Antiquarian Anabaptist

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

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Worship styles – what is essential?

I was reading articles about the history of church pews and it seems most writers feel that pews became important at the time of the Reformation. In Roman Catholic worship the focus was on the communion and provisions for congregational seating were not of major importance. With the Reformation, the focus switched to the sermon where the congregation remained seated for a lengthy period of time and where and how they sat became more important.

That may be true, but I was raised in the Anglican tradition which did not fit neatly into either category. There were two Bible readings in every service, one from the Old Testament and one from the New. In addition there were a few significant passages of Scripture that were spoken aloud, either in unison or as responsive readings. There was a sermon, usually not lengthy, and often there was communion, but the real emphasis seemed to be on the Bible.

Contemporary worship music seems to have come front and centre in most evangelical churches today. Thus the worship leader who leads and directs this aspect of the worship service seems to be as important as the preacher.

Early Christian worship took place in places like private homes, forests, or the catacombs of Rome. This type of worship did not require a special church building, nor did it require pews or musical instruments. This was worship stripped to its bare essentials: Bible reading, prayer, and exhortation to faithfulness. And people risked their lives to be at these worship services.

Anabaptists retained that simple style of worship throughout most of their history. One could question whether the many persecutions they suffered made that the only feasible style of worship, or whether they were persecuted because they chose to avoid the worship style of the official churches. Both were probably factors.

Today, we of the Church of God in Christ, Mennonite consider ourselves to be linear descendants of the Anabaptists. Bible reading, prayer, hymns and a sermon all have a place in our worship services. The sermon usually consists of some combination of exposition of a Bible passage, teaching, testimony and exhortation to faithfulness. It is not a prepared, scholarly discourse, but flows from a heart inspired by the Holy Spirit.

We sing both old and new hymns, without musical accompaniment. The message of a song remains with us much longer when we all sing together, rather than just listening. Many have testified of times of difficulty or crisis when part of a song has popped into their mind with words that brought comfort and direction.

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Missionary hymns

I think the old missionary hymns leave many of us feeling a little uneasy. Those references to carrying the gospel to every dark land  – was there a deliberate inference that lands where white people dwell are more enlightened and the lands where darker skinned people dwell are in spiritual darkness? I fear that idea seemed self-evident to white people 100 to 200 years ago.

It’s not so evident today and I think we should stop singing those hymns. I don’t believe that we should stop missionary activity, but perhaps the greater need in our day is right under our noses. While Christianity has taken root on other continents, it is in danger of being uprooted in Europe and North America.

That leads me to the other concern I have with the old missionary hymns – many of them take it for granted that missionary activity can only happen in lands that are across the ocean waves.

Churches in Nigeria have taken note of the increase of unbelief, paganism and idolatry in Europe and North America and are sending out missionaries to do what we seem to have forgotten how to do. In our nearest city, Saskatoon, three Nigerian denominations have placed missionaries and are establishing congregations.

I wonder what kind of missionary hymns they sing in Nigeria?

Worship then and now

Then was sixty years ago when I was a teenager and member of the Anglican Church of Canada. Services would begin with this exhortation:

Dearly beloved brethren, the Scripture moveth us in sundry places to acknowledge and confess our manifold sins and wickedness; and that we should not dissemble nor cloke them before the face of Almighty God our heavenly Father; but confess them with an humble, lowly, and obedient heart; to the end that we may obtain forgiveness of the same, by his infinite goodness and mercy.

The service would continue with words of like eloquence, interspersed with a reading from the Old Testament, another from the New Testament, the reciting of some poetic passages of Scripture, either in unison or as a responsive reading. There would be a few hymns mixed in plus a sermon. All followed the familiar pattern of the Book of Common Prayer, which was little changed since it was formulated by Thomas Cranmer 400 years earlier.

It didn’t take long until you had the services memorized and didn’t need to follow in the book any longer. This was the great danger: the words were beautiful, meaningful and true, but one could recite them with nary a thought as to what one was saying. I have no doubt that many Anglicans were born-again people, but many, probably the majority, just droned along with their mind somewhere else altogether.

I remain very thankful for all the Scriptures read and recited in the Anglican services. I suppose this began in the day when most attendees were unable to read and this was the only exposure they had to the Word of God.  It was still good for those who were readers.

Now, in the Mennonite church to which I belong today, the services might seem a little tohu-bohu (the Hebrew words translated without form and void in Genesis 1:2). There is a certain order to the services, but they are informal and unstructured compared the church of my youth. Still, just as in Genesis 1:2, the Spirit of God is present.

Most congregations have more than one minister. None of them are professionals, they do not derive their income from the church but earn their living much as other members of the congregation. The hymns we sing are not chosen in advance but are chosen in a seemingly random manner by members of the congregation as the service progresses.  Lay brethren are often invited to volunteer to present some thoughts and a prayer to open the service. It may take some time for one to get up from his seat to do so. The sermons are extemporaneous, not written out beforehand. Sometimes there are no ministers present and the whole service is conducted by lay brethren. 

It works. We are fed, encouraged, reproved, inspired. We trust that everything, the hymns that are chosen, the words that are spoken, is prompted by the Holy Spirit.

This type of service goes back to long before Archbishop Cranmer. The apostle Paul wrote:

How is it then, brethren? when ye come together, every one of you hath a psalm, hath a doctrine, hath a tongue, hath a revelation, hath an interpretation. Let all things be done unto edifying. . . Let the prophets speak two or three, and let the other judge. If any thing be revealed to another that sitteth by, let the first hold his peace. For ye may all prophesy one by one, that all may learn, and all may be comforted. And the spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets. For God is not the author of confusion, but of peace, as in all churches of the saints.

Unto the hills around

Unto the hills around do I lift up my longing eyes;
O whence for me shall my salvation come, from whence arise?
From God, the Lord, doth come my certain aid,
From God, the Lord, who heav’n and earth hath made.

He will not suffer that thy foot be moved: Safe shalt thou be.
No careless slumber shall His eyelids close, who keepeth thee.
Behold, our God, the Lord, He slumbereth ne’er,
Who keepeth Israel in His holy care.

Jehovah is Himself thy keeper true, thy changeless shade;
Jehovah thy defense on thy right hand Himself hath made.
And thee no sun by day shall ever smite;
No moon shall harm thee in the silent night.

From ev’ry evil shall He keep thy soul, from ev’ry sin;
Jehovah shall preserve thy going out, thy coming in.
Above thee watching, He whom we adore
Shall keep thee henceforth, yea, forevermore.

John Douglas Sutherland Cambell, 1877

[John D. C. Campbell, Marquess of Lorne, Chief of Clan Campbell and later 9th Duke of Argyll, was Governor General of Canada from 1878 to 1883. His wife, Princess Caroline Louise Alberta, was the 4th daughter of Queen Victoria. She gave her name to Lake Louise in B.C. and to the province of Alberta. Queen Victoria really would have preferred for her daughter to marry a European prince, to which Mr. Campbell is reported to have quietly responded: “Madam, my forefathers were kings when the Hohenzollerns were parvenus.” Despite his aristocratic heritage, Campbell was a fervent Christian and a supporter of Dr. Barnardo’s homes for homeless children. The above poem is sung to a melody composed by Charles H. Purday.]

Dementia

My mother wasn’t able to look after herself anymore and had come to live with us. One day a conversation with a visitor went like this:
—How old are you?
—What year is it?
—Two thousand and four
—Then I am ninety-six.

That was my mother; she couldn’t remember how old she was, but she wasn’t about to admit it so she answered with a question of her own. When she was given the year she instantly made the calculation in her head and gave the right answer.

My father’s dementia worked a little differently; he lived to be 86 but always told people he was 82. It seems that was how old he was when dementia took away his ability to connect with what was happening.

Some people become quite difficult as dementia sets in. They resent being told to put on clothes that they don’t recognize. The problem is that their mind has slipped back 50 years and the clothes they would recognize are long gone. Others may be just as confused about where they are and what is happening, yet they are sweetly thankful for every little act of kindness.

Some people eventually lose the ability to communicate. A familiar face, a familiar voice, may stir some sign of recognition, but they can’t quite grasp who it is they see and hear. There are those who seem altogether vacant, yet their eyes light up when a familiar hymn is sung. Sometimes they might even sing along, yet show no sign of remembering after the song  is finished. It is important for us to believe that there is still a person in that body, and even though they cannot reach out to us, they do know when we reach out to them by kind words and touches.

Some people seem immune to dementia. We visited a lady after she turned 100, she may have been a distant relative of my wife. She was bright and chipper, her hearing was good, her eyesight was good – she read a regular print Bible, had no difficulty walking. We visited her again several months later – she recognized us and remembered our names.

We met a man, a distant relative of mine, who was also over 100. He played billiards, drove his car to his country church every Sunday, pushed people in wheelchairs around the yard of the nursing home.

Both of these people had a positive outlook on life and were interested in other people. This leads me to some observations:

  • A self-centred person has a miserable life and seems to be more inclined to develop dementia, where he can make everybody around him miserable, too.
  • A person who is genuinely interested in others develops the ability to exercise their mind in following a multitude of paths his mind might not otherwise take and this may make him less apt to develop dementia.
  • A person who is genuinely thankful, and readily expresses that thankfulness will be a pleasant person to be around even if he develops dementia.

I know, these are totally unscientific conclusions and there are many other factors involved. Still, I think they are thoughts to bear in mind as I grow older so that I can cultivate the attitudes that will make life less difficult for those who may have to care for me if I ever develop dementia.

Problem or blessing?

At 10 a.m. last Sunday morning half of our congregation was seated in the pews. The song leader rose, walked to the mike and announced the first song. Then he stood there patiently as the other half of the congregation walked in and were shown to their seats.

(We don’t use musical instruments in our churches. Congregational singing is a capella in four part harmony. The song leader sets the pitch and starts the hymn.)

This is quite a common scenario in congregations of the Church of God in Christ, Mennonite. People walk in the door of the church, see their friends, share greetings, ask what’s new and start to visit; soon it’s time for the service to start and they are still visiting in the foyer. I remember much the same thing happening the very first time we attended a service in this church, 41 years ago at Linden, Alberta.

Is this a problem? Every once in a while someone will ask why we can’t be like other churches where people walk in, find a set and wait quietly for the service to begin. That seems much more solemn and reverent.

I’m not so sure, having visited and even been a member of churches like that. Often the people don’t know each other very well and don’t really have anything to say to their neighbour in the pew.

In one church that my wife and I visited many years ago, at the beginning of the service the pastor asked everyone to stand up, shake hands with the people on ether side and in front and behind and introduce themselves. It seemed genuinely warm – until the end of the service. When the last amen was said everyone got up, turned around and headed for the door without another glance at those around them. We didn’t go back for a second visit.

The problem we have, if problem it be, is that we actually like each other and we want to visit, before the service and after the service. And when there are visitors in church we want to meet them and get to know them. Is there something wrong with that? I thin it’s a blessing.

“Behold how pleasant and how good it is for brethren to dwell together in unity” (Psalm 133:1).

It would be difficult to maintain this level of fellowship if our congregations became too large. Our North American congregations average 100 baptized members. The largest has 300 members. When a congregation becomes too large for the members to know each other well, they will often decide to build a new church a few miles away and part of the membership will choose to make this their new spiritual home.

At the same time, there are always families moving out of these larger congregations and establishing new congregations in new areas. There is a special kind of fellowship that develops as brethren from different areas unite to establish a new congregation in a new location. An additional benefit is that as the local folks become acquainted with these newcomers they might allow their curiosity to be used by the Holy Spirit to investigate the faith and be drawn into the fellowship.

 

Sing Out!

Alf Soper was janitor of the school I attended as a boy. Once he had been a travelling repairman for a farm implement company, then the boss of some large construction projects. New he was old and content to tend the coal fired boiler that heated the two storey brick school, sweep the floors, carry out the garbage and do all the other little chores involved in cleaning and maintaining this building that was daily swarmed by more than a hundred children of all ages.

Alf Soper never married, didn’t appear to have much of a social life, yet never seemed grumpy about the shenanigans of the children. He often attended the same little Anglican Church that our family attended. He would sit on the second bench from the front on the side nearest the organ. Our family sat the second seat from the back on the opposite side, yet when a hymn was sung we could near Alf’s voice as clearly as if he was sitting beside us.

Alf was born in England and was probably of pretty much unadulterated Celtic heritage. The rest of us were not terribly good singers and were content to sing along with the organ, taking care not to be too loud lest someone hear our false notes. Not Alf. He was in his element when we sang the old hymns and not the least self conscious about letting his powerful voice be heard. And I don’t think he ever hit a false note.

Years later, we were members of a congregation of the Church of God in Christ, Mennonite in Ontario. There was no organ in our church, we sang a cappella in four part harmony, and most people loved to sing. A song leader would go up to the front mike, use a pitch pipe to set the correct pitch and lead the singing.

Except when Frank Adams was in church. Frank was another elderly man of Celtic ancestry, Welsh to be exact, and an amazing singer. He would sit on the fourth bench from the front and give out the number for Guide Me Oh Thou Great Jehovah or one of his other favourites. The song leader would dutifully get up, blow the pitch, start the song – and from there on Frank would lead it. The song leader would be someone with a good voice and he had the advantage of the PA system, but he simply was no match for the power of Frank’s voice.

I’m glad no one ever told Frank that maybe he should turn down the volume a bit. He loved to sing, he was enjoying himself, and to tell the truth, we enjoyed it too.

Perhaps we take singing a bit too seriously, trying to get every note just right. If you listen to one of our church services, you will hear the voices of little children babbling along with the singing. They don’t know the words or the melody, but they joyfully blend their voices with the rest of the congregation and it does not distract at all from the beauty of the singing.

When these children get older they learn to read the words, they learn to read the music and hit the notes, but lose their childlike innocence and become self-conscious about letting their voice be heard. Most grow out of that stage, but not all.

I’m one of the self-conscious ones. I learned next to nothing about music in public school, in the church we attended when I was young, or at home. My mother loved to sing, but we never had any family singalongs because my father didn’t sing. I do my best singing in the shower, probably always will, but I enjoy it when I see others sing out with no thought of “what will people think?,

Riding a tricycle to church

This is a story about someone we met 25 years ago. I wish the details were a little clearer in my mind, but I will tell what I remember.

It looked like a beautiful day outside. Cindy got herself dressed, ate a bowl of cereal and ran outside to ride her tricycle. Her Dad and her older brother and sister were still sleeping. Her Mom had gone away and wasn’t coming back.

There was a faint sound of singing coming from somewhere. Cindy pedalled her tricycle in the direction of the sound. She crossed onto the next block, she saw a brick building with an open door and that was where the singing was coming from. She got off her tricycle and walked closer, then walked right in the door. Just then people got up and separated into groups. A lady saw her and asked, “Do you want to go to Sunday School?”

Cindy had no idea what kind of school this could be on a Sunday morning, but the lady seemed so kind that she went along with her. She heard a story like nothing she had heard before. When Sunday School was over she rode her tricycle home and told her Dad where she had been. Dad was surprised, but probably thought that wasn’t the worst thing she could have done that morning.

She went again the next Sunday, and the one after that and soon all the family knew that when Sunday came Cindy would be going to Sunday School. She started to get to know the people in the little church and one day realized the others didn’t go home when Sunday School was over. She decided to stay and see what happened next.

There was even more singing and then a man talked about God and about Jesus and about a place called heaven. Cindy decided church was just as good as Sunday School. She found out that the man who talked about God was the husband of her Sunday School teacher. Sometimes they would invite her to their home.

Dad didn’t quite know what to think about all this, but he saw that it made Cindy happy, so he allowed her to keep going. She was learning to be helpful at home, too. After a few years, Cindy announced to her Dad that she had become a Christian and wanted to be baptized. This was going farther than Dad had ever expected, but how could he refuse?

Thus it happened one day that Cindy made a public profession of faith, was baptized and became a member of the little church. And it all started with riding her tricycle to church one morning.

Why is the door locked?

Karen Mains, in her book Open Heart, Open Home, included a chapter entitled The Nicest House in Town. It describes a beautiful home, in a beautiful yard, and through the windows people can be seen happily visiting together and feasting on sumptuous food. Sounds of beautiful singing can be heard coming from those inside. Huddled around the hedge outside there are shivering, hungry people longing to be inside where it is warm and cheery, where there appears to be food and love in abundance. But the doors are locked; they are not wanted in that house.

This is an meant as an allegory of many supposedly evangelical churches. I’m afraid it hits pretty close to home. Why do people have that idea about us? What can we do to change the way people look at us?

A tract that I once read told a similar story. On a cold winter evening someone met a starving, shabbily dressed man, gave him a key and a piece of paper with an address written on it, told the man to go to that address, use the key, and all his needs would be met. He found the house, much like the one that Karen Mains described, saw the warm, happy people inside, saw the table loaded with food. But he could not believe that what was inside could be for him. He couldn’t believe that the key would work for him; he never even tried it. He sadly walked away and was found frozen to death the next morning, the key still clutched in his hand.

This story seems to put the blame on the man who walked away. His problem was unbelief. But why was the door locked?

The prophets foretold a time when the gates of Jerusalem would be open continually for the strangers and Gentiles to come in (Isaiah 60:10-11); of a land of unwalled villages, having neither bars nor gates (Ezekiel 38:11 and Zechariah 2:4). Surely God is not pleased when we put up walls. We may try to defend ourselves and say there are no walls, we would never do such a thing. Why then do other people see walls?

In the parable that Jesus told of the wedding feast, the king asked his servant “Go out quickly into the streets and lanes of the city, and bring in hither the poor, and the maimed, and the halt, and the blind,” and a second time: ” Go out into the highways and hedges, and compel them to come in, that my house may be filled.” (Luke 14:21-23). We claim to be servants of God, don’t we? Are we doing anything like this? Of course, the parallel account in Matthew 22 mentions the man who came to the wedding feast without a wedding garment.  It is part of our responsibility when we call people to come in to explain about the wedding garment and how to obtain it.

What is holding us back from flinging open the doors and going out to invite those shivering, hungry folks huddled in the hedges to come in? Notice that I say “us” — I cannot claim to have done better than others, perhaps much worse than many. And there were people who invited me to come in many years ago. Yet it is becoming more clear to me than ever before that there really are folks around us who are spiritually cold and hungry and it looks to them like we have closed and locked our doors.

Confusion of tongues

For about a year now our congregation, in addition to our old hymnal, has been using a supplementary collection of gospel songs. Sunday evening we sang one of those songs for perhaps the second time. The English words were not familiar to me, but the melody was. I realized it belonged to a familiar French hymn, but the words escaped me. Today it all came back. The hymn was originally written in German and has been translated into both English and French. The English title is Day by Day, and With Each Passing Moment, in French it is Chaque instant de chaque jour qui passe.

It is not really accurate to say it has been translated into French. Because of the difference in language structure between French and English (or German), a word for word translation is often not possible. In most cases the French version conveys much the same meaning, but not in quite the same way. For instance, the third line of Day by Day says: Trusting in my Father’s wise bestowment, and the second line of Chaque instant says: En Jésus je puis me confier. The idea of trust is there in both languages, in English it is trust in the Father, in French it is trust in Jesus. This is not a difference in theology, simply a difference in what works poetically to fit the same melody.

A few hymns have come into English from French: Les anges dans nos campagnes became Angels We Have Heard on High; Minuit chrétien became O Holy Night, and Gloire à Dieu notre Créateur became Praise God From Whom all Blessings Flow. Angels We Have Heard on High is pretty much a direct translation; O Holy Night not so much, but still has the same basic themes; Praise God From Whom All Blessings Flow uses the melody written by Louis Bourgeois many years ago in Geneva, but the words bear very little resemblance to what he wrote.

Sometimes it seems that when the original was in a language other than French or English the translations into the two languages are closer in meaning that when translating from English to French, or vice versa.  How Great Thou Art is the English translation of a Swedish Hymn and the French version, Comme tu es grand, is very similar. A Mighty Fortress is Our God, the English translation of Martin Luther’s hymn Eine Feste Burg, and it’s French counterpart, C’est une rempart que notre Dieu are also very close.

There are also cases where a totally new hymn has been written in French and set to the melody of a familiar English hymn. This can lead to some complications when a minister who knows only English speaks in a French-speaking congregation. He hears a familiar sounding hymn and when he gets up to speak, he starts by commenting on the spiritual message of the hymn that he heard in his mind. This places the interpreter in somewhat of a quandary: does he try to interpret what the minister is saying and add some explanatory remarks? or does he interrupt the minister and inform him that the congregation did not hear what he heard? Sometimes the latter course might be advisable, as the minister might seize on the one thing he thought he understood and refer to it several more times during his sermon.

I have an abiding love for French hymnody and regret that I am now living in a place where, if I want to hear them, I have to sing them myself. I doubt that anyone else would be blessed by listening to my singing, but I am blessed by the messages.

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