Flatlander Faith

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

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Mennonites: ethnic group, culture or faith?

In the first few centuries of the Christian era the faith spread far and wide through Asia, Europe and Africa. Then came the time when the Emperor Constantine professed to espouse the Christian faith. For a time persecution ceased.

But the church that made peace with the Imperial power became corrupted by peace and power. Many Christians refused to be part of such a church and maintained the original purity of the faith. So persecution began once more, this time by a church that had become earthly and pagan, yet still called itself Christian. From the records of the persecutions by the Imperial church it is evident that the network of pure churches still stretched across much of the known world.

By the late Middle Ages there was still a network of churches that stretched from Bulgaria to England. They were known as Cathars, Bogomils, Waldenses, Albigenses, Lollards and many other names, but there was communication between them all. The Inquisition, a major, systematic escalation of the persecution almost succeeded in destroying those churches.

In the 1500’s the remnant of the persecuted reorganized and are known to history as Mennonites, after the name of Menno Simons, one of their more prominent leaders. Churches were organized in Flanders, the Netherlands, Switzerland and the Palatinate. The members of these churches spoke Dutch or German. Some of the members in Flanders also spoke French.

Mennonites today are often thought of as a unique Dutch/German ethnic group. Many among them have lost the faith but held on to their Dutch/German culture, leading to confusion as to what it means to be a Mennonite.

I am a Mennonite by faith, but not by culture. I think that should be considered the norm. Our faith goes back to the Apostolic era, it did not begin with Menno Simons (he strongly denied being the founder of a church).

I am a member of the Church of God in Christ, Mennonite. A large part of the membership of this church in North America is made up of people of Dutch/German ancestry. This causes confusion, within the church and without.

Yet when it comes to sharing the gospel in other lands, there is no confusion. It is the gospel we are endeavouring to share, not language or lifestyle. There are members of the Church of God in Christ, Mennonite in 40 countries around the world. Some are indigenous, not under the tutelage of a mission organization, others are moving in that direction as quickly as local members are ready to take leadership positions, some are new missions.

Much of the international growth has come as a result of tract distribution. Gospel Tract and Bible Society, an agency of the church, distributes millions of tracts, in over 100 languages. In the last few years this has been accelerated by their website. You can find the website here. People can read tracts online, print them for reading at home, order copies for distribution, and ask questions. Some of those with questions may ask “Where is this church? Why isn’t it in my country?” Enough questions like that, ones that show a serious spiritual longing, and a visit is made and a mission may begin.

We are told that the website reaches a new demographic. Previously, many of those who ordered tracts were church leaders or evangelists, now it is more individuals who are searching to understand what Christianity is all about, what Jesus means for their personal life, their home.

Another change in recent years is a great increase of inquiries from French-speaking countries. There are members of the Church of God in Christ, Mennonite in six French-speaking countries in Africa and a new mission in a seventh. Visits have been made with interested people in France and there are plans to place a family there for at least a few months.

I also have a French blog, on which I post articles about the Anabaptist faith in history and today. The readership isn’t all that big as yet, but so far this year there have been people from 51 countries who have taken a look at that blog. The top five countries were, in order, the USA, Morocco, Canada, Bénin and France. Do those first two countries surprise you? There are French-speaking people all over the world.

A life-giving faith

We Christians have a lot to say about heaven and how we long to be there. Is anticipation enough to get us there? If we are not experiencing joy in the journey, will we make it?

Many Christians are experiencing a joyous and happy life, filled with joy far more abundant than they ever knew before they abandoned the way of the world. Others are burdened with care, wanting to always do the right thing and avoid doing the wrong thing. Their eyes are so fixed upon the ground, ever fearful of dangers that may lie on their path, that they forget to look up and see the glory of the Lord.

We don’t have to live like that. We don’t want to look for pleasure in things the world around us calls fun; but living with the dread of making a misstep is not the way Jesus wants us to live. He has given us the Holy Spirit to guide us on our way, to comfort us when we are on the right path and warn us if we are in danger of stepping off that path.

The fear of the Lord is an honest awareness of the seriousness of life, the seriousness of the choices we make every day. That kind of fear leads not to dread but to trust and joy.

May I offer this paraphrase of Romans 12:2;

“Don’t pattern your thinking after the things that are highly esteemed in today’s world, but let the Holy Spirit renew your thinking to understand the complete will of God so that your life can be transformed into what He wants it to be.”

But God Can Save Us Yet

[This is an excerpt from a Canadian Classic, Roughing it in the Bush, by Susanna Moodie, first published in 1852.  At the climax of the crisis described here, she buries her head in her apron. It was her custom to  pull up her apron to cover her head for privacy when praying.]

The winter and spring of 1834 had passed away. The latter was uncommonly cold and backward; so much so that we had a very heavy fall of snow upon the 14th and 15th of May

A late, cold spring in Canada is generally succeeded by a burning, hot summer; and the summer of ’34 was the hottest I ever remember.  No rain fell upon the earth for many weeks, till nature drooped and withered beneath one bright blaze of sunlight; and the ague and fever in the woods, and the cholera in the large towns and cities, spread death and sickness through the country.

Moodie had made during the winter a large clearing of twenty acres around the house. The progress of the workmen had been watched by me with the keenest interest. Every tree that reached the ground opened a wider gap in the dark wood, giving us a broader ray of light and a clearer glimpse of the blue sky. But when the dark cedar swamp fronting the house fell beneath the strokes of the axe, and we got a first view of the lake my joy was complete: a new and beautiful object was now constantly before me, which gave me the greatest pleasure.

The confusion of an uncleared fallow spread around us on every side. Huge trunks of trees and piles of brush gave a littered and uncomfortable appearance to the locality, and as the weather had been very dry for some weeks, I heard my husband talking with his choppers as to the expediency of firing the fallow. They still urged him to wait a little longer, until he could get a good breeze to carry the fire well through the brush.

Business called him suddenly to Toronto, but he left a strict charge with old Thomas and his sons, who were engaged in the job, by no means to attempt to burn it off till he returned, as he wished to be upon the premises himself in case of any danger. He had previously burnt all the heaps immediately about the doors. While he was absent, old Thomas and his second son fell sick with the ague, and went home to their own township, leaving John, a surly, obstinate young man, in charge of the shanty, where they slept, and kept their tools and provisions.

The day was sultry, and towards noon a strong wind sprang up that roared in the pine tops like the dashing of distant billows, but without in the least degree abating the heat. The children were lying listlessly on the floor for coolness, and the girl and I were finishing sun-bonnets, when Mary suddenly exclaimed, “Bless us, mistress, what a smoke!” I ran immediately to the door, but was not able to distinguish ten yards before me. The swamp immediately below us was on fire, and the heavy wind was driving a dense black cloud of smoke directly towards us.

“What can this mean?” I cried. “Who can have set fire to the fallow?”

John Thomas stood pale and trembling before me. “John, what is the meaning of this fire?”

“Oh, ma’am, I hope you will forgive me; it was I set fire to it, and I would give all I have in the world if I had not done it.”

“What is the danger?”

“Oh, I’m terribly feared that we shall all be burnt up,” said the fellow, beginning to whimper.

“We must get out of it as fast as we can, and leave the house to its fate.”

“We can’t get out,” said the man, in a low, hollow tone, which seemed the concentration of fear; “I would have got out if I could; but just step to the back door, ma’am, and see.”

I had not felt the least alarm up to this minute. Judge then my horror, when, on going to the back door, I saw that the fellow, to make sure of his work, had fired the field in fifty different places. Behind, before, on every side, we were surrounded by a wall of fire, burning ferociously within a hundred yards of us, and cutting off all possibility of retreat.

I closed the door and went back to the parlour. Fear was knocking loudly at my heart – I felt stupefied. The girl sat upon the floor by the children, who had both fallen asleep. She was silently weeping; while the fool who had caused the mischief was crying aloud.

A strange calm succeeded my first alarm; tears and lamentations were useless; a horrible death was impending over us, and yet I could not believe that we were to die.

My eye fell upon the sleeping angels, locked peacefully in each other’s arms, and my tears flowed for the first time. Mary, the servant-girl, looked piteously up in my face. The good, faithful creature had not uttered one word of complaint, but now she faltered forth, “The dear precious lambs! Oh such a death!”

I threw myself down upon the floor beside them, and pressed them alternately to my heart, while inwardly I thanked God that they were asleep, unconscious of danger.

The heat soon became suffocating. We were parched with thirst, and there was not a drop of water in the house. I turned once more to the door, hoping that a passage might have been burnt through to the water. I saw nothing but a dense cloud of fire and smoke – could hear nothing but the crackling and roaring of the flames, which were gaining so fast on us that I felt their scorching breath in my face.

“Ah,” thought I – and it was a most bitter thought – “what will my beloved husband say when he returns and finds that poor Susy and his dear girls have perished in this miserable manner? But God can save us yet.”

The thought had scarcely found a voice in my heart before the wind rose to a hurricane, scattering the flames on all sides into a tempest of burning billows. I buried my head in my apron, for I thought that our time was come, and that all was lost, when a most terrific crash of thunder burst over our heads, and, like the breaking of a water-spout, down came the rushing torrent of rain which had been pent up for so many weeks. In a few minutes the chip-yard was all afloat, and the fire effectually checked. The storm which, unnoticed by us, had been gathering all day, and which was the only one of any note we had that summer, continued to rage all night, and before morning had quite subdued the cruel enemy whose approach we had viewed with such dread.

The imminent danger in which we had been placed struck me more forcibly after it was past than at the time, and both the girl and myself sank to our knees and offered up our hearts in humble thanksgiving to that God who had saved us by an act of His Providence from an awful and sudden death. When all hope from human assistance was lost, His hand was mercifully stretched forth, making His strength more perfectly manifested in our weakness.

“He is their stay when earthly hope is lost,
“The light and anchor of the tempest-toss’d.”

Soar with the eagles

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Image by Flash Alexander from Pixabay

Somewhere in Africa, a hunter returning home spies in a rocky place a large nest of branches on which lies a beautiful egg spotted with red. Still warm from the mother bird who will soon come back.

Curious, the man examines the nest. Delighted at his discovery, he slips the egg into his pocket to take it to his house to hatch. Since yesterday, there is a hen sitting on her eggs in a corner of his kitchen. The big egg will find its place among the chicken eggs, under the mother hen.

Then comes the day of hatching: one by one, the chicks with yellow down come out of their shells. Among them, a big one, already covered with almost white feathers! Wow!
To see him pecking with the others, jostling between them to get the mash as best he can, you would take him for a young chicken.

But look up. Is that an eagle flying over the chicken coop? At the sound of his wings, a shiver of terror passes over the village. At his raucous cry there is general panic in all the yards, the dogs bark, the pigs hide, the cows moo. Roosters and hens cackle; all the chicks rush instinctively to find cover under the wing of their mother.

The danger? What danger? Alone outside while the raptor is soaring above, he has not moved, our big chick. Far from being frightened, he lifts his head. Motionless, neck extended, he listens. It seems that he recognizes the call, this one. The eaglet! Oh yes! So well adapted to this backyard life for which he was not made, he alone hears the call. The eagles up there, with their piercing eyes, also spot him, far below, in the yard of a hunter, under the banana trees.

Every time they make their rounds, his eagle gaze scans the sky. Until the day, his wings having grown, a large bird emerges from the clouds and begins to descend towards him in gliding flight.

Then, crying with joy, the young eagle rises towards the sun.

– adapted from a story in Les bananiers du miracle, by Flora Quintin. © 1987 Réalités de la foi, Montreux, Switzerland.

So here we are, cooped up in the chicken yard, other chickens around us crying “The sky is falling! The sky is falling!” We are here, but our home is not here. May we remember that.

But they that wait upon the LORD shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint. (Isaiah 40:31)

A Christ-centred faith

The Anabaptist/Mennonite faith is Christ-centred in a way that differs significantly from other Christian traditions. We believe in the virgin birth, the sacrificial death on the cross, the resurrection and the second coming of Christ. But what is most important to us is the life of Jesus between his birth and the cross.

There are six ways in which this matters:

1. Jesus is God in human form, therefore He is the clearest revelation of what God is like.

2. Jesus is the clearest revelation of what God intends human beings to be like. Jesus tells us many times in the gospels to “follow me.” The new birth is just the beginning of being a Christian, it is what enables us to follow Jesus.

3. Jesus reveals how God works in history. The Old Testament accounts of Abraham, Moses and Israel are incomplete without Jesus. His life reveals what Old Testament history was all about.

4. For Jesus to be central to our life we must be united with His church. It is not a viable option to be united with Jesus and stand apart from His body, the Church.

5. The work of the Holy Spirit is experienced through Jesus. Any claim for the work of the Spirit that is not in harmony with the life and teaching of Jesus must be judged false.

6. To make Jesus central to our life is to be concerned for the salvation of the world. If there is only one God, and He is revealed in Jesus, then those who know Jesus have an obligation to introduce the rest of humanity to Him.

-adapted from A Third Way, Paul M Lederach © 1980 Herald Press, Scottdale PA

Christ is in all

The following question came in my email this morning and I decided to post it and give my thoughts.  Feel free to join the conversation.

I enjoy many of your inspiring blogs and this morning read “A matter of the heart, not the head.” You wrote: “ …and there did not seem to be a closeness, a genuine trust and fellowship among the members.”

I understand the line and have noticed or experienced this too; but my question is: what specifically brings us to “closeness, genuine trust and fellowship” ? Not to downplay faith in Christ, I am thinking that a common practiced tradition and custom also play a part of the closeness you refer to. Can such closeness and fellowship exist without a common tradition ? What do you think ? H. W.

I believe that “a common practiced tradition and custom” can lead to a form of closeness.  Just not the kind we were looking for. Some of the churches we visited did have the form of unity produced by a common ethnic and religious heritage, but as I wrote “it was never clear to us how many of them might actually have a relationship with the Shepherd.”

The apostle Paul described the church this way in Colossians 3:11: “Where there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcision nor uncircumcision, Barbarian, Scythian, bond [nor] free: but Christ [is] all, and in all.” Let me unpack that statement. Jews were those people who believed themselves to be God’s people by virtue of their family heritage. Greeks were everybody else in the parts of Asia and Europe mentioned in the New Testament. The circumcised were the adherents to the Jewish traditions, the uncircumcised were those for whom those traditions had no meaning. Barbarians were people who spoke an unfamiliar language. Scythians were people whose culture and customs seemed bizarre to the Jews and Greeks. Bond and free refers to social status. Paul is saying that none of those things mattered; the one thing that matters is whether one has a relationship with Jesus Christ.  “Christ in you, the hope of glory” Colossians 1:27.

That must still be the grounds of Christian fellowship. My wife and I have belonged to the Church of God in Christ, Mennonite for 41 years. A majority of the members are of one ethnic heritage. We are not. It doesn’t matter. Mennonite in our day has been relegated in many people’s minds to an ethnic culture. I am not part of that culture, much of it is incomprehensible to me, but I am a Mennonite by faith.

By culture and tradition I still feel like a boy out of a W. O. Mitchell story. I listened to Jake and the Kid on radio when I was young, a few years later I read Who Has Seen the Wind. I felt like I was the kid in  those stories, I identified fully with this boy  experiencing the wind in the grass, watching people around him cope with life, feeling part of the prairie.

God has called me, I have embraced the faith once delivered to the saints, I enjoy fellowship with brothers and sisters of this faith, whatever their background. But I am not a Mennonite by birth, language, culture or tradition. In those things I am a kid from the prairie, this is my land, these are my people.

Consequences of a false gospel

Several weeks ago I wrote about the effect on education of René Descartes’ belief in the ability of the human mind to discover all truth through the exercise of reason. That belief has worked its way into every aspect of Western civilization. It is found in our media, our social institutions, our ideas about business, religion and politics.

I may as well come right out and say it – There are times when it appears to me that Donald Trump is the only sane political leader in North America. Everyone else is so caught up in trimming their sails to catch the latest wind of political correctness that they have no idea where those winds are coming from or towards what destination they are being driven.

This was a gradual development, but the point where it hit mainstream North American culture began with Walter Rauschenbusch and Charles Sheldon. Rauschenbusch was a Baptist minister who came to believe that sin was not a personal matter but something rooted in society. He coined the term “social gospel” around 1892, teaching and writing extensively on the subject. He taught that there was no such thing as a sin against God, all sins are against our fellow humans. In fact, he ceased to believe that God was a real Being. He was just a social construct, created in men’s minds to give some coherence to their beliefs.

Rauschenbusch saw private ownership of business as the great sin and the root of all evil. He went as far as to describe a privately owned business as an “unsaved” business and a collectively owned business, either by government or a co-operative, as a “saved” business.

Sheldon’s book, In His Steps, appeared in 1896. I have read it four times from cover to cover, searching for some trace of the Christian theme that many profess to find in it, and came up empty every time. There is Christian window dressing, but that’s all it is. The characters in the book read the Bible, but find nothing to guide their actions; they pray, but receive no guidance; they are moved to tears by hymns, but hear nothing to move them to action. It’s all just camouflage. The answers come when people ask themselves “What would Jesus do?” and answer by their own power of reason. This is following René Descartes, not Jesus Christ. Once again, the real culprit is privately owned business; salvation comes to Raymond when the owner of the daily newspaper decides to turn the business into an employee-owned co-operative.

Sheldon described himself as a Christian socialist. That is revealing. The Christian label was only camouflage to introduce socialist ideas to a North American populace that was largely composed of church-going people.

Thanks to Rauschenbusch and Sheldon, Marxist economic theories and the concept of class struggle took root in many of the largest denominations. Those denominations then moved into social activism, urging governments to set to right social injustices. The list of social injustices grows ever longer and the pressure on governments to fix things ever stronger.

Many major US foundations, now in the hands of Marxist administrators, are funnelling money into Canadian protest movements. Many movements are ostensibly grassroots indigenous protesters, but the money and the tactics are coming from US foundations. The money is channelled through a tangle of entities in an attempt to camouflage its source. But they are becoming bolder, to the point of openly declaring their aim to shut down Canada. Why? I suppose because Canada is seen as a soft target, the low hanging fruit. If they would succeed in imposing their collectivist Marxist principles in Canada, they would move on to target the USA.

Actually, they have already made great headway in the USA. Make no mistake about it, the protest movements, whether their stated aim is to stop climate change, save the animals, create equal rights or better access to health care, do not care for individual people, these are only ruses to impose a collectivist agenda.

What is the best response of Christians to these dangers? Lets go back to being Christians, followers of Jesus Christ. It is not for us to reform society. The history I have briefly sketched shows what happens when Christians take that detour.

When I hear those who profess to be Christian expressing indignation, vituperation or even hatred, for or against Donald Trump, for or against the various protest movements, it raises questions. How well do they understand what it means to be a Christian? Are they truly following the leading of the Holy Spirit?

It may seem folly to say that Christians should have a peaceful attitude toward everyone, but that is what the Bible says. If Christians had done that 100 years ago, would we be in this mess today?

Winsomeness

More than 350 years ago, Blaise Pascal described what he hoped to achieve with his writing this way:

People despise Christian faith. They hate it and are afraid that it may be true.  The solution for this is to show them, first of all, that it is not unreasonable, that it is worthy of  reverence and respect. Then show that it is winsome, making good men desire that it were true. Then show them that it really is true. It is worthy of reverence because it really understands the human condition. It is also attractive because it promises true goodness.
-Blaise Pascal, Les Pensées

I have often read this passage, given mental assent to it, desired that the things I write could be winsome and attractive. Yet it dawns on me now how far I fall short of achieving that goal.

I don’t do New Year resolutions. I tried years ago. They were largely futile attempts to make me feel better about myself with minimal effort. I took comfort in having noble aspirations, then promptly forgot them. Real change is only possible by taking an honest look at the not so noble part of my character.

Pascal used the word aimable in French. The above English version translates aimable by winsome in one place and attractive in the other. Apologetics, giving an answer for the hope that lieth within me, is only effective if it makes that hope winsome and attractive.

Giving an answer that carries the slightest whiff of self-righteousness or arrogance renders that answer unattractive.  Truth is important, right doctrine is necessary, yet if truth and right doctrine seem repugnant to the reader, I am an abject failure.

Effective apologetics then must be the putting Christian faith into words that bring out the winsomeness of the faith. As a writer, I need to get myself out of the way and think of how to present different aspects of the faith in Jesus Christ to the reader, who probably looks at life in quite a different way than I do. It is not my job to prove him wrong; it is not my job to prove myself an authority to be trusted. It is my job to show that Jesus Christ is worthy of our trust.

© Bob Goodnough, January 03, 2020

2020

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Image by eliza28diamonds from Pixabay

2019 is almost done; a brand new unspoiled year lies before us. May we begin it by thanking God for bringing us safely thus far, and trust our hand into His to lead us safely through all that 2020 will bring our way.

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A Mother’s Teaching from 1897

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Image by StockSnap from Pixabay

Ma was telling us that there are always men rising up and declaring that Jesus could not be the Son of God, but was just a wonderful teacher. But she says not to let that bother us, for none of those men who undertake to explain all the works of God, have been able to explain very much after all. All the wisdom of all the men of all the ages has never been able to explain what life is, or the Power that with no effort at all can make the same kind of green grass turn into wool on a sheep, or hair on a cow, or feathers on a goose.

She says that Christ coming the way He did is really no greater miracle than the miracle of any life that comes to the earth, and is just as easily explained.

Only being we see so many forms of life around us, we have to believe in that whether we want to or not. A man who plants grain in the ground has to believe that some Power is going to make it grow. Otherwise he would do no planting, and so would starve. Everybody sees what happens there and so believes, but nobody yet has been able to explain how it happens. So they just go ahead and plant their grain and stop bothering their heads about what can’t be explained.

But in believing in Christ, God has kept for us the gift of faith, and has made it so-that people of earth can accept Him by faith, or reject Him by unbelief. He has not made it so we must accept His greatest gift if we do not want to do so. In the miracle of Love we are not forced to believe, as we are in the other miracles that God has wrought, and that no man-wisdom has ever yet been able to explain.

Ma says this one most rare and precious gift, is far too dear to the Heart of God to be forced on any man’s unbelief.

It must first become to us our hearts’ desire, and only then may we stretch our hands and take it.

-Christina Young, When I Was Thirteen

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