Flatlander Faith

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

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The farmer and the salesman

Once upon a time there were two Bible study groups, one led by a farmer and the other by a salesman. Both groups studied the same portions of Scripture, but the discussions were not at all the same.

The farmer spent his days alone, driving a tractor up and down the fields or repairing the fence around his pasture. When he came to Bible study he was ready to talk. Any time there was a gap in the discussion he filled the time with philosophical musings about life that had come to him while he was alone or with something interesting that he had read. Nobody could think of much to say about the Bile passage, except to repeat a few platitudes they had all heard before.

The folks in the farmer’s class went home feeling they had reaffirmed what they already believed about the Scripture and didn’t think much more about it during the following week. Their spiritual lives continued to unfold along a predictable path without many challenges.

The salesman did not have a product to sell and didn’t see any need to sell himself. As a salesman he understood that the way to begin was to find out what people needed. So he would ask a question or two and let others think about it. He was comfortable with quiet moments in the discussion and never tried to fill them with chatter that would distract from searching for the meaning and application of the Scripture. Others in the class felt comfortable sharing their own thoughts and questions.

The folks in the salesman’s class went home with new thoughts about what the Scripture meant for their lives and questions about how they could be more obedient to the leading of the Holy Spirit. These people explored the Scriptures, saw new implications for their lives and talked about these things with their friends. They were growing spiritually.

This is a parable and the occupations of the Bible study leaders are inconsequential. I could just as easily have told how the farmer watched in wonder as his crops and his calves grew, knew that it was not his doing, tried to sow the seed in his Bible study and let God make it grow. The salesman could have been convinced of a particular teaching, supposedly drawn from the Scriptures, and endeavoured to sell this teaching to his class. I have chosen to write as I have because the parable is loosely based on a real example from many years ago.

My true purpose in writing this parable is that I have looked in the mirror and realize that I am way too much like the farmer, and I want to grow to be more like the salesman.

Note to myself

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I believe I know something that others should want to know, but telling is not a good way to get their attention.

What does he/she want to know? Why? What are the barriers to even considering the spiritual aspect of life? How do I help someone become interested in something he/she believes has no importance?

In writing, don’t insult the intelligence of the readers. They believe they have good and sufficient reasons for the way they believe. I have been where they are. What changed my way of seeing things? What made me want to see if I was missing something?

How can I take the reader along on that journey? What caught my interest, made me want to keep looking? When did doubts about the things I had always believed to be true begin to creep in? When did those doubts become stronger than my original beliefs?

What was the turning point, the climax of doubt, the need to find an answer?

It does not work to give someone the answer to a question that has never come to his mind. It didn’t work that way for me, why should I expect it to work with someone else? Sharing the gospel is not a matter of giving pat answers, but of asking questions–questions that will make others begin to ask their own questions.

Gifts my mother gave me

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Image by Wokandapix from Pixabay

The Nelson Gage Dictionary has this note about teaching: Teach emphasizes giving information, explanation, and training, by guiding the studies of the person who wants to learn.

Every little child is a question box, wanting to learn about the world in which he finds him/her self. The questions become wearisome for parents. We don’t have all the answers; we don’t have enough time; sometimes the questions are embarrassing, such that we don’t know how to give an answer that fits the level of understanding of the child.

Let us beware lest we stifle the desire to learn of this little child of ours. Once that desire dies, it is very difficult to rekindle it. It never completely dies, but the child may redirect it to subjects and sources of information that are neither wholesome nor useful in developing a successful life.

Schools deaden the “want to learn” of a child. They teach literature and history in particular in a way that makes them deadly boring. Grammar and arithmetic are boring, unless the child sees their usefulness. When a child struggles in school, the teacher is not the first one to blame. A child is not a receptacle into which a teacher pours information; a child needs to be an active participant in learning. He/she must have the “wants to learn” mentioned by the dictionary.

A child learns step by step, each step built upon the one before it. If a child has not learned phonics, finds it hard to understand what is on the page before him, he will agonize over every succeeding step and find it near impossible to master.

We are often told that phonics are useless in English because so many words do not follow the rules of phonics. Children who have a good grasp of phonics can decode 85% of English words without hesitation. Another 12% of words in English have one sound that does not follow the rules of phonics. That sound is usually a vowel; by a combination of phonics and the context in which they find the word, children can successfully decode those words. That leaves only 3% of English words that present difficulties. Does it make sense to abandon phonics and force children to memorize 100% of words because 3% are difficult?

My mother did not speak English when she started school and only spent six years in school. She was the best teacher I ever had. Perhaps I owe that to my grandfather. He was nearly blind and depended on my mother to help with the financial affairs of the farm. She read the farm papers to him and when she read a book; she had to retell the story to him. She continued to be a reader, studied the dictionary, spoke English without an accent and with a larger vocabulary than many others. When she married my father, she took over managing the family financial affairs.

I never knew that she was teaching me. She gave me this big set of alphabet blocks and let me do whatever I wanted with them. When I asked about the symbols on the blocks, she told me what they were and what sound they made. I wanted to know more and more; she put a few blocks together to make words like CAT, DOG, MOM, DAD. From there I went on to larger words, even spelling my name (which took a lot of those blocks). Soon I was reading little books for beginning readers and anything I could get my hands on. Then I started school.

She taught me numbers, too. How to read them, how to add and subtract. I have no memory of how she taught that, I just remember that I knew it when I started school.
Above everything else, she taught me I could learn anything I wanted to learn. She didn’t teach these things explicitly, she just guided the “want to learn” of her little boy.

The greatest gift of all was that I always knew that Mom loved me. Even when I disappointed her, I still knew that she love me and believed in me, and believed that I could overcome my failures. That gave me the courage to try again.

Questions of life and eternity

What is the most important factor in making a person want to be a Christian? Is it the fear of hell, or the longing for heaven?

Have you ever been in a discussion like that? What was the conclusion?

I think both factors have some motivational influence, but I do not believe that either is enough to empower someone to lead a victorious and happy Christian life.

For that, we need to find meaning for our life in an active relationship with the Creator and Saviour, and in serving Him and our neighbour. That relationship grows when we feed on the God’s Word and communicate with Him by both praying and listening.

That relationship must be the overriding guide in business, work, family and friendships. That does not mean that we talk of God all the time and try to force our views on others. All we need is to be ready to obey whenever the Holy Spirit prompts us to do or say some little thing. A victorious and joy filled life is built by those little things,

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.

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?

Paul, the master apologist

Being an apologist for the Christian faith may sound like expressing our regrets for being Christians. The true meaning is quite the opposite; it means being able to talk about our faith without fear or embarrassment, and to always be ready to “give an answer” (apologia) to those who ask about it.

The apostle Paul believed that the salvation that had been freely given to him made him a debtor to others. He owed it to the civilized and the uncivilized, the learned and the ignorant. (Romans 1:14) to tell them the good news of salvation . His faith in Jesus Christ empowered him to speak and write without shame or reticence (verses 15 & 16).

In order to fulfill this obligation he became all things to all people, able to relate to all people, no matter what their religion, ethnic origin or social status.

He used examples from the popular culture of the day to describe how a Christian should live. The Olympic Games had been held for over 800 years at the time of his ministry. So Paul spoke of Christian life as a foot race, an effort to reach the goal; and he spoke of the training, discipline and temperance that were required of an athlete.“They do it to obtain a temporal crown, we an eternal.”

He spoke of wrestling, explaining that our opponents in the wrestling match of life are not other people, but spirits and powers from the realm of darkness.

The Roman Empire extended over southern Europe, North Africa and Eastern Asia. Roman soldiers were seen everywhere, ready to maintain order. Paul spoke of the discipline required of a soldier and how he must not entangle himself with things that would hinder his service.

In Athens he was brought before the philosopher judges on suspicion of introducing a new god. Athens had many gods but the law forbade anyone trying to add more. Paul began by mentioning the altar to an unknown god and saying that he was just explaining who that unknown god was. He then proceeded to piece together ideas and quotations that were familiar to the Epicureans and Stoics, leading up to a declaration that God would judge the world by one who had been resurrected from the dead. The men sitting in judgement had followed his reasoning up to this point, but now some mocked and others wanted more time to think about what they had heard. One of the judges believed, along with a few other Athenians.

Paul did not try to tell Gentiles that they first needed to learn to think like Jews to understand the story of salvation. He made himself familiar with the Gentile culture and used everyday things to explain Christian faith and life.

We don’t have to immerse ourselves in pop culture in order to follow Paul’s example. Yet, if we hold ourselves completely aloof from the people around us, how are we going to be able to talk to them? A good place to start would be to ask them questions, show an interest in their lives, rather than hoping they will be interested in us.

Peter writes that we should be ready to answer everyone that asks us the reason of the hope that we have. (1 Peter 3:15). Often we will catch subtle hints that people want to know, but don’t quite know where to begin or how to ask. Most people have preconceived ideas about Christians and will try to fit us into the framework of what they think they know. Here is an opportunity, not to unload a long explanation, but to tell a story or make some allusion to how the longings expressed in popular culture are in fact groping towards answers that can only come from faith in Jesus Christ.

Apologetics is best done by building a relationship with others and treating them with respect. We are not teachers with all the answers, just ordinary people with insights gained from our relationship with Jesus and with fellow believers.

Telling about our failures and how we learned from them will put us on the same level as others and make them feel that the kind of Christian faith we have is not something beyond their reach.

WHY?

Sunday evening, shortly before sunset, a freight train came shuddering to a stop on the tracks that run about 200 metres west of our house. At first, we didn’t know the reason for the sudden stop. The trees on the west side of our yard hid the mangled pickup from our view.

Slowly, slowly we learned what had happened. A young man driving west facing the blazing sunset. On the open prairie the sun lingers just above the horizon making one lower the visor and try to shield one’s eyes from the glare. Three locomotives pulling about 80 hopper cars loaded with grain coming from the south. They met at the railroad crossing.

It took until the next day to find out that the young man who died, instantly, was the fiancé of a friend of ours. They were filled with love, hope and joy, planning for a happy ever after. Now the dream is ended.

WHY ?

The question is natural, we can’t help wondering why when things like this happen. But there really is no answer, except that we live in a world ruined by the fall.

We dare not look for someone to blame. Who would we blame? The locomotive engineer? He sounded the horn time and again, but he couldn’t steer away. The young man? God? Such thoughts would only lead to bitterness.

Yes, the young man should have seen, should have heard. But he didn’t and it does no good to blame him. Certainly God could have intervened. But He is not the cosmic puppetmaster. He wants our voluntary service, but only in rare instances does He overrule in the events of our lives. “Time and chance happeneth to them all” (Ecclesiastes 9:11).

God is the refuge, the source of comfort and strength for one who has suffered such a tragic loss.  Friends and family can help soften the pain. Their words may be inadequate, but their presence and availability speak loudly.

The need for Christian apologetics

According to Nancy Pearsey, when young people who have abandoned the Christian faith are asked why, the most common answer is that they could not get answers to their questions about the faith. Thus they assumed that there were no answers and that the stories hey had been taught were just so many fairy tales.

This brings us right up against Peter’s command: “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). “Give an answer” is the English translation of apologia, the Greek word that Peter used. Thus apologetics simply means always being ready to give an answer when questions arise about our faith.

This does not mean that we need to be prepared with arguments that will overwhelm and overpower the skeptics — notice that Peter says “with meekness and fear.” But we should never avoid an honest question, even if we don’t know the answer. We simply need the confidence that answers do exist and to be willing to help the questioner search for those answers. If we are afraid to even do that, what hope is there for the future of Christianity?

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