Flatlander Faith

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

Category Archives: Faith and life

Baby steps

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Image by StockSnap from Pixabay

“God will provide.” We say those words glibly, so certain of their truth that we may appear to have no compassion for people in distress. That isn’t what they are experiencing day after day. Life seems to be stacked against them. Perhaps they don’t have the skills to find a job that will pay a living wage. So they eke out a meagre existence on welfare.

If they take part time work, the income is deducted from their welfare cheque. The government offers financial aid to get the training needed for a better paying job. But if they accept that offer, they no longer qualify for subsidized housing and they are worse off than before. What are they to do?

Some do escape from the welfare trap. That possibility exists for many more, but it looks hopeless who are caught there.

If they could just win the lottery that would give them a way out. Except it doesn’t; the lottery is just another trap. Those who win big are usually back where they started within two years.

The real problem is not a lack of education or a lack of money. Those problems are real, but the underlying problem is a lack of hope. Well-meaning people can’t inspire hope in the poor by telling them that there is work for anyone who really wants to work. All the listener feels from that is condemnation. Neither does it help to label them as lazy or stupid.

A baby watches big people walk around on two legs. Eventually she gets the courage to try it for herself, and she falls. The next day she tries again, and falls again. But she sees the big people doing it and wants so badly to do it herself that she keeps trying. Soon she can stand by herself. Then she takes a step or two, and falls once more. But she keeps trying and pretty soon she can walk; before long she is running.

That is the way life works. Winning the lottery does not instantly make one capable of walking, in whatever metaphorical context one may wish to apply it. None of the people who appear to be so successful in life got there without a shaky start. Everyone began with baby steps.

That is the way that God works in the life of a newborn Christian. Jesus told the disciples “ I have yet many things to say unto you, but ye cannot bear them now. Howbeit when he, the Spirit of truth, is come, he will guide you into all truth” (John 16:12-13). The Holy Spirit does not dump the whole load on us and tell us the shape up; he gently guides us step by step, allowing us to concentrate on making the next step and giving us a gentle assurance that we are moving in the right direction.

This is the kind of help needed by those who feel trapped in a dead-end street. First, they need to grasp the hope that it is possible to get out of there. Then they need the courage to take just one step. Even if that step doesn’t get them very far, they need to feel that they have accomplished one little thing and that will give them the courage to take one more step. In time their steps become more confident, leading to possibilities they thought were forever beyond their grasp.

As Christians we have a reputation for thinking that the misfortunes of the poor are entirely their own fault, for lacking compassion. I’m afraid many of us have earned that reputation. Perhaps we need to begin making baby steps toward an attitude that inspires hope in others.

Mennonites don’t have a social conscience!

During the first few years that we were members of the Church of God in Christ, Mennonite, my wife was often puzzled about why other church members were seemingly unmoved by problems and injustices in the world that moved her deeply. One day a light came on, and she said to me, “Mennonites don’t have a social conscience!” She was right.

It was said of the apostles, “These are the men who have turned the world upside down!” The gospel changes the world one person at a time. The social gospel sees people as inherently good — it is the world that needs changing. Proponents of the social gospel have succeeded in implanting in the hearts and minds of a large portion of the population a deep-seated belief that we are personally accountable for all the evils in the world and that we must do something to right those wrongs. This is a social conscience.

Many of the larger Canadian churches, the Methodists, Congregationalists, Presbyterians and the Baptist Convention, adopted the social gospel program almost a century ago. One of their first targets was the sale of alcoholic beverages, believing that if such beverages were no longer available one of the greatest curses of society would be removed. Prohibition was established in Canada from 1913 to 1927 and in the USA from 1920 to 1933. Unfortunately, the real problem was that a large part of the population actually wanted alcoholic beverages. The net result of the experiment was a considerable expansion of criminal organizations.

Alongside the temperance movement was the women’s suffrage movement. In Canada it was Nellie McClung, a devoted wife and mother, an active church member and a writer of books for children who became the prime mover in pushing for women’s right to vote, temperance, and many other reforms. She was elected to the Alberta Legislature in 1921. In later years she was dismayed at the results of the movement she had helped create. She had believed that women, with their gentle and maternal instincts, would have a purifying effect on society. She had never dreamed that women would one day demand the right to enter public drinking establishments.

Economic injustices also were a major concern. The churches were enthusiastic supporters of the co-operative movement. Large grain-handling and retail co-ops were established in the Prairie Provinces of Canada and also co-operative banks (credit unions), with the profound faith that these would eliminate the injustices inherent in the private ownership of business.

In 1932 a new Canadian political party was established on social gospel principles and named the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation. The aim was to provide justice for all through the promotion of co-operative and government-owned businesses as alternatives to private businesses run for the profit of the owners. This party was elected as the government of Saskatchewan in 1944, with a former Baptist pastor as their leader. Despite honest attempts to implement their program, the promised benefits never seemed to materialize.

In the 1920’s the Methodist Church, the Congregational Church and half of the Presbyterian Church merged to form the United Church of Canada, making it by far the largest Protestant denomination in Canada. By the 1950’s it was noted that a decline had set in. A well-known Canadian writer, Pierre Berton, was invited to write a lenten study book for the church. The result was The Comfortable Pew. This book describes a condition where people looked on the church as a comfortable social institution where their hearts and consciences were never challenged. His proposed solution was a revival of the social conscience and the social gospel, to become more committed and active in dealing with the evils in society. The decline has continued. People appear to have decided that if this is all church is about, they can more effectively pursue those goals through other avenues.

The women’s movement took on a life of its own, demanding equal rights with men in all areas. For some years feminists loudly proclaimed that differences between boys and girls were merely the result of parental training. Recent research indicates that, given a choice between a doll and a toy truck, even very small girl babies naturally reach for the doll and boys for the truck. It is sad that we need the social sciences to tell us what our parents always knew.

A Canadian psychologist has recently written a book explaining why women are still very much under represented in upper management. It is not discrimination, it is because they are intrinsically different from men and have different priorities. The writer, Susan Pinker, describes herself as a feminist, and is also a wife and mother.
In their continued quest to eliminate all injustice, the social gospel movement moved on to discrimination against gays. The social gospel churches now appear to be quite comfortable with gay marriages and gay preachers. The social conscience is now trained to see any hint of lack of acceptance of such things as outrageous prejudice.
Animals have their rights, too. The difference between humans and other life forms is becoming blurred. Sometimes it appears that the needs of animals take precedence over the needs of humans.

The intolerant, totalitarian attitude that has developed in these movements may puzzle us. But if we consider that these are all manifestations of the social gospel, it becomes somewhat easier to understand. These are people who sincerely believe that society is in need of salvation and that they have the gospel message that is able to work out that salvation. Never mind that society actually seems to be growing worse as a result of the social gospel. It is only that unenlightened people stand in the way of the full realization of the redemption of society. The social gospel seems to create a zeal for the welfare of people in the abstract, and at the same time to anaesthetize feelings of compassion for real people, especially those who lack a social conscience.

The social gospel transformed the purpose of the gospel message from the salvation of souls to a kind of moral salvation. More recently, it seems to be focussing its attention on the salvation of the planet.

© Bob Goodnough, first published in The Business Bulletin, May, 2008

All Christians are hypocrites

□ True
□ False

I think we have to check the true box on this one. Let’s be clear though, that we are not hypocrites because we are Christian, we are hypocrites because we are human. The desire to appear to be better than we are is endemic in humanity.

Becoming a Christian makes us aware of that fact, but we are very prone to forget. Perhaps we should write it in red lipstick upon every mirror in our home: “We are not better than other people.”

Would that help? Perhaps at first, then we would probably forget again. Oh, we would see it there and nod our heads in agreement. But, human nature being as it is, our thinking would gradually shift to believing that it applies to other people that we know, not so much to us.

The one thing that should make a difference between people who are Christian and those who are not, is the Holy Spirit in our lives. When I think back to the time before I was converted, I really and truly believed that I was doing the best that I could, under the circumstances. That is how we are made, and it is probably best for our mental health to think that way–as long as we know of no remedy for the all things in our life that we have messed up.

But there came a day when the Holy Spirit spoke to me and told me I could not blame people and circumstances for all the things that I had messed up in my life. I had done them and I needed to own up to them. That condemnation was easier to accept by the invitation that came with it. If I would confess my sins to God, He would forgive them. I did, and He did.

My Christian life began at that point, when all my past sins were taken away. But that is only the beginning.  I did not suddenly become a “good” person, incapable of making the same mistakes that I had made in the past. The only difference was that now I had the Holy Spirit to warn me when I was about to sin. If I ignored Him, He would then prompt me to go back and clean up the mess I had made.

That should be the obvious difference between a person who is a Christian and one who is not. Both will make mistakes, do and say things they shouldn’t, often things that hurt other people. The Christian should admit his fault, apologize and try to make things right. And it should not seem in any way forced or artificial.

Restitution is difficult. It is often difficult to admit what I have done, apologize, and do the best I can to undo the damage that was done. But the more I will do that, the easier it becomes for me to hear and obey the warning voice of the Holy Spirit before I do such a thing the next time. It is when a Christian repeatedly quenches the warning voice of the Holy Spirit that he comes to appear more and more like a hypocrite.

© Bob Goodnough, January 05, 2020

Winsomeness

More than 350 years ago, Blaise Pascal described what he hoped to achieve with his writing this way:

People despise Christian faith. They hate it and are afraid that it may be true.  The solution for this is to show them, first of all, that it is not unreasonable, that it is worthy of  reverence and respect. Then show that it is winsome, making good men desire that it were true. Then show them that it really is true. It is worthy of reverence because it really understands the human condition. It is also attractive because it promises true goodness.
-Blaise Pascal, Les Pensées

I have often read this passage, given mental assent to it, desired that the things I write could be winsome and attractive. Yet it dawns on me now how far I fall short of achieving that goal.

I don’t do New Year resolutions. I tried years ago. They were largely futile attempts to make me feel better about myself with minimal effort. I took comfort in having noble aspirations, then promptly forgot them. Real change is only possible by taking an honest look at the not so noble part of my character.

Pascal used the word aimable in French. The above English version translates aimable by winsome in one place and attractive in the other. Apologetics, giving an answer for the hope that lieth within me, is only effective if it makes that hope winsome and attractive.

Giving an answer that carries the slightest whiff of self-righteousness or arrogance renders that answer unattractive.  Truth is important, right doctrine is necessary, yet if truth and right doctrine seem repugnant to the reader, I am an abject failure.

Effective apologetics then must be the putting Christian faith into words that bring out the winsomeness of the faith. As a writer, I need to get myself out of the way and think of how to present different aspects of the faith in Jesus Christ to the reader, who probably looks at life in quite a different way than I do. It is not my job to prove him wrong; it is not my job to prove myself an authority to be trusted. It is my job to show that Jesus Christ is worthy of our trust.

© Bob Goodnough, January 03, 2020

Ten easy ways to squander our spiritual heritage

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1. Speak often about our goodly heritage but remain tongue tied when asked to explain what it is.
2. Say we believe everything in the Bible, but never read it from beginning to end.
3. Consider a worship service to be a spectator activity.
4. Never volunteer for any task in the congregation.
5. Be quick to notice every mistake made by the minister.
6. Talk often about the foolishness of neighbours, government officials and police officers.
7. Visit only with the brothers and sisters most apt to see things the same way we do.
8. Repeat stories we hear about brothers and sisters without trying to find out if they are true.
9. Take offence when brothers and sisters appear to neglect us.
10. Never talk about our faith to our neighbours, they aren’t interested anyway.

© Bob Goodnough, December 28, 2019

Change is in the air

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Image by Tovin Sannes-Venhuizen from Pixabay

A few days ago the days started to grow longer. I can’t tell the difference yet–the sun still rises at 9:15 AM and sets at 5:00 PM. The daily change so far is small: today is 25 seconds longer than yesterday, tomorrow will be 30 seconds longer than today. But I know that soon it will change by 3 minutes a day or more and in six months the sun will rise at 5:30 AM and set at 9:45 PM, giving us long, glorious summer days.

Winter has just begun, yet the change that will defeat winter has also begun. We will have snow storms and bitterly cold weather over the next few months, yet the inexorable force of the sun that will drive winter away has begun its campaign.

Today you see a little girl, carefree, careless, not paying much attention to the things her mother tries to teach her. If you watch her day after day you will not notice a change. But if you go away for a few years, then come back, you see this little girl transformed. Now she is a mother, trying to teach her own little girl all the things she learned from her mother. And almost despairing because the child doesn’t seem to be listening. But she is and the cycle will repeat. This is how growing up works. It is a natural process; it happens almost unseen until one day you take stock and realize how much is different.

Perhaps today you see a young man, a rebel, a wastrel, drifting farther into the dangerous allurements the world offers. People try to warn him, to help him. He ignores them, rejects their counsels. It seems hopeless. But just perhaps you may come back some day and find this same young man with a wife, a family, a home. He reads the Bible to his family, takes them to church, is always ready to speak of his love for God and for Jesus. It can happen, I’ve seen it happen, it happened to me.

This is not a natural change, it is supernatural. Yet the change did not happen overnight. There was a precise moment when there was a 180° turn in the direction his life was going. But people looking on didn’t notice a difference at first. Then a few changes appeared, one by one, a little at a time. He made mistakes, but now there was something within him that kept him from giving up. He made corrections and kept going. Today he does not seem at all like the person he used to be. Because he isn’t.

There are cycles that God set in order at Creation that continue to happen. We say it’s just part of nature. The movement of the celestial bodies, day and night, the cycle of the seasons, the growth of a child. We have no control over such things. There are other things, such as conversion, that will not happen unless we give God permission. He does not force us to be a Christian, we cannot make ourselves be a Christian by wisdom and determination. But if we hear God call our name, open the door of our heart, the Holy Spirit comes in and begins to transform us.

© Bob Goodnough, December 27, 2019

The return of the light

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The Israelites had light when the Egyptians were in darkness. The light went with them to show the way when the waters stood aside to let them cross the Red Sea. The light stayed with them for forty years through the wilderness, then led them through the Jordan into the promised land, while the waters once again stood aside to let then pass.

The light stood over their place of worship for generations until the Israelites forgot what a wondrous thing it was. Then Nebuchadnezzar came with his army, destroyed the temple, and the light disappeared.

In Babylon, once more in captivity, they remembered the promise given to Isaiah that the light would one day return:

Arise, shine; for thy light is come, and the glory of the LORD is risen upon thee. For, behold, the darkness shall cover the earth, and gross darkness the people: but the LORD shall arise upon thee, and his glory shall be seen upon thee. And the Gentiles shall come to thy light, and kings to the brightness of thy rising. (Isaiah 60:1-3)

They returned to Jerusalem, rebuilt the temple, the light did not return. They waited another 400 years.

The Magi in Babylon and Persia counted the weeks foretold by Daniel. They remembered the words spoken long before by an errant prophet and they too watched for the light:

I shall see him, but not now: I shall behold him, but not nigh: there shall come a Star out of Jacob, and a Sceptre shall rise out of Israel, and shall smite the corners of Moab, and destroy all the children of Sheth. And Edom shall be a possession, Seir also shall be a possession for his enemies; and Israel shall do valiantly. Out of Jacob shall come he that shall have dominion, and shall destroy him that remaineth of the city. (Numbers 24:17-19)

Finally the fulness of the times was complete. The glory of God appeared once more, not to the important people in Jerusalem but to shepherds on a hill outside of Bethlehem. That night, all the promises made to all the prophets began to be fulfilled:

Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men. (Luke 2:10-14)

It must have been that same night that the light appeared to the Magi, far away in the East. When they arrived in Jerusalem months later, no one knew of the baby they were looking for, but someone suggested they go to Bethlehem. As they left Jerusalem, the light appeared once more and led them directly to the house where they found the child.

Many years later that baby, now grown into manhood, told his closest friends:

I am the light of the world: he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life. (John 8:12)

Jesus no longer walks this earth. On the day of Pentecost he gave the light to His followers. He wants us to share the light, not to huddle around it in some remote corner.

Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on an hill cannot be hid. Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick; and it giveth light unto all that are in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven. (Matthew 5:14-16)

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As we celebrate the birth of the Messiah, the Saviour, our Lord Jesus Christ, may we hold out the light of God’s truth and God’s love so others may see.

 

A Mother’s Teaching from 1897

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Image by StockSnap from Pixabay

Ma was telling us that there are always men rising up and declaring that Jesus could not be the Son of God, but was just a wonderful teacher. But she says not to let that bother us, for none of those men who undertake to explain all the works of God, have been able to explain very much after all. All the wisdom of all the men of all the ages has never been able to explain what life is, or the Power that with no effort at all can make the same kind of green grass turn into wool on a sheep, or hair on a cow, or feathers on a goose.

She says that Christ coming the way He did is really no greater miracle than the miracle of any life that comes to the earth, and is just as easily explained.

Only being we see so many forms of life around us, we have to believe in that whether we want to or not. A man who plants grain in the ground has to believe that some Power is going to make it grow. Otherwise he would do no planting, and so would starve. Everybody sees what happens there and so believes, but nobody yet has been able to explain how it happens. So they just go ahead and plant their grain and stop bothering their heads about what can’t be explained.

But in believing in Christ, God has kept for us the gift of faith, and has made it so-that people of earth can accept Him by faith, or reject Him by unbelief. He has not made it so we must accept His greatest gift if we do not want to do so. In the miracle of Love we are not forced to believe, as we are in the other miracles that God has wrought, and that no man-wisdom has ever yet been able to explain.

Ma says this one most rare and precious gift, is far too dear to the Heart of God to be forced on any man’s unbelief.

It must first become to us our hearts’ desire, and only then may we stretch our hands and take it.

-Christina Young, When I Was Thirteen

Christmas

There fared a mother driven forth
Out of an inn to roam;
In the place where she was homeless
All men are at home.

The crazy stable close at hand,
With shaking timber and shifting sand,
Grew a stronger thing to abide and stand
Than the square stones of Rome.

For men are homesick in their homes,
And strangers under the sun,
And they lay their heads in a foreign land
Whenever the day is done.

Here we have battle and blazing eyes,
And chance and honour and high surprise,
But our homes are under miraculous skies
Where the yule tale was begun.

A Child in a foul stable,
Where the beasts feed and foam;
Only where He was homeless
Are you and I at home.

We have hands that fashion and heads that know,
But our hearts we lost—how long ago!
In a place no chart nor ship can show
Under the sky’s dome.

The earth is wild as an old wive’s tale,
And strange the plain things are,
The earth is enough and the air is enough
For our wonder and our war;

But our rest is as far as the fire-drake swings
And our peace is put in impossible things
Where clashed and thundered unthinkable wings
Round an incredible star.

To an open house in the evening
Home shall men come,
To an older place than Eden
And a taller town than Rome.

To the end of the way of the wandering star,
To the things that cannot be and that are,
To the place where God was homeless
And all men are at home.

G. K. Chesterton

Where was the manger?

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Image by Hucklebarry from Pixabay

There are many supposed and real hints in the Bible of just how things will play out when our Lord returns. For centuries eminent scholars have scrutinized these hints and endeavoured to put together a coherent time line of that event. They have written many stories based on those searches; they all sound wonderful, but they don’t agree.

Maybe we shouldn’t worry. God has it all in hand; someday we’ll see and it will surprise us. There were just as many conflicting prophecies about the coming of the Messiah: he would be of the lineage of David, born in Bethlehem; Rachel would weep for her children, because they were not; he would come from Egypt; he would be a Nazarite, etc. It seemed impossible that it could all be true. Then, events occurred in a very short time period that checked every one of those boxes.

Here is the account from the first seven verses of the second chapter of Luke’s gospel. Let’s ignore the legends, myths, folklore and tomfoolery that have become attached to this account and try to understand what happened.

And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed.  (And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.)   And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David:) to be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child. And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.

The Bible Background Commentary states; “pottery samples suggest a recent migration of people from the Bethlehem area to Nazareth around this time.” In retrospect this looks like poor planning on Joseph’s part, because he was now in the wrong place for the baby to be born. But perhaps he would never have met Mary if he had remained in Bethlehem. No matter, a decree from the Roman Emperor got them back where they needed to be, and just in time, too.

Now, if Joseph had to return to Bethlehem to be taxed, that must mean that he owned something there that was taxable, perhaps just a small plot of land. How did he get his very pregnant wife from Nazareth to Bethlehem, a distance of 150km? Folklore says she rode a donkey. That is possible, but the Bible says nothing on the subject so its best not to be too categoric.

No doubt they came to the home of relatives in Bethlehem who welcomed them into their home. To refuse hospitality to someone would have been a disgrace in their culture.

But what about that famous “no room in the inn?” The word translated “inn ”is kataluma, which means guest chamber and is so translated in the two other places we find it in the New Testament (Mark 14:14 and Luke 22:11). Homes in a rural community like Bethlehem were mostly single room affairs, with the family animals occupying the ground level and the family living on the upper level. Sometimes there was a guest room built on the roof. The animals would have been few, and the space kept scrupulously clean, because it was part of the home.

The “no room” part probably means that because of the number of people in the home there was no private place for a mother to bring a baby into the world. What woman would want to have that happen in the middle of a crowded room? So their host made a spot for them in the space below, clean, discreet and away from curious eyes. Surely they called the midwife, and she probably assigned Joseph some tasks to ease his nervousness and keep him at least partly out of the way.

So the baby was born in Bethlehem, according to prophecy. Some time later a group of Magi appeared in Jerusalem looking for the newborn King of the Jews. King Herod took drastic action to eliminate this rival, having all boys under the age of two murdered. And Rachel (all the mothers of Bethlehem) wept. An angel warned Joseph to take his wife and child and flee to Egypt. This was a trip of around 590km and may well have involved a donkey, though once again the Bible is silent. When Herod died, an angel informed Joseph it was safe to return (the Messiah called out of Egypt) and the family settled once again in Nazareth. Nazarite and Nazarene don’t sound as different in Greek as they do in our language and the Bible says this fulfilled the prophecy that Messiah would be called a Nazarite.

It’s a simple story. The wonder is how God used Emperors and Kings to work out His plan. They had no idea the events caused by their decrees fulfilled every detail of prophecies made hundreds of years earlier.

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