Flatlander Faith

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

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Africa rising

What picture comes to your mind when you think of Africa? A remote village of mud huts with scantily clad people scratching their subsistence from the soil with hand tools? Or modern cities with skyscrapers, factories, hospitals and universities?

Both scenarios exist, but far more people live in the cities. Nigeria is the largest country in Africa, with the largest population. There are 20,000 millionaires in Nigeria nd 20 billionaires.

The wealthiest man in Nigeria is Aliko Dangote with interests in the manufacture of cement, sugar and petroleum products. The fourth wealthiest person in Nigeria is Folorunsho Alakija, a lady who started out as a fashion designer and now also has investments in the oil industry. She has created a foundation to help widows and orphans through scholarships and business grants.

Nigeria has one of the world’s highest rates of university graduation. Emigrants from Nigeria are among the most successful immigrants in Canada, the USA and the UK.
I believe it was at least 10 years ago that someone said that the heartland of evangelical Christianity is now in Africa, not North America. Nigerian churches see North America and Europe as mission fields. In Saskatoon, our nearest city, there are five or six congregations of the Redeemed Christian Church of God, including one French-language congregation. There is also a congregation of the Deeper Christian Life Bible Church. The Anglican churches in Africa, Asia and Latin America have severed all ties with the Anglican Church of Canada and the Episcopal Church in the USA and are now guiding the establishment of a new Anglican movement in North America that is more true to the Bible, especially in the area of morality.

What is true of Nigeria is also true of other African countries in varying degrees. It is true that there is still much poverty in some places, but economic growth rates are astounding.

There are acts of terrorism in various places by hard line Islamists. I have no prophetic vision of how this is all going to play out in coming years, but I wonder if these acts might not a last ditch attempt to hold back the tide that they see sweeping over Africa.

Is it time to take a fresh look at Africa and African people? The evidence shows that these black-skinned people are in no way inferior to white-skinned people. We are equals, in intellect, in faith, in management ability, and we should respect each other as equals.
International aid has done more to hold Africa back than to help it move forward. Emergency aid in time of disaster is always in place, but it would probably be best to have it administered by local people as much as possible. Sending used clothing and mosquito nets may give us a worm glow, but does it undercut the local production of those goods?

Surely it’s time to revamp our selection of mission hymns. The idea of carrying the gospel to “every dark land” has always given a skewed idea of mission work; we need to find better ways to describe the practice of being ambassadors for Christ. The call to proclaim the faith once delivered to the saints and to make disciples in all the world has not expired. But we render ourselves unfit for the task if some illusion of superiority still lingers in the way we relate to others.

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What’s in the bottle?

Once upon a time a family was given a wonderful elixir that would cure every disease of mankind. They bottled it in plain brown bottles and offered it for sale to others. The price was very high and it didn’t taste very good, but it worked.

As time went on the descendants of this family developed different points of view on how best to make this elixir available to others.

Group one was very careful to guard the original formula of the elixir. The size and shape and colour of their bottles varied from time to time and place to place, but it remained just as expensive and just as bitter tasting. And just as effective.

Group two thought the bottle was too old-fashioned, let’s make it more eye catching. And something needs to be done to make it taste better, so they added new ingredients. And the price is too high, it turns people off, so the elixir was made of less costly ingredients. There were many disagreements about the best way to make the elixir appeal to the greatest number of people and there began to be many variations of the product on the market.

Group three thought that they dare not tamper with the elixir, so they went to great efforts to obtain bottles that looked just like the originals. They thought they remembered what the formula was, but there was disagreement among them and soon there were many variations of the elixir on the market, all in bottles that looked pretty much the same, each claiming to be the original.

It didn’t take long for people to discover that the elixirs offered by groups two and three did not really work. Soon people began to doubt if there ever was an elixir that did work. They observed that those in group one seemed much healthier than others, but attributed it to factors other than the elixir.

This is an allegory of the churches of our day. Each one claims to be the most trustworthy steward of the faith once delivered to the saints. The world around us expects that if the faith is what Christians say it is, they should be able to see some results. Far too many have given up on Christianity altogether, deeming it to be a fraud that cannot deliver what it promises.

Nevertheless it does work for some. Why not for everybody? Isn’t it because so many who claim to be Christians seem to be more interested in how the bottle looks, the outward appearance, than what is in the bottle, the transforming power of the Holy Spirit?

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance: against such there is no law. And they that are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with the affections and lusts. (Galatians 5:22-24)

Now if any man have not the Spirit of Christ, he is none of his. (Romans 8:9)

I believe it was G. K. Chesterton who said “Christianity has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult and therefore not tried.”

 

Moving on, or pressing on

I really thought that spring would be here in just a day or two. The sun shone warmly on Saturday, the few patches of snow left were becoming smaller and smaller, we heard of birds coming back to a place just a few hours south of us.

Alas, it was but a dream. We awoke Sunday to a thick covering of fresh snow and rapidly cooling temperatures. Today the wind is blowing fiercely, cleaning the snow from open places and packing it into firm drifts in other places. The forecast doesn’t offer any hope of warmer weather until the 21st when spring officially begins.

No wonder the Romans named this month after Mars, their god of war. Many of the worst blizzards I have experienced arrived without warning during this month.

Wouldn’t it be better to live in a part of the world that never has winter? That sounds like a good idea on days like today. But – I have visited Arkansas and Mississippi at the end of March, when the weather was beautiful and I don’t know how I could survive a summer in those places. Besides, winter provides us with an all natural, ecologically safe barrier to things like fire ants, brown recluse spiders, Burmese pythons and other such creatures. Tornado season here is much shorter and less destructive.

I could go on, but you get the picture. I am accustomed to the hazards of living in this climate and know how to cope with the unpleasant aspects of it. If I moved somewhere else to avoid those issues, would I know how to cope with unfamiliar and unexpected aspects of the new locale?

A Saskatchewan politician visiting in British Columbia once said “A lot of Saskatchewan people move to B.C. because of the climate. Most of them move back because of the weather.” My father-in-law was one. He got so depressed by week after week of clouds, rain, and no sunshine in B.C. that he came back to Saskatchewan.

I think that applies to other aspects of our life. Someone grows frustrated in his job, his marriage, his church, the place he lives, and thinks a change will make things better. (I used the masculine pronouns because that is what I am and what I am most familiar with, not to imply that persons on the feminine side may not have the same temptations.) Most often the result is not what was anticipated.

Often a person will explain the change in one of these relationships by his need to get away from persons who are causing him trouble. Oddly enough, the same kind of persons, causing the same problems, are usually found in the next job, church, town, or marriage. And the next one after that.

If we take an honest look at ourselves, we are apt to find we have a full time job looking after the troubles caused by our own attitudes and actions. If we occupy ourselves with that, we will usually be quite content to stay where we are.

Sometimes there are legitimate reasons to move on, other than discontent with the people we have to do with. My wife and I tried out a number of churches years ago. We met a lot of fine people, but not the spiritual fellowship that we longed for. We have belonged to the Church of God in Christ, Mennonite for 37 years now. That doesn’t mean we have found nicer people, or better people, it just means that we are content that we are where God wants us to be.

Here in the Swanson congregation we have been trying for over a year to decide what to do about our aging church building. Such a situation provides endless possibilities for conflict. But it also creates possibilities for confession and apology when attitudes and words have been uncharitable. It feels like this process is drawing us closer together.

Reflections on turning 75

I remember the exact moment when I realized I was edging into the senior ranks. It was in 1992 and I was explaining to a younger friend how things had been when I was a boy. All of a sudden there was a little voice in my head saying, “Wait a minute! What’s going on here? It used to be that only old people talked like that.”

Twenty-five years have gone by since then; there’s no use trying to deny it any longer — I am officially an old codger. Today I am 75. And I am not 75 years young — I am not going to play that game. According to Moses, “ The days of our years are threescore years and ten.” By that reckoning I am five years past my best before date.

I have accumulated a ton of stories and anecdotes and some of them are even interesting to my grandchildren. My hope is that they will remember some of those stories in later years and realize that there are life lessons to be learned from the experiences told by the older folks. Lessons like the following:

The good old days weren’t always that great.
• Does anyone today remember tuberculosis and polio? There were epidemics of those diseases, and many others, when I was young.
• Does anyone remember dust storms that reduced visibility to zero and seeped into the best sealed houses? When I was a boy, most farmers had one piece of tillage equipment, a one-way disc harrow. They used it for seeding and for summerfallowing. The soil dried to a powder that would travel with any breeze. Today’s tillage equipment and farming methods conserve soil moisture and nutrients, making possible crop yields that were unthinkable years ago.
• Volunteer fire departments in small towns did their best, but they were untrained and under equipped. A grocery store in our town caught fire, someone rang the bell on the town hall and soon the volunteers were on the scene with the town’s fire equipment. In their rush to fight the blaze, they got the fire hoses tangled up. By the time they got them untangled it was too late.

New doesn’t always mean better
• Teachers are better trained, schools are bigger and better equipped, the curriculum is constantly being upgraded. Illiteracy rates have exploded, store clerks haven’t a clue how to make change if the computerized till breaks down, and people don’t know what country Ottawa is in.
• Thalidomide was used to treat morning sickness in pregnant women. Thousands of babies were born with missing or malformed arms and legs. Thousands more did not survive. Seldane was a marvellous new non-drowsy antihistamine. It caused me to have heart palpitations, a few people died — it is no longer available. My wife was prescribed Vioxx to treat her arthritis. She had heart palpitations while taking the drug; it also is no longer available.
• Time was when most people went to church on Sunday. The Word of God was read, moral principles and respect for others were taught. Of course there were a lot of half-hearted Christians and outright hypocrites in the churches. But has abandoning the churches made our world a better place?

Weather changes
• There is no such thing as normal weather, at least not where I live. When I was five there was a blizzard that closed roads for days and almost buried a passenger train — the town people carried food out to the train until it could be dug out. In the early fifties southern Saskatchewan had summer temperatures up to 105° F and winter temperatures down to -50° F . I don’t believe we have ever experienced those extremes in following years.
• Saskatchewan is more familiar with drought, but in the past five or six years we have had a series of summers with much higher than average rainfall.
• Forty years ago there was a suspicion that the Soviets were using nuclear tests to manipulate our weather and cause unusual storms. There were serious scientific attempts to explain how this could be done. Years of living here have convinced me that every year brings something we haven’t seen before and yet it is all part of the normal weather cycle. There is no need to look for a human cause.

There were frequent nuclear bomb tests in the late fifties when I was in high school. The media kept us informed when the cloud of radioactive dust would pass over our area. One morning Jack Dosko came to school and reported: “ The nuclear fallout passed right above us in the night and this morning I saw little pock marks all over the windshield of Charles Kennedy’s pickup. I wonder what else we will find.” Sixty years have passed and I still see windshields like that. I think it has something to do with our gravel roads.

Let’s not get too excited when we hear scare stories. This too shall pass.

Food for the hungry

Back when we were living in southwestern Ontario we made the trip back to Saskatchewan every two years. The trip was 3,000km and took 3 days each way. The first two days we tried to get an early start and got our meals at fast food restaurants to save time. When we stopped for gas we would load up with pop and snacks to keep us going. By the third day, we were all tired of fast food and junk food and knew we had to stop for one real meal before we got to our destination.

We still enjoy fast food and junk food, more often than we should if truth be told. But we know that we cannot live on a diet like that. Even fast food restaurants are advertising healthier meals, with more fresh, natural ingredients and fewer additives.

But there are still far too many churches out there trying to feed their congregations with fast food spirituality. They offer contemporary music that is initially fresh and attractive but provides very little nourishment. Then they add “seeker-friendly” messages that intrigue but don’t satisfy. And they wonder how they can keep their young people from wandering off in search of the world’s amusements.

People want to be fed, need to be fed. Preachers need to spend less time studying psychology and more time in deep study of the Word of God, less time trying to adapt marketing methods to evangelism and more time in prayer, less time trying to get new people into the church and more time feeding the souls of those who are already in.

That last point may seem counter-intuitive, most of us agree that churches today need to be more evangelistic in their home communities than they have been in past generations. But – the preacher is not the church, the people are. Feed the people, show them how to find solid spiritual nutrition for themselves, then let them invite others to the banquet.

“Feed the flock of God which is among you, taking the oversight thereof, not by constraint, but willingly; not for filthy lucre, but of a ready mind; neither as being lords over God’s heritage, but being ensamples to the flock” (1 Peter 5:2-3).

A tree falls on the prairie

One hundred years ago, settlers came to the flatlands of Saskatchewan. No need for axes and saws to fell trees, just a team of oxen and a plough to turn the virgin sod and prepare it for a first crop. Of course, the lack of trees also meant a lack of building materials, so the first home was often built of strips of sod laid one on top of the other.

The lack of trees on the open prairie also meant that you were fully exposed to the wind. And wind is an almost constant, though invisible, feature of the prairie landscape. So the settlers planted trees – poplars, willows, caraganas, Manitoba maples. Folks today consider those trees to be almost weed species, but they were the ideal trees for creating a shelter from the wind. They grew quickly and they were tough enough to survive during the dry spells and the winds. The poplars grew tall and strong, with massive trunks.

Now those poplars have grown old. Long ago, through damage caused by rodents, birds, insects and weathering, a fungus had penetrated the protective shell of the bark. Slowly the fungus worked on the inside, while the tree still appeared healthy and strong. Branches began to die and be broken off in the wind. Finally, the inner strength was gone and the trees began to fall, one by one, during windstorms. One tree was almost dead, yet one branch still produced fresh green leaves in the spring. Then one day, without a breath of wind, the tree fell. There just wasn’t enough sound wood left to bear the weight of the massively tall tree.

One hundred years ago, the settlers brought with them a faith in God. There were different varieties of faith, some seem to have been more vigorous and sturdy than others. Their faith gave them strength to persevere during the hardship of the pioneer years. Churches were established that appeared strong and substantial, able to stand for generations. Today, one by one, those churches are closing their doors.

The cause is the same: somehow a foreign life was allowed to enter in. New doctrines, new ideas, new methods of working. They didn’t seem dangerous, but the decay set in and no one knew the source, or what to do about it.

Many Christians and churches remain, but not all have a strong connection to the source of truth and life. In many places the decay is still very active and there is much confusion about how to arrest it. Some still seem healthy and strong, but how long can that last if they only want to save themselves from the decay that is evident in others? Do they perhaps have another type of decay that will eventually bring them down, too?

Only God can save His people. Will they hear His call, or will they let the opportunity to save themselves and others from the wrath to come pass unheeded?

Somewhere a forest is burning

Somewhere a forest is burning
A blue smoky haze blurs the horizon.
Acrid fumes affect our breathing
Causing eyes to sting, tears begin to run.

Somewhere a forest is burning
A forest of churches now redundant;
Made weak and sickly from learning
To accommodate half-true new doctrine.

New interpretations of truth
Weakened those who once were mighty and tall.
Rottenness took hold of the roots
One by one the branches began to fall.

Places where once the Word of God
Shone over the pathway for young and old.
Who will weep for all that is gone?
Who recalls the truths that once here were told?

Fire consumes twisted undergrowth
Heavenly light touches the hidden seeds.
Out of ashes appears the truth
Growing the forest this world so much needs.

All that man builds the fire will try
That alone which came from God will remain.
Then may we forever rely
On the Word of truth that He has proclaimed.

Copyright © August 16, 2014 by Bob Goodnough

[Another poem? I think this is all for awhile. Friday I sat in Scott’s Parable Christian Store in Saskatoon with a cappuccino and a notebook and scribbled down some notes. After considerably more scribbling, crossing out and shifting things around I came up with these two poems. The smoke was pretty noticeable on Friday, from forest fires a thousand miles away in British Columbia and the Northwest Territories.].

Broken paradigms

Sixty years ago, when I was twelve years old, I  did not know any child my age who had not had the same father and a mother from the time they were born.  One neighbour boy was being raised by his grandmother; there was a highly publicized fund raisng effort every year for the orphange in Indian Head, Saskatchewan. These and other evidences made me aware that not all children were growing up in a  stable, two parent homesuch a setting, but that was the accepted norm, or paradigm.

Two generations later, I wonder what percentage of twelve year olds would now say that none of their friends and school-mates have lived with the same two parents since their birth? Judging by the weekly birth listings from a newspaper in a mid-sized Saskatchewan city, only 40% of babies are born to parents who share the same surname. Some unmarried parents will later marry, but 40% of all marrieages will end in divorce. This paints a pretty bleak picture — the majority of today’s childrenwill not grow up in a stable two parent home.

What happened? Not all the homes of 60 years ago could be described as happy homes; a few would have been miserably u8nhappy. Because of these few unfortunate situations, our society has taken a sledgehammer to the paradigm of marriage and family. Years ago the intellectual leaders of the sociology and psychology departments of our universities made no secret of their desire to destroy the family, teaching that it was the enemy of human progress toward freedom and self-fullfilment.

The sexual revolution came upon us very suddenly. The pill gave teenagers the feeling that they could experiment freely with sex withoiut consequences. And if there were consequences — well, abortion soon became readily available and socially aceptable. And then the stigma of homosexuality was removed. Within a few years everything that stood in the way of seeking unbridled pleasure in sex was swept away. Of course there have been consequences, but no one wants to admit that the increasing abuse and violence against women and children has anything to do with the sexual revolution.

We survey the wreckage around us and agree something needs to be done to fix it. But we can’t agree on what should be done. The seeds sown many years ago are bearing fruit today in the form of people who see persoanal freedom as the ultimate goal and therefore view marriage as a form of bondage for both men and women.

Sixty years ago, the majority of people still went to church every Sunday. I think we are down to about 10% now. Many of the churches of years ago had bought into the social gospel movement, which was just a camouflaged version of socialism and psychological-sociological thinking. Those same churches endorsed the sexual revolution on the basis that all liberty is good and wholesome. Today they are dying out, since a church that applauds all that is done in secular society makes itself irrelevant.

What may be a greater problem are the self-proclaimed evangelical churches that have no idea how to apply the evangel to the needs of society around them. They are seen to be making inept attempts to appear relevant, without addressing the basic needs of people. All too often, that is because they have bought into a large portion of the values of the secular society.

In a few years time we have gone from being a society largely founded on Christian values to a pagan society that is not much different than the world in which the apostles lived. What is needed today is the same straightforward gospel that they preached. That is, the gospel needs to be presented to the people who are suffereing the most from the malaise of our time as the only true remedy for their distress. That would mean actually taking the Word of God at its word, and not trying to smooth over the parts that challenge the current paradigms of our society. We need to preach repentance as John the Baptist and our Lord preached it. Not in a self-righteous, holier-than-thou attitude, but with compassion for all the victims of the current broken and fatal paradigms.

Pigment triggered cognitive dysfunction

My personal observations, perhaps not very scientific but still quite realistic I believe, have convinced me that a substantial portion of humanity is afflicted with a strange malady.  This malady manifests itself when a person meets, or even hears of, someone with a different colour of skin.  The symptoms are that this person then seems to become unable to absorb any more information about the person of a different colour.  I have chosen to call this pigment triggered cognitive dysfunction.

This is not really the same thing as prejudice.  Many people afflicted with this disorder would profess nothing but good will for people of another colour.  They just seem unable to understand each other or to relate to each other in any meaningful way.

I know that a great many white people are afflicted with this.  Here in Saskatchewan, when a white person encounters an Indian (or First Nations) person, he tends to instinctively think of all the stories he has heard of Indians with broken homes, a drinking problem and an inability to hold a job.  Of course there are many Indians who are hard-working, responsible and sober.  We tend to identify them as being white people, thus not allowing their example to change our “knowledge” of what Indians are like.  It may take years of acquaintanceship before the white person is able to absorb any other information about what the Indian person is really like.

Many Indian people have their own knee-jerk reflex perceptions of what white people are like, thus both groups face major hurdles in learning to know each other.

No group of people is immune from this malady.  An Indian couple on a reserve in Eastern Canada adopted a black child.  The band council passed a resolution denying this child membership in the band and the privileges that would go with it.  A Christian Indian lady of my acquaintance says that her mother, who is of 1/8 white ancestry, is known as “White Woman” on the reserve.

The same symptoms are manifested, though to a slightly lesser degree in Canada, in the way whites perceive black people and the way black people perceive white people.  I recall an incident while we were living in Montréal and worshipping in a small mission congregation.  One Sunday morning a young black man stepped into church, saw only white people and immediately became very nervous.  I went to speak to him and invited him to join us, but he looked at our literature rack and seized upon that as an excuse, saying he had only come to get some information and he would come back another time.  He never did.  I have often kicked myself for my slow thinking, for there was a black lady seated on the side of the church that was not visible from the doorway.  Would it have made a difference if I had quickly called Esperanza and asked her to help this young man feel at home?

How would I have reacted if the tables were turned and I was the only white person walking into a church full of black people?  I would like to think that while I may not be totally cured of pigment triggered cognitive dysfunction (it seems to be a congenital disorder in most of us), I have had enough experience in being around black (and other non-white) people that I would not immediately panic and run for the nearest exit.

We might like to think that a disorder such as pigment triggered cognitive dysfunction could not exist among Christian people.  Yet I observed in Montréal that most evangelical denominations had separate congregations for blacks and whites.  There were only a handful of congregations where black and white people seemed able to worship together.  No one seemed to have a valid reason why it didn’t work in other denominations.  I would suggest that it is due to the undiagnosed presence of pigment triggered cognitive dysfunction.

The first step toward being cured of pigment triggered cognitive dysfunction is to admit that one has it.  This is pretty hard on our pride, for we like to think of ourselves as warmhearted, magnanimous people without a trace of prejudice.  But how do we react when we meet someone of another skin colour?  What if we meet a whole group of people of that colour?  Or do we perhaps do our best to avoid such a situation?

We can avoid any but the briefest contact with people of another skin colour and convince ourselves that we are entirely free of such a thing as pigment triggered cognitive dysfunction.  That is self-deception.  I don’t know of any other cure but to spend time with people who look different that we are and discover that they really aren’t very different after all.

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