Antiquarian Anabaptist

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

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Chapter 6 – Learning about church

School was a half mile walk across the edge of town. We were 25 to 30 in two grades in each classroom, about the same number as for eight grades in the Bishopric school. I settled in, got to know my classmates and continued to get good marks without much effort.

The big change in our life was that we were now attending church. Of the three churches in town two were deemed unsuitable by my Dad, the United and Catholic, so more or less by default we became Anglicans. It didn’t take long to become at home with the rhythm of the services in the Book of Common Prayer. They were saturated with readings from the Bible and passages from the Bible that were spoken in unison or as responsive readings, one line by the minister, the next by the congregation. There were prayers for every situation, old written prayers that were very eloquent and meaningful if one was paying attention. Our lives began to be centred around church and its activities.

The congregation was small, but included a number of children from my class in school. My cousin Ron, 21 years older than me, owned the Red and White grocery store in Craik. Ron and Rose and their son Garry started attending around the same time we did. Mrs. Rutherford, the owner of Craik Realty and Insurance, was always the last person to arrive in church. A short, round lady,, she would march up to the third row from the front, the keys on her belt jangling for all to hear, take her seat, and then the service could begin. Alf Soper, a bachelor and jack of all trades, was another regular. Some folks had concerns about his lifestyle; I was little and didn’t know if the concerns were warranted or not. But he could sing. His deep voice was heard by all and he was always on tune.

The next summer I went to Anglican summer camp on the shore of Mission Lake between Fort Qu’Appelle and Lebret, in the Qu’Appelle Valley. We slept in bunk houses, spent our days learning Pilgrim’s Progress, swimming in the lake and hiking through the hills; in the evenings we all gathered around a campfire for singing and stories and an evening prayer.

I first took note of Norman when the camp leaders led us on a hike to Lebret. He was a quiet boy, walking with us, yet alone. He seemed like the rest of us, except that he could not hold his head up straight. It tilted towards his right shoulder, almost resting on the shoulder. Some of the other boys called him Leadhead.

I didn’t like to hear the other boys making fun of Norman and calling him Leadhead. By the third day I overcame my scruples began to call him that myself.

The morning of the fourth day, I woke up with pain in my neck and shoulder. The pain became excruciating if I tried to straighten my head — overnight, I had become Leadhead II! I went through that day with my head in the same position as Norman’s and got the same unkind remarks from the other boys. Late in the day my muscles began to loosen up and the next morning I could hold my head up with no discomfort.

One would think that such a dramatic lesson in the Golden Rule would be unforgettable. I have found that there is a difference between remembering the lesson and learning the lesson.

The next winter the minister announced he would teach catechism classes for those who wanted to be confirmed. I had no idea what that meant, but my father enrolled me and four other fathers enrolled their sons. Once a week, we five boys walked to the minister’s house after school and studied the Anglican catechism, writing the answers to the questions in a notebook. Sort of a crash course in systematic theology for eleven year old boys. Some of it stuck.

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Chapter 3 – My father

The time has come for me to write about my father, but I don’t want to. I’m afraid that I’m going to make him sound like an ogre, and he really wasn’t. Most of the time he was a pretty decent sort, but I grew up living in dread of the times when his internal volcano would erupt. He never physically harmed my mother or me, he was kind to animals and polite to others. His anger was only words, but those words would peel the paint off your self respect and wither your soul.

You see? I’m already off on the wrong foot if I want to portray my father in anything like a sympathetic light.

Let’s start over. My father was of New England Puritan stock, had high moral ideals and strong religious convictions. He was a tireless worker, he could fix anything mechanical and build most anything of wood with just a few hand tools. Sometimes he could laugh at himself, but only once did I hear him come close to admitting he’d made a mistake. He’d always had cattle and chickens on the farm and one time when he was about done with farming he said it might have been better if he’d kept a few pigs, too.

His mother was Franco-American, the granddaughter of a man who settled in New York state after serving as a maître d’armes, a master swordsman, in the army of Napoleon Bonaparte. My father believed the world would be a better place if everyone spoke the same language, namely English. He only learned a few words of French from his mother, but had a warm spot in his heart for his French heritage because the USA could not have won the revolutionary war without help from France.

My grandparents were from St. Lawrence county, New York and moved to the Newell, Iowa area shortly after they married. Five children were born to them there, then they moved to Pipestone county, Minnesota. In 1908 they came to Canada and homesteaded near the south-west end of Old Wives Lake in Saskatchewan. My father built a house across the road from the estate house where his widowed mother lived and cared for her until her death.

He was 49 when he married and 50 when I was born. Perhaps that half century between us was too much to bridge. Or perhaps he expected a son who would be just as robust as he was and was disappointed to find himself the father of a sickly wimp.

There were good times. Our farm at Bishopric had rows of trees between the yard and the road on the west. All our kinfolk in the area would come once a summer for a family gathering and picnic in an open area among the trees. In the winter, the snow would accumulate in the trees and our driveway became impassible. Then we would travel by team and sleigh with horsehide robes to protect us and maybe a big stone or two at our feet that had been warmed in the oven.

One ice-cold Monday morning, when walking the mile to school was not an option, my father hitched up the sleigh and took me across country to the little brick schoolhouse in the village of Bishopric. When we go there, there was not another person there, no foot prints in the snow. Then I remembered: “Uh, Dad, I forgot. Today is a holiday.” The ride home was quiet, but Dad was not angry and never mentioned the incident.

Once when I was in my teens, Dad started talking about the evils of a white person marrying a black person. “Their children will be mixed colours, one leg white, the other black.” I found that a little hard to take. “I don’t believe that is possible. Did you ever see anyone like that?” He didn’t answer, but that was the last I heard of people with Holstein markings.

I was maybe 15 when he got me to change the water pump on the truck. He told me what to do, then I crawled under the truck and went to work. He wasn’t anywhere near to answer questions, so I figured out what tools to use and which way to install the pump, and it worked. Another time, he got some grinding compound and had me grind the valves and the valve seats on a Briggs & Stratton engine that had lost power. That worked too. But usually Dad didn’t have the time or patience to teach me how to do all the things he could do.

Dad was a Wesleyan Methodist whose church got sucked into the church union fever, eventually being incorporated into the United Church of Canada. Dad talked of attending a United Church in Edmonton, sometime in the later 1920’s. As the preacher spoke, it became evident that he was getting his direction from somewhere else than the Bible. The creation, miracles, virgin birth of Christ and the resurrections were only fables meant to teach a lesson. And the lessons this preacher drew from them bore no resemblance to Bible teachings. Dad walked out into the street, tears streaming from his eyes.

Soon he visited the Calgary Prophetic Bible Institute and become an ardent follower of William Aberhart. When Aberhart created the Social Credit Party and led it to power in Alberta in 1935, Dad was convinced that this was the way forward. The churches had become corrupt, what was needed was to elect Christian statesmen to office.

As a true believer of Social Credit principles, it was hard for him to listen to someone expound a contrary philosophy. Occasionally I would see him clench his jaw and tremble in striving to maintain an outward civility when the fire inside was on the point of bursting forth.

I guess it didn’t always work. One day he came walking home from Mr Harlton’s. Mr Harlton was David’s father and a member of the CCF party, at the opposite end of the political spectrum from Social Credit. The Harltons lived two miles from us; I’m not sure why my father stopped there on his way home from town, but they got into a political discussion. My father became so agitated that Mr Harlton decided it wasn’t safe for him to drive and took his keys. Dad walked back the next day, in a somewhat calmer frame of mind, and got his keys back.

The Social Credit movement never got close to political power on the national level and eventually declined. When we went to Moose Jaw, Dad would go to Charlie Schick’s barber shop for a haircut and a religious discussion. Mr Schick was a fervent Lutheran and his influence gave Dad the impetus to start looking for a church again. That led to us joining the Anglican Church when we moved to Craik.

Dad’s eyesight began to fail in his 60’s and pretty soon he let me drive the family half ton to church. There was an RCMP officer attending the same church and I’m sure he was aware that I was nowhere near old enough to have a license. I wonder if he thought it might be safer to let me drive those short distances around home than to have Dad drive. When I turned 16 and got my drivers license, Dad gave me permission to drive the truck to school and to band practice.

My father was really a decent man and he meant well. He would accept advice from a few people, but for the most part he was the judge of what was right and wrong. One evening when we had family devotions he prayed that God would show others that he was right.

Every once in awhile the volcano within would come spewing forth and for three days, every time he came into the house, he would rant about all the things my mother and I had done that he didn’t like. We walked on eggshells to avoid triggering such outbursts, but never actually knew when they would happen. Most of life was normal, but I grew up with an overriding fear that anything I would say or do might be exactly the wrong thing to say or do at that moment.

Living stones of Zion

Only living stones can strengthen the walls of Zion.
Other stones do not bond and will be pushed out of place.
A block of wood, a bale of hay or straw, will fill a gap in the wall,
They do not bond, they offer a route for vermin to enter Zion.
When the fiery darts of the enemy strike them they go up in flames.

Sunlight shows flashes of gold, silver and jewels in some living stones.
Others are plain granite, all help bear the loads of brothers and sisters
And form bonds that make the walls a sure defence against the enemy.
There is safety within for little ones, not yet spiritually living stones,
And a place where the weak and wounded heal and renew their strength.

Spiritual sacrifices are daily offered within these walls,
Sacrifices of selfish will and pride, of personal desires and ambition.
Sacrifices that arise as sweet incense to the courts of heaven.
Peace, joy and love here are tested, are strengthened and endure ,
Pleasing God and making glad the hearts of the citizens of Zion.

A pillar of fire by night and of cloud by day is seen upon these walls,
The Shekinah glory of God, invisible to unbelieving eyes,
Yet seen and feared by demonic beings that love darkness.
Weary seekers of the city of God catch glimpses of light from afar
Angels of light watch over them, help them find their way home.

Looking for real Mennonites

All I learned about Mennonites while I was growing up was that my mother had been one and had left because the German language was more important than the faith and that my grandma, a dear sweet old lady, was one and wanted me to learn German so I could be a Christian.

Perhaps there was one more thing. My mother, though no longer member of a Mennonite church, seemed to have carried some of the faith in her baggage when she left. There was something about her that was more peaceful and attractive than the argumentative faith of my father.

In my mid twenties I decided I wanted to know more about Mennonites. This was half a century ago, long before you could go to your computer and ask google to find the information you wanted. Encyclopedias offered a little information, but I wasn’t sure they were getting it right. So I bought a book, probably more than one, I forget.

As I read Mennonite history I discovered a group of people who truly believed in God, who loved God, knew they were loved by God, and believed God wanted them to love everyone else. For some reason the state churches believed such a faith was subversive and persecuted the Mennonites. The Mennonites treasured their faith more than their homes, material possessions, even their lives. They were burnt at the stake and kept telling the bystanders about the love of God as long as they had breath.

I read about a time when soldiers seized a stock of books written by Menno Simons and were about to burn them in the town square. Several daring men began grabbing books from the pile and passing them to the bystanders, who immediately fled. It all happened so quickly that the few soldiers present were unable to prevent it and were left with almost nothing to burn.

There had been a power in that faith that I longed for. I knew there were many kinds of Mennonites in our province and hoped that somewhere I could find that old faith sill living.

I got up early one Sunday morning, dressed in my best clothes and drove into a nearby city to attend a Mennonite service. I was impressed by the simplicity of the non-liturgical service, don’t remember anything about the sermon, but hoped to learn more about this church. However, it appeared that I was an invisible person. One or two people nodded to me as we left that service, but none appeared interested in the stranger in their midst. I tried again several weeks later, with the same result.

I still thought that the faith I had read about must surely exist somewhere, but I gave up looking until after I was married. We experienced more disappointments and came to realize that most churches that called themselves Mennonite had no idea what the name meant. But we still kept looking.

Sidetracked?

The purpose of the church is to share the gospel and make disciples in all the world. It is also important to keep the church pure. Is it possible that so much time and energy is spent on this maintenance that it becomes our main mission?

Wouldn’t that be like a farmer who spends all his time maintaining and adjusting his combine and never gets it out into the field for the harvest?

Adapted from Guidelines for Christian Living, first printed in 1971

Don’t get much out of church?

What are you putting in?

Are you  a church shopper? Do you go from church to church to find the one that will give you the most value for the lowest cost in personal involvement? Are you a builder or a freeloader?

A church service service is not entertainment. If you are looking to find just the right kind of singing or music, or to hear a preacher that will say just what you want to hear, in the way you want to hear it, you will certainly hear something that you don’t like.

Church is not an exclusive club that lets in only the right kind of people. Not everyone is going to dress, behave or talk the way that you think is right.

Church should feel peaceful and comfortable. Up to a point. Jesus came to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. If we never encounter anything in church that makes us squirm a bit and feel a need to examine our values and attitudes, we are missing one of the essential values of church.

Churches need Sunday School and Bible Study teachers and members of many different committees. These are good opportunities to serve, but the real test of whether we are a freeloader or a builder comes in the things that we were not elected or asked to do.

That would include things like trying to make edifying and encouraging contributions to Sunday School and Bible Study discussions, and in our conversations. It would include being hospitable, not just to the people who are most like we are, but to anyone. It would include listening to and considering the thoughts of others. It would mean having a thoughtful answer to someone who asks about our faith. And it would include expressing our appreciation for others.

A freeloader is apt to go from church to church and never really feel welcome. A builder will not readily switch churches, but if he does so because he is searching a fellowship that meets God’s criteria and not his own preferences, he will be welcomed.

Spiritual mourning

Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.

There is an obvious way of understanding these words. We encounter sorrow and loss during our lives that are cause for mourning, and we can find comfort in Jesus that is not available anywhere else.

  • But these seemingly simple words also contain a far deeper meaning:We need to mourn for our own sins, like David: “Against thee, thee only, have I sinned, and done this evil in thy sight: that thou mightest be justified when thou speakest, and be clear when thou judgest.” (Psalm 51)We need to mourn for conditions in the church: “For first of all, when ye come together in the church, I hear that there be divisions among you; and I partly believe it” (The apostle Paul to the church at Corinth). “Nevertheless I have somewhat against thee, because thou hast left thy first love” (The message in the book of Revelations to the church at Ephesus). Jesus wept over Jerusalem.
  • We should grieve for Christians who are separated from a truly spiritual church fellowship. “Woe to them that are at ease in Zion, and trust in the mountain of Samaria. . . but they are not grieved for the affliction of Joseph” (Amos 6:1-6). We often hear the first part of verse one and think that is the message. But God gave Amos a burden for those in the apostate kingdom of Israel, led by the tribes of Manasseh and Ephraim, sons of Joseph, because they were separated from the true worship of God in the temple at Jerusalem. God sent Hosea to Israel with the message that God sorrowed for wayward Israel just as Hosea sorrowed for his wayward wife.
  • We should grieve for conditions in the world we live in, not only for those in faraway lands, but also for the people who are our near neighbours. “For all the law is fulfilled in one word, even in this; Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself” (Galatians 5:14). “ But whoso hath this world’s good, and seeth his brother have need, and shutteth up his bowels of compassion from him, how dwelleth the love of God in him?” (1 John 3:17).
  • The apostle Paul said “For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh,) dwelleth no good thing.” This leaves us no ground to think of ourselves as better than others. We cannot serve the Lord with that kind of thought in our minds. First, we must grieve for our sinfulness, weakness and inadequacy. Then we see others as being the same as we are. We are in a world ruled by hostile spiritual forces and we have no strength in ourselves to overcome those forces. Our only hope is Jesus Christ.

“The LORD is nigh unto them that are of a broken heart; and saveth such as be of a contrite spirit” (Psalm 34:18). Isn’t that the meaning of the beatitude quoted above?

“They that sow in tears shall reap in joy. He that goeth forth and weepeth, bearing precious seed, shall doubtless come again with rejoicing, bringing his sheaves with him” (Psalm 126:5-6).

No room for boasting

Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

For we brought nothing into this world” (1 Timothy 6:7). The Apostle was talking about material things, but I don’t think it does his words any violence to say that no one of us came into this world with any pre-qualifications for salvation. In that respect, we are all equally impoverished.

Perhaps we had parents who were genuine Christians in word and in life, and grandparents and great-grandparents. And they all belonged to a church that was firmly grounded on the unadulterated gospel of Jesus-Christ. That’s wonderful. It’s something for which to be thankful.

But it’s not something to boast about. Their faith is not transferable. I get no credit for the faith of someone else; my salvation is solely based on my relationship with Jesus Christ.

I was not saved because I was “raised in the church.” That gave me an opportunity to hear the gospel. But many others have had the same advantage and spurned it. There are many who grew up with the light of the gospel shining all around them who are now walking in darkness.

Others who grew up in the darkness of this world are now walking in the light. And are probably much more thankful for it than those for whom the light has been an everyday reality as far back as they can remember.

It is well and good for those who have been raised in Christian homes to be thankful. But there is only a fine line between thankfulness and boastfulness. When we talk much about our Christian heritage and think that it sets us apart from the common run of humanity, we are no longer poor in spirit. And to those around us who may be seeking for spiritual light, we are apt to be more of a hindrance than a help.

For who maketh thee to differ from another? and what hast thou that thou didst not receive? now if thou didst receive it, why dost thou glory, as if thou hadst not received it?” (1 Corinthians 4:7).

The spiritual riches that we enjoy are not our own. We did not inherit them. We did not acquire them by wisdom, by doing the right things, or by any other means at our disposal. These riches came from admitting that we were impoverished, blind and unable to help ourselves. Let us rejoice and be glad in them. But let’s forget the boasting.

Pietists, Quietists & Anabaptists

I have been reading some of the writings of François Fénelon and find some moving passages. I plan to post some excerpts in coming days.

Fénelon was a Quietist, that is a Roman Catholic who believed that salvation had to come through a personal relationship with God, rather than through the forms of liturgical worship. So far, so good. Yet, there is a niggling little thought that troubles me – Fénélon appears to have had a genuine faith, but was that faith passed on to following generations? He remained a Roman Catholic all his life. The same question applies to those who were Pietists within the Lutheran Church.

The Anabaptists took a different approach. They believed that Scripture and Spirit called them to remain outside the established state churches and maintain a pure church. This often led to persecution and they accepted that as a necessary consequence of their commitment to God.  Menno Simons wrote:

“Reader, understand what I mean. We do not dispute whether or not there are some of God’s elect in the before-mentioned churches; for this we, at all times, humbly leave to the  just and gracious judgment of God, hoping that he has many thousands unknown to us, as they were to holy Elijah. But our dispute is in regard to what kind of Spirit, doctrine, sacraments, ordinance and life it is with which Christ has commanded us to gather unto Him an abiding church, and how to keep it in His ways.”

It is my conviction that Menno’s faith has more fully endured and been passed on to subsequent generations than has the faith of Fénelon.

A series of coincidences?

We wanted to have children – and definitely more than one. I was an only child and my wife had been raised as an only child by her aunt and uncle. We didn’t think that was the ideal way to grow up.

We had been married less than a year when another young couple from the church we were attending mentioned that they were planning to adopt. We had never thought of adopting before, but the idea became more and more interesting as we talked about it. We contacted the agency and were invited to take part in a series of evening meetings for those preparing for adoption.

In my mind, adoption was about finding a child who would match the parents who wanted to adopt. I was wrong. We were told that it is natural for children in a family to differ considerably in looks and personalities. We were also told that the less we knew about the background of a child the better things would work. If we know too much about the personalities of parents, grandparents, uncles and aunts, we would look for signs of that in the adoptive child. “This is your child,” we were told.

We have seen the wisdom of that in later years. Some mothers knew way too much about the background of their adoptive children and never tired of talking about it.  I could see in the eyes of the children that it was not healthy to hear constant reminders that they were misfits in this family. That was never the mother’s intention, of course, but it had that effect.

After the series of meetings, we were given the application form to complete. Most of it was straightforward questions about ourselves and our ability to provide for a child. But one question gave us pause. “Are you willing to accept a child of another race?” Several options were given, other races, mixed-race, pure white, no preference. We talked about it, prayed about it, and the only thing that felt right was to check the no preference box.

The application was accepted, a social worker came to visit our home, we began to gather the things we would need, thinking we had lots of time to get ready.  We never guessed that checking the no preference box moved us to the top of the waiting list. A call came just two weeks after the home visit saying that a baby girl was available.

We drove to the city where the agency office was located, were led into a private room and soon left alone with a 15-day old girl. She slept, we looked at her, took turns holding her, and when the worker came back she would have had to pry that baby away from us.

We signed some more papers and drove home with the baby sleeping peacefully on the seat between us. This was long before child car seats; cars back then didn’t even have seatbelts for the adults. Cars had bench seats, not bucket seats. We used a clothes hamper, they were smaller then than they are now, put a blanket on the bottom for a cushion, placed the baby on top of that, another blanket on top, and drove home.

That was almost 45 years ago. We never had any other children. Our daughter had an advantage that we did not have – we were part of a close-knit church family with many other children her age.I’m sure the influence of her friends’ parents had a tremendous impact on her becoming the fine young woman that she became.

Now, we don’t just have a daughter, we also have a fine Christian son-in-law and four wonderful grandchildren. Was it all a series of coincidences, chance happenings and pure dumb luck? I don’t believe that. I believe God was there every step of the way, opening doors and nudging us toward them.

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