Flatlander Faith

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

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Oral history of God’s works

In the beginning, people’s memories were better than they are today. Somebody once asked Albert Einstein for his phone number. He went for the phone book to look it up. Incredulous, his colleague asked “You don’t remember your own phone number?” “No. Why should I memorize something I can look up in a book?”

There were no books, no alphabet, no means of written information sharing at the beginning of time. So people gathered around their campfires in the evening and the storyteller would tell them their history. Storytellers had a prodigious memory, but so did the people who listened. If the story teller didn’t tell the story right, his listeners were sure to notice.

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This type of oral history is still found in non-literate societies, and is considered just as accurate as written history, possible even more so due to its collaborative nature. The book of Genesis was first oral history of this kind.

Various peoples developed pictographic styles of writing that used stylized shapes to depict people, animals, places and happenings. There was a limit to how much information could be conveyed in such a manner.

Historians say that the Sumerians began to develop something approaching a phonetic alphabet which was later adopted and refined by the Hebrews. There is a missing link in this theory. The Sumerians never did go on to develop a phonetic alphabet and there is no evidence the Hebrews ever experiment with earlier forms of symbols that developed into a phonetic alphabet. But we are told that 50 days after leaving Egypt, Moses came down the mountain with tablets of stone in his hands. On these tablets, God Himself had inscribed what we now call the Ten Commandments, in a phonetic alphabet.

There is no evidence of a phonetic alphabet anywhere before this moment that forever altered human history. The second commandment says: “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth: thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the LORD thy God am a jealous God.” How could this ever have been communicated in pictographic writing that consisted of images of creatures?

Up to this moment, the people had always wanted to see God as being like some creature that they were familiar with. Now God was telling them He was not anything like that, nor anything else they had ever seen. The Almighty, invisible God wanted His people to stop trying to imagine what He looked like and rather think of Him as the embodiment of qualities like righteousness, mercy and love.
This was the beginning of abstract thinking, the ability to grasp that the invisible God was always near to His children and to consider the consequences of their actions and the actions of others.

The Hebrew alphabet consisted of 22 letters, all consonants. It was written from right to left and had no punctuation. The fast letters were Alef, Bet, Gimel, Dalet. Many years later diacritical marks were added to indicate vowel sounds.

The Greeks took this alphabet and added vowels. The first letters in the Greek alphabet are Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta. The Romans adopted the Greek alphabet and provided the letter shapes we use today. The word alphabet comes from the first two letters: Alef-Bet in Hebrew, or Alpha-Beta in Greek.

Moses now had the tools to provide God’s people with a written history, beginning with the creation and following the lineage of those who were faithful to God, from Adam to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. He continued to write the history of the exodus and the giving of the law. The first five books of the Bible were written by Moses and are called the Law.

There is one book in the Bible that seems to be outside the history of God’s chosen people. This is the book of Job. It is quite possible that this was oral history that Moses heard told and retold during the years he was shepherd for his Midianite father-in-law.

Job is from the land of Uz, an area in the kingdom of Edom, the possession of the descendents of Esau, the brother of Jacob and Abraham’s grandson. Eliphaz is from Teman, also in Edom. Bildad the Shuhite would be a descendant of Schua, Abraham’s son by Keturah. He would have been from an area close to Edom. Zophar was a Naamathite, indicating descent from Naamah, a son of Esau. Elihu, son of Barachel the Buzite appears later. Buz was a son of Nahor, Abraham’s brother. Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law was a Midianite. Median was another son of Abraham and Keturah.

All the people mentioned are descendents of Abraham or his brother and inhabited an area east and south of the Dead Sea. Moses would have led his flocks in this area, often meeting the people of this heritage at oases. I am surmising that the story of Job became familiar to him and God told him to put it in writing for the instruction of His people. I don’t know this, but this seems the most logical route for it to have become part of our Bible. Except for the first two chapters and the last ten verses, the book of Job is a poem. An epic poem that stuck in the mind and taught eternal truths.

Abraham our father

The apostle Paul tells us that Abraham is the father of all who believe (Romans 4:11-16). If we want to talk about faith then, discovering who Abram was, and what he did, seems a logical starting point. We first encounter him in Genesis 11, still named Abram, one of the three sons of Terah.

The family lived in Ur of the Chaldees. For many years the only Ur known to Bible scholars was the large city located south of the mouth of the Euphrates on the Persian Gulf. The difficulty is that this Ur was Sumerian, not Chaldean. More research has led to the discovery of references to a smaller Ur, far to the northwest, between the Tigris and Euphrates. This was in Chaldean territory and was no doubt referred to as Ur of the Chaldees to distinguish it from the larger Sumerian city.

The Bible does not tell us the circumstances of God’s call to Terah to leave Ur and go to Canaan. Perhaps we can take from references in the Bible that God spoke to Abram and all his father’s family went with him. Genesis 11:41 tells us that Terah and his family left Ur to go to Canaan, but stopped at Haran. This may have been halfway or less. By this time Terah’s son Haran had died, but Haran’s son Lot accompanied his grandfather and his uncles Abram and Nahor.

The family lived in Haran until Terah died. Then God again spoke to Abram, telling him to leave and go to Canaan, promising him “in thee shall all families of the earth be blessed” (Genesis 12:3). Lot and his family accompanied Abram, but Nahor remained in Haran. When Abram and Lot arrived in Canaan, God appeared to Abram again and said “Unto thy seed will I give this land” (verse 7). Abram was already an old man, and he had no children, yet he believed the promise.

Abram and Lot lived close to each other until their flocks increased so there wasn’t enough pasture for both. Abram gave Lot the choice of where he wanted to go with his flocks. He chose the plains near Sodom where there was abundant pasture and water, leaving the mountains for Abram.

Abram continued to trust God and prosper. His herdsmen dug a well and their Canaanite neighbours filled it with rocks. He didn’t protest, just moved further away and dug another well, with the same result. Finally he found a place where he could dig a well for his flocks without opposition from his neighbours.

A picture emerges of Abram as a man who often has encounters with God and fully trusts His promises. He is a man of peace, avoiding quarrels with his family and his neighbours. Lot was not as trusting, seeking an assurance of prosperity for his flocks. His choice had disastrous consequences for his family and he barely escaped with his life when God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah.

There are spiritual parallels in the lives of Terah and his family. God calls them to depart from wickedness and travel to a land that He promised to them. Nahor is content to go halfway. Abram and Lot get to the promised land, but Lot does not fully trust God to provide for him and reaps the consequences. Abram believes the promises of God and trusts that God will make them happen in His own way, in His own time. This faith echoes through all the subsequent pages of the Bible.

Why am I still here?

It amazed us when Aggie greeted us by name. This was only the second time we had visited her and at our first meeting she had already passed her 100th birthday.

Aggie was an amazing lady all round. She did not need hearing aids; she had glasses, but still read a regular print Bible. She walked with a cane, but that was more for insurance than for need of support. Every Sunday someone picked her up to take her to church.

It had piqued our interest when we read in the newspaper about the 100th birthday of this lady whose last name was the same as my wife’s maiden name. Since she lived in a nursing home in a town not too far away, we looked her up. We never found out if there was any family connection, but that didn’t seem all that important when we got to know her.

She posed the question I have used as a title for this post. What purpose did God have in preserving her life? Her children lived far away. But a grandson had moved back to teach at the school right beside the nursing home. Aggie loved to watch the children. Why aren’t all nursing homes built beside schools?

We thought it was enough that Aggie was a little candle in a place full of shadows. She loved God, loved her neighbours, was thankful and cheerful. I want to be like that if I live so long.

Years later, we met a man over 100, a distant relative of mine this time. He lived in an apartment beside the nursing home where my mother spent the last year of her life.

Jacob still had a driver’s license and drove to his country church every Sunday. Except in winter, for, he said, “If I were to have an accident on the snow and ice, they would take my license away.”

This 100-year-old man loved to take nursing home residents for walks around the beautifully landscaped grounds, pushing their wheelchairs. He had outlived his wife and two of his children, but wasted no time feeling sorry for himself. He still had something left to give.

Perhaps I am thinking this way because I had another injection in my eye yesterday, to counteract the effects of macular degeneration. The eye specialist is often a little surprised that I can detect the effects so soon, when the scans of my retina show only the beginning of a slight swelling.

I suppose it might take me longer to notice if I spent most of my time watching TV. But I don’t have a TV; to pass my life being entertained doesn’t sound like much of a life. I am a reader, writer and bookkeeper; when a line of type, or a column of numbers, develops waves I call my eye doctor.

It is ten and a half years since I first noticed this happening and the doctor first stuck a needle in my eye to inject a couple drops of a special medication. It has worked for me so I can still drive and work with words and numbers.

But, if the macular degeneration had begun a few years earlier no medicine would have been available. The timing was right; I am blessed and so are so many others. The question that comes to me is not so much why, as, what am I supposed to be doing with the extra time that the injections have given me to use my vision? The answer seems to be that now is the time to write.

I have thought of myself as a would-be writer since my school days and have always written in free moments. There has been more time in the last few years and I have applied myself to learning and honing my writing skills. Perhaps it is time to stop thinking of myself as a would-be writer and get with it.

The virtue of vulnerability

Last Saturday, Chris and I attended a Christian writers’ wordshop (a workshop about words). All the presenters were ladies; the attendees were also mostly ladies, plus four men and one boy.

This is cause for much pondering; why are there so few men at this level? Yes.there are many books by male authors on the bookstore shelves and they are popular. But the ladies are by far the majority among writers of self-published Christian books and in Christian writers’ groups.

Perhaps the answer lies in the fact that the ladies are more willing to expose their vulnerability. On the masculine side, we have been taught to suck it up and keep a stiff upper lip. That puts a barrier between us and our readers.

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One of the presenters on Saturday described how she gave a talk a few years ago on her struggle with depression and how God had sustained her and helped her through it. Afterwards a young lady from the audience had came up to her in tears and had been unable to speak for several minutes, sobbing uncontrollably on the presenter’s shoulder. She had thought she was the only person that had ever experienced such depression. The presenter’s vulnerability had made a connection and offered hope.

The great truth that we all need to learn is that it is the things that we don’t want to write about, the things that we are afraid to expose, that will be the greatest help to a reader. After all, we are not writing to tell the world what great people we are, we want to tell people about the great God we serve.

Freedom of the will

Freedom of choice means that I am at liberty to do as I please. Nevertheless, I learn every day in small ways that the choices I make have consequences; and the choices that other people make often have consequences that affect me. Why then should I not expect that consequences might not only be immediate, but long-term, even eternal?

God is not to blame when bad things happen, He has given us the liberty to choose freely. Often those choices have unanticipated consequences. The unpleasant consequences of our bad choices should lead us to pause a moment to consider whether God might not have a better way for us.

God does not protect us from the negative consequences of the choices we and other people make. Neither does he force us to choose His way.

Yet God does speak to us, quietly and often, asking us to reconsider the direction we are travelling in life. Some time in our life He will tell us that the bad things happening to us are the result of our bad choices which make us sinners.

It doesn’t work to decide that we will live the way God wants us to live by our own will and strength. But we do have the ability to accept God’s judgment on our sin and ask Him to help us. That is called repentance and when God sees that our repentance is genuine, He forgives us because of the sacrifice Jesus has made for our sin, He adopts us as His child and gives us His Holy Spirit to enable us to make right choices.

That is called the new birth, conversion, regeneration. Those words all mean a change in the way we think and a u-turn in the direction of our life. When we live to please God and to love and help the people around us, we will be far happier than when we were only trying to please ourselves.

This is the beginning of Christian life. Some people stop as soon as they reach this point, thinking this is all there is to Christian life. God wants us to keep on going, learning a little more each day about our own weakness and about God’s will and the blessings that He has for those who really consecrate their lives to Him.

Meeting God in His Word

I grew up in a home where the Bible was read every day and we attended the Anglican Church every Sunday. I became a member of that church when I was 11; a few years later I became an altar boy and continued faithfully until I moved away from home to attend university.

There was a time when God seemed very near, yet never did it seem like a connection was made. After I left home, I lost connection with the church and with the Bible. It seemed to me that most churches talked a lot about God, but followed a path that didn’t have much to do with God. The Bible was suspect, too. Perhaps some of it was inspired by God, but it seemed to contradict itself, most of it must be the opinions of those who wrote it.

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When I was 24, I borrowed a well-worn Bible from my parents and began reading it again to try and sort out what was really the Word of God and what was man-made additions. After several years I knew that was an impossible task. This book, written by 40 different people over a period of 1,500 years, was only one book. Every part of the Bible was connected to every other part. It was either the Word of God from beginning to end, or entirely a man-made fraud.

The second option seemed less and less tenable as I saw how the Bible explained itself as I read the whole thing. The so-called contradictions disappeared as I began to discern a purpose in them and see how God had revealed Himself step by step to recalcitrant mankind.

Then came the day in 1970 when I was reading the Bible and God pointed His finger directly at me and told me I was a sinner. And I knew it was true. On my knees I admitted to God that all that had gone wrong in my life was my fault and no one else’s. That was the point where my relationship with God began.

That relationship has grown over the years. I have read the Bible through many times, in both French and English. I don’t follow any Bible reading plan that leads me skipping hither and yon through the pages of the Bible. It is only meaningful when I read a book of the Bible through and get the whole picture.

From time to time God still points His finger at me and tells me “You’ve been struggling with that temptation, that bad attitude, or that unwillingness, for long enough. It’s time to repent of it, to clean house.” And He gives the grace to do it. I am constantly amazed at His patience, with the people of Bible times and with me.

The purpose of daily reading and meditating on the Word of God is not to learn about God, or to learn how to please God. Our motivation for opening the Bible must be to meet with God, to deepen our acquaintance with Him whose actions and purposes appear on every page, who inspired those 40 men over a millennium and a half to write the things that are in the book. We will learn about God and about how to live a life that is pleasing to Him, but that has to be a result of first learning to know Him in a personal way. The teachings of the Bible will not stick if we do not know the Author.

Ever With Thee

No more in darkness, trials, and temptations,
No more a waif on trouble’s billowy sea,
How sweet will be the day of my abiding
Ever with Thee!

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Bright after darkness shines the summer morning,
Bright is the sunrise when the tempests flee;
But brighter far the home where dwell thy chosen
Ever with Thee.

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Dear are the hours when those we love are near us;
Dear, but how transient must their brightness be:
That one glad day will know no sadder morrow
Ever with Thee.

Love will be there: methinks all other glories
Nothing to those enraptured souls will be,
Filled with the transport of that one assurance,
Ever with Thee.

But long may be the way that we must travel,
And many a dark’ning storm we yet may see,
Dread sorrows may o’erwhelm us ere we’re sheltered
Ever with Thee.

Not so: Thy hand, extended through the darkness,
Leadeth us on the the way we cannot see,
And clasping that, e’en here we are in safety
Ever with Thee.

Annie Louisa (Walker) Coghill, 1836-1907

JOY

“I don’t know why we are here, but I’m pretty sure that it is not in order to enjoy ourselves.”
― Ludwig Wittgenstein

A bleak, hard and cold view of life. Wittgenstein, a native of Austria who spent much of his life in England, is regarded as one of the greatest thinkers of the 20th century. He feared that people didn’t understand what he was trying to say. I certainly don’t.

A century ago, Billy Sunday, the most prominent U.S. evangelist of his time, said “God is not an explanation, God is a revelation.” We can label that statement as simplistic if we wish. We can call Billy Sunday simple-minded, too. But he was right.

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If we ignore what God has revealed in His Word and believe only what is revealed by our mind we will be like Mr. Wittgenstein. The heroic endeavour to make the human mind the measure of all that exists has led many great thinkers to conclude that all is empty, meaningless, hopeless, joyless.

If we trust what God has revealed in His Word we will find that life is full and meaningful. There is hope, and there is joy. Despite the dour and drear thought of Mr. Wittgenstein, it is God’s will that we should enjoy ourselves.

Psalms 5:11 But let all those that put their trust in thee rejoice: let them ever shout for joy, because thou defendest them: let them also that love thy name be joyful in thee.
Psalms 16:11 Thou wilt shew me the path of life: in thy presence is fulness of joy; at thy right hand there are pleasures for evermore.
Psalms 30:5 For his anger endureth but a moment; in his favour is life: weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning.
Psalms 32:11 Be glad in the LORD, and rejoice, ye righteous: and shout for joy, all ye that are upright in heart.
Luke 2:10 And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.
John 15:11 These things have I spoken unto you, that my joy might remain in you, and that your joy might be full.

Happy 2019

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A friend was going from place to place, checking and re-filling displays of gospel tracts that had been placed in various businesses. He walked into a grocery store in a small town with some tracts in his hand. Seeing that he needed more, he left those on the counter and went back to his car. When he came back in, the clerk at the cash register was reading one of the tracts.

“Don’t read that!” he said, “— unless you want to change your life.”

She looked up at him and said “Doesn’t everybody want to change their life?”

I suppose that’s why the making of New Year’s resolutions appeals to so many. Even if they know they’ll never be able to keep them and it’s just an exercise in futility. Here is a better way:

Trust in the LORD with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding. In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy paths.
(Proverbs 3:5-6)

May we trust in the Lord throughout the coming year and allow Him to direct us in all we do.

WISHING YOU A BLESSED YEAR IN 2019!

Lessons for life from the epistle of James

1. If ye have bitter envying and strife in your hearts, glory not, and lie not against the truth. This wisdom descendeth not from above, but is earthly, sensual, devilish. (3:14-15)
No matter how right I am about something, if I let myself become angry and bitter, I am wrong.

2. The wrath of man worketh not the righteousness of God. (1:20)
I may think I am standing up for God’s truth, but if I become angry I am damaging His cause.

3. The trying of your faith worketh patience (1:3)
I can’t increase my patience by avoiding situations that test it. Even if I sometimes fail the test, I should be learning that I can’t trust only in myself in those circumstances.

4. The wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, and easy to be intreated, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality, and without hypocrisy. (3:17)
I am not naturally endowed with this kind of wisdom. I must seek it from above, from God.

5. Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. (4:7)
Why couldn’t I figure out on my own how I should live? Instinctively, I resist the idea of submission to God, it sounds like defeat. I have discovered that my stubborn resistance leads to defeat and submission is the way of victory.

6. Confess your faults one to another, and pray one for another, that ye may be healed. The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much. (5:16)
But others won’t understand me. They don’t know the problems, temptations and frustrations that I have to deal with. But when we share our struggles with one another we realize how much alike we are and that we all face the same spiritual enemy. By prayer we all have access to the power to overcome our doubts, trials and temptations.

7. If ye fulfil the royal law according to the scripture, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself, ye do well (2:8)
This is rightly called the royal law. It is the one rule for citizens of the kingdom of heaven. Everything else is just commentary.

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