Flatlander Faith

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

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Book review – Without Proof by Janet Sketchley

Without Proof by Janet Sketchley

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


This book pushed all the right buttons to get me reading: cosy mystery; Christian; Canadian. Once I started, the suspense and deft pacing kept me going.

Amy Silver and her fiancé were in a plane crash that left him dead and her with a painful hip that is a constant reminder of what happened.

As it she needed reminders from her hip; the emotional wounds are far more painful and slow in healing. She has quit her bank job to live in the Nova Scotia home of her fiancé’s best friend and his aunt. She finds the work in Michael’s art studio a peaceful respite from the past (she looks after the business side). Michael’s aunt is warm and understanding, someone she can talk to when life is more than she can handle alone.

Then a reporter hints that the plane crash may not have been an accident. Mysterious, sometimes threatening, phone calls and messages come on her phone. Her father, whom she has never met, and thought she never wanted to meet, now wants to meet her. She believes that God wants nothing to do with her. She is falling in love with Michael, but feels he is pushing her away. Can life get any more complicated?

It does, and the ending is hair-raising. Of course, everything comes out right, but in ways that I didn’t see coming.

This book has it all, mystery, romance, a spiritual message woven in that is authentic without being preachy, all in a contemporary Canadian setting.

Available in e-pub or kindle format, from Kobo, Amazon and other e-book retailers.

More than one side to history

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My Grade 11 and 12 classroom had a library — a two shelf bookcase. I read all the books in that library, in class time, during those two years. One book was a history of an era we had recently studied in Social Studies, but gave a different version of that history than our textbook. That was when it dawned on me that history depends on the point of view of the one writing the story. The people and events may be the same, but the causes and results quite different. Not to mention the identities of the heroes and villains.

I also read historical novels, in which the English protagonists were noble, honest, kind and all round wonderful guys. Other people, especially if they were French, were portrayed as shifty-eyed, dishonest and cruel miscreants. Later in life I learned to read French and found that historical fiction in French was exactly the same as in English. Except that now the French were the noble, honest, kind and wonderful heroes and the English were double-dealing, arrogant, dishonest and pitiless villains. No doubt both the English and the French writers believed they had the facts on their side. Certainly, the French felt they had good and sufficient reason to refer to England as perfidious Albion.

I recall a Canadian federal-provincial conference of almost 50 years ago, a meeting of the heads of government of the provinces and the national government. Shortly before the meeting started an English-speaking reporter got a glimpse of a list brought by the Quebec delegation. He could not read the French-language list, but saw that the headings was Demandes. He began to hyperventilate and soon it was headline news all over English Canada that Quebec had come to the conference with a list of DEMANDS. A few cooler heads pointed out that in French demande means question, but the damage was done.

History is not only made by well-intentioned people defending what they believe to be noble principles. Bone-headed stupidity also plays a role. So does propaganda. During the first five years of Nazi rule in Germany, they carried on a pervasive propaganda campaign through books, movies and all media to depict the Jews as the cause of all that had ever gone wrong in Germany. By the time Hitler launched his final solution, a large part of the German population believed that the Jews had brought it on themselves.

An older brother spent several weeks in hospital. The man in the bed beside him was constantly complaining about the faults of his wife. Our brother told him, “You know George, there are three sides to your story. There is your side, there is your wife’s side, and then there is God’s side.”

How do we discern what is God’s side in current history? The first step is to cast aside all thoughts that God has a preferred nation in the world today. The time of an earthly kingdom of God came to an end 2,000 years ago. The only kingdom that is of interest to God today is His spiritual kingdom. As we consider political events today, in our own country or on the international scene, our question should not be which party or which country God favours, but how these events affect the spiritual kingdom.

Let us remember, above all, that our physical and financial well-being is not a prerequisite for the welfare of God’s spiritual kingdom.shutterstock_736401193

A renewed commitment to writing well

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Image by yogesh more from Pixabay

I have always thought of myself as a writer, one who would get serious about writing at some moment in the future. If reading is part of the training for becoming an effective writer , then I have been in training all my life. One cannot learn to write effectively without noting how and why some people’s writing catches your attention and draws you in; and how you mind wanders to other things when trying to read the words of others.

I feel that the moment to get serious about writing has come, and the place to start is to pull up the memoir of my faith journey and put it through the refining fire. If I were to publish it as it is now it would probably sell a couple hundred copies to people who know me or know a little bit about me. That’s nice, but the real test of writing is whether it is interesting to people who know nothing about me.

Here are some thoughts on writing well that I am putting down as an aide-memoire to myself. I hope others might find something here to consider.

1. Forget the Sergeant Joe Friday approach: “Just the facts ma’am, just the facts.” That may have been an effective police interview technique 70 years ago, but it doesn’t work in story writing. Not even when writing my own story. I know the story, I’ve lived it, I remember it because it had an impact on my life. How can I make it grab the attention of a reader who knows nothing about me and make him care about the outcome?

2. Don’t preach, don’t moralize, don’t explain. Let the story tell the story. Animal Farm by George Orwell and The Machine Stops by E.M. Forster are two short books by British authors that make us think about our relationships with others. They are not Christian books, they don’t spell out any moral instruction, yet the messages are powerful.

3. Use simple words. A word with a single syllable is more powerful than one with six. Two adjectives to a noun cancel each other. Most adjectives and adverbs do more harm than good.

4. Eliminate jargon: Christian jargon or anything that is only understood by a certain group of people. It’s OK to use a little in dialogue to paint a picture of the character, but go easy.

5. Master the language you are writing in. Don’t use a word unless you are 100% sure of its meaning.

6. Respect the people you write about, whether real or fictional. Some of the people who appear in my memoir have made deplorable choices. That’s real life. People make choices that lead to unfortunate consequences and most don’t find their way home. That doesn’t mean they are stupid, or evil.

Unmoved by empathy

Empathy was foisted upon us 60 years ago as a more egalitarian substitute for sympathy. I suppose I’ve always had an analytical mind, sometimes that’s just an excuse for inaction. But I never believed this new word offered anything useful.

I have been part of a small minority. The majority has come to believe that what the world needs is more empathy. In recent years this has even crept into Christian thinking and Christian literature.

Empathy is the idea that we need to feel the pain and pleasure of others. But how does it help someone to tell him “I feel your pain”? How does it help me to be able to make myself feel the pain that others are going through?

Paul Bloom, a New York psychologist and researcher at Yale University, believes that empathy is a self-centred emotion and does more harm than good. In 2016 he published Against Empathy*, in which he argues that compassion is a far healthier and more useful response to the pain and suffering of others.

To put it as simply as possible, Bloom argues that when I feel empathy for your suffering it makes me feel very bad, but does not move me to do anything to help you. Compassion, on the other hand, causes me to do something to help you, rather than trying to analyse my own feelings. Bloom says that empathy can cause us to become overloaded with painful feelings and separate us from the ones who are suffering.

Compassion is a word that we often encounter in the Bible. Jesus demonstrated compassion for all those in sorrow and distress. In the parable of the good Samaritan, the priest and the Levite may well have felt empathy for the poor man lying by the side of the road. But contact with blood, or with someone who was possibly dead, would have rendered them unclean for service in the temple. So they avoided looking too closely at the injured man. The Samaritan was moved by compassion and went ahead and did what he was able to do to help the man. Jesus closed the parable by telling the Pharisee “Go and do thou likewise.”

That message is meant for all of us. Let’s discard this newfangled empathy which leads to a preoccupation with our own feelings. May we rather allow ourselves to be moved to action by compassion.

Against Empathy: The case for rational compassion, by Paul Bloom, © 2016, published by The Bodley Head, London

The old path is narrow

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Image by Jan Alexander from Pixabay

Jeremiah 6:16 Thus saith the LORD, Stand ye in the ways, and see, and ask for the old paths, where is the good way, and walk therein, and ye shall find rest for your souls. But they said, We will not walk therein.

I am – Christian, born-again, evangelical, Anabaptist, Mennonite – all those terms can be used to describe my faith in Jesus Christ. Yet, so many people of our time have only a fuzzy notion of what those terms mean.

We have arrived at a decisive moment in history, and most people have no notion of how we got here or where we should go from here. We are not at a crossroads; there are multiple roads leading on from here, each one promising to bring us to paradise – some kind of paradise. How can we know which is the good way?

Menno Simons listed six signs of the true way: unadulterated, pure doctrine; scriptural practice of baptism and the Lord’s Supper (baptism only of those truly born again, not observing the Lord’s Supper when there is conflict and lack of unity in a congregation); obedience to the Word; unfeigned brotherly love; open confession of God and Christ; oppression and hatred for the sake of the Word of the Lord. Times may have changed, but those signs are as valid now as they were 450 years ago.

Unfortunately, we sometimes pick up teachings from the other paths that sound pious and good. Here are some ideas that don’t belong on the old pathway:

– The world was in much better shape when it was run by Christians.
There never was such a time; if we think there was we are averting our eyes from the dark underside of those supposed Christians.

– There is a lifestyle that is synonymous with Christian faith.
Such a lifestyle does not necessarily indicate spiritual life. The Bible teaches purity, modesty, honesty, etc., but we can deceive ourselves by adopting an outward show of those things and we can be mistaken in our judgment of others if we look only at the outward form.

– The people around us are not interested in our faith.
Are we sure it’s not the other way around: we’re not interested in talking to others about our faith?

– People from other ethnic groups are not compatible with the true faith.
Perhaps our attachment to our own ethnic group is not compatible with living a genuine Christian faith.

– People who live in rural areas have much higher moral standards than those who live in cities.
Street missions in our cities report that the majority of prostitutes are girls who were sexually abused in rural areas, and the majority of their clientele comes from rural areas and small towns.

– The death and suffering of our country’s soldiers on foreign battlefields are no concern of ours. We are a separate people and do not participate in war.
This aloof, holier than thou attitude will come back to bite us some day. If we care nothing for the grief and suffering of our neighbours, why should they care when persecution comes upon us?

– Our faith is a heritage from our parents and ancestors.
Our Christian heritage comes from God alone.

The voice of God

Early in my Christian life I obtained some literature that gave an intellectually logical explanation of the atonement. The theme was that Jesus had suffered punishment in hell equivalent to the eternal torment of every soul that would ever be saved. Therefore there was no way that a saved soul need ever fear hell, because his penalty had already been fully paid. On the other hand, there was no hope for those for whom Jesus had not borne the eternal punishment.

This is just the briefest of summaries of what I read, the subject was expounded at considerable length with selected Scriptures that seemed to support the view of the writers. I considered this explanation for some time. It was a watertight argument, intellectually precise with no loose ends that I could find. Yet in this mathematical precision I could find no means for a person to know in which camp he was; was he predestined to salvation or to damnation? Was it possible to know?

Finally, in the turmoil of these questions, I knelt to pray, asking God to give me an understanding of how the death of Jesus made it possible for God to forgive the sins of mankind. The response was immediate – it was silent but unmistakably from God: “You don’t need to understand.”

I was disappointed for a moment, then realized that the turmoil was gone – my mind was at rest.  I had been seeking an understanding of the mechanism of the atonement that would be intellectually satisfying and set my mind at rest. I realized now that it is not possible for that kind of understanding to bring rest and peace. Yet it only took five words from the voice of God to do that.

To know that God was aware of my turmoil, that He was waiting for my prayer, that He had answered in a way that addressed my real need, was of more value than any intellectual understanding could ever have been.

A time of testing

Now these are the nations which the LORD left, to prove Israel by them, even as many of Israel as had not known all the wars of Canaan; only that the generations of the children of Israel might know, to teach them war, at the least such as before knew nothing thereof; namely, five lords of the Philistines, and all the Canaanites, and the Sidonians, and the Hivites that dwelt in mount Lebanon, from mount Baalhermon unto the entering in of Hamath. And they were to prove Israel by them, to know whether they would hearken unto the commandments of the LORD, which he commanded their fathers by the hand of Moses. (Judges 3:1-4)

This has been the situation of Christians from the time of the apostles till today. We are living in enemy territory, there is spiritual warfare being waged against us every day.

Yet we are comfortable here, we see no danger. The LORD wants to teach us war; is it too late for us to learn? Do we know who our enemies are? Perhaps we are too much aware of those who are corrupt, dishonest, immoral, teachers of deception. Taking all such people out of the way would not solve the ills of this world. They are tools of the enemy and he would find others to do his bidding.

Is it possible that we can live moral and upright lives, praise God with our lips and at the same time the desires of our heart and the thoughts of our mind can be patterned after the world?

Here are a few things the Bible speaks of that may indicate whether we have identified the real enemy. Do we:

  • Suppose that gain is godliness?
  • Respect the rich and despise the poor?
  • Feel discontent with what we have?
  • Speak evil of others?
  • Find it difficult to speak of our relationship with the Saviour?
  • Have compassion for those who are weak in the faith?
  • Speak disrespectfully of people in authority?
  • Look down on people of different language, culture or skin colour?
  • Attribute our salvation to the faith of our parents?
  • Judge a person’s faith by his lifestyle?

Our enemy has no problem with people who are Bible-reading, church-going Christians, as long as they don’t get enthused about it. We can know and live by to all the principles and guidelines of the Christian faith, as long as we are comfortable being passive Christians. As soon as we become active he becomes alarmed and tries to sidetrack us or discourage us.

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.

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.”

What is needed to have a healthy congregation?

Blaise Pascal wrote; “The heart of man is so deceitful that as soon as he begins to think about getting converted, he believes he is.” A congregation largely made up of people like that will never prosper spiritually. So the starting point for a healthy congregation is that it must be made up of people who really are converted.

Is that all it takes? Let’s be honest, we are at best flawed and selfish creatures, each with out own blueprint of what a congregation should be. It as inevitable that even among spiritual people there will be frictions and differences of vision. We need to accept that and not expect that a church will be made up of people who are flawless. Not here on earth.

Another essential element in a real life congregation of real people is that there must be one or more members who do not soon get excited about differences, but who quietly work to help people lay aside their differences and work together for the honour of God.

Not a dynamic leader who has all the answers and expects others to fall in line and follow him. That eventually leads to shipwreck. I mean someone who can listen, discern where the shoe pinches and help members make the small adjustments that will ease the pain so that all can turn their attention to God and away from themselves.

Every congregation needs to have its peacemakers, because it is certain that things will arise to disturb the peace. Another name for such a person is a rassembleur. He is that special kind of leader who helps people all arrive at the same conviction without feeling that it has been imposed on them by someone else.

If there is no rassembleur in a congregation, that lack will be obvious. Little misunderstandings will not be resolved and will grow into major problems. If there is one or more in a congregation, things work smoothly and others are hardly aware of what the rassembleurs are doing.

(I have chosen to use a French word here, for lack of a good English equivalent. Rassembleur means a person who is able to inspire others to work together toward a common goal. The best English translation would be uniter, but it does not describe all that is meant by rassembleur. Besides, uniter is not a word we are accustomed to hearing in English, whereas rassembleur is a very common word in French.)

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