Antiquarian Anabaptist

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

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An entry level Mennonite church

“I like to use the New English Bible, it’s easier for people of our time to understand.” We had eaten supper with Peter Dueck and his wife in their home near Lowe Farm. Mr. Dueck (he didn’t want to be called Reverend) was the senior minister of the Lowe Farm Mennonite Church. Chris and I shared our wish to become Mennonites and we received a warm invitation to make ourselves at home in their congregation. Towards the end of our evening, Mr. Dueck shred his preference of Bible versions.

So I went out and bought a copy of the New Englsih Bible and we used it in our family Bible reading time at home. We began attending the Lowe Farm church and soon felt at home.

In the fall it was announced that catechism classes would begin for those wanting to join church. We enrolled and spent an evening a week through the winter studying Mennonite doctrine. The others in the class were youth from the congregation.

Things were going smoothly; I was excited that soon we would be members of a Mennonite church. When we came to the end of the catechism and the day of baptism was just a week away, Mr. Dueck drew us aside and informed us that we would not be baptized. Chris had been baptized as a baby and I at the age of nine and they would accept those baptisms and just take us in as members.

I was stunned. I had read enough history and doctrine to know that baptism of believers had always been a distinguishing characteristic of the Anabaptist-Mennonite faith. And we had most certainly not been believers when a form of baptism had been applied to us years earlier.

I was baffled, hurt and confused. We had made no secret of our wish to be baptized, based on our belief that the baptism of unbelievers had no validity. No one had suggested anything different, now our expectations were shattered.

We decided to look for another church, but which one? There were many around, including the Church of God in Christ, Mennonite. I enjoyed visiting with the members of that church at the elevator, but shrank from actually attending their church. I guess we were looking for an entry level Mennonite church.

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No longer alone

It was a small wedding, just a few of our family and friends. I remember that we barely made it to the church on time and I remember when we signed our marriage certificate. My meory doesn’t seem to have recorded anything else, but that’s the important stuff anyway – we were there and we got married. Later that afternoon we left to spend our honeymoon at Lake Waskesiu in Prince Albert National Park. In the middle of our first night together Chris woke up, startled and a little disoriented, saying, “I just dreamed that we were married!.”

We’ve been living that dream for almost 48 years now. Like most dreams, it has had twists and turns when we wondered how it would turn out. Now we’re old folks and still together.

They tell you that two become one when you marry. They don’t tell you (or maybe I just wasn’t listening when it was told) how hard it will be to change the old habits of singlehood. As a bachelor, I had washed dishes when I had nothing left to cook with or eat from. Socks and shirts stayed where they dropped when I took them off. Every couple weeks I would go round the house, gather my dirty clothes and take them to the laundromat. I kind of knew my bride wouldn’t be charmed by those old habits,  but they died hard.

I wanted a Christian home, but had little idea what that might involve. The first night after we settled into our home in Sperling, Chris told me she wanted us to read the Bible and pray together. That is, she wanted me to take the lead in doing it. I resisted, she insisted. Once begun it became a practice that has continued to this day.

Chris had finished Grade 11 when living at Kelliher with her uncle. Now she enrolled in Grade 12 in Carman, the second town west of Sperling and caught the school bus early each morning.  That didn’t last long. Being a newcomer and the only married person in the class left her out of the social whirl of school. She decided that she had more important things to do at home.

Before we were married, I tried teaching her to drive my pickup truck. It had a standard transmission with the shift lever on the steering column. We drove out of Belle Plaine onto Highway Number One, the Trans-Canada, and I sat close beside her to coach. This was easier back in the days before seat belts and bucket seats. An RCMP officer stopped us and asked what was happening. Chris showed her learner’s permit and I my driver’s license and explained that I was trying to coach a driver who was unfamiliar with manual transmissions. He was a nice guy, he didn’t snicker or give us a ticket, just suggested that Chris might manage better if I didn’t sit so close.

Now that we were settled down, she enrolled in Driver’s Ed in Carman. I had traded the pickup for a car with automatic transmission and soon she was able to do the grocery shopping while I was at work.

Chris had never heard of Mennonites before she met me, but decided that if I wanted to be a Mennonite she did too. There were Mennonite churches of various kinds within a 15 or 20 minute drive from Sperling. I didn’t know much about any of them and stalled at trying to find out. One day I came home from work and my young bride informed me that she had talked to a minister at Lowe Farm, a town straight south of us, and we had an invitation to go and visit him and his wife.

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.

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.

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