Flatlander Faith

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

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Promises to Abraham

Abraham was a pilgrim and stranger in the promised land all his days. He believed the promise of God that his descendents would possess this land, even into old age when it seemed that all hope of having children was slipping away from him. God told him: “Arise, walk through the land in the length of it and in the breadth of it; for I will give it unto thee” (Genesis 13:17).

When Abram decided that the only heir he would ever had would be the son of his servant who was born in his house, God spoke to him again. “ This shall not be thine heir; but he that shall come forth out of thine own bowels shall be thine heir. And he brought him forth abroad, and said, Look now toward heaven, and tell the stars, if thou be able to number them: and he said unto him, So shall thy seed be. And he believed in the LORD; and he counted it to him for righteousness” (Genesis 15:4-6).

Sarah, Abraham’s wife, wanted him to have a son in fulfilment of God’s promise. She had no child and was past normal child-bearing age, so she gave her servant Hagar to Abraham as was the custom of the day. This worked, Ishmael was born and Abraham now had a son who was his own flesh and blood. But this was still not the heir that God had promised to Abram.

When Abram was 90 years old God renewed His promise and made a covenant with Abram, changing his name to Abraham, father of a multitude. “ And I will establish my covenant between me and thee and thy seed after thee in their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be a God unto thee, and to thy seed after thee” (Genesis 17:7). It was at this point that circumcision was made the sign of the covenant.

Abraham was 100 years old and Sarah 90 or 91 when Isaac, the son of the promise was born. Their faith had been tested for many years, but now they could see the beginning of God’s promise of a multitude of nations as their direct descendents.
God had yet one more test for Abraham. He told him to go up to the top of Mount Moriah and there offer his son as a sacrifice to God. Isaac could not have been a small child by this time, probably more like 20. Josephus says 25. Isaac carried the wood for the sacrifice to Mount Moriah and up the mountain, not something a small child could have done. This leads us to believe that Isaac shared his father’s faith, for he must have fully cooperated when Abraham bound him and laid him on the altar.

Abraham took the knife in his hand and raised it. At this point God stopped his hand and said, “now I know that thou fearest God, seeing thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son from me” (Genesis 22:13). In the providence of God, now Abraham saw a ram caught in a thicket and offered him on the altar in place of his son.

“And the angel of the LORD called unto Abraham out of heaven the second time, and said, By myself have I sworn, saith the LORD, for because thou hast done this thing, and hast not withheld thy son, thine only son: that in blessing I will bless thee, and in multiplying I will multiply thy seed as the stars of the heaven, and as the sand which is upon the sea shore; and thy seed shall possess the gate of his enemies; and in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed; because thou hast obeyed my voice” (Genesis 22:15-18).

There is so much for us bound up in the story of Abraham. Like him, we have been given an heritage. This heritage is revealed in the pages of the Bible and it is up to us to walk through the length and breadth of those pages to grasp all that God has is store for us.

Abraham believed God’s promise that he would have an abundance of heirs; that faith was counted to him for righteousness long before he received the covenant of circumcision. As the apostle Paul explains in Romans 4:9-14, this demonstrates that the promise to Abraham is to the uncircumcised as well as the circumcised. In another place the apostle explains that the circumcision that counts is the inward circumcision of the heart, not the outward form. All who are circumcised in heart by faith are then heirs of Abraham.

The New Testament also explains that the promise to Abraham is not for the children of the flesh, typified by Ishmael, but for the spiritual descendents of the son of promise.

Finally we have the picture of a father preparing to offer his only son as a sacrifice. In the New Testament we have the awful picture of the only Son of God dying on the cross as an offering for our sin. The ram that Abraham offered on the altar in place of his son is another piece of the great salvation story that God has provided a spotless Lamb to be sacrificed that He could forgive us and set us free.
Here, very early in Bible history, God has provided a complete picture of the whole salvation story through the events in the life of Abraham.

Abraham our father

The apostle Paul tells us that Abraham is the father of all who believe (Romans 4:11-16). If we want to talk about faith then, discovering who Abram was, and what he did, seems a logical starting point. We first encounter him in Genesis 11, still named Abram, one of the three sons of Terah.

The family lived in Ur of the Chaldees. For many years the only Ur known to Bible scholars was the large city located south of the mouth of the Euphrates on the Persian Gulf. The difficulty is that this Ur was Sumerian, not Chaldean. More research has led to the discovery of references to a smaller Ur, far to the northwest, between the Tigris and Euphrates. This was in Chaldean territory and was no doubt referred to as Ur of the Chaldees to distinguish it from the larger Sumerian city.

The Bible does not tell us the circumstances of God’s call to Terah to leave Ur and go to Canaan. Perhaps we can take from references in the Bible that God spoke to Abram and all his father’s family went with him. Genesis 11:41 tells us that Terah and his family left Ur to go to Canaan, but stopped at Haran. This may have been halfway or less. By this time Terah’s son Haran had died, but Haran’s son Lot accompanied his grandfather and his uncles Abram and Nahor.

The family lived in Haran until Terah died. Then God again spoke to Abram, telling him to leave and go to Canaan, promising him “in thee shall all families of the earth be blessed” (Genesis 12:3). Lot and his family accompanied Abram, but Nahor remained in Haran. When Abram and Lot arrived in Canaan, God appeared to Abram again and said “Unto thy seed will I give this land” (verse 7). Abram was already an old man, and he had no children, yet he believed the promise.

Abram and Lot lived close to each other until their flocks increased so there wasn’t enough pasture for both. Abram gave Lot the choice of where he wanted to go with his flocks. He chose the plains near Sodom where there was abundant pasture and water, leaving the mountains for Abram.

Abram continued to trust God and prosper. His herdsmen dug a well and their Canaanite neighbours filled it with rocks. He didn’t protest, just moved further away and dug another well, with the same result. Finally he found a place where he could dig a well for his flocks without opposition from his neighbours.

A picture emerges of Abram as a man who often has encounters with God and fully trusts His promises. He is a man of peace, avoiding quarrels with his family and his neighbours. Lot was not as trusting, seeking an assurance of prosperity for his flocks. His choice had disastrous consequences for his family and he barely escaped with his life when God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah.

There are spiritual parallels in the lives of Terah and his family. God calls them to depart from wickedness and travel to a land that He promised to them. Nahor is content to go halfway. Abram and Lot get to the promised land, but Lot does not fully trust God to provide for him and reaps the consequences. Abram believes the promises of God and trusts that God will make them happen in His own way, in His own time. This faith echoes through all the subsequent pages of the Bible.

The virtue of vulnerability

Last Saturday, Chris and I attended a Christian writers’ wordshop (a workshop about words). All the presenters were ladies; the attendees were also mostly ladies, plus four men and one boy.

This is cause for much pondering; why are there so few men at this level? Yes.there are many books by male authors on the bookstore shelves and they are popular. But the ladies are by far the majority among writers of self-published Christian books and in Christian writers’ groups.

Perhaps the answer lies in the fact that the ladies are more willing to expose their vulnerability. On the masculine side, we have been taught to suck it up and keep a stiff upper lip. That puts a barrier between us and our readers.

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One of the presenters on Saturday described how she gave a talk a few years ago on her struggle with depression and how God had sustained her and helped her through it. Afterwards a young lady from the audience had came up to her in tears and had been unable to speak for several minutes, sobbing uncontrollably on the presenter’s shoulder. She had thought she was the only person that had ever experienced such depression. The presenter’s vulnerability had made a connection and offered hope.

The great truth that we all need to learn is that it is the things that we don’t want to write about, the things that we are afraid to expose, that will be the greatest help to a reader. After all, we are not writing to tell the world what great people we are, we want to tell people about the great God we serve.

Facing up to the bull

One year in my late teens I spent several months working for farmers. I drove the truck for one during harvest. Then I spent a month on a cattle farm, putting up hay, fixing fences, things like that.

The fences were in bad shape. The first day, the big Hereford bull walked through the fence to graze the greener grass on the other side. I had heard and read enough scary stories about what a bull could do that the sight of this guy filled me with a sense of impending trouble.

Then the farmer said “Put that bull back in the pasture.”

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Image by Olichel Adamovich from Pixabay

I was shaking, but I didn’t want to admit that a grown fellow like me was afraid of a bull. So I prayed. At that point in my life I only prayed when fear overwhelmed me.

Then I walked toward the bull. He looked up, shook his head–then ambled along the fence line toward the gate. I went ahead of him, opened the gate, he walked into the pasture and I closed the gate.

That was my daily task after that; when supper time came, I first helped the bull  go back where he belonged. The bull and I never became friends, but he knew the routine and was always cooperative. That stretch of fence was the last one fixed.

In later years I have faced other bulls in my life, in the form of thoughts. My father was prone to unpredictable outbursts of anger. That seems to have left a hook within me where fears of how other people might react in anger can fasten themselves. Other destructive thought patterns became a routine in my life.

In time I realized that these are tempting and tormenting spirits from the realm of darkness. I don’t want them, but my willpower is not enough on its own to overcome them.

So I pray. Then tell those thoughts to go away. By the grace of God they do.  The next day I have to rebuke them again. Victory comes through Jesus Christ, but the battles repeat day by day.

Jesus said: “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me,” (Luke 9:23).

The half-converted farmer

There was a farmer in our neighbourhood who lived a simple life. He had no need of electricity, running water or a lawn mower. He didn’t need a wife either though we heard that there had once been a lady of the house. Perhaps the rustic simplicity of the homestead soon lost its charm.

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Image by noahherrera from Pixabay

This rustic farmer had a simple approach to farming. In the spring he seeded his wheat and in the fall he harvested his wheat — as much as his equipment could capture. For the fields produced a much greater crop of weeds than of wheat, in such a manner that the wheat that grew was short in stature. Then too, he needed to manoeuvre around the many prominent rocks throughout the fields when seeding and harvesting. As we passed by his fields after harvest we saw much wheat still standing, waiting for the birds, mice and gophers to glean. The proximity of these heads of wheat to the rocks or to the surface of the ground made them inaccessible to the harvesting machinery.

Then came a day when the farmer announced that he had seen the light, from henceforth things would be different. He purchased top quality seed and fertilizer, enough for all his fields. He chose not to remove the rocks and the weeds. The good seed, he said, with the help of the fertilizer, would produce vigorous plants that would choke the weeds and grow so high the rocks would not be a problem.

Unfortunately, the bad seeds in the ground outnumbered the good seeds he planted. With the help of the fertilizer, they grew taller that year than ever before. The wild mustard plants resembled small trees. I did not see if the birds of the air built their nests in these great shrubs, but I observed them flitting joyfully from branch to branch.

Harvest that year was neither better nor worse than in previous years. Whereupon the farmer declared that scientific farming was a fraud designed to separate gullible farmers from their money. He would never again believe a word of it. And the latter end of that farmer was worse than the beginning.

Some people approach Christian life in like manner. They realize the futility of their old ways and resolve to follow the way of Jesus. They read the Bible and attend church, and verily their countenances change. They have hope.

Still, there are the hurtful things they have said and done in the past, and perhaps dishonest things. These are great rocks in their life and removing them seems too great a task. The cost and effort of confession and restitution is higher than they wish to pay. Thus the rocks remain, ever a hindrance to the trust they desire from others.

Worse yet, the tendency to hurt feelings and flare-ups of temper remains and impedes the good they try to do. An apology would be too humiliating, better to wait and hope people forget. These thorns in their personalities choke out their good intentions. After a time, they conclude that Christianity was only an illusion and return to their old ways.

It need not be that way. But many evangelists who mean well neglect to explain that one cannot live a fruitful Christian life without removing the rocks and the thorns.

Is sincerity enough?

The way I see it, it doesn’t matter what you believe, just so you’re sincere.” -Charles M. Schulz.

I’m not so sure about that.

I once knew a man who sincerely believed that every other resident in his apartment building had been placed there for the sole purpose of spying on him.

People who invested their money with Bernie Madoff sincerely believed their money was safe.

Neville Chamberlain sincerely believed he had achieved “peace for our time” when he signed a pact with Adolf Hitler on September 30, 1938.

Why would we expect sincerity based on delusion or wishful thinking to have any better results in the spiritual realm?

Unseen

Millions of spiritual creatures walk the earth
Unseen, both when we wake and when we sleep.
-John Milton

Intriguing book titles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Freedom of the will

Freedom of choice means that I am at liberty to do as I please. Nevertheless, I learn every day in small ways that the choices I make have consequences; and the choices that other people make often have consequences that affect me. Why then should I not expect that consequences might not only be immediate, but long-term, even eternal?

God is not to blame when bad things happen, He has given us the liberty to choose freely. Often those choices have unanticipated consequences. The unpleasant consequences of our bad choices should lead us to pause a moment to consider whether God might not have a better way for us.

God does not protect us from the negative consequences of the choices we and other people make. Neither does he force us to choose His way.

Yet God does speak to us, quietly and often, asking us to reconsider the direction we are travelling in life. Some time in our life He will tell us that the bad things happening to us are the result of our bad choices which make us sinners.

It doesn’t work to decide that we will live the way God wants us to live by our own will and strength. But we do have the ability to accept God’s judgment on our sin and ask Him to help us. That is called repentance and when God sees that our repentance is genuine, He forgives us because of the sacrifice Jesus has made for our sin, He adopts us as His child and gives us His Holy Spirit to enable us to make right choices.

That is called the new birth, conversion, regeneration. Those words all mean a change in the way we think and a u-turn in the direction of our life. When we live to please God and to love and help the people around us, we will be far happier than when we were only trying to please ourselves.

This is the beginning of Christian life. Some people stop as soon as they reach this point, thinking this is all there is to Christian life. God wants us to keep on going, learning a little more each day about our own weakness and about God’s will and the blessings that He has for those who really consecrate their lives to Him.

The brief career of a fervent preacher

Levi Young was born in Eastern Pennsylvania in 1841. The date of his conversion is not known, but he became a member of a small Mennonite denomination at the age of 21. Not long after, he became an itinerant minister and evangelist in that group. He never married.

He was on fire for the Lord, striving to do His will in all things and always ready to speak a word for the Lord. By the summer of 1865 he became troubled about the church to which he belonged and came to the conclusion that he needed to separate himself. In June he travelled to Wooster, Ohio to visit John Holdeman, the leader of another small Mennonite church. He spent several days visiting with Holdeman and other members of his church, then returned home.

Over the following months Levi Young exchanged letters with John Holdeman and received a visit from him. In December he returned to Wooster, Ohio and was baptized by John Holdeman.

From there he travelled with John Holdeman to Wakarusa, Indiana where there was a congregation of Holdeman’s church. They returned to Ohio and on the last day of the year left for Ontario.

It appears that this was at least the second visit of John Holdeman to the Baden, Ontario area as Levi Young identifies several people as brethren in his diary: Jacob Litwiller and wife, bro. Yutzy and bro. Schott. Meetings were held most evenings, often in homes, at least twice in a school house and once in Hamacher’s meeting house of the Evangelical Association. Several times Levi Young mentions that “I preached and brother Holdeman exhorted.”

Levi Young then returned home to Pennsylvania and continued preaching in homes when that opportunity would arise. It is evident from his diary that he was a sick man and growing weaker. He makes plans for the disposition of his goods after his death and the last entry in his diary is from July 13, 1868, breaking off in mid sentence. He died August 14 at the age of 26 and was buried near Coopersburg. It appears likely the cause of death was consumption, now known as tuberculosis.

It is interesting to me that John Holdeman encouraged a newly baptized brother to preach in his evangelical outreach in Ontario. That kind of does away with any picture I may have had of John Holdeman as a stern, authoritarian person. John Holdeman returned to Ontario another 25 times. The members in Ontario mostly moved to various locations in the USA in later years and have numerous descendants in the Church of God in Christ, Mennonite.

Another point of interest is that during the last two years of Levi Young’s life the two families he had the most to do with were Minningers and Stauffers. Thirty years later, in 1898, John Holdeman and another minister visited near Souderton, Pennsylvania and Hiram and Lottie Mininger were baptized, as well as Lottie’s parents, Isaiah and Lavina Stover. Stover is a spelling variant of Stauffer, and Souderton is not far south of the area where Levi Young lived. There were more baptisms in that area in later years; Hiram Mininger became a very active and well-known minister in the Church of God in Christ, Mennonite.

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