Antiquarian Anabaptist

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

Worship styles – what is essential?

I was reading articles about the history of church pews and it seems most writers feel that pews became important at the time of the Reformation. In Roman Catholic worship the focus was on the communion and provisions for congregational seating were not of major importance. With the Reformation, the focus switched to the sermon where the congregation remained seated for a lengthy period of time and where and how they sat became more important.

That may be true, but I was raised in the Anglican tradition which did not fit neatly into either category. There were two Bible readings in every service, one from the Old Testament and one from the New. In addition there were a few significant passages of Scripture that were spoken aloud, either in unison or as responsive readings. There was a sermon, usually not lengthy, and often there was communion, but the real emphasis seemed to be on the Bible.

Contemporary worship music seems to have come front and centre in most evangelical churches today. Thus the worship leader who leads and directs this aspect of the worship service seems to be as important as the preacher.

Early Christian worship took place in places like private homes, forests, or the catacombs of Rome. This type of worship did not require a special church building, nor did it require pews or musical instruments. This was worship stripped to its bare essentials: Bible reading, prayer, and exhortation to faithfulness. And people risked their lives to be at these worship services.

Anabaptists retained that simple style of worship throughout most of their history. One could question whether the many persecutions they suffered made that the only feasible style of worship, or whether they were persecuted because they chose to avoid the worship style of the official churches. Both were probably factors.

Today, we of the Church of God in Christ, Mennonite consider ourselves to be linear descendants of the Anabaptists. Bible reading, prayer, hymns and a sermon all have a place in our worship services. The sermon usually consists of some combination of exposition of a Bible passage, teaching, testimony and exhortation to faithfulness. It is not a prepared, scholarly discourse, but flows from a heart inspired by the Holy Spirit.

We sing both old and new hymns, without musical accompaniment. The message of a song remains with us much longer when we all sing together, rather than just listening. Many have testified of times of difficulty or crisis when part of a song has popped into their mind with words that brought comfort and direction.

A parable about a parable

The kingdom of heaven is like unto a merchant man, seeking goodly pearls: who, when he had found one pearl of great price, went and sold all that he had, and bought it. The words of Jesus recorded in Matthew 13:45-46

Renowned investigative reporter Ernest Digger has just returned from a trip to the Middle East where he was able to track down a descendant of the merchant in Jesus’ account. Here is his report:

—Joseph ben Ezra did not want me to tell where he lives, so I will just say his home is in a small mountain village. His house is small and sparsely furnished. He does not appear to be poor or rich, but able to provide for the needs of his family by weaving carpets of traditional style.

—Mr ben Ezra, I understand that you are a descendant of the pearl merchant of whom Jesus spoke?

—Yes, through the grace of God I am one of the descendants of that illustrious man.

—What can you tell us about your ancestor?

—He was a rich man, but he sold everything he had to obtain that precious pearl. Of course he could not sell that pearl, so he turned to making his living as I am doing today. He left instructions for his descendants that they should always live humbly and simply to hour God for the great gift that he had found.

—What happened to the pearl after your ancestor died?

—No one knows. It disappeared.

—He did not bequeath it to his children?

—There were mysterious words in his testament. He said that the pearl could not be given from one person to another, but each one would have to do as he did, sell everything they had to obtain the pearl.

—Have you done that?

—I am not a rich man. All that I own would be too paltry a sum to buy such a pearl.

—Has anyone in your family obtained such a pearl?

—There are stories. I once met a distant cousin who said he had such a pearl. He told me the same ridiculous story about how I could have one too. I would have to sell everything I have, even the clam shell that once contained the pearl.

— You have the original shell?

—Yes I do.

He showed me a large oyster shell, carefully wrapped in a cloth.

—So, you have the shell, but not the pearl?

—Yes, but don’t you see how beautiful it is? See how the mother-of-pearl inside almost glows. It is a beautiful and precious thing. I cannot afford the pearl, but this treasure reminds us continually of that pearl our ancestor found.

—Still, you have only the shell, not the pearl.

—But surely that is enough. Would God require me to sell the shell and everything else I have and deprive my family of their living? That would be unreasonable.

—Thank you for your time Mr. Ben Ezra.

—You are most welcome. May the peace of God be with you.

Strangely enough, I later met several relatives of Mr. Ben Ezra. Each told much the same story and each had an oyster shell that they claimed to be the original.

Missionary hymns

I think the old missionary hymns leave many of us feeling a little uneasy. Those references to carrying the gospel to every dark land  – was there a deliberate inference that lands where white people dwell are more enlightened and the lands where darker skinned people dwell are in spiritual darkness? I fear that idea seemed self-evident to white people 100 to 200 years ago.

It’s not so evident today and I think we should stop singing those hymns. I don’t believe that we should stop missionary activity, but perhaps the greater need in our day is right under our noses. While Christianity has taken root on other continents, it is in danger of being uprooted in Europe and North America.

That leads me to the other concern I have with the old missionary hymns – many of them take it for granted that missionary activity can only happen in lands that are across the ocean waves.

Churches in Nigeria have taken note of the increase of unbelief, paganism and idolatry in Europe and North America and are sending out missionaries to do what we seem to have forgotten how to do. In our nearest city, Saskatoon, three Nigerian denominations have placed missionaries and are establishing congregations.

I wonder what kind of missionary hymns they sing in Nigeria?

Don’t get much out of church?

What are you putting in?

Are you  a church shopper? Do you go from church to church to find the one that will give you the most value for the lowest cost in personal involvement? Are you a builder or a freeloader?

A church service service is not entertainment. If you are looking to find just the right kind of singing or music, or to hear a preacher that will say just what you want to hear, in the way you want to hear it, you will certainly hear something that you don’t like.

Church is not an exclusive club that lets in only the right kind of people. Not everyone is going to dress, behave or talk the way that you think is right.

Church should feel peaceful and comfortable. Up to a point. Jesus came to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. If we never encounter anything in church that makes us squirm a bit and feel a need to examine our values and attitudes, we are missing one of the essential values of church.

Churches need Sunday School and Bible Study teachers and members of many different committees. These are good opportunities to serve, but the real test of whether we are a freeloader or a builder comes in the things that we were not elected or asked to do.

That would include things like trying to make edifying and encouraging contributions to Sunday School and Bible Study discussions, and in our conversations. It would include being hospitable, not just to the people who are most like we are, but to anyone. It would include listening to and considering the thoughts of others. It would mean having a thoughtful answer to someone who asks about our faith. And it would include expressing our appreciation for others.

A freeloader is apt to go from church to church and never really feel welcome. A builder will not readily switch churches, but if he does so because he is searching a fellowship that meets God’s criteria and not his own preferences, he will be welcomed.

Taking the long view

The proof of a living faith is seen when it is passed on intact from generation to generation. It is true to say that the fruit of the Holy Spirit is evidence of faith: brotherly love, peace of mind and peace in word and action, joy, thankfulness, contentment, humility. But when this is not passed on from one generation to the next, it would appear that something was missing.

Tradition is important. The ancient landmarks of the faith were placed for a reason. But if the next generation doesn’t understand why they were placed or just what they mean, they are apt to get their bearings from the things that seem most important in their day.

The ancient landmarks may have been interpreted in a way that met the needs of the older generation, but no longer meets the needs of the younger. Yet the basic principles remain unchanged. These principles must be continually taught, always in a way that can be understood and will meet the needs of upcoming generations. A rigid adherence to a form of words or practice will not do that.

The new birth is important. There must be a genuine repentance for the sins of the past life and evidence that a new life has begun. This would include love for everyone, new priorities in life, carefulness to avoid things that have led to the sins of the past, and a desire to make right whatever harm may have been done to others.

The danger is to mistake the experience for the change that is needed. To tell a dramatic, heart-touching experience is not proof the heart has really been changed.

Knowledge of the Bible is important. But it needs to be studied to establish a foundation for my life, not to prove a point with somebody else. it is a danger sign when one has a proof text handy for most any discussion, but can’t explain what that text means in the language of everyday life.

A living faith does not have to be loud, but it should not be silent. A living faith will be modest, but should never run from a challenge. A living faith will make a difference at church, at home, at school, at work, on vacation, and especially in those times when no one is looking.

It is best for children to grow up in a home where parents are deeply committed Christians. But it is not enough and it is not a guarantee that the children will catch their parents faith. It is far better to grow up among a united group of believers who live out their faith in all aspects of everyday life. The spiritual heritage is much more important than the family heritage. This is what allows the upcoming generation to catch the faith of their elders and then to pass it on to the next generation.

The old days were not better

Say not thou, What is the cause that the former days were better than these? for thou dost not enquire wisely concerning this. – the words of Solomon from Ecclesiastes 7:10

When I was young many waterways were horribly polluted. I once stood on a footbridge in Toronto and watched the Don River flowing blood red beneath my feet.

When I was young we hardly ever saw First Nations people. They could not leave their reserves without permission from the Indian Agent.

When I was young there were deadly epidemics of diphtheria, tuberculosis and polio.

When I was young, babies were being born with missing limbs because of a drug their mothers had taken.

When I was young, the children of unwed mothers were committed to mental hospitals for life (during the Duplessis era in Québec).

Today the Don River, and most other rivers, runs clear and clean. Today there are no Indian Agents. Today those diseases I mentioned have been virtually eradicated. Today drug testing is more stringent, though not yet perfect.  Today no one can be kept in a mental hospital against his will, unless he has committed a crime. In many ways we are living in better times today.

As Christians, we bemoan the fact that so many people whose parents and grandparents were faithful church attenders have given up on church. We wonder what is wrong with them. Do we ever stop to ask if their parents and grandparents read the Bible and prayed? Yes, most homes had a Bible in grandpa’s day, but usually it sat on a shelf and gathered dust. Do we ask if there was any real evidence of a living faith in their parents and grandparents?

What is the remedy for a faded, worn-out, dysfunctional Christianity? Isn’t it to open our entire being to the Word of God and the Spirit of God? To love God with all our heart, soul and mind? To live in that love, to walk it and talk it? Not in a boastful or argumentative way, but in thankfulness and praise.

Wouldn’t that be a contagious faith? There is nothing hindering us from living such a faith today, except our doubt and timidity.

The significance of Canada Day

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July 1 is Canada Day. This year we are celebrating the 150th anniversary of Canadian Confederation. Canadian history goes back much further than July 1, 1867. Why has this date been chosen as the birth of Canada as a nation?

A quaint notion has arisen today that before the coming of white people the aboriginal peoples lived in perfect harmony with nature and with each other. Their own oral history does not bear this out. There are many different ethnic groups among the First Nations people, which led to constant rivalry and conflicts over territory and hunting grounds. Wars and rumours of war are not exclusive to people of European background.

The beginning of white exploration and settlement introduced new sources of conflict. European settlers were divided between those who spoke French and those who spoke English and each group sought alliances with neighbouring aboriginal people.

The largest European settlements were established in the Great Lakes area, along the St. Lawrence River and on the Atlantic seaboard. The English speaking area north of the Great Lakes became known as Upper Canada and the French speaking area along the St. Lawrence was Lower Canada.

Both were ruled by governors sent from England, assisted by a small , self-perpetuating coterie of local dignitaries. In Upper Canada the Anglican Church was the only legally recognized denomination and the ruling group was known as the Family Compact. When Mennonites from Pennsylvania began settling in Ontario around 1800 they had freedom of worship, but no authority to perform marriages. Lower Canada was officially Roman Catholic and the ruling group was called the Chateau Clique.

In 1837 there were armed uprising in both colonies, led by William Lyon Mackenzie in Upper Canada and Louis Joseph Papineau in Lower Canada. Both rebellions were quickly snuffed out, yet they resulted in a move towards more representative local rule. In 1841 Upper and Lower Canada were untied under a single government, with the two parts now called Canada West and Canada East.

The first election resulted in a majority for the Reform Party (the precursor of today’s Liberal Party) led by Louis Hippolyte Lafontaine and Robert Baldwin. This was the beginning of democratic self-rule. Baldwin and Lafontaine were reelected in 1848 and enacted a number of laws over the next three years that replaced British decrees that were felt to be unjust, another step towards self-determination.

In the 1860’s the Liberal-Conservative Party (precursor of today’s Conservative Party), led by John Alexander Macdonald and Georges Étienne Cartier, formed the government of what was then Canada. These men had a vision of a greater Canada that stretched from sea to sea.

They found kindred aspirations in Leonard Tilley of New Brunswick and Charles Tupper of Nova Scotia who agreed to a confederation of their colonies. On July 1, 1867 the new Dominion of Canada came into existence, consisting of four provinces: Ontario (Canada West). Québec (Canada East), New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. The title Dominion came from Psalm 72:8, “He shall have dominion also from sea to sea.” In recent years the title of Dominion has been dropped.

Manitoba was admitted to Confederation in 1870; British Columbia in 1871, with the promise that a transcontinental railway would be built. Prince Edward Island joined in 1873. The building of several intercontinental railways led to a massive influx of settlers to the prairies and the formation of the provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan in 1905. And in 1949 Newfoundland became the tenth province.

The significance of July 1, 1867 is not that this was the beginning of responsible, democratic government, but that it was the first step in uniting widely separated colonies into a united nation that stretches from sea to sea. (Nowadays we say “from sea to sea to sea” as we border on the Pacific, Arctic and Atlantic oceans.)

The problem with Christians

The whole world is going to wrack and to ruin. You can’t trust anybody anymore – politicians, police officers, politicians – they are all incompetent and corrupt. Nobody wants to work any more, immorality is everywhere, doctors are just pill pushers, schools don’t teach anything useful. . .

We could go on and on with our litany of the woes of the world. Some of it is true, maybe a lot of it. Do we make the world any better by pointing out all the faults we see?

And when I say “we” I mean those of us who call ourselves Christians. How is it that we have become known as the leading voices among the fault finders of this world?

Most people around us know that there is a lot wrong with the world. They don’t need us to tell them that. And they certainly don’t need us to nod our heads in agreement when they complain about the faults of those we should be able to trust.

Is there nothing good in the world anymore? Have we given up on looking for things that are true, just, lovely and virtuous? If there are things like that, we need to take note and offer praise and encouragement.

Jesus told us that we should judge prophets, teachers, leaders, by their fruits. We know that there is a lot of unattractive fruit out there, but why is it that when people look to Christians for good fruit they find so many thistles and thorns?

If we want to make the world a better place, the place to start is with the man in the mirror. He is the only person that we can do anything about. The world needs the sweet fruit of love, joy and peace that the Holy Spirit gives to those who purify themselves from the negative and prickly fruit that comes so naturally from us.

Cat or dog: which is smarter?

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I will confess my prejudice right off the bat – I think cats are smarter. I have met some well-trained dogs that gave every evidence of having a keen intelligence. Most dogs, though, if left to themselves, don’t seem to have a lot of smarts. They chase cars, defecate on the lawn and have really gross personal hygiene.

Nevertheless, I have fond memories of a dog that looked just like the one in the picture. He was just a land race collie of the type that was common on Saskatchewan farms years ago. He was my protector when I was a toddler. I clearly remember my frustration one day when I wanted to go to the barn. He knew I was too young to venture out there where the big animals were, so he simply stood in my way. I tried and tried to go around him, but he always stood in front of me and wouldn’t let me pass.

A cat won’t do that, but cats are more cuddly and they purr. They are fastidious about their personal hygiene. They are capable of a much wider range of vocalizations than a dog. Cats can rustle up their own food if needed. I once knew a 20year old arthritic cat that was still a successful hunter, bringing home mice and moles that he had caught.

Cats have a distinctive call when they have caught something and want to show it to you. Some years ago our cat came up to the house making that call. She had a toad in her mouth. She didn’t intend to eat it, she just wanted to show it to us. The toad wasn’t hurt at all and hopped away as soon as she let go of it.

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When we were first married we had a domestic long hair cat, not the same colour as the picture shown here, that we called Moochie. For a few days we also had a dog. At night we closed the door to the stairs, with the dog downstairs and the cat upstairs with us. The cat’s litter box was also downstairs, but we hoped she would be good till morning, or wake us up if she had to go. We slept peacefully through the night. I got up in the morning to get ready to go to work, and there was Moochie peeing down the bathtub drain. Show me a dog that has that kind of smarts!

WASPs and other Canadians

When I was young, WASPs (White Anglo-Saxon Protestants), considered themselves to naturally be the epitome of all that was right and good. It was the privilege of the WASPs to grant each other entrance to the best schools, the best jobs and the best clubs. The Orange Lodge bears a large share of the responsibility for inculcating this attitude. To an Orangeman, anyone nonwhite, non-Anglo-Saxon, or non-Protestant was a threat to the good order of society.

In most of the historical novels I read as a boy, WASPs were portrayed as brave, honest, trustworthy and heroic. Everyone else was shifty-eyed, cowardly and obviously not to be trusted. Years later, after I learned to read French, I found exactly the same attitudes in French-language historical fiction for young people. Except that the roles were reversed: the French were honest, heroic and good and the WASPs were the ones who were shifty-eyed, cowardly and untrustworthy. I suspect the same self-congratulatory attitudes would be found in the literature of all peoples.

In the span of my lifetime attitudes have shifted radically. A large segment of our society wants to blame all the sins of the past on the WASPs, including many of the WASPs themselves. The WASP label is not much used anymore, the current term is White Privilege. All kinds of people are seeking reparation, thinking that punishing the representatives of White Privilege will somehow make life better for themselves.

I suppose that this might make some sense if there was any sign the other groups would then get along with each other. There doesn’t seem to be much chance of that. Blaming others, demeaning others, seeking retribution, are not ways to build a peaceful society.

Many of the abuses of the past were done in the name of Christianity. That makes the task of reconciliation difficult. Rejecting the Bible, rejecting the fundamental tenets of Christianity, leaves people with no landmarks, no shared sense of direction. Many believe they see a way forward, yet their goal constantly shifts and seems to get farther away. If nothing changes, current trends will lead to anarchy and chaos.

I did not choose the colour of my skin, my ethnic heritage or the religious affiliation of my parents. Neither did anyone else. It is not our job as Christians to defend the sins of the past, or to apologize for events in which we had no part. But it is our job as Christians to point out that reconciliation between people doesn’t work well when people are not reconciled to God. As Christians, we must believe and proclaim the whole counsel of God.

Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new. And all things are of God, who hath reconciled us to himself by Jesus Christ, and hath given to us the ministry of reconciliation; To wit, that God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them; and hath committed unto us the word of reconciliation. Now then we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God did beseech you by us: we pray you in Christ’s stead, be ye reconciled to God. (2 Corinthians 5:17-20.)

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