Flatlander Faith

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

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A refuge

A refuge, a place where I could escape the storms that beat around me; that’s what I needed. When one is young, many storms are more imagined than real. But my father’s anger was real. He was not violent, but when he lost his temper angry words rang throughout the house, seemed to be in the air I breathed. I needed a place of refuge where I could breathe and sort it all out.

When I was nine years old, my parents moved to a small farm that bordered the northwest edge of Craik, Saskatchewan. I discovered my place of refuge the day after we moved in. I found in a hollow, halfway up the bank at the far end of the coulee that ran through our pasture. In that hollow sat a rectangular granite boulder, shaped like a giant step or chair, worn smooth by thousands of buffalo trying to relieve their itch, over a thousand years or more.

First, I sat on the rock, then I sat in the hollow beside it and something wonderful happened—all evidence of the modern world disappeared. I was alone on the open prairie, no buildings, fences, roads or telephone lines were visible. Even the sounds did not penetrate this peaceful spot.

How long had the rock been here? Geologists say that when Lake Agassiz drained thousands of years ago, the rushing waters that carved the ravines, coulees and river valleys of Saskatchewan also swept rocks like this to new locations.  It had been here through the time the buffalo roamed the prairies and the hunters followed them. The time since the settlers had come was just a tiny blip in its history.

Through the rest of my growing-up years that rock became my refuge. When life seemed difficult, I would leave the house and find this spot, my place of refuge. In that quiet and secure place I would rest until the anxiety, the fear, and yes, my anger, had dissipated.

Eight years later I left home. Twice I moved back for a time and each time the ancient buffalo rubbing stone was there when I needed it. Later, in my twenties and on my own, I faced new anxieties and fears.  The rock of my childhood was far away, and no longer the hidden spot it once was. A four-lane highway now runs through the old pasture, the rock is visible from the highway.

It took years for me to find the rock of refuge spoken of in Psalm 94:22 “My God is the rock of my refuge.” I found the words of the Bible drawing me towards that rock. The eternal rock. I read in Malachi 3:6: “I am the Lord, I change not,” and in Hebrews 6:8: “Jesus Christ the same yesterday, and today, and forever.” I heard and responded to The Spirit’s call to build my life upon that rock. I found that rock to be a refuge of peace wherever I was, whatever the circumstances.

Now I wanted to find a church built upon that rock, where I could be in fellowship with people with a living faith and lives solidly anchored to the rock, Jesus Christ. I knew that wouldn’t be the church I had attended in my youth.

I read in history books of a people who had lived such a faith centuries ago. People for whom the kingdom of God was separate from the kingdoms of this world; people for whom their relationship with Jesus Christ was more important than this earthly life. Other people called them Anabaptists, Waldensians and Mennonites. Surely there would be Christians like that today in the Mennonite churches. I visited many churches, met many good people; most were unaware of the old-time faith.

My search finally led me to a church whose members believe and live the faith I had read about; I became a member of that church 40 years ago.

© Bob Goodnough, January 3, 2019

Happy Thanksgiving

Today is Thanksgiving Day in Canada. We often focus on harvest and food on this day. This year we have been getting a little rain and snow every week that interrupts harvest, then it warms up and dries up and harvest resumes till the next precipitation.  So our congregation is delaying our thanksgiving supper for at least a week.

Nevertheless, there is much to be thankful for, as this song says:

For the beauty of the earth,
For the beauty of the skies,
For the love which from our birth,
Over and around us lies, —

Christ our God, to thee we raise,
This our hymn of grateful praise.

For the joy of human love,
Brother, sister, parent, child,
Friends on earth, friends above;
For all gentle thoughts and mild,—

Christ our God, to thee we raise,
This our hymn of grateful praise.

For Thy Church, that evermore,
Lifteth holy hands above,
Off’ring up on ev’ry shore,
Its pure sacrifice of love, —

Christ our God, to thee we raise,
This our hymn of grateful praise.

For Thyself, best gift divine,
To our race so freely giv’n,
For that great great love of Thine,
Peace on earth, and joy in heav’n, —

Christ our God, to thee we raise,
This our hymn of grateful praise.

– Folliott S. Pierpont, 1835-1917

What does “Mennonite” mean to you?

Some people consider themselves to be birthright Mennonites because their ethnic origin is Plautdietsch or Pennsylfannisch Dietsch and their parents held to certain traditional values that they called Mennonite. Those values may have been cultural; language, clothing, lifestyle; or they may hae been intellectual: a somewhat counter cultural emphasis on peacefulness and helping one’s neighbour. Beyond these two groups there are those who cling to the Mennonite name but have become thoroughly Protestant in religion, abandoned religion altogether, or are experimenting with Buddhist meditation.

But what does it really mean to be Mennonite? Can any of the above persuasions and practices really be called Mennonite? Where does the name Mennonite come from?

The last question is the easiest to answer and may shed some light on the others. Five hundred years ago in Holland a Roman Catholic priest by the name of Menno Simons became troubled about the life he was leading. He began to read the Bible, repented and experienced a new birth. He remained in the priesthood for a time and gained some renown as an evangelical preacher. Eventually he found his situation untenable, left the Roman Catholic church and joined with those he considered to be true Christians, who had been scattered and demoralized by persecution.

MennoSimons

In the course of time he was ordained a minister in this group and set about to gather together and encourage the scattered believers. There were other noted leaders in the church during this era, especially Dietrich Philips and Leenart Bouwens. Menno does not appear to have been above the others, but became well known in the public eye due to his prolific writings. Dietrich Philips was also a prolific writer, but his writings were addressed to members of the church, while Menno often addressed his writings to the general public and to the authorities of the land.

For this reason the name of Menno Simons became very well known. The authorities put a price on his head and did their best to apprehend him, but he always managed to escape their attempts. In time, the authorities and the general public began to label as Menno’s people those who were of the same faith as Menno Simons. This was later shortened to Mennists and then Mennonites. Menno denied being the founder of the church he belonged to, and it would be wrong today to attribute such a thing to him. But it is still true that someone who is of the same faith as Menno could rightly be labelled a Mennonite.

So what did Menno believe? He once summarized the characteristics by which the true church of God would be known like this:

1. The salutary and unadulterated doctrine of His holy and divine Word. Where the church of Christ is, there His Word is preached purely and rightly.
2. The right and Scriptural use of the sacraments of Christ, namely, the baptism of those who, by faith, are born of God, sincerely repent, and have a clear conscience. And the dispensing of the Lord’s Holy Supper to the penitent, who seek grace, reconciliation and the remission of their sins in the merits of the death and blood of the Lord, who walk with their brethren in love, peace and unity, who are led by the Spirit of the Lord, into all truth and righteousness, and who prove, by their fruits, that they are the church and people of Christ.
3. Obedience to the holy Word, or the pious, Christian life which is of God.
4. The sincere and unfeigned love of one’s neighbour.
5. The name, will, word and ordinance of Christ, are unreservedly confessed, in spite of all the cruelty, tyranny, uproar, fire, sword and violence of the world, and that they are upheld unto the end.
6. The pressing cross of Christ, which is taken up for the sake of his testimony and word. That this very cross is a sure sign of its being the church of Christ, has been testified not only in olden times by the Scriptures, but also by the example of Jesus Christ, of the holy apostles and prophets, by the primitive and unadulterated church; and also, by the present pious, faithful children, especially in these our Netherlands.

This was the faith of Menno Simons. Who then can honestly say today that he has the same faith as Menno? Such an identification cannot come from natural inheritance, culture, tradition or philosophy. It can only belong to those who are truly born again and faithfully following the leading of the Holy Spirit, despite all the roadblocks and menaces which the world may place in their way?

Is that what Mennonite means to you?

The things I believe

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Image by Heidi B from Pixabay

I believe in the God revealed in the Bible. The great and terrible Almighty and Eternal Creator of all things, who hates all unrighteousness. I believe that He is at the same time loving, merciful and compassionate, a father for the fatherless. He knows everything about us and wants us to know Him and be with Him for eternity.

I believe the Bible as it is written. It was written by many different men over several thousand years, yet the more I read it the more I see that there was one mind guiding it every step of the way, the mind of the Holy Spirit. I believe the Bible interprets itself, providing we read it all. Each time we read it a little more of God’s great design opens up before our eyes. We cannot discover that design by reading little bits here and there, or by looking for some external key to unlock its mysteries. That is a way that leads to deception.

I believe in the church revealed in the New Testament. I believe that it was God’s plan from the beginning to draw all those who put their trust in Him into one body, with Jesus Christ as both the foundation and the head. God is calling all mankind, but only those who are born again and led of the Holy Spirit may become members of His church. The church described in the New Testament cannot be an amorphous confusion of disembodied body parts, or living stones scattered here and there. The picture given by the New Testament is of a living, functioning and coordinated body or temple.

I believe that Jesus’ call to go into all the world and make disciples of all nations is still being obeyed. The door is yet open for those who are willing to consecrate their lives to Jesus, not only as Saviour, but as Lord of their lives.

I believe the time is short; judgment is coming.

The fulness of the time

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Solomon’s reign was the golden era of Israel. All the promises of God were fulfilled in the natural sense. The son of David built the glorious temple and God showed His acceptance by sending fire from heaven to consume the sacrifices. Solomon’s reign was a reign of peace over all the territory promised by God to the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. News of the wisdom and wealth of Solomon spread everywhere.

Israel never again regained the glory it had known in Solomon’s time. The kingdom was divided, there followed good kings and bad kings, the people often tended to idolatry. Through it all there remained a belief that this land had been given them by God and the temple remained the spiritual focal point of the people of God.

Finally the accumulation of disobedience and sin was too much and God permitted the people to be taken into captivity and the temple to be destroyed. The prophets had foretold this devastation, but they also told of a time of restoration. Often these promises included the Gentiles in God’s plan.

The people returned from Babylon, rebuilt Jerusalem and rebuilt the temple. According to the Babylonian Talmud, the new temple lacked five things found in Solomon’s temple: the Ark of the Covenant; the sacred fire sent from God to consume the sacrifices; the Shekinah or pillar of smoke and fire showing God’s presence; the spirit of holiness (or prophecy); the Urim and Thummin by which God had made known His will. Yet the temptation to worship the gods of the heathen was gone and the true worship of God was restored.

Zerubbabel was the first governor after the return from Babylon. He was of the lineage of David, but could not be king because Judah was now a vassal state of Persia. The lineage of David’s descendants was faithfully recorded in expectation of the day when a son of David would again sit on the throne. Shortly after the return, the canon of Old Testament Scripture was completed with the inclusion of the histories recorded by Ezra and the prophecies of the last prophets.

The destruction of the temple had left a void in the worship system of the Jewish people. Synagogues appeared during or shortly after the Babylonian exile and have continued ever since. There is no command in the OT for weekly worship, nor instruction on how to organize or conduct such meetings. Synagogue is a Greek word that does not appear in the Old Testament, except in Psalm 74:8 of the AV where it is used to translate a Hebrew word. The synagogue was a place for weekly meetings on the Sabbath day when the Scriptures were read and expounded.

Other events happened on the world stage that caused great distress to the Jewish people. Alexander the Great conquered a territory extending from Greece and Macedonia south to Egypt and eastward to northern India and Afghanistan. He established many new cities in the conquered territories, all named Alexandria. Kandahar, Afghanistan was one of those cities and appears to retain some trace of his name. Trade throughout the empire was stimulated and Greek became the common language of trade. Upon Alexander’s death, his empire was divided in three and ongoing wars between the competing empires often involved battles for control of Judah.

During this time, Jewish leaders saw the need for a Bible in the Greek language and 70 scholars gathered in Alexandria, Egypt to make this translation. This is called the translation of the seventy, or Septuagint, and is the Bible quoted by Jesus and the apostles in the New Testament.

The next great empire to rise was Rome. Julius Caesar conquered southern Europe, including Greece, and extended the empire as far south as Egypt. The Greek language remained the international language of commerce throughout the Roman Empire. Rome added something new that enhanced trade and travel — a well-developed road system connecting all parts of the empire and rigorous law enforcement that made trade and travel much safer than ever before.

Now the “fulness of time” had come. The stage was set for the appearance of the Messiah, the true Son of David who would establish an eternal spiritual kingdom that would never end. This was not the Messiah the Jewish leadership was looking for, yet the evidence was all there in the OT prophecies for those who could see. Now was the time for the fulfilment of the salvation of which the OT sacrifices had only been a symbol and for the blood of the spotless Lamb of God to sprinkle the heavenly mercy seat.

When this was done and the earthly temple and kingdom had again been taken out of the way, the good news of salvation could be carried to people throughout the Roman Empire. A common language existed, there was a translation of the Old Testament Scriptures in that language and a protected road system to facilitate travel. A system of weekly meetings for reading and expounding the Scriptures in the synagogues became the familiar model for worship services of the early church.

So many events, which had seemed to be meaningless tragedies at the time, are now seen as the hand of God preparing the way for the coming of His Son into the world, the spread of the gospel and the establishment of the church.

(First posted in November of 2013)

Introduction to the New Testament -2

Acts of the Apostles – This is the second half of Luke’s history, the first part being the Gospel which bears his name. Again we see a meticulous historian at work, telling the history of the beginning of the church in chronological order and anchoring it all to places and people in the secular world. If we pay attention as we read, it should cause us to question some popular notions that we may have assumed to be true.

For instance, it is commonly assumed that the pouring out of the Spirit on Pentecost happened in the upper room. How big a room must this have been to hold 120 men and women? Acts 1:15 says that was the number of the disciples at that time. We find in verses 12 & 13 that this upper room served as the bedroom for the eleven apostles; do we really think they would have crammed 120 people of both sexes into this space?

Luke tells us in the last verse of his gospel that they were continually in the temple, praising and blessing God and repeats that statement in Acts 2:46. The courtyard of the temple was huge, with room for many thousands of people. There were shelters here, such as the one called Solomon’s porch, and pools of water for ritual purification. It makes more sense to believe that all the action of Acts 2 took place here. Other people would have been drawn to these somewhat rustic people who suddenly began speaking in languages they had not previously known. It would not have seemed unusual to dip water from one of the pools to baptize 3,000 people by pouring. Any attempt to immerse them in one of those pools would no doubt have caused an uproar.

The Book of Acts shows the apostle Peter taking the lead in opening the door to membership in the beginning church, first of all to Jews on the day of Pentecost and not long after to Gentiles when he went to the home of Cornelius. Peter also took the lead in excluding unfaithful members from the church, namely Ananias and Saphira, God bearing witness to the truth of Peter’s decision by causing the immediate death of both.

This must not be taken to indicate that Peter was the head of the church. When the apostles and leaders of the church gathered at Jerusalem to discuss what should be required of Gentile converts, as recorded in chapter 15, it was James who rendered the final decision. This was James the son of Joseph and Mary and brother of our Lord. James, the brother of John had been slain by Herod before this time.

A large part of the book is taken up in recounting the conversion of Saul and his subsequent career as Paul the apostle. His mission journeys did much to expand the frontiers of the church throughout Asia and Europe. Luke appears to have accompanied him during much of this time.

We read in the book of Acts and elsewhere of disagreements between Paul and Barnabas, Paul and Peter, Paul and John Mark. There is no evidence in these accounts that the disagreements are evidence of sin on the part of the individuals involved, or that they caused a breech of fellowship between them. All were dedicated to the cause of Christ and the spreading of the gospel.

The church as the most important family

There are serious consequences of losing a sense of family within the church. . . We assume that the nuclear family can meet this need, and yet some of the loneliest, most isolated people in our communities are married with children, often so frenetically busy with child rearing and/or caring for aging parents that they have lost touch with old friends and no longer know how to make new ones.

The church is not a collection of families. The church is family. We are not “family friendly” ; we are family. We learn the skills within the church to be godly sons or daughters, brothers or sisters, husbands or wives, fathers or mothers, and the reverse is also true. . .

God wanted to make Israel distinct, not just morally but also through the signs of the covenant and through the prohibition against their intermarrying with the nations around them. In order to bless the nations, Israel could not be absorbed into the other nations and cease to exist.

The Storm-Tossed Family, by Russell Moore, pages 60 & 61; © Russell Moore, 2018, published by B & H Publishing Group, Nashville, Tennessee.

The half-converted farmer

There was a farmer in our neighbourhood who lived a simple life. He had no need of electricity, running water or a lawn mower. He didn’t need a wife either though we heard that there had once been a lady of the house. Perhaps the rustic simplicity of the homestead soon lost its charm.

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Image by noahherrera from Pixabay

This rustic farmer had a simple approach to farming. In the spring he seeded his wheat and in the fall he harvested his wheat — as much as his equipment could capture. For the fields produced a much greater crop of weeds than of wheat, in such a manner that the wheat that grew was short in stature. Then too, he needed to manoeuvre around the many prominent rocks throughout the fields when seeding and harvesting. As we passed by his fields after harvest we saw much wheat still standing, waiting for the birds, mice and gophers to glean. The proximity of these heads of wheat to the rocks or to the surface of the ground made them inaccessible to the harvesting machinery.

Then came a day when the farmer announced that he had seen the light, from henceforth things would be different. He purchased top quality seed and fertilizer, enough for all his fields. He chose not to remove the rocks and the weeds. The good seed, he said, with the help of the fertilizer, would produce vigorous plants that would choke the weeds and grow so high the rocks would not be a problem.

Unfortunately, the bad seeds in the ground outnumbered the good seeds he planted. With the help of the fertilizer, they grew taller that year than ever before. The wild mustard plants resembled small trees. I did not see if the birds of the air built their nests in these great shrubs, but I observed them flitting joyfully from branch to branch.

Harvest that year was neither better nor worse than in previous years. Whereupon the farmer declared that scientific farming was a fraud designed to separate gullible farmers from their money. He would never again believe a word of it. And the latter end of that farmer was worse than the beginning.

Some people approach Christian life in like manner. They realize the futility of their old ways and resolve to follow the way of Jesus. They read the Bible and attend church, and verily their countenances change. They have hope.

Still, there are the hurtful things they have said and done in the past, and perhaps dishonest things. These are great rocks in their life and removing them seems too great a task. The cost and effort of confession and restitution is higher than they wish to pay. Thus the rocks remain, ever a hindrance to the trust they desire from others.

Worse yet, the tendency to hurt feelings and flare-ups of temper remains and impedes the good they try to do. An apology would be too humiliating, better to wait and hope people forget. These thorns in their personalities choke out their good intentions. After a time, they conclude that Christianity was only an illusion and return to their old ways.

It need not be that way. But many evangelists who mean well neglect to explain that one cannot live a fruitful Christian life without removing the rocks and the thorns.

Mr. Average Canadian 

This was first published four years ago.

In 1926 Stephen Leacock tried to describe the average Canadian man of his day. Eighty-nine years have passed and Mister Average Canadian of that day is long dead and buried. Therefore, I will take it upon myself to describe his modern counterpart, according to census statistics.

In 2015 Mr. Average Canadian is 42 years old and lives in Sudbury, Ontario, but was not born there. His mother tongue is English, but one of his grandparents was French and he speaks 1,000 words of that language. He also speaks 100 words of Mandarin and 100 words of Hindi, Urdu or Arabic, and knows a few words of Cree or Ojibwe.

He has lived with three women, is halfway divorced from one and halfway married to another. Two children live with him and his halfway wife, they each have one other child who lives with the partner from whom they are halfway divorced. Mr. Average Canadian and his halfway wife each have one half of a university degree, but this does not add up to one full degree between them.

Mr. Average Canadian drives a Ford pickup and his halfway wife drives a Toyota Corolla. They also own a riding lawnmower and either a Skidoo or a Kawasaki ATV. Mr. Average Canadian shops once a week at Canadian Tire for parts for their vehicles and equipment, parts to fix the tap in the bathroom, new tools with which to do the repairs, or clothes to wear on his upcoming hunting trip. He also meets with friends for coffee at Tim Horton’s two times in the week. He has an Android phone which he uses to keep up with family and friends, the weather, sports, news and various other things.
Mr. Average Canadian and his halfway wife attend a church five times a year. They may also go to a synagogue or a mosque occasionally. They have one quarter of a Bible in their home and each will pick it up three times a year and try to read something in it, but they still don’t have a clue what it’s all about.

This I believe is a reasonably accurate portrait of Mr. Average Canadian. Here is the big question: where does one begin when he wishes to share the gospel with such a person?

The answer should be obvious — you need to be one of those friends he meets with at Tim Horton’s, show him the nifty Bible app on your Android phone and encourage him to download it too. That is the beginning.

Simplicity of the church

It was a fine summer day in 1627 and I was strolling through Plimoth Plantation when deacon Samuel Fuller fell in step beside me. “The church officials back in England are saying that we have no business calling ourselves a church here in Massachusetts, because we have no minister,” he said.  “But a church is made up of Christian people. They don’t even have a church. Who made them ministers and bishops?”

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Image by OpenClipart-Vectors on Pixabay

Well, OK, the year was actually 1990, the man beside me was an actor playing the role of Samuel Fuller and we were in a recreated Plimoth Plantation, meticulously designed to look and feel like 1627. But I have no doubt that the real Samuel Fuller actually spoke those words.

Later that day, at a family reunion supper, I asked a young lady (a distant cousin) who also worked at Plimoth Plantation, if the modern Samuel Fuller really believed what he was saying. She hesitated a moment, then said “I think he has it in his head, but not in his heart.”

There you have the essential requirement of a church: Christian people. Not people motivated by tradition, emotion, social connection or intellect, but genuine, from the heart, born again Christians.

How can we do that? The short answer is we can’t. Jesus said He would build His church, The real question is how can we discern if a church is being built by Jesus or by people?

The New Testament speaks of believers meeting for worship, but there are no instructions as to what the meeting place should look like. Being as I live in Saskatchewan and it is bitterly cold outside right now, I am thankful for a warm building to use when we meet to worship. But I am wary when buildings become large and elaborate and are regarded with more reverence than the meeting going on inside.

The New Testament speaks of preaching, but never hints that the preacher needs special training, or that he should be paid a salary. The word minister means servant, yet a minister also has a responsibility to watch over the spiritual welfare of his congregation. But if he begins to think of himself as a lord over the congregation, he has crossed a line according to 1 Peter 5:3.

The New Testament speaks of singing, but never hints at the use of musical instruments. Entertainment is not an enhancement of worship, but rather a distraction.

The New Testament also shows that a close relationship between churches or congregations in different places and different countries. One of the warning signs that a congregation is not being built by Jesus is when it is totally independent of any other group.

I have known people who do church at home or who belong to small independent congregations. They appear to have good convictions but they are alone in their faith, there is no one else with whom they can have fellowship. And I have seen what happens to children from these tiny, self-isolated groups. They rebel. Some forsake Christian faith altogether, some find a home in a much more liberal church. They all blame their parents for their strict, legalistic attitude.

But they are missing something. A church does not become more spiritual, closer to Jesus, by ignoring most of His teachings, saying they were for a different era. The real problem was that their parents trusted no one but themselves. That is perhaps the greatest deception of all, to believe that I, and only I, am walking with the Lord.

This brings us back to the beginning. The Church built by Jesus Christ is a church made up of genuine, from the heart, born again Christians. A church where “Christ is all, and in all” (Colossians 3:11).  Part of being a genuine Christian is the grace to see Christ in others, in spite of our outward differences.

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