Flatlander Faith

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

Tag Archives: gospel

Where is the way where light dwelleth?

Earlier  today I re-blogged two posts that pointed to inconsistencies in US media coverage of President Trump’s actions. I was not wanting to make a political point, after all I am a Canadian, but trying to point out the folly of trusting the media to shed light on current issues.

Someone, I think it was Stephen Leacock, once wrote: “The combined labours of many scholars has shed much darkness on the route taken by Hannibal and his army to cross the Alps. As they continue their research it is probable that we shall soon know nothing at all.”

I was living in Toronto in my early twenties and a provincial election campaign was drawing to a close. One day the Telegram newspaper appeared on newstands with huge headlines proclaiming that the leader of one of the minor parties had switched allegiance to the Conservatives, The next issue of the Globe and Mail pointed out that this was true, but hardly a scoop as that event had occurred three years previously.

Thankfully there are still some journalists who prefer truth to hysteria. News stories written by the others should be taken with a grain of salt.

The title of this blog is a quote from the book of Job, chapter 38, verse 19. As Christians we should not give credence to the type of news stories that would whip us into a perpetual state of indignation. That is definitely not where light dwells.

To find the true light we need to look far beyond the political arena. The crisis of this day, this week, this month, will pass and be forgotten. But the true light is eternal and unchanging.

The apostle John tells us in the beginning of his gospel that Jesus is that true light and that light is available to everyone. The apostle Paul, in his letter to the Philippians tells us that we are to shine as lights in the world. We can’t do that if we let our thoughts and feelings become stirred up and confused by the shrill alarms coming from the media.

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Trying to swim upstream

Duyring the winter of 1973-74 our pastor spent several weeks in California taking in a seminar on church growth. Upon his return to Moose Jaw, he called  a meeting at church to talk about what he had learned. He began the meeting by asking “What makes a church grow?”

One lady responded with what seemed to her the obvious answer: “The Holy Spirit.” This was the lady whose mother had recently been converted. Evidently this was not the answer the pastor had anticipated: “Well, yes, but, er, um.”

When he could get back to his train of thought, he expounded to us the principles of the church growth movement. To succeed at evangelizing a community you had to divide it into demographic groups with a natural affinity for each other, based on ethnicity, occupation or other criteria. Then you designed a congregation and a message thart would appeal to each of these homogeneous groups.

I agreed with the lady who thought the Holy Spirit was the key. I also thought that the gospel was supposed to bring people together, not separate them. But no, mass marketing advertisers had proved this approach worked and now it was time to use it to expand the market for the Christian faith.

The congregation began planning evangelistic meetings for spring. A committee was formed to plan and I was elected to it. Everybody was mobilized, the women got together weekly to discuss and pray for the outreach.

Meanwhile, there had been record snowfall in the winter and when spring came there was unprecedented flooding in low-lying parts of the city. As the waters began to abate we began to talk of what could be done to help. Mennonite Disaster Service is an inter-Mennonite organisation that could call out voluteers to come and help. At one of our evangelism planning meetings one member talked of how he had contacted city hall to offer help from MDS. He was told that someone from the Church of God in Christ, Mennonite at Linden, Alberta had already called city hall and said a group of men would be coming.

No one in our group had ever heard of the Church of God in Christ, Mennonite. Except me. I got as far as explaining that the men wore beards when the pastor rushed to the phone, called city hall to get the number of the man from Linden and called him. “Everything is being taken care of, we have a lot of volunteers coming already. You don’t need to go to the trouble of coming all that way.”

The man on the other end decided they would come anyway. The last thing the pastor wanted before this great effort of evangelism was a group of bearded Mennonites being seen about the city. But he made the best of it and offered that they could bring sleeping bags and stay in the church basement.

Before any out of town help arrived we men went out one evening to remove furniture and other belongings from a house that had been flooded to the eaves. That was the end of any cleanup work for me. That night I had an allergic reaction to the mould inside that house that left me incapacitated for almost two weeks.

But I could man the phone at church. Insurance adjusters had to do their investigation before anything could be done to a house. They would inform city hall when a house was ready to be cleaned out, city hall would phone me with the address and when a group of volunteers was finished with one house they would call me for directions to the next one.

That put me in place to visit with the men from Linden when they came in from their day of work. A dozen men came for a week and went home for the weekend. Three others came the next week. Chris came in the evenings after work and our discussions helped us get a better idea of where we wanted to go.

This was when it dawned on me that the churches we had been attending were all happily flowing downstream toward the gulf of diluted Christianity, while we were trying to swim upstream to find the source of living water.

Silence like a cancer grows

Paul Simon was right. Hidden amidst the noise that permeates our daily lives – the noise of our appliances, the hum of our computers, traffic noise, telephones, sirens, music, celebrations, protests, news – there is a pernicious silence. No one dares talk of the things that are churning in their heart. It’s just not done, no one wants to hear. We face this invisible barrier – the sound of silence.

Thoughts come silently – “you’re not good enough,” “you don’t matter,” you’ll never make it,” “nobody likes you.” They become voices that echo incessantly in waking moments, in dreams. They can’t be escaped, they are tormenting demons. But everyone has their own demons and they don’t want to hear about yours. Silence like a cancer grows.

There is an epidemic of suicide, no one quite understands why.

What is a Christian to do? The old gospel message doesn’t resonate with people of the 21st century. Some say we need to make it more relevant, make ourselves more relevant, make ourselves heard.

Sure, let’s grab our megaphomes and join our voices to the cacaphony out there. Do you think anyone will hear? Do you think anyone wants to hear what Christians have to say?

Nobody is listening. Not even the Christians. That is the problem. Rather than trying to make ourselves heard, could we try to help others make themselves heard?

Let’s open our hearts, our minds, our ears to hear the words that no one else wants to hear. We’ll hear a lot of stuff that might make us cringe and want to stop our ears, but if we listen long enough someone might trust us enough to show where it really hurts.

And if we can bear to listen, that person might even give us permission to open our mouths and tell of the healing balm of Jesus’ blood.

But that’s not what ships are made for

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I once had a poster with a picture of a sailing ship at rest in a calm harbour. The caption read: A ship in a harbour is safe — but that’s not what ships are made for.

There have always been Christians who thought that the safest way to live a pure Christian life was to find a safe harbour where they could rest in serene isolation from the storms of the surrounding world. But that’s not what Christians are made for.

Ye shall be witnesses unto me both in Jerusalem, and in all Judaea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth, Acts 1:8.

Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature, Mark 16:15.

But sanctify the Lord God in your hearts: and be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you with meekness and fear, 1  Peter 3:15.

As I read the Scriptures, I am convinced that isolation is not a safe harbour for Christians. Our safety is in being obedient to our Lord and keeping our hearts and minds pure. But we have the unfortunate tendency to deceive ourselves about our inward purity if our faith is not tested daily in our relations with others. It is too easy for us to become smug and self-righteous.

We are made for something much more important than resting in a safe harbour. The important thing is to be sure that our Lord is the master of our ship as we venture out into the seas of life.

Sidetracked?

The purpose of the church is to share the gospel and make disciples in all the world. It is also important to keep the church pure. Is it possible that so much time and energy is spent on this maintenance that it becomes our main mission?

Wouldn’t that be like a farmer who spends all his time maintaining and adjusting his combine and never gets it out into the field for the harvest?

Adapted from Guidelines for Christian Living, first printed in 1971

The problem of ethnic pride

I read a number of English language historical novels when I was young. The English heroes were brave, honest, noble and kind. The villains, often French or Spanish, were shifty-eyed, cowardly dishonest and cruel. I accepted this as truth, and, being of English ancestry, it felt good to be able to identify with the good guys.

Later in life I learned to read French and read some books of the same sort. Imagine my shock to find that in these books the French were honest, noble and brave, considerate of others, kind to the weak. The English were traitors, untrustworthy, dishonest, promise-breakers and capable of incredible cruelty.

Through reading a number of books of history in my adult years I discovered that the French had ample grounds to consider the English as perfidious, dishonest and villainous. Our school history books had been quite selective in the information they provided.

I concluded that every nation and ethnic group has this picture of themselves as possessing all the virtues and of other peoples as possessing all the vices.

Does becoming a Christian take care of these attitudes? When God calls us and we come face to face with the ugliness of our sinful nature, that is a humbling experience. If we repent and find peace with God, the reality of our sinfulness should ever be with us to prevent us from thinking too highly of ourselves. Thus, a Christian is a humble person, on a spiritual, personal level. But does that change our attitude about the inherent superiority of our ethnic group? Not necessarily.

This is why a congregation that is predominantly of one ethnic group is in a precarious position. We cannot lose all of the attitudes that we have soaked in since we were little children. There are rough edges that are a stumbling block to others that we will never be aware of until we mix with people of other ethnic origins who hold to the same faith.

We will be exposed to the rough edges that other people have. Through mutual apologies and forgiveness we will learn to appreciate one another, our fellowship will be enhanced and the gospel witness will grow stronger. People looking on will grasp that it is not a shared ethnic background that brought us together and holds us together, but a shared faith in the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ..

What is an indigenous church?

An indigenous church is one that has been planted in a new environment, taken root and grows and thrives without outside support. People in the community do not see a cultural barrier between themselves and members of the church and conclude that any differences between them and the members of this church are due to their spiritual beliefs. The faith remains true to its roots, unmixed with local spiritual beliefs and practices, but lifestyle and culture have adapted to the new environment.

The three self principle
These principles of an indigenous church in another land or culture were first described 150 years ago by a Christian missionary. I was a little put off at first because Communist China has appropriated the three self label for what is essentially a state-controlled church. But I haven’t found a better way to describe the working of an indigenous church.

1) Self-governing. The faith has taken root in the new location and local leaders can be trusted to replace the missionaries. They are grounded in the faith and following the lead of the Holy Spirit. From now on the local church will make its own decisions with an understanding of the local culture that a missionary can never quite attain.

2) Self-supporting. Members are giving sacrificially to their church and it is able to meet its own needs. Outside financial support, except in cases of dire emergency, will undermine the local church and damage relations between them and the churches in other countries.

3) Self-propagating. This church will extend its ministry in its local area and beyond without outside help. If we wish to spread the gospel around the world we need to establish churches that will then start other churches.

Discipleship
The Great Commission says “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations” (Matthew 28:19). The Greek word that is here translated teach is the verb form of the noun that means disciple. Thus, Jesus is telling us to go and make disciples in all nations. It is not enough to baptize new converts, they need to be discipled: taught, mentored, and encouraged so that they are equipped to help disciple others. “. . . the effectual working in the measure of every part, maketh increase of the body unto the edifying of itself in love” (Ephesians 4:16).

Missionary hymns

I think the old missionary hymns leave many of us feeling a little uneasy. Those references to carrying the gospel to every dark land  – was there a deliberate inference that lands where white people dwell are more enlightened and the lands where darker skinned people dwell are in spiritual darkness? I fear that idea seemed self-evident to white people 100 to 200 years ago.

It’s not so evident today and I think we should stop singing those hymns. I don’t believe that we should stop missionary activity, but perhaps the greater need in our day is right under our noses. While Christianity has taken root on other continents, it is in danger of being uprooted in Europe and North America.

That leads me to the other concern I have with the old missionary hymns – many of them take it for granted that missionary activity can only happen in lands that are across the ocean waves.

Churches in Nigeria have taken note of the increase of unbelief, paganism and idolatry in Europe and North America and are sending out missionaries to do what we seem to have forgotten how to do. In our nearest city, Saskatoon, three Nigerian denominations have placed missionaries and are establishing congregations.

I wonder what kind of missionary hymns they sing in Nigeria?

Sin

“Almighty and most merciful Father, We have erred and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep,  We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts, We have left undone those things which we ought to have done, And we have done those things which we ought not to have done; And there is no health in us. But thou, O Lord, have mercy upon us, miserable offenders..”

“Almighty God, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, Maker of all things, Judge of all men: We acknowledge and confess our manifold sins and wickedness, Which we from time to time most grievously have committed, By thought, word, and deed, Against thy Divine Majesty. We do earnestly repent, And are heartily sorry for these our misdoings.”

These quotations come from the Book of Common Prayer of the Anglican Church of Canada. The first is part of the confession in the Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer services. The second is from the confession in the Communion Service. The capitalization is the way it was in the book. For ten years in my youth I, along with the whole congregation,  recited one or the other of these confessions aloud every Sunday.

These are only words printed in a book, readily memorized and often pronounced without giving much thought to them. Still, for those with ears to hear and hearts to consider, they were a constant reminder that we are miserable sinners and there is no health in us.

We can dismiss those words as meaningless rote recital. For many people that was all they were. But have we gained in spirituality when most churches today hardly talk of sin?

C.S. Lewis discovered 75 years ago that most people he talked to had no concept of sin. Many of the things that churches have always named as major sins did not seem to be sin at all to people. They had been educated out of that old-fashioned notion. Some way had to be found to deliver the diagnosis that all people are sinners before they would have any inclination to hear of a remedy for sin.

“I cannot offer you a water-tight technique for awakening the sense of sin. I can only say that, in my experience, if one begins from the sin that has been one’s own chief problem during the last week, one is very often surprised at the way the shaft goes home. But whatever method we use, our constant effort must be to get their mind away from public affairs and ‘crime’ and bring them down to brass tacks — to the whole network of spite, greed, envy, unfairness and conceit in the lives of ‘ordinary decent people’ like themselves (and ourselves).” (C.S. Lewis, from a talk given in 1945, reprinted in God in the Dock ©1970, published by Eerdmans.)

That is very much the challenge that faces us today. If we are not conscious of our own sin and sinfulness, we won’t get very far in trying to share the gospel with others. James admonishes us: “Confess your faults one to another, and pray one for another, that ye may be healed.” How often do we do that? How often do we talk about other people’s faults?

The Anglican Church of Canada, the Episcopal Church in the USA and most congregations of the Church of England no longer use the Book of Common Prayer. In Africa, Asia and Latin America, Anglican Churches are fast-growing evangelical bodies. They have broken fellowship with the Anglican and Episcopal churches in Canada and the USA.

Ten years ago the Anglican Church of Canada commissioned a study on their future. The conclusion was that if present trends continue, in 75 years the Anglican Church of Canada will consist of two members.The trend has continued, and will continue. A church that no longer acknowledges sin has no reason for its existence. The Anglican Church of  Nigeria is now planting congregations in North America, including one in Saskatoon.

I am an Anabaptist today, not an Anglican. I am just trying to point out a graphic illustration of what happens to a church that decides to drop the issue of sin. That is a danger for all of us. We are not apt to ever make a decision to drop it, we just let it fade away. In such a condition, we no longer have a gospel to present to our neighbours — or our children.

Have we misdiagnosed the problem?

It is at least 50 years since C.S. Lewis wrote: “The greatest barrier I have met is the almost total absence from the minds of my audience of any sense of sin . . . We have to convince our hearers of the unwelcome diagnosis before we can expect then to welcome the news of the remedy.” (from God in the Dock, published by Eerdmans.)

The evangelism methods of 100 years ago still work quite well in many places in third world countries. Not so well in North America and Europe. In fact, hardly at all. Why, they don’t even seem to have a lot of impact on children raised in Christian homes.

Evangelicals have responded in various ways: We have to try harder; We have to make our approach more seeker-friendly; We have to avoid those parts of the gospel message that people find offensive.

Have we misdiagnosed the problem? People have been told for the last 100 years, by people calling themselves Christian, that it is the society around us that needs fixing; people aren’t sinners, the world we live in is sinful. Fix the world and we can all live like Christ wants us to live.

There is now a continual hubbub around us of people trying to save the world. And it seems that they are in a constant state of outrage towards those who don’t wholeheartedly endorse their project for fixing the world. If one steps back a moment to observe, it all goes to prove that people are indeed sinners. The anger, hatred, harassment and violence that comes forth from attempts to save the world actually prove the need for the message of the gospel.

Who is a wise man and endued with knowledge among you? let him shew out of a good conversation his works with meekness of wisdom. But 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. For where envying and strife is, there is confusion and every evil work.  But 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. And the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace of them that make peace. (James 3:13-18)

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