Flatlander Faith

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

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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.

Questions

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The techniques for evangelism known as the Church Growth Movement, were first introduced to North America in 1961. I use the word techniques deliberately, as the movement sought to use sociological research to select social groups that could be reached through the use of modern marketing methods. The key assumption of the movement was that people are most likely to feel comfortable with and trust people like themselves.

Does this sound like an opportunity to share the gospel more effectively?

Or does it sound like a description of the problem that we should expect the gospel to overcome?

Why are churches still the most segregated places in North America?

Has the Church Growth Movement done anything to heal tensions between ethnic groups?

How many close friends do you or I have who are of a different skin colour or different ethnic origin?

How open are we to changing that?

This is where we need to accept that the best way to change the world is to start with ourselves. We need to allow ourselves to be vulnerable. If we are to make any lasting friendships with people who are not just like us, we are going to learn that we have not always been such nice people as we thought we were. That might be painful, but it can be liberating, too.

Where there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcision nor uncircumcision, Barbarian, Scythian, bond nor free: but Christ is all, and in all. Colossians 3:11 (Substitute the peoples in your city for the underlined words.)

In Search of the Age of Gold

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Image by Jan Steiner from Pixabay

From postmillennialism
to the social gospel
to saving the world from weather

For lo!, the days are hastening on,
By prophet bards foretold,
When with the ever-circling years
Comes round the age of gold
When peace shall over all the earth
Its ancient splendours fling,
And the whole world give back the song
Which now the angels sing.

This is the fifth and final verse of It Came Upon the Midnight Clear, the Christmas carol written in 1849 by Edmund Hamilton Sears, pastor of the Unitarian Church in Wayland, Massachusetts.

This verse is an expression of the prevailing view of that day that the gospel would permeate all nations and all levels of society, eliminating strife and injustice, in preparation for the return of the Lord Jesus Christ. That view is called postmillennialism. There are still preachers, writers and churches that hold to that view.

The proponents of postmillennialism believed they had a duty to hasten the coming of the golden age which would lead to the return of the Lord. They engaged in many praiseworthy activities to help the poor and oppressed; they were the prime movers behind the movement to abolish slavery.

After the abolition of slavery in the USA, the movement move on to other targets. By now they had infiltrated political parties and began to influence them to use governments to achieve their objectives. They advocated for better working conditions for labourers, the right to vote for women, and the prohibition of the sale of alcoholic beverages.

In the 1890’s postmillennialism morphed into the social gospel. Leading writers of the movement saw the private ownership of business as a roadblock in the way of making the golden age a reality. The social gospel movement succeeded in attaining many of its goals, yet the golden age still seemed as far away as ever.

Strife between nations, strife between social and ethnic groups, has not diminished. By now the movement has become disconnected from its Christian roots, though many churches still want to believe that it is going to lead to a better world. There are new targets today, climate change, gender choice and so on.

Some Christians today think the best way to counter this movement is to strive for influence in political parties. But this whole problem was caused by Christians trying to use political means to make the world a better place. Satan is a cunning enemy, he encourages such tactics, then turns them against us.

The best choice for Christians today is to renounce politics and get back to being Christians. People, politicians and governments are not our enemies, attacking them is another of Satan’s ruses to keep us from seeing who our real enemy is.

People around us are dying for lack of a drink from the well of salvation. Most of them may not be aware that is what they need; we can’t force them to drink, but we can tell them about the soul refreshing water and offer it to them.

Its shame and reproach gladly bear

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One hundred and forty years ago a young Englishman came to an Indian Reserve in Saskatchewan as a missionary. He learned the Cree language well enough to effectively share the gospel and some band members were converted. He returned to England to marry and then came back A church was established and began to grow, his family grew also. After a few more years the missionary had to leave his post on the reserve since there was no one for his children to play with. Not of the correct social class, anyway.

My father would often approach strangers and strike up a conversation by asking “What do you think of Jesus?” Yet he considered black people and “half-breeds” to be inferior people; he reproved his mother for speaking French to their neighbours; he persisted in mispronouncing names that sounded foreign to him.

Shouldn’t Christian faith trump attitudes like that? Why are Christian people so inclined to think themselves superior to others?

It seems that years of living prosperous, untroubled lives has led us to believe that this is the norm for Christians. We carefully select Bible passages that seem to emphasize the blessedness of Christian life. Yet these verses are closely linked to the message of suffering with Christ, with not thinking ourselves better than we are, with rejoicing in persecution. We cannot comprehend those parts, so we invent ways to interpret them as metaphors for minor difficulties in our lives.

Aren’t we missing the whole point of the New Testament? Jesus did not die to save us from suffering in this life. Jesus said: “In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33) and “Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake” (Matthew 5:11). Paul taught “that we must through much tribulation enter into the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22). Peter said: “ If ye be reproached for the name of Christ, happy are ye; for the spirit of glory and of God resteth upon you” (1 Peter 4:14).

We can spiritualise these passages, and others like them, saying they mean something else than what they say. What shall we say then of Christian martyrs of ages past who gloried in these verses and took strength from God to face persecution, torture and death? Or Christians suffering today in other countries.

Are we not missing the essential part of identifying with Christ in His rejection and suffering? I believe we misunderstand what He meant by denying ourselves and taking up our cross daily. The cross is not a minor affliction like rheumatism, nor is it a fashion accessory. It is an instrument of torture and death.

If our faith is going to be without respect of persons, that means that we need to identify with those who are looked down upon by the world, not with those the world looks up to. We must seek the approval of Christ, not the approval of the world.

There is no point in comforting ourselves in the esteem of the world anyway. All signs point to the distinct possibility, or probability, of that being taken away from us. Let’s be true followers of Jesus Christ, whatever the consequences may be.

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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Image by Alexas_Fotos from Pixabay

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.

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