Flatlander Faith

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

Treacle and wizards

If you have read Alice in Wonderland and other books of that era written in England, you have encountered the word treacle. It is not much used this side of the water.

Treacle has a history. It was originally a Greek word meaning an antidote for a poisonous animal bite. It migrated into Latin, then French and then English, carrying the original meaning all the way. Then in English the meaning gradually widened to mean medicine of any kind, then to a sweetener added to medicine to disguise the taste, and finally just the sweet stuff itself: syrup or molasses. From there, it developed the analogous meaning of cloying sentimentality.

Cloying is interesting in itself. Oxford defines it as excessively sweet or sentimental, Cloy originates from the same Lain root that produced clé (key) and clou (nail) in French. The only connection between cloy, clé and clou that comes to my mind is the idea of fastening something. Thus, in my mind, something cloying is syrupy sweet and hard to get rid of.

To illustrate where my line of thought is going, here is a quote from Louisa May Alcott:
“People want to be amused, not preached at, you know. Morals don’t sell nowadays.”

I believe the part that people don’t want to be preached at has always been true. The answer is not to forget about writing anything with a moral message. Good writers, inspired writers, have found ways to demonstrate moral truths without preaching.

There are Christian books, stories and poems for children from the Victorian era that some Christian people think are wonderful. It must be an acquired taste, the result of being exposed to that kind of literature all through one’s childhood. I wasn’t; I can’t stand those books and I suspect most non-Christians would find them as sickeningly sweet and meaningless as I do,

The writers are preaching, they have a message, a spiritual lesson, that they are trying to convey. To avoid anyone finding the message distasteful they slather it with treacle. The better way would have been to leave out the treacle and make the characters and the circumstances more believable. The characters are more like cardboard cutouts than living people. I wonder if those who have been fed a steady diet of such treacle really have much idea how a real person responds to the gospel.

There is not much of a market for morality, but there is a market for a well told story about believable people who face real life problems. Let the writer weave in moral and spiritual truth; that is not at all fatal in the marketplace. Think of the popularity of books like C. S. Lewis’s Narnia series, and the books from George MacDonald and J. R. R. Tolkien.

Some Christians don’t want their children to read such books because they are fantasy. I think of them this way – children know the world is a mysterious and dangerous place, that bad things happen for no apparent reason. It’s no good raising children on books that pretend everything is always going to work out for the best, because real life doesn’t work that way.

The value in the books by Lewis, MacDonald and Tolkien is that they acknowledge that evil is very present in the world, but show that there is also a supernatural good present in the world that can triumph for those that trust in it. These books do not explicitly mention God, yet His presence is implicit. Other books about good and evil are popular in our day, but they show the good side triumphing by using the same tactics as the evil side. Lewis, MacDonald and Tolkien never do that, evil behaves in an evil way, good triumphs by trusting in the power of good.

That is a real life lesson that children need to hear and learn. It is not taught by treacle, nor by wizards that rely on the powers of darkness.

Spiritual radar

On Dec. 7, 1941 Lt. Kermit Tyler was the supervisor for a series of radar stations. In the early morning a radar operator who was a private called about a large blip on his scope. Lt. Tyler told him not to worry about it. Not long after, he went outside and witnessed the beginning of Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor.

An investigation concluded that Lt. Tyler couldn’t have been expected to do any better. Radar was a new technology, there were no procedures in place to tell what to do even if the radar blip had been correctly interpreted. This was only Lt. Tyler’s second shift as supervisor, he had been given no training or instructions as to what his duties were.

Two months ago, when COVID-19 was still thought to be something only happening in Asia, doctors around Seattle noticed a rise in flu-like illnesses causing fevers, sore throats and respiratory distress, yet tests for the influenza virus came back negative. That area now has the highest concentration of COVID-19 cases in the USA.

Did doctors and the Centers for Disease Control misread the blips on the radar? Would it have made any difference if they had recognized them for what they were? Probably not, these were still early days for that virus and no one understood how it worked or what to do about it. We are still learning.

There is a lesson there for Christians if we feel secure in our understanding of how to live a life pleasing to God and of the dangers that might trip us up. The serpent always has something new to put in our way, something we have never before encountered and have no idea how to handle. Most often it will seem innocent and harmless at first, until we realize that we have been bitten and the poison is already eating at our Christian life.

Christians have something far better than radar to warn us of such dangers. We have the Holy Spirit. “And thine ears shall hear a word behind thee, saying, This is the way, walk ye in it, when ye turn to the right hand, and when ye turn to the left” (Isaiah 30:21). That voice will always show us the way that is safe. Are we paying attention?

A life-giving faith

We Christians have a lot to say about heaven and how we long to be there. Is anticipation enough to get us there? If we are not experiencing joy in the journey, will we make it?

Many Christians are experiencing a joyous and happy life, filled with joy far more abundant than they ever knew before they abandoned the way of the world. Others are burdened with care, wanting to always do the right thing and avoid doing the wrong thing. Their eyes are so fixed upon the ground, ever fearful of dangers that may lie on their path, that they forget to look up and see the glory of the Lord.

We don’t have to live like that. We don’t want to look for pleasure in things the world around us calls fun; but living with the dread of making a misstep is not the way Jesus wants us to live. He has given us the Holy Spirit to guide us on our way, to comfort us when we are on the right path and warn us if we are in danger of stepping off that path.

The fear of the Lord is an honest awareness of the seriousness of life, the seriousness of the choices we make every day. That kind of fear leads not to dread but to trust and joy.

May I offer this paraphrase of Romans 12:2;

“Don’t pattern your thinking after the things that are highly esteemed in today’s world, but let the Holy Spirit renew your thinking to understand the complete will of God so that your life can be transformed into what He wants it to be.”

But God Can Save Us Yet

[This is an excerpt from a Canadian Classic, Roughing it in the Bush, by Susanna Moodie, first published in 1852.  At the climax of the crisis described here, she buries her head in her apron. It was her custom to  pull up her apron to cover her head for privacy when praying.]

The winter and spring of 1834 had passed away. The latter was uncommonly cold and backward; so much so that we had a very heavy fall of snow upon the 14th and 15th of May

A late, cold spring in Canada is generally succeeded by a burning, hot summer; and the summer of ’34 was the hottest I ever remember.  No rain fell upon the earth for many weeks, till nature drooped and withered beneath one bright blaze of sunlight; and the ague and fever in the woods, and the cholera in the large towns and cities, spread death and sickness through the country.

Moodie had made during the winter a large clearing of twenty acres around the house. The progress of the workmen had been watched by me with the keenest interest. Every tree that reached the ground opened a wider gap in the dark wood, giving us a broader ray of light and a clearer glimpse of the blue sky. But when the dark cedar swamp fronting the house fell beneath the strokes of the axe, and we got a first view of the lake my joy was complete: a new and beautiful object was now constantly before me, which gave me the greatest pleasure.

The confusion of an uncleared fallow spread around us on every side. Huge trunks of trees and piles of brush gave a littered and uncomfortable appearance to the locality, and as the weather had been very dry for some weeks, I heard my husband talking with his choppers as to the expediency of firing the fallow. They still urged him to wait a little longer, until he could get a good breeze to carry the fire well through the brush.

Business called him suddenly to Toronto, but he left a strict charge with old Thomas and his sons, who were engaged in the job, by no means to attempt to burn it off till he returned, as he wished to be upon the premises himself in case of any danger. He had previously burnt all the heaps immediately about the doors. While he was absent, old Thomas and his second son fell sick with the ague, and went home to their own township, leaving John, a surly, obstinate young man, in charge of the shanty, where they slept, and kept their tools and provisions.

The day was sultry, and towards noon a strong wind sprang up that roared in the pine tops like the dashing of distant billows, but without in the least degree abating the heat. The children were lying listlessly on the floor for coolness, and the girl and I were finishing sun-bonnets, when Mary suddenly exclaimed, “Bless us, mistress, what a smoke!” I ran immediately to the door, but was not able to distinguish ten yards before me. The swamp immediately below us was on fire, and the heavy wind was driving a dense black cloud of smoke directly towards us.

“What can this mean?” I cried. “Who can have set fire to the fallow?”

John Thomas stood pale and trembling before me. “John, what is the meaning of this fire?”

“Oh, ma’am, I hope you will forgive me; it was I set fire to it, and I would give all I have in the world if I had not done it.”

“What is the danger?”

“Oh, I’m terribly feared that we shall all be burnt up,” said the fellow, beginning to whimper.

“We must get out of it as fast as we can, and leave the house to its fate.”

“We can’t get out,” said the man, in a low, hollow tone, which seemed the concentration of fear; “I would have got out if I could; but just step to the back door, ma’am, and see.”

I had not felt the least alarm up to this minute. Judge then my horror, when, on going to the back door, I saw that the fellow, to make sure of his work, had fired the field in fifty different places. Behind, before, on every side, we were surrounded by a wall of fire, burning ferociously within a hundred yards of us, and cutting off all possibility of retreat.

I closed the door and went back to the parlour. Fear was knocking loudly at my heart – I felt stupefied. The girl sat upon the floor by the children, who had both fallen asleep. She was silently weeping; while the fool who had caused the mischief was crying aloud.

A strange calm succeeded my first alarm; tears and lamentations were useless; a horrible death was impending over us, and yet I could not believe that we were to die.

My eye fell upon the sleeping angels, locked peacefully in each other’s arms, and my tears flowed for the first time. Mary, the servant-girl, looked piteously up in my face. The good, faithful creature had not uttered one word of complaint, but now she faltered forth, “The dear precious lambs! Oh such a death!”

I threw myself down upon the floor beside them, and pressed them alternately to my heart, while inwardly I thanked God that they were asleep, unconscious of danger.

The heat soon became suffocating. We were parched with thirst, and there was not a drop of water in the house. I turned once more to the door, hoping that a passage might have been burnt through to the water. I saw nothing but a dense cloud of fire and smoke – could hear nothing but the crackling and roaring of the flames, which were gaining so fast on us that I felt their scorching breath in my face.

“Ah,” thought I – and it was a most bitter thought – “what will my beloved husband say when he returns and finds that poor Susy and his dear girls have perished in this miserable manner? But God can save us yet.”

The thought had scarcely found a voice in my heart before the wind rose to a hurricane, scattering the flames on all sides into a tempest of burning billows. I buried my head in my apron, for I thought that our time was come, and that all was lost, when a most terrific crash of thunder burst over our heads, and, like the breaking of a water-spout, down came the rushing torrent of rain which had been pent up for so many weeks. In a few minutes the chip-yard was all afloat, and the fire effectually checked. The storm which, unnoticed by us, had been gathering all day, and which was the only one of any note we had that summer, continued to rage all night, and before morning had quite subdued the cruel enemy whose approach we had viewed with such dread.

The imminent danger in which we had been placed struck me more forcibly after it was past than at the time, and both the girl and myself sank to our knees and offered up our hearts in humble thanksgiving to that God who had saved us by an act of His Providence from an awful and sudden death. When all hope from human assistance was lost, His hand was mercifully stretched forth, making His strength more perfectly manifested in our weakness.

“He is their stay when earthly hope is lost,
“The light and anchor of the tempest-toss’d.”

Useful words

Here are a few common English words that are sometimes misused or misunderstood.

Elegant – tasteful, graceful, comely, beautiful. It does not mean elaborate or ornate. An elegant solution is one that is ingeniously simple and completely solves the problem. The root meaning is carefully selected. 

Eloquence – fluent and effective use of language, persuasive speaking or writing.  Eloquent and loquacious are from the same root and both indicate a love for words. An eloquent person knows exactly what a word means and how to use it to greatest effect. In the case of a loquacious person, one might have to try and discern what that person thinks he is saying.

Perfect – thoroughly done, complete. When used of people it means fully grown. It does not mean flawless. The perfect tool for a job is not necessarily the newest or shiniest. It may show the effects of years of use, but if it can be used effectively to do the job at hand we say it is perfect. A perfect person is not one who never makes a mistake, but one who is mature and takes responsibility for his actions.

Quality – fitness for use. I worked for years in quality assurance, was certified by the American Society for Quality Control as a Quality Engineer. Those three words were the official ASQC definition of quality. Quality is not defined by appearance, but by usefulness. A high priced car that loses 80% of its value in the first three years, because that’s about how long the motor lasts, is not a quality vehicle. A car that costs half as much when new, and is still running dependably after three years is better quality.

The Pride of Man

Fifty-five years ago I bought Gordon Lightfoot’s first LP record. Most of the songs were ones he wrote. One, The Pride of Man,  was written  by Hamilton Camp. The song is based on Biblical prophecies of the fall of Babylon. Every stanza ends with the line “Oh God, the pride of man, broken in the dust again.”

That pretty much describes our situation during this pandemic. My plans, your plans, the plans of people much more important than you and me, they are all broken in the dust. Everything has changed.

Can we accept that? I want to go out, work, visit, shop, go to a coffee shop. It is hard to abandon all those plans for however long this situation may last. Is that an indication that my pride isn’t broken in the dust yet?

The Bible says a lot about our need of humility,  but it also warns of the danger of voluntary humility. Voluntary humility is something produced by my own will. Voluntary comes from French, volonté is the French word for will.

It doesn’t work for me to make myself humble by the strength of my own will. Why not? Because, if I can make myself humble, I am going to think that I am doing a much better job of it than you are.  I won’t say it, but I will have this smug feeling that I’ve got the hang of this humility thing. That’s the opposite of humility.

What I see in the Bible is the instruction to submit. “Humble yourself in the sight of the Lord.” “Humbles yourself therefore under the mighty had of God.” James is very straightforward: “God resisteth the proud, but giveth grace unto the humble.
submit yourselves therefore to God.” “Submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake.”

I don’t want to submit, I want to do this humble thing by myself, my own way. Therein lies the problem. My pride needs to be broken in the dust.

I fight to retain my freedom, but I don’t know what freedom is until I give up fighting and submit. Them I find my heart and mind aligned with the plans God has for me.

“Oh God, the pride of man, broken in the dust again.” That’s a good thing. May we allow this season of confinement to bring us down to earth where we can think more of others than of ourselves.

Soar with the eagles

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Image by Flash Alexander from Pixabay

Somewhere in Africa, a hunter returning home spies in a rocky place a large nest of branches on which lies a beautiful egg spotted with red. Still warm from the mother bird who will soon come back.

Curious, the man examines the nest. Delighted at his discovery, he slips the egg into his pocket to take it to his house to hatch. Since yesterday, there is a hen sitting on her eggs in a corner of his kitchen. The big egg will find its place among the chicken eggs, under the mother hen.

Then comes the day of hatching: one by one, the chicks with yellow down come out of their shells. Among them, a big one, already covered with almost white feathers! Wow!
To see him pecking with the others, jostling between them to get the mash as best he can, you would take him for a young chicken.

But look up. Is that an eagle flying over the chicken coop? At the sound of his wings, a shiver of terror passes over the village. At his raucous cry there is general panic in all the yards, the dogs bark, the pigs hide, the cows moo. Roosters and hens cackle; all the chicks rush instinctively to find cover under the wing of their mother.

The danger? What danger? Alone outside while the raptor is soaring above, he has not moved, our big chick. Far from being frightened, he lifts his head. Motionless, neck extended, he listens. It seems that he recognizes the call, this one. The eaglet! Oh yes! So well adapted to this backyard life for which he was not made, he alone hears the call. The eagles up there, with their piercing eyes, also spot him, far below, in the yard of a hunter, under the banana trees.

Every time they make their rounds, his eagle gaze scans the sky. Until the day, his wings having grown, a large bird emerges from the clouds and begins to descend towards him in gliding flight.

Then, crying with joy, the young eagle rises towards the sun.

– adapted from a story in Les bananiers du miracle, by Flora Quintin. © 1987 Réalités de la foi, Montreux, Switzerland.

So here we are, cooped up in the chicken yard, other chickens around us crying “The sky is falling! The sky is falling!” We are here, but our home is not here. May we remember that.

But they that wait upon the LORD shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint. (Isaiah 40:31)

This has happened before

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Firenze (Florence) Italy. Image by Daniel Wanke from Pixabay

A careful observer who escaped the plague at Florence in 1617 describes the barricaded houses and empty streets, forbidden to all but food suppliers. Florence was dead: no business activities and no religious services — except for the odd mass  which the officiant celebrated at the corner of a street and in which the people participated from behind closed windows.

-Fernand Braudel, Structures of Everyday Life © 1979 Librairie Armand Colin, Paris for the original French edition. English version © 1981 Harper & Row

Misfits

School tends to be a one size fits all proposition, and some children are misfits.

Despite the best efforts of schools and teachers, some children just do not do well in a large classroom. Home schooling parents have more freedom to find ways to adapt the curriculum and environment to make learning work for their child.

Children are hard-wired to learn from their parents, and parents know their children better than anyone else. Parents do not need special skills or training to teach their children, they just need to be parents.

Standard achievement tests show that home-schooled children score well above their peers in public schools. Even children with cognitive  limitations do better when home-schooled.

Now this is just a personal observation, but the home-schooled children that I know have much better social skills than their peers in school. Think about it: at home a child has to get along with her siblings and her parents. She learns how to communicate clearly with them all and this prepares her to communicate freely with anyone else, of any age.

SPRING!

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Image by a-mblomma from Pixabay

We heard, then saw, Canada geese this morning for the first time this spring. A reassuring sign that the wild things are carrying on as usual and spring is on its way.

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