Flatlander Faith

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

Tag Archives: conversion

Free will

We must believe in free will — we have no choice. Isaac Bashevis Singer.

Hmm. I wonder what he was getting at? Having nothing more to go on to discern a more complex meaning in Mr. Singer’s thought than this fragment, I will say that I agree.

When Moses told the people “I call heaven and earth to record this day against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing: therefore choose life;” and Joshua later said to the same people “ Choose you this day whom ye will serve,” we must assume that the people really were free to make the choices offered to them.

Yet many Christian denominations, probably most, teach that we do not have free will to choose our own destiny. They magnify the sovereignty of God to the point of saying that if humans can choose whether or not to answer God’s call then we are saying that God is less than almighty.

But if words mean anything, the Bible is offering us just such a choice, from Genesis to Revelation. Where then do people get the idea that the Bible doesn’t mean what it says?

Determinism, the belief that the gods, karma, fate, or whatever you want to call the ultimate power in the universe, have pre-determined every detail of one’s life, has always been part of Eastern religions. It entered Western thought through Zeno, founder of the Stoic school of philosophy.

It entered pseudo-Christian thought through Augustine, who laid the intellectual foundation for Roman Catholic policy. Augustine adapted Zeno’s thought, saying that God has predestined some people to be saved, and some to be damned. Since it is not given to mankind to know into which category they fall, the church has the right to compel all people within its territory to be members of the church and to turn the non-compliant over to the civil authorities. And since the church and the civil power were in complete unity, disobedience to the church was treason to the state and must be punished by death.

Since it could not be known who was predestined to salvation or damnation, then one could not discern that by the moral conduct of the person. In fact, those who led a pure and holy life were deemed to be deceived and the worst of heretics. This led to such aberrations in the Middle Ages as girls being led to the executioner because they refused the advances of the priests.

During the Protestant Reformation, John Calvin refined the doctrine of Augustine; the essence of Calvin’s doctrine is often described by the TULIP formula:
Total depravity – the depravity of mankind prevents them from choosing to answer God’s call.
Unconditional election – The conduct of the elect has no part in determining their salvation.
Limited atonement – Christ only died for the elect, those predestined to be saved.
Irresistible grace – the grace of God is imparted to the elect, who have no power to resist it.
Perseverance of the saints – The elect can never lose their salvation.

This is the explicit doctrine of the Presbyterian, Reformed and most Baptist churches. Other churches believe much of what Calvin taught, but may be a bit nebulous about the origin of their beliefs.

The problem with believing Calvin’s doctrine is that church pews are occupied by people who believe that they have been born again through the irresistible grace of the Holy Spirit, but show little evidence of leading a Christian life. The old Westminster Confession got around this by saying that a born again person may take many years to develop an assurance of salvation. The modern teaching is that the new birth and conversion are quite different things, the new birth being instantaneous and conversion being a slow, almost imperceptible process.

The Bible makes no such distinction, the words are used interchangeably. There was a transition period for the disciples who walked with Jesus but did not receive the Holy Spirit until the Day of Pentecost. Jesus told Peter “When thou art converted, strengthen thy brethren.” It was only a few days later that Peter preached on the Day of Pentecost and 3,000 were baptized. After that, the Apostle Paul says “But ye are not in the flesh, but in the Spirit, if so be that the Spirit of God dwell in you. Now if any man have not the Spirit of Christ, he is none of his.”

Some may be confused by Paul’s thoughts on predestination. Read the passages as a whole. He is saying that God had predestined that there should be no more division between Jews and Gentiles, but that all could be saved in the same way. He is not speaking of individuals being predestined to salvation. At the end of one long passage on predestination, he writes: “What shall we say then? That the Gentiles, which followed not after righteousness, have attained to righteousness, even the righteousness which is of faith. But Israel, which followed after the law of righteousness, hath not attained to the law of righteousness. Wherefore? Because they sought it not by faith, but as it were by the works of the law.”

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What is a talent?

Jesus told a parable of a man going to a far country who distributed talents to his servants. The talents given in this parable were money, not ability, for it says that He gave “to every man according to his several ability” (Matthew 25:15).

After generations of misunderstanding this passage we have come to understand talent to mean ability. This is not such a bad thing, and there’s nothing we can do about it anyway. But it is a serious misunderstanding to interpret the parable to mean that when we become Christians God will give us some new ability that we never had before. That is not taught in this parable, nor anywhere else in the Bible.

What this parable does teach is that God wants us to develop the abilities that we have so that they can be employed for the good of His Kingdom.

I was thinking of this the other day as we were in Saskatoon. Our first stop was at the Christian book store. I am impressed with all the staff here, but I’ll just mention one. This store has a loyalty program which requires the person at the till to enter the customer’s phone number. Tanaya never asks for my phone number, but the cash register slip always comes out with my name on it and a summary of my loyalty account.

This young lady obviously has a phenomenal memory, but that’s only part of it. I do not get preferred treatment over other customers, she makes every one of us feel that we are especially welcome in the store. We say she has a special talent for the job she is doing.

I don’t believe that this is a talent that was given her at the time of conversion, or any other particular moment. It is rather the result of her efforts to develop the abilities she had in a way that would be of helpt to thers.

The same day we had dinner with our friends Ray and Ruth. Ray is an accomplished artist; he has made his living by other means, but has been able to sell some of his art work for good prices. As a child he had an ability to see things around him in a way that allowed him to draw accurate representations.

His third grade school teacher remembers drawings of birds and animals on the margins of his school work. He has studied to refine and deepen the ability he began with. He painted a 60 foot mural in the church which he attends that depicts the history of the world from Creation to the Last Judgment. He also has a talent for teaching basic art techniques to children and people of all ages.

Finally I had an appointment with my eye doctor. This man has given me numerous injections for macular degeneration, which is now stable, and has done cataract surgery on both my eyes. His skill is the reason I can still see to type this post. Someone at the CNIB once told me that this doctor is the best in Western Canada for diseases of the retina.

For each one of us there is a way that we can develop whatever natural ability we have and put it to use in God’s kingdom. We should not feel that we are helpless until God grants us some special talent. Let us not despise the ability we already have, no matter how insignificant it may appear to us, and be ready and willing when He gives us an opportunity to put that ability to use for His honour and glory.

Things were going well for us

The Mennonite congregation in Moose Jaw was small, but we found the people warm and friendly. Being small, they overlooked the fact that we had not been baptized in the way they believed (immersion) and put us to work in the congregation.

One Sunday I was teaching the adult Sunday School class and one of the questions in the lesson, or rather the way the others ansered it, startled me. The question began with the scenario of a young couple that felt called to go to the mission field and seemed ideally qualified in every way, except they did not have a university degree. And the mission board required candidates to have a degree. What should they do? Look for a different opportunity to do mission work, or go to university and get the degree? Everyone in the class, except me, thought they needed to get that degree. I couldn’t grasp how that was supposed to help them be missionaries. But these people were almost all teachers or other professionals and seemed to feel that a degree trumped all other qualifications.

This was the time that Hal Lindsey’s book, The Late Great Planet Earth, was at the peak of its popularity. The pastor decided it would be a great idea to use it for Bible study through the winter, taking turns meeting in each other’s homes. I was fully bought into the premillenial scheme and beleived we were delving into deep Bible truths. I was dumbfounded when spring came and the pastor told me he didn’t believe the premillenial scheme. He had just thought that the book was a good way to get people interested in studying the Bible.

I don’t remember what Bible translation the pastor used, but it seemed that almost everyone in the congregation was using a different translation. I had accumulated a few different Bibles by that time and had been spending a lot of time comparing passages in them to discover the underlying meaning. It dawned on me one day that comparing Bible translations was not Bible study, it was just an exercise in confusion. By that time I had left my old tattered AV (KJV) Bible behind somewhere, so I had to get a new one.

Shortly thereafter I was leading a Bible study class based on Psalm 22. Each one in the class had their own favourite translation and it was bewildering to find that in none of the others could one discern any hint of a prophecy of the crucifiction. For instance, instead of “they have pierced my hands and my feet,” other versions said things like “wild beasts are clawing at my hands and my feet,” or “they have hacked off my hands and my feet.”

Such things left me with questions, but good things were happening in this church, too. An older lady, the mother of one of the memebers, began to have recurring dreams that pointed her to a verse in the Bible. She decided she should read that verse and it led to her conversion. She left the mainline Protestant denomination she had belonged to all her life and was baptized in the little Mennonite church.

Chris got a job as a cook in a large privately owned senior’s residence. The owner was from the community where my mother had grown up and had been acquainted with the family. The head cook was an elderly Belgian lady, crusty and warm-hearted. Chris found it an enjoyable place to work.

I applied for a job in the Post Office, passed the exam and the interview and was hired as a casual postal clerk. That meant I had no guarantee from week to week that there would be work for me, but it actually turned out to be full time work for six months until I was hired on to full time staff.

Everything seemed to be working out for us, Moose Jaw felt like our old home town, we had family and friends there. Our work schedules were such that we usually didn’t work at the same time, one of us was usually available to look after our growing girl. We had moved into the upstairs suite in my parent’s house and Grandma was delighted to help look after and entertain Michelle.

What could go wrong?

He gave his life for others

Last Friday a young Muslim in France, inspired by jihadist propaganda on social media, was moved to action that he thought would glorify Allah. He hijacked a car, killing one man in the process, drove to Trèbes, a town of 5,000 in the south of France and ran into a supermarket shouting Allahu Akbar (God is great). He killed two more men in the supermarket and took a woman hostage.

The police were soon on the scene, led by Lieutenant-Colonel Arnaud Beltrame. Colonel Beltrame left his weapons behind and entered the supermarket alone, determined to save lives by whatever means he could. He encountered the hostage taker, persuaded him to let the woman go with the promise that he would take her place. The woman, who was completely unknown to Colonel Beltrame, was released and then the attacker shot Colonel Beltrame. The police then rushed in and shot the attacker.

The parish priest of Arnaud Beltrame says that he was an irreligious man until he experienced a conversion seven years ago, His wife, now his widow, says that his devotion to his country and his fellow citizens cannot be separated from his devotion to God.

Arnaud Beltrame was given a state funeral on Wednesday in the courtyard of the cathedral of Les Invalides in Paris. President Emmanuel Macron delivered the eulogy, recounting the events of last Friday in order and saying the Arnaud Beltrame knew exactly what he was doing when he went calmly into the supermarket to face the attacker. He placed him in a long line of heros who have placed the lives and well-being of others ahead of their own and conferred on him the designation of Commander of the Legion of Honour. A religious funeral was held yesterday at Carcassone.

President Macron repeatedly referred to the clandestine threat posed by djihadist propaganda that circulates on social media and acts on the minds of the weak and unstable. Some of these who feel marginalized believe they can attain some sort of honour and glory by killing others in the name of Allah.

Colonel Beltrame was not seeking honour or glory, but acted with the intention of serving God and his fellow citizens by offering his life as a ransom for others. He will be remembered and perhaps his actions will inspire others.

This Good Friday, as we remember how our Saviour offered His life as a ransom for us all, may we contemplate the implications for ourselves of taking the way of the Cross.

Still looking for an entry level church

We still appreciated the people at the Lowe Farm church, but decided we needed to go shopping for another church. We wouldn’t have been able to put it into words, but we were looking for an entry level church, one that wouldn’t cost us too much in the way of commitment. Nevertheless, we had been disappointed when the Lowe Farm church didn’t even require believer’s baptism.

The first church we tried was a church of a different Mennonite denomination in the town of Carman. As the service began, the minister asked everyone to stand up, shake hands and introduce themselves to the persons on either side, in front and behind. It seemed genuinely warm and friendly. The warm glow of those introductions lasted right up until the final amen was said and all the people around us headed straight for the doors. We were the last ones out, exchanged a few words with the pastor and left. In the car going home we decided we wouldn’t need to visit that church again.

Next we decided to try the other Mennonite church in town. The first thing we noticed was the large number of earnest young people. The story of what was happening emerged as we continued to attend. A young man who had grown up here had lived a decidedly non-Christian life and left looking for adventure. He heard a street preacher in Vancouver and came under conviction. As he surrendered his life to the Saviour all the things he had done back home came flooding into his mind. He associated with a Jesus People group for awhile, until they encouraged him to return home and clean up the mess he had left behind.

He had come home and looked up the people he had wronged, confessing what he had done and paying for damage he had done where needed. His example, the freedom that was evident in his life, brought other young people under conviction.

One young lady told of feeling she needed to go to a store where she had shoplifted a number of items and confess what she had done. She resisted at first, because she had no idea how she could pay for what she had stolen. But she had gone, asked to see the store manager and told him the whole story. His face gave no hint of what he might be thinking. When she was done, he asked “Do you think your youth group could come and share their testimonies at our church? Our young people need to hear this.”

And so the movement had spread. The church was now sponsoring coffee house meeting every Wednesday eveing in town, where young people would gather to sing and share testimonies.

Pastor Harvey* was fully supportive, always ready to listen and counsel. We too found him warm and supportive. He told us he used the Living Bible as he thought it was worded in a way that young people could more readily understand. So I bought myself another Bible.

Chris had several dreams during this time, nightmares really. The dreams brought vivid scenes of the end of the world and the return of the Lord, accompanied by a feeling of dread that she was not ready. She went to visit Pastor Harvey* and he assured her that she need not worry, she was doing what God wanted her to do.

In the fall it was announced that retired bishop Daniel* would be conducting Bible studies through the winter on the subject of the end times and the return of Christ. We attended those Bible studies and took it all in as the elderly bishop took verses and parts of verses from here and there and wove them into a story of the rapture of the church, the coming on Antichrist, seven years of great tribulation, the battle of Armageddon and the establishment of the kingdom of Christ when He would reign for a thousand years from Jerusalem.

All appeared to be going well, in our visits with Pastor Harvey* it seemed that baptism would not be far off. Then there was a surprise meeting at church where the elders of the church informed us that this youth movement was getting out of hand, it seemed too much like Pentecostalism. So they had decided to dismiss Pastor Harvey* and give the pastoral responsibility back to bishop Daniel* until a new pastor could be found.

*Names marked by an asterisk are real people, but these are not their real names.

Bean counters – part 2

André was a big man, six feet tall and weighing over 300 pounds. He had had a painful childhood, much of it spent in an orphanage, but in the orphanage he learned how to cook. This was the one marketable skill that he carried into adult life and he discovered that there were mining camps and radar stations in Canada’s north that would pay very well for that skill.

When the first oil sands plant was being built near Fort McMurray, Alberta, André was the head chef, in charge of a large crew of cooks preparing meals for the 5,000 workmen. He told of how they had to learn to crack an egg with each hand to prepare breakfast for that huge crew.

Not all camps were that busy and André developed a taste for alcoholic beverages to make it through the isolation. One place was so isolated that booze was simply unobtainable, so when André ordered cooking supplies he would order vanilla by the case. The company accountant in Vancouver discovered repeated orders for cases of vanilla and questioned why they were needed. An investigation was made and André was fired and given transportation out to Vancouver.

He had enough money left for one good drunk, but the future looked bleak. Staggering down the streets of Vancouver, he saw a neon sign saying “Jesus Saves.” It was above a Pentecostal mission and there appeared to be living quarters above the mission. André made it up the steps and knocked on the door.

The young pastor opened the door to find a big, rough-looking and very drunk French Canadian standing there. He thought of his young family, did he dare invite this man to come in? André said “I need help,” and he was welcomed in. That pastor introduced André to Jesus, the one who was able to help.

André never took another drink. When he returned to working in the north he spent his non-working hours copying out the Bible. He had very neat handwriting and he wrote out the complete Bible at least twice, once in French and once in English. I think he may have written it out twice in French, but he isn’t around to ask anymore.

It was entirely unforeseen and unintended, but that bean counter who got André fired was indirectly the cause of his conversion.

Journeying on

We were having Vacation Bible School and for crafts we were doing a manger scene with Joseph, Mary and the baby Jesus. I started calling Mary’s husband Joe. I glimpsed a hint of a smile on Miss Parker’s face, just before Miss Napier let me know that I was not to be so flippant and disrespectful. I don’t suppose that Miss Parker was any more likely to encourage disrespect than Miss Napier, but she allowed herself to be amused by my childishness and seemed much more human to this twelve-year-old boy.

Miss Napier and Miss Parker were Bishop’s Messengers who had come to Craik to fill in until we could get another minister. They could not baptize or serve communion, but led the other types of worship service in the Book of Common Prayer: Morning Worship, Evening Worship and the Litany.

Miss Napier was British and the guardian of proper form and tradition. Miss Parker was Indian. Over the years that ethnic definition has gone from Indian to Native to Aboriginal to First Nations and recently to Indigenous. I must be getting old that seems like one change too far. I want to be respectful, but by the time I can get my head around Indigenous the nomenclature will no doubt have changed again. Miss Parker was a bit shy, definitely not pushy, and was liked by everyone. Miss Napier was not disliked, it just wasn’t easy to warm up to her.

After a year the Reverend Kenneth Vickers came to be our minister, along with his wife, daughter and son. Mister Vickers was the ideal country preacher. He was not afraid to get his hands dirty helping a farmer or maintaining the vicarage and yard. Just a regular down to earth guy that everyone liked. His daughter was nine days younger than me. I was horribly girl shy during the years I was in school, but I remember four girls with whom I could occasionally carry on a conversation. For some reason they were all named Joan and one of them was Joan Vickers.

It was while Mr Vickers was at Craik that I became an altar boy, assisting in communion services. The Craik parish included churches in three other towns and Sunday mornings found us travelling to services in two of those churches. When I turned sixteen and got a driver’s license he even let me drive his car, a Hillman Minx. Driving that car left me with the lifelong conviction that British technology is an oxymoron.

There were two other ministers at Craik before I ventured off into the big wide world, but all I remember of them are their foibles. I did try attending church again while living in Toronto, but there just wasn’t any pull to keep going back.

The worldwide Anglican Church has always been a big tent movement, where high church and low church Anglicans were able to function in harmony. The churches in Saskatchewan were pretty strongly high church where the liturgy was of utmost importance. Yet there were occasional hints of low church, or evangelical, tendencies. A discerning eye would have noted that the Anglican Church of Canada was already in it’s declining years when I was a boy. Today it has reached doddering old age.

Some congregations have withdrawn, reorganized and continue as outposts of the Anglican faith such as is found in Africa, Asia and South America. The Anglican churches of those countries no longer recognize the Canadian church as being of the same faith. The Anglican Church of Nigeria has sent a missionary couple to Saskatoon to start a new congregation.

I have moved on in my spiritual journey, yet when I look back it is clear that my journey began in the Anglican Church. After confirmation I was given a little red book of questions for self examination before communion. That little book almost led to my conversion. There is still a warm place in my memory where I believe God came very close to me, and I to Him. Then I looked away and saw that no one else seemed to take this seriously.

The services were permeated with readings and recitations from the Bible, way more Scripture than any other church I have ever attended. I was constantly reminded tin those services that I was a sinner who needed to repent and be forgiven. I learned that the outward forms of baptism and communion were only signs of an inward and spiritual grace. I didn’t find those spiritual realities in the Anglican Church, but it was the Anglican Church that set me to searching for them.

I learned in the Anglican Church that it was important that there was a continuity between the church of the apostolic era and the church of today. I still believe that, I just don’t believe that the original faith has necessarily been passed on through a continuous lineage of laying on of hands in ordination. I also learned that people of a great variety of ethnic backgrounds could worship together.

Eleven years after I left Craik I wanted to get married and neither I nor my fiancée knew a minister of any kind. My mother knew where to find Ken Vickers and he came to Moose Jaw to do some counselling before the wedding and to marry us, thus starting us on another journey.

Adopted

I remember the last time my father blew up at me. He was 80, I was 30 and it was the same tirade that I had heard so many times before during my 30 years. I knew there was no use trying to argue, change the subject or yell back at him. He was not in control of himself at moments like this and any resistance would just aggravate him further. I just waited patiently for the storm to blow itself out.

I had become a Christian two years earlier and when the blast was over I found a quiet place to pray. “Oh God,” I asked, “why couldn’t I have had a better father?”

The answer was immediate: “But you do, you have a perfect father.” I have clung to that ever since.

This is what the apostle Paul meant when he wrote in Romans 8:15: “ For ye have not received the spirit of bondage again to fear; but ye have received the Spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, Abba, Father.”

My father sank into dementia not long after that, and soon he didn’t even know me. He was 50 when I was born, after all. I really think he meant well, but he simply didn’t know how to cope with starting a family at that age. Our heavenly Father does not have that problem. Even when we stray from Him and suffer the consequences, He does not drive us farther away, but calls us back.

Collateral damage – or the real target?

I have been musing about the Islamist terrorist attacks in Europe and North America; who are these attacks really targeting? Is it the terrorists goal to make Western nations more favourable to the aspirations of Muslim people and nations around the world?  I think we can give them credit for being smart enough to know that isn’t going to work.

Our governments have shown admirable restraint in the comments they make about the supposed religious motivation of these attacks. The same cannot be said about all the citizens. There is a portion of the populace who have voiced suspicions about all the Muslims now present in our nations. Often it goes beyond mere suspicion to statements that no one if the Muslim faith can be trusted. Some of these statements are coming from people who self-identify as Christian.

Is this perhaps the real goal of the terrorists? To make Muslims in our countries feel marginalized, to fear that they will never be accepted and trusted? That makes fertile ground for Islamist propaganda among Muslim young people.

How are Muslims going to know that love permeates the foundation of the Christian faith,if supposedly Christian people are actively promoting distrust of Muslims?

Earlier this year, after a shooting at a mosque in Québec City, Philippe Couillard, Prime Minister of Québec told people that words matter and that we should endeavour to get our facts straight before we speak and write. He also spoke of the need to talk to each other and suggested: “The next time you walk past someone of the Muslim community, why don’t you stop and say hello?” That’s good advice.

Nabeel Qureshi, author of Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus and Answering Jihad gives the same kind of advice. He advises Christians to reach out to the Muslims around us and develop friendships, but not to expect overnight conversions. It will probably take years for a Muslim to make the step of trusting Jesus rather that Allah. But many have done that, including Qureshi himself. First we have to convince them that Christians are not their enemies, even if we do not worship Allah.

The fisherman’s net

fishing-net-1526496_1280

By the time I started reading the Bible for myself I had abandoned all belief in the Christianity that I had been taught at home and in the church of my youth. I had read books on philosophy and on esoteric religions. It was interesting to consider all the permutations and combinations of their explanations of the meaning of life, but not very satisfying for one looking for some clues about how to find something meaningful in the life he was living.  I began to feel there might be something in this Christianity stuff after all, but I was quite sure that I could not trust most of the Bible.

Thus I began to read the Bible, hoping to find that there were some nuggets of truth in it that I could use to realign my life. I don’t know how long it took – weeks, months – but a shocking realization began to dawn on me. The things I didn’t want to believe were linked to the things I did want to believe. Things I wanted to dismiss as mythology and the brutality of some of the Old Testament accounts, were picked up by the prophets, the apostles and Jesus Himself and shown to be part of a great cosmic story of the battle between good and evil.

I could no longer imagine that some elements of the Bible were worthy of belief and others were not. I could not separate the strands, each one was linked to others in a way that meant that everything in the Bible was linked to everything else. I was facing a decision – either the whole Bible was false and I should reject it and never open it again, or it was all true and was pointing me to a life of fulfillment that would one day lead to an eternity in heaven.

By this time I was inside the net, although I could have made my escape if I had wished. Soon after I came to the point of repentance and the surrender of my will and became a new born child of God. I have spent much time since then surveying all the strands that make up this net and the way they are tied and bound together.

Jesus told a group of fishermen “Follow me and I will make you fishers of men.” As we read the New Testament, we see how expertly they used the net of God’s Word, expounding  the Law and the Prophets to show how the old writings all pointed to Jesus Christ and His spiritual kingdom. This net was the primary tool that led to the explosive growth of the early church. It was used by many down through history, including our Anabaptist forefathers.

Nowadays, there are too many preachers who don’t have time for the study it takes to know the net and how to use it. Reference Bibles seem to offer an easy alternative, giving lists of supposedly related verses on a variety of topics. But how can one trust those references without a personal study of the context? Far too many people today think they are using the net when all they have is a handful of loose strings. Is it any wonder they don’t catch many fish?

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