Flatlander Faith

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

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Confused churches

Louis Riel, the 19th century Métis leader, was troubled by the things he experienced from the churches of his day. He read in the Bible about a Church of Jesus Christ that was characterized by love and peace. What he saw in both the Roman Catholic and Protestant churches was oppression and pride. The churches seemed to be the source of the mistrust and prejudice that separated native and white, French and English, Protestant and Catholic.

He saw the problem: neither Catholic nor Protestant embodied the true faith in Jesus Christ that worked by love and compassion. But he could not find a solution.

Over the years since then a majority of people here on the Canadian prairies have given up hope of finding such a church. Yet there are still hundreds of denominations and small independent groups claiming to embody true Christian faith, indicating that some people still have a longing to experience the loving fellowship promised by Jesus: “By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another.” (Gospel of John 13:15)

How does one find such a church? I am going to give a list of characteristics of the true Church of God as given by Menno Simons in the 16th century. But this is not an intellectual exercise. The multiplicity of churches is the fruit of people trusting to their own reasoning. It is only by trusting fully to the leading of the Holy Spirit that one can find a way through the conflicting claims. It helps to remind ourselves that the boasting of men does not enhance the truth – and is not a characteristic of the truth.

The true signs by which the Church of Christ may be known.
By Menno Simons, written in 1554

  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 a bold confession of God and Christ.
  6. By oppression and tribulation for the sake of the Lord’s Word.

I plan to write a little more about each of these signs in upcoming posts.

The armour of God

As best as I can understand it, the theme of the Old Testament is that God created mankind and placed us on this earth with a great purpose in mind. There are hints, but only hints, that part of that purpose was that we would be a testimony of His love and kindness to the angels that had rebelled. Many times God appeared on earth, in human or angelic form, and talked with those who were endeavouring to accomplish His purpose. He guided and supported them with many manifestations of His power and glory. But in the end it was evident that mankind was not strong enough, or wise enough, to do what God expects of us.

The theme of the New Testament is that God never expected us to do it in our own strength and wisdom. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus taught us a way of life that looks a lot like weakness. Jesus Himself submitted to the outrages of those who were powerful according to the measure of this world, and overthrew them by the power of love and forgiveness. The apostle Paul saw how the power of God could only work in us when we are weak, and said, “Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong.”

We often speak of the armour of God as described by Paul in Ephesians chapter six. Do we realize that this armour is only effective when we lay down our own armour? Isn’t this the significance of David taking off Saul’s armour and laying it aside before he went out to meet the giant? He told Goliath, “Thou comest to me with a sword, and with a spear, and with a shield: but I come to thee in the name of the LORD of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom thou hast defied. This day will the LORD deliver thee into mine hand; and I will smite thee, and take thine head from thee; and I will give the carcases of the host of the Philistines this day unto the fowls of the air, and to the wild beasts of the earth; that all the earth may know that there is a God in Israel.”

Goliath saw nothing but a sling in David’s hand, but David was clad with the whole armour of God, invisible to human eyes, yet more powerful than any weapon of human warfare. We are powerless against the giants of our day if we face them in our own strength and expect God to provide a little supplementary force. The message of the New Testament is that we must put off every vestige of human strength and trust only in God’s strength.

The weapons of a Christian

The whole world is in a mess. What can we do about it?

The answer Jesus gives is :

Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.

That’s counter-intuitive isn’t it? Our intuitive response is to answer anger with anger, hatred with hatred, violence with violence; guns with guns. But that always leads to more anger, more hatred, more violence, more shootings.

Some people say that citizens need to be armed to defend against the rogue element in our society. But the shooter at Uvalde was wearing a bullet proof vest. And where is a teacher going to keep a gun so that it will not get into the wrong hands, yet be instantly available when a threat arises? And how is a teacher to know the difference between rowdiness and a life-threatening situation?

There has to be a better way. The way of love and peace may seem weak. It is entirely possible that we may get hurt while countering evil with love and peace, yet they are still more powerful than any weapon used against us.

For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty through God to the pulling down of strong holds

So Send I You

After the resurrection and before Jesus departed from this world, He told His disciples “As the Father hath sent me, so send I you” (John 20:21). Just a few simple words, so clear and plain that we are apt to miss their implication.

The Father sent Jesus into the Jewish nation to teach and portray the kingdom of God, a kingdom of truth, righteousness, peace and love. The political and religious forces of the day could not stand the message and conspired to get rid of the messenger.

Jesus rose victorious from the grave and now expects people who have experienced his grace and salvation to carry the same message into a world that is just as hostile. The whole world is in a mess and the Christian will be tempted to get sidetracked into fixing the world. But that has never worked and never will work. It cannot work because the problem with the world is not corrupt and misguided people, though there are enough of those, but the real problem is the powers of darkness which manipulate the affairs of this world.

Christians are called to teach and portray a different kingdom, with different values. We should not expect that to go unnoticed by the ruling forces of the realm of darkness. There will be opposition, attempts to deflect the Christian’s efforts to a different approach that will not be a threat to the realm of darkness. Persecution is not a barbaric relic of the past, it may well be the lot of Christians today who bear witness to the light in a world that loves darkness.

Hymn writer E. Margaret Clarkson understood this reality when she penned the poem So Send I You, which was later set to music by John W. Peterson. Here is the fourth of the five stanzas:

So send I you to to leave your heart’s ambition,
To die to dear desire, self-will resign,
To labour long, and love where men revile you,
So send I you to lose your life in Mine.

-copyright 1954 by Singspiration, Inc.

E. Margaret Clarkson was born 1915 in Melville, Saskatchewan and grew up in Toronto, where she taught school for 38 years. She wrote So Send I You in 1937 at the age of 22.

Demonstration of power

A mortar and pestle used to be standard equipment in kitchens, pharmacies and high school science labs. They could be made of stone, wood or metal, but most often they were ceramic, as in the picture below.

Image by ariesa66 from Pixabay 

Sixty-five years ago I sat in a high school classroom as our teacher demonstrated how gunpowder was made. He took charcoal, sulphur and saltpetre and used the mortar and pestle to grind them to powder. As he was doing so, he placed his left hand over the top of the mortar to keep it from moving around on his desk, holding the pestle between the thumb and forefinger of that had and using his right hand to move the pestle around to grind and mix those three ingredients.

DO NOT TRY THIS AT HOME!!!

As he was doing that, he continued to talk to us, explaining the history and use of gunpowder. I’m not sure what his plan was for demonstrating the explosive power of gunpowder, but he achieved something much more persuasive than he could have planned. His left hand pretty much sealed the top of the mortar and his manipulation of the pestle cause friction, which produced heat, which led to

Shards of pottery shot across the classroom; students dived for the floor on the side of their desks away from the source of the explosion. The teacher was as startled as the rest of us but quickly gathered his wits and asked if anyone had been hurt. No one had, except I think the palm of his hand must have suffered some burns and scratches. Then he asked one of the students to get a broom and dustpan to clean up the debris.

That was the coolest science experiment ever (but don’t try it at home). It didn’t turn out as the teacher had planned, but we all left school that day with the recipe for gunpowder and the knowledge of its power permanently engraved on our minds.

There is another situation where a man stands in front of a group of people to talk, and power is unleashed. The apostle Paul called it the foolishness of preaching.

For after that in the wisdom of God the world by wisdom knew not God, it pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe. 1 Corinthians 1:21

How can saving power be produced by an ordinary guy standing in front of a group of people and talking? Well, first of all, the guy doing the talking is not the source of the power. But as he speaks, he must blend together three essential ingredients: the Word of God, faith and love. Leave any one of them out and there is no power. A man may have a profound and true faith, but without the Word of God his words sound like his own ideas, without love, his words sound like accusations.

It is good to study the Scriptures, the historical setting in which they were written and the original meaning of the words. But that is not an essential ingredient in effective preaching. Taking shortcuts to that learning can lead to pre-packaged distortions of the truth of God’s Word.

Learning to speak clearly and effectively is good, but we need to steer clear of trying to manipulate people’s emotions. The essential ingredients of preaching with power are the Word of God, faith and love. These three work together even in the mouth of those of little learning or speaking skill.

When they are brought together, the Holy Spirit provides the spark that produces an explosion that blows away our pride, our self-righteousness, our hurt feelings, our suspicions and all the other walls we have built that we think are protecting us, but which are really barriers to fellowship with God and with other believers.

To be sure, the explosion is silent and invisible. The results are nonetheless real. Let’s sweep all that rubble onto the rubbish heap rather than trying to use it to rebuild those walls.

The other epidemic

Image by picman2 from Pixabay 

There is an epidemic stalking our land, people are dying, others are left incapable of working or maintaining relationships. No, I’m not talking about COVID, this is an epidemic that was around before COVID and will probably still be afflicting people long after COVID is gone. Since this epidemic only affects people hooked on street drugs, the rest of us may think we can ignore it.

Last Sunday my wife’s sister was found dead in a city several hours from us, with drug paraphernalia on the table in front of her. She had no phone, no one in the family knew where she lived. My wife had been able to locate her and visit a few times in recent years, but she kept moving and did not keep in touch with any of her family.

Sometimes the opioid epidemic ceases to be just an item in the newspaper, comes this close to us and robs us of a beloved family member. The people selling street drugs are not pharmacists or chemists, the drugs they sell are not uniform in effect. When a person uses such drugs for years they are sooner or later going to get something that gives them a bad trip or something that turns the lights out for good. Naloxone reverses the effects of opioids, but it appears no one was with my sister-in-law when she took her last hit. No one to rush her to the hospital or to find a street worker with a Naloxone kit.

What can we do to help such people? We feel compelled to do what we can to fix broken lives. The tough reality is that we can do nothing to rescue people against their will. They made choices, choices that seemed small and insignificant at the time, that led them into being trapped in a lifestyle where nothing: family, job or home, means as much as getting another hit. They must start making small choices to break free from that web. No one else can make those choices for them.

What can we do to help such people? We can pray. We must pray. We cannot manipulate God, God does not manipulate people. But we can pray that at some place and moment a connection can be established between God and the person we are praying for. We can do our best to maintain a connection with that person. It won’t be easy because addictions lead to broken connections, or connections solely for the purpose of getting money to buy drugs.

Above all, we must keep ourselves in the love and peace of God, without anger or bitterness. A loved one who is an addict has probably betrayed our trust, lied to us, maybe even blamed us for his or her problem. But this addict is still a person whom God loves and so must we. If we feel angry or bitter, our loved one will know it and that will be a barrier between us.

Requiem for Tuffy

Tuffy came to us unexpectedly November 17, about a week after our first heavy snowfall. Chris opened the door early in the morning, a four month old kitten walked in, explored our home and decided this was his home. We delighted in his lively presence all winter, then he left us just as unexpectedly March 26, before our snow was altogether gone. He went out the night before and never came home. I found him lying by the roadside in the morning, stiff and cold, no doubt a victim of a passing motor vehicle and his own trusting nature.

He was friendly and fearless, curious and cuddly. The other two cats in this house hissed and growled at him that first day, he took no notice. In time they realized he meant them no harm and accepted him as part of the family. He loved to explore outside, climb trees, chas mice. Indoors he came running when the computer printer began to whir and watched in fascination as sheets of paper appeared in the output slot. When his enthusiasm went too far and he was scolded, he promptly sat flat on the floor to consider this new information. He learned not to walk on the table and to wait his turn when treats were being given out.

He grew rapidly. His size, his colouring, the shape of his head, his long hair, all pointed to mostly Norwegian Forest Cat ancestry. So did his congenial nature. No matter what we were doing, he could come along, jump on our lap to be cuddled and loudly purr his appreciation.

A few weeks ago two neighbour cats were in heat at the same time and came to our yard every day, trying to attract the attention of our cats. By then Tuffy was a eunuch, like the other two. Angus avoided the two females, Pookie chased them away, but Tuffy loved the attention. Looking on, we saw that he had no idea why they wanted to be close to him and no clue about what they expected from him.

He made several visits to the Vet clinic with me: to check for a microchip; to be immunized; to be neutered; and one last time to be cremated. A little later in spring I could have buried him here at home, but the receding snowdrifts of winter still occupy much of the yard.

Tuffy quickly found a place in our hearts and brought us much joy. We miss him. Do we expect to meet him again in heaven? No. Yet I believe that all the beautiful and lovely things that bring us joy here on earth are a foretaste of heaven. The Bible may describe heaven as being made of gold and precious stones. Hard and lifeless building materials do not warm my heart or make me long for heaven. I don’t believe that is all that heaven holds for us. God has endowed the earth with wondrous living beauty: the subtle fragrance of Sweet Williams; the cheery song repertoire of Brown Thrashers; the shimmering of Saffron Winged Meadowhawks on the lawn; the purring of a cat on our lap. Won’t we find beauty and joy beyond any of these in heaven?

I wonder – if I believed an animal unworthy of my love, would I then believe that people needed to fulfil certain conditions to be worthy of my love? I have no regrets about loving a little four-footed creature. We always knew it would only be for a time, yet never expected it to be such a short time.


(The Saffron Winged Meadowhawk is a mosquito-eating dragonfly with a red body and wings of translucent gold.)

Witnesses of the Light

As the apostle John begins telling the gospel story, he identifies Jesus as the Light of the World. Then he says “There was a man named John,” referring to another John, John the Baptist, and says of him, “He was not that Light, but was sent to bear witness of that Light.”

Two thousand years later the world still needs someone to bear witness of that Light. That would be you and me, all who live by faith in Jesus Christ. Are we finding it difficult to do that? Or do we think people don’t want to hear? Perhaps we have become too much at ease in the world as it is, forgetting that it is a wilderness of woe. A good starting point is to realize that most people around us are not happy with the way life is going for them. They think there must be a better way, they try to find it, but they don’t really know what it is they are looking for.

We cannot force people to see the light. Force is characteristic of the realm of darkness and we cannot use the means of the enemy of the light to bring people to the light. The first step, then, in being witnesses of the Light, is to be sure that we ourselves are wholly living in that Light.

I am not that Light. I can, and should, speak the truth boldly. But I must remember that it is the Holy Spirit that leads people into all truth, not me.

I should contend earnestly for the faith once delivered to the saints; that is I must be steadfast in maintaining its truth, despite opposition. Yet I must not be quarrelsome, for I am not the one who delivered that truth to mankind.

I must demonstrate the reality of the faith by loving everyone as God does; even those who are opposed. I don’t know what is in people’s hearts. God knows; He will judge; I don’t need to.

Truth, or a convincing approximation of the truth, can satisfy the mind for a time, but it leaves the heart longing for something more. True faith that works by love will satisfy both heart and mind and draw people to seek fellowship with others whose hearts and lives demonstrate the work of the Holy Spirit.

The church-state hybrid

“We must begin by pointing out that with the launching of the New Testament vision a new idea was being broached; the world was being treated to a new and very revolutionary concept of society, namely, that men can get along peacefully in the market place even though they do not worship at the same shrine. The New Testament conceives of human society as a composite thing, that is, composed of factions. . . It thinks that even though men differ basically and radically at the shrine they need not clash in the market place.”
-Leonard Verduin, The Reformers and their Stepchildren, pp. 11-12, copyright 1964 Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company

As Leonard Verduin saw it, when church and state unite so that being a citizen and being a Christian are the same thing, a hybrid has been created. This hybrid may call itself Christian, yet its nature is contrary to authentic Christianity. Authentic Christianity is characterized by faith and love, neither of which can be produced or enforced by the power of the state. The religion of the hybrid is not based upon beliefs or doctrines, but by participation in the religious ceremonies and sacraments mandated by the state. There can be no mission in such a setting, no sense that some might be saved and others unsaved, as all are saved by virtue of citizenship and church membership. To refuse to participate in government-mandated sacraments is an act of treason.

“During the past half-century the world has witnessed the rise of totalitarian governments and monolithic societies, that is, societies in which all are expected to share in the same ultimate loyalty. These are socieities in which there is no room for diversity of conviction. I view this development with alarm. My conviction is that for a person to be his proper self he must live in the presence of genuine options, must be able to exercise choice, must, in a word, be free to enjoy a measure of sovereignty. In order to be fully human, a person must be part of a composite society.

“Moreover, it is my conviction that the composite society is to a large extent the product (albeit a b y-product) of the world-view of authentic Christianity.”
-Leonard Verduin, The Antomy of a Hybrid, page 7, copyright 1976 Wm B. Eerdmand Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, Michigan

This has been the vision of the Christians known as Anabaptists, Waldensians, Mennonites, etc. throughout history. Their refusal to compromise their faith by submitting to the hybrid has led to intense persecution on many occasions. Will we, who claim to be descendants of the Anabaptists, have the same steadfast faith when persecution comes again?

Evidence of roots that go deep

Image by Hans Braxmeier from Pixabay 

We can read the Bible in a superficial way, looking for heart-warming stories or good moral guidelines, but if our roots are shallow a storm or drought might be enough to topple our faith. When we go deeper, seeking to know God through His Word and through prayer, our roots will grow strong and deep. Others do not see the roots, but our attitudes and actions will show strength and endurance that are beyond self help or self discipline.

There will be:

  1. A greater appreciation of God’s love for weak and fallible humans. God does not love people in proportion to their obedience to a set of rules. The Bible reveals just how weak we humans are. Men of old talked to God, tried to do what He asked of them and often blundered. God still loved them and blessed them. We must discern between a mistake and deliberate disobedience. Let’s beware of the thought that, “I made a couple of mistakes, but you were disobedient.” The reality may be just the opposite. Nevertheless, whether we made a mistake or disobeyed, God is merciful if we are willing to try again. Deep and strong roots in the love of God enable us to have the same compassionate attitude toward others.
  2. Submission to God, trusting that He knows what is ahead of us and will guide us in the way He wants us to go. Such trust is known as humility and meekness. When God and His ways are mocked or attacked, I don’t need to be defensive, it’s not my job to set these people straight. The battle is God’s and He will deal with His enemies in His own way and His own time.
  3. Boldness in speaking of God’s love and righteousness. Yes, it is possible to be humble, meek and bold, all at the same time, as long as there is no combativeness mixed with my boldness “If any man speak, let him speak as the oracles of God” (1 Peter 4:11). The oracles of God are not my opinions, and not for me to enforce, but I must not be fearful or apologetic about speaking them.
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