Flatlander Faith

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

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Spiritual drought

About this time every year farmers here on the dry Canadian prairies can be heard worrying about whether there will be enough moisture to produce a crop. This year we a are midway through the fourth month of winter with no end in sight according to the long range forecast. There is not a lot of snow on the ground and that causes stress in the farming community.

I suppose I would be stressed, too, if I was a farmer with the level of investment that is required by modern grain farming.

I will be 76 before the snow is gone and have seen that the rolling of the seasons plays out in a different fashion every year. I have seen springs with abundant moisture and ideal seeding conditions where the rains stopped in early summer. The grain grew tall and thick, but the kernels were few and shrivelled.

I have seen dry springs with barely enough moisture a few inches down to germinate the seeds. Yet rains came at the right time and there was an abundant crop. There have been years of drought and years of excessive moisture where some crops were flooded out. Even an overly long winter can be a boon to agriculture because it prevents the soil from drying out.

Anything is possible in Saskatchewan. Farmers have no control over moisture conditions. What about Christians? Many of us seem to go throught the same kind of cycles of scarcity and abundance of spiritual power. Some seem to live in a perpetual drought, trying to conserve the little bit of grace that they have.

Is that how Christian life is supposed to be? I think there are two possible problems when we are experiencing a spiritual drought.

One happens when Jesus fills our cup and we are so fearful of losing the precious spiritual water that we dare not share it with anyone else. And the water in our cup just evaporates. Jesus wants us to let that water flow, and as it flows out more will flow in.

The other possibility could be a misunderstanding of “never thirst again.” When the Holy Spirit comes into our heart, He becomes an inexhaustible source of living water and we never again need to seek desperately for that refreshment.

Yet it seems that we still need to feel a thirst, a longing for that refreshing water. It is too easy to slip into a pattern that seems Christian and spiritual, yet lacks the power that is readily available to us.

Elisha Hoffman describe that thirst like this:

Lord, I am fondly, earnestly longing,
Into thy holy likeness to grow;
Thirsting for more and deeper communion,
Yearning thy love more fully to know.

-from Open the wells of salvation by Elisha Hoffman.

Revival becomes possible when we have that kind of thirst. If we feel dry and parched, it is not that the Lord is withholding the showers from us. It just might be that we are not thirsty enough.

Is your church a theology-free zone?

I became aware of the declining interest in theology on the part of most churches shortly after my conversion and marriage. Both happened in 1970 and I mention my marriage because it was only after we were married that my wife and I began to attend church and look for spiritual fellowship.

There was the Western Canada Revival that swept through the prairies in the early’70’s, uniting all evangelical denominations in sponsoring city-wide meetings where revival was preached in bigger and bigger venues. This co-operation was achieved by a tacit agreement to avoid denominational distinctives in doctrine.

A few years later there was the “I Found It!” outreach, which included an even wider group of churches to encourage the people around us to seek some kind of meaningful encounter with Jesus Christ. The nature and significance of this encounter was purposely left vague in order to involve as wide a range of professing Christians as possible.

I’m sure that many lives were touched and changed by both of these movements. Nevertheless, they did something else – they sowed the seeds of a belief that theology is divisive and a hindrance to reaching unbelievers with the gospel.

What are we then left with? A belief in a benevolent Deity who wants us all to get along and who wants to help us when we are in trouble. Nothing wrong with that, but it’s not enough. Does anyone really believe there is power in moralistic, therapeutic deism to rescue us from our sins? Does anyone believe in sin anymore?

What happened to truth? Where is it to be found?

No doubt some of the old denominational distinctives were somewhat off the mark. But there was a day when people believed fervently in them, and quoted chapter and verse of the Bible to support them. Were they worse off spiritually than the bland, theology-free folks of today?

Do we search the Bible for truth today? Or do we search for encouraging, heart-warming verses that don’t ask too much of us? I believe that God had more than that in mind when He gave us the Bible. and the Holy Spirit, to guide us into all truth. I believe that truth is necessary for our salvation in the present time and for eternity.

Any church, preacher, or book that doesn’t in some way encourage my search for the truth is subtly deceiving.

Revival!

In the 19th Century, before Saskatchewan was settled, a survey expedition led by John Palliser was sent west to evaluate the agricultural prospects of this country. They reported that there was a huge triangle  of land starting along the southern border of the Canadian prairies with its northern point near Lloydminster that would not be suitable for agriculture and should not be considered for settlement. Their conclusion was based on the scarcity of native trees, indicating a shortage of rainfall. This area has forever after been know as the Palliser Triangle.

They were not wrong about this being a semi-arid country, some of it is ranch country, but the triangle also includes a large part of the cultivated farmland of Alberta and Saskatchewan. My wife and I live in the heart of the Palliser Triangle; the soil in our area is sandy, the rainfall is scanty. Yet farmers have adapted their tillage methods and learned how to raise some pretty impressive crops in these circumstances.

This year was looking like it would be different. The rainfall in May and June was almost non-existent, the lowest on record. Last week the news media began talking of drought, saying the crop would probably be the poorest in decades.

Saturday it began to rain, and has rained off and on for three days. The main crops grown here are Canola, lentils, wheat and barley. They are all at the seed forming stage now and the rain has come just in time to make a huge difference.

Our brown lawn is turning green already. The pastures will revive, the trees and wildflowers will thrive. Even if the rains had come too late for this year’s crop, the renewed soil moisture would renew farmers’ hopes for next year.

Nature is always ready for a revival. Are we? Or do we accept dry and arid conditions as the normal Christian life? Or do we look for the excitement of thunder and lightning and underestimate the restorative power of gently falling rain?

A sound and light show, however thrilling it may be, will not by itself bring revival to a dry and thirsty land. It is the rain that we need. May we be ready to soak up the showers of revival, no matter how God may choose to send them.

Am I a uniter or a divider?

During a recent visit in the home of a young couple in another congregation, the wife talked about the church her parents had attended when she was a child. The membership of that church is now down to the pastor and a few women; no man has been able to abide the pastor’s controlling ways. That pastor may well have a sound grasp of the Christian faith and how it should be lived, but he is a divider, not a uniter.

My spell-checker doesn’t like the word uniter, and I don’t much care for it either. I would prefer to use the French word rassembleur, as that carries the implication not just of drawing people together, but of drawing them together for a common purpose. However, rassembleur would not be understood by most English-speaking people, so I will stick with uniter.

Can a revival have an enduring effect if it does not instill in believers a united vision of the purpose of Christian life? I am thinking of the Western Canadian Revival of 40 years ago. It swept through city after city, bringing together people from the whole spectrum of evangelical Christianity to hear messages calling on them to deal with sin in their lives. I believe many people were genuinely touched and their faith renewed or restored. But were they united? I don’t think so; the churches remained as before with all their internal and external frictions and divisions.

The church of God is often in need of revival. Anything that involves people will tend to get messy. Many people do not see the problems, they need to be stirred and awakened. A revival that only seeks to restore the purity of practice as it was formerly will not be durable as there is no vision of the purpose of that purity of practice. Some people see needs in the church, but have no patience for the slowness of others to see. If they attempt to impose their vision on others, some may abandon the faith. Or they themselves will abandon the assembly of the saints and wander here and there seeking others who see things as they do. These people are dividers.

Menno Simons was a true rassembleur (or uniter if you prefer). He was a priest at Witmarsum in Friesland who was converted almost 400 years ago through studying the Bible. While still in the Roman Catholic church he taught against the zealous and misguided people who took over the city of Muenster, expecting the Lord to return and establish His kingdom there. When 300 people took over an old monastery near where he lived and were killed in the ensuing siege, the burden of his conscience became almost unbearable. He felt that some had left the Roman Catholic church because he had revealed its errors, but he had not led them further in the truth.

“I thought to myself — I, miserable man, what am I doing?” “I began in the name of the Lord to preach publicly from the pulpit the true repentance, to point people to the narrow path, and in the power of the Scripture to openly to reprove all sin and wickedness. . . to the extent that I had at that time received from God the grace.”

Nine months later he left the Roman Catholic church, abandoning his reputation and easy life. “In my weakness I feared God; I sought out the pious and though they were few in number I found some who were zealous and maintained the truth. I dealt with the erring, and through the help and power of God with His Word, reclaimed them from the snares of damnation and gained them to Christ. The hardened and rebellious I left to the Lord.”

A year later , a group of brethren came to him and urged him to put use the talents he had received from the Lord to build up the church of God. “I was sensible of my limited talents, my unlearnedness, my weak nature and the timidity of my spirit, the exceeding great wickedness . . . of the world, the great and powerful sects, . . . and the woefully heavy cross that should weigh on me should I comply. On the other hand I saw the pitiful great hunger and need of these God-fearing, pious, children, for I saw that they erred as do harmless sheep which have no shepherd.”

He accepted the plea of the brethren to be ordained as an elder of the church and could later say: “The great and mighty God has made known the word of true repentance . . .through our humble service, doctrine, and unlearned writings, together with the diligent service and help of our faithful brethren in many towns and countries. It has been made known to such an extent that He has bestowed upon His churches such unconquerable power that many proud and lofty hearts have become humble; the impure, chaste; the drunken, sober; the avaricious, benevolent; the cruel, kind; and the ungodly, pious; but they also left their possessions and blood, life and limb with the blessed testimony they had, as it may be seen daily still. These are not the fruit of false doctrine. Neither could these people endure so long under such dire distress and cross were it not the power and word of the Almighty which moves them.”

In the 16th Century, church and state were closely bound together and any deviation from the state church was considered subversive, even the peaceable Anabaptists. There were many other sects at the time, due to widespread dissatisfaction with the state church. The Anabaptists taught and lived a Biblical faith that answered the cry in the hearts of many people. Attempts to destroy this faith by persecution only drew more attention to it and it continued to grow. There were many other leaders, but Menno Simons was the one who was best known to those outside the church. Thus, the members of the church came to be known as Menno-nites.

Don’t listen to them

Eight or nine years ago, Minister Isaac Akinyombo of Nigeria was in one of our Canadian congregations to assist in revival meetings. An invitation was given at the end of one of the meetings, and as brother Isaac was giving the invitation he added these words: “Be aware that there is someone right beside you, you can’t see him but he is there, and he is telling you that ‘Of course you need to repent and get right with God, but you don’t need to do it tonight. Tomorrow will be just as good, or next week. Take time to think it through clearly.'” He went on to warn that if someone was clearly hearing the call of the Spirit that night, there was no guarantee that the call would be as clear tomorrow, or that the person would even live until tomorrow.

The messengers of the enemy of our souls are very sly and speak to us in words that promise comfort, but leave us with our burden of sin. They are present in every worship service to point out the faults of the preacher and the inconsistencies of the people around us in the pews.

Yes, the people around us all have their flaws. But other people’s flaws don’t lessen my guilt. I am a sinner by nature and if the preacher is telling me that Jesus died for my sins I shouldn’t criticize him for not choosing exactly the right words, or the right tone of voice, to give me that message of hope.

The messengers from the realm of darkness want to entice us into the darkness where there is no hope. They want to convince us that everyone around us is in that darkness, that there is no hope. Yet when we step out into the light, we are able to see the light in so many of the people around us. Even though we are weak and sinful by nature, we can walk in the light and have fellowship with our Saviour and with others who are walking in the light.

Renewed by fire

The prairies and forests of North America were ecosystems that depended on periodic fires for renewal. Most of those fires started from lightning strikes. The fires were beneficial in a number of ways: the build up of dead wood and plants was removed, most invasive plant species could not survive the fire, and the fire burst the outer shell of many plant species and allowed them to germinate. The fires were not hot enough to destroy the root systems of grasses and other plants; thus, burned over ground was quickly carpeted in green.

Human intervention to prevent such fires has not had an altogether positive effect. Useful species disappear for lack of fire to prepare their seeds for germination; invasive species prosper. The build up of deadwood and plant debris can lead to hotter and more serious fires when they do occur. Many fires today are the result of human carelessness.

I have begun cleaning the accumulation of useless papers and various small parts and gadgets out of my office and find myself wishing there was such a quick and simple method that could be used here. Unfortunately, the ecosystem of my office is something that I have created and I will have to be the one who cleans it.

When it comes to my spiritual life, I have found that the fire of God works much like a forest fire. I do not need to fear God’s fire, as it will not burn that which is truly good. Only the deadwood and trash will burn; things like bad attitudes that I have carried around as useless baggage, and really evil things like lust, pride, greed, anger and deceitfulness.

Often we pray for revival and wonder why it does not come. Is it perhaps because we are unwilling to let all those useless things burn in order to make room for God’s graces to germinate and grow in our lives?

A simple question

The following paragraphs are quoted from By My Spirit, written by Jonathan Goforth.  I would like to add a simple question to what Mr. Goforth has written: In this age of leisure, why do so many of us struggle to find time for reading the Bible? 

During my student days in Toronto my one weapon, in the jails and slums, was the Bible. In China I have often given from thirty-five to forty addresses in a week, practically all of them being simply Bible rehearsals. In fact, I think I can safely say that, during the forty-one years that I have been on the foreign field, I have never once addressed a Chinese audience without an open Bible in my hand, from which I could say, “Thus saith the Lord!” I have always taken it for granted that the simple preaching of the Word would bring men to Christ. It has never failed me yet. My Chinese pastor, one of the most consecrated men I have ever met, was saved from a life of shame and vice by the first Gospel address which he ever heard me give.

My deepest regret, on reaching threescore years and ten, is that I have not devoted more time to the study of the Bible. Still, in less than nineteen years I have gone through the New Testament in Chinese fifty-five times. That prince of Bible teachers, Dr. Campbell Morgan, has declared that he would not attempt to teach any book in the Bible unless he had first read it over at least fifty times. Some years ago, I understand, a gentleman attended the English Keswick and was so fired with a zeal for the Bible that in three years he read it through twelve times. One would imagine, of course, that he belonged to the leisured class. On the contrary, however, he began his day’s work at the Motherwell steel plant at 5:30 a. m.

The Bible was not so neglected a Book when the great revivals of 1857-59 swept over the United States and Great Britain. Neither was it so neglected in Moody’s time. During the late Manchu dynasty, scholars were expected to know the classics of their sages off by heart. How do the scholars of so-called Christian lands measure up to that standard as regards the “World’s Great Classic”? It is nothing short of pathetic how so many, who come professedly to represent the Lord Jesus Christ in China, know so little of His Word. Thirty years ago the missionary ideal was to know the Bible so well that one would not have to carry around a concordance. Is the indifference to the Bible today on the part of so many missionaries due to the fact, perhaps, that they have discovered some better means with which to meet the needs of a sin sick world?

 

What if?

Many North American Christians appear to believe that separation of church and state only applies one way.  They feel it is part of their calling to try to fix what is wrong in government.  Yet cries of  outrage are heard when government shows an inclination to try and fix what is wrong in the churches.

There does not seem to be a realization that any organization that puts itself in the position of trying to influence elected officials, or elect the “right” people to public office,  has effectively entered the political arena and thus become subject to political scrutiny.

There are cogent sounding arguments made in favour of Christian political involvement and the irresponsibility of those who abstain.  But have these arguments ever been borne out by the results of Christian political activism?

Nellie McClung was one of the leaders in the movement to extend voting rights to Canadian women.  She believed that women were naturally more gentle and nurturing and once they had the vote they would be able to shut down the liquor industry.  She never foresaw that women would use their vote to obtain the right to join men in public drinking establishments.

The enactment of prohibition in the USA was another victory of the churches.  The result was an increase in alcohol consumption, in speakeasies and other illegal venues, accompanied by a dramatic increase in the power and influence of organized crime.

This example, however, leads me to muse about what might happen if Christianity were ever prohibited in the USA or Canada.  Would the Christian faith be as powerfully attractive as liquor was?  Would Christians still meet in unauthorized gatherings for worship?  Would they become even more effective in leading others to the faith?

That has happened over and over again in other ages and other nations.  Why couldn’t it happen again?  There is a systemic weakness in North American Christianity today, a lack of real acquaintanceship with the Word of God and what it teaches, a lack of earnestness and perseverance in prayer.  We have had it too easy for too long.

Isaac Akinyombo, a minister of the Church of God in Christ, Mennonite in Nigeria, once suggested that since we in North America do not experience persecution from outside, perhaps we need to persecute ourselves.  I believe his meaning was that we need to be shook up and if outside events aren’t happening to do that, we will need to do something ourselves to shake off our complacency.

I don’t believe we could do that by abandoning all the teachings and structures  that exist in the church today.   However, we need to examine them all in the light of God’s Word and in the light of the faith of fervent brethren in ages past who maintained and spread the faith in times of opposition and persecution.  The way forward is to go back to the true foundation that stood the test in those times.

 

 

Revival and communion

Holy Communion in the Church of God in Christ, Mennonite is not a matter of routinely gathering at fixed intervals to partake of the bread and the fruit of the vine in remembrance of our Lord.  We believe that the peace and unity symbolized by this service must be fully authentic.

To this end, we have revival meetings before communion.  A congregation will call two ministers from different congregations to come to preach the gospel, to visit the members and to endeavour to resolve all barriers to true unity and fellowship.  It happens on occasions that problems surface that cannot be resolved in a short time.  In some cases a problem may be serious enough to be brought before the congregation as Jesus instructed in Matthew 18:15-17.  Or, if there is a more widespread problem, communion will be delayed until this is resolved.

We are all too human, often tending to think that we are misunderstood, we have been somehow wronged, or that our children are not treated fairly.  We may also become involved with things in the course of work and business that are not consistent with the Christian faith.  At revival time we are asked to look at our faith and the way we are living it and to bring ” every thought to the obedience of Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5).

Revival meetings this year at Swanson had an inauspicious beginning.  A large part of the congregation came down with gastroenteritis (some people call it stomach flu)  just before meetings were scheduled to begin.  Less than half the congregation were well enough to be in church the first evening.  After a few days, both of our revival ministers came down with the illness, one of them even had to sped most of a day in the hospital due to complications.

Still, after 12 days of church services every evening, we were able to declare our peace and unity and go forward.  There were inspiring testimonies of victories won over anger, doubt and depression, confessions of  being too contentious and of being too passive.   Our visiting ministers are now on their way home (to Québec and Idaho), having left us with an admonition to go forward and not backward in the Christian warfare.

This was the first communion for  six young people who had been baptized over the past year.

Heat: physical and spiritual

We are sweltering in a heat wave here, with temperatures up to 32° with a humidex of 35°.  (That translates into 90° & 95° for those still using Fahrenheit.)  I realize that many readers might even consider those temperatures cool for this time of year.  But I live in Saskatchewan where we haven’t had a long summer of similar temperatures to get us acclimatized.  There is the added factor of being 71 years old — I don’t remember that such temperatures were much hindrance to me 50 and 60 years ago.

Anyway, as I was lolling around trying to avoid any activity that might generate heat, my mind went back to a time around 40 years ago when my wife and I were newly married.  (I should qualify the first part of that statement. At dinner time I rode my bike 2 1/2 kilometres to the seniors’ home where my wife was cooking dinner.  I was fine as long as I was pedaling along, since I created my own little breeze, but as soon as I got off my bike the heat washed over me.)

Back to forty years ago, we witnessed heat of another kind — young people on fire for the Lord.  One young man, around 25 I believe, had kind of slipped into the hippie movement, then encountered some ‘Jesus people’ in Vancouver who challenged him to commit his life completely to Jesus.  He did, then returned home to Manitoba to face up to all the things he had done in the past.  As much as he could remember, he confessed to those he had wronged and paid restitution where needed.

The change in this young man had a tremendous impact on other young people in the church where he had grown up.  Many were convicted and made genuine new commitments to follow Jesus, whatever it would cost.  One young lady had shoplifted items of considerable value from a store and didn’t know how she would ever be able to pay for them.  Nevertheless, she went to see the store manager, shaking in her boots (or whatever she had on her feet) and told him the full story, including how the testimonies of the peace the other young people experienced moved her to want to come completely clean.  The manager listened to the whole story without comment, then said “Do you think your youth group could come to our church and share their experiences? The young people in my church need to hear those testimonies.”

Thus the influence of this group of young people began to spread beyond their home congregation.  The pastor was supportive, but perhaps not quite discerning enough.  I have no doubt at all that most of those experiences were entirely genuine.  But it seemed that there were a few who felt that they had to come up with testimonies like their peers.  I don’t want to sound too judgmental, however some testimonies sounded a little flat and there didn’t seem to be a corresponding change in their life.

The congregation became alarmed, not about the experiences that did not seem genuine, but about those that were.  All that enthusiasm!  This could not be a good thing.  So they dismissed the pastor.

The pastor moved to another congregation of the same denomination in a neighbouring town and the youth followed.  So did we for a time, then we moved to another province and lost track of what happened in the years since.

I want to believe that those who made such a genuine commitment of their lives to Jesus have remained faithful.  It would have been a wonderful thing if the whole church could have experienced a revival.  But it rather seemed that the weight of tradition was going to smother the enthusiasm and stifle the revival before it could really start.

Many voices today are pleading for Christians everywhere to pray for a revival.   It’s not apt to happen if what we really want is a nice tame revival that won’t shake things up too much.

 

 

 

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