Show of Hands: ‘Twas on One April’s Morning’

Here’s a gorgeous version of the old folk song ‘Twas on one April’s Morning’ by Show of Hands (Phil Beer and Steve Knightley, with Miranda Sykes on bass). The last verse, which they do in three part harmony, is absolutely beautiful.

Show of Hands’ website is here.

‘Mainly Norfolk’ gives a good survey of recorded versions of the song, and a couple of versions of the lyrics, here.

Bird-Watching and the Breathtaking Personalism of God

Yellow_Warbler_-_Prince_Edward_Point_National_Wildlife_Area_-_Ontario_CanadaBig thank you to my friend Rick Rice for referring me to this excellent article about the impact of language on our ability to notice individual details in the created world around us. As a birder, I was of course attracted immediately to the way the author used her experience with bird-watching to illustrate the point she was making.

A few years ago, as a freshman in college, I was out in the woods late under a full October moon. My classmates, who were drinking in the hut across the field, hollered at me to come back and join them. I shot back gaily, “I can’t! I’m talking to the moon!”

Indeed, I had been standing there enraptured, with my neck craned back at a right angle, and getting stiff, too. Most of this flower-child act, to be perfectly frank, was designed to catch the attention of a certain long-haired senior. It didn’t work.

Now I pass my days as a stay-at-home mama to a son who’s a far stride more genuine than I am, since he actually is enraptured by everything. In the midst of caring for him, I recently decided to do something just for me, something I love — so I took up bird-watching. Goodness knows I do enough standing at the window and saying, “Bird. BIRD. Look, a bird!” (Enraptured Son is easily distracted, so the birds have already proven themselves to be an ally.)

Quickly, “look, a bird” has changed to, “look, a brown-headed cowbird and his wife!” Suddenly, there are birds everywhere I look. (I have to be very firm with myself when I’m driving.) The broader category of “bird” has been replaced with a hundred sub-categories. Now I am seeing that this one flies in scallops, that that one prefers to eat off the ground. This one keeps going back to the marsh, and then way up to that treetop. That one would rather run and hop than fly.

Somewhere in the middle of all that information, they stopped being “bird” and started being “you.” You’re awfully territorial! You’re smaller than a mouse! You can’t sit still for a second, can you? Would you turn around so I can get a look at your belly? Oh look, when you open your wings up, there’s red and yellow!

You are lovely.

Read the rest here. And please do read it; it’s well worth it.

 

‘Two Conversions’: a sermon on Acts 11:1-18

I once heard a friend of mine, who is a gifted evangelist, talk about an Agnostics Anonymous group he had run; he had invited people of no faith or of very uncertain faith to come together and have some conversations about their doubts and questions about God and Christianity. There was a good response to his invitation and the group ran for a few weeks. One of the interesting things was that, when my friend presented what he thought were good arguments for the existence of God, most of the people in the group weren’t particularly moved by them. But at one point he asked, “Have any of you ever had unexplained experiences of God or the supernatural?”. Immediately heads started to nod all around the room!

One of my convictions as an evangelist is that the risen Jesus is at work long before I arrive. We tend to think of the world around us as anti-God and anti-religion, but what we often miss is that spiritual hunger is alive and well. Twelve-Step groups are predicated on the existence of ‘God as we understand him’, and they’re springing up all over the place. First Nations spirituality is firmly based on faith in the Creator. And many, many people who never darken the doors of a church are actually quite curious about God.

Canadian sociologist Reg Bibby has spent his lifetime analysing data about faith in Canada. In a book published in 1995 he indicated that 40% of the people he interviewed believed it was possible to have contact with the spirit world, and 90% said they had asked questions about what happens after we die. 30% believed in reincarnation, 80% believed that God exists, and an amazing 35-45% claimed to have experienced God in some way. I couldn’t find the figure, but I remember Reg Bibby saying that a large percentage were willing to admit that they had unmet spiritual needs. Sadly, though, the majority said they did not believe they could get those needs met in churches.

So we have a situation where church attendance has been steadily falling for decades, but interest in the spiritual dimension of life is not – in fact, I think there are signs that it’s rising. Many Canadians are spiritually curious, but they aren’t convinced that the church has anything worthwhile to offer them – at least, not convinced enough to cross the barriers we unintentionally put in their way. And yet, most churches still hope that unchurched people will start attending church. Most clergy see success in terms of increasing church attendance. And when we’re asked what we’re doing to try to reach new people, we talk in terms of the welcome we give them when they come to church. But of course, they have to come in order to experience that welcome. And most of them aren’t coming.

When we turn to the pages of the Book of Acts we discover a completely different story. The followers of Jesus in the Book of Acts don’t seem to have had public church services to which the general populace were invited. They did not wait for people to come to their services. The movement was entirely in the other direction. Ordinary Christians – not just apostles and evangelists, but ordinary Christians too – saw it as part of their Christian journey to go out with this message and pass it on to others. And that’s exactly what they did.

Some of them – apostles like Peter and John and Paul and Barnabas – went on long missionary journeys around the Mediterranean world, announcing the Good News of Jesus and planting little communities of new Christians. But it wasn’t just apostles who spread the gospel. Acts 8 tells us about a severe persecution that broke out against the Christians in Jerusalem; many of them scattered around the countryside to escape with their lives. But verse 4 says, ‘Now those who were scattered went from place to place, proclaiming the word’.

I can imagine how that happened. These early Christians moved out to new communities and set up businesses there. They got involved in their communities and made friends. And in the context of those friendships, from time to time conversations would take place about faith and spirituality. Just like today, spirituality was a hot topic in the ancient world! And those ordinary Christians were excited about Jesus; they believed he was alive and was living in them by his Spirit, and they were finding joy and hope and strength in him. It was natural for them – as natural as breathing – to tell others about him and to invite them to follow him too.

But there was a barrier they had to cross. And Luke, the author of the Book of Acts, is very interested in that barrier. He’s so interested, in fact, that he takes several chapters to tell the story of how it was crossed.

You see, the early Christians were all practising Jews. They believed that Jesus was the Messiah of Israel, the fulfilment of all the promises God had made to his ancient people. It was quite obvious to them that his message needed to go out to all Israel, so that God’s people could hear about their Messiah and pledge their allegiance to him. They didn’t need persuading about this. When the Holy Spirit fell on them on the day of Pentecost, it led to an explosion of witness, as Jewish Christians went to other Jews and told them the good news.

But they took a little more persuading to go beyond the borders of ethnic Israel. Samaritans were the first outsiders they reached out to; in Acts chapter eight we read of how Philip was the first to proclaim the gospel to the people of Samaria, and a phenomenally successful mission took place there.

But the Samaritans had some connection with ancient Israel. They were worshippers of Yahweh, the God of Israel, and they had their own version of the ancient scriptures of Israel. Gentiles were an entirely different story. It made no sense to many Jewish Christians to take the message of Jesus to Gentiles. Jesus was the Messiah of Israel, the fulfilment of God’s promises to his ancient people. Yes, of course Gentiles could become Christians – but they needed to become Jewish first. So the men would have to be circumcised, and then men and women would have to be taught to obey the laws of Moses, keep a kosher kitchen, observe the sabbath and all the Jewish holidays. Have you ever tried to seriously live by all the laws of the Old Testament? Believe me, you have to really want to do it! And all of that was before they could be baptized and become Christians!

But apparently God had other plans. Acts chapters ten and eleven tell the amazing story of Cornelius, the Roman army officer who was curious about the God of Israel. Our first lesson today told the second half of the story, but let me fill you in on the first half too.

Cornelius was a centurion living in the coastal town of Caesarea. Acts 10 says he was ‘a devout man who feared God with all his household; he gave alms generously to the people and prayed constantly to God’ (10:2). This is extraordinary. Here is a man who presumably was raised to worship Jupiter and Mars and Venus and all the other ancient gods of Rome. But somehow he’s turned from all that and become a worshipper of the one God of Israel. He’s begun to practice at least two of the three spiritual disciplines of godly Jews – prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Clearly, God is already at work in his life. He hasn’t been circumcised or become fully Jewish, but he’s certainly on the fringe.

Apparently this was not an unfamiliar story in the ancient world. Here and there, the early Christian missionaries ran across Gentiles who were curious about Israel’s God. Apparently they’d become dissatisfied with the old pagan gods; they’d been attracted to the idea of monotheism and the ethical standards of the Ten Commandments. There were enough of these people that they had a name; they were called ‘the god-fearers’. And Cornelius was one of them.

So Acts 10 tells of how Cornelius was praying one day when he had a vision of an angel telling him that his prayers had been heard. He was to send to Joppa to the house of Simon the Tanner, where a man called Simon Peter was staying; Simon Peter would tell him what he needed to know. So Cornelius immediately sent his messengers on their way.

Simon Peter was indeed staying with Simon the Tanner, as we read in last week’s reading from Acts. The next day, as the messengers were getting close, he went up to the roof of the house to pray and there he too had a vision. It was a sheet being let down from heaven full of all sorts of non-kosher animals. “Up, Peter!” said the voice; “Kill and eat!” “Never, Lord; I’ve never eaten anything unclean!” “Don’t call unclean what God has cleansed!” The vision was repeated three times, and then, as Peter was reflecting on it, the messengers arrived. We can imagine the penny dropping in Peter’s mind. “Ah! Unclean food – unclean Gentiles – maybe there’s a connection, perhaps?”

So he went back to Caesarea with the messengers, and they came to Cornelius’ house. There they found a good-sized group, because Cornelius had called his relatives and close friends together to hear the message; see what happens when you follow the leading of God in evangelism, instead of trying to make it happen by your own plans and efforts? Cornelius told Peter what the angel had said, and Peter immediately began to speak to the group about the story of Jesus and what it meant: that he is Lord of all, and that all who believe in him receive forgiveness of sins through his name.

But Peter didn’t get to finish his sermon, because the Holy Spirit fell on the hearers just like on the day of Pentecost, and they started to speak in unknown languages, praising and worshiping God. The Jewish Christians who had come with Peter were absolutely amazed that this was happening to Gentiles, and Peter said, “Well, since God has obviously given them the same Spirit he gave to us, I guess we’d better baptize them! Any objections?” Hearing none, they all proceeded to get wet!

But a few days later, when Peter returned to Jerusalem, he was challenged about his activities. “You went to uncircumcised men and ate with them!” This was reprehensible behaviour for a faithful Jew; in a world where Romans were assimilating people left and right, the only way Judaism would survive would be for Jewish people to stick strictly to their laws and customs.

So Peter explained himself. He told how the whole thing had been God’s initiative: God had sent an angel to speak to Cornelius; God had spoken to Peter in the dream about the unclean animals, and when they got to Caesarea, God was the one who had poured out the Holy Spirit in a supernatural way on these unclean Gentiles.

‘“As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell on them as it had on us at the beginning. And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit’. If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life!”’ (Acts 11:16-18).

So in this story we can see two conversions taking place, and both of them are the will of God.

First, there’s the conversion of Cornelius. In chapter ten, after he hears Cornelius’ story, Peter says, “I truly understand that God knows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him” (10:34-35). This sounds very good and tolerant, and as good pluralistic Canadians we’d all be cheering for Peter at this point.

But Peter doesn’t mean that God’s okay leaving Cornelius where he is. Peter doesn’t say, ‘Carry on with your prayers and almsgiving, you’re fine as you are’. This man has already been on a spiritual journey; he’s left the false gods of ancient Rome behind, and begun to worship the God of Israel. And God wants him to move further now; God wants him to believe in Jesus, who is not only the Messiah of Israel but the Saviour of the whole world.

This is the consistent message of the whole New Testament. Jesus did not say to his first disciples, “Go into all the world and tell them that they’re fine the way they are”. He said, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20a). The New Testament tells us that it is God’s will for people to turn from their previous allegiances and become disciples of Jesus, and that it’s our job as a church to take part in that process. We’re to be witnesses, and the way we’re to do that is not to wait for them to come to us. Jesus didn’t say, “Wait”; he said “Go”.

This is the second conversion. The first conversion is for people who have not yet become followers of Jesus to turn to him and begin to follow him. We assume these days that they don’t want to do that. In fact, Jesus is not an unsympathetic figure. Many people don’t know much about him, but when they hear about him, they tend to like him. But they need help learning about him, and learning what it would mean to be his followers.

That’s the second conversion. You and I are the ones who need to be converted. We need to be converted from our preoccupation with what goes on inside the doors of the church. We need to be converted from our reluctance to open our mouths and say anything about Jesus to other people. We need to be converted from our tendency to put barriers in the way of people who might be interested in Jesus.

What barriers? One of the biggest ones is our refusal to talk about Jesus outside the doors of the church. Why do we do that? Maybe we’re afraid people will think we’re fanatical or intolerant. Maybe we’re afraid our friends will reject us. But whatever the reason, most Christians won’t open their mouths. And that means that non-Christian people have to come to church to hear about Jesus.

Do you know how hard that is? We don’t think it’s hard, because we’ve been doing it for a long time, but for most Canadians, especially young Canadians, it’s totally unfamiliar territory. Hymns, pews, service books, eating someone’s body and drinking his blood – this all looks and sounds weird to them! I’ve had non-Christian friends who I’ve invited to church tell me how difficult it was for them to step across the threshold. You may not think it’s a barrier, but it is.

Why do we make them cross that barrier before they can hear about Jesus? After all, they’re our friends, our family members. We have good, trusting relationships with them. Why would we not listen for the guidance of the Holy Spirit, trust that he’s been at work in their hearts already, and then look for opportunities to have some natural conversations with them about Jesus and what he means to us?

This is the second conversion. To Luke, the author of Acts, it’s a huge thing. It means that those early Jewish Christians left their comfort zone, crossed the barrier and went to the outsiders, and discovered there, to their amazement, that Jesus had been there before them. The Holy Spirit had already been at work in Cornelius’ heart, preparing him to hear the gospel message. All Peter had to do was show up and open his mouth, and God did the rest.

Will you give God permission to do that through you? Will I? That’s the challenge God is giving us in this story today.

Over to us!

William Shakespeare, April 1564 – April 23rd 1616

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Thank you, Will.

You created some of the most unforgettable characters ever to grace a stage.

You taught us that the English language could sing to rival any other, and you invented more than 1700 words that we’re still using today (‘bloodstained’, ‘premeditated’, ‘impartial’, ‘tranquil’, and – would you believe, anyone? – ‘puking’, to name just a few).

You held up a mirror and you showed us ourselves, in all our shame and in all our glory.

You died four hundred years ago today, and we will never forget you.

For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
Th’ oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,
The pangs of despised love, the law’s delay,
The insolence of office, and the spurns
That patient merit of th’ unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin? Who would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscovered country from whose bourn
No traveler returns, puzzles the will
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pith and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action.

– Hamlet, Act III, Scene 1

 

If you want to find out more about Shakespeare, the best thing to do is to go see one of his plays. Summer Shakespeare festivals are coming up; ours in Edmonton is the Freewill Shakespeare Festival. This year they’re doing ‘Romeo and Juliet’ and ‘Love’s Labours Lost’, and festival passes are on sale now.

There are many excellent editions of Shakespeare’s ‘Complete Works‘. I actually own two – a very old edition with just the text, and a big monster with excellent supplementary notes. I enjoy them both, for different reasons.

If you want an entertaining biography, my favourite is the one by Bill Bryson, ‘The World as Stage‘.

Here’s my favourite Shakespeare quote, from Portia’s speech to Shylock in Act IV, Scene 1 of The Merchant of Venice:

The quality of mercy is not strained;
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:
‘T is mightiest in the mightiest; it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown:
His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
But mercy is above this sceptred sway;
It is enthronèd in the hearts of kings,
It is an attribute to God himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God’s
When mercy seasons justice. Therefore, Jew,
Though justice be thy plea, consider this,
That, in the course of justice, none of us
Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy;
And that same prayer doth teach us all to render
The deeds of mercy. I have spoke thus much
To mitigate the justice of thy plea;
Which if thou follow, this strict court of Venice
Must needs give sentence ‘gainst the merchant there.

Core Convictions of the Anabaptist Network (2016 rewrite and repost)

In my last couple of posts on Anabaptism, I talked a bit about Anabaptist history. History is interesting to me, but I’m sure it doesn’t turn everyone’s crank, and if all I had been doing on my 2007 sabbatical leave was historical study, I’m sure some members of my parish might well have questioned its relevance to our vastly different contemporary situation. So let me bring these discussions to the present day.

One of the main reasons I journeyed to England for my sabbatical in 2007 was because of 51gppjuMNvL._SX326_BO1,204,203,200_the existence of the Anabaptist Network. The Anabaptist Network is made up of people from all sorts of backgrounds and denominations who are finding inspiration for their Christian lives in the Anabaptist understanding of discipleship. Under the ‘drawn to Anabaptism’ section on their website you will find articles by a Baptist, a United Reformed Church member, a Pentecostal, a Quaker, a ‘new church’ leader, an Anglican, a Methodist, and a leader in the ‘Jesus Army’, all telling their stories about how, while continuing to be members of their various churches, they have found a spiritual home in Anabaptism. Many more of these stories are told in the book ‘Coming Home’.

The Anabaptist Network has adopted the following seven ‘Core Convictions’, and it was these convictions, more than anything else, that cemented my interest in the Anabaptist way.

  1. Jesus is our example, teacher, friend, redeemer and Lord. He is the source of our life, the central reference point for our faith and lifestyle, for our understanding of church and our engagement with society. We are committed to following Jesus as well as worshipping him.
  2. Jesus is the focal point of God’s revelation. We are committed to a Jesus-centred approach to the Bible, and to the community of faith as the primary context in which we read the Bible and discern and apply its implications for discipleship.
  3. Western culture is slowly emerging from the Christendom era when church and state jointly presided over a society in which almost all were assumed to be Christian. Whatever its positive contributions on values and institutions, Christendom seriously distorted the gospel, marginalized Jesus, and has left the churches ill-equipped for mission in a post-Christendom culture. As we reflect on this, we are committed to learning from the experience and perspectives of movements such as Anabaptism that rejected standard Christendom assumptions and pursued alternative ways of thinking and behaving.
  4. The frequent association of the church with status, wealth and force is inappropriate for followers of Jesus and damages our witness. We are committed to exploring ways of being good news to the poor, powerless and persecuted, aware that such discipleship may attract opposition, resulting in suffering and sometimes ultimately martyrdom.
  5. Churches are called to be committed communities of discipleship and mission, places of friendship, mutual accountability and multi-voiced worship. As we eat together, sharing bread and wine, we sustain hope as we seek God’s kingdom together. We are committed to nurturing and developing such churches, in which young and old are valued, leadership is consultative, roles are related to gifts rather than gender and baptism is for believers.
  6. Spirituality and economics are inter-connected. In an individualist and consumerist culture and in a world where economic injustice is rife, we are committed to finding ways of living simply, sharing generously, caring for creation, and working for justice.
  7. Peace is at the heart of the gospel. As followers of Jesus in a divided and violent world, we are committed to finding non-violent alternatives and to learning how to make peace between individuals, within and among churches, in society, and between nations.

Obviously, at a couple of points these core convictions stand in tension with historic Anglican church polity (eg. ‘baptism is for believers’ contradicts our traditional practice of infant baptism). But for the most part, these convictions are compatible with my membership in the Anglican Church, and they serve to sum up a way of living the Christian life that I find tremendously attractive.

41AlOH50AlLSince I went to England for my 2007 sabbatical, Stuart Murray has published the book ‘The Naked Anabaptist’, in which he reflects on these principles and their relevance for today’s Christian world. He uses the word ‘naked’ to mean ‘without the usual Mennonite or Amish or Hutterite cultural clothing’. Many aspects of contemporary Mennonite experience are shaped by five hundred years of culture and history (German language hymns, ethnic foods, traditional Mennonite names, unaccompanied singing in four-part harmony, the existence of dozens of squabbling Mennonite denominations etc.). The core convictions try to sidestep all this and address the question ‘What would faithful discipleship in the Anabaptist tradition look like in the twenty-first century?’

Personally, I’m not so sure it’s possible to extract ‘ideal Anabaptism’ from five hundred years of historical embodiment. More than many other Christian traditions, Anabaptism demands embodiment in a real, flawed congregational setting made up of inmperfect human beings. And in the real world, those human beings have to face difficult issues. What do you do when you’re trying to love your enemies and pray for those who hate you, while everywhere you go you find that the rulers are out to kill you? One of the answers given by Mennonite history is, ‘You find a sympathetic ruler who will allow you to live in peace, farm the land and bring up your kids according to your beliefs and traditions, and when that ruler asks you not to try to convert others to your beliefs, you say “Okay”’. The first Anabaptists, who were committed to evangelism, might well have turned over in their graves at such an agreement, but those who made it were concerned for the safety of their children and their own continued existence as a community of disciples committed to pacifism. They were trying to live out their convictions in the context of a real, flawed and dangerous world.

Anabaptist Christianity can’t remain a shining ideal. It has to be a way of life lived out in the real world. I have nothing but respect for the Mennonite, Amish and Hutterite followers of Jesus who have tried to live out that ideal for the past five hundred years. But my situation is not their situation. I am an Anglican follower of Jesus, and the world I live in is not Christendom Europe or early twentieth century Saskatchewan; it’s prosperous, post-Christendom, suburban Edmonton. It’s my job to figure out how the seven core convictions of the Anabaptist Network help me live as an Anabaptist Anglican in the world I live in. Ultimately, that’s what my sabbatical leave was all about, and that’s the question I continue to reflect on today.

‘Fear no Evil’ (a sermon on Psalm 23)

I wonder if you know what the most commonly repeated command in the Bible is? Clue: it’s nothing to do with sex!

The most commonly repeated command in the Bible is “Fear not”, or “Don’t be afraid”. I must admit that I’ve never actually counted, but I’ve been told that some variation of “Fear not” can be found one hundred and three times in the King James Version. The fact that it’s repeated so often should surely tell us something about the powerful role that fear plays in our lives.

I wonder what your greatest fear is? Is it health related – the fear that you might contract an incurable disease, or be incapacitated by old age, or have to live with chronic debilitating pain? Is it that you might be the victim of a violent act of some kind? Is it a fear about your family – that something might happen to your kids, for instance? Is it a relational thing – that family or friends might reject you? Is it a fear that you might get found out – that someone would somehow find a way to get behind the mask you put on each day and discover the real ‘you’, the one you’ve been trying so hard to hide from people all these years?

What do we do with our fears? It’s probably not a good idea to deny them, to try to pretend they’re not there. At first glance it might seem as if the Bible writers are counselling us to do that, but actually they aren’t. In most cases when the Bible says “Fear not”, it goes on to give us a reason for not being afraid – usually a reason connected with God. “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” (Luke 12:32). “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine” (Isaiah 43:1). “Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff – they comfort me” (Psalm 23:4).

That last quote, of course, is taken from our psalm for today – one of the best known passages in the Bible, Psalm 23. Taken in context, the verse is teaching us another reason for not being afraid. Yes, from time to time we all feel like frightened sheep, but we have a shepherd who will protect us and provide for us and guide us – Yahweh, the Lord God, the shepherd of his people, who has come among us in Jesus Christ, the Good Shepherd.

Sometimes we can get a little too romantic about this shepherd image. Most of us older folks remember pictures from our childhood of a blond haired Jesus surrounded by children, holding a cute baby lamb in his arms, but those aren’t the kind of images we find in Psalm 23. The actual background to that psalm is a little more scary. Let me read you a couple of paragraphs from John Goldingay’s book ‘Psalms for Everyone’; here’s how he begins his chapter on Psalm 23:

In the foothills of the mountains near where we live is a retreat center where we have a faculty gathering each Fall. Two years ago a new director at the center gave us some advice we had not been given before. If we met a bear on the grounds, we were advised not to try running away; bears can run faster than we can. I’ve forgotten what we were supposed to do instead, but in any case I decided I wasn’t going for a walk, especially as the director told us that we would probably not get attacked by a rattlesnake if we stuck to the path and that there had been no cougar sightings lately. From a location like that of the retreat center many canyons lead up into the mountains, and I can imagine shepherds once leading sheep up the canyons. Shepherds would know about bears, cougars, and rattlesnakes and would know the best way to deal with them. In relation to some creatures, a club would be an important part of their security.

The canyons are deep and often have streams running through them, at least in winter and spring, and they are thus densely wooded – they have the water supply lacking in the countryside outside the canyons. They are…dark and a bit sinister, and their deep darkness contrasts sharply with the bright sunshine above them. Maybe the swiftly running water would be a bit scary for the sheep, but the shepherd would know where it flows into quieter pools. He would also know where the presence of moisture makes some grass grow and where the presence of shade stops it withering in the blistering heat. He would know where there are some trees or other bushes whose fruit he can knock down with his cane. So the flock is secure and also provided for. Their shepherd is faithful in his care for it. So it is for a human being who has Yahweh as shepherd.[1]

That makes it all a little more vivid, doesn’t it? That gives us a better sense of what the psalmist might have had in mind when he wrote Psalm 23.

The psalm begins with the well-known words, ‘The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want’. But if you look closely in your bibles, you’ll see that all the letters of the word ‘LORD’ are capitalized. That’s the translators’ way of telling us that they’re not being entirely faithful to the original here. The original doesn’t say ‘Lord’ but ‘Yahweh’, which is the special name of God that he shared with Moses; it’s sometimes wrongly written as ‘Jehovah’. It’s the name God used for himself in connection with his covenant with Israel; he had covenanted to be their God, to be faithful to them and to care for them, and they in turn had covenanted to worship only him and no other gods, and to keep his laws. So the psalmist is describing his relationship with Yahweh, the God of Israel; he is not just the shepherd of the whole nation, but ‘my shepherd’.

So what does the psalm tell us about Yahweh our Good Shepherd?

First, it tells us that God will provide for our needs. In verses 2-3 we read,

‘He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake’ (vv.2-3).

As John Goldingay pointed out in the passage I started off with, ‘green pastures’ are places where there’s a lot of good grass for the sheep to eat, and ‘still waters’ are places where it’s easy for the sheep to drink because the water flows slowly, so there’s no danger of them being carried away by it. ‘He guides me along right pathways’ means that the shepherd leads his flock in the right direction, away from danger and toward safety and good pasture. And when the writer says ‘he restores my soul’ he’s probably thinking of the word ‘soul’ in its colloquial sense of ‘life’: ‘he restores my life’ – in other words, ‘he keeps me alive’!

So in other words, the writer is addressing our fear of not being able to make ends meet – not having food to eat, clothes to wear, water to drink, a safe and warm place to live and so on. The writer is assuring us that God our shepherd will provide all these things for us. He has created the earth in such a way that there are adequate resources for everyone to live a simple and basic life, if we will use them wisely and share them justly. He gives us daily strength to do our work, and families to share with so that we can enjoy all these blessings. And because there are people in the world who don’t yet enjoy the basic necessities of life, he calls us as followers of Jesus to live on less than those around us, and to give generously, so that everyone has enough and no one has too much.

You notice that I’m not talking about those dramatic moments when God responds to an obvious need with an obvious answer. From time to time those moments do happen – a time when we have an urgent need of some kind, and some completely unexpected help comes our way. But I’m not thinking of those moments right now. I’m thinking about the ordinary, mundane daily experiences: buying our food in the grocery store, putting it on the table, saying grace and really meaning it. We don’t tend to think of these as experiences of ‘the Lord our shepherd’, but they are.

So God has provided for our needs and the needs of all people. The second thing is that God will lead us in the right paths. Verse 3 says, ‘He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake’. Obviously, when we’re talking about the shepherd, this means guiding his sheep to the places where they will find the pasture they need, and guiding them away from dangerous cliffs and other places where they could be in harm’s way.

This is addressing our fear of getting lost in life. How do we know what’s right and what’s wrong? Where will we find the wisdom to make good decisions? How are we going to avoid messing things up? How does God guide us, and how do we discover God’s plan for our lives?

I think there are two things we could focus on here. First, there’s God’s general plan of life for all his people, which is given to us in his commandments, and especially in the teaching and example of Jesus our Good Shepherd. And secondly, there are those occasions when he has specific jobs he wants individuals to do. In the Bible he doesn’t usually have any difficulty telling them what those jobs are; he sends them a dream, or a prophetic word, or someone brings them a message from God. For me, the first one is unquestionably the most important. The most relevant way that God guides me into right paths is by the wise instruction he’s given us in the scriptures, and especially in the life and teaching of Jesus the Good Shepherd.

So I might go to God and say, “God, I really want to know what you want me to do with my life?” And I suspect the answer might be something like this: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind and all your strength, and love your neighbour as yourself. How’s that to be going along with?” And if I have the chutzpah to say, “No sweat; I got that all down pat last week!” he might say, “Well, how about this one: love your enemies and pray for those who hate you!” “OK, sorry I asked!”

All humour aside: if I want to know what God wants me to do with the rest of my life, the most important answer to that question is that God wants me to learn to follow his commandments, and especially the teaching and example of Jesus, the Good Shepherd. There’s plenty for me to be going along with there! And if there is more, I need to stop fretting and trust that God is well able, in his own time and his own way, to make that plain to me. Meanwhile, I’ll keep busy with the stuff he’s already told me in the scriptures.

So this psalm tells us that God will provide for our legitimate needs, and that he will guide us in right paths. The third thing is protection from danger. The psalm alludes to dangers in verse 4:

‘Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me, your rod and your staff – they comfort me’.

‘Your rod and your staff’ is a well-loved translation, going all the way back to the King James Version of 1611. John Goldingay, however, translates it as ‘Your club and your cane – they comfort me’. In other words, the sheep might be scared of the bears and cougars, but then they see that the shepherd’s got a great big club to protect them with, and they’re not so scared after all! In fact, the word ‘comfort’ might be a little too therapeutic; in the original language, the word is closer to ‘courage’: ‘Your club and your cane, they give me courage!’

In the same way, we Christians look to God to protect us from danger. For example, whenever Marci and I are apart and I know she’s driving around the busy streets of Edmonton, I pray that God will keep her safe; I know that there are car accidents every day, and sometimes there are fatalities, and I want God to protect her from that.

It’s natural for us to pray like this, and I think God is happy to hear those prayers. But if you’re like me, and if you think this through, you might find it a little troublesome. We’ve all heard of people who somehow survive a car accident, or avoid getting on an aircraft that crashes, and they say ‘Someone must have been looking out for me’. But whenever I hear that, I find myself thinking, ‘What about the poor souls who didn’t survive? Does that mean God wasn’t looking out for them?’

Yes, we know that God does sometimes answer the prayers of his people in a positive way, so that the sick are healed and the hungry are fed and the hostages are rescued and so on. But at other times things don’t seem to work out as well; the fatal disease claims another Christian life, or the Christian in the refugee camp starves like thousands of others, despite their prayers, or the hostages are killed by their captors, despite the thousands who were praying for them.

So what is actually promised to us as Christians? What sort of ultimate protection from danger are we offered?

I think what I can cling to without reservation is the promise that in the end nothing can take us out of God’s hands, not even death. In today’s passage from John’s gospel Jesus says,

“My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand” (John 10:27-28).

Because we have this promise, we know that we can never view death in quite the same way. The resurrection tells us that even death was not strong enough to defeat Jesus. No, the ‘God of peace…brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus Christ, the great shepherd of the sheep’ (Hebrews 13:20), and Jesus has promised us that one day we too will be raised with him. Then it will be seen that his promise is secure: nothing, not even death, can pluck us out of his hand. And so even though we walk through the darkest valley, we fear no evil; God’s rod and staff – or his club and his cane! – give us courage.

Let me finish by saying this. Verse 4 is perhaps the most important line in this psalm. ‘Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil, for you are with me’. You are with me. This prayer is based on one of the most powerful statements God makes to human beings in the Bible. “Surely I will be with you”. “I am with you always, to the end of the age”. God promises that we will not be alone. Whatever we go through – suffering, bereavement, disease, poverty, family breakdown, danger, even death – he will never forsake us. This promise doesn’t depend on our feelings, one way or the other. It’s a statement about the heart of God. We often talk about Christ living in our hearts, but it works the other way around as well: God carries us in his heart. We are all important to God: Yahweh isn’t just the shepherd of Israel, but my shepherd too.

So this psalm invites us to believe this, and to make it the basis for our prayer. “I am with you”, says God, and we reply, “I fear no evil, for you are with me”. Corrie Ten Boom, former inmate of the Ravensbrück concentration camp, used to say “There is no pit so deep that God is not deeper still” – and surely, she ought to know! So when we go through our own personal ‘valley of the shadow’ – whatever it might be – let us enter into the prayer of the psalmist and make it our own by personal experience: ‘I fear no evil for you are with me, your club and your cane give me courage’. Amen.

[1] John Goldingay, Psalms for Everyone, Part 1: Psalms 1-72 (WJK, 2013), pp.74-75.

More About the Beliefs of the Sixteenth Century Anabaptists

This article first appeared on my blog early in 2007, a couple of months before my sabbatical leave. I have slightly revised it here.

Dirk.willems.rescue.ncsAnabaptism in the sixteenth century was a diverse movement; it didn’t have any strong central authority (unlike the Anglican reformation in England, which was entirely under the control of the King). But most Anabaptists would have shared the following convictions:

The Bible. Anabaptists agreed with the 16th Century Protestant Reformers that, under Christ, the Bible (not Church Tradition) has supreme authority in the life of the Church. However, they disagreed strongly with them about its interpretation and application. They focused on the New Testament and especially on the life and teachings of Jesus – a ‘Christocentric’ interpretation – and this radically affected the way they understood the Bible. They started from Jesus and interpreted everything else from him, and they suspected that the Reformers started from the doctrinal passages and tried to fit Jesus into them.

So, for instance, Catholics and Protestants justified their belief in the ‘just war’ theory by appealing to Old Testament passages in which God seems to command his people to go to war. Anabaptists saw this interpretation as contradicting the teaching of Jesus to ‘love your enemies and do good to those who hate you’, and so they used Jesus to interpret the rest of the Bible, rather than the other way around.

Salvation. The Protestant Reformers emphasized justification by faith (which they understood to mean that we are declared righteous by God because of Jesus’ death, not our own good works, and that we receive this as a free gift, by faith) and forgiveness of past sins. Anabaptists did not necessarily disagree. but their main emphasis was on new birth and the power to live as Jesus’ disciples. They stressed the work of the Holy Spirit in believers, and taught that Jesus was to be followed and obeyed, as well as trusted; he was not only Saviour but also Leader and Lord. So Dirk Philips (1504-1568) wrote: “Jesus with his doctrine, life and example is our teacher, leader and guide. Him we must hear and follow.” Hans Denck (1495-1527) insisted that faith and discipleship were inter-connected: “No one can truly know Christ unless he follows him in life, and no one may follow him unless he has first known him.”

The Church. Anabaptists formed churches made up of committed disciples and denied that all citizens should automatically be regarded as church members (as Catholics and Protestants assumed). They insisted on differentiating believers from unbelievers, so that church membership could be voluntary and meaningful, and they resisted state control in their churches. They rejected infant baptism as unbiblical, forcibly imposed on children, and a hindrance to developing believers’ churches. They challenged the way clergy dominated the life of traditional churches and also the lack of church discipline. Their gatherings were informal and unstructured, concentrating on Bible study and singing. Some of them encouraged women to participate much more actively than was normal in church and society in their day. One of their early documents, A Congregational Order (1527), says, “when the brothers and sisters are together, they shall take up something to read together. The one to whom God has given the best understanding shall explain it…when a brother sees his brother erring, he shall warn him according to the command of Christ, and shall admonish him in a Christian and brotherly way.”

Evangelism. In the 16th century, Catholics and Protestants did not normally practice evangelism. When they had state support they relied on legal sanctions to enforce church attendance. They assumed that church and society were the same, so their policy was to pastor people through the parish system, rather than seeing them as unbelievers and evangelizing them. The Anabaptists rejected this interpretation of church and society, and so they embarked on a missionary venture to evangelize Europe. Evangelists like Hans Hut (1490-1527) traveled widely, preached in homes and fields, interrupted state church services, baptized converts and planted churches. Such evangelism, ignoring national and parish boundaries, and carried out by untrained men and women, was regarded as outrageous by the state churches.

Ethics. Anabaptists departed from the accepted norms of their society and lived in anticipation of the Kingdom of God.

They questioned the validity of private property. One group, the Hutterites, lived in communities and held their possessions in common. Most Anabaptists retained personal ownership, but all taught that their possessions were not their own but were available to those in need. The 1527 Congregational Order urged: “Of all the brothers and sisters of this congregation, none shall have anything of his own, but rather, as the Christians in the time of the apostles held all in common, and especially stored up a common fund, from which aid can be given to the poor, according as each will have need, and as in the apostles’ time permit no brother to be in need.” When they shared communion they confirmed this mutual commitment.

Most (but not all) of them rejected the use of violence, refusing to defend themselves by force. Conrad Grebel (1498-1526) described his congregation: “Neither do they use worldly sword or war, since all killing has ceased with them.” They urged love for enemies and respect for human life. Anabaptists accepted that governments would use force but regarded this as inappropriate for Christians. Felix Mantz (c1498-1527) concluded: “no Christian could be a magistrate, nor could he use the sword to punish or kill anyone.” They aimed to build an alternative community, changing society from the bottom up.

Many refused to swear oaths. Oaths were very important in sixteenth-century Europe, encouraging truth-telling in court and loyalty to the state. Anabaptists often rejected these, citing Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 5 and arguing that they should always be truthful, not just under oath. Nor would they swear loyalty to any secular authority.

Suffering. Anabaptists were not surprised by persecution. They knew they would be seen as revolutionaries, despite their commitment to non-violence; as heretics, despite their commitment to the Bible; and as disturbers of the status quo. They regarded suffering for obedience to Christ as unavoidable and biblical: suffering was a mark of the true church, as Jesus had taught in the Sermon on the Mount. Their very persecution of Anabaptists showed that the reformers themselves were not building a biblical church.

Some Anabaptists talked about the three baptisms a follower of Jesus must undergo: the baptism of water (which, in their belief, must be a conscious, adult decision), the baptism of the Holy Spirit (for regeneration or the new birth), and the baptism of blood (meaning the persecution that followers of Jesus were to expect).

These are a few of the most important beliefs of the sixteenth century Anabaptists.

Note: this post is adapted from this article on the Anabaptist Network website.

What is Anabaptism?

jesus12-follow-jesus_footsteps_beachNine years ago this month, I travelled to the UK to begin a three-month sabbatical leave, the first and only sabbatical I have ever taken. I made the decision to spend my time continuing my reading and exploration of Anabaptist Christianity. A lot of people were surprised that I elected to do that in England (rather than, say, Goshen, Indiana), given that there is no ethnic Mennonite tradition in England. But I did this deliberately, because I was not interested in learning about ethnic Mennonite culture per se, but rather in Anabaptism as a spiritual tradition, a tradition of discipleship.

As it happened, in the course of the sabbatical I became less confident that generic Anabaptism and Mennonite history and practice can be separated – generic ‘Anabaptism’, ungrounded in the real practice of a real, flesh and blood congregation, can easily become a mirage rather than a movement made up of flawed and fallible human beings – but I remain grateful for the time I spent in the UK. It was through the website of the Anabaptist Network in the UK that I had first been captivated by Anabaptist thought, and I relished the opportunity to meet the people involved in the Network, to spend time at the London Mennonite Centre (now The Mennonite Trust) reading in their library, and to continue my reading and pondering over the course of the three months I was in England.

Of course, it would be wrong to say that I knew nothing of Anabaptism before that day some time in 2005 when I first (accidentally) clicked on the website of the Anabaptist Network. I’d had Mennonite friends for years, I’d read some of the novels of Rudy Wiebe, and I’d read about the Anabaptists in church history classes in college. But, of course, I’d read about them from the perspective of people who disagreed with them – never allowing the Anabaptists themselves to explain their convictions to me. Now I did, and immediately I felt at home.

I did not become a Mennonite – although I came close for a while – and so it would be easy to come to the conclusion that Anabaptism was a ‘phase’ I went through. That would be a wrong conclusion. I continue to this day to think of myself as an ‘Anabaptist Anglican’. Many of the key emphases of Anabaptism – discipleship as the controlling paradigm of the Christian life, the centrality of the life and teaching of Jesus, reading the Bible through the lens of Jesus, the separation of church and state and the primary loyalty to Jesus as Lord and King above any allegiance to the state, a distrust of clericalism, every-member ministry, a preference for simple worship and simple living, pacifism and nonviolence, reconciliation – have continued to be central to my understanding of what it means to be Christian and what it means to be ‘church’. The Anabaptist in me continues to challenge the Anglican, just as sometimes the Anglican continues to challenge the Anabaptist. I know that I am no longer entirely comfortable as an Anglican (if I ever was), but I am sure I would not be entirely comfortable as a Mennonite either. And maybe that’s a good place to be.

Still, the seven ‘Core Convictions‘ of the Anabaptist Network continue to express some of my deepest ideals of what being a Christian is all about – even if I am not in entire agreement with every single detail of them. Stuart Murray Williams has written a fine book exploring them – ‘The Naked Anabaptist‘ – and that book has been an inspiration to me as I continue on this journey as an Anabaptist Anglican. I have no idea where that journey will lead, but one thing I am sure of is that it’s not ‘just a phase’ I’m going through.

Early in 2007, before I went to England on my sabbatical leave, I wrote the following article on Anabaptism. I continue to stand by it for the most part, and republish it today to introduce people who’ve started reading my blog since then to the spiritual riches of the Anabaptist way.

*****

 

“Okay, Tim, so you say you’re going to study Anabaptism on your sabbatical. Now, what the heck is that?”

Good question, and it’s not one I can give a short answer to. In this post, I’ll say a little about the early history of the Anabaptist movement.

I should say at the outset that the word ‘Anabaptist’ was not a name the early followers of this movement gave to themselves; it was a name given to them by others who disagreed with them. It means ‘rebaptizer’, and comes from the fact that the Anabaptists did not believe an infant baptism was a valid baptism; therefore they practiced adult believers’ baptism. More about that later.

Anabaptism was originally a sixteenth-century radical Christian renewal movement in parts of western and central Europe. The early Anabaptists consciously put the person of Jesus (as he is revealed in the gospels) at the centre of their Christian faith, in contrast to the mainstream Reformation leaders who often appeared to be more interested in the teachings of St. Paul.

The Anabaptists believed that Christians are born again to a life of following the teaching and example of Jesus (‘discipleship’), and in this life they especially emphasized simple living and economic sharing, nonviolence and love for enemies, and truth-telling (they refused to participate in war or take oaths in court because of this). They tried to establish believers’ churches, free from the control of the state, in which they attempted to restore a simple New Testament Christianity as they understood it. In this New Testament Christianity there was no distinction between clergy and laity; all were followers of Jesus, and all joined together in interpreting the Bible and in doing Christ’s work. Although the movement had similiarities with both Catholic and Protestant versions of Christianity, it is best understood as being neither Catholic nor Protestant, but a distinct Christian tradition with its own vision of what Christian faith and life is all about.

The early Anabaptists came mainly from the poorer end of society, and many of them were in fact illiterate, although a few were university graduates, monks, and priests. The movement was driven underground by persecution from both Catholics and Protestants, who saw it was a threat to the order of society, in which church and state were one and the same, under the control of the powers-that-be. Many of the early Anabaptist leaders were executed for their beliefs, by burning at the stake or by drowning (a cruel parody of their belief in adult baptism). There were four main geographical branches of the movement: the Swiss Brethren, the South German and Austrian Anabaptists, the Dutch Mennonites, and the Hutterites. It was not an organized movement, and pinning down its essential beliefs is sometimes difficult.

Anabaptists were radicals who believed that the Calvinist, Lutheran and Anglican reformers had not gone far enough; they had made the Bible authoritative for doctrines, but not for ethics or the way church was organized. Anabaptists believed the Bible (and especially the teachings of Jesus) should be followed for these things as well. Hence their rejection of war and violence, or the oath, or the idea that a king could decide the religion of his subjects, or the idea of priests being intermediaries between God and the people (the list could go on).

Anabaptists emphasized the difference between church and state, or church and society. Since the fourth century when the Roman emperors first tolerated Christianity, and then made it the official religion of their empire, the ‘Christendom’ worldview had seen church and society as one. In Christendom, people did not choose to become Christians as they did in New Testament times; rather, they were assumed to be Christians because they lived in a Christian country and had been baptized in a state church as infants. Churches were under the control of the local prince, who decided the religion of his subjects, and the churches generally refrained from emphasizing aspects of the teaching of the New Testament that threatened the prince’s power (like pacifism, for instance, or simple living). Anabaptists challenged this, and sought to re-establish the New Testament vision of the church as an alternative to society, a counter-culture, a resistance movement, an outpost of the Kingdom of God.

Anabaptism was largely a church of the poor. Anabaptists were mostly poor and powerless, with very few wealthy, academic, or influential members. They were seen as subversives and were strongly opposed by those with a vested interest in the wealth and power structures of society. Some Anabaptist views owe much to their powerless position: Anabaptists were prepared to obey the Bible regardless of social consequences.

“Well, what has all this got to do with us today, and why are you planning to spend three months studying an obscure sixteenth-century movement?” For a couple of reasons.

First, the Christendom system has largely collapsed in our time. Church and society are no longer one and the same. Society in general no longer believes or practices the Christian faith, and no longer helps people to become Christians; in fact, rather the opposite. The Church is no longer in a position of power in society; we are a marginal movement, like the Anabaptists and in fact like the New Testament Christians. How do you do Christian mission in this new situation? The Anabaptist tradition has a lot to teach us about this.

Second, the things the Anabaptists believed are highly relevant to us today. They believed that the decision to become a Christian is a free choice, not something coerced by state or family. They believed that following the teaching and example of Jesus is the centre of the Christian life. They believed that the Bible should be interpreted by the standard of Jesus, and that if parts of it seem to contradict Jesus, we should understand them according to his life and teachings. They believed that churches are fellowships of disciples who minister together and help one another –even holding one another accountable for their discipleship – rather than passive communities under the rule of a priest who alone has the authority. They believed that Christians should not accumulate excessive wealth and should share what they have with those in need. They believed that the teaching of Jesus requires Christians to love their enemies, to reject war and violence, and to speak the truth at all times.

As I said, I think these things are highly relevant for us today. I think they challenge us to base our life as a church and as individuals on the teaching of Jesus and the early apostles and not on traditions that grew up during the Christendom era.

In my next post I will say a little more about the distinctive beliefs of the Anabaptists.

(Note: this post is largely based on this article from the Anabaptist Network website).