeonites for their deception. The real story here is a group of Gentiles forsaking their gods to seek refuge with Israel and their God. Perhaps their methods were questionable, but the Bible account leads us to believe the sincerity of their desire to fully submit to the Almighty God.

Fast food Christianity

We are told, and it is obvious if we are paying attention, that there is a great decline in Bible knowledge among evangelical Christians who claim their faith is built upon the Word of God. What is the cause?

Jack Miner told of an elderly Scot who said, “In my day children were raised on the Bible and oatmeal porridge, today they are being raised on the Eaton’s catalogue and corn flakes.” Then pounding the podium, he said “I tell you folks, it can’t be done!”

Leaving aside the fact that I was allergic to oatmeal (I broke out in hives) and that the Eaton’s catalogue is long gone, this anecdote does reveal that there once was a time when it was believed that children were not too tender or dull to be exposed to the Bible just as it is.

My observation, as an old-timer, is that the decline in Bible knowledge is a direct result of the tools we are using to enhance our Bible knowledge. I am thinking primarily of children’s Bible story book, study Bibles, and Bible reading plans that lead one hither and yon in search of interesting elements of Scripture, but never allow one to get the whole picture.

We have advanced so far in this that readers are likely to dismiss such ideas as the incoherent rumblings of an old curmudgeon. Perhaps I am somewhat of a curmudgeon, but consider the evidence before you reject what I am saying.

What could be more innocent than a Bible story book? Look at the stories closely and you will see that each one is told to teach a moral lesson. Sometimes this requires some editorial tweaking by the writer. And sometimes the moral is altogether different from what you will find if you read the full account in context in the Bible.

I will examine some of the more egregious examples of this in future posts. But the overall effect of Bible story books is to create a kind of pseudo-Christianity that is described as Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. This is the thought that God has given us the Bible to teach us how to live moral and upright lives and to teach us to feel good about ourselves. That may not sound so bad, but years ago people believed the Bible existed to help us know God. That is what I still believe.

Study Bibles are like the fast food restaurants who used to advertise “Don’t cook tonight, Call Chicken Delight!” or “Colonel Sanders makes it finger-lickin’ good, with his secret blend of herbs and spices.” If you don’t think reference Bibles have their secret blend of herbs and spices, I don’t think you’re paying attention.

That’s enough for an introduction. Stand by for more rumblings in future posts.

Prairie fire!

Just before supper time today my wife smelled smoke. We went outside and saw the fire behind the buildings of our neighbour. Our son-in-law was the first to see it while going home for supper. He turned around to get the fire engine from the village six miles away, sending out the alert to  other members of the volunteer fire department as he went. He called the closest farmer and he drove his tractor over there right away to make a fire guard in the stubble.

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Image by skeeze from Pixabay

This is spring time in Saskatchewan; Quebec is having floods, we are having fires. They happen most often around the Easter weekend; people clean up their yards and want to burn the trash. If there is a little breeze, the fire gets away on them and spreads like wildfire in the dry grass, stubble and brush. A week ago our son-in-law spent the whole day going from one fire to another, three in all.

Today’s fire may have been caused by spontaneous combustion. Our neighbour makes doors for cabinet makers. I am guessing the fire may have started in a pile of wood scraps, rags and empty paint and glue containers. He was not aware there was a fire until our son-in-law called him.  It took two hours to put the fire out, a couple of trees and some dry grass and stubble burned, but the fire was away from the buildings. 

There is a spiritual parallel in the way so many churches are disappearing in rural and small-town Saskatchewan. The town where I grew up once had five churches; only two are left. Of those two, neither has roots in the Word of God. One teaches salvation through the sacraments, the other teaches that it is society that needs salvation, not people.

What happened? I think they dried up from the roots. Many people used to read the Bible daily. Perhaps their understanding of what they read differed somewhat from the way those in another church believed. Yet they all had a basic trust in the truth of God’s Word. Many preachers were pretty down to earth men who were willing to get by on meager fare to bring the gospel to their people.

Denominational leaders thought they could make the gospel more effective in providing more education for preachers. Once these better-educated preachers went out into the rural churches, the people discovered they hadn’t really understood anything about the Bible. The new preachers brought new insights, but people didn’t trust themselves to read the Bible for themselves any more.

Then too, better educated ministers deserved a better salary. Soon the smaller churches couldn’t afford a minister. They amalgamated to pool their resources. That meant people had to drive further to church and sometimes they just couldn’t make it every Sunday. That often led to another round of amalgamations. Today very few small communities have any kind of gospel preaching church.

A prairie fire mostly just burns dead grass, leaves and bushes. Before long green growth appears amid the ashes and by summer’s end there will be little evince of the fire.

The spiritual prairie fire that destroyed our rural churches burned underground, destroying the roots. People forgot that it is not well-paid, educated ministers and big buildings that make a Christian church. It is people, individuals and families, who read their Bible every day and pray to God to help them live what they read. Once that faith has withered and died, there is no need for buildings and preachers.

Still, something will grow in that burned over ground. We say we don’t like what we see growing around us, so let’s be like the sower in the parable Jesus told and scatter the precious seed wherever we go.

How many days until next Sunday?

Well, that’s a foolish question if there ever was one, everybody knows it’s eight days.

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Image by Robin Higgins from Pixabay

But I’m writing to English-speaking people and most of you probably don’t know that. You probably count Monday to Sunday and come up with seven days. But today isn’t over with yet, how can you just ignore it, say it doesn’t count?
I used to think that way; it was as obvious as could be that a week is seven days and therefore it is seven days until next Sunday.

Then I learned French and discovered that they think differently. Partial days do count, you need to start with what’s left of today and count up to next Sunday, and voila! it comes to eight days. Once I could get my head around that, I discovered that this is the way that a whole lot of the world thinks.

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Including the people of Jesus’ day. It was no stretch to them to call it three days when Jesus was in the tomb from just before sundown on Friday to just after dawn on Sunday. That was obviously three days.

But I have read carefully thought out dissertations by aspiring Bible scholars who proved to their own satisfaction that Jesus could not possibly have been crucified on a Friday. If He was three days in the tomb, He had to have been crucified on Thursday. I even saw one some years ago that argued for Wednesday. That just goes to show that if you don’t know something, you can’t know that you don’t know it.

One of the gospel accounts says three days and three nights. How does one account for that when it was in fact only Friday night and Saturday night?

Let me answer that question with a few others. At 2:00 am this morning was it Saturday night? But Saturday ended at midnight. Was it Sunday night? We say that night follows day, it doesn’t precede it. Then was it Sunday morning? But it was still night.

The French solution is to say that last night was the night of Saturday to Sunday. No possibility of confusion there.

I think the simplest way to understand three days and three nights is to say that Jesus was in the tomb three days and the portions of night associated with those three days.

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