Flatlander Faith

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

Tag Archives: God

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.

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Amazing grace

That saved a wretch like me
I am not wretched because of things others have done to me, even though those things may have been horribly wretched. I am wretched because of the things I have done, the choices I have made.

God is not a sadistic puppet master who made me do bad things, then condemned me to eternal punishment for doing them. There were always better choices available to me, but I always wanted to blame someone else for my wrong choices.

Eve did not force Adam to eat of the fruit. The serpent did not force Eve to pluck the fruit and bite into it. God did not force Satan to rebel against Him. None of these things were pre-determined. Neither were the bad choices that I made. I am wretched because I deliberately made those bad choices.

‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear
It was hard to see that it was grace that brought me face to face with my wretchedness, that made me feel the crushing weight of my guilt and fear the utter hopelessness of my situation. Yet without that I would never have made the next step.

I admitted to myself and to God that all my problems were of my own doing, nobody had pushed me, all my problems were caused by choices I had made.

And grace my fears relieved
Suddenly, unexpectedly, that crushing weight of guilt, and the fear of God’s judgement were gone. God’s grace had come down and I was forgiven and free.

That is why grace is so amazing.

Reality

  1. This is my Father’s world. I did not ask to be here. I cannot choose to be in another world. This is it and I may as well make the best of it.
  2.  I am made in my Father’s image. Even though I am earthly, like the animals, with all the capacity for savagery that entails, I am also a spiritual being, able to know and communicate with my Father, with all the wonderful possibilities that provides.
  3.  This world, this life, is not all there is. Voices are coming to me from beyond this world, alluring me to discontent, envy, anger, rebellion. Other voices, softer voices, urge me to love and be loved. My destination after this life depends on which voices I choose to listen to and obey.

This is reality. I may wish it wasn’t like that; I may choose to believe that it is not like that. But in the end, I cannot escape reality. Denying reality will not make me happy, now or ever. Happiness is only to be found in living in this world as it really is, not as it may appear to be or as I would wish it to be. Happiness is to be found in living to make others happy, not just in looking out for myself.

There are people around me who do not accept reality – many people, probably most of the people I meet. They show it by their attitudes, the way they choose to live their lives. Yet underneath the mask there is still a person made in the image of the Father. A person who is sometimes capable of great acts of kindness, a person who might be touched by the kindness of others.

It is not up to me to unmask them, or tear off their anti-God armour, only the Father Himself can do that. Words and acts of love and kindness will do more good than cutting words of criticism. They are receiving altogether enough criticism already. And underneath that hard shell there is still the image of the Father and the realization that their rebellion against Him is not working out as they thought it would.

To show love and kindness is not to accept their rebellion against the Father. It is to show them that genuine happiness is found when we are ready to live the life that the Father made us for.

Doctrines of the Humanist Religion

 

1. Nothing is real if it cannot be explained by the human mind

I may call myself a lover of the truth, but if I am unwilling to believe anything that does not fit the measure of my mind, am I really open to consider what truth is? Scientific hypotheses attempt to fit the things observed and experienced by man into a framework that gives a logical explanation for those phenomena and events. In order to do this, they must reject anything that cannot be measured and counted. Paradoxically, occult and shamanistic beliefs are attempts to do the same thing, only with different rules of evidence.

2. We are inherently good – our failures are due to a lack of knowledge. The best informed person will always make the best decisions.

The knowledge required might be a better understanding of how to appease the pagan gods and spirits. It might mean getting psychiatric counselling to discover the root causes of troubled emotions and relationships. Or it could mean getting a university education to better face the challenges of life. We often hear it said “If only I had known before what I know now I wouldn’t have got myself into the mess I’m in.” Most often the cause of the trouble was not a lack of knowledge but a decision to follow the baser inclinations of human nature.

3. It is a great evil for people to be deprived of the things that could bring them pleasure.

Why can’t my wife, husband, parents, friends, or boss treat me with the consideration that I deserve? If only I had a little more money, a better house, more time for recreation; if only I lived somewhere else, things would go better. Is our happiness really based on things, or other people?

People tend to think they have a right to physical health. Well-meaning Christians sometimes think that admitting their illness would be a lack of faith and live and die in unreasoning fear. Others spend all their substance, travelling over land and sea, in a desperate search for a healer in whom they can trust. Often they leave their families destitute.

4. The evil that men do is caused by factors outside of themselves. If society can only be restructured to remove all the causes of injustice and lack of fulfilment.

The social gospel and other movements that aim to eliminate inequities and provide fair and just treatment for all began with good intentions and great expectations. Are people happier as a result? Or are we just hacking away at the leaves and branches and completely missing the root of the problem?

All of the above ideas shape our thinking about how to raise our children. We have come to understand that children can only develop their true potential when given maximum access to information and the freedom to decide for themselves what to believe and do. Now it seems that many parents to consider their children to be burdens. And when the parents come to their declining years, their children consider them to be burdens.
Everything we do is governed bu our religious beliefs, even when we profess to have no religion at all. There is within every person a longing for answers to the questions of life. Who am I? Why am I here? Where did I come from? Where am I going? The answers to those questions make up our religion and become the reference point for the choices we make in life.

Man-centred religion makes human wants and aspirations its reference point. Upon this foundation are built myriads of elaborate structures, each claiming to be the best road to true happiness. These structures include everything from rigid adherence to man-made beliefs about God, to mysticism, to atheism. Almost everyone we meet is a missionary for some form of the humanist religion. Businesses, banks, schools and the media do their utmost to persuade us to follow the way of humanism.

Only a few have a truly God-centred religion that makes God the reference point for all the decisions of life. They acknowledge God as Creator, Lord and Saviour, devoting their lives to serving Him

There is no neural point; every person on the planet adheres to one of these two religions. The man-centred religion is built over, and tries to conceal, the pit of hell. The God-centred religion is built upon the eternal and unmovable rock -– Jesus Christ.

About that beard on my face

Why did I ever decide to grow hair on my face?

The answer should be obvious – I didn’t. It grew all by itself, without any decision or effort on my part.

That brings up another question – Why do I leave it there? The best answer is the simplest one – I decided that if God made the hair to grow on my face it would probably be pleasing to Him if I let it be seen.

That was all there was to it. I didn’t engage in deep theological reflection when I made that decision. Neither did I find any command in the Bible that told me I had to wear a beard. There is no such command in the Bible. I believe the reason for that is that God doesn’t endow all men with the potential to grow hair on the face. Thus He must be OK with the fact that such men don’t have beards, and the rest of us should be too.

There are indications in the Bible, though, that it is a shame and a disgrace for a man who has a beard to have it removed. I don’t think that’s really a doctrinal proof of the need for a beard. Just another indication that it would be a good idea for me to let mine be seen.

I do trim my beard regularly. I don’t want to look like an old prospector who lives in a remote cabin and rarely show his face in public.

The hair on top of my head gets more sparse with the passing years. A barber tried to console me once by saying that we don’t really lose hair as we get older. It just starts to show up in different places – the eyebrows grow bushier, tufts of hair grow out of our ears and nostrils.

At least I think he was trying to console me. One might as well face the changes wrought by passing years with humour. My barber now trims my eyebrows every time I get a haircut. And I do my best to keep the ear and nose hairs trimmed back so they don’t become noticeable.

For the same reason, if a lady finds dark hairs growing on her chin, I believe it’s entirely permissible for her to take whatever measures are needed to make them disappear. In fact, I would highly recommend that she do that.

But I am quite OK with the hair growing on my face. I don’t let my beard grow too long, though. One of my granddaughters used to express an interest in trying to braid it. I thought it best to keep the beard short enough that braiding wouldn’t be possible.

Confusion about the Gibeonites

Four years ago I published a post entitled Moralistic, Therapeutic Deism. The first two paragraphs read as follows:

Moralistic, therapeutic deism, a term first used by Christian Smith, seems a fitting description of much of what passes for Christianity in North America. The followers of this religion believe in a God who wants them to be good, wants them to feel good about themselves, doesn’t need to be consulted except in case of emergencies, and who will accept all good people into heaven.

One unfortunate result is that such people read the Old Testament as a series of morality tales, leading to conclusions that play up the foolishness and waywardness of Old Testament characters. Such a reading altogether misses the redemption story that is an essential ingredient of these histories. The New Testament points to these histories as God’s way of revealing little by little his plan of redemption.

Today I want to write about how the story of the Gibeonites, beginning in the ninth chapter of Joshua, is commonly misinterpreted. Bible story books and Sunday School lessons tend to make a big thing of how the Gibeonites tricked the elders of Israel. In doing so, they altogether miss how this account fits into the redemption story.

If God had been displeased with the Israelites for accepting the Gibeonites, would he not have told Joshua to just stand back and let the armies of the south destroy Gibeon? Instead he told Joshua to go up to battle and that he would deliver the attacking armies into Joshua’s hand. Then God performed one of the great miracles of the Old Testament, making the sun stand still for another whole day. At the same time, God poured out hail on the attacking armies.

Up to this point, the children of Israel were occupying a small enclave in the plains of Jericho. The mountainous country was before them; the population in those mountains far outnumbered the Israelites and they were men of war. Yet the pact with the Gibeonites provided the opening to utterly destroy those armies during the battle of the long day and subsequent battles in the days following. Now the Israelites were masters of all the southern half of the Promised Land.

This stirred the nations in the north to gather together to battle, but once again the Lord assured Joshua that He would deliver them to him. Joshua and the Israelites won another great victory and were now in possession of all the land. They had not destroyed all the people of the land, but there were no longer any mighty armies to stand against them.

As we read the whole story, the inescapable conclusion is that God blessed the Israelites for accepting the Gibeonites. Yes, they came with a deceitful story, yet they did it because they recognized the greatness of God. They submitted willingly to the conditions laid upon them by the elders of Israel, knowing that the alternative was death. Joshua 11:19 says: “There was not a city that made peace with the children of Israel, save the Hivites the inhabitants of Gibeon: all other they took in battle.”

The Gibeonites became hewers of wood and drawers of water for the service of the tabernacle. There was an element of mercy in this, they were not made slaves to individual Israelites, which could well have led to oppression and mistreatment. It is likely that the Gibeonites are the same people as those later called Nethinims.

The Gibeonites were Hivites, descendants of Canaaan. Others of the Hivites remained and later troubled the Israelites. There is no hint in the Bible that the Gibeonites were in any way associated with them. They had made their choice to take their place among the people of God.

Nevertheless, there came a time when King Saul thought he would be doing God a service by wiping out the Gibeonites. Because of this God sent a three year famine in Israel in the time of King David. The famine ceased when seven of Sauls grandsons were hung. This may look like revenge, but perhaps a better explanation is that this was a means to make it publicly known to all Israel that the slaying of the Gibeonites was entirely Saul’s idea and contrary to the will of God.

Are we perhaps thinking like Saul if we condemn the Gibeonites for their deception? The real story here, as I see it, is a group of Gentiles forsaking their gods to seek refuge with Israel and their God. Perhaps their methods were questionable, but all the accounts that mention them demonstrate the purity and sincerity of their desire to fully submit to the Almighty God.

God’s way is best

I watched bemused as Michelle pedalled her tricycle back in forth on the sidewalk in front of our house. Then she saw a bus coming and pedalled to the bus stop at the end of the block. After a passenger or two had dismounted or mounted the bus, she lined up beside it. When the bus began to move she did too, pedalling for all she was worth to beat the bus to the other end of the block. She never quite beat it, but she could keep up.

“She’s just a little girl trying to amuse herself,” I thought. “She knows to keep out of the way of pedestrians and she never leaves our block. But I’ve got to get my family to a place where she has something better to do than drag race with a city bus.”

January 18 of 1978 was my mother’s 70th birthday. That was also the day my Dad suffered a stroke. He lived for two more days and passed away early in the morning of the 20th. Dad had been fading away for some time; after the stroke we had known the end was near. But that knowledge didn’t insulate me from the shock of him actually being gone. That shock triggered an allergy attack.

Mom’s life had centred around visiting Dad in the nursing home, but she was a resilient person adn soon settled into the new reality in her life. Circumstances made it necessary for Dennis to stop farming. I helped him for a few weeks that spring, cleaning up around the yard and getting machinery ready for the auction sale. After the sale it seemed that we were now free to leave for a congregation where we could make our home. Mom was quite capable of looking after herself and said nothing to discourage us from leaving.

But where would we go? Congregations in Western Canada were rural and there didn’t seem to be work available anywhere near them. At least not for someone with my allergy problems. When a new congregation began to form that spring at Swanson, my hopes were aroused. Some families from Linden were moving there, as well as all the members from Hague. We looked around there in May. Swanson was west of the South Saskatchewan River. There was an irrigation district on the east side with the main crop being potatoes. My hopes began to rise.

On our way home I stopped at a potato storage plant and asked the lady in the front office if they were hiring. She said yes and handed me an application form. I took it out to the car and was going to fill it out. The first question stopped me: Do you have any allergies?

A dark cloud filled the car as we began the drive home. Then an idea popped into my mind : “Why don’t you go to St Marys, Ontario?” It was ridiculous, so far away and we didn’t know anyone there. But it seemed to bring a little glimmer of light.

We talked it over in the following days. It was such a little glimmer of light, but it was all we had. We decided I would drive out there first, find work and a place to live, then Chris and Michelle would follow.

We packed everything we could into our little Toyota and June 1, 1978 I started the long eastward drive. There is a song in the Christian Hymnal entitled “God’s Way is Best.” The first line of the chorus goes “God’s way is best, I will not murmur, although the end I do not see.” That was my situation; I certainly did not have any idea what I would find or how things would turn out when I got where I was going. Yet it seemed that this was what God wanted me to do, and I went. As I travelled I sang that hymn off and on and found that I could remember all four verses.

I got to the St Marys area Sunday afternoon and drove down the road where the church was located and where some of the families lived.  I didn’t have the courage to stop but drove on into Stratford and found a motel for the night. As I sat in that room the question uppermost on my mind was “What on earth am I doing here?” A prayer before I went to bed settled my mind again that I was where God wanted me to be.

The next morning I drove down the road by the church and saw a farmer adjusting a piece of equipment in a field. It was Howard Nickel and he directed me to a place down the road where a house was being renovated to be the home of minister Robert Toews. I stopped there and that broke the ice. I spent the next couple days looking for work and found a job at an auto parts plant in Mitchell, on the northern edge of the congregation.

There was Bible Study Wednesday evening and I sat in the St Marys church for the first time. I wanted to ask for the hymn I had been singing on the trip to Ontario, but I couldn’t remeber the number. As I paged frantically through the book, someone else called out a number. My heart sank, but when I found the place in the hymnal it was the one I had been looking for. As we sang “God’s Way is Best,” a feeling washed over me that I had arrived where I was supposed to be.

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.

Writing and witnessing

There are two kinds of writers. First is the novice who has a burning desire to tell a story or to announce some truth. Feeling insecure in his ability, he adopts a formal tone, uses the most impressive words he can find, adds adjectives – lots of bold, beautiful, glorious, exuberant adjectives. He leaves nothing out, not even the most minute peripheral detail; yet forgets important information because everybody knows it anyway. His family and friends say the writing is wonderful; he ought to publish it. Other people don’t say much. They just stop reading after the second paragraph.

The second kind is the one who thinks of the reader from start to finish of her writing. She considers what a reader might not be aware of and weaves that into the writing. She prunes out irrelevant information, tries to eliminate all adjectives, and never uses a big word when a small one will do. There’s a good chance a publisher might be interested in this writing.

Most of us start out like the novice, but eventually learn the painful truth that no one is interested in our pomposities. In fact, they are really not all that interested in us. Little by little, we learn to fade into the background and put the story, the article, the Sunday School lesson, into the foreground. We ask ourselves: How can I tell this in a way that others will want to read it?

The same approach applies when we want to share our faith. If we spend a lot of time expounding on our qualifications to share the Christian message people are turned off. They quit listening.

Sometimes a person feels compelled to describe his abject humility. It’s the same thing. He is boasting of his qualification as a man of God to let us know that we should listen to his message. All such boasting is vain.

If our family has been Christian for several generations, we are tempted to credit our salvation to the example and teaching of our parents and grandparents. That is confusing our genealogy with our spiritual heritage, and it gives others the impression that if they do not fit into that kind of genealogy they won’t fit in Christian circles.

God has no grandchildren. How often have we heard that? Has it sunk into our heart?

If we are Christians today, it means that at some point the Holy Spirit has pointed out to us that we were lost. We were sinners, having no hope in anything of this world. The righteousness of our parents could not save us. There was no saving virtue in our genealogy. We were alone before the absolute righteousness and holiness of Almighty God with nothing of this earth to cling to. At that point we pled for mercy and forgiveness and through the blood of Jesus Christ mercy and forgiveness were granted. We became children of God and could say like David: “For thou, O God, hast heard my vows: thou hast given me the heritage of those that fear thy name” (Psalm 61:5).

There is no boasting here, it is God who is glorified, not ourselves. This tells others that there is a way by which they too can become partakers of this heritage.

Just as in effective writing, in order to be effective witnesses of the saving grace of God, we have to put ourselves in the background and the message in the forefront. God is the message, not us.

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.

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