Flatlander Faith

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

Category Archives: Learning

Writing as a slave of Jesus Christ

When the apostle Paul wanted to write to Christians at Rome, he could have introduced himself by listing his credentials and experience, then said: “You see how important a man I am and I have something important to say. So listen up!”

But that’s not what he said; he introduced himself as a slave, putting himself at the very bottom of the social ladder. (Our Bible may say “Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ,” but the word Paul used was doulos, meaning slave.)

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Image by Hawksky from Pixabay

In order to honour Jesus who gave us the message, we need to interpret the message into words the recipients will find easy to understand. Most people won’t waste their time searching through a thicket of unnecessary words in the hope of finding a message. We need to skip the pompous words and bombastic writing style that some Christians think is the way to impress readers with the weightiness of their subject matter. The weight of those words will sink your message.

We need to consider ourselves as servants of the people for whom the message is intended. Paul wrote, in I Corinthians 9:19-52: “For though I be free from all men, yet have I made myself servant unto all, that I might gain the more. . . I am made all things to all men, that I might by all means save some.”

In all his epistles, Paul challenges the new believers notions of ethnic, economic or social superiority, telling them that none of these things matter in the kingdom of Christ. In Philippians 3:8 he says: “Yea doubtless, and I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord: for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but dung, that I may win Christ”

“All things,” that would include everything about who I am: education, social status, family, ethnic origin, even my church affiliation. Boasting of any of these things will not gain us a hearing with the people to whom we want to bring the message of Jesus.

This may sound alarming for those of us who are firmly committed to our church, its doctrines and history. But there is nothing there for us to boast of, we did not create the doctrines and history. We are children of the most high God, brothers and sister of Jesus Christ, we are living honest and pure lives. Where will it get us to boast of that? The people around us already suspect that we think we are better than they are.

Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 4:7: “For who maketh thee to differ from another? and what hast thou that thou didst not receive? now if thou didst receive it, why dost thou glory, as if thou hadst not received it?” God says in Zephaniah 3:11-12: “then I will take away out of the midst of thee them that rejoice in thy pride, and thou shalt no more be haughty because of my holy mountain. I will also leave in the midst of thee an afflicted and poor people, and they shall trust in the name of the LORD.”

The mountain of God is holy, but we did not put it there, nor did we receive our spiritual heritage as an inheritance from our fathers. It is a gift of God that we have received and others are just as eligible to receive it, regardless of their background.

If we assume that other people think just like we do, our message is compromised before we put a word on paper. In order to be “all things to all men” we need to get out of our bubble, our comfort zone, and learn how other people think. That means that we need to listen and to read before we begin to speak and to write.

The words of Paul are timeless because he did that in his day. He was thoroughly acquainted with the Jewish way of thinking and with the Greek way of thinking. His discourse in Athens consisted almost entirely of quotations from Greek philosophers. He gained a hearing because those words were familiar to the men he was speaking to. Then he disrupted their complacency by introducing the resurrection of Jesus.

In Matthew 10:16 Jesus says: “Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves: be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves.” That is our challenge today. To be servants, poor and afflicted, harmless and non-threatening. And yet be wise enough to see the chinks in the walls of complacency that people build around themselves and try to widen them a little to let the light of the gospel shine in,

If we are in earnest about the cause of Christ, let us come down to the bottom rung of the social ladder and become the slaves of Christ and of all mankind.

The abolition of sin in children’s literature

Nowadays the lead character in a highly acclaimed book for children is apt to be a lesbian who is a practicing Wiccan. Parents have been banished from children’s books for many years, but are making a comeback in situations where a child has two mothers or two fathers. But any mention of God, Christianity or morality makes a book far too dangerous for young children.

Perhaps this started in a small way many years ago. The fairy tales of Charles Perrault, from the 18th century, were morality tales. When Little Red Riding Hood got into bed with the wolf, that was the end of her. Perrault made it clear at the end that he was thinking of wolves of the two-legged, smooth talking kind. In Cinderella, the heroine forgave her two stepsisters and found good husbands for them. Perrault’s point was that true beauty is not on the outside, but inside, in the heart. Those moral teachings disappeared in the versions of the Grimm brothers that appeared 100 years later. Little Red Riding Hood was miraculously rescued and Cinderella was well rid of her mean stepsisters.

Children’s books that depicted the value of moral purity and respect for parents went out of fashion years ago. Modern books are teaching a whole different sense of values.

On the other side are the type of conservative Christian children’s books where sin and evil have become unmentionable. Tender and sensitive children must be protected from such awful things. Many parents who think like that would be appalled to see what their children read a few years later.

Even Bible story books are getting the makeover to supposedly make themn less scary to children. David doesn’t kill Goliath, he just defeats him. The Bible says that David didn’t stop with stunning the giant with a stone from his sling, he cut his head off. That is not just gratuitous blood and gore, David did not want to see the giant get up from the ground and seek revenge. He wanted to be sure that he was well and truly dead. We need to do the same with the things that tempt us.

By either denying that anything is sinful or pretending that sin is something about which little children should have no knowledge, neither extreme prepares children to navigate the dangers and temptations of life. Children realize from quite a young age that the world is a scary place. How do we explain the dangers in the world in a way that helps them know to avoid evil and trust in the good?

C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien and others have endeavoured to answer this question by creating a genre of Christian fantasy for children. As fantasies they portray dangers in a way that is not explicit, but shows that there are dangerous unseen forces in the world. Children can relate to that. Even more importantly, these books always show that evil can be overcome. The good guys in these fantasies never use the methods of the bad guys in order to win, in itself a very important lesson that is not characteristic of books like Harry Potter.

Another book in the genre is Hari & Rudi in the Land of Fruit, by English author Andrew Ratcliffe. It was published earlier this year and is available from Amazon.

 

The dinosaur question

In 1991 an archaeological research team discovered dinosaur bones in the Frenchman River Valley of south-western Saskatchewan. Over 20 years of painstaking work by hand uncovered the almost complete fossilized skeleton of a T. Rex and then removed it from the rock in which it was embedded.

Named Scotty, the massive reconstructed skeleton is now on display at the Royal Saskatchewan Museum in Regina. Scotty is the largest T. Rex ever discovered, 50 cm longer and 400 kg heavier than the Chicago Field Museum’s Sue.

The R.S.M., formerly known as the Saskatchewan Natural History Museum, displays 3-dimensional scenes of Saskatchewan flora and fauna, both of the present day and of the past. This includes lifelike re-creations of smaller land-dwelling and water-dwelling dinosaurs.

I know there are Christians who recoil at the subject of dinosaurs. “The Bible never mentions dinosaurs, so I don’t see why I should believe they ever existed,” some say “It’s just a story made up by evolutionists.”

People who say, or think, things like that aren’t as common as they once used to be. But if you are one of those who still has qualms about the dinosaur question, here are a few points that might calm your fears.

  1. It’s hard to argue with a pretty much complete fossil skeleton. Fossils are being found all over the world. Those as complete as Scotty are uncommon, and it’s possible that sometimes bones have been assembled incorrectly, but that isn’t enough to explain away all the evidence that has been discovered.
  2. Richard Owen coined the word dinosaur in 1842 after bones were discovered in various places that did not match any creature now living. It combines two Greek words and means “terrible lizard.”
  3. The Bible speaks of dragons, sea monsters, behemoth and leviathan. These could well be descriptions of the beasts we now label dinosaurs. Bible commentators in the past thought the description of behemoth in Job 405-24 sounded like a hippopotamus. They were doing their best to match it to some animal that they knew existed. Does it really match? I don’t think so. The hippopotamus is a fearsome beast, but this sounds like something even bigger and more fearsome. “He moveth his tail like a cedar,” cannot describe a hippopotamus which has a tail like a rope that is less than 20 inches long. Leviathan also sound like something bigger and more fearsome than a crocodile. 
  4. Many folktales about dragons are too fantastic to be believable. Yet the great number of such stories, and the fact that the dragons they describe are a lot like dinosaurs, leads one to believe there is some underlying truth. It’s not necessary to believe every detail of these stories, but neither is it wise to dismiss them altogether.   
  5. The book of Job appears to have originated as oral history some centuries before the development of a phonetic writing system. Behemoth, leviathan and the unicorn (not a cute cousin of the horse, more likely something like a humongous rhinoceros), likely describe animals which later became extinct and whose bones we have been digging up over the past two centuries. 

If you want to be a writer, you first need to be a reader

The greatest part of a writer’s time is spent in reading. In order to write a man will turn over half a library to make one book.

-Samuel Johnson, 1705-1784. Johnson was a poet, playwright, essayist, moralist, biographer, editor and the sole author of A Dictionary of the English Language, first published in 1755 and which remained the preeminent English dictionary until the publication of the Oxford English Dictionary in 1928.

Hard work is not a Christian virtue

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Image by leo zeng from Pixabay

The robots are coming. Technology could eliminate half of all jobs over the next ten years. Working harder isn’t going to save your job. Working smarter won’t to do it either. The economy is changing and the way to ride the wave of change is to change our attitude about work.

Several years ago a business magazine surveyed businesses to find what qualities they looked for when hiring employees. The top two items were a desire to serve others and an aptitude to work with others in a team environment. Those sound like Christian virtues, don’t they?

Let’s stop telling young people entering the job market that if they are willing to work really hard they will always have a job. T’aint necessarily so. Especially not in the coming economic transformation. The old ideals of individualistic effort are about to be cast on the scrap heap.

Christians have absorbed an idea from the world that values a person by the amount he produces. We expect that success equates high production with the ability to spend more on the things we consume. Could we shift our attitude to value a person by what he or she contributes to the common good? That would seem more like a Christian value system, unless we would try to measure that contribution in dollars and cents.

W. Edwards Deming became a hero to Japanese industry when he showed them how to drastically improve the quality of their products after World War II. It wasn’t until 1980, when Deming was 80, that US business started to pay attention to what he had to say. His analysis of American management methods were devastating. He told companies that they needed to drive out fear and eliminate barriers between departments so that everyone could work together for the good of the business. He condemned annual performance reviews, saying they forced employees to compete against each other rather than working together for the common good.

In the survey quoted earlier, educational accomplishments came far down the list of qualities that business leaders were looking for in new hires. Graduates who have a piece of paper showing their success in the classroom may expect employers to give them preferential treatment. The problem is that things learned in the classroom often don’t have much value in the workplace.

Employers want employees who are life long learners. They want to be able to direct their employees towards learning things that apply to their work and will benefit the business. Years ago Henry Ford said: “Anyone who stops learning is old, whether at twenty or eighty. Anyone who keeps learning stays young. The greatest thing in life is to keep your mind young.”

To put this all together, as Christians we should teach the value of a servant spirit. This should be evident in every area of life. Can we really serve God and not be willing to serve our fellow man?

Ideas like “I know better” or “I can do it better” should have no place in Christian life. We should not expect them to be useful in our work life either. Success in the coming economy will not go to the one who works the hardest to prove that he can do things faster and better. The person who dedicates his efforts to the success of the whole group will be a valued member of any team.

What do you want to be when you grow up?

When I was growing up in the 1950’s, the older generation had scraped and scrabbled to survive the depression and they wanted their children to have a better life. The key to that was to get a good education so you could be someone who could make a living without working hard. Maybe that wasn’t what they intended to say, but that was what we heard. That gave rise to the question so often posed to us: “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

The question implied that there was no dignity in hard work; we should to be something better than our parents had been. That meant that our parents didn’t have what it would take to guide us into being the people we should be. We would need to turn to professional help.

Some time after high school, I had a visit with a guidance counsellor. He gave me a massive aptitude test to take home. The test comprised at least 200 multiple-choice questions. The questions were on card stock, with holes punched beside each of the four answers. You used a pencil to make a circle on the answer paper below and then use the key to interpret your responses.

I did the test once, and the result showed a strong interest and aptitude for accounting. I mused on that, realizing that this choice had been in the back of my mind as I did the test. I wondered what would happen if I did the test again, thinking of how I might answer the questions if I was interested in becoming an engineer.

I created a handwritten set of answer sheets, photocopiers didn’t exist back then, and went through the test again. Lo-and-behold the answer key told me I had a definite aptitude for engineering and should pursue a career in that field. I sat back and mused on the disparate results, concluding that if it was so easy to play games with the test, it wasn’t worth very much.

Some years later I became intrigued with Mensa. They limit membership to people with IQ’s in the top 2% of the population, with the grandiose notion that people with high IQ’s have what it takes to make the world a better place. I requested a preliminary test. It came in the mail; I completed it and mailed it back. Soon there came an invitation to do a full IQ test. Thus I arrived one morning at the University of Regina and found my way to a classroom where a dozen others were waiting to do the same test.

I believe there was a three-hour time limit and after we did the test, we all went home. A few weeks later a letter  came in the mail telling me I had scored 151, placing me in the top 1% of the population. Enclosed was a membership application and a request to write a brief profile. I filled them out, wrote a cheque for the membership dues.

In due time I received a booklet with the profiles of all Canadian members of Mensa. I discovered that most of these people supposed themselves to be much too intelligent to believe in God. Yet, they were ready to believe in all kinds of occult manifestations, mystical experiences, extraterrestrials and other nebulous and irrational spiritual theories. I lost interest right there. I didn’t have the self-confidence that would allow me to dismiss God.

Still, I took another IQ test a year or two later and came up with a score of 155. So what do those test scores reveal about me? Probably just that I am good at doing that kind of test. I don’t know if there is any practical application beyond that.

So here I am, 60 years past the age of 17, thinking maybe now I’m grown up enough to say I want to be a writer.

In the mood for a little subjunctive?

I made it through high school without ever encountering the subjunctive mood. Then I decided to learn French. I fought my way through the bewildering thicket of conjugations of regular and irregular verbs, then I was introduced to the subjunctive mood. My head hurt for weeks.

I didn’t seem to have any reference point in English to help me comprehend this way of expressing oneself, yet it seemed an essential part of French. Every English grammar book I looked at devoted about a paragraph to the subjunctive. They told me the subjunctive mood was on its deathbed in English and I would never have to worry about it.

Then an amazing thing happened: I finally got my head wrapped around the use of the subjunctive in French and I realized that it is still very much a part of English.  So here I go where most grammarians fear to tread.

Subjunctive, from French, originally from Latin, means subjoined. (That little bit of information does nothing to understand it.) The best definition is from Oxford via Fowler’s: a  verb form different from that of the indicative mood in order to denote an action or state as conceived (and not as a fact), and expressing a  wish, command, exhortation, or a contingent, hypothetical or prospective event.

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Image by Mary Pahlke from Pixabay

When used to express a wish, a phrase in the subjunctive mood normally begins with let or may, though they me be omitted. All greetings are subjunctive:
– May God bless you!
– May you have a good day / May you have a happy birthday (even when shortened to Good day or Happy birthday, they are subjunctive).
– Good-bye (drastically shortened form of May God be with you).

Commonly used expressions in the subjunctive:
– Come what may
– Be that as it may
– Far be it from me
– I wish it were over
– If he were here now
– I move that nominations cease
– I move that we elect a committee to . . .

The Sunday School lessons that are used in the Church of God in Christ, Mennonite usually contain a sentence or two in the subjunctive mood; for example:
– Let us conduct ourselves accordingly
– May we never forget . . .

Examples of the subjunctive in the Bible:
– Hallowed be thy name, thy kingdom come, thy will be done (all three of these phrases in the Lord’s prayer are in the subjunctive mood).
– Let not your heart be troubled (let not  . . . is found in many places in the Bible, it always indicates the subjunctive mood).
– Let no man despise thy youth (1 Timothy 4:12, Paul is expressing the wish that Timothy’s conduct would be such that no one would find fault with him because of his age).
– James 5:13, 14: Let him pray / let him sing psalms / let him call for / let them pray (these are all exhortations).
– Genesis 1: Let there be light, etc. (The creation account has many examples of God expressing a wish for something that was not a reality at the moment the wish was made, but immediately became reality.)

I hope this helps a little to understand the subjunctive mood, especially when it is encountered in the Bible. The translators did not drop in all those subjunctives to confuse us, they were subjunctive in the original Hebrew and Greek manuscripts; may they be less confusing to us as we recognize the subjunctive mood. 

To better understand English, learn a little French

In its grammatical structure, English belongs to the Low German language family, a group of languages that developed from a common early Germanic root. The group includes Flemish, Dutch, Frisian, Afrikaans (the Dutch that is spoken in South Africa), Plautdietsch, English and Scots (not Gaelic but the variety of old English spoken by the lowland Scots, such as the poet Robbie Burns).

However, something like 40% of English words come from French. Oftentimes meanings, spelling and pronunciation have shifted to the point that the French roots are almost invisible. Take geezer for instance. This is a word that was originally applied to someone who went about in a disguise, or more simply, in the guise of someone different from himself. Since guise is a word of French origin it was originally pronounced geez. Over a few hundred years the meaning of geezer shifted to where it is now used only for an older person who has become a little different in appearance and mannerisms.

In many other words the French roots are plainly visible, though often not understood by English speakers. Take grammar for instance, which is what I want to talk about in this article.

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Image by Jan Vašek from Pixabay

All English grammatical terms are French, beginning with grammar itself. Grammar comes from grammaire in French, which comes from a Greek word meaning the art of reading and writing. A noun is the name of a thing, chair for instance, and comes from the French word nom, meaning name. Most other grammatical terms are spelled the same, or almost the same, in English as in French: verbe, adverbe, adjectif or adjective, préposition, article, objet direct or indirect, conjonction, etc.

It may be helpful for English speakers to understand the roots of terms like tense and mood. Both are mispronunciations of French words, which led to misspellings, making them homonyms of English words with completely different meanings.

Tense comes from temps, which means time. Past, present and future should be called times, not tenses. Obvious, eh? But the French pronunciation of temps is something that is beyond the capacity of the vocal apparatus of someone who grew up speaking English, so it drifted over to become tense.

There are three basic past tenses: simple past, imperfect and pluperfect. Perfect is another word of French origin that we often misunderstand. It simply means finished or complete, or, in the case of people, grown up or mature. Neither in grammar nor in the Bible does it ever mean faultless. Imperfect means incomplete and refers to an action that began in the past and is not complete. Pluperfect (plus-que-parfait in French) means more than complete and refers to an action that was complete in the past before something else happened.

For instance: I had gone (pluperfect) into Tim Horton’s and was ordering (imperfect) a coffee when my cousin walked (simple past) in.

Mood comes from the French word mode and should be mode in English also. Once again, a native English speaker cannot really duplicate the sound of mode in French. Nevertheless, the grammatical term mood in English refers to a mode of expressing one’s meaning.

The indicative mood (mode) is used for an action that has actually happened, is happening, or that we know will happen. The conditional mood (mode) is used for actions that could, should or would happen if some other condition is met, had been met or will be met.

Examples: The plane will be landing in fifteen minutes (indicative).
The plane should be landing in fifteen minutes if it left Toronto on time (conditional).

And then there’s the subjunctive mood, but that is going to require a whole article of its own.

The virtue of vulnerability

Last Saturday, Chris and I attended a Christian writers’ wordshop (a workshop about words). All the presenters were ladies; the attendees were also mostly ladies, plus four men and one boy.

This is cause for much pondering; why are there so few men at this level? Yes.there are many books by male authors on the bookstore shelves and they are popular. But the ladies are by far the majority among writers of self-published Christian books and in Christian writers’ groups.

Perhaps the answer lies in the fact that the ladies are more willing to expose their vulnerability. On the masculine side, we have been taught to suck it up and keep a stiff upper lip. That puts a barrier between us and our readers.

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One of the presenters on Saturday described how she gave a talk a few years ago on her struggle with depression and how God had sustained her and helped her through it. Afterwards a young lady from the audience had came up to her in tears and had been unable to speak for several minutes, sobbing uncontrollably on the presenter’s shoulder. She had thought she was the only person that had ever experienced such depression. The presenter’s vulnerability had made a connection and offered hope.

The great truth that we all need to learn is that it is the things that we don’t want to write about, the things that we are afraid to expose, that will be the greatest help to a reader. After all, we are not writing to tell the world what great people we are, we want to tell people about the great God we serve.

Good things come in small packages

Aphorisms give you more for your time and money than any other literary form. Only the poem comes near to it, but then most good poems either start off from an aphorism or arrive at one.

-Louis Dudek

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Image by Michael Schwarzenberger from Pixabay

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