Flatlander Faith

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

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The power of little things

My mother was 10 when her family moved from south-east Manitoba to south-west Saskatchewan. Whenever she talked about that move she would say “The thing I missed was seeing the tees and the Indians.”

It wasn’t until I reached adulthood that I asked the obvious question: “Mon, I get the part about the trees, but what’s this about the Indians?”

“Well, whenever Indians travelled through our area, they would stop at our place for a rest and a drink of water.”

My grandfather was a Plautdietsch speaking Sommerfelder Mennonite, not very prosperous, blind, and the father of 14 children, of which my mother was number 6. Apparently he was blind in more ways than one.

Before he married, he had worked at Letellier, Manitoba. One of his coworkers was a black man who had made his way to Canada from the US South. My grandfather learned some old negro spirituals from him and then taught them to his children. My mother used to sing some of them.

My grandfather learned English while working there, and later said he wished he had learned French, too, as there were French-speaking people living there. Whenever my mother told about her father’s wish that he had learned French, she would add, “And if he had, I would have, too!”

I heard those little things when my mother talked about her earlier years. They made a lasting impression, and I believe enabled me to look at other people as being not a lot different from me.

In her late teens, my mother memorized the German catechism, and the bishop baptized her. I think the teachings in that catechism found a place deeper than just in her mind. The family spoke mostly Plautdietsch at home, and some English. The church was entirely German — Bible reading, hymns, sermons, prayers. My mother was the last of the children to learn German. As she grew older, she realized that in her church the language was more important than the teachings in the catechism; it had nothing to offer her 8 younger siblings who did not know German.

She left that church and expressed no nostalgia for it. Her mother, my grandmother, appeared to believe that I needed to learn German to be a Christian. She sent me a copy of the catechism and a German primer. I was curious and made a beginning in the primer. Mom would help me whenever I asked, but never prompted me to keep on trying to learn German. She had a large English dictionary that she had studied for years, learned to speak English with no trace of an accent, had a larger vocabulary than many whose mother tongue was English.

When Chris and I started to attend the Church of God in Christ, Mennonite, some members got all excited when they found that Mom’s mother tongue had been Plautdietsch. She was polite and friendly, but did not share their enthusiasm. I have wondered if she didn’t have a little fear that I was getting into the sort of thing she had left behind.

I am my mother’s son. She said nothing negative about anyone, but the impression she left was that Plautdietsch and German had nothing to do with being a Christian and were not anything I needed to pursue.

My father was from the USA, his mother was Franco-American and it embarrassed him when she spoke French to their neighbours here in Saskatchewan. I got a lot more encouragement from my mother to learn French than from my father.

That’s my personal history. I could say more about my father, but I don’t think it’s necessary. I’ll just say that my mother’s positive remarks about others had more influence on me than my father’s negative remarks.

Are there negative things that Christians say today that can have a harmful effect on their children’s attitude toward others?

How do we look at ourselves? 

We can’t change our ethnic identity, or the family into which we were born. But if we think that our family, or our ethnic group, has some innate quality that makes us more apt to be Christian, or a better Christian, than others, we are contradicting the whole message of the New Testament. Any hint of pride or exclusivity undermines our gospel witness..

How do we look at others?

Sometimes I hear Christians say that the people around us aren’t interested in the gospel. That implants the thought in the younger generation that there is no point in trying to share the gospel in our home communities.

How do we talk about people of a different skin colour, or who speak with an accent? Nigger, negro, darkie and coloured are not polite or respectful terms to use for black people. Sometimes we complain about the immigrants in our communities. It enthuses us to send missionaries to the countries they came from, but when they arrive here, we have a different attitude.

There is no 8 step program to break the problem I am describing. It’s a matter of the heart. Little changes in our attitudes toward the surrounding people, little changes in our speech, could add up to a big change in the way others see us.

Some more thoughts on evangelism

OK, we need to strip the gospel message down to the pure Bible-based essentials and restore all those essentials that have been cast away. Now, when we come to sharing this vital message, we need to strip away all the verbiage and attitudes that hide the message rather than revealing it.

Here are some thoughts about how to share the Good News, as much for my benefit as anyone else’s.

1. Be curious —In the end, the gospel message is the same for everyone. But not all start at the same place. We need to get to know people, find out what are their greatest concerns. The best way to do that is to ask questions.

2. Hide the hammer — If someone doesn’t understand our message, or doesn’t want to listen to it, hammering away at the same point isn’t going to help. We may need to go back to step 1.

3. Stick a needle in the hot air balloon — Impressive words, adjectives, adverbs, a round about way of speaking and Christian jargon are not the stock in trade of a good communicator. A pompous speaking style pumps hot air into our balloon, we go floating away and lose contact with the person to whom we are speaking.

4. Get down off the pedestal — The message is important; we are not. A servant does not try to impress you with how important he is. Let’s take a lesson from the apostle Paul: “For though I be free from all men, yet have I made myself servant unto all, that I might gain the more,” (1 Corinthians 9:19).

6. Admit you don’t know everything — The Bible is the source of all truth; I am not. In evangelism, if I am always the teacher and the other person is always the student, I have failed. The goal of evangelism is to lead others to dependence on God. Jesus is the Master, we are all disciples (students), always learning from the Master and from one another.

Writing as a slave of Jesus Christ

When the apostle Paul wanted to write to Christians at Rome, he could have introduced himself by listing his credentials and experience, then said: “You see how important a man I am and I have something important to say. So listen up!”

But that’s not what he said; he introduced himself as a slave, putting himself at the very bottom of the social ladder. (Our Bible may say “Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ,” but the word Paul used was doulos, meaning slave.)

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Image by Hawksky from Pixabay

In order to honour Jesus who gave us the message, we need to interpret the message into words the recipients will find easy to understand. Most people won’t waste their time searching through a thicket of unnecessary words in the hope of finding a message. We need to skip the pompous words and bombastic writing style that some Christians think is the way to impress readers with the weightiness of their subject matter. The weight of those words will sink your message.

We need to consider ourselves as servants of the people for whom the message is intended. Paul wrote, in I Corinthians 9:19-52: “For though I be free from all men, yet have I made myself servant unto all, that I might gain the more. . . I am made all things to all men, that I might by all means save some.”

In all his epistles, Paul challenges the new believers notions of ethnic, economic or social superiority, telling them that none of these things matter in the kingdom of Christ. In Philippians 3:8 he says: “Yea doubtless, and I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord: for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but dung, that I may win Christ”

“All things,” that would include everything about who I am: education, social status, family, ethnic origin, even my church affiliation. Boasting of any of these things will not gain us a hearing with the people to whom we want to bring the message of Jesus.

This may sound alarming for those of us who are firmly committed to our church, its doctrines and history. But there is nothing there for us to boast of, we did not create the doctrines and history. We are children of the most high God, brothers and sister of Jesus Christ, we are living honest and pure lives. Where will it get us to boast of that? The people around us already suspect that we think we are better than they are.

Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 4:7: “For who maketh thee to differ from another? and what hast thou that thou didst not receive? now if thou didst receive it, why dost thou glory, as if thou hadst not received it?” God says in Zephaniah 3:11-12: “then I will take away out of the midst of thee them that rejoice in thy pride, and thou shalt no more be haughty because of my holy mountain. I will also leave in the midst of thee an afflicted and poor people, and they shall trust in the name of the LORD.”

The mountain of God is holy, but we did not put it there, nor did we receive our spiritual heritage as an inheritance from our fathers. It is a gift of God that we have received and others are just as eligible to receive it, regardless of their background.

If we assume that other people think just like we do, our message is compromised before we put a word on paper. In order to be “all things to all men” we need to get out of our bubble, our comfort zone, and learn how other people think. That means that we need to listen and to read before we begin to speak and to write.

The words of Paul are timeless because he did that in his day. He was thoroughly acquainted with the Jewish way of thinking and with the Greek way of thinking. His discourse in Athens consisted almost entirely of quotations from Greek philosophers. He gained a hearing because those words were familiar to the men he was speaking to. Then he disrupted their complacency by introducing the resurrection of Jesus.

In Matthew 10:16 Jesus says: “Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves: be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves.” That is our challenge today. To be servants, poor and afflicted, harmless and non-threatening. And yet be wise enough to see the chinks in the walls of complacency that people build around themselves and try to widen them a little to let the light of the gospel shine in,

If we are in earnest about the cause of Christ, let us come down to the bottom rung of the social ladder and become the slaves of Christ and of all mankind.

Sins of omission?

James 4:17: “Therefore to him that knoweth to do good, and doeth it not, to him it is sin.”

The last clause of this verse is written in the passive voice which leads some presumptuous readers of the Bible to take it to mean that there are sins of omission which are much less serious than sins of commission.

“There’s nothing happening here folks, nothing to be alarmed about.”

But there is something happening and we should be alarmed. When we neglect to do what we know we should do, we have made a choice. That choice is rebellion against God, and it is a sin. It is just as serious a sin as any other choice we make that we know to be contrary to the will of God.

French Bibles cast this verse in the active voice: “He then sins, who knows what is good and does not do it.”

Adam Clarke says: “As if he had said: After this warning none of you can plead ignorance; if, therefore, any of you shall be found to act their ungodly part, not acknowledging the Divine providence, the uncertainty of life, and the necessity of standing every moment prepared to meet God – as you will have the greater sin, you will infallibly get the greater punishment. This may be applied to all who know better than they act. He who does not the Master’s will because he does not know it, will be beaten with few stripes; but he who knows it and does not do it, shall be beaten with many; Luke 12:47-48.”

May we not take false comfort from a mistaken reading of one verse. Remember that God is keeping account of every decision we make. May we live accordingly.

Adam Clarke says it well: “That man walks most safely who has the least confidence in himself. True magnanimity keeps God continually in view. He appoints it its work, and furnishes discretion and power; and its chief excellence consists in being a resolute worker together with him. Pride ever sinks where humility swims; for that man who abases himself God will exalt. To know that we are dependent creatures is well; to feel it, and to act suitably, is still better.”

Intriguing book titles

These are two of my recent reads, with titles that seem to need a little explanation. Randy Newman’s book, Questioning Evangelism, is not about questioning the value of evangelism, which might be your first impression. Rather, he is advocating asking questions as a means of evangelism.

Forty-five years ago, Tom Skinner published a book entitled If Christ is the Answer, What are the Questions?  His theme was that we are not helping anyone find salvation if we prattle on with ready-made answers but don’t know what are the pressing questions of the person to whom we are speaking. Randy Newman takes us down that same road, with suggestions of how to deal with some of the pressing questions of our day.

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Yes, Nazis had a conscience. Adolf Hitler was a powerful evangelist for his cause and inspired the masses of the German Volk to believe in his promise of renewed purpose, purity and hope. He proposed himself as the role model of revived German manhood. And yes, he had a hidden agenda. For many years he said very little about his belief that the Jews were the main obstacle to the promised renewal of the German Volk, only dropping hints here and there to reassure those who believed as he did that he was still heading in the right direction.

By the time he got around to putting his final solution into action, he had the German people solidly behind him. When he spoke to a crowd, often for an hour or more, he was very adept at reading their mood and leading them to believe that he alone could bring the renewal for which they longed. In the end, the majority had fully bought into the belief that the only right thing to do was to eliminate those people whom Hitler told them were the obstacle to realizing their dream.

The Nazi Conscience is a chilling book; Claudia Koonz has thoroughly researched the Nazi era and brings to life evidence of how the well-educated German Volk reacted to a charismatic leader who offered them hope.

Why am I juxtaposing these two books, so different in their message? For one thing, I’m not so sure that they are so different. Both books lead me to question the trustworthiness of charismatic leaders who work on people’s emotions. Both books are implicit warnings about having a hidden agenda.

If we are going to share the gospel we need to get to know the people around us, understand their deep questions and longings. We should make sure we understand them before we leap in with an answer. A few thoughtful and considerate questions might help us to understand and lead them to look at things a little differently. That will often be the most appropriate starting point for us.

We should not be looking for the approval of people who think like we do, rather we should try to introduce a new thought to someone who has never looked at things quite that way before. To do that, we need to speak plain English. Slogans and religious jargon that are readily understood by people within our circle are meaningless to those outside that circle.  

A popular saying in our day says : “be the change you want to see in the world.” That’s good advice, as long as we don’t think that we have attained to a higher level of understanding and need to help others to climb up to our level.

Another danger is to think that other people’s sins are worse than ours. We can’t help them if we only want to talk about how horrible their sins are and never admit, seem quite oblivious to, our own sins. Our task is to point people to the Creator and the Saviour, not to ourselves.

Sometimes we hear it said that the people around us are not interested in the gospel. Could the real problem be that we are not interested in the people around us? Randy Newman ends his book on a hopeful note:

I believe that the soil in which we now plant gospel seeds is better fertilized. Plausibility structures are being rebuilt. Assumptions are more favourably disposed in our direction. And the notion that faith is  relevant to all of life is no longer considered nonsense. The opportunities for evangelistic fruit might be about to increase dramatically.

Questioning Evangelism, Engaging People’s Hearts the Way Jesus Did, © 2014, 2017 by Randy Newman. Published by Kregel Publications, Grand Rapids MI, The quote above is from page 259.

The Nazi Conscience, © 2003 by Claudia Koontz. Published by The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge MA

A “Christian” Tall Tale

First posted on June 26, 2012

NASA’s computers have discovered a missing 24 hour period in the distant past that corresponds exactly to the 23 hours and 20 minutes that the sun stood still in Joshua 10:12-13 and the 40 minutes lost in Hezekiah’s day (2 Kings 20:11 and Isaiah 38:8). Or so we are told in the story which originated in the 1960’s, has been printed in numerous religious periodicals and is still circulating via the internet.

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Here are eleven reasons why Christians should not believe this story:

1.    No computer can discover whether there was a day missing in the distant past. To believe that a computer can search back in time to Joshua’s day and calculate that the “about a day” mentioned in the Bible came to exactly 23 hours and 20 minutes requires some magical thinking.

2.    The degrees of a circle have never been used to measure the passage of time. (The story claims that the ten degrees mentioned in 2 Kings amounts to the missing 40 minutes – 10/360 x 1440 minutes in a day.)

3.    The Babylonians developed the idea of dividing a circle into 360 degrees during the reign of King Nebuchadnezzar, 100 years or more after the account in 2 Kings.

4.    The Hebrew word translated degree in 2 Kings 20:11 means step.

5.    This is also the original meaning of degree.

6.    The Hebrew word translated dial in 2 Kings 20:11 is the same as the word translated degree. The meaning of the passage is that the shadow went 10 steps backwards on the steps of Ahaz.

7.    A dial is not necessarily circular. The word comes from dies, the Latin word for day and simply means a scale for measuring something and can be circular or linear.

8.    The account in 2 Kings 20:11 records that the shadow went 10 steps back.  There is no mention of the sun moving.

9.    Mechanical timepieces to accurately measure the passage of time are a recent invention. At some point, possibly through Babylonian influence, the Jews began dividing the day into 12 hours from sunrise to sunset. Since Jerusalem is 1,000 miles north of the equator, the length of a day, and therefore of an hour, varied with the seasons. The time measured by 10 steps will also have varied with the seasons. Thus it is impossible to know precisely how much time this was without knowing the precise date and how many steps there were in total.

10.    NASA denies the account, stating that they have no reason to use their computers to try to calculate time thousands of years into the future or into the past. Even if it were possible, such information would be completely irrelevant to their operations.

11.    The story originated with Mr. Harold Hill, president of the Curtis Engine Company, which had a contract with NASA to service and maintain electrical generators. He had no internal knowledge of the workings of NASA, was not a “consultant to the space program,” and did not witness the events he described.  He simply took an older “lost day” legend and embellished it a little more each time he spoke at a Sunday School convention. The whole story may be a sad attempt on his part to make himself seem more important than he really was.

The most probable interpretation of the account in 2 Kings 20 is that King Ahaz, Hezekiah’s father, had caused a monument to be built, consisting of steps ascending on both the east and west sides, with a pillar at the top. The height of the pillar was precisely calculated so that the shadow at dawn would touch the bottom on one side, ascend the steps until noon, then descend the steps on the other side in the afternoon. This was located in the courtyard of the palace where Hezekiah could see it from his bedroom window.

Others think it was a staircase adjacent to the palace, so aligned that time could be told by the afternoon shadow descending step by step. In either case, this was a personal sign for King Hezekiah. There is no mention of the sun moving backwards in the sky, or of others witnessing the sign.

25 Flavours of Mennonites

When we lived in Ontario it would happen from time to time that someone I had just met would ask me what kind of Mennonite I was. “Does your church allow cars? electricity? telephones?”

I knew these questions arose because there were at least 25 flavours of Mennonites within a 100 km radius of where we lived and for many of them things of this nature were a big issue. I would gladly have avoided these questions because I couldn’t see what they had to do with being Christian, which should be the most essential part of being a Mennonite.

People were curious and they didn’t know where else to start. It was so easy to answer the questions and wander down a rabbit trail that didn’t lead anywhere, leaving the questioner no wiser than when he started and leaving me feeling that I’d failed to say anything really helpful.

What I wanted to say was that the way we use the things available to us in this world can reveal something about our relationship with God. But making rules about things results in a group that is impressive in their outward unity, but does not ensure that they have a relationship with God. It does not even ensure that the members trust one another; sadly, the unity is often only apparent to outsiders.

What I wanted to say was that the essence of Christianity is to be filled with love, joy, peace and all the other qualities described as the fruit of the Spirit. To do that, it is often necessary to avoid things that will feed our pride. Pride is a sneaky thing that tries to enter our lives in so many ways that no amount of rules could ever cover them all. We must each deal with pride on a personal level.

What I wanted to say was that the making of rules provides fertile ground for thinking that I am doing a better job of following the rules than others. That feeds my pride and a critical, suspicious attitude towards others. That would be to head in altogether the wrong direction.

What should I have said? What would you say? What are your questions about being Mennonite?

Flee temptation

Why do evangelical Christian leaders get ensnared in sex scandals? It’s because they so easily forget that they are still flesh and blood and that the tendencies of the flesh are contrary to their high spiritual ideals.

I wouldn’t call it hypocrisy; at least not deliberate hypocrisy. It is a tragedy when a man with high moral ideals come to believe that the power of the Holy Spirit has made him immune to the baser desires of his humanity.

We dare not forget that we never stop being sinners by nature. Yes, we cn have victory over those base desires. Yes, we can live without fear of being ensnared at any moment by some horrible sin. But we need to live every day with the reality of what we are made of and what we could do, but for the grace of God.

Some may boast of all the great works the Lord has done by them; others may abase themselves and say that they are nothing. Such voluntary, self-made humility is just as boastful as the first. It’s all pride, leading to the thought that I can do it by myself. We do need to acknowledge our failings. If we can be specific in admitting small failings, we have a better chance to avoid falling into the great temptations.

Most of all, we just need to walk with the Lord. When He is close beside us we will know when to go boldly forth into the unknown, and when to flee from temptation.

Books that unsettle

I read a lot and glean at least a kernel of useful information from everything I read. Perhaps a snippet of information that might someday be useful, perhaps a way of seeing things that is new to me and helps clarify my vision.

Sometimes I read a book that shakes the walls of smug complacency that delineate my life. I have written about two such books in the past and will mention them again at the end of this post.

Another is The Power of Weakness by Dan Schaeffer. He tells us that most of us have it wrong when we think of what it takes to be useful in the kingdom of God. God wants to use us to glorify Himself, but we think that it is God’s plan to glorify us. That seems ridiculous at first, but if we examine our unspoken ambitions, we are apt to squirm at the realization that Schaeffer has identified the root of our ineffectiveness.

The book that really makes me uncomfortable is The Broken Way by Ann Voskamp. Let me admit from the start that I was put off by the intense emotions that pulsate through this book. I have spent too much of my life stifling my emotions to welcome a book that invites me to be vulnerable, that tells me that admitting my brokenness is the key to the abundant life. But she is right.

These four books are an antidote to the smugness of so much modern Christian literature. I believe it is good to read books that shake us up. I don’t endorse everything that is said in these books, but may they be a means of refining our motives for serving our Lord and Saviour.

The four books are:

Humble Roots, © 2016 by Hannah Anderson, published by Moody Publishers

Embracing Obscurity, © 2012 by Anonymous, published by B & H Publishing Group, Nashville

The Power of Weakness, © 2014 by Dan Schaeffer, published by Discovery House Publishers

The Broken Way, © 2016 by Ann Voskamp, published by Zondervan

Book review: Humble Roots

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Hannah Anderson is the wife of a country pastor in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia who finds inspiration for her writing in her garden and other growing things.

This book helped me understand why I have always felt uncomfortable when Christians talk about their humility. She tells us that “Show, don’t tell,” one of the cardinal rules of effective writing, should also apply to humility. If we have to tell people that we are humble, we probably aren’t. If people cannot see evidence of humility in our lives, there’s no use telling them we are humble.

She quotes C.S. Lewis: “If anyone would like to acquire humility, I can, I think, tell them the first step. The first step is to realize that one is proud.” Pride can corrupt our attempts at humility. We talk about feeling unworthy, about how undeserving we are, and all the while what we are really doing is drawing attention to ourselves.

In the book, Hannah Anderson says:”Humility is not feeling a certain way about yourself, not feeling small or low or embarrassed or even humiliated. Theologically speaking, humility is a proper understanding of who God is and who we are as a result.”

I highly recommend this book; it confronts the realities of life in a gentle, down to earth, and often humorous manner and leaves you with an important message to chew on.

© 2016 by Hannah Anderson, published by Moody Publishers.

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