Antiquarian Anabaptist

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

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Preface

Half a century ago a drunken young man announced to a couple of friends that one day he would be a Mennonite and wear a beard. His friends dismissed this as babbling inspired by the booze he had consumed. The young man himself was bewildered. The few Mennonites he had met, from his mother’s side of the family, had not inspired any longing to be like them. He had never seen a Mennonite who wore a beard, didn’t know if he wanted to be a Christian, or even if there was such a thing as a real Christian.

Over the next twelve years he quit drinking, quit smoking cigars, became a Christian, got married and started a family, in that order. Then he and his wife joined a Mennonite church, one that is of the persuasion that if hair grows on a man’s face it doesn’t make sense to try to remove all trace of that hair each morning.

That drunken declaration was prophetic, springing from a longing within that took the young man years to understand. It is now apparent that the longing came from God, and that over the years He continued to prompt and nudge that young man in ways that would allow that longing to become a living faith.

This book is the story of all that led up to that unexpected statement and all that happened after to make it become reality, despite the bumbling confusion of the young man, who was me. I am an old man now, and look back in wonder at that journey.

I hope that my story will encourage others to trust that there is light for the pathway and unexpected moments of joy in the journey, even when one is stubborn and doubtful of the way.

[With this post I am beginning a memoir of my spiritual journey, which I hope to publish before I get too old for stuff like this. The working title, for now at least, is One Day I Will be a Mennonite and Wear a Beard. I encourage readers to offer critiques and comments. Tell me what works and what doesn’t. Does my writing style put you to sleep? Do I offer too much information, or not enough? Your thoughts are welcome.]

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Living stones of Zion

Only living stones can strengthen the walls of Zion.
Other stones do not bond and will be pushed out of place.
A block of wood, a bale of hay or straw, will fill a gap in the wall,
They do not bond, they offer a route for vermin to enter Zion.
When the fiery darts of the enemy strike them they go up in flames.

Sunlight shows flashes of gold, silver and jewels in some living stones.
Others are plain granite, all help bear the loads of brothers and sisters
And form bonds that make the walls a sure defence against the enemy.
There is safety within for little ones, not yet spiritually living stones,
And a place where the weak and wounded heal and renew their strength.

Spiritual sacrifices are daily offered within these walls,
Sacrifices of selfish will and pride, of personal desires and ambition.
Sacrifices that arise as sweet incense to the courts of heaven.
Peace, joy and love here are tested, are strengthened and endure ,
Pleasing God and making glad the hearts of the citizens of Zion.

A pillar of fire by night and of cloud by day is seen upon these walls,
The Shekinah glory of God, invisible to unbelieving eyes,
Yet seen and feared by demonic beings that love darkness.
Weary seekers of the city of God catch glimpses of light from afar
Angels of light watch over them, help them find their way home.

Looking for real Mennonites

All I learned about Mennonites while I was growing up was that my mother had been one and had left because the German language was more important than the faith and that my grandma, a dear sweet old lady, was one and wanted me to learn German so I could be a Christian.

Perhaps there was one more thing. My mother, though no longer member of a Mennonite church, seemed to have carried some of the faith in her baggage when she left. There was something about her that was more peaceful and attractive than the argumentative faith of my father.

In my mid twenties I decided I wanted to know more about Mennonites. This was half a century ago, long before you could go to your computer and ask google to find the information you wanted. Encyclopedias offered a little information, but I wasn’t sure they were getting it right. So I bought a book, probably more than one, I forget.

As I read Mennonite history I discovered a group of people who truly believed in God, who loved God, knew they were loved by God, and believed God wanted them to love everyone else. For some reason the state churches believed such a faith was subversive and persecuted the Mennonites. The Mennonites treasured their faith more than their homes, material possessions, even their lives. They were burnt at the stake and kept telling the bystanders about the love of God as long as they had breath.

I read about a time when soldiers seized a stock of books written by Menno Simons and were about to burn them in the town square. Several daring men began grabbing books from the pile and passing them to the bystanders, who immediately fled. It all happened so quickly that the few soldiers present were unable to prevent it and were left with almost nothing to burn.

There had been a power in that faith that I longed for. I knew there were many kinds of Mennonites in our province and hoped that somewhere I could find that old faith sill living.

I got up early one Sunday morning, dressed in my best clothes and drove into a nearby city to attend a Mennonite service. I was impressed by the simplicity of the non-liturgical service, don’t remember anything about the sermon, but hoped to learn more about this church. However, it appeared that I was an invisible person. One or two people nodded to me as we left that service, but none appeared interested in the stranger in their midst. I tried again several weeks later, with the same result.

I still thought that the faith I had read about must surely exist somewhere, but I gave up looking until after I was married. We experienced more disappointments and came to realize that most churches that called themselves Mennonite had no idea what the name meant. But we still kept looking.

Optimsm – Pessimism

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A pessimist fears that every silver cloud conceals a dark and foreboding lining, and says that he is just being a realist.
An optimist believes every dark cloud will have a silver lining and also says he is being realistic.
Who is right?

A pessimist looks at the increasing godlessness and wickedness of the world and sees only doom and gloom.
An optimist looks at the same things and sees a mission field.
Who is right?

A pessimist sees things that are wrong in the world and marches in the streets to get the government to do something.
An optimist sees little things to do to help others and does them.
Who is doing more to make this world a better place?

Optimism is not following our natural inclinations and impulses and trusting that everything will turn out right. But we won’t get better results if we fear that nothing will ever work out, so there is no point in even trying. We need to be doing, but we need wisdom to know what to do.

Our bodies are mature when we are 18, but our brains are not fully mature until we are 25. The last part of the brain to mature is the part that controls our impulses. We are apt to be naturally optimistic when we are young, but will have some painful encounters with reality as we mature. Perhaps that is what helps the brain mature. The ideal outcome is that we will become less impulsive, but remain optimistic.

We worry about the growth of Islam and fear that those people are immune to evangelism. Yet we hear that many Muslim people all over the world have seen a vision or had a dream of Jesus and become Christians. God is at work in every place where there are Muslims even if no missionaries can enter those lands.

The Bible tells us in different places to lift up our eyes. That implies that when we look only at circumstances at ground level we are not seeing things as God sees them. And we are not seeing God.

Solomon said “He that observeth the wind shall not sow; and he that regardeth the clouds shall not reap.” Is there a farmer anywhere that wakes up on a September morning, sees clouds in the sky and decides to go fishing? When it comes to our spiritual lives, how often do we go fishing (or something else, anything else) to avoid facing difficult decisions?

Optimism is not a self-help plan, it is not the power of positive thinking. An optimist is one who is ready to do what needs to be done, even if there is no guarantee of a positive outcome.

Are you an optimist or a pessimist?

Precious memories

My cousin Dennis was born September 9, 1937, the first of six children born to Art and Katherine Goodnough. His wife called last week to tell us that his children were planning a surprise birthday party for him for his 80th birthday, last Saturday. Could we come?

I thought about it briefly, maybe half a second, and said “Of course, we’ll be there.” I had been thinking of this momentous occasion coming up, had bought a card and was wondering how or when to deliver it. Saturday we made the two and a half hour drive to Moose Jaw and joined 50 others, family and friends, to celebrate Dennis’s 80 years.

All of Dennis’s brothers came, from Ontario, Saskatchewan, Alberta and BC. His sister lives in Portugal and didn’t make it. Four of his five children were there, two live in Moose Jaw, one in Alberta, one in BC and the one missing was out of the country on a business trip.

Uncle Art was my father’s brother, Aunt Katherine my mother’s sister. Our two families have always been close. Everything his brothers said about Dennis was completely familiar. None of us has ever seen him get angry, nor have we ever seen him violate a traffic law. Richard told how Dennis would always use his signal lights before making a turn, even if he was out in the middle of a 100 acre field or a thousand acre pasture.

He was always interested in others. Whenever you talked to him, his first questions were about your family. He never wanted to hurt anyone’s feelings. Stan, 15 years younger, told of encountering a kangaroo on his big brother’s farm when he was just a little lad. He told Dennis about the kangaroo and Dennis said, “Well, it might have been something else that looked a lot like a kangaroo.” Some time later Stan figured out that it had been a jackrabbit.

His patience was his great strength, but at times it looked like a weakness. Jason, his youngest son, told of how his Dad taught them the importance of cleanliness and also modelled it for them. One time the family was ready to get in the car to go somewhere, they were already 20 minutes late, but Dad decided he had to have a shower first.

Jason also told of how his Dad had been a good teacher. He didn’t get angry when they didn’t do as they had been taught, but relations could get rather cool for a while. Ted, the brother next after Dennis in the family, picked up on that and said that had come from their mother. When he did something wrong his mother wouldn’t speak to him for days. Finally he would get so desperate that he would do anything, wash dishes, scrub floors, to get her to talk to him. Thinking of that later, it seems that Ted would be the one in the family who would have most often incurred this treatment from his mother. He was also the one for whom it was most apt to produce a favourable result.

Joel, Dennis’s oldest grandson and a Pentecostal preacher, was MC for the afternoon. Jeff, Dennis’s oldest son and also a Pentecostal preacher (but of a different denomination), had the prayer for the supper. The Goodnough family is a mixture of Christians of differing persuasions and others who are not Christians. We don’t get together as often as we did when we were younger and lived closer to each other, but there is still something that binds us together. I believe the tie that binds us together, at least for those of us of the older generation, is the influence of our mothers. I am not alone in thinking that, the thought was expressed a number of times on Saturday.

Journeying on

We were having Vacation Bible School and for crafts we were doing a manger scene with Joseph, Mary and the baby Jesus. I started calling Mary’s husband Joe. I glimpsed a hint of a smile on Miss Parker’s face, just before Miss Napier let me know that I was not to be so flippant and disrespectful. I don’t suppose that Miss Parker was any more likely to encourage disrespect than Miss Napier, but she allowed herself to be amused by my childishness and seemed much more human to this twelve-year-old boy.

Miss Napier and Miss Parker were Bishop’s Messengers who had come to Craik to fill in until we could get another minister. They could not baptize or serve communion, but led the other types of worship service in the Book of Common Prayer: Morning Worship, Evening Worship and the Litany.

Miss Napier was British and the guardian of proper form and tradition. Miss Parker was Indian. Over the years that ethnic definition has gone from Indian to Native to Aboriginal to First Nations and recently to Indigenous. I must be getting old that seems like one change too far. I want to be respectful, but by the time I can get my head around Indigenous the nomenclature will no doubt have changed again. Miss Parker was a bit shy, definitely not pushy, and was liked by everyone. Miss Napier was not disliked, it just wasn’t easy to warm up to her.

After a year the Reverend Kenneth Vickers came to be our minister, along with his wife, daughter and son. Mister Vickers was the ideal country preacher. He was not afraid to get his hands dirty helping a farmer or maintaining the vicarage and yard. Just a regular down to earth guy that everyone liked. His daughter was nine days younger than me. I was horribly girl shy during the years I was in school, but I remember four girls with whom I could occasionally carry on a conversation. For some reason they were all named Joan and one of them was Joan Vickers.

It was while Mr Vickers was at Craik that I became an altar boy, assisting in communion services. The Craik parish included churches in three other towns and Sunday mornings found us travelling to services in two of those churches. When I turned sixteen and got a driver’s license he even let me drive his car, a Hillman Minx. Driving that car left me with the lifelong conviction that British technology is an oxymoron.

There were two other ministers at Craik before I ventured off into the big wide world, but all I remember of them are their foibles. I did try attending church again while living in Toronto, but there just wasn’t any pull to keep going back.

The worldwide Anglican Church has always been a big tent movement, where high church and low church Anglicans were able to function in harmony. The churches in Saskatchewan were pretty strongly high church where the liturgy was of utmost importance. Yet there were occasional hints of low church, or evangelical, tendencies. A discerning eye would have noted that the Anglican Church of Canada was already in it’s declining years when I was a boy. Today it has reached doddering old age.

Some congregations have withdrawn, reorganized and continue as outposts of the Anglican faith such as is found in Africa, Asia and South America. The Anglican churches of those countries no longer recognize the Canadian church as being of the same faith. The Anglican Church of Nigeria has sent a missionary couple to Saskatoon to start a new congregation.

I have moved on in my spiritual journey, yet when I look back it is clear that my journey began in the Anglican Church. After confirmation I was given a little red book of questions for self examination before communion. That little book almost led to my conversion. There is still a warm place in my memory where I believe God came very close to me, and I to Him. Then I looked away and saw that no one else seemed to take this seriously.

The services were permeated with readings and recitations from the Bible, way more Scripture than any other church I have ever attended. I was constantly reminded tin those services that I was a sinner who needed to repent and be forgiven. I learned that the outward forms of baptism and communion were only signs of an inward and spiritual grace. I didn’t find those spiritual realities in the Anglican Church, but it was the Anglican Church that set me to searching for them.

I learned in the Anglican Church that it was important that there was a continuity between the church of the apostolic era and the church of today. I still believe that, I just don’t believe that the original faith has necessarily been passed on through a continuous lineage of laying on of hands in ordination. I also learned that people of a great variety of ethnic backgrounds could worship together.

Eleven years after I left Craik I wanted to get married and neither I nor my fiancée knew a minister of any kind. My mother knew where to find Ken Vickers and he came to Moose Jaw to do some counselling before the wedding and to marry us, thus starting us on another journey.

Catechism Classes

About the only thing my parents had in common was a feeling that the church in which they had been raised had let them down.

My father was a descendant of New England Puritans, with some French and Scottish blood thrown in.  He was born in Iowa, grew up in Minnesota and arrived in Saskatchewan in 1908 at the age of 17.  The family was Wesleyan Methodist, but a series of mergers brought most Methodists into one fold and then in the 1920’s they became part of the new United Church of Canada.  My dad told of a service he had attended in Edmonton in the early years of the United Church.  As the preacher spoke, it became evident that he didn’t believe the creation account, the virgin birth of Jesus, or much of anything else in the Bible.  Dad walked out of that church into the street and wept.  After that he tried to avoid ever setting foot in a United Church again.

My mother was of pure Low German descent.  Her grandparents came to Canada in the great migration of the 1870’s.  There is a story in our family that her grandfather learned to read and write English and discovered that the bishop of the Old Colony Mennonite Church was using money that belonged to the congregation for his own benefit.  Great-grandfather was thereupon excommunicated and joined the Sommerfelder Mennonite Church.  I’m sure there would be a different story from the other side, but this is the story that I have been told.

Mom was born in Manitoba and grew up in Saskatchewan, the sixth in a family of 14 children.  She was the last one in the family to learn High German, which was the only language used in the Sommerfelder Church worship services.  Mom often spoke of how she felt that the church had abandoned her younger siblings.

In her later teens she joined a group of other young people in a catechism class.  They were supposed to learn the catechism by heart.  After the catechism classes were finished, they were to answer the questions of the catechism before the congregation.  I believe this took place over several Sundays.  Mom was the only one of the group to memorize the whole catechism.  As they always sat in the same order, the others calculated which questions they would be asked and memorized only those answers.  One of Mom’s cousins sat beside her.  The morning they were to begin answering the questions before the congregation this cousin told Mom, “I don’t have my answer memorized, so when the bishop asks my question, just speak up and answer it for me and no one will know the difference.”  Mom agreed to this subterfuge.  All went well until the bishop came to the person after Mom.  The anticipated sequence was now broken and he had not memorized the answer to the question he was asked.  Somehow it all worked out and they were all baptized.

My parents were married in the Alliance Church in Moose Jaw, but did not affiliate with any denomination.  I remember that we once attended a service in a rural school house.  I suspect my father was not pleased as we never went again.  One time we attended an Ernest Manning crusade in Regina.  When I was nine, my father arranged for me to be baptized in a private ceremony in a Lutheran church.

That same year, we moved to a farm on the outskirts of Craik.  There were three churches in this town, United, Catholic and Anglican.  My father decided that we needed to start attending church and the Anglican Church was the only good choice available.

A catechism class was planned for the following winter and my father decided I should join.  There were four other boys my age in the class and we spent a number of months studying, not memorizing, the Anglican catechism.  I still remember the definition of a sacrament: “An outward and visible form of an inward and spiritual grace,” and think that is the best definition that I have heard.  The confirmation service, where the bishop would be present to lay his hands on our heads and pray for us, making us full members of the church, came in the spring of 1953.

We five boys had a meeting with the bishop before the service began.  The Right Reverend Michael Coleman, Bishop of Qu’Appelle, was a kindly, white-haired gentleman.  He spoke to us of how the service would be conducted.  Then he told us: “When I was your age, I had the idea that after the bishop laid his hands on me and prayed for me, I would not be able to sin anymore.  When we got home after church, I went out behind the barn to see if I could still say the words that I had used before.  They came just as easily as they ever had!  When I lay my hands on your head today and pray for you, that will change nothing inside of you.  To overcome sin you will need something that I cannot do for you.  You will need a change of heart.”

This happened 57 years ago and I may not have the words exactly as he said them, but this was the essence of his message to us.  The fact that I remember that message so clearly must indicate the impact those words had on me, even though the fruit did not appear until many years later.

Is there any hope?

So many people want to save humanity. What do we need to be saved from? Who really knows? Is it the one who talks the loudest? Why does that person tell us it is a crime to allow those who disagrees with him to talk about their ideas? Is there any hope?

The Bible tells us that if we bite and devour each other, we will all be devoured. We cannot save humanity by fighting with each other. That is the devil’s game.

It is the devil who is behind every attempt to make us distrust and hate each other. If we want to make the world a better place, we must start by refusing to listen to the devil.

Jesus offers a better way. He came to help the sick, the suffering, the sorrowing and the brokenhearted and to offer hope to everyone. He says that we should love everyone and count no one as an enemy. Our true enemies are the devil and his dark angels.

Study the teachings of Jesus in the Bible. He wants us to forsake the ways of hatred and of doing things that hurt others. If we ask Him, He will give us a transformed heart and a new way of looking at life and at the people around us.

We can’t change the whole world, even governments have much less power to do that than we think. But we can do little things to help and encourage others. We can pray to God and ask Him to help others in need and to help our governments do what is best for all mankind. Those things will do more good than to defeat a government that isn’t doing what we think it should do.

We are able to do much more good than we think. Instead of saying “somebody really should do something,” why not be that somebody whenever we have the opportunity? If Jesus is directing our lives, He will show us little things to be done that will make a difference to someone. We shouldn’t keep a record of the good things we have done or boast of them to others. By doing these things we are laying up treasures in heaven, not working for an earthly reward.

It’s not hard to see that the world would be a better place if everyone would live the way that Jesus taught. Most people don’t. The only way to change that is to start with you and me. That is the only, and the best, hope for the world.

Truth or heresy?

The Roman Catholic Church endeavoured to destroy all evidence of the faith of those whom they persecuted. Nevertheless, much can be learned from their accusations against those they called heretics.

For instance, here is the accusation of Peter of Cluny against Peter de Bruys: “They deny that infants who have not yet attained the years of understanding can be saved by the baptism of Christ; and say that the faith of another cannot help those who cannot use their own faith; for, according to their view, not the faith of another, but one’s own faithsaves with baptism, because the Lord says: He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned.”

What shall we say of one who considers such a statement to be heresy?

A living faith

I CAN NEITHER TEACH NOR LIVE BY THE FAITH OF OTHERS. I MUST LIVE BY MY OWN FAITH AS THE SPIRIT OF THE LORD HAS TAUGHT ME THROUGH HIS WORD.
-MENNO SIMONS

THE TITLE ITSELF (MENNONITES) HAS NO SAVING POWER, IT’S VALUE LIES ONLY IN THE FACT THAT MENNO’S TEACHING IS ENTIRELY IN ACCORD WITH THE TEACHING OF JESUS AND THE APOSTLES.
-REUBEN KOEHN

*These were among a series of quotations posted yesterday on Operation Noh’s Ark. To see all the quotations click on the link at right under Blogroll. I first translated these two into French and posted them on my French blog – Témoin anabaptiste

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