Antiquarian Anabaptist

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

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Time to make a decision

At least I thought we had exhausted all the possibilities in trying to find a church that still believed and lived the old Anabaptist faith. Could I have missed something? Or had I misunderstood something?

If I was honest with myself, I had felt more at home in congregations of the Church of God in Christ, Mennonite than anywhere else. But the fear of being deceived was holding me back from considering whether this church might be what I was looking for.

Just what does “one Lord, one faith, one baptism” (Ephesians 4:5) mean? I went alone to pray and ask God to help me see what the Bible really taught about the church. As I rose from the prayer, I felt a need to read again what Menno Simons wrote about the signs by which the true church of God could be identified. He listed six:

1. By an unadulterated, pure doctrine.
2. By a scriptural use of the sacramental signs.
3. By obedience to the Word.
4. By unfeigned brotherly love.
5. By an unreserved confession of God and Christ.
6. By oppression and tribulation for the sake of the Lord’s Word.

As I read them this time, and considered all the churches we had known, it was suddenly crystal clear that there was no other church to which even one of these signs could be applied. We had met many friendly and helpful people, they seemed from the outside to get along well together. But could it be called unfeigned brotherly love when they didn’t really trust each other? Many churches talked about the new birth, and about spiritual unity. Yet they baptized anyone who said they had been born again and had communion at appointed times, even though they were not fully at peace with one another.

These thoughts were pointing me strongly toward the Holdeman Mennonites. But what about the claim of exclusivity? Once again, I looked to see what Menno said. It wasn’t hard to find and again I understood something I had missed before. Here is what Menno wrote:

Reader, understand what I mean ; we do not dispute about whether or not there are some of the chosen one’s of God, in the before mentioned churches ; for this we, at all times, humbly leave to the just and gracious judgment of God, hoping there may be many thousands who are unknown to us, as they were to holy Elias ; but our dispute is, in regard to what kind of Spirit, doctrine, sacraments, ordinances and life, Christ has commanded us to gather unto him an abiding church, and how we should maintain it in his ways.

Menno obviously believed there were many Christians in other churches; he was not saying that there was only one church in which one could be saved. But he was concerned that other churches were offering comfort to the unsaved and not guiding and supporting those who were saved.

My heart was settled. I knew where God wanted us to be and where I wanted to be. I made several two hour trips to visit a minister in the Linden Congregation of the Church of God in Christ, Mennonite and knew that was where I wanted to be.

This was too abrupt a change in direction for Chris. She was frightened and not at all willing to make another move. She felt at home where we were and was sure that I was deceived. We hashed this over many times without getting any closer to seeing things the same way. The possibility that we might have to part ways loomed before us.

Finally we knelt together and prayed about the direction we should take. When the prayer was finished, Chris said she still felt the same apprehension about the direction I was taking, but she would go with me.

The night before we left, the bishop and his wife invited us for supper. Before we parted, he had one last warning for me. “You have expressed some misgivings in the past about the Holdeman church. I share those misgivings. We have never seen it happen that a church could drift from full obedience to the truth and recover itself. When a church has drifted, it is time to come out and start over again on the gospel ground.”

As I listened to those words, I realized the bishop understood a church to be merely a man-made entity. What he meant as a warning I took as a confirmation that God was leading me to a church where He was doing the building and the refining.

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Another dead end

I began checking out other varieties of Mennonites, and there were a lot to choose from. Many of them turned out to be Mennonites in name only, and a little embarrassed about being encumbered with the name. Nevertheless, many of them had a deep affection for the Low German language and culture. I didn’t, so I stroked them off my list.

There were several groups of Conservative Mennonites and I obtained some of their literature. A hope began to grow in me that I had found what I had been looking for: churches that held to the old Anabaptist-Mennonite faith but did not claim to be the only representatives of that faith.

One day we had a phone call from Mervin Baer. He and his wife were passing through Mooses Jaw and staying at a motel a few blocks away. Would we be interested in coming over to meet them. I recognized the name, Mervin was from McBride B.C., a bishop and well-know leader in Conservative Mennonite circles.

Mervin and his wife were friendly and warm people, we hit it off right away. In the course of our visit Mervin mentioned that he had recently visited at Belleville, Pennsylvania. “There is a group of Old Order Amish people there who have been born again and have formed a new congregation entirely made up of born-again peole. That’s proof that you can have a spiritual church without joining the Holdemans.”

That was music to my ears. We had another visit from Mervin several months later, then began to visit the nearest congregation of that group, about two hours away in Alberta. They were friendly and welcoming and we really hit it off with one couple in particular. We decided to move there and join that group. In the summer of 1975 we quit our jobs, packed up and moved to Alberta.

It didn’t take long for me to feel that I had fallen down a rabbit hole into a place where nothing was what it seemed at first to be. It started the evening we arrived. We were invited to have supper with the bishop and his family. He had two daughters still at home, around 18 and 20. They were church members and Chris asked one of them when she had become a Christian. “I don’t know, I just kind of grew into it.”

As if that wasn’t shocking enough, we found that there had been a falling out between husband of the couple we had liked so much and Mervin Baer and they had up and moved away.

The women here wore cape dresses, a full dress with an extra piece of material over the front for modesty’s sake, and white mesh head coverings. Chris had adapted her wardrobe to their standard before we moved. The men were clean shaven and wore a plain coat on Sundays. This was a suit jacket without lapels or a collar that buttoned all the way up the front. I shaved off my beard, but never adopted the plain coat.

They had a little booklet of church standards that governed the clothes you wore and how you were to conduct yourself. People wanting to join the church were on probation for six months. If you wore the right clothes and behaved yourself you could then become a member. I began to notice that people watched each other closely for any deviation from the standards, and many young people did try to push the envelope without being too obvious about it.

One Sunday the bishop preached on how wearing plain clothes was proof of being born again. My heart sank, I saw that we had hit another dead end. The people here were friendly and earnest. I was sure that a couple of them were born again, the others were mostly just following the rules. Visitors would come from other plain groups and be welcomed as brothers and sisters. After they had gone we would hear what the local people really thought of them.

What now? Chris thought I was losing t way. She had formed a close friendship with one of the ladies and didn’t want to leave. I knew we had to get out, there was no way we could live a real Christian life and have any chance of passing it on to our daughter in a place such as this. But where could we go? We had exhausted all the possibilities.

Family heirloom

Dear children, I am sending this dear old book as a Granny present. It is one of my dearest friends. I have been reading it for the last fifty years and tried to teach my children to live by its teachings and pray you may do the same by your own children. Its blessed promises are so sweet. It has helped me to bear sorrow that otherwise I’m sure I never could have borne if I had not had his strong arm to lean on.
Tis so sweet to trust in Jesus,
Just to take him at his word.
May the Heavenly Father care for you and help you is the prayer of your Mother.
Mattie Zarn

This note was written in pencil on the fly leaf of an old Bible. Only that page from the Bible has survived. Mattie Zarn was the mother of Bert Zarn, husband of Lottie (Goodnough) Zarn, my aunt. Bert and Lottie were married at Pipestone, Minnesota in 1900, the note was probably written a few years later.

Our granddaughter becoms our sister

Friday evening two young ladies stood in turn before our congregation and told how God had called them, how they had felt troubled and fearful and how they had prayed and found forgiveness, happiness and freedom. A few questions were asked and the congregation found their testimonies genuine.

This morning they were baptized. One of those girls is our granddaughter Tami, the first of our grandchildren to become a born again child of God. Thus this 13 year old girl (she will be 14 this summer) is now our sister in the household of faith. (As is the other girl, of course.)

Blessed is every one that feareth the LORD . . .Yea, thou shalt see thy children’s children, and peace upon Israel. Psalm 128:1 & 6

Happy birthday to my wife

There was once a young lady growing up in an unstable home, who was attracted to a man somewhat older, but not much more stable. They got married and soon a daughter joined the family. Time went on, they moved hither and yon. The daughter grew up and left home to work hither and yon.

After many years the couple returned to a place not far from where they had started out. A young man from that place took note of the daughter and asked her to marry him. Time went on and now there are four grandchildren in the family.

Yesterday the young lady turned 65. The whole family got together to celebrate by haveing supper in a nice restaurant, paid for by the son-in-law.

How did a home begun on such a shaky foundation come to enjoy such happiness? The only answer that makes sense is that they learned to pray and every time they came to a fork in the road they asked God which way to go.

To God be the glory.

An answered prayer

We had talked over our situation that night, prayed for direction and believed we had been shown a direction that we should pursue. There still remained the question of whether Dennis would need or want my help.

It didn’t take long for the answer to come. The phone rang the next morning before we had time to eat breakfast. It was Dennis. He started out as he always does: “How are you doing? How is Chris? How is Michelle?” Then he started talking about the ranch land that he and Ted were buying south of Moose Jaw and wondered if I wanted to come in as a partner. Well, maybe I wanted, but we had no money laying around for such an investment.

Then he said that looking after the pasture land would give him even less time for field work and wondered if I was available for that. “And the house on the half section is empty. It would make a nice little house for the three of you if you were interested.”

We were definitely interested. And so it happened that the spring of 1973 found us on our way back to Moose Jaw. We settled into the house and soon I was putting in long hours helping to get the machinery ready and then seeding.  Later in summer there was work like tilling the summerfallow and hauling grain to the elevator.

The main farm was 2½ sections, a mile wide and 2½ miles long, 1600 acres. The soil  started out light and stoney on the south end and got heavier as we went north. The north half section, where we lived, was Regina Plains heavy clay gumbo. There was another ¼ section a few miles further north and ½ section of cultivated land with the ranch land, 2,080 acres in total. At that time the practice was to seed 2/3 of the land each year. That meant seeding 1,380 acres, with older, smaller equipment.

To give an idea of how heavy clay gumbo soil behaves I’ll describe how we drove away from our home when it rained. Field work stopped when it was wet, so we would want to go into Moose Jaw. The east-west road south of our yard was not gravelled, therefore impassible when wet. The road north was gravelled, yet there was a slight uphill grade. As soon as we ventured up that incline the tires became coated with greasy clay. The road was greasy, despite the gravel, and it was impossible to steer in a straight line. I would let Chris drive and I would walk beside to push the car straight when it began to slip sideways. The road was that greasy that it didn’t take a lot of effort. Once we got to level ground we were OK.

The yard should have been a great place for our almost two year old daughter to play. But by midsummer we were plagued with grasshoppers. We found them annoying, Michelle found them terrifying. The grasshoppers became more than annoying when they harvested Chris’s garden.

As soon as we moved back to Saskatchewan we began to attend the one church in Moose Jaw that called itself Mennonite. I don’t wish to name any of the churches we attended over the first years of our marriage, nor their pastors or other people in the churches. I hold no animosity towards them and don’t wish to hold them up to ridicule. We met a lot of fine people and enjoyed the time we spent with them, but we were looking for a genuine Anabaptist-Mennonite church and weren’t finding it in any of these places.

I eventually began to understand what was going on. When the apostle Paul wrote: “Be ye followers of me, even as I also am of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1), his intention was that we would follow him in acquiring the same faith that he had.

A true living faith will cause us to live a life that is patterned after Christ, not after the zeitgeist of the era in which we live. There is an ever present danger that Christian faith will grow lukewarm, or even cold, yet a lifestyle pattern has been established that people will follow without comprehending that this lifestyle pattern is not the faith. It is faith that creates a lifestyle, but a lifestyle has no power to create faith.

This seems to have happened to many Mennonites in past generations. The faith gradually died out, yet the lifestyle was maintained for a time, sometimes a long time. Eventually their descendants became alarmed and sought a renewing of faith, but instead of returning to the faith of their forefathers, which by now was unknown to them, they turned to pietistic protestantism. Some of them gained a genuine saving faith, but now there was no reason to retain the old patterns and they began to run as hard as they could to avoid any hint that they were living by some external rule.

Then the pietistic faith itself became a pattern that their descendants tried to maintain. By now many of the current generation has little idea of what constitutes genuine Christianity. This was where we came in and it wasn’t at all what we were looking for.

Disappointments

Pastor Harvey* was immediately hired by another congregation of the same denomination. The young people followed and so did we. This church was the same distance from our home, but out in the country on gravel roads. Before long there was a baptism service for several of the youth and for Chris and me.

Now we were officially Mennonites.  It wasn’t long before I began to wonder how Mennonite these people really were. There were copies of the Martyrs Mirror and The Complete Writings of Menno Simons in the church library. It wasn’t clear to me why, as no one seemed familiar with them, or even mildly interested in becoming familiar. No one seemed concerned whether this church still held to the faith described in those books.

Business at the grain elevator had increased substantially over the past couple years, more and mre farmers were switching their grain deliveries to my elevator. My decision to just stick it out had been vindicated. But now I was spending more and more time in the grain dust while unloading trucks and loading grain cars. And my respiratory allergies were becoming more and more of a problem.

Finally, I decided I couldn’t keep on and began casting about for another way to make a living. There was an opportunity to become a life insurance agent, so I resigned my job with United Grain Growers and signed on with Mutual Life of Canada.

This involved a move from the company owned house to an apartment in Carman. Then I went through the training sessions, wrote the exam and passed it.

About this time we took a trip back to Moose Jaw for a few days. Michelle was an active and happy little girl, walking and beginning to say a few words. Grandma was happy to have her spend a littlke time with them.

One evening Chris and I went bowling  with my cousins Dennis and Ted and their wives. My cousins freely shared their convictions that term life insurance was the only type worth having. Whole life insurance plans, the type that includes a savings portion and pays the largest commission to the one selling them, were just a scam according to them.

Well, that really gave me something to think about. I had done a good job as a salesman at the grain elevator, selling farm input products. But I knew that I would never be able to sell something if I was not fully convinced that it was a good deal for the buyer. Maybe I wasn’t the type of person who could succeed at selling life insurance. What should I do?

I didn’t have long to wonder. A fefw days after we got home there was a meeting at the Mutual Life of Canada office in Winnipeg. The meeting was brief and to the point: the district manager who had hired me was being fired. Along with him went the last two people he had hired. That included me. What now?

Chris got a job as a waitress at the restaurant a block from our apartment, but that wasn’t going to keep us going. We spent an evening talking over our situation and considering if there were any options to find our way out of this bind.

I knew that Dennis was farming around 2,000 acres and it would soon be seeding time. As far as I knew he didn’t have any help lined up. I also knew that the house on one farm that he had bought was now empty. That seemed like a possibility worth pursuing. By that time it was late and we went to bed planning to call him the next morning.

WHY?

Sunday evening, shortly before sunset, a freight train came shuddering to a stop on the tracks that run about 200 metres west of our house. At first, we didn’t know the reason for the sudden stop. The trees on the west side of our yard hid the mangled pickup from our view.

Slowly, slowly we learned what had happened. A young man driving west facing the blazing sunset. On the open prairie the sun lingers just above the horizon making one lower the visor and try to shield one’s eyes from the glare. Three locomotives pulling about 80 hopper cars loaded with grain coming from the south. They met at the railroad crossing.

It took until the next day to find out that the young man who died, instantly, was the fiancé of a friend of ours. They were filled with love, hope and joy, planning for a happy ever after. Now the dream is ended.

WHY ?

The question is natural, we can’t help wondering why when things like this happen. But there really is no answer, except that we live in a world ruined by the fall.

We dare not look for someone to blame. Who would we blame? The locomotive engineer? He sounded the horn time and again, but he couldn’t steer away. The young man? God? Such thoughts would only lead to bitterness.

Yes, the young man should have seen, should have heard. But he didn’t and it does no good to blame him. Certainly God could have intervened. But He is not the cosmic puppetmaster. He wants our voluntary service, but only in rare instances does He overrule in the events of our lives. “Time and chance happeneth to them all” (Ecclesiastes 9:11).

God is the refuge, the source of comfort and strength for one who has suffered such a tragic loss.  Friends and family can help soften the pain. Their words may be inadequate, but their presence and availability speak loudly.

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.

Walking Towards Hope – a book review

One day in October of 1997 Paul Beckingham, his wife Mary and one of their young sons were taking a Kenyan boy back to his home on the edge of Nairobi. They came over a hill to find a massive Kenyan military transport coming towards them and taking up the whole road. Their lives changed forever that day. The boys survived with no major physical injuries, Mary had a broken collar bone.

It took several hours to pry Paul from the mangled remains of his car. He lost massive amounts of blood, had many broken bones and one foot was severed. He was rushed to hospital where a team of Christian Kenyan doctors pieced him back together, re-attached his foot and stopped the bleeding. His heart stopped three times during the surgery.

After a few days he was flown back to Vancouver to continue his recovery. Over the next two years he moved from a hospital bed to a wheelchair, to crutches, then to a cane and was finally able to put the cane away. He began to look more and more like the old Paul Beckingham from before the accident.

But he wasn’t. He couldn’t always think clearly, couldn’t concentrate, didn’t always act appropriately and became immensely frustrated. He began to realize that the accident and his continuing disability did not only affect him, but was also hurting his wife and their five children.

Doctor Mel Kaushansky, an expert in neuropsychology, put him through a bank of tests, then sat him down to explain what had happened to his brain in the accident. He told Paul that all parts of his brain were affected and it could be compared to a blueberry muffin, with the blueberries being the damaged areas of his brain. Or it could be compared to Swiss cheese with the holes being the gaps in his mental capabilities. He would never again be able to take on the level of responsibility that he could handle before the accident.

As Paul accepted the devastating verdict and determined to pursue the things he was still able to do, it led him to the reality of Christian hope. He began accepting public speaking engagements and found that telling his story touched many others just whee they were hurting. He began to study again, but needed to take copious notes to compensate for the frailty of his memory.

And he wrote this book about his experience. Near the end of the book he quotes the words of David in Psalm 43:5 and says:

“His hope is not groundless. It is no mere wishful thinking springing from an overactive, positive mental attitude. Nor is it the idle daydreaming of someone who has finally lost touch with reality. This is no escape from reason. The psalmist’s hope is built on confidence beyond that of his own making. He trusts, instead, a hand that is greater than his own. It is a hand that steers his future, moving him from this place called I Don’t Know towards a place called A Hope and a Future.”

I highly recommend this book.

Walking Towards Hope – Experiencing Grace in a Time of Brokenness, ©  205 by Paul M. Beckingham. Published by Castle Quay Books, Kitchener, Ontario. Available on Amazon and Chapters Indigo. Also available as a e-book fro Kobo or Kindle.

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