Flatlander Faith

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

Tag Archives: new birth

Epilogue

That is the end of the story I set out to write, but not the end of the journey. We spent 15 years in Ontario, 5 in Québec and have been back in Saskatchewan for 20 years. We are living in the Swanson congregation, where I saw no hope of finding work 40 years ogo. Times have changed, there are many small businesses run by members of the congregation and other employment opportunities in the area. I work part time as a bookkeper now.

Michelle experienced a new birth at the age of 12 and was baptized December 6, 1984. In her late teens and into her twenties she worked several years in nursing homes, then as a teacher in the schools of congregations of the Church of God in Christ, Mennonite. She was an eastern girl, having spent most of her growing up years and her early working life in Eastern Canada.

She was teaching at Dumas, Arkansas when we moved back to Saskatchewan. We fully expected that her permanent home would be far away from us, but a young man at Swanson took note of her and proposed a year after we moved. We are very grateful to Ken Klassen, not only for bringing our daughter back to Saskatchewan, but for his kind and gentle ways as her husband and as father to their four children.

Tami Klassen, our oldest granddaughter was baptized earlier this year. The decisions we made many years ago are bearing fruit unto the third generation.

My mother visited us every year while we lived in the east, usually spending several weeks or a month at a time. She turned 90 in January of 1998 and we knew it was time to come back home to Saskatchewan. She lived with us for a few years and then spent her last years in a nursing home in Rosthern. She passed away December 31, 2006, just 18 days short of her 99th birthday.

Chris has had two bouts with cancer and is healthy and cancer free at this time. We will celebrate our 48th wedding anniversary this summer. Over the last few years we have both been working at developing writing skills to be able to share what God ha done for us and what He has taught us.

To know God without knowing our own wretchedness only makes for pride. Knowing our own wretchedness without knowing God makes only for despair. Knowing Jesus Christ provides the balance, because he shows us both God and our own wretchedness. – Blaise Pascal

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Finding home

The factory where I found work made engineered rubber parts for the automobile industry. I was started on the press line, where rows of hydraulic presses produced vast quantities of rubber parts. The moulds were maintained at tempertures above 300° F to cure the rubber. I started when the weather was already hot and humid and it was even hotter and more humid working over those moulds. It was a shock to the body of this prairie boy, but soon I was acclimatized.

While I was being trained I could not help but be aware of Howie. He was operating several presses and every once in a while parts would not release from the moulds as they should. There would be loud yells and banging sounds coming from Howie’s direction. I decided I would do well to keep my distance from him.

The second week I was given presses to run by myself. The first time I had parts stick to the underside of the top part of the mould and began trying awkwardly to get them down, Howie appeared beside me and took the bar from my hands. He got the parts down and then showed me once again how much mould release to spray on that part of the mould. Then he was back to his own work leaving me to meditate on how mistaken a first impression can be. Howie was a loudmouth, but turned out to be a good guy, easy to get alnog with.

Chris began making arrangements to move as soon as she knew I had work. It took me a couple more weeks to find a place to live but before the month was over we were together again.Chris packed everything that could be put in boxes, sold the rest and shipped the boxes by train. Then she and Michelle rode the train from Moose Jaw to Toronto where I picked them up.

It was the last Sunday in June when we drove into the St Marys churchyard as a family for the first time. As we got out of the car, a young lad, almost eight years old, walked up to us and said “Welcome to St Marys.” And we did feel welcomed by everybody.

In September Michelle started Grade One in the Mapleview Christian School. She enjoyed school and we felt assurance in knowing that her friends were the children of our friends.

At first we had invitations to the members’ homes every Sunday, but after several months that tapered off. One Sunday the brother whom I had first met asked me how things were going. I replied that life was working out well for us, but we weren’t getting invited out much anymore. He pondered that for a moment, then asked if we had invited anyone to our home. Bingo! Immediately I felt reproved and knew what we had to do. We started inviting others for meals, most often Sunday dinners, and that warmed and strengthened our fellowship with the congregation.

We had several visits with the ministers and deacons and were asked to tell our experiences to the congregation one Sunday evening. The congregation voted their acceptance that we had truly met the Lord, were born again and were living as Christians by the leading of the Holy Spirit. Sunday morning, February 11, 1979, we  were baptized by minister Robert Toews.

The day after our baptism, a vivid memory of a time long ago flashed into my mind. Just after being confirmed in the Anglican Church as an eleven year old boy I had knelt and gone through the questions in the little red book of self-examination before communion. Now God was telling me: “That was when I first called you to come to me. During all your wanderings I have continued to call you and now you are part of my family.”

And I was finally a Mennonite who wore a beard.

A step forward, a step back

We found a house to rent just a few miles from church. I started working for Ed Klassen’s carpenter crew. Things were working out well for me; I wasn’t so sure how this was going to work for Chris. I was still a young Christian, trying to sort things out for myself and didn’t know how to be much help to her.

The big sticking point for Chris was that she knew these Holdeman Mennonites believed that if you were a Christian there had to have been a starting point, a new birth. She thought she didn’t have anything to tell and wouldn’t be allowed into the church.

Sure, there had been those times as a young girl at camp where the counsellor had led her in praying the sinner’s prayer then assured her that now shew was saved. Then she had those nightmares when we were first married that the end of time had come and she wasn’t ready. The General Conference Mennonite preacher had assured her she was fine. Her testimony before she was baptized in that church was that she had always wanted to be a Christian. That had been enough, and it would have been enough for the Conservative Mennonites. But she knew that wasn’t going to work here.

As I remember it, when I came home after my first day’s work, Chris met me with the news that minister Bennie wanted to visit with us. Lillian, his wife, had visited with Chris during the day and they had talked about the changes in our lives over the past few years. Lillian thought there was something there that sounded like a new birth experience.

We had supper and went over to Bennie and Lillian’s. Chris recounted the event she had told Lillian earlier that day. She had always believed that she was a Christian. About a year earlier she had felt that God was asking something of her that she was not willing for. She had outright refused. Then the awful truth dawned on her for the first time in her life – she was lost. She had knelt down and prayed, promising to do whatever God asked of her. At that she felt complete peace.

Since she had always thought she was saved, she had not understood this experience as the beginning of her Christian life. But as we talked it over it became clear to all of us that this had been unlike anything she had experienced before. This was where she was born again and became a child of God.

This was a new beginning for both of us. We were now fully united in faith and knew we were where God wanted us to be.

Linden was a big congregation; there were a lot of people for us to get to know, and lots of children Michelle’s age. She celebrated her fourth birthday October 28, 1975.

I had always known that carpenter work was a bit of a stretch for me, but it was the kind of work that was available. My allergies left me with an insecure sense of balance. Working on a roof was almost torture, but I forced myself to do it as best as I could. I managed to cope for a couple months, but late in November the allergy problem kicked in with a vengeance. It started with sneezes and snuffles, developed into a sinus infection and then I lost my voice. With antibiotics I was feeling fine in about a week and started back to work. Before the end of that week I was as sick as I had been the first time.

Okay, this line of work just wasn’t for me. Perhaps there might have been something else for me in the Linden area, but it seemed like we should go back to Moose Jaw.

The return to Moose Jaw was a detour from our route to the church, but it was soon evident that there was a need at home. My father’s dementia rapidly becoming worse, the burden on my mother was too much for her to bear alone.

We settled into life in Moose Jaw once again. Chris went back to working at the senior’s residence; I worked for Dennis on the farm the next two summers. In between time I taught Michelle to read. I know I wasn’t as patient and kindly a teacher as my mother had been, but she did learn. Then she could read the little books that Julia had given me when I was her age.

My father went into a nursing home and my mother went to visit him almost every day. I drove her sometimes, but there was no use trying to visit with my father. He didn’t know who I was anymore. He still knew Mom and my uncle Art, his youngest brother. But I guess I came along too late. Dad was 50 when I was born and that event didn’t seem to be in his memory bank anymore.

We went to church at Hague or Bredenbury about once a month. It was a three hour trip to get to either place. I remember one trip to Hague on a very cold winter day. We were driving a 1972 Toyota Corolla, a very small car in that era. We found that the heating system was just enough on that frigid day to keep the windshield clear or to keep ourselves warm, but it wasn’t up to doing both. The choice was obvious, we had to see where we were going. It wasn’t a comfortable trip.

We enjoyed the Sundays in those small congregations, the fellowship, the opportunity to worship with fellow believers, and looked forward to a time when we would be free to move into a congregation.

Another dead end

I began checking out other varieties of Mennonites, and there were a lot to choose from. Many of them turned out to be Mennonites in name only, and a little embarrassed about being encumbered with the name. Nevertheless, many of them had a deep affection for the Low German language and culture. I didn’t, so I stroked them off my list.

There were several groups of Conservative Mennonites and I obtained some of their literature. A hope began to grow in me that I had found what I had been looking for: churches that held to the old Anabaptist-Mennonite faith but did not claim to be the only representatives of that faith.

One day we had a phone call from Mervin Baer. He and his wife were passing through Mooses Jaw and staying at a motel a few blocks away. Would we be interested in coming over to meet them. I recognized the name, Mervin was from McBride B.C., a bishop and well-know leader in Conservative Mennonite circles.

Mervin and his wife were friendly and warm people, we hit it off right away. In the course of our visit Mervin mentioned that he had recently visited at Belleville, Pennsylvania. “There is a group of Old Order Amish people there who have been born again and have formed a new congregation entirely made up of born-again peole. That’s proof that you can have a spiritual church without joining the Holdemans.”

That was music to my ears. We had another visit from Mervin several months later, then began to visit the nearest congregation of that group, about two hours away in Alberta. They were friendly and welcoming and we really hit it off with one couple in particular. We decided to move there and join that group. In the summer of 1975 we quit our jobs, packed up and moved to Alberta.

It didn’t take long for me to feel that I had fallen down a rabbit hole into a place where nothing was what it seemed at first to be. It started the evening we arrived. We were invited to have supper with the bishop and his family. He had two daughters still at home, around 18 and 20. They were church members and Chris asked one of them when she had become a Christian. “I don’t know, I just kind of grew into it.”

As if that wasn’t shocking enough, we found that there had been a falling out between husband of the couple we had liked so much and Mervin Baer and they had up and moved away.

The women here wore cape dresses, a full dress with an extra piece of material over the front for modesty’s sake, and white mesh head coverings. Chris had adapted her wardrobe to their standard before we moved. The men were clean shaven and wore a plain coat on Sundays. This was a suit jacket without lapels or a collar that buttoned all the way up the front. I shaved off my beard, but never adopted the plain coat.

They had a little booklet of church standards that governed the clothes you wore and how you were to conduct yourself. People wanting to join the church were on probation for six months. If you wore the right clothes and behaved yourself you could then become a member. I began to notice that people watched each other closely for any deviation from the standards, and many young people did try to push the envelope without being too obvious about it.

One Sunday the bishop preached on how wearing plain clothes was proof of being born again. My heart sank, I saw that we had hit another dead end. The people here were friendly and earnest. I was sure that a couple of them were born again, the others were mostly just following the rules. Visitors would come from other plain groups and be welcomed as brothers and sisters. After they had gone we would hear what the local people really thought of them.

What now? Chris thought I was losing t way. She had formed a close friendship with one of the ladies and didn’t want to leave. I knew we had to get out, there was no way we could live a real Christian life and have any chance of passing it on to our daughter in a place such as this. But where could we go? We had exhausted all the possibilities.

Our granddaughter becoms our sister

Friday evening two young ladies stood in turn before our congregation and told how God had called them, how they had felt troubled and fearful and how they had prayed and found forgiveness, happiness and freedom. A few questions were asked and the congregation found their testimonies genuine.

This morning they were baptized. One of those girls is our granddaughter Tami, the first of our grandchildren to become a born again child of God. Thus this 13 year old girl (she will be 14 this summer) is now our sister in the household of faith. (As is the other girl, of course.)

Blessed is every one that feareth the LORD . . .Yea, thou shalt see thy children’s children, and peace upon Israel. Psalm 128:1 & 6

A new course in life

If you’ve followed me this far you have no doubt gathered that I wasn’t a romantic kind of guy. I had strong emotional feelings, but I woud have been horribly embarrassed if anyone got a glimpse of them. Circumstances told to me that now I needed to do something to let my bride-to-be know how I felt about her.

So I sat down and wrote my very first love letter. I quoted some lines from a song by the Bee Gees that was popular at the time: “It’s only words, and words are all I have to take your heart away,” and tried to put my feelings into words. I don’t remember writing any more letters, mostly we talked. That meant collect phone calls from Chris to me. I didn’t call her, since her uncle would have answered the phone and that wasn’t what I wanted.

As for the suspicions that some farmers may have harboured, it seemed best to me to just carry on without saying anything more. I had done nothing wrong and I had been careful not to accuse the former manager of wrongdoing. That proved to be the right course of action, as everything went well from then on.

It took several months for it to dawn on me that something had changed in my life. I was no longer turned off by Christian radio broadcasts, there were a couple that I began to listen to regularly. I bought some Christian books. I read more about Mennonite history.

I had always considered the “born again” thing to be a sham. The people I had known who claimed to be born again were no more honest than anyone else. They boasted of a elationship with God, but their attitude of superiority towards other people was not attractive. Now my life had taken a turn, and it had happened at the time I prayed for forgiveness. Was that change what Jesus meant by being born again? I concluded it was.

At that time grain elevators often shut down for the first two weeks of August. The managers would take their vacation and return refreshed to start receiving deliveries for the new crop that would be harvested after mid-August. Chris and I set Saturday, August 1, 1970 for our wedding date and began planning.

Where were we going to get married? What minister would we ask? Neither of us had any church affiliation, I was a lapsed Anglican. Chris’s family was one that said, “If anyone asks, say we belong to the United Church,” but they never actually attended that or any other church.

It happened that Reverend Ken Vickers was now the minister at Saint Barnabas Anglican church in Moose Jaw where my parents attended. Mom asked him and he said he would be happy to do the honours. I was happy to see him again.  We had a counselling session or two with him to help us grasp the importance of the step we were about to take.

Chris has an older brother and four younger sisters, they all lived with their parents. Chris had been with her aunt and uncle ever since a health scare in early childhood caused by neglect. By this time I had met her brother and two of her sisters, but not her parents. Since Chris was only 17, her real father was going to have to give his permission for her to marry. Chris approached him with some trepidation, but he signed.

I asked Joe Zagozeski to be my best man and Chris asked her friend Sandy Carson to be bridesmaid. We were all set, all we needed to do now was get to the church on time.

Mennonites are not Protestants

I applaud the sincerity and courage of Martin Luther when he nailed his 95 theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg 500 years ago. I am appalled by the savagery of his address to the armies fighting the peasants’ revolt, when he called on them to “slash, stab, kill as many as you can,” and promised them a sure entrance to heaven if they died in the battle. He found a way to use Scripture to show that this killing would be an act of mercy, as he did later when he called for the extermination of Anabaptists and Jews.

I’m afraid that Martin Luther took a wrong turn when he decided to rely on the secular power to establish his reformation of the church. He was able to effect a reformation of some of the more egregious practices that were characteristic of the Roman Catholic Church of his day, but even Luther did not believe his reformation had produced people who were more Christian.

Anabaptists and Mennonites have always held to the concept that only Christian people should be members of the Christian church. That is, people who have been born again and whose life bears evidence of an inner transformation. We have never taught that salvation can be earned by works, as the Roman Catholics did in Luther’s day. But neither do we believe that a person whose life is devoid of all evidence of regeneration can be a Christian, as Luther seemed to say with his emphasis on Sola Fides.

When a person is born again a new life begins. Works are the life signs. If there are no works, the faith is dead, or nonexistent. A born again Christian is never fully aware of how much his life has changed. He is simply thankful for the peace God has given and tries to maintain his connection with God. His works are not done to obtain the approval of others, nor is his assurance dependent on what other people think. There are simply the effects of an inner transformation.

The Protestant reformers believed that the survival of their reformed churches was worth killing for; Anabaptists believed that the survival of their peace with God was worth dying for.

An abiding church

As soon as we were married my wife and I set out on a search to find people who still believed and lived the faith once delivered to the saints. I firmly believed we would find that faith among the spiritual descendants of the Anabaptist & Mennonites of long ago. Time and again our search ran aground, and we would sadly move on to search somewhere else.

We met many fine, warm hearted people along the way, but their understanding of the faith always fell short. Some would say that wearing the style of clothes prescribed by their church was evidence of being born again. Others thought that the mere fact of wanting to be a Christian was evidence you were one. Some said that it was better to follow Billy Graham than Menno Simons. I mean no disrespect of Billy Graham, but I fear such a statement indicates a lack of a spiritual foundation and they would just as readily follow the next big name that came along, whatever kind of gospel he would preach.

Then there was this group that claimed to be the true church. I balked at that idea, which I took to be evidence of pride. But after encountering so many “wrong” churches, Mennonites and a variety of others, I began to reconsider. Doesn’t every church claim to be more on the right path than any other? Otherwise there would be no reason for them to continue to exist.

Finally I knelt in prayer and asked for help to understand what the Bible teaches about the church. I found there is nothing in the Bible that gives room to think that competing bodies, differing in doctrine, can all be churches of God. Neither did there seem to be any way to fit the idea of an invisible church into the New Testament teachings about the church.

Then I was led to Menno Simons list of signs by which the true church of God may be known:

Scriptural use of the sacramental signs – by that time I had seen the confusion in so many other churches and knew of only one that carefully proved those who requested baptism to see that they had indeed been born again and the congregation could testify of a Spirit-led life. This same church was the only one I knew of that would not have a communion service unless the congregation was fully united and any sins repented of and quarrels reconciled.

Unfeigned brotherly love – again we had seen many churches that tried to practice brotherly love, but didn’t really trust each other. Only one church seemed to have genuine brotherly love.

Unadulterated, pure doctrine – check

Obedience to the Word – check

Dietrich Philip added another sign – ministers that are faithful in word and deed. I had already noted that in this church there was the power to deal with ministers who crossed a line in doctrine or conduct without disturbing the unity of a congregation.

Thus, on February 11, 1979, Chris and I were baptized and became members of the Church of God in Christ, Mennonite, the same church that we had earlier vowed to avoid.

One last thought: the doctrine of the true church does not mean that we think no one else outside the church can be saved. Here I’ll quote Menno Simons again:

“Reader, understand what I mean ; we do not dispute about whether or not there are some of the chosen ones 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.”

Taking the long view

The proof of a living faith is seen when it is passed on intact from generation to generation. It is true to say that the fruit of the Holy Spirit is evidence of faith: brotherly love, peace of mind and peace in word and action, joy, thankfulness, contentment, humility. But when this is not passed on from one generation to the next, it would appear that something was missing.

Tradition is important. The ancient landmarks of the faith were placed for a reason. But if the next generation doesn’t understand why they were placed or just what they mean, they are apt to get their bearings from the things that seem most important in their day.

The ancient landmarks may have been interpreted in a way that met the needs of the older generation, but no longer meets the needs of the younger. Yet the basic principles remain unchanged. These principles must be continually taught, always in a way that can be understood and will meet the needs of upcoming generations. A rigid adherence to a form of words or practice will not do that.

The new birth is important. There must be a genuine repentance for the sins of the past life and evidence that a new life has begun. This would include love for everyone, new priorities in life, carefulness to avoid things that have led to the sins of the past, and a desire to make right whatever harm may have been done to others.

The danger is to mistake the experience for the change that is needed. To tell a dramatic, heart-touching experience is not proof the heart has really been changed.

Knowledge of the Bible is important. But it needs to be studied to establish a foundation for my life, not to prove a point with somebody else. it is a danger sign when one has a proof text handy for most any discussion, but can’t explain what that text means in the language of everyday life.

A living faith does not have to be loud, but it should not be silent. A living faith will be modest, but should never run from a challenge. A living faith will make a difference at church, at home, at school, at work, on vacation, and especially in those times when no one is looking.

It is best for children to grow up in a home where parents are deeply committed Christians. But it is not enough and it is not a guarantee that the children will catch their parents faith. It is far better to grow up among a united group of believers who live out their faith in all aspects of everyday life. The spiritual heritage is much more important than the family heritage. This is what allows the upcoming generation to catch the faith of their elders and then to pass it on to the next generation.

Christ in you, the hope of glory

Jesus spoke the following words while teaching in the synagogue in Capernaum. The words were shocking, no doubt deliberately so.

Then Jesus said unto them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, ye have no life in you. Whoso eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is meat indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He that eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, dwelleth in me, and I in him. As the living Father hath sent me, and I live by the Father: so he that eateth me, even he shall live by me. This is that bread which came down from heaven: not as your fathers did eat manna, and are dead: he that eateth of this bread shall live for ever. (John 6:53-58)

Many who had been following Jesus turned away. These mysterious words didn’t sound at all like the Messiah they had been taught to expect. When Jesus asked the twelve if they would also turn away, Peter responded “Lord, to whom shall we go? thou hast the words of eternal life. And we believe and are sure that thou art that Christ, the Son of the living God.”

The apostle Paul explained the mystery like this in Colossians 1:26-27: “Even the mystery which hath been hid from ages and from generations, but now is made manifest to his saints: to whom God would make known what [is] the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles; which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.”

The key to understanding Messiah’s kingdom is that the citizens of this kingdom are people who have Jesus Christ inside of them, ruling their lives from the heart. Every time a person is born again, the Lord Jesus Christ is incarnate within them.

This was Jesus’ promise to His disciples in John 14:16-18: “And I will pray the Father, and he shall give you another Comforter, that he may abide with you for ever; Even the Spirit of truth; whom the world cannot receive, because it seeth him not, neither knoweth him: but ye know him; for he dwelleth with you, and shall be in you. I will not leave you comfortless: I will come to you.” He repeats the promise in His prayer in the 17th chapter of John: “I in them, and thou in me, that they may be made perfect in one; and that the world may know that thou hast sent me, and hast loved them, as thou hast loved me.”

Paul explains the promise a little further in Romans chapter eight: “ But ye are not in the flesh, but in the Spirit, if so be that the Spirit of God dwell in you. Now if any man have not the Spirit of Christ, he is none of his. And if Christ be in you, the body is dead because of sin; but the Spirit is life because of righteousness. But if the Spirit of him that raised up Jesus from the dead dwell in you, he that raised up Christ from the dead shall also quicken your mortal bodies by his Spirit that dwelleth in you.” (Verses 9-11).

The promise is that the believer will have both the Holy Spirit and Jesus Christ dwelling in him or her. “He (the Holy Spirit) shall be in you / I (Jesus) will come to you.” “If so be that the Spirit of God dwell in you / And if Christ be in you.”

I believe this is what the apostle John is speaking of in the following verses: “Hereby know ye the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesseth that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is of God: and every spirit that confesseth not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is not of God: and this is that spirit of antichrist, whereof ye have heard that it should come; and even now already is it in the world” (1 John 4:2-3). I don’t think he is saying that it is enough to believe that Jesus once walked this earth in human flesh. We must know that He is here right now, in my flesh and your flesh, if we are Christians.

“Where there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcision nor uncircumcision, Barbarian, Scythian, bond nor free: but Christ is all, and in all” (Colossians 3:11). Christ is in every Christian, no matter our ethnic background, social or economic status. This is the identifying mark of the true Christian, recognizable only by other Christians.

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