Flatlander Faith

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

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Wimpy evangelism

Forty-five years ago there was a city-wide outreach in our city based on the theme “I found it!” The slogan was purposefully vague so as to engage all churches who called themselves Christian.

The purpose of the slogan was to prompt people to ask “What did you find?” To which the answer was “New life in Jesus Christ.” This answer encompassed a wide range of possibilities of what the new life could be or how it could be attained.

The campaign was ambitious, including billboards, bumper stickers, radio and TV spots, mail outs and a newspaper supplement with testimonials from the whole Christian spectrum. Members of all denominations made a door to door campaign to distribute New Testaments to every home. They were ready to answer people’s questions and to ask them if they had found it or were interested in hearing more about finding it.

The whole effort was so vague, like a gray fog over the city, whose origin or meaning could not be discerned. The slogan was deliberately vague to get past the resistance of the populace and the media to all things Christian. So vague that we couldn’t clearly articulate what we were trying to get past their resistance.

“I’ve found it!” just didn’t resonate with people like another well-known slogan of the day: “Things go better with Coke!” We knew it was all over the day we saw a bumper sticker that read: “I stepped in it!” and laughed. We had tried so hard to appeal to everyone that there was no message left.

Evangelism that talks about Jesus but doesn’t try to make disciples, what good does it do? Discipleship means discipline. People willingly discipline themselves for a sport or a cause that they believe in. If Christian faith is not worth self-denial and discipline, why should anyone be interested?

If we are so afraid that people will find Christianity offensive that we try to water it down, it has no power to change people’s lives. Perhaps we should consider the success of Buckley’s Mixture cough syrup. W. K. Buckley freely admitted that it tasted awful, but said it worked. They have used advertisments that showed a bottle of Buckley’s Mixture and proclaimed: “You’d have to be really sick to take that stuff!”, followed by the question “Are you sick?” That is effective advertising.

Jesus didn’t try to sugar coat his message. He was gentle to the sinner who repented, yet blunt with the self-righteous. He seemed to look for ways to confront the scribes and Pharisees with the emptiness of their law, it’s lack of power to make a difference in the lives of sinners.

The result of wimpy evangelism is not wimpy Christians, it is make-believe Christians or outright atheists.

About my last post

Earlier today I re-blogged an article entitled 14 things you (probably) don’t know about Christianity, but really should. The article came from the British magazine Premier Christianity and I decided to pass it on, for two reasons.

The first reason was that it illustrated a non-confrontational way of responding to the ideas that people have about Christianity. We are living in a post-Christian era where most people really do not know much at all about the faith we hold dear. Rather than writing them off as stupid we need to learn to talk about our faith in language they will understand.

The second was that the article demonstrates that clear-headed thinking by Christians does not only occur on this side of the pond (in North America).

Are we trusting in the wrong DNA?

Doesn’t it almost seem that the church we belong to is determined by our DNA? Mom and Dad were Anglican, so were Grandma and Grandpa, so were my my great-grandparents, so I become Anglican too. For others it would be Baptist, Catholic, Lutheran, Mennonite and so on. But it is part of our heredity. With that heredity comes a whole package of tradition, myth, custom and ideas of right and wrong behaviour.

As we are growing up that feels comfortable and natural. I know where I fit and we do things right, not like all those other denominations. But sooner or later we begin to wonder about those comfortable assumptions. Questions arise for which my cultural faith has no answers. At this point an alarming number of young people bail out, not just out of their parents denomination, but out of Christianity altogether.

What has gone wrong? I have been part of that exodus from a form of Christianity that seemed empty and meaningless. The problem is that we had mistaken the outward packaging of Christianity for the redemption and the relationship with Jesus Christ that is the essence of Christianity. Maybe those who handed that package down to us believed the packaging was what was most important, but when we looked inside the package we found it was empty.

The apostle Peter wrote: “Ye know that ye were not redeemed with corruptible things, as silver and gold, from your vain conversation received by tradition from your fathers; but with the precious blood of Christ,” (1 Peter 1:18-19). Vain conversation received by tradition from your fathers means the meaningless manner of living handed down from your ancestors.

I looked at other belief systems and practices that claimed to be the way to a truly meaningful life. I found them just as disappointing. Eventually that search brought me back to Christianity, not the outward packaging, but a transformed life through the blood of Jesus Christ. It is the blood of Jesus that brings redemption, a meaningful way of living and a new relationship with Jesus, the giver of life. Our natural bloodlines, culture or even an intellectual knowledge of the truth, will not do that for us.

For some of us, our parents did have that real, living faith, but they did not pass it on to us. It is a spiritual heritage, not a family heritage. We can only obtain it from Jesus, by His blood. What believing parents can do for their children it to demonstrate what a living faith looks life, by reading the Bible and praying as a family, by belonging to a church which preaches and practices a living faith, by living out their faith in all areas of life, especially in their relationships with others.

The people around us who scorn and reject Christianity do not do so because they lack intelligence, or because faith was not part of the DNA received from their parents. For many of them it may simply be that they have never seen models of true faith in the people they know. Perhaps if we lift up our eyes we will see fields ripe for the harvest in places where we never expected that to be possible.

The church-state hybrid

“We must begin by pointing out that with the launching of the New Testament vision a new idea was being broached; the world was being treated to a new and very revolutionary concept of society, namely, that men can get along peacefully in the market place even though they do not worship at the same shrine. The New Testament conceives of human society as a composite thing, that is, composed of factions. . . It thinks that even though men differ basically and radically at the shrine they need not clash in the market place.”
-Leonard Verduin, The Reformers and their Stepchildren, pp. 11-12, copyright 1964 Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company

As Leonard Verduin saw it, when church and state unite so that being a citizen and being a Christian are the same thing, a hybrid has been created. This hybrid may call itself Christian, yet its nature is contrary to authentic Christianity. Authentic Christianity is characterized by faith and love, neither of which can be produced or enforced by the power of the state. The religion of the hybrid is not based upon beliefs or doctrines, but by participation in the religious ceremonies and sacraments mandated by the state. There can be no mission in such a setting, no sense that some might be saved and others unsaved, as all are saved by virtue of citizenship and church membership. To refuse to participate in government-mandated sacraments is an act of treason.

“During the past half-century the world has witnessed the rise of totalitarian governments and monolithic societies, that is, societies in which all are expected to share in the same ultimate loyalty. These are socieities in which there is no room for diversity of conviction. I view this development with alarm. My conviction is that for a person to be his proper self he must live in the presence of genuine options, must be able to exercise choice, must, in a word, be free to enjoy a measure of sovereignty. In order to be fully human, a person must be part of a composite society.

“Moreover, it is my conviction that the composite society is to a large extent the product (albeit a b y-product) of the world-view of authentic Christianity.”
-Leonard Verduin, The Antomy of a Hybrid, page 7, copyright 1976 Wm B. Eerdmand Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, Michigan

This has been the vision of the Christians known as Anabaptists, Waldensians, Mennonites, etc. throughout history. Their refusal to compromise their faith by submitting to the hybrid has led to intense persecution on many occasions. Will we, who claim to be descendants of the Anabaptists, have the same steadfast faith when persecution comes again?

But they are different from us

When I was a boy I read historical novels by Canadian and English writers. The hero was always English, honest, brave, generous and kind. Other people were shifty-eyed, dishonest, traitorous scoundrels. As I was an English Canadian, I accepted this as self-evident truth.

Later I learned to read French and found historical novels in that language were exactly like the English novels – except the kind, generous, honest and brave hero was French and the dishonourable scoundrels were English. I have learned that there is at least as much, if not more, evidence to support this latter point of view as for the first. We absorb the attitudes of the time and place we live in, and it is good to examine the attitudes we take for granted.  

Plantation owners in the southern states needed workers skilled in growing cotton, or rice in coastal areas. They found the people they needed in Africa and brought them over as slaves.

Plantation owners were Christians; to own another human being didn’t seem right. But they already had beliefs about class distinctions and it was just a short step for apologists to explain that below the lowest classes of humanity there were these animals that looked almost human, but had no soul.

Even though the Africans had skills in the cultivation of cotton and rice that their white owners lacked, the owners seized on the idea that the Africans were domestic livestock and treated them accordingly. Still, they did their best to ensure that slaves would never see poor white people or free black people. The tragic effects of these false ideas linger on in the lives of both white and black people.

Charles Darwin’s evolutionary theory taught that there are different races of humanity and the white race is more highly evolved than the others. He taught that the white race was destined to supplant all the other (inferior) races. Modern science agrees with the Bible that there is only one human race, yet ideas of white superiority still linger.

The people of the area that is now Rwanda and Burundi are Bantu who all speak the same language. The Tutsi were the governing aristocracy, the common people were Hutu. There was intermarriage and social mobility between the two groups. When Europeans, first Germans then Belgians, became colonial masters of this region, they saw the Tutsi as more European in appearance, therefore superior, and governed the colonies through them.

The Tutsi found this agreeable, the Hutu not so much. The upshot was a Hutu uprising in Burundi in 1972 which ended in the killing of 80,000 to 200,000 Hutu by the Tutsi army. Then came the Rwanda genocide of 1994 where the Hutu set about to eliminate the Tutsi from their country, killing 800,000 to 1,000,000. 

Both countries have made strides towards reconciliation. From the first, the distinction between the Tutsi and Hutu existed only in people’s minds, not in physical, linguistic or religious difference.

Before the Nazis came to power in Germany in 1933, there was little friction between Jews and other German citizens. Hitler was an evangelist, inspiring German people to believe in a revival of their nobility. From 1933 to 1939 the Nazis flooded the country with propaganda about the danger the Jews were to the welfare of the nation. Research institutes published glossy books with pseudoscientific information about the degradation of the Jewish race. Popular movies, novels, comic books reinforced those stereotypes in the conscience of the German people.

Hitler said next to nothing about the Jews during those six years. Then in 1939 he spoke forcefully about the need to eliminate the Jewish danger. By then the propaganda had taken effect on the conscience of the German people. After the war many Germans, although they deplored Nazi atrocities, believed the Jews had brought them upon themselves by being so different from other Germans. The Nazi propaganda machine created that perceived difference.

The Roman Catholic Church dominated Quebec for generations, telling people it was their protection against the hordes of Anglos around them and if anyone left the mother church, they would also abandon the French language. That was a self-fulfilling prophecy; the church ran the schools, hospitals and pretty much everything else. If someone joined a different church, the priests would ensure they became pariahs to their catholic neighbours.

That era ended with the Quiet Revolution of 1960. Church attendance in Quebec is now the lowest of any province or state in North America. Yet a suspicion of other denominations remains.

We English Canadians have no such problem, do we? Or are we just ignorant of our own prejudices and their roots?

The Orange Order dominated politics in English Canada for generations; they believed that only WASP’s (White, Anglo-Saxon, Protestants) were worthy of being citizens. Other people were second-class citizens, and should have no influence on government, nor any consideration from government.

After the union of Upper and Lower Canada (Ontario and Quebec today) in 1841, Orangemen fomented a series of riots in Toronto to cement their influence. They were the inspiration behind the 1847 riot in Montreal that culminated in burning the parliament building.

When the prairies opened for settlement 100 years ago, Clifford Sifton, an Orangeman, was minister of immigration. He scoured Eastern Europe for settlers who would assimilate to the English language and submerge the French already settled in the west. Orangemen in government were behind the decision a few years later to close all non-English schools. French schools were the target, other schools were collateral damage.

I attended public schools at a time when the curriculum taught the Orange Order’s perception of Canadian reality. The influence of the Orange Order waned over the years and French schools were once more allowed to operate. But when a concept of the superiority of one group of people guides government policy for so many years, prejudice does not soon wither away. We are going to be suspicious of people whom we think different from us until we get to know them. We will have to step outside of our comfortable, familiar, bubble to do that, but we are apt to find that other people are pretty much like ourselves. Can we call ourselves Christians and still try to maintain ethnic and linguistic divisions?

NOISE

When I worked in the Post Office years ago, one of my coworkers was a man named Moe Bailey Moe. had major hearing loss and was oblivious to all the foolish and crude chatter going on around him. If I wanted to talk to him, I first had to get his attention. He would turn on his hearing aids and we would talk, then he would turn them off again. Sometimes I envied him.

There is background noise in our homes that we mostly tune out: the hum of the refrigerator, the dishwasher, the washing machine, the computer, the heating system, the air conditioner, the ceiling fan, and all the other devices that we call conveniences. Then there is the phone and all the other electronic devices that call for our attention.

In industry, all unwanted inputs into the manufacturing process are called noise. These include fluctuations in electrical supply, temperature and humidity, vibration, variations in raw materials, mechanical problems. All unplanned variations that affect the finished product are noise.

In the sphere of public affairs, isn’t most of what we hear just noise? Everyone, from the guys in the coffee shop to the politicians asking for your vote, has a better idea of how to run the country. Most of them have been tried before and didn’t work, but those other guys just didn’t go about it right. I would like to be like Moe Bailey and turn off the noise.

There is a lot of noise in the Christian realm, too. Too much pop psychology, too much involvement in political controversy, too much loud music, too many big-name preachers, too much focus on money and success, not enough focus on knowing and following Jesus. There is too much end times speculation and not enough preparation to face the judgment seat of Christ.

Jesus said: “Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven.” I’m afraid we may be guilty of too much saying and too little doing. Then again, the real doing by Christians is not done for the purpose of attracting attention. to themselves. We should not be part of the noise.

The farmer and the salesman

Once upon a time there were two Bible study groups, one led by a farmer and the other by a salesman. Both groups studied the same portions of Scripture, but the discussions were not at all the same.

The farmer spent his days alone, driving a tractor up and down the fields or repairing the fence around his pasture. When he came to Bible study he was ready to talk. Any time there was a gap in the discussion he filled the time with philosophical musings about life that had come to him while he was alone or with something interesting that he had read. Nobody could think of much to say about the Bile passage, except to repeat a few platitudes they had all heard before.

The folks in the farmer’s class went home feeling they had reaffirmed what they already believed about the Scripture and didn’t think much more about it during the following week. Their spiritual lives continued to unfold along a predictable path without many challenges.

The salesman did not have a product to sell and didn’t see any need to sell himself. As a salesman he understood that the way to begin was to find out what people needed. So he would ask a question or two and let others think about it. He was comfortable with quiet moments in the discussion and never tried to fill them with chatter that would distract from searching for the meaning and application of the Scripture. Others in the class felt comfortable sharing their own thoughts and questions.

The folks in the salesman’s class went home with new thoughts about what the Scripture meant for their lives and questions about how they could be more obedient to the leading of the Holy Spirit. These people explored the Scriptures, saw new implications for their lives and talked about these things with their friends. They were growing spiritually.

This is a parable and the occupations of the Bible study leaders are inconsequential. I could just as easily have told how the farmer watched in wonder as his crops and his calves grew, knew that it was not his doing, tried to sow the seed in his Bible study and let God make it grow. The salesman could have been convinced of a particular teaching, supposedly drawn from the Scriptures, and endeavoured to sell this teaching to his class. I have chosen to write as I have because the parable is loosely based on a real example from many years ago.

My true purpose in writing this parable is that I have looked in the mirror and realize that I am way too much like the farmer, and I want to grow to be more like the salesman.

Heart Health

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Image by Gordon Johnson from Pixabay

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, health authorities have been telling us that elderly people are most in danger from the virus. Mortality counts appear to bear that out. However, studies of the data are refining that message, showing that heart health is the critical factor in whether or not one survives an attack of the virus. To be sure, the elderly are far more likely to have heart problems, but younger people with heart problems are just as apt to succumb to the disease, and the elderly with healthy hearts are likely to be survivors.

The heart is just a pump, but when the health of that pump is impaired the cells of the whole body no longer receive sufficient oxygen to function effectively. In some cases the heart is weakened by genetic defects or by disease, but most commonly it is harmed by poor nutrition and lack of exercise.

Proverbs 4:23 tells us there is a close parallel in our spiritual life: Keep thy heart with all diligence; for out of it are the issues of life. No MRI will detect the heart spoken of here, yet the similarities between physical health and spiritual health are very striking.

  • Comfort food may taste good, but if that is all our diet consists of our health will suffer. We can subsist for years on familiar Bible stories and spiritual platitudes, but our health will go steadily downhill.
    For when for the time ye ought to be teachers, ye have need that one teach you again which be the first principles of the oracles of God; and are become such as have need of milk, and not of strong meat. For every one that useth milk is unskilful in the word of righteousness: for he is a babe. But strong meat belongeth to them that are of full age, even those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil. (Hebrews 5:12-14)
    And take heed to yourselves, lest at any time your hearts be overcharged with surfeiting, and drunkenness, and cares of this life, and so that day come upon you unawares. (Luke 21:34)
  • Exercise is essential to our health
    But refuse profane and old wives’ fables, and exercise thyself rather unto godliness. For bodily exercise profiteth little: but godliness is profitable unto all things, having promise of the life that now is, and of that which is to come. (1 Timothy 4:7-8)
  • God supplies the “oxygen” to purify our hearts.
    Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw nigh to God, and he will draw nigh to you. Cleanse your hands, ye sinners; and purify your hearts, ye double minded. (James 4:7-8)
  • A healthy heart can resist invasion by a virus, or temptation
    But godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out. And having food and raiment let us be therewith content. But they that will be rich fall into temptation and a snare, and into many foolish and hurtful lusts, which drown men in destruction and perdition. (1 Timothy 6:6-9)

A more intense exercise

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The Canadian Heart and Stroke Foundation recommends aerobic exercise to improve cardiovascular health. That kind of exercise also improves energy levels, alertness, helps maintain a healthy weight, or lose weight if necessary, and avoid diabetes. Aerobic exercise can be any physical activity that raises your heart rate and is sustained for some time. Heart and Stroke recommends simple, low impact exercises, beginning with 15 minute sessions three days a week and working up to 30 minute sessions at least five days a week.

Is there a spiritual exercise that would do the same for our spiritual vitality? I wonder what kind of pictures pop into your mind in response to a question like that. More intense prayer and praise? I don’t know how to describe that, or just what it would do. Let’s start with something very basic.

The best way to increase our spiritual vitality is to get to know God better. After all, He is the source of spiritual life. I know of no better way to become better acquainted with God than to read His Word. Well, we do that already, don’t we? We also do some walking and other physical activity every day, too, but if we want to feel better we need to do more.

The Bible was not meant to be chopped up into little pieces and consumed one little bit at a time. That being said, most of us do read shorter passages during our normal devotional periods. But if we are looking for greater spiritual fitness, we must make a more intense effort to get the whole picture.

So here is the plan. Choose one book of the Bible and read it through in one setting. Don’t stop to analyse, just read it from beginning to end and let it sink in, a little of it anyway. Wait two days and then read it again. This time try to understand more of the big picture and how each part leads into the next. Wait two days again, then read it once more, out loud this time. Some things pop out when you read aloud that you hadn’t noticed before.

Not all books of the Bible can be read this way, but the New Testament epistles were intended to be read in churches from beginning to end. The Minor Prophets and many other shorter books should be read this way. The book of Job was probably originally told by shepherds around their campfires in the evening.

Later on, you may want to look at Bible dictionaries or commentaries, but forget them for now. Imagine you are back in the time the epistle or book was written and try to hear the message the divinely-inspired writer wanted you to hear.

If we only read short passages of the Bible, constantly skipping from one book of the Bible to another, we are like a person who looks at five pieces of a jigsaw puzzle and thinks he knows the whole picture. That is when the Bible seems obscure, mysterious, and not all that interesting. When we look at the whole picture we see details and aspects that we never knew were there. The Artist is speaking to us and we are revitalized.

The Church of God is not racist

But members sometimes do and say inappropriate things

Several weeks ago the French news magazine Le Point carried an interview with a man who had come to France in his youth from Togo. The title of the article was France is not racist, a point of view staunchly upheld by the man being interviewed, although he did talk of incidents when the colour of his skin had caused difficulties.

This man had come to France to attend university, then stayed and made himself at home. He applied for citizenship and in due time received a brown envelope in the mail with a paper inside that told him, “You are now a Frenchman.” He wondered about the  impersonal nature of that notice. Many years later he became Minister of Citizenship in the government of François Mitterand and used the opportunity to establish a public ceremony for welcoming new citizens.

Being born in France, or born elsewhere to French parents, is not the only way to become French. France has always welcomed people from all parts of the world, believing that anyone can become French. But that means that you must become French, become at home with the language, the culture and the French values of liberty, equality and brotherhood.

Within this framework there is room for a great deal of diversity. One example is that education has been compulsory in France for 140 years, but the law has never made school attendance compulsory. Home schooling is legal, as long as it includes the essential subjects, which includes achieving fluency in French and one other language.

In the same way, the Church of God is not racist, even if there are sometimes misunderstandings between people of different ethnic backgrounds. Membership is never by birth, but only by choice, in choosing to answer the call of God to salvation and sanctification. Anyone can become a member, on those conditions.

We can be united in faith, yet not think and act in identical ways. That is perfectly all right, we can all learn from the ways that people of a different ethnic background see things.

However, when most members of a congregation are of the same ethnic background it is easy to assume that we do things in a certain way because that is the way that a Christian should do things. Some of those things are deeply rooted ethnic traditions. They are not wrong, but we cannot expect that people of other ethnic backgrounds will conform to those things that are passed on through our culture.

Problems arise when ethnic traditions harden into a belief that there is only one right way to think or act. This is being carnally minded, not spiritually minded. Another way to describe such an attitude is ethnocentrism. Such an attitude hinders us from seeing the work of the Holy Spirit in the lives of people with different cultural values. It may hinder Christians of other backgrounds from feeling at home among us.

That is not racism. There is nothing deliberate about ethnocentrism, it is learned in childhood and one is unaware of even having such an attitude. I believe the time has come for us to name it as a problem. That does not mean we need to change our culture, such a thing is pretty much impossible. All we need to do is learn to value and love people of other cultures just the way they are.

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