Emotional Difficulties in the Brotherhood: Part Three

Healing the Brokenhearted

In the preceding two articles we examined how sin and guilt can cause emotional struggles, and the false assumptions of Christian psychology in dealing with these struggles. We also gave some illustrations of other things that may cause emotional struggles. In this article we want to give some practical helps for relating to people with such struggles. If you have not read the other articles you should do so in order to properly understand this one.

1.                  Bearing the Infirmities of the Weak

Romans 15:1 provides a Biblical basis for this month’s discussion: “We then that are strong ought to bear the infirmities of the weak, and not to please ourselves.” Many times it would be easier to ignore the weak and go on our way, but that is not the Scriptural way.

In the parable of the good Samaritan the priest and the Levite saw a fellow Jew laying in the ditch, wounded and dying. Both walked past without offering any help or sympathy. But the despised Samaritan saw a brother who needed help. He stopped and did what he could for him. He willingly changed his schedule and bore the extra cost of helping him.

It is a challenge to us to do the same for those with emotional difficulties. Yes, it may be unhandy, costly, and even embarrassing on occasion. And yes, we may see some obvious mistakes that the sufferer made that seem to have caused his or her condition. But we have a spiritual and brotherhood obligation to such that we cannot overlook.

Jesus told the Nazarenes, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised” (Luke 4:18 ).  He told the lawyer in Matthew 22:36-40 that the greatest of the commandments was to love God, and that the second greatest was to love your neighbor as yourself. Surely a brother or sister in the congregation struggling with emotional difficulties would be one of the brokenhearted Jesus came to heal, and one of the neighbors that He tells us to love.

 

2.                  Helps and Hindrances

Last month’s article gave some illustrations which have already suggested some ways to help people with emotional difficulties, and also some things that will make them worse. Let’s discuss some of these a little further.

Situations vary so much that again we are in danger of making sweeping and useless generalizations. However, in every such situation people have the right to the uncritical support and sympathy of their brethren and sisters. In some cases the sufferer will feel compelled to talk about his troubles to every person he meets. In other cases, he will find it impossible to talk, and may even be unable to face others at all. In both cases it is very important for brothers and sisters to be understanding, either by giving a listening ear, or by staying out of the way. Most of all, we must fight the compulsion to shower the sufferer with advice and home remedies!

Almost all victims of emotional breakdown have a mentor or two they cling to. It is important for this person to stay current with the situation and be available at any time of the day or night. He or she needs to take seriously the Biblical instruction to rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep, because an emotional sufferer will often be quite unstable, going from highs to lows quite quickly. Never belittle the joys or the sorrows that he is facing. This seldom does anything but shut the door to further communication. An emotional sufferer who will not communicate with anyone can seldom be helped. It is important for them to have a release valve somewhere.

Sometimes a victim may actually decide to do something quite foolish, such as leave home. To them it may seem like a sensible thing to do at the time. The important thing at such a time is to stay calm and not act shocked. Note that if they talk about the impulse, often they will get it out of their system that way. But if you act horrified and start “preaching” at them, they will clam up and may even do serious injury to themselves. It may, of course, be necessary to stop them from doing something they intended. Since they are not thinking straight at that point, it is often possible to get them sidetracked. Perhaps you can suggest eating supper first, or waiting until tomorrow when it stops raining. By then they will generally realize how foolish their idea was.

When a person has sunk this far into emotional despair it is important for someone to have a relationship with them that is close enough that such impulses come out in the open before they can be acted on. Of course, such a person should never be left alone.

If the emotional difficulties have been brought on by financial difficulties, or similar problems, it is sometimes helpful for someone else to take over the responsibility for awhile.

3.                  Is it a Spiritual Problem?

What if it is obvious that the situation was sparked by a spiritual problem? Spiritual stress can trigger the kind of emotional difficulty that we are discussing here. In that case, it will be necessary to get to the root of the spiritual problem in order for the struggling one to find true healing. However, we need to approach such a situation very carefully, and we had better be very sure of ourselves.

It the emotional problem is the result of known sin, and the sinner refuses our spiritual help, we can do little more. We cannot really offer such a person the promises of God outside the framework of repentance. To do so would be to give him a false hope, and would be reverting to the errors of psychology.

However, if the problem in focus is simply some unwise moves, or some mistakes the person made we should probably leave it alone until his emotional problem has been reversed. A deeply depressed and hurting person is not ready to be told where he has failed. If the sufferer volunteers information about a spiritual problem, we can help them with it. It is always proper to ask, in general terms, if the victim wants to share what they are struggling with.  But we should never accuse a person of sin or spiritual problems, simply because he is experiencing emotional struggles. To do so will generally drive him deeper into despair.

Sometimes we simply will not know for sure if the emotional condition is the result of a spiritual condition or not. The sufferer himself may not know for sure. In such a situation we do well to simply emulate the Lord as He dealt with Job, Elijah, and John the Baptist. Help them get their eyes off themselves and on to Christ. If they do this, the rest will fall into place. God will be faithful in pointing out to the individual what he needs to look after. What God ignores, we can safely ignore as well.

4.                  The Role of the Leader

It is ideal if the sufferer is relating to one of his ministry as a mentor. A sympathetic,  experienced, spiritual leader can provide balanced help. However, for some reason, some emotional sufferers seem to shy away from their ministry, choosing rather to share with a close friend. It is sometimes hard for church leaders to accept this, and they may even feel slighted or bypassed. Church leaders can do a lot of damage to the situation, unintentionally, at a time like this if they are not careful. It may be necessary for them to step back for a time and let someone else in the congregation deal with the situation.

It is important, however, for the mentor in the situation to stay in contact with the ministry throughout this time, so that they know what is happening. An experienced leader can be an invaluable counselor during such a time. This can, however, become a very touchy issue, since the emotional sufferer also needs to feel that their mentor is keeping their confidence, or they may clam up. Not everything needs to be shared, other then perhaps in general terms, and understanding leaders will support this.

Some people in the congregation will not understand the situation. Some may demand action. Others will feel rebuffed and left out. The ministry fills an important role as a buffer zone between the sufferer and the congregation. The entire situation, if handled discretely, may well build up a level of confidence between the sufferer and his leaders that will help to keep the situation from recurring.

Someone is sure to question the last several paragraphs. Is the sufferer’s aloofness from the ministry not proof of a spiritual problem? Maybe so, but not necessarily. We need to remember that people under this kind of stress are not quite rational. They have abnormal fears and phobias. One of these can be the fear of authority. The minister represents authority, and the sufferer may well have an irrational fear that he will be excommunicated for his problems. That can add serious dimensions to the problem, and it is important for ministry to be understanding. If leaders build up a relationship with their people during good times, so that their members view them as close friends, it is much easier for them to help someone weather a bad time.

Of course it is not always this way. Sometimes such a person will cling to their ministry in a way that becomes almost embarrassing, especially if the sufferer is an unmarried sister. Leaders need to seek much grace and wisdom from God (and counsel from fellow leaders) in dealing with such difficulties, and their wives will need to curb any feelings of jealousy and antagonism. Unmarried sisters occasionally seem to enjoy the special attention they get from a leader at such times. If this surfaces, it may need addressing. It is always wise for the leaders wife to be along on such occasions. If the sister in question starts to ask for personal interviews, and resents the presence of the leader’s wife, it is probably a sign of a deeper problem than an emotional one.

5.                  A Closer Look

Emotional sufferers can sense a kindred spirit a mile away, it seems. They may quickly build up a friendship with someone they hardly know, because of a common experience. This can be good. For instance, in the case of a mother with the “baby blues” or a young wife who has just had a miscarriage or lost a baby, no one will be able to help like another mother who has faced the same thing. Wise is the church leader who understands this and even initiates such a contact by asking someone with experience to visit the struggling person.

Emotional sufferers often feel that someone who has not been through the valley does not understand them. They will tend to put up a barrier immediately against such persons when they try to help. This person may feel he understands and has some important answers, and may even feel hurt that the sufferer will not open up to him as he does to some other brother or sister. In a Christian brotherhood where true love exists, these feelings will be pushed aside. We should be glad if someone else can help, even if he seems like an unlikely candidate to do so.

We could note too that a person with an emotional breakdown should not be allowed to simply sit and think about his problems. If at all possible get him doing something, or get him interested in helping you do something. The more that people sit and think about their problems the bigger their mountains become. If you can interest the sufferer in helping someone else in need, so much the better. (But do NOT make remarks like: Look at Sister Cecilia—her lot in life is worse than yours…)

It will also be helpful for the sufferer to maintain a disciplined schedule. Don’t let him lie in bed until 10:00 in the morning, or stay up until midnight. Again this may need to be played by ear, but there is a certain amount of security in a schedule. Include enough time for rest in the schedule (with a nap after lunch), since sleep is a natural healer. Also, be sure that the suffer has a nutritious diet, and enough exercise. These may seem like minor items, but all will be helpful in the long run.

Even a person with emotional difficulties can normally do some things. They may dread something, but if they can be encouraged to do it, they will feel good about the accomplishment. This will gradually help to restore a proper mental attitude towards themselves.

Again, take each case on its own in deciding these things. Where the emotional needs are caused by physical weakness, of course you need to take this into consideration.

6.                  Next Month

In the final installment of this series, we want to speak more directly to those called on to counsel or support those in emotional difficulties. We will also address the question of getting professional aid.

Emotional Difficulties in the Brotherhood: Part Two

Emotional Stress in the Brotherhood

Last month we looked at how NOT to deal with emotional stress. We also looked at the effects of sin and guilt on emotional stress. Now this month we want to look at another form of emotional stress sometimes found in our congregations.

1.                  Defining our Premise

First of all, what do we mean by emotional stress? There are many shades and forms of emotional stresses, but basically we are talking about a person who cannot function normally with the regular routine of life because of his condition, or who is in danger of getting to this point.

Such people may not be able to attend church or visit for extended periods and may even find it too tiring to read. It is true that we believe that God provides for His own, even in times of weakness. Many saints have died victoriously in severely weakened conditions. Yet there are many trial associated with such a state, which can seriously weaken a Christian’s emotions. (Note that we are not speaking of sinful attitudes or responses here. See further below.)

We could illustrate it this way…

The man who screams as he loses his arm in a piece of machinery does not necessarily have an emotional problem; his response is natural.  However, if he cries some weeks later because he spilled a glass of water, his overreaction indicates an emotional problem, likely brought on by the stresses involved in his accident.  If he stares off into space, unaware of a child who has crawled onto his knee, his under-reaction indicates the same thing.

Perhaps we can further define our premise by giving more true-to-life examples…

2.                  A Biblical Scenario…

Job is one of the most interesting Biblical examples of a person facing  emotional stress. Job was an example of the kind of believer that all of us strive to be, but too few of us attain to. (God even used him as an illustration of perfection to Satan.) In fact, God was so sure of Job’s spiritual strength and integrity that He allowed Satan to attack him, with very few restrictions.

This was an immensely stressful situation for Job. Not only did he lose almost all his possessions, but he also lost all of his children. On top of this, he fell ill with a very painful disease, his wife turned against him, and his friends accused him of being a sinner, reaping what he deserved.

Job, of course, had no idea why this all took place. It seemed very unfair to him (Job 19:6, 7). In his heart he knew his own integrity and faithfulness. He did not deserve to be treated like this! But Job chose to believe that God was in control and he chose to trust God even if God slew him (Job 13:15).

Job’s ignorance was an important part of the test, of course. He did not know that his life was a battleground between God and Satan, and that God was using him as an object lesson to prove that a faithful man would trust God in adversity. Had he known, the test would not have been a typical one, and would have proved nothing.

Most of the book of Job is a record of the dialog between Job and his friends. We can sense the increasing frustration on his part, as we read, and see the increased stress as his words become more intense and less rational. He cursed the day he was born, he questioned why God seemed silent and distant, and he spoke forcefully to the “friends” who came to help him, calling them “miserable comforters.” Yet in all this Job’s spiritual integrity remained intact.

God, of course, listened in on Job’s discourses. He noted that Job could benefit from a lesson in humility. At the end of the book, God reminded Job through a series of questions, how little he really knew, even about the natural things that were around him all the time. The inference was: If you know this little about the natural things of life, how can you raise questions about supernatural, spiritual issues? How can you question God, and His ways? In his physical and emotional extremity, Job had gone beyond human propriety in speaking of God and in trying to expose God’s intentions.

But it is interesting that God did not accuse Job of sinning. Instead, at the end of the book, He told Job’s friends that Job had spoken rightly about Him, and that they were wrong.

3.                  More Scenarios

Elijah provides another Biblical example of the effects of  stress. In spite of the miraculous way that God had just worked through him, Elijah fled from Jezebel’s opposition. Evidently, perhaps because of his doubt and fears, he sank into a state of deep depression.

But God did not forsake Elijah in his need. First, He sent an angel to feed him. Then He gave him strength to travel forty days to the mount of God. Then He gave him a group of object lessons, before finally speaking in a still small voice.

God’s way of dealing with Elijah is quite revealing. He asked: Why are you here, Elijah?

Elijah poured out his heart to God. Everyone has forsaken the faith, he said. I alone am left.

No, you aren’t, God assured him. I have over 7,000 followers left in Israel. You are not alone. Furthermore, God added, I have some work for you to do for me. You are still needed.

Here are some more up-to-date examples…

Take, for instance, the fairly common condition often called “baby blues”. A young mother has a baby, and loves it. But gradually she finds herself succumbing to the pressures of looking after it. She may have other children that demand her attention. Perhaps her husband works away, and she doesn’t have a lot of help to keep up with the housekeeping, but is still weak from having had a baby. She starts to feel depressed with her situation, and her work load begins to look bigger and bigger. Perhaps it is canning season, or she has a problem child to cope with, or both. Whatever the reason, the pressures finally build up to the point that she becomes physically or emotionally unable to guide the house. She begins to lose sleep and she might cry at little crises that did not affect her that way before. Often she will also need help to avoid negative attitudes. She may even need to be released from her duties for a time.

For another instance, take the young brother who is getting a start in business and has some financial reverses. To make ends meet he starts to burn the candle at both ends, getting up early and working late. When he does get to bed he is too tense to sleep and lies there calculating how many bills he can pay with the money he will get next week for some work he is doing. To top it off, the car is making trouble, one of the children needs dental work, and the deacon has put out a plea for money to help with a special need. Gradually this brother’s tension builds up  and he starts to lose his initiative. Work he once enjoyed becomes a drudgery. He may speak more curtly to his friends, or begin to avoid them, and little molehills become mountains. He prays and God does not seem to hear him. He sleeps less than ever.

We could mention mothers battling with hormone changes. Or children growing up in a stressful home setting where one parent is a Christian and the other is ardently opposed to it. Or a young person with a physical or nutritional deficiency or a chemical imbalance, ADD, or fetal alcohol syndrome. Or the family caught in the middle of a congregation that is not at rest. These are not excuses to sin or to curse God. But they do at times result in emotional difficulties for some people if not countered by the right response from the Christian brotherhood.

4.                  Do Emotional Difficulties Denote Sin?

The question of whether or not sin was involved in a given emotional problem can be a difficult one because few people handle their troubles perfectly. Probably we could find a failure in any situation if we look hard enough. What should a friend or counselor do about this?  Here we could point to the example of the Lord as He dealt with Elijah, with Job, and with John the Baptist (Matthew 11:1-11).  In all three cases one could criticize the sufferers for the sin of “faithlessness” and perhaps more.  But the Lord did not focus on this.  His rebukes, if any, were very mild.  Rather He offered encouragement and reassurance, getting these men to look away from themselves to Himself.  His example stands in sharp contrast to Job’s friends, who kept trying to solve Job’s problems by urging him to confess sin, and even suggested what sins they were.

It is true that the people in the above scenarios made some mistakes. Job did, and Elijah did. Almost certainly the young man with financial difficulties also did. Were they sins? It depends on our interpretation of the word and the circumstances.

In I John 5:16, 17 John speaks of a “sin not unto death.” This verse has been interpreted various ways, and may be speaking of those areas of immaturity where we still need to grow closer to the Lord. Personally, I think it could also refer to a situation like the above, where the person in question was under so much stress that they did not realize what they were doing or saying. Later, perhaps, the Lord will speak to them like He did to Job and help them to make things right. But the Lord also overlooked a substantial part of what Job said, simply because He knew Job and the attitude of his heart.

There is little difference in the situation of a person who does not understand because of a lack of maturity, and the one who, like Job, makes foolish statements because of emotional stress.

We are zeroing in on those situations in this article, not on the cases where the emotional stress is directly caused by sin and guilt. Much of the emotional distress in the world is caused by sin. People live with guilt every day of their lives. It is no wonder that the world needs psychologists, mental institutions, and nerve medication.

However, in the church, there should be very little ongoing emotional stress caused by sin and guilt. But that does not make us immune to emotional stress, and it is important that we know how to help brothers and sisters who are allowed to experience such a situation. Note that not every case will fit into these scenarios in every detail. A series of this size cannot deal with all of the possible variations of emotional suffering. I have attempted to give some general guidelines to deal with the more common symptoms.

5.                  Causes and Effects

In many of our backgrounds “nerve trouble” was considered to be either a spiritual problem, or a mental weakness. In either case people under emotional stress were often looked at in derision, especially if they required medication to help them back on their feet. Some of this attitude still prevails amongst us at times. This has the potential to do a lot of damage, since such people often have an almost uncanny ability to detect how people feel about them. People in this condition already experience great enough trials, without being stigmatized on top of it.

What causes emotional stress of the magnitude we are discussing? The individual causes are as diversified as the individuals involved. Family members or friends closely involved in the situation are probably best able to diagnose this. However, normally it is brought on during a time of physical or emotional weakness by some area in the individual’s life being overtaxed.

Our responses to the emotional stress of others can either make them stronger or more susceptible to Satan’s attacks. I could give other real life examples, but for the sake of anonymity, let’s look further at the two true-to-life examples above.

First, take the young mother with the “baby blues.” During the early stages, this mother can be helped fairly easily by brotherhood and family support, in spite of her condition. But, if her husband is unsympathetic and grouchy; if she can’t get a maid for a few weeks; and if she can’t find a “sympathetic” sister to share her struggles with, her problem may become more serious. Her trials will increase if she discovers that her church sisters have been talking about her incompetence, or if the minister’s wife starts dropping unsettling remarks to her about attitudes and spiritual problems.

(It is true that Job retained his integrity and that God’s strength is made perfect in weakness. We do not turn our back on God just because we are unable to function normally. But that is not an acceptable reason for making life more difficult than necessary for such a person. God will hold us accountable for such actions. I believe we could apply the principles of Matthew 18:6, 7 to this situation without discrediting the Scriptures.)

Or take the young brother with financial difficulties. At this point, like the sister above, a caring brotherhood can provide the help he needs. But if his wife starts to hound him about his incompetence (reminding him that Brother Sam is making a go of itand getting his bills paid); or if the deacon reminds him that his school donations are falling behind; or merely if he can’t find someone sympathetic to share his struggles with, his plight may become more complicated. And if, along with this, he discovers that some of his brethren think he has a problem with laziness; or if the ministry begins to drop hints of possible church censure for mismanagement, then his faith would be severely tried. May God help us not to play into the enemy’s hands in this way.

These two examples are typical of other possible scenarios. A situation like this may drag on for months and years, just below the surface, until a crisis forces it into the open.

What can we do to help such brothers and sisters? We will look at some practical helps next month.

Fundamentalist Mennonite Churches

I don’t think we realize how much influence that Fundamentalism has had on Conservative Mennonites. If you look at the older confessions of faith, you will see that all of them start out with a statement about God. Ever since 1920, however, most of our confessions of faith have started with a statement about the Bible.  Here’s how that strikes me…

The older Anabaptist approach was to emphasize our relationship with God. The fundamentalists changed this – they emphasized the Bible instead, using it like a formula for spiritual success. If you think about this for a little, I think you will see that this makes for some subtle differences.

The Anabaptists didn’t belittle the scriptures. But they viewed them as one way, along with others, that God used to speak to people. They read the Bible because of a consuming desire to understand the mind of Christ rather to find a formula for pleasing God. To them a relationship with Christ was everything, and they read the Bible to understand Christ better.
The fundamentalists changed that.  They held their relationship with the Bible above their relationship with Christ. In many cases this led to people having a form of godliness but denying the power thereof.
Conservative Mennonites have adopted this approach but taken it to another level. They build a layer of church “standards” and rules on top of the Bible. That tends to remove them another step from Christ, because often the typical member is more worried about pleasing other members than he is about pleasing Christ.
We tend to take the fundamentalist approach by default (after all, it sounds so good). We start with Guidelines, as a way to shore up what the Bible says and make sure that we aren’t disobeying any of its principles. We assume that this is because we want to glorify Christ. But in reality, we don’t spend a lot of time in glorifying Christ. Instead we try to put together a formula that will do it for us.
I think we should reverse our priorities rather than taking the Fundamentalist approach. We need to come to Christ first and emphasize building a relationship with Him. To maintain this, and strengthen it, we will read the Bible to learn more about the mind of Christ. As we do this our relationship with Him will prompt us to follow His direction.
This approach will also lead us to brotherhood with other Christians. Together, we will try to weed out the things in our lives that would destroy our relationship with Christ. This will probably mean that we will draw up some interpretations and guidelines. But somehow, I still feel that if we get the first two in place the latter won’t be needed nearly as much.
I know that isn’t very popular thinking among conservatives. Depending on your background, it probably sounds rather dangerous to you. But give it some serious thought before you just brush it aside….

 

God’s People and Authority

     It was a beautiful summer day in 1692 in rural Switzerland. The little house in the trees overlooked some of the world’s most beautiful scenery—yellow fields of ripening grain, bordered by green forests reaching far up the slopes of the towering, snow capped Swiss Alps. In fact, to an onlooker, the whole picture was an eye-catching panorama of beauty and tranquility.
      But the meeting taking place inside the house reflected little of the serenity of its natural setting.
     Inside the house, grim looking men sat on hard chairs placed in a circle around the walls of a plain parlor. The meeting, apparently, had not been a pleasant one. They didn’t know it, but the aftermath of that day’s discussion would impact the lives of thousands of people over the next centuries. In fact, only eternity will reveal how many people in the past 300 years have been lost because of what came out of that meeting.
      It shouldn’t have turned out that way. You see, these men were ministers—leaders of Anabaptist congregations gathered in common concern for their people. The meeting had been intended to be about the apostasy and drift of the Swiss churches, but the focus had become authority.
      Since this scenario has been replayed dozens of times in the intervening years, we want to examine this meeting and its context a little closer.

      All eyes were on the austere man who earnestly addressed the group. Everyone present knew that the small group of visitors he represented had a genuine concern. Things were not quite as they should have been in the Swiss churches, and they all knew it. Most of the men present would have liked to do something about it. However, they had a problem.

     First of all, the bishop addressing them was a visitor, with no authority in the local setting. He had not been invited, but had come on his own accord to share his concerns. Secondly, the local bishop had refused to come to the meeting, which had been called by the visitors. Perhaps, he resented the intrusion into his territory. Perhaps, he didn’t fully agree with their concerns and this was the easiest way to avoid a conflict. Or, perhaps he was just too busy with his farm work to come to the meeting—at least this was what he told the messenger they sent to beg him to join them.
     This was one reason for the grim looks on everyone’s face. The visiting bishop insisted that the group needed to take disciplinary action against the local bishop for refusing to come to the meeting. Apparently he had anticipated that this would happen because he pulled a sheet of paper from his pocket, on which he had written an indictment of excommunication against his fellow bishop.
     This alone would have caused the grim faces, but the visitor didn’t stop there. He went around the circle of leaders and asked them one by one whether they supported his action. Undoubtedly many of the men faced with this ultimatum wished they had done as their bishop had, and stayed home to harvest their fields. But the visitor was inexorable in his purpose. He would break down the rebellion in these Swiss congregations and he would start at the very top. This was a no-holds-barred battle. If any leader refused to support the action, or even if he just asked for more time to consider it, the visitor excommunicated him on the spot.
     Naturally the room pulsated with tension and consternation, but one man was brave enough to raise the real issue. “I can’t make this decision,” he said. “I have to bring this to my congregation.”
     You’re a liar,” sneered the visitor. And he excommunicated him on the spot.

     The visitor was not satisfied with this. He called for every member of every congregation in that part of Switzerland to meet with him and give assent to the action taken. Any who refused or did not agree with him were summarily dealt with. 
     All in the name of Christ, who had given the visitor both the authority and the duty to deal with sin in the Church.

     The question at the heart of the above scenario was not sin in the church. It had nothing to do with apostasy and drift in the church. Rather the question was one of authority. The visiting bishop was the final authority in his group of congregations. He had the right to handle such situations according to his personal inclination, since he was God’s representative on earth.
     It is possible that he didn’t know that the Swiss congregations did not give this kind of authority to their leaders. The minister who spoke up and said he needed to take the issue to his congregation was right, even though the visitor called him a liar (this is documented history). The Swiss congregations placed the final authority for such decisions in the hands of the congregation, not in the hands of a bishop or group of ministers. According to the writings of the time, the minister who faced this dilemma actually sympathized with the concerns brought by the visitor, and would have gladly worked with him to bring about a solution. It is possible that his congregation would have agreed with him in this situation.
     This, of course, is an extreme illustration. But the question has been debated ever since by Anabaptists. Who is the final authority in church life? Is it the bishop? Is it a group of bishops? Is it a local bishop, along with the ministers? Or is it the entire local body of believers, the local body of Christ?
     Most conservative groups would be quick to tell you that God is the authority in their congregations. Then they would add that the Bible is final authority because it is God’s revelation. Probably they would also add that the Holy Spirit is part of this because He interprets the Bible to us. Probably most would also say that they take questions to their congregations to discuss. But finally the question still exists: When it all comes down to deciding what God wants in a given situation, and there is no direct Biblical precedent, who decides? Where is the authority vested?[i]

Results…

     It is true that we are more interested in being Biblical than we are in results, since bad results are not always the result of bad choices. Yet, in the long run, results do tell us something. And we have some very good prototypes to look at in church history when we think about the subject of authority in the church.

     The Dutch Anabaptists were very similar to the illustration above. For instance, it is said that most Dutch Mennonites of the 16th and 17th centuries were excommunicated three or four times in their lifetime, generally through no fault of their own. Leaders had the habit of excommunicating entire neighboring congregations when disagreements arose. Menno Simons tended to be less harsh in his leadership than some, but his fellow bishops, Leonard Boewens and Dirk Philips, were very stringent in their use (and abuse) of excommunication. They ended up locking horns themselves, and Leonard silenced Dirk. When Leonard died, Menno Simons reinstated Dirk.
     Due for the most part to such leadership tendencies, the Dutch church splintered into various groups. Most of these divisions were caused by disagreements about unimportant interpretations of various biblical principles. The deep hurts caused by them led to years of bitterness in the church experience of many innocent people. Eventually, in spite of all the strong leaders who stood strong to the end on their personal beliefs, almost all of the Dutch churches fell into apostasy. In fact they fell away much quicker than their neighbors, the Swiss Brethren.
     Most of the remnant groups that laid the foundations for the American Mennonite churches came from the Swiss Brethren congregations which we mentioned earlier. These congregations faced bitter persecution for years, and eventually died out as well. But they laid the groundwork for many remnant congregations. They did this in spite of their lack of strong administrative authority and discipline, such as the Dutch practiced. They did this in spite of their lack of church districts and conference structure, which were also very important to the Dutch. They did this in spite of their belief that the entire congregation was part of the administrative authority in the church, which the Dutch did not practice.
     We are often told that strong leadership authority and strong church structure, as practiced by the Dutch churches, is the only hope for the survival of our churches. According to this, the Swiss should have apostatized much sooner than the Dutch. Yet when you look at history, you see the opposite.[ii]

What Place Does Authority Have?

     The intent of this article is to speak against the wrong use of authority, not to denigrate all authority. The Bible is clear that God’s people need leaders, and that they must lead in order to perform their duty. But it is very easy for leaders to become powerful and lose their way. That is my concern.

     God’s people are the church. And even the leaders of God’s people ignore the church at their own peril. It is true that a godly leader should obey God in all things. But if He finds himself standing alone on issue after issue, then something has gone sadly amiss. Any group kept from drifting by sheer authority has already lost its way.
     In fact, I would suggest that probably it would be better for a leader to temporarily allow some things in his congregation that he is not happy with, and retain the congregation’s cooperation than to become a dictator. This will give him time to share his concerns, to teach them, and to help the congregation regain conviction. As a dictator he may temporarily win the battle, but he will do so at loss of his spiritual respect.
     In general, a well taught congregation that respects its leaders will honor the convictions of its leaders. If it doesn’t the leader should probably check his own heart. The problem may well start there. If he lays open his own heart to his brethren, and asks for their help in dealing first with his own problems, and then with the group’s problems, things will begin to happen.


[i]  This is not the complete story, as one reviewer told me. The point of this article is not to evaluate the Amish division. Rather, I have simply used this as an illustration of the wrong use of authority. The Amish, including Jacob Amman (the bishop above) later admitted this in writing, in a letter of apology.
[ii]  As someone noted when reading this manuscript, this could be an oversimplification. The German / Russian Mennonite groups had Dutch background. But they basically kept their form rather than their spirituality. The Hutterites survived longer, but it was their emphasis on brotherhood and evangelism, rather than an authority emphasis, that was at the root of their survival. The Swiss Mennonites and a few Amish groups were basically the only groups who survived into the 20th century as spiritual groups.

Ant Hill Kids…

Ant Hill Kids, People’s Temple, and Conservative Mennonites

I never met Jim Jones, but I remember his story very clearly. My wife and I were barely back from our honeymoon in 1978 when he forced hundreds of faithful People’s Temple followers to commit suicide by drinking Kool-Aid laced with cyanide. Soldiers from the US armed forces cleaned up the mess and found his body with the rest. He had promised his followers that they would regroup in the next world, where unfriendly governments would not hinder them.

More recently, Roch Theriault, the former doomsday leader of the “Ant Hill Kids” cult in Ontario was murdered in his prison cell – a fitting end to a life that left many innocent people scarred for life.

Perhaps one can hardly call adult followers of Jim Jones and Roch Theriault innocent, but the children they took with them in their deception certainly were. We would hardly want to describe on paper the immoral life style that these two men forced on their followers. Both of them are now in the hands of God, who will judge them with a righteous judgment.

Why do people join cults?

Cults appeal to people who are looking for security. Since cults do the thinking for their members, it means that they do not have to make choices for themselves. Most cults believe that obedience and submission are the doors to eternal life. They do not want members thinking for themselves: obedience is a virtue, but analysis is not. This process appeals to insecure people who are trying to please God. It relieves them of responsibility.

Some people believe the cult’s teaching, and join because they agree with them. Others join because they can be part of something important, or because the cult will meet their financial needs in return for their submission. Some join because of the charisma of a revered leader in the cult. And finally, some join because they have been deceived.

Why do people stay in cults?

Some people actually believe what the cult is teaching. They are dedicated members, passing out the cult propaganda to “unbelievers” and trying to convert them. These are the people who tend to become leaders and teachers within the group. They would not consider leaving for the same reason that Theriault’s wives kept visiting him in prison – they believed in their messiah and would not forsake him.

Many people stay within the cult because that is the easiest thing for them to do. This is one reason that cults keep their people isolated. The cult is the only thing they are familiar with. Other environments are uncomfortable; it is easier to simply stick with what they know. After all, even if they don’t care for their environment, the unfamiliar one might be even worse. So why take a chance?

Even cult members who no longer agree with the teachings of their cult will often stick around because they are afraid that maybe they will be lost if they leave. They have been taught for years that their salvation depends on being part of the cult, and while they don’t really think that this is true, they can’t make themselves take the chance.

There are many ways to keep people from defecting besides using force. And most cults are experts at using emotional pressures such as guilt and humiliation to keep people under control. Even people who finally break free often suffer emotionally for years afterwards.

What are the characteristics of a cult?

Scholars have identified four basic characteristics of a cult, all of which have to do with personal control.

1. Behavior control, i.e monitoring of where members go and what they do.

2.  Information control, such as discouraging members from reading criticism of the group, or other information which would place the authority of the group at risk.

3.  Thought control, placing sharp limits on doctrinal questioning. This, along with the second one, controls members by controlling their minds and keeping them from doubting or resisting the teaching of the group.

4. Emotional control—using humiliation or guilt to keep members from rebelling against the cult leaders or the control of the group.

Along with these, you will find that most cults control the finances of their people, and almost all have an extreme and dictatorial leadership. (Often the cult is centered around the charisma of a particularly appealing leader.) And finally, cults tend to be secretive, restricting outside knowledge of what goes on within the group. As part of this process, they make it very difficult for members to leave the group.

Most cults would defend these controls as being for the good of their people. Almost all believe that the eternal salvation of their people depends on their support of the group and its controls.

What can we learn from this?

I am not trying to insinuate that Conservative Mennonites are a cult, or that we fall into the same slot as the People’s Temple or the Ant Hill Kids. However, structured, leadership oriented groups can slide into a cult-like rut if they aren’t careful.

For instance, our churches are bishop controlled. We believe in regulating behavior and appearance. We discourage our members, or even forbid them, to access certain types of news media. We warn against reading books that we feel would turn people against our way of life. Many of our leaders feel threatened if people ask questions about why we do what we do. And many conservative churches feel they have the right to forbid someone to move to another church setting, if they don’t agree with it in some (often minor) way. People who don’t submit without complaint in these areas are excommunicated or treated as if they were.

In many of these points we are simply trying to protect our people from worldly influences. But it is a fine line between asking our people to refrain from doing what would harm them and forbidding them to do it because the action would offend the authority of a leader.

Our churches do practice the four basic controls listed above, to some degree. We don’t apologize for giving guidelines to our people. Some books are wrong to read; some places are wrong to visit; and submission is necessary for everyone at times. But the other point, emotional control, can become a trap for us if we aren’t careful. Talented preachers can easily play on the emotions of their audience. This approach seldom builds solid convictions. In fact it can destroy people with over-sensitive consciences, and in the long run often hardens those who have under-sensitive consciences.

No, our churches aren’t cults. But let’s be sure that we do what we do because it is Biblical, not because we are slipping into a structure based system built on the authority of men.

The devil loves nothing better than to take a temple of God and turn it into a People’s Temple.

Behind the Scenes With God and Uncle Dale…

It’s been a number of years since I wrote the book, God and Uncle Dale. I’ve been surprised at the favorable responses the book received, and where those responses all came from. I’ve also been a bit surprised and sometimes nonplussed at the lessons some people have tried to lift from the book. I thought maybe people would be interested in my thoughts on some of this. 

You can normally order God and Uncle Dale online at Amazon.

A Surprise Audience

I haven’t kept a diary of the telephone calls and letters that I’ve received about God and Uncle Dale, so I’ll probably miss some things. But I noticed one surprising thing very soon after its release. The first people who called or wrote me about the book were older people. Many of them could remember being caught in circumstances similar to those recounted in the book.
I wrote the book especially for older teenagers and younger married couples. I didn’t anticipate this deep interest from people old enough to be my parents. In fact these people probably bought the majority of the first printing of the book, in some cases giving each of their children a copy. (The first printing sold out in less than three months.)
This doesn’t mean that younger people haven’t read the book. Many have, though I think it startled a lot of them because its setting is so foreign to their experience. In fact some of the younger men at Rod and Staff who reviewed the book were dubious about its veracity. It was pushed through by some older men who knew from personal experience the realities of what the families in the book faced.

Is This Merely a History Book?

The main characters in the book (especially Dale and Sheila) were actually fictional. The book was NOT about my uncle – that was a literary technique which somewhat embarrassed me by its success. Evidently some readers are not acquainted with some of the techniques used by authors to make a book seem more real. Also, Rod and Staff Publishers has a policy not to publish a book about living people, and they financed this book as well as publishing it. (One brother actually complained that the book should not have been published because he recognized a few of the background characters. However that could hardly be helped if the book was to remain true to the history of the times.) Had I used real people as the main characters in the book, I would have been forced to get into some weaknesses that would have been embarrassing to some people still living.
The book is true to life, however, and the main background events in it all happened. People who had been in similar situations caught the reality that was behind the scenes and I heard over and over, “That’s exactly what we went through.” In fact I heard various times, “We had it even worse than that.” Many younger people in our churches have a hard time comprehending that their parents or grandparents actually stuck it out in such a setting for as many years as they did.
I had to tone down the book substantially, especially in the area of immorality. Most younger readers, and some older ones, would be horrified if I shared some of the things that I know about the moral conduct of the youth and younger married couples in those settings during those years. Very little of this is even hinted at in the book, again due in part to publisher constraints, and partly due to my concern for the moral purity of the readers.
So it is certainly true that this is a book about history. This is a period of time that was very real and many who lived through it did not survive spiritually. In this book I wanted to show our youth where we came from, and why we have some of the concerns we do. But this book is about more than just history.

Is It a Warning Against Apostasy?

The fear of apostasy has been a major paranoia in conservative circles ever since the 1960’s. Not only will most conservative churches bend over backward to avoid worldly practices, they will also fervently avoid anything that could conceivably lead them astray down the road, no matter how far away that might be. The “Great Apostasy” almost became our nemesis, and we can’t forget that.
This book doesn’t pretend to comprehensively cover the reasons that the Mennonite churches drifted away from truth during the first part of the 20th century. It simply portrays what happened to one family within one congregation of that whole scenario. It’s true that it is a bit of a shock for conservative Mennonites to realize that a group of young folks could get together for a church function and end it by singing Elvis Presley’s greatest hits together and consider it normal. But that was part of the reality of the times.
It is also true that all of this could happen again to us. So some church leaders and parents have used this book to warn their youth that, “If you continue the course you are in, you will end up where the church in God and Uncle Dale was.”
But this book is more than just a history book intended to scare us into avoiding apostasy.

Is This Book About Nonconformity?

The doctrine of nonconformity in dress has been a mainstay of the conservative Mennonite church in North America in the past, though maybe not to the degree that many of our people have been led to believe.[1] It is certainly true that the mainstream Mennonite church lost most of its nonconformity in the decades before and after the 1960’s. Even some of the conservative minded people who finally left the mainstream churches had drifted a long way, though this is not always recognized. For instance, one brother who was quite young when his family was in this setting was very startled when he learned that his older sisters didn’t wear cape dresses at that time and that his father allowed it.
But I did not write this book to promote the plain coat and the cape dress. These two items were important in the book because they symbolized Biblical principles of separation, simplicity, and modesty — all of which were being lost in the main Mennonite settings. However, Christian people were obeying these principles long before the plain coat and cape dress were ever invented. The Mennonite churches did not go astray because they put aside some of these traditional garments. Rather they went astray because they ignored the clear Bible principles behind them.
So, while I am a strong believer in these Biblical doctrines, I did not write this book to promote any particular local interpretations of these doctrines.

One More Caveat

I suppose some people will be quite frustrated with me by now. I am not trying to belittle any of the points we have just discussed. All of them are true to a degree. But I feel we need to go beyond these ideas.
For instance, I believe that it is a mistake for us to be constantly making our choices in light of the “Great Apostasy”. I also believe that it is a mistake to live in constant fear of where a choice might take us. Certainly, we need to be sensible, and make Biblical, Spirit led, choices. But finally, it is most important that we choose in light of God’s will and direction. Rather than asking, “Will this action lead me to apostatize ten years down the road?”, I should be asking myself, “Is this God’s plan for my life?”
So, while I agree that each of the issues above is important, they were not my main purpose in writing this book.

Then Why DID I Write This Book?

Both Dale and Shelia were interested in serving God. Both wanted to do what was right. But Shelia failed and Dale succeeded. Why? Dale’s parents gave him some help that Shelia lacked, but the real reason went beyond that, since Dale’s help made up for most of that lack in Shelia’s life.
Dale succeeded because he made a serious effort to find out what God’s will was for his life. He studied his Bible, he prayed, he asked for advice. In other words, he succeeded because his spiritual life became an intensely personal thing for him. He had no church to fall back on to make his choices for him. His parents were too discouraged to really give him all the guidance he needed. (I think he would have succeeded even if his parents had failed.) He had to find his own way.
Shelia became so real to me during my writing that I shed tears for her. (One young sister actually wrote me and practically insisted that surely, even at this late stage, someone could find Shelia and help her recover the faith she lost in her youth!) I probably liked Shelia even better than Dale, and it hurt me to have her take the course she did. But finally, she lacked the personal spiritual drive that Dale had. She depended on others, and worried about what others thought of her, rather than finding her own way with God. In the end, her path came out miles away from where Dale’s path ended.
It still hurts me to say it, but I don’t believe Shelia was ready to meet God.
I wonder sometimes how many conservative Mennonite people are caught in the same trap Shelia fell into. They might be considered good solid church members, never rocking the ship, and doing what is expected of them, but they have never moved beyond a politically correct spirituality to one based on a personal relationship with Christ.
Most of us have become accustomed to have others do our thinking for us. For instance, what kind of vehicle should we buy? Instead of seeking God’s direction, our first thought too often is, “What will the church say about it?” It is proper to respect our church and its decisions and guidelines. But if we never get beyond this in our spiritual relationship with God, we will probably not get to heaven.[2] There are always times and places that we face issues that the church hasn’t spoken to. Or we may find ourselves, like Dale, in a setting where the church doesn’t even care.

What then?

If we have prepared like Dale did to find God’s direction, we will get it, along with His help. But if we’ve always depended on our parents or our church leaders or our friends to do our thinking and make our decisions, we will probably fail.[3]

So, to put it into a nutshell, my purpose in writing this book was to encourage young people and young married couples to get so close to God that they could stand alone if necessary.
If you haven’t seen that in God and Uncle Dale, it’s probably my fault for not making it clear enough. But read it again with this in mind and I think you will see what I am talking about.
For every Dale in this world there are dozens of Shelia’s who won’t make it. Remember, both Dale and Shelia wanted to do what was right. But only Dale actually did it and found his way. My challenge to you is, be a Dale. Don’t be satisfied to be a Shelia.
—Lester Bauman
Nov. 2009

[1]  For instance, never in the history of the Mennonite church has any conference ever held as rigidly to the plain coat and cape dress as the EPMC and the NWF congregations do. Many of us consider this a historical norm. That is another subject – suffice it to say that this “historical norm” is mostly fiction. Also, both the cape dress and the plain coat are North American and were not brought from Europe. Nonconformity in dress was not really an Anabaptist doctrine, since it was hardly needed in medieval times.
[2]  Ouch! That startled even me as I wrote it, but the more I think about it the more I believe it.
[3]  For some reason we often assume that a person who builds up a personal relationship with Christ, and does his own thinking and decision making, is automatically going to be a rebel. I find this hard to understand. After all the same Spirit who led the church in it’s development, is guiding you and I as well. Why would we come out somewhere else in our thinking? Of course there are always those who use this reasoning as a foundation for rebellion. But that is totally different from what I am promoting here. Dale became a strong church supporter because of his personal convictions and relationship with Christ. The same can be true for us.

A Story of a Little Angel and a Small Boy

This is a little story I wrote after the death of little friend of ours. We were the baby sitters
mentioned – we looked after him the day he died…

      Once upon a time a little angel lived in heaven. He spent his time happily doing the duties that little angels did in heaven. But once in a while he looked longingly at the bigger, important angels that God sent to earth to look after His children there.

     “I wonder what it would be like to have an important job like that,” he pondered, as he went about his duties. “I suppose I’ll always be too little for that.” He sighed. Then one day it happened. One of the chief angels stopped him and said, “Jesus wants to talk to you in the throne room.” The little angel’s heart thumped a little as he hurried to answer the summons. What could Jesus want with him, one of the most unimportant of the angel band?
     He soon found out.
     The throne room was a dazzling place. It was so glorious that only a supernatural being could safely enter. Even though he had been there before, the little angel always was awed at the glory of God and the mighty angels who ran His important errands from there.
     But today he had little time to gaze. Jesus met him at the entrance. “I have an important mission for you,” He said earnestly. “I need you to go to earth to look after a small boy who is going to be born today.”
     The little angel gasped in surprise and anticipation. A thrill ran down his back. He was going to be sent to earth! But it scared him a little too. “But Master,” he said, his voice quivering a little. “I’ve never done anything like this. How do I do it?”
     Jesus smiled, and the room lit up. “Love him,” he replied. “Keep him safe. Small boys are always ready to try daring things. You will need to be there with him and guide him around the dangers.”
     Then He added, “Don’t pamper him. He will learn many lessons from the troubles he faces. But keep him safe. You will see many ways to do this. But most of all learn to love him.” So the little angel quickly flew to earth. He went straight to the hospital, and he was there when the small boy was born. He shared in the thrills of the new parents as they held their first child. He watched carefully as the nurse washed him, because he had heard stories in heaven of nurses dropping new babies. And already as he watched the helpless small boy and listened to him cry for his mother, the little angel felt a warmth creeping through his heart – the beginning of love. He slipped closer to the small boy and carefully held his hand. The baby quieted immediately and the nurse smiled at him as she finished wrapping him in a warm cozy blanket. “Sweet little thing,” she whispered.
     The small boy was sweet. His parents were enthralled with him. So were his grandparents, and all the uncles and aunts. And so was the little angel, who watched over him very carefully, even when he slept. For you see had heard stories in heaven of little babies who died crib deaths, and he loved this small boy already. And he wanted so badly to do a good job of his first real assignment.
     The small boy grew quickly. And the little angel watch over him even more carefully. He had heard of babies rolling off the table and being seriously hurt. So he stood close by when his mother laid him down then turned to get a clean diaper. He held the small boy’s hand and once he even pushed him back from the edge of the table when he rolled over.
     The mother sometimes almost sensed that the little angel was there. She wondered a bit if someone was helping her to look after the small boy. Later when the small boy was old enough to trail after his father around the farm, she was even more sure.
     There were times that the small boy was afraid. Then the little angel came especially close. There was one time that the mother and father needed to go to town and they couldn’t take the small boy with them. It was the first time that they had to leave him with someone he didn’t know, and the small boy was very afraid. He cried and cried as his baby sitter rocked him and sang little songs to him. The little angel crowded very close to him and held his hand. Oh, how the little angel wished that he could speak to the small boy, or show himself to him to comfort him. But he knew that this was not allowed. So he sang along with the baby sitter, and it seemed that the small boy sensed he was there, and became quiet.
     Then one day the little angel was needed. The small boy was playing with his cat, and wandered away from the house. The little angel followed carefully, and worried just a little. He would have liked to stop the small boy and lead him back to his mother, but he remembered what Jesus had said about not pampering him. The small boy needed to learn the lessons of life that could only be taught by pain and hardship. But oh how he wished he could spare him. Surely Jesus wouldn’t care just this once! But he remembered the love in Jesus’ eyes and he let the small boy go.
     Oh, but it happened so quickly! Was that irrigation ditch bank too steep? The little angel almost panicked as he watched the small boy climb over the edge. Should he stop him? But he noticed that it looked shallow, and he carefully held the small boys hand as he tumbled into the water. Was the water too deep anyway? He breathed a sigh of relief when he saw that it wasn’t. He carefully held the small boy’s hand as he screamed for help, and watched anxiously across the yard to see if the small boy’s mother heard him. Good, there she came, running to help him.
     That time the mother was almost sure that the little angel was there.
     Then one morning when it seemed that the small boy was especially happy, because he was going to visit at a friend’s house, an angel came to talk to the little angel. “Jesus wants to talk to you. I’ll look after the small boy while you’re gone.”
     The little angel look anxious. The other angel was big and strong. But would he look after the small boy carefully? The mother was going to take him to the babysitter again that day, and the little angel always watched even more carefully at times like that.
     The big angel smiled as if he had read the little angel’s mind. “I’ll look after him very carefully,” he said gently. For you see, the big angel had an idea what Jesus wanted, and he pitied the little angel from the bottom of his heart.
     So the little angel went home to heaven for the first time in 2-1/2 years. He went quickly, because in spite of the big angel’s assurance, he wanted to get back to the small boy. It was the first time they had been separated since the small boy was born. What could Jesus want? Had he failed in something?
     Jesus met him at the gates. He smiled, and said, “You have been doing a good job, little angel.” But then his smile faded and He looked very serious. “Now I have something very hard for you to do for me. I want you to bring the small boy home. We need him here.” The little angel’s heart plummeted. “But Jesus,” he protested. “His parents love him so much, and they don’t have any other children.” Then he cringed a little, afraid he had said too much.
     But Jesus face reflected His compassion. “I love him too, and I love his parents as well. I need the small boy here, and I will give his parents special strength to bear their sorrow.” He paused, and placed His hand on the little angels shoulder. “Trust me,” He whispered. “I love them far more than you do, and I know what is best for them. You will see.”
     The little angel’s face fell, but he bowed his head in submission. Then he thought of something else. “But… but how will I do it?” He almost stammered in his anxiety. “I don’t want to hurt him…” His voice trailed off. He had heard stories of horrible accidents, and terrible diseases.
     Jesus understood. “Bring him as gently as you can,” He said. “But I want him here tonight.” It was a long flight back to earth.
     All afternoon, the little angel watched over the small boy. And his heart pained him as only a heart full of love can pain. How could he ever do this? But he remembered the love in Jesus’ voice, and he knew that Jesus knew what was best.
     Evening came closer and the little angel became more anxious. How could he ever do what Jesus had asked of him? He knew that he would never be able to lift his hand against the small boy.
     At supper time he hovered anxiously over the happy little family. Later the young mother would wonder why she had felt an anxious twitch in her heart as she served her husband and the small boy. Little she knew. The little angel grieved already as he watched the concerned look on her face. You see he had spent so much time with these three, that he felt he was part of the family.
     He hid his face in his hands as supper came to an end. The father patted the small boy on his head and was rewarded by a happy smile. The mother smiled at both of them. The little angel almost wept. How could he do this?
     The parents started to talk about the evening’s plans, and unobtrusively the little angel took the small boy’s hand. Never had he been more gentle than now as he led him from the table and out the door. Now. It would have to be now.
     Outside the dogs saw the small boy and they came running. The small boy’s face lit up and he follow them across the yard. Then the little angel saw that they were going in the direction of the farm pond, and his heart fell. Could he could go through with it? But he remembered Jesus words, “I love them even more than you do.” He would have to trust.
     Carefully the little angel parted the fence around the pond so that the small boy could get through without hurting himself. Then he turned his back…
     It didn’t take long. And it didn’t hurt the small boy at all….  
*   *   *   *   *  

     For the first time the small boy saw the little angel. Little as he was, the small boy had sensed the angel’s presence at times too, and his face lit up as he saw the little angel. He held out his arms, and the little angel took him up. The small boy wrapped his arms trustingly around the little angel’s neck, and the little angel carried him up and away from the pond waters.
     Then they both heard a scream. The small boy’s mother came running to the pond and saw the dogs swimming in a circle over the place where the small boy’s body still was. The small boy stirred in the little angel’s arms. “Mommy?” he asked uncertainly.
     The little angel shed a tear. “Mommy will come later,” he assure the small boy. “But she has to live on earth with your Daddy a while yet.” The small boy started to sob, and the little angel thought quickly. “Why don’t you whisper goodbye to her?” he said gently. “She might hear you.”
     And the mother did look up, a strange look on her face.
     Then the father came. The small boy wanted to say goodbye to him too, because he loved him as dearly as he loved his mother. But they had to wait because the father was too busy. He had found the small boy’s body in the pond and was trying so hard, so desperately, to bring him back. The angel pitied him so much that he was tempted for a little to bring the small boy back to his body again. But again he remembered the look of love on Jesus’ face, and knew that he couldn’t do it.
     But people were starting to come, and other angels were moving in to take over. It was time to go. So the little angel slipped over close to where the father and mother stood weeping beside the little body. The small boy leaned over close to his father’s ear. “Daddy, I love you. Please come to be with me soon. Goodbye…”
     The father didn’t quite hear, but he would remember later that something strange happened. He would never be quite sure, but he thought that just maybe the small boy had been with him for a moment.
     The little angel knew it was time to go. He didn’t want the small boy disturbed by the sorrow he knew would follow as family and friends came.
     There was a crowd at the heavenly gate this time. It seemed that all the little children in heaven had gathered to welcome the small boy. The small boy had been very quiet during their journey, but his face brightened as he saw the little children spilling through the gates, singing, with Jesus in their midst. The small boy held out his arms, and Jesus took him from the little angel and gave him a hug. The little angel saw the small boy smile and he knew that he had done right in being obedient, even if it hurt him as nothing had ever hurt before.
     Jesus smiled at the little angel. “You have done well,” He said. “You have proved your love for the small boy. He will be happy here as he never could have been on earth.”  

And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; 
and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, 
neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away. 
(Revelation 21:4)  

The NT Brotherhood Fellowships with God

This is an excerpt from a booklet on New Testament brotherhood that I am working on….

Many groups of people today have a certain amount of fellowship. Members of community clubs and hockey teams usually have enough common interest to enjoy their time together. However Christians are the only people whose fellowship with each other is based on a relationship and fellowship with Jesus. The New Testament directly ties the two together. We cannot have the one without the other.
That which we have seen and heard declare we unto you, that ye also may have fellowship with us: and truly our fellowship is with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ. And these things write we unto you, that your joy may be full. This then is the message which we have heard of him, and declare unto you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with him, and walk in darkness, we lie, and do not the truth: But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship one with another, and the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from all sin. (1 John 1:3-7)
If the members of the brotherhood have this relationship with God, then the group as a whole will also have fellowship with God, and direction from Him. This leaves a direct responsibility on each individual within the group to be sure that there is nothing in his or her life that would interfere with such a relationship on a group level. It is possible for hidden sin in the brotherhood to cast blight on the entire group. I have heard of testimonies to this effect from people who were part of such a situation. When finally, the individual in question yielded his life to God and confessed his sin, the group prospered in a new way.
The Bible speaks in different places of the strength there is in fellowship. When two or three Christians come together in a fellowship setting God is present. There is much power in such a gathering. Perhaps you, like me, have gone to church feeling depressed. But by the time the service was over, you marveled how your fellowship with God and your brothers and sisters had lifted your spirits. Let me repeat: There is power in brotherhood fellowship with God.
Acts 4:31 is an illustration of the power found in such joint fellowship with God. Some of the apostles had just been taken in front of the Sanhedrin because of their testimony of Jesus. They were beaten as a result, and the whole brotherhood gathered together to talk to God about it. Verse 31 states, “And when they had prayed, the place was shaken where they were assembled together; and they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and they spake the word of God with boldness.” Several verses later the writer adds, “and great grace was upon them all.” Rather than feeling intimidated the brotherhood was strengthened and the work went forward.
We can experience the same. If we aren’t, we need to find out why. Is there sin in our midst? Is our fellowship with each other intact? Do we have a fellowship relationship with Christ? Are we putting enough personal effort into our relationships with each other and with God? Do we sense our need of God’s “shaking”?
According to the verses quoted above, our fellowship with each other and with God is reciprocal. In other words if our fellowship with each other is weak it might be because our fellowship with God is weak. And if our fellowship with God is weak it might be because our fellowship with each other is weak. This is somewhat of a paradox. But the two go hand in hand and we must pay attention to both in order to survive.
God is faithful, by whom ye were called unto the fellowship of his Son Jesus Christ our Lord. (1 Corinthians 1:9)

The Nation God Chose

A while ago while I was digging through my files I found this old article by Peter Hoover.  I think it has a good point, so I’m including it here for you to think about. (Peter and I grew up in the same community in Ontario.)

      Four centuries after the Reformation, standing on the brink of the third millenium A.D., have we Mennonites finally found our place in the world?
Judging from the Mennonite community in which I live, my answer could be “Yes.” Some forty thousand neighbours of mine profess the Mennonite faith. Of the approximately seventy-five families who live in our village (Gnadenfeld-Km.6), everyone is 201% Mennonite. From my house I behold part of a spread of land one hundred miles long, owned by the Old Colony, Sommerfelder and Kleingemeinde Mennonite Churches. My property tax ends up in the treasury of the Mennonite “Vorsteher” (civil government of our colony.) We all speak a Mennonite language known locally as “Menonita.”
We drive on roads maintained by Mennonite authorities, advertise in a Mennonite newspaper, shop in a Mennonite supermarket, eat in Mennonite restaurants, and buy stoves, furniture, and cheese from Mennonite factories. My father-in-law chews his tortillas with false teeth made by a Mennonite dentist, and when our people turn sick they can arrange an appointment with Dr. Franz Penner, the Mennonite doctor of Gnadenfeld who graduated from the university of Guadalajara. When you talk to me by telephone you use a system installed and maintained by a Mennonite company, complete with perhaps the only German telephone directory in the western hemisphere.
Small wonder then that thousands of my fellow-Mennonites fill out legal documents this way: Nacionalidad Menonita. They consider themselves Mennonites by nacionality, having found themselves years ago in the Russian Mennonite colony system.
Besides the colonists, however, we have yet another brand of Mennonites in Chihuahua state. Lurching north out of Cuauhtemoc on a muddy street shaded by giant cottonwoods and miles of apple orchards, one comes upon the village of La Quinta Lupita. Between enormous cold-storage facilities (Wiebes, Sawatzkys, Letkemans, and Abram Olferts) sprawls the “Alvaro Obregon” consolidated Mennonite School. Mennonite girls_in blue jeans, and boys with thick mops of blond hair study there to prepare for college educations and professional careers. These are the Mennonites who talk of recovering the Anabaptist vision, who march for world peace, who feed the guerrilleros in Central America, who have seminary trained ministers in the Blumenauer Church up the road, and who get mixed up in the “new morality” and marijuana.
One of their type informed me of the fact that Mennonites have now, for the first time in history “found their place- in world affairs. For the first time since the Reformation, the Church is taking up her “God-given” responsibility of trying to make governments behave. This man boasted to me of Mennonite representation in Washington D.C. and Ottawa (besides in Mexico D.P.)
The third kind of Mennonites whom I know well have little in common with my Mexican co-religionists. The conservative wing of what was once the “Old Mennonite” Church, they would not be caught thinking of themselves as Mennonite nationals. Neither would they lobby for peace in Washington or Ottawa. But have they become any less culturally or institutionally “Mennonite” than the rest?
When I return to my home community in Waterloo County Ontario, a claustrophobic feeling creeps upon me. On every side loom the enormous brick houses of the Mariins, the Brubachers, the Reists, the Metzgers, the Sauders, the Webers… The smell of Baumans’ pigs mingles heavily with that of Shantzes’ steers. Horsta’ string of “Harvestores” blocks out the view of Bearingers’ chicken houses. Around every bend in the road my eyes alight upon some Mennonite School or church or “Groszdoddy Blatz.” Conestoga, 13’th Line, Countryside, Winterbourne, Milverton, Cedar Grove, Calvary, Erb Street, Riverdale, Goshen, Weaverland, Steinman… the list of huge, well-built Mennonite Churches could continue almost indefinitely. (Waterloo County has over twenty Mennonite “branches” represented.)
The sidewalks of Elmira, Linwood, St. Jacobs, and Milibank bustle with bonnets and shawls, and black hats, and covering strings. Mennonite ladies in net coverings steer their Monte Carlos around old men puffing away at cigars as they roll along in open buggies.
Mennonites in Waterloo County have become as permanently a part of its scenery as the Conestoga River, the KW stockyards, and the Baden hills. I know they have also become that in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Maryland, Indiana, Iowa and other states. North Americans have given us a place in their society, whether we like it or not. How has this affected our view of the Church in history?
North America accepts us as a quaint off-shoot of the reformation — and we have done nothing to refute that notion.
Mennonite B.A.’s and Ph.D.’s have spent their lives researching our relationship to the Protestant movement. They have found for us a respectable position in the eyes of western Christianity. Mennonite historians will never get done tracing oodles of genealogies back to the 1500’s. We have a dillion Mennonite history books that somehow start with Menno Simons and ramble on into the twentieth century. The walls of our churches have re-echoed innumerable times thunderous challenges to re-capture the Anabaptist vision. Generations and generations of preachers have told us that the nearer we can do things like Menno Simons, the better off we’ll be.
What has given us Mennonites this curious sho•t-sightedness in the field of history? Did the world begin in 1525? Did God make a covenant with Menno Simons or Jakob Amman? Why do our young people in all seriousness say that “our” church began in the sixteenth century, or worse yet, whenGrandpap left “Conference”?
If our understanding of God’s plan for the Church has shrunk into a post-reformation frame, we’re in trouble. If we have “found our place” as Mennonites in today’s society, God calls us to lose what we have found and to find what we have lost.
Billions of people have sacrificed and are sacrificing themselves to organizations limited to a certain time period. Who can count those who gave their lives for empires and causes and kingdoms which for milleniums have ceased to exist?
If we make a human culture, a human religion, or a human nation out of our Mennonite heritage, we will perish with Balaam, Alexander the Great, Adolf Hitler and Tenochtitlan. But if we Mennonites find our place in God’s chosen family, we will live forever.
—Peter Hoover