Antiquarian Anabaptist

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

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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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Friendship

When Jesus therefore saw her weeping, and the Jews also weeping which came with her, he groaned in the spirit, and was troubled, And said, Where have ye laid him? They said unto him, Lord, come and see. Jesus wept. Then said the Jews, Behold how he loved him! (John 11:33-36).

I have at times wondered about the accounts of the close friendship Jesus had with Lazarus, Mary and Martha. The gospel accounts make it clear that there was a special connection here and He loved to visit their home. What do we think about the preference that He seemed to show for the company of Lazarus and his sisters?coffee-367887_640

Then again, what would we think of Jesus if He had no close friends? What if He had gone about treating everyone with the same kindness and respect, yet never allowing Himself to get too closely attached to anyone? What if He had never been moved to tears by the sorrow of close friends?

In everything Jesus is our example. If we belong to a congregation of believers, they should all be our friends. Yet it is completely normal, and highly desirable, that we should form closer bonds with a few. These close friendships should not be limited to our own kinfolk either. There will be those whose nature and interests naturally draw us together. These close bonds of friendship should not ever be the source of divisions in the body, they should rather bind us more closely to the whole body. Our closest friends may also feel close to someone with whom we might other wise not have been able to develop much rapport, but our mutual ties will draw us together.

It would also be entirely normal to have friends outside the bounds of our Christian fellowship. They may be unsaved family members, work associates, people with common interests. We should be just as much Christians when with them as when with our Christian friends. Not that we should browbeat them with the gospel or constantly remind them of shortcomings in their lives. Those could be quite effective means of ending the friendship. But if they never have questions about our faith, perhaps we are trying to hard to be like them.

A man that hath friends must shew himself friendly  (Proverbs 18:24). When we show a genuine interest in other people’s lives, they are more apt to be interested in what makes us tick. That is the basis for forming true friendships and also the basis upon which those friendships can become a setting for heart to heart sharing of spiritual concerns, trials and victories.

Self Help or Helping Others?

In my younger years, before I was a Christian, I read most of the well-known self-help books on the market. I was disappointed with the whole lot of them.

In The Power of Positive Thinking, Norman Vincent Peale took a verse from the Bible and told me to recite it over and over, much like a Hindu mantra, and promised that would put me in touch with a powerful inner force that would transform my life. I found a Bible, looked up the verse and found that the Reverend Mr. Peale was twisting the verse to mean something very different from what the Apostle intended.

Then there was Napoleon Hill’s book Think and Grow Rich. I have been thinking for seventy-two years now, when do I get to the growing rich part? Seriously, even as a non Christian, it felt to me that something was out of kilter with the thinking promoted in this book and others like it. The basic theme was how to manipulate other people for my own advantage.

Many books and training courses are offered to teach me how to get along with the difficult people in my life, at home, at work and at church. What I really need is a book to teach me how to avoid being that difficult person.

Um . . . yes, I guess that book has already been written — a long, long time ago.

The Bible is not a self-help book or a manual of best business practices. Its central theme is the reality of the sin problem and God’s desire to reconcile sinners to Himself. The Bible teaches me that I am not the most important person in any group of people, not even a group of two! I have been called to serve, not to be served. Our children do not need to be taught self-esteem; they have quite enough of it to start with. We need to teach them that happiness comes from helping others.

When we lived in Montréal, I often took note of a sign on the wall of a passageway in the metro system that said: “Be the most enthusiastic person that you know.” That thought has percolated in my mind for years. Most everybody will show enthusiasm if you get them onto the right topic. So . . . do I really want to outdo everyone else in enthusiasm when I talk about my work, my hobbies, my yard, my grandchildren? I don’t believe anybody else wants me to do that either.

I don’t know what was going through the mind of the person who made that statement, but finally, the thought that goes through my mind is that the best way to be known as an enthusiastic person is to be enthusiastic in encouraging others.

The couple that prays together . . .

I was looking over the latest issue of Christianisme aujourd’hui today via the internet and came across a marvellous article by Nancy Decorvet on the subject of why so many Christians divorce. Chrisitanisme aujourd’hui is published in France, the name translates to Christianity Today, but it has no affiliation with the US magazine of that name.

Mme. Decorvet lists ten reasons why the marriages of Christians break up. All of them are worth repeating, but I will only mention the first one in this post – neglect of family worship. That struck a chord with me. I began to think of all the Christian couples I have known who have broken up, those who have continued to live together under the same roof in a strained and distant relationship, and those who have abandoned all attempts to appear Christian, either together or separately. Each of those couples abandoned family worship as soon as they had problems in their relationships.

I grew up in a home where Bible reading and prayer were a fixture of every day. My wife grew up in a home where the Bible was never read, prayers never made. Yet she was the one who insisted right from the start that we should have a daily time of family worship, and that I should take the lead. I was reluctant, because I felt my father’s self-righteous example was one I did not wish to follow.

Looking back, I believe my father was searching for something that he never quite got a grip on. That made him frustrated and the frustration made him inflexible, trying to hold on to that part that he believed he did have. So that was not a good example of how to have family worship.

I guess you could say that my wife and I both came from dysfunctional homes, and our home has been dysfunctional at times, too. Family worship has been a time to let God speak to us through His Word, and for us to speak to God about our needs and problems and to pray for the needs and struggles of others. Little by little, we have learned to trust that God will have a way for us and that He will show us His way if we stop struggling to uphold our own opinions.

This time spent in family worship is the cornerstone of a solid family relationship. Families are the building blocks of the church; if the family begins to disintegrate, how can the church stand?

Yet not everyone in the church is part of a family unit. Consequently, we need to feel that we are all one family and be aware of the spiritual needs of each other. The times when we have been in a home in the evening and before we left the hosts brought out the Bible and we spent a few moments in Bible reading and prayer have been times of spiritual refreshing.

Love means saying I’m sorry

Have you ever observed someone who, in the heat of the moment made a harsh, cutting remark, or even exploded in anger, then felt bad about it but could not bring himself or herself to apologize? I’m sure you have, unless your whole life has been spent alone on an island.

I once knew a man whose childhood had been absolutely miserable, with multiple experiences of rejection and abuse. He became a Christian, but deep inside there was a determination to never let himself be hurt again. If there was ever a hint that someone was not treating him with respect he would explode with angry words. It would soon be obvious that he regretted those words, but he could not bring himself to say “I’m sorry.”

Such people have a fear that they will somehow diminish themselves if they admit to having done something wrong. Doesn’t our respect for that person become less and less the more we observe his or her explosions? It takes a big person to admit he or she has done wrong and say “I’m sorry.”

The brother I mentioned was causing himself as much hurt as anyone else had ever done. He really was a soft-hearted man who cared deeply about other people. However, his explosive temper made it difficult to maintain lasting relationships. He lived on a roller coaster of emotions. After an outburst he would not want to face the other person for a time. Eventually the feeling of shame would fade and he would again be able to visit as if nothing had happened.

My father would explode in anger whenever something went wrong. I don’t think anyone outside the immediate family knew about this side of him. I followed my father’s example and like him it was those I loved most who were exposed to my outbursts.

I repented often of my anger, but found that prayer alone did not really change anything. There was something I had to do, and that was to go to the one I had hurt and say “I’m sorry.” There was a power in saying those words, and meaning them, which began to act as a brake on my impulses to lash out.

A sincere apology does not diminish our respect for the one who apologizes. We all know he has blown his cool and appreciate it when he admits his fault and tries to make amends. The person who can humbly and forthrightly deal with his mistakes becomes a much bigger person in our eyes than the one who has never admitted making a mistake.

Someone once asked me about a visitor with whom I was acquainted. I told everything I knew. Later that day I felt I needed to go back and say that I believed I had spoken the truth, but most of what I said should have been left unsaid. Gossip can be just as hurtful as anger.

James 5:16 tells us to confess our faults one to another. This does not mean that we should make a point of confessing every little slip of the tongue if no malice was intended and no harm done. Nor do we need to invent something to confess; most of us don’t need to do that, anyway. A heartfelt apology is a soothing balm, healing wounds and deepening our relationships.

Thoughtless generosity

The rain began July 19, 1996 over the semi-mountainous terrain surrounding the Kenogami basin in Québec and continued for three days, dropping enough water to fill the Kenogami reservoir one and a half times.  Unfortunately, it was nearly full to begin with.  Torrents of water flowed over the dam and into the cities of Chicoutimi and La Baie.  Homes and businesses were washed out into the bay, two children died when a mudslide buried them in their downstairs bedroom, 14,000 people were evacuated to the homes of relatives or to temporary shelters.

People across Canada donated food and containers of used clothing and trucking companies delivered them free of charge.  I was in La Baie for a few days and saw the results.  People here are not poor.  There are good paying jobs in the aluminum smelters, forest products plants and the Canadian Forces air base.  Bottled water and food items were welcome and quickly distributed.  But, Oh, the clothing!  It appeared that people had gathered up their worn out clothes and sent them to La Baie.  A theatre was used as a triage centre and the sorting operation provided a diversion from the devastation outside.  I doubt if any of the clothing was ever used in the area, except perhaps as rags.  The crowning moment came when some ladies called my attention to a dozen brand-new ladies shoes they had unearthed from a container — all for the left foot!  Their mates never did show up.  Some kind hearted folks even sent Bibles — English Bibles.  This is a French-speaking area and few people can read English.

The local people were more amused than offended by this strange generosity.  But I began to wonder how much good is really done by our charitable donations.

There are 85,600 registered charities in Canada.  Some lose their charitable status each year because of irregularities, usually because the funds collected were used for personal purposes. Some more sinister operations have been uncovered, such as the financing of terrorist activities in other countries.

The average charity spends 33% of its total income on fund raising activities and another 8% on administration.  Doesn’t it warm your heart to know that 40% of the money you donate to a charity is going to pay the salary of the person who made that annoying phone call requesting the donation?

The Canadian Cancer Society spends large amounts of money advocating for the reduction, or elimination, of pesticide use.  Yet its website states that there is no proven link between pesticide use and cancer.  Do they feel that well publicized anti pesticide advocacy brings in more funds from alarmed citizens?

The Canadian Diabetes Association gets a large part of its income from collecting used clothing and selling it to Value Village (which is a business, not a charitable organization).  At least that clothing remains in Canada.

These charities are doing useful work that probably wouldn’t happen otherwise.  When it comes to international relief organizations there is cause for a lot more skepticism.

In Toronto there is serious competition in gathering used clothing.  Much of it is sold to distributors in third world countries, who resell the clothes below the price of locally made clothes, causing the loss of thousands of jobs.  All the companies putting up used clothing bins in Toronto claim that the proceeds are going to charity, but the amount going to charity is very small.  Drivers picking up used clothing from the bins can make up to $100,000.00 per year.

James Mikwati of Kenya says: “For God’s sake, please stop the aid!”  He says the countries that have received the most aid are the ones in the worst shape.  Economist Dambisa Moyo of Zambia has written a book, “Dead Aid: Why Aid is Not Working and How There’s A Better Way for Africa” in which she argues that long term aid programs undermine African agriculture, business and governments.  One little example is an African maker of mosquito nets that was put out of business because some Hollywood star issued a plea to send mosquito nets to Africa.

In an article in The East African Rasna Warah tells how governments come to depend on food aid and neglect agricultural policy.  This creates an artificial economy based on the distribution of food aid.  Much money flows to government officials to grease the wheels of the distribution system and to local militias to protect the convoys.

Faith-based organizations like World Vision and Compassion are using donors’ money in efficient and effective ways with the least detrimental side effects.

The Church of God in Christ, Mennonite,  to which I belong, does low-profile, small-scale aid projects in thirty countries through Christian Service International and Humanitarian Services International (for countries that will not allow an organization with Christian in its name to operate in their country).  Fund-raising costs: 0.  Administration costs: 1%.  There are thousands of broken down wells all over Africa.  Teams are at work in several countries repairing those wells, and teaching the local people how to maintain them.  There are sanitation projects in rural communities, supplies and equipment is provided to hospitals, eye and harelip surgeries are funded, and so on.  The goal is that these projects will empower the local people, rather than make them dependent on aid.

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