Flatlander Faith

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

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Another blind lady

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Rose Goodenough, widow of my cousin Ron, has written the history of her family and the community at Barrier Ford, Saskatchewan. Her parents were born in England, to families who lived comfortably, but were not wealthy. They thought to better their lot by coming to the Canadian prairies where free land was being offered.

Rose’s father, Fred Ham, was born in Devonshire in the 1880’s. He had rheumatic fever as a child, which damaged his heart. His parents were told that he would never be able to do heavy work. Nevertheless, he and his brothers came to Canada in 1910. Fred filed on a homestead at Barrier Ford in 1911 and worked hard all his life trying to make a living from the rocky soil in the bush country.

Eva Brown was born in London in 1890 with no vision in one eye and limited vision in the other. She received most of her education in a residential school for the blind, where she learned how to read and write with the braille system. She also learned to type, to weave and many other useful skills. Her mother, then a widow with two daughters, came to Canada in 1913.

In 1915 Fred and Eva married and this unlikely couple made a hard scrabble living, raised two children and came to love the country. By the time she married, Eva had 10% vision in one eye. Yet she managed to cook, sew, care for the two children and even milk their two cows.

I got to know Eva Ham in my childhood when we lived at Craik, Saskatchewan. Ron & Rose owned a grocery store and lived above the store. Rose’s Mom lived with them, having a couple of rooms of her own, including space for her loom. She was a sweet lady and got along well with my mother. I watched her read braille, write letters with a little frame and a punch to make the dots. I saw some of the letters she typed. Completely blind by that time, she said she could tell the difference between a window and a wall, she made very few mistakes when typing.

In 1954 she wrote an autobiographical sketch for a magazine for the blind. Here are a few excepts:

“I was almost eleven when I started to learn braille. Our teacher, a graduate of the Royal Normal College, was one of the finest Christian women I have ever known and had a lasting influence on us all. I had been rather spoiled at home and was not a ‘nice little girl.’ I remember my teacher calling me to her during the recess and kindly pointing out some of my shortcomings.”

After arriving in Saskatchewan: “Like all the English in those days, I had the notion there were no people as cultured as my countrymen. I felt myself superior to the neighbours who visited my uncle and I made up my mind to go home at the very first opportunity.”

Many years later: “Living in a mixed community, constantly coming into contact with people of different nationalities and creeds, has taught me that there are others just as cultivated as the English. I have learned to appreciate the views of different races and to acknowledge my own shortcomings. In my contacts with people I have found blindness to be an inconvenience and a handicap. Combined with deafness it is more serious – it is a double handicap. But even this double handicap can be overcome through developing patience and a good sense of humour, and through friendly co-operation with the many seeing and hearing friends who are always ready to lend a helping hand.”

Two way communication

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God has spoken once, His words are written in the holy book and it is the whole duty of man to obey all that is taught in the holy book. Religious leaders help to understand parts of the holy book that may not be clear, but God does not speak to people today.

The religion which believes that is called Islam. There are more than a billion devout followers of this religion.

Christianity also teaches that God has spoken in the past and His words are collected in a holy book called the Bible. But Christianity teaches something more than that: God speaks to people today by His Holy Spirit and by His church. There is full agreement in what God says by these three means.

If there is discord in what we are hearing, we need to search for the problem. Perhaps we have been taught an interpretation of parts of the Bible and the Holy Spirit is saying something that does not fit with what we have been taught. Is the problem with the interpretation we have been taught, or are we listening to a spirit that is not the Holy Spirit?

Perhaps the church to which we belong is teaching something that doesn’t seem to agree with what we read in the Bible or what the Holy Spirit is telling us. We need to be very careful to not become one who believes that he alone has the correct understanding of truth. But when it is clear that the church to which we belong is faithful to neither the Spirit nor the Bible, it is time to search for a church that is.

If we find the Bible difficult to understand, the best answer may not be to look for a Bible that is easier to understand. The best way to increase our understanding of the Bible is to be obedient to the parts that we do understand.

Prayer should not be a one way conversation. God wants us to talk to Him; He also wants to speak to us. If we are hearing nothing, we should search our hearts to see if we have obeyed the instructions He has given us in the past.

To be in full communion with God, we must be obedient to the things He says to us, whether through the Bible, the church or the Holy Spirit. This connection with God will also connect us with other true believers. This is not a man-made unity, which is fragile, but the unity of the family of God, founded on the bedrock of God’s truth.

Desperately wicked

Try to put yourself in the position of a slave owner in the antebellum south. a slave owner whose livelihood and position in society hinged on your ability to get the maximum amount of work out of your slaves at a minimum cost. You considered yourself to be a Christian, but, like everyone around you, you believed that these black-skinned creatures who worked in your fields were more like domestic livestock than human beings. Some even said that they had no souls. Therefore you were justified in driving them to work harder, whipping them if they could not or would not work, killing them if they rebelled or tried to escape. Could you be that person?

Or could you be a guard in a Nazi death camp? For years you have been bombarded with information in the media, in movies, in schools, books and pamphlets that revealed how Jews were the cause of all that had ever gone wrong in Germany. The future of Germany depended on ridding itself of such degraded people. Could you order them to do meaningless, repetitive tasks, beat them when they stumbled under the load, herd them into the gas ovens?

Maybe you could have been a member of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge. The future of Cambodia depended on it becoming an egalitarian agricultural society. Could you have herded people out of the cities, young and old, men and women, healthy or sick, and forced them to march for days into the jungle, caring nothing for those who perished along the way?

The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it? (Jeremiah 17:9). Do we know the depravity of our heart? The people I have described were no different than you and me. Under the same circumstances we would have been capable of doing the same things, with never a twinge of conscience.

We would like to think otherwise, to think that we are better than that. We are not. Those were intelligent, civilized people, capable of showing much kindness in other areas of their life. But their hearts deceived them into believing that some people were not worthy of kindness, respect or compassion.

We are all good people until we are put to the test. The only thing that will make the outcome different when we are tested is to listen to the gentle prompts of the Holy Spirit of God.

The dark side of the Protestant work ethic

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In 1905 German sociologist published what many called the most important sociological work of the 20th century: Die protestantische Ethik und der Geist des Kapitalismus. The book was later translated into English and published in 1930 as: The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.

His thesis was that because of the teaching of predestination, that one’s eternal destiny was determined before he was born, Protestants, especially Calvinists, were left with no clue as to their personal salvation. Protestantism also taught the deification of all productive work. Therefore the idea arose that material success, due to diligence on one’s work, was evidence of salvation. And this became the foundation for the rise of capitalism.

This is not the place to discuss whether Weber was right or wrong in his thesis. I mention it only to point out that the concept of a Protestant work ethic is drawn from this book by Weber.

Neither do I want to be understood as denying Christian values of honesty, integrity, responsibility and the value of a job well done. But I believe we can uphold those values without labelling them a “work ethic”.

For there is a dark side to the Protestant work ethic. It is that a human being is valued by his productive capacity, or in other terms, his earning capacity. For money so easily becomes the yardstick by which to measure a person’s work ethic. It is assumed that those who are poor are that way because they lack a work ethic. Work such as Bible study, the reading of good books, writing, etc., should be kept to a bare minimum, as they are a distraction from a person’s true purpose in life.

Where are the older men and the older women that the New Testament tells to instruct the younger ones? Too many of them are still pretending to be young. Why is being young at heart valued more than the wisdom of old age? Isn’t it because people have spent a lifetime striving to live up to the material values that they believed were expected of them and don’t believe they have acquired much spiritual wisdom that the younger generation wants to hear?

I’m not so sure the younger generation is so closed to learning spiritual lessons from their elders. But let them be genuine spiritual lessons, not just “this is the way we used to do things.”

I acknowledge that most Christians who talk of a work ethic don’t think of all the baggage that may be attached to the term in our society. I feel, however, that it does carry too much baggage in the minds of others and we might be better off to lay it aside. Work ethic is not a term found in the Bible and we do have clear instructions in that book about the values relating to work and material things that Christians should uphold.

Only an empty box

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Agnes grew up 100 years ago on a farm in southwestern Saskatchewan. Her parents were members of a church which called itself Mennonite and worshipped in the German language. At home the family spoke a Low German dialect called Plautdietsch, and English.  There were 14 children in the family, spaced about two years apart. Agnes was number six.

The church claimed to hold to the original Mennonite faith. In her teens Agnes memorized a summary of the teachings of that faith, a German catechism which dated from 1792 and the bishop baptized her. She was the only one in her baptismal class to memorize the whole catechism, yet they were all baptized. The catechism said that they needed to be born again to become Christians and eligible for church membership, but the bishop said nothing of that.

Agnes was the last child in the family to learn German. As time went on, she realized the church had nothing for her younger siblings. Really, it had nothing for her. The catechism told of a faith that had once been, might yet be in some other place, but had died in this church. All that remained were traditions that could only be taught in the German language.

The church was like a box with ornate German lettering claiming to be the faithful remnant of the ancient Mennonite faith. But when Agnes had opened the box, she found it empty. So she threw it away. She remembered what the catechism said about Christian life, but did not found that life in the box.

Agnes was my mother; I am my mother’s son. That is why I have never found the “Mennonite culture” to be attractive. I didn’t want the box, I wanted to find the faith. In my adult years I searched for a place where the ancient Mennonite faith was still a living thing, not just words in the ai in a language I couldn’t understand. And I found it.

Note to myself

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I believe I know something that others should want to know, but telling is not a good way to get their attention.

What does he/she want to know? Why? What are the barriers to even considering the spiritual aspect of life? How do I help someone become interested in something he/she believes has no importance?

In writing, don’t insult the intelligence of the readers. They believe they have good and sufficient reasons for the way they believe. I have been where they are. What changed my way of seeing things? What made me want to see if I was missing something?

How can I take the reader along on that journey? What caught my interest, made me want to keep looking? When did doubts about the things I had always believed to be true begin to creep in? When did those doubts become stronger than my original beliefs?

What was the turning point, the climax of doubt, the need to find an answer?

It does not work to give someone the answer to a question that has never come to his mind. It didn’t work that way for me, why should I expect it to work with someone else? Sharing the gospel is not a matter of giving pat answers, but of asking questions–questions that will make others begin to ask their own questions.

Consequences of a false gospel

Several weeks ago I wrote about the effect on education of René Descartes’ belief in the ability of the human mind to discover all truth through the exercise of reason. That belief has worked its way into every aspect of Western civilization. It is found in our media, our social institutions, our ideas about business, religion and politics.

I may as well come right out and say it – There are times when it appears to me that Donald Trump is the only sane political leader in North America. Everyone else is so caught up in trimming their sails to catch the latest wind of political correctness that they have no idea where those winds are coming from or towards what destination they are being driven.

This was a gradual development, but the point where it hit mainstream North American culture began with Walter Rauschenbusch and Charles Sheldon. Rauschenbusch was a Baptist minister who came to believe that sin was not a personal matter but something rooted in society. He coined the term “social gospel” around 1892, teaching and writing extensively on the subject. He taught that there was no such thing as a sin against God, all sins are against our fellow humans. In fact, he ceased to believe that God was a real Being. He was just a social construct, created in men’s minds to give some coherence to their beliefs.

Rauschenbusch saw private ownership of business as the great sin and the root of all evil. He went as far as to describe a privately owned business as an “unsaved” business and a collectively owned business, either by government or a co-operative, as a “saved” business.

Sheldon’s book, In His Steps, appeared in 1896. I have read it four times from cover to cover, searching for some trace of the Christian theme that many profess to find in it, and came up empty every time. There is Christian window dressing, but that’s all it is. The characters in the book read the Bible, but find nothing to guide their actions; they pray, but receive no guidance; they are moved to tears by hymns, but hear nothing to move them to action. It’s all just camouflage. The answers come when people ask themselves “What would Jesus do?” and answer by their own power of reason. This is following René Descartes, not Jesus Christ. Once again, the real culprit is privately owned business; salvation comes to Raymond when the owner of the daily newspaper decides to turn the business into an employee-owned co-operative.

Sheldon described himself as a Christian socialist. That is revealing. The Christian label was only camouflage to introduce socialist ideas to a North American populace that was largely composed of church-going people.

Thanks to Rauschenbusch and Sheldon, Marxist economic theories and the concept of class struggle took root in many of the largest denominations. Those denominations then moved into social activism, urging governments to set to right social injustices. The list of social injustices grows ever longer and the pressure on governments to fix things ever stronger.

Many major US foundations, now in the hands of Marxist administrators, are funnelling money into Canadian protest movements. Many movements are ostensibly grassroots indigenous protesters, but the money and the tactics are coming from US foundations. The money is channelled through a tangle of entities in an attempt to camouflage its source. But they are becoming bolder, to the point of openly declaring their aim to shut down Canada. Why? I suppose because Canada is seen as a soft target, the low hanging fruit. If they would succeed in imposing their collectivist Marxist principles in Canada, they would move on to target the USA.

Actually, they have already made great headway in the USA. Make no mistake about it, the protest movements, whether their stated aim is to stop climate change, save the animals, create equal rights or better access to health care, do not care for individual people, these are only ruses to impose a collectivist agenda.

What is the best response of Christians to these dangers? Lets go back to being Christians, followers of Jesus Christ. It is not for us to reform society. The history I have briefly sketched shows what happens when Christians take that detour.

When I hear those who profess to be Christian expressing indignation, vituperation or even hatred, for or against Donald Trump, for or against the various protest movements, it raises questions. How well do they understand what it means to be a Christian? Are they truly following the leading of the Holy Spirit?

It may seem folly to say that Christians should have a peaceful attitude toward everyone, but that is what the Bible says. If Christians had done that 100 years ago, would we be in this mess today?

All Christians are hypocrites

□ True
□ False

I think we have to check the true box on this one. Let’s be clear though, that we are not hypocrites because we are Christian, we are hypocrites because we are human. The desire to appear to be better than we are is endemic in humanity.

Becoming a Christian makes us aware of that fact, but we are very prone to forget. Perhaps we should write it in red lipstick upon every mirror in our home: “We are not better than other people.”

Would that help? Perhaps at first, then we would probably forget again. Oh, we would see it there and nod our heads in agreement. But, human nature being as it is, our thinking would gradually shift to believing that it applies to other people that we know, not so much to us.

The one thing that should make a difference between people who are Christian and those who are not, is the Holy Spirit in our lives. When I think back to the time before I was converted, I really and truly believed that I was doing the best that I could, under the circumstances. That is how we are made, and it is probably best for our mental health to think that way–as long as we know of no remedy for the all things in our life that we have messed up.

But there came a day when the Holy Spirit spoke to me and told me I could not blame people and circumstances for all the things that I had messed up in my life. I had done them and I needed to own up to them. That condemnation was easier to accept by the invitation that came with it. If I would confess my sins to God, He would forgive them. I did, and He did.

My Christian life began at that point, when all my past sins were taken away. But that is only the beginning.  I did not suddenly become a “good” person, incapable of making the same mistakes that I had made in the past. The only difference was that now I had the Holy Spirit to warn me when I was about to sin. If I ignored Him, He would then prompt me to go back and clean up the mess I had made.

That should be the obvious difference between a person who is a Christian and one who is not. Both will make mistakes, do and say things they shouldn’t, often things that hurt other people. The Christian should admit his fault, apologize and try to make things right. And it should not seem in any way forced or artificial.

Restitution is difficult. It is often difficult to admit what I have done, apologize, and do the best I can to undo the damage that was done. But the more I will do that, the easier it becomes for me to hear and obey the warning voice of the Holy Spirit before I do such a thing the next time. It is when a Christian repeatedly quenches the warning voice of the Holy Spirit that he comes to appear more and more like a hypocrite.

© Bob Goodnough, January 05, 2020

Winsomeness

More than 350 years ago, Blaise Pascal described what he hoped to achieve with his writing this way:

People despise Christian faith. They hate it and are afraid that it may be true.  The solution for this is to show them, first of all, that it is not unreasonable, that it is worthy of  reverence and respect. Then show that it is winsome, making good men desire that it were true. Then show them that it really is true. It is worthy of reverence because it really understands the human condition. It is also attractive because it promises true goodness.
-Blaise Pascal, Les Pensées

I have often read this passage, given mental assent to it, desired that the things I write could be winsome and attractive. Yet it dawns on me now how far I fall short of achieving that goal.

I don’t do New Year resolutions. I tried years ago. They were largely futile attempts to make me feel better about myself with minimal effort. I took comfort in having noble aspirations, then promptly forgot them. Real change is only possible by taking an honest look at the not so noble part of my character.

Pascal used the word aimable in French. The above English version translates aimable by winsome in one place and attractive in the other. Apologetics, giving an answer for the hope that lieth within me, is only effective if it makes that hope winsome and attractive.

Giving an answer that carries the slightest whiff of self-righteousness or arrogance renders that answer unattractive.  Truth is important, right doctrine is necessary, yet if truth and right doctrine seem repugnant to the reader, I am an abject failure.

Effective apologetics then must be the putting Christian faith into words that bring out the winsomeness of the faith. As a writer, I need to get myself out of the way and think of how to present different aspects of the faith in Jesus Christ to the reader, who probably looks at life in quite a different way than I do. It is not my job to prove him wrong; it is not my job to prove myself an authority to be trusted. It is my job to show that Jesus Christ is worthy of our trust.

© Bob Goodnough, January 03, 2020

The power of little things

My mother was 10 when her family moved from south-east Manitoba to south-west Saskatchewan. Whenever she talked about that move she would say “The thing I missed was seeing the tees and the Indians.”

It wasn’t until I reached adulthood that I asked the obvious question: “Mon, I get the part about the trees, but what’s this about the Indians?”

“Well, whenever Indians travelled through our area, they would stop at our place for a rest and a drink of water.”

My grandfather was a Plautdietsch speaking Sommerfelder Mennonite, not very prosperous, blind, and the father of 14 children, of which my mother was number 6. Apparently he was blind in more ways than one.

Before he married, he had worked at Letellier, Manitoba. One of his coworkers was a black man who had made his way to Canada from the US South. My grandfather learned some old negro spirituals from him and then taught them to his children. My mother used to sing some of them.

My grandfather learned English while working there, and later said he wished he had learned French, too, as there were French-speaking people living there. Whenever my mother told about her father’s wish that he had learned French, she would add, “And if he had, I would have, too!”

I heard those little things when my mother talked about her earlier years. They made a lasting impression, and I believe enabled me to look at other people as being not a lot different from me.

In her late teens, my mother memorized the German catechism, and the bishop baptized her. I think the teachings in that catechism found a place deeper than just in her mind. The family spoke mostly Plautdietsch at home, and some English. The church was entirely German — Bible reading, hymns, sermons, prayers. My mother was the last of the children to learn German. As she grew older, she realized that in her church the language was more important than the teachings in the catechism; it had nothing to offer her 8 younger siblings who did not know German.

She left that church and expressed no nostalgia for it. Her mother, my grandmother, appeared to believe that I needed to learn German to be a Christian. She sent me a copy of the catechism and a German primer. I was curious and made a beginning in the primer. Mom would help me whenever I asked, but never prompted me to keep on trying to learn German. She had a large English dictionary that she had studied for years, learned to speak English with no trace of an accent, had a larger vocabulary than many whose mother tongue was English.

When Chris and I started to attend the Church of God in Christ, Mennonite, some members got all excited when they found that Mom’s mother tongue had been Plautdietsch. She was polite and friendly, but did not share their enthusiasm. I have wondered if she didn’t have a little fear that I was getting into the sort of thing she had left behind.

I am my mother’s son. She said nothing negative about anyone, but the impression she left was that Plautdietsch and German had nothing to do with being a Christian and were not anything I needed to pursue.

My father was from the USA, his mother was Franco-American and it embarrassed him when she spoke French to their neighbours here in Saskatchewan. I got a lot more encouragement from my mother to learn French than from my father.

That’s my personal history. I could say more about my father, but I don’t think it’s necessary. I’ll just say that my mother’s positive remarks about others had more influence on me than my father’s negative remarks.

Are there negative things that Christians say today that can have a harmful effect on their children’s attitude toward others?

How do we look at ourselves? 

We can’t change our ethnic identity, or the family into which we were born. But if we think that our family, or our ethnic group, has some innate quality that makes us more apt to be Christian, or a better Christian, than others, we are contradicting the whole message of the New Testament. Any hint of pride or exclusivity undermines our gospel witness..

How do we look at others?

Sometimes I hear Christians say that the people around us aren’t interested in the gospel. That implants the thought in the younger generation that there is no point in trying to share the gospel in our home communities.

How do we talk about people of a different skin colour, or who speak with an accent? Nigger, negro, darkie and coloured are not polite or respectful terms to use for black people. Sometimes we complain about the immigrants in our communities. It enthuses us to send missionaries to the countries they came from, but when they arrive here, we have a different attitude.

There is no 8 step program to break the problem I am describing. It’s a matter of the heart. Little changes in our attitudes toward the surrounding people, little changes in our speech, could add up to a big change in the way others see us.

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