Flatlander Faith

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

Tag Archives: Christian

Promises to Abraham

Abraham was a pilgrim and stranger in the promised land all his days. He believed the promise of God that his descendents would possess this land, even into old age when it seemed that all hope of having children was slipping away from him. God told him: “Arise, walk through the land in the length of it and in the breadth of it; for I will give it unto thee” (Genesis 13:17).

When Abram decided that the only heir he would ever had would be the son of his servant who was born in his house, God spoke to him again. “ This shall not be thine heir; but he that shall come forth out of thine own bowels shall be thine heir. And he brought him forth abroad, and said, Look now toward heaven, and tell the stars, if thou be able to number them: and he said unto him, So shall thy seed be. And he believed in the LORD; and he counted it to him for righteousness” (Genesis 15:4-6).

Sarah, Abraham’s wife, wanted him to have a son in fulfilment of God’s promise. She had no child and was past normal child-bearing age, so she gave her servant Hagar to Abraham as was the custom of the day. This worked, Ishmael was born and Abraham now had a son who was his own flesh and blood. But this was still not the heir that God had promised to Abram.

When Abram was 90 years old God renewed His promise and made a covenant with Abram, changing his name to Abraham, father of a multitude. “ And I will establish my covenant between me and thee and thy seed after thee in their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be a God unto thee, and to thy seed after thee” (Genesis 17:7). It was at this point that circumcision was made the sign of the covenant.

Abraham was 100 years old and Sarah 90 or 91 when Isaac, the son of the promise was born. Their faith had been tested for many years, but now they could see the beginning of God’s promise of a multitude of nations as their direct descendents.
God had yet one more test for Abraham. He told him to go up to the top of Mount Moriah and there offer his son as a sacrifice to God. Isaac could not have been a small child by this time, probably more like 20. Josephus says 25. Isaac carried the wood for the sacrifice to Mount Moriah and up the mountain, not something a small child could have done. This leads us to believe that Isaac shared his father’s faith, for he must have fully cooperated when Abraham bound him and laid him on the altar.

Abraham took the knife in his hand and raised it. At this point God stopped his hand and said, “now I know that thou fearest God, seeing thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son from me” (Genesis 22:13). In the providence of God, now Abraham saw a ram caught in a thicket and offered him on the altar in place of his son.

“And the angel of the LORD called unto Abraham out of heaven the second time, and said, By myself have I sworn, saith the LORD, for because thou hast done this thing, and hast not withheld thy son, thine only son: that in blessing I will bless thee, and in multiplying I will multiply thy seed as the stars of the heaven, and as the sand which is upon the sea shore; and thy seed shall possess the gate of his enemies; and in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed; because thou hast obeyed my voice” (Genesis 22:15-18).

There is so much for us bound up in the story of Abraham. Like him, we have been given an heritage. This heritage is revealed in the pages of the Bible and it is up to us to walk through the length and breadth of those pages to grasp all that God has is store for us.

Abraham believed God’s promise that he would have an abundance of heirs; that faith was counted to him for righteousness long before he received the covenant of circumcision. As the apostle Paul explains in Romans 4:9-14, this demonstrates that the promise to Abraham is to the uncircumcised as well as the circumcised. In another place the apostle explains that the circumcision that counts is the inward circumcision of the heart, not the outward form. All who are circumcised in heart by faith are then heirs of Abraham.

The New Testament also explains that the promise to Abraham is not for the children of the flesh, typified by Ishmael, but for the spiritual descendents of the son of promise.

Finally we have the picture of a father preparing to offer his only son as a sacrifice. In the New Testament we have the awful picture of the only Son of God dying on the cross as an offering for our sin. The ram that Abraham offered on the altar in place of his son is another piece of the great salvation story that God has provided a spotless Lamb to be sacrificed that He could forgive us and set us free.
Here, very early in Bible history, God has provided a complete picture of the whole salvation story through the events in the life of Abraham.

Why am I still here?

It amazed us when Aggie greeted us by name. This was only the second time we had visited her and at our first meeting she had already passed her 100th birthday.

Aggie was an amazing lady all round. She did not need hearing aids; she had glasses, but still read a regular print Bible. She walked with a cane, but that was more for insurance than for need of support. Every Sunday someone picked her up to take her to church.

It had piqued our interest when we read in the newspaper about the 100th birthday of this lady whose last name was the same as my wife’s maiden name. Since she lived in a nursing home in a town not too far away, we looked her up. We never found out if there was any family connection, but that didn’t seem all that important when we got to know her.

She posed the question I have used as a title for this post. What purpose did God have in preserving her life? Her children lived far away. But a grandson had moved back to teach at the school right beside the nursing home. Aggie loved to watch the children. Why aren’t all nursing homes built beside schools?

We thought it was enough that Aggie was a little candle in a place full of shadows. She loved God, loved her neighbours, was thankful and cheerful. I want to be like that if I live so long.

Years later, we met a man over 100, a distant relative of mine this time. He lived in an apartment beside the nursing home where my mother spent the last year of her life.

Jacob still had a driver’s license and drove to his country church every Sunday. Except in winter, for, he said, “If I were to have an accident on the snow and ice, they would take my license away.”

This 100-year-old man loved to take nursing home residents for walks around the beautifully landscaped grounds, pushing their wheelchairs. He had outlived his wife and two of his children, but wasted no time feeling sorry for himself. He still had something left to give.

Perhaps I am thinking this way because I had another injection in my eye yesterday, to counteract the effects of macular degeneration. The eye specialist is often a little surprised that I can detect the effects so soon, when the scans of my retina show only the beginning of a slight swelling.

I suppose it might take me longer to notice if I spent most of my time watching TV. But I don’t have a TV; to pass my life being entertained doesn’t sound like much of a life. I am a reader, writer and bookkeeper; when a line of type, or a column of numbers, develops waves I call my eye doctor.

It is ten and a half years since I first noticed this happening and the doctor first stuck a needle in my eye to inject a couple drops of a special medication. It has worked for me so I can still drive and work with words and numbers.

But, if the macular degeneration had begun a few years earlier no medicine would have been available. The timing was right; I am blessed and so are so many others. The question that comes to me is not so much why, as, what am I supposed to be doing with the extra time that the injections have given me to use my vision? The answer seems to be that now is the time to write.

I have thought of myself as a would-be writer since my school days and have always written in free moments. There has been more time in the last few years and I have applied myself to learning and honing my writing skills. Perhaps it is time to stop thinking of myself as a would-be writer and get with it.

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.

The need for fellowship

I recently read something written by a young lady whose parents are very conservative Christians. She spoke of how difficult it had been to find a church where she could feel at home because she didn’t want to get into anything that felt like the way she had grown up.

I feel compassion for her, yet I’m afraid she has misdiagnosed the problem. It doesn’t seem that her parents were ultra strict, but they had no fellowship with other Christians with similar convictions. They tried various churches, but always had good reasons why they had to break fellowship with them.

Our daughter would probably be making the same complaints today if we had not joined the Church of God in Christ, Mennonite forty years ago. Prior to that time, while she was very young, we had attended a variety of churches for a few months or a year or two.

Our daughter was six when we began regularly attending a congregation of this church, and seven when we were baptized and became members. From that time on, most of her friends were children of our friends. We attended church together, visited in each others homes and followed much the same principles in raising our children.

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Fast forward forty years and we have a Christian daughter, a fine Christian son-in-law and four grandchildren, one of whom is now also a Christian. This is the blessing of following the leading of the Holy Spirit. I can’t see how we could be enjoying these blessings today if we had continued church-hopping, or even withdrew from organized church altogether.

We have known families who remained with one church, but held their own children to a higher standard than other families of that church did for their children. Their children rebelled. The parents meant well, but didn’t understand that Christian fellowship is of more value than getting all the details right.

We cannot raise Christian children if we hold ourselves aloof from other Christians. Yes, we need to avoid worldliness. Yes, we need to uphold moral and spiritual purity.

But we also need to avoid self-righteousness and a critical attitude toward others. Those things poison the atmosphere in a home and will eventually cause our children to rebel against us and all we tried to teach them. Or it may lead them to become lonely social outcasts, unable to develop a meaningful relationship with others.

God has made us in such a way that none of us are complete in ourselves. We need others to supply what we lack. The New Testament epistles have much instruction to help us live in fellowship with other Christians. This is important for us and for our children.

Above all, let’s not call it Christian fellowship when we are in full agreement with someone else about the mistakes other people make. Forbearance and forgiveness are essential for true fellowship. The most important thing is to see Christ in one another, whatever our ethnic origin or economic status. The people around us make mistakes. Do we see only the mistakes, or do we see a fellow Christian trying in weakness to follow the Holy Spirit? That’s the way we want others to see us, isn’t it?

Where there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcision nor uncircumcision, Barbarian, Scythian, bond nor free: but Christ is all, and in all. (1 Corinthians 3.11)

Who am I?

It was in a little church near St Marys, Ontario, that my wife and I were baptized and became members of the Church of God in Christ, Mennonite. After the service, the minister who had baptized us advised us to “Just be yourselves.”

That was a very kind and generous welcome, but I didn’t know what to do with it. I didn’t really know who I was. I have spent the forty years since that day sifting through the baggage I have picked up along the road of life and trying to discern which of those things have a place in defining who I am.

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My mother’s ethnic and religious heritage is not part of who I am. Her mother tongue was Plautdietsch and her second language German, the language of the church her family attended and which she joined in her youth. After some years she realized that German was the faith of the church and the things she had learned in the catechism were only decoration. This church had no message for anyone who didn’t know German, including Mom’s eight younger siblings.
She left that church and married my father, a very determined step away from her background. My grandmother sent me a German primer once, I suppose in the hope that I would learn German so I could be a Christian. I mean no disrespect to my grandmother, I loved her, but that was how she had been trained to think. I was intrigued by that German primer, but Mom showed no enthusiasm for teaching me German. If I asked questions she would answer them, but that was all. I soon stopped asking questions. I have no interest in cultural Christianity. That is part of who I am.

My father was from the USA, of Puritan descent but Wesleyan Methodist by faith. That denomination got swallowed up in the social gospel and church union movement. My father had no use for anything to do with the social gospel, in religion, politics or business (the co-operative movement). I have no interest in Christianity as a social movement. That is part of who I am.

My father’s mother spoke French. Dad had some pride in his French heritage but found it embarrassing that his mother actually spoke the language. He wished everyone would speak one language, namely English. Mom talked about how her father had wished that he had learned French when he had the opportunity in his younger days and wished that she could have had the opportunity to learn French. I listened to Mom more than Dad.

I have had allergy problems since I was a baby. That has limited the type of work that I can do. Little by little I have learned what I can do and what I can’t do and am coping quite well, but allergy awareness is still very much part of me. I am a vegetarian, but not because of any religious or philosophical persuasion. I really don’t know why, but I quit eating meat 65 years ago. Maybe it had something to do with my allergies. Maybe it had more to do with the butcherings I saw as a boy.

When we were away from home my father would go up to complete strangers and ask: “What do you think of Jesus?” It embarrassed me terribly when I was young, now I wish I could be more like that. I’m not as bold as my father, but then neither am I as argumentative. Those who know me might wonder about that last statement, but trust me, it’s true. You didn’t know my Dad.

English was Mom’s third language. She had a large dictionary that she had been studying for years and spoke English with no trace of accent. I come by my love of dictionaries honestly. I learned to read when I was four years old and have never stopped. I have been putting my thoughts into writing for a long time now and a desire to communicate is very much part of who I am.

I lived on a farm in the hills of the Missouri Coteau in southeastern Saskatchewan until I was almost 10. There are scenes in my memory from that time that seem almost like heaven. I have lived many other places since then: five provinces, rural areas, towns, villages and cities large and small. I am living on an acreage at this time, but would really prefer to live in a city where there are people around.

I went to a small town school and had read every book in the school library before I finished high school. I learned something important in that reading: two historians can write about the same events and refer to the same dates, the same people, yet come up with different versions of what had really been going on. In my school days, history was taught from the point of view of the Orange Order. I didn’t really understand it at the time, but that point of view has had a negative effect on relations between English and French, Protestant and Catholic, white and nonwhite people in Canada. I am not one who thinks that Christians would be better off not knowing anything about history. I believe that we can’t really understand what is going on today if we don’t know anything about history and the biases created by different perceptions in the past.

I have worked in occupations that encouraged my natural tendency to be detail conscious: like grain buyer, quality assurance and bookkeeper. I probably tend to overdo it at times.

In addition to my parents, I have been influenced by my wife, my daughter, her husband, our grandchildren, brothers and sisters in the faith, preachers, teachers, co-workers. Everybody I have ever met has probably left some small trace on my character.

So who am I? I am a born-again Christian and a Mennonite, not by heritage, culture, language or philosophy, but by the call of God and my response to that call. I am a Canadian, by birth, by education, by life experience. I am a native of Saskatchewan, it is home to me but I have been able to feel at home almost anywhere in this country. I speak both of Canada’s official languages and no others, but occasionally make a stab at learning Italian. I see myself more as an urbanite than as a countryman. And I am a writer. I’ve hesitated for years to admit it, especially to myself, but writing is what motivates me more than anything else.

What is a miracle?

canola-field-3436417_640A few weeks ago farmers in our area seeded many fields with tiny, round, black Canola seeds. Before long green leaves appeared and grew large. Then flower spikes grew upwards and little yellow flowers appeared. Now we are seeing golden yellow fields like the one in the picture above.

That little black seed contained coding that enabled it to take nutrients and moisture from the soil and turn them into a plant many times larger than itself. Each flower will form a seed that is an exact copy of the seed from which the plant grew.

Is that a miracle? No; it is a predictable result of putting that seed in the ground. Do I  comprehend how the seed is able to do that? I can explain what happens, the why is beyond me. Only God could build a seed with life in itself and the ability to reproduce itself.

Have you ever thought about how much rain must fall from the sky to produce a crop? One centimetre of rain on one hectare of land amounts to 100 tonnes of water. Canola plants need 20 cm of rain between seeding and harvest to make a good crop. That is 2,000 tonnes of water per hectare. All that water is held in clouds in the sky and delivered to where it is needed.

Is that a miracle? No, it is simply another of the wonders of cration. Solomon described the cycle of water several thousand years ago: “All the rivers run into the sea; yet the sea is not full; unto the place from whence the rivers come, thither they return again” (Ecclesiastes 1:7).

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Jesus fed thousands of people with just a few loaves of bread. I expect the loaves looked much like the ones in the picture above, as housewives in Israel weren’t using bread pans back then.

I expect that it was done so simply as to be almost imperceptable. Jesus broke a large piece off a loaf and gave it to one of the disciples. When he went to break off another pece to give to another disciple the loaf in his hand was about as big as before he tore anything from it. The disciples had the same experience. They kept breaking smaller pieces off the large piece in their hands and there was always more to break off. After everyone had eaten there was more bread left than there had been at the beginning. Now that was a miracle.

Jesus could have asked for a thousand loaves of bread to appear in the midst of the crowd. Think of the tumult as each one tried to grab some for himself. That was not His way. He blessed the bread and broke it to give to the people and it was clear to all that He was the giver. Most miracles occur quietly, almost unseen.

A few years ago Doctor Kevin Dautremont wrote in his blog of such a miracle. A young man had been a Christian, but became angry and bitter when he developed cancer and had to have one of his legs amputated. He turned away from God and from his family.

He was in palliative care and near the end when Doctor Kevin was called to see him. The young man’s voice had previously been almost inaudible, now he asked in a clear strong voice for help to stand. He stood on his remaining leg, looked at his mother, smiled and said “I’ve been with Jesus. And we were running.” Then he laid back on the bed, closed his eyes, and died.

Doctor Kevin asked: “Is there a greater miracle than a heart changed? A soul saved? A prodigal returned to the loving arms of His Father?”

You can read the full text of Doctor Kevin’s blog article here.

A step forward, a step back

We found a house to rent just a few miles from church. I started working for Ed Klassen’s carpenter crew. Things were working out well for me; I wasn’t so sure how this was going to work for Chris. I was still a young Christian, trying to sort things out for myself and didn’t know how to be much help to her.

The big sticking point for Chris was that she knew these Holdeman Mennonites believed that if you were a Christian there had to have been a starting point, a new birth. She thought she didn’t have anything to tell and wouldn’t be allowed into the church.

Sure, there had been those times as a young girl at camp where the counsellor had led her in praying the sinner’s prayer then assured her that now shew was saved. Then she had those nightmares when we were first married that the end of time had come and she wasn’t ready. The General Conference Mennonite preacher had assured her she was fine. Her testimony before she was baptized in that church was that she had always wanted to be a Christian. That had been enough, and it would have been enough for the Conservative Mennonites. But she knew that wasn’t going to work here.

As I remember it, when I came home after my first day’s work, Chris met me with the news that minister Bennie wanted to visit with us. Lillian, his wife, had visited with Chris during the day and they had talked about the changes in our lives over the past few years. Lillian thought there was something there that sounded like a new birth experience.

We had supper and went over to Bennie and Lillian’s. Chris recounted the event she had told Lillian earlier that day. She had always believed that she was a Christian. About a year earlier she had felt that God was asking something of her that she was not willing for. She had outright refused. Then the awful truth dawned on her for the first time in her life – she was lost. She had knelt down and prayed, promising to do whatever God asked of her. At that she felt complete peace.

Since she had always thought she was saved, she had not understood this experience as the beginning of her Christian life. But as we talked it over it became clear to all of us that this had been unlike anything she had experienced before. This was where she was born again and became a child of God.

This was a new beginning for both of us. We were now fully united in faith and knew we were where God wanted us to be.

Linden was a big congregation; there were a lot of people for us to get to know, and lots of children Michelle’s age. She celebrated her fourth birthday October 28, 1975.

I had always known that carpenter work was a bit of a stretch for me, but it was the kind of work that was available. My allergies left me with an insecure sense of balance. Working on a roof was almost torture, but I forced myself to do it as best as I could. I managed to cope for a couple months, but late in November the allergy problem kicked in with a vengeance. It started with sneezes and snuffles, developed into a sinus infection and then I lost my voice. With antibiotics I was feeling fine in about a week and started back to work. Before the end of that week I was as sick as I had been the first time.

Okay, this line of work just wasn’t for me. Perhaps there might have been something else for me in the Linden area, but it seemed like we should go back to Moose Jaw.

The return to Moose Jaw was a detour from our route to the church, but it was soon evident that there was a need at home. My father’s dementia rapidly becoming worse, the burden on my mother was too much for her to bear alone.

We settled into life in Moose Jaw once again. Chris went back to working at the senior’s residence; I worked for Dennis on the farm the next two summers. In between time I taught Michelle to read. I know I wasn’t as patient and kindly a teacher as my mother had been, but she did learn. Then she could read the little books that Julia had given me when I was her age.

My father went into a nursing home and my mother went to visit him almost every day. I drove her sometimes, but there was no use trying to visit with my father. He didn’t know who I was anymore. He still knew Mom and my uncle Art, his youngest brother. But I guess I came along too late. Dad was 50 when I was born and that event didn’t seem to be in his memory bank anymore.

We went to church at Hague or Bredenbury about once a month. It was a three hour trip to get to either place. I remember one trip to Hague on a very cold winter day. We were driving a 1972 Toyota Corolla, a very small car in that era. We found that the heating system was just enough on that frigid day to keep the windshield clear or to keep ourselves warm, but it wasn’t up to doing both. The choice was obvious, we had to see where we were going. It wasn’t a comfortable trip.

We enjoyed the Sundays in those small congregations, the fellowship, the opportunity to worship with fellow believers, and looked forward to a time when we would be free to move into a congregation.

Flee temptation

Why do evangelical Christian leaders get ensnared in sex scandals? It’s because they so easily forget that they are still flesh and blood and that the tendencies of the flesh are contrary to their high spiritual ideals.

I wouldn’t call it hypocrisy; at least not deliberate hypocrisy. It is a tragedy when a man with high moral ideals come to believe that the power of the Holy Spirit has made him immune to the baser desires of his humanity.

We dare not forget that we never stop being sinners by nature. Yes, we cn have victory over those base desires. Yes, we can live without fear of being ensnared at any moment by some horrible sin. But we need to live every day with the reality of what we are made of and what we could do, but for the grace of God.

Some may boast of all the great works the Lord has done by them; others may abase themselves and say that they are nothing. Such voluntary, self-made humility is just as boastful as the first. It’s all pride, leading to the thought that I can do it by myself. We do need to acknowledge our failings. If we can be specific in admitting small failings, we have a better chance to avoid falling into the great temptations.

Most of all, we just need to walk with the Lord. When He is close beside us we will know when to go boldly forth into the unknown, and when to flee from temptation.

Walking Towards Hope – a book review

One day in October of 1997 Paul Beckingham, his wife Mary and one of their young sons were taking a Kenyan boy back to his home on the edge of Nairobi. They came over a hill to find a massive Kenyan military transport coming towards them and taking up the whole road. Their lives changed forever that day. The boys survived with no major physical injuries, Mary had a broken collar bone.

It took several hours to pry Paul from the mangled remains of his car. He lost massive amounts of blood, had many broken bones and one foot was severed. He was rushed to hospital where a team of Christian Kenyan doctors pieced him back together, re-attached his foot and stopped the bleeding. His heart stopped three times during the surgery.

After a few days he was flown back to Vancouver to continue his recovery. Over the next two years he moved from a hospital bed to a wheelchair, to crutches, then to a cane and was finally able to put the cane away. He began to look more and more like the old Paul Beckingham from before the accident.

But he wasn’t. He couldn’t always think clearly, couldn’t concentrate, didn’t always act appropriately and became immensely frustrated. He began to realize that the accident and his continuing disability did not only affect him, but was also hurting his wife and their five children.

Doctor Mel Kaushansky, an expert in neuropsychology, put him through a bank of tests, then sat him down to explain what had happened to his brain in the accident. He told Paul that all parts of his brain were affected and it could be compared to a blueberry muffin, with the blueberries being the damaged areas of his brain. Or it could be compared to Swiss cheese with the holes being the gaps in his mental capabilities. He would never again be able to take on the level of responsibility that he could handle before the accident.

As Paul accepted the devastating verdict and determined to pursue the things he was still able to do, it led him to the reality of Christian hope. He began accepting public speaking engagements and found that telling his story touched many others just whee they were hurting. He began to study again, but needed to take copious notes to compensate for the frailty of his memory.

And he wrote this book about his experience. Near the end of the book he quotes the words of David in Psalm 43:5 and says:

“His hope is not groundless. It is no mere wishful thinking springing from an overactive, positive mental attitude. Nor is it the idle daydreaming of someone who has finally lost touch with reality. This is no escape from reason. The psalmist’s hope is built on confidence beyond that of his own making. He trusts, instead, a hand that is greater than his own. It is a hand that steers his future, moving him from this place called I Don’t Know towards a place called A Hope and a Future.”

I highly recommend this book.

Walking Towards Hope – Experiencing Grace in a Time of Brokenness, ©  205 by Paul M. Beckingham. Published by Castle Quay Books, Kitchener, Ontario. Available on Amazon and Chapters Indigo. Also available as a e-book fro Kobo or Kindle.

A fading faith

[This is one of my earliest posts on this blog, dating from four and a half years ago.]

For twelve years we lived in a little village in Ontario.  Directly across the street from our home was the United Church manse.  The minister and his wife were a pleasant older couple, professional and polished.  There came a Christmas Day where we were all snowbound after a three-foot snowfall that began the day before.  Some people’s children couldn’t make it home for Christmas, family gatherings were cancelled.  In the evening, after the storm had ended, the minister and his wife invited their neighbours to gather in their home.  We appreciated the gesture, but this was about the only time we really had occasion to visit with them.

Eventually, they moved on and were replaced by a young couple with small children.  These people were different — not much polish, but downright friendly.  We visited on our way to the corner store while waiting for the mail, in their home, in our home, our daughter babysat their children, they sent their children to our congregation’s Vacation Bible School.

I began to realize there was something else different about this United Church minister: he appeared to be a man of genuine faith.  Over the course of our visiting his story came out.  He had been raised in a locale that was pretty solidly Roman Catholic.  In his youth, he had searched for answers to his inner spiritual need and had met the Lord.  He no longer felt at home in the Catholic church and the only alternative in the area was the United Church.  He had joined that church, went to theological college and become a minister.

During that time a TV program did a show on the practice of excommunication.  One half dealt with the practice of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the other half with the Church of God in Christ, Mennonite.  They interviewed a few people who had been expelled from the church and who seemed to relish the opportunity to vocalize their bitterness.  The next time I talked with my neighbour from across the street, he mentioned seeing this program, then said, “I have only one question.  Is there a way for someone who has been excommunicated from your church to become a member again?”

I explained that it was indeed possible and that most of those who were excommunicated were later re-accepted into full fellowship in the church.  The church only excommunicated those who had lost contact with God and the purpose was to awaken them to the seriousness of that loss and move them to re-establish their relationship with their Lord and Saviour.  I also explained that I had never observed that those who had been excommunicated and re-accepted carried any stigma among the brethren.  The re-acceptance was genuine and complete.

His response floored me: “I wish we could do that in the United Church of Canada.  I wish we could say to our people that this is what we believe and if you don’t believe it and live by it, you have no right to be members here.”

Another time this minister told me, “I believe there are nine real Christians in my congregation.”  I think I could have guessed the names of the ones he was thinking of.  Most of them were older, in their seventies, and I sensed something in them that closely resembled what I felt from this minister.  I think there must have been a lingering evangelical witness in parts of the United Church during their youth and they had caught something that carried on to the end of their lives.  There was also one younger couple who were born again during the time that our neighbour was ministering in the local United Church.

The years have gone by, the newly-converted young couple moved to a more evangelical church, the older true-hearted folks have passed on without passing their faith to their children.  The minister too died suddenly some years ago.  His wife was also our friend, but I don’t believe she ever shared his faith.

The United Church of Canada appears to be slowly dying.  One would be hard-pressed to find much trace of spiritual life among the adherents.  Neither is there much social advantage to be found anymore in attending the United Church.  Rural churches have been closing and consolidating for several generations.  Urban churches are declining in membership and beginning to ask for help to maintain their magnificent buildings.

Sadly, I am seeing the same kind of rot developing in churches that were once considered evangelical.  People are transferring from church to church in search of one that will be more spiritual than the last one.  Whole congregations are transferring from one denomination to another for the same reason.  What is the answer?

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