These unusual times, combined with an online course on missionary care I’ve been taking during lock-down in Eastern Europe, have meant a lot of introspection. This introspection has included thinking about what EMC has done well in the course of our 20-plus years as overseas workers. Thus, this letter: I wanted to take a moment to thank you for these things, with a few other suggestions sprinkled in. Continue reading To My EMC Family: Thank You and a Few Suggestions→
Sometimes punctuation matters. “Family first?” is a question worth considering. “Family first” as a statement is a problem. Other than a phrase meaning that healthy families of various sorts are immensely important for human well-being, or that Christian worship should be welcoming to all ages, “family first” can be idolatry.
This does not mean that the family is not a good thing and a great blessing. Most idols represent things that are good in themselves but have been put in the place of God and are then frozen into lifelessness as graven images.
Idolatry is more than adoring a statue, however. It means putting something other than God first in our lives. It is getting our relationships out of proportion so that something other than the love of God comes first. It that is so, the most common form of idolatry in our churches and wider society may be precisely the one that puts “family first.”
Lots of people say it quite bluntly: “I come to the church for the family.” Attending church is like a ballet or minor sports (though not usually as important). We think we should take or send the children so that they can grow up morally straight and strong.
Lots of Canadians, including folks who profess to be Christians, are at minor sports rather than church on Sunday morning, however, because they do put “family first.” And if family really is first, how can we argue with them?
A Rewritten Catechism?
It is as if we have rewritten the catechism: “What is our chief end? Our chief end is to produce a healthy well-adjusted family and enjoy it forever.” If we think God helps achieve that end, we will send or even bring the family to church.
God is merciful and can draw people through less than theologically spotless means. If we insisted that people should come to church only for the right reason, attendance would be even lower than it is now! But in the end, God does not tolerate being a means to an end. Our spiritual ancestors got it right: our chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy God forever.
As the church, we hope to provide good programs for families and draw people in, but not dishonestly. We can appear to enable idolatry or to practice a bait and switch: “You think it is about family, but really it is about God.”
Listen to My Mother
Once, as a small boy, I asked my mother, “Do you love me best?” Mom replied firmly, “No, I love God first, then your father, then I love you and your brother and sister equally.” I thank God that I was raised by a mother who didn’t put me or the family first. Listen to my mother, if you won’t listen to me.
Saying “God first” does not mean “Church first” or “Church business first.” Active church people are sometimes tempted to put church first. Church may then become an ugly and destructive idol.
Early in my ministry I allowed myself to get too occupied with church business. My sons were three and one-year-old, respectively. One morning I was sitting on the sofa while the boys played at my feet. Three-year-old Allan picked up a book, showed it to me, and said, “I’m Daddy. This is my Bible.”
“How cute,” I thought. “He’s imitating me.”
“I’m going to a meeting!” Allan announced.
Accurate maybe, but not nearly so cute.
Allan put down his book, looked me in the eye, and said, “But maybe tomorrow I’ll stay home with my boys.”
I felt as it I had been stabbed through the heart. I got up from the sofa, found my appointment book, and drew lines through many of the events. The church did fine without my presence at every single meeting. And the family did much better.
As with all areas of life, if we put God first and, by God’s grace, got that relationship right, all the other relationships have a good chance of falling into place. It’s not a guarantee. We all know that faithfulness to Jesus Christ can produce anger and discord in a family, especially from those who do want to be put first. There was, after all, troubled in Jesus’ own family. See Mark 3:31-35.
Shaped for Good or Ill
Family is, however, “first” in one respect. It is in our families that we are shaped for good or ill. Veteran pastors and psychiatrists all know that what we are, for good or for ill, comes through the family. We talk about “stranger danger”; but, too often it isn’t the strangers you have to worry about. It’s your family! Trouble of every kind will work its way through the family.
But so can good. We begin to learn “all we really need to know” well before kindergarten. We learn it in the family. By all means we should create family friendly programs and worship to draw people into church. But that is only the first half of the job, at best.
If people want to hand the Christian education of their children to the church, don’t let them! Hand it right back. No, that’s not quite right. Enable and motivate families to teach the faith within the home.
Church as Family
Family can be a way of understanding the church. It is not “first” in this respect. Understanding the church as the Body of Christ remains primary. But family is up there among the key ways of understanding and living out the idea of church.
The church is like an extended family where young and old, families of many sorts, and those who otherwise would have no earthly family can come together. Strangely, that kind of extended family, that “village,” may then become, as a side benefit, the best place to raise a child.
God who came to us in Christ, as part of a very human and very fallible family, whose love is imprinted on us by the Holy Spirit, that Triune God can redeem the worst of us and the worst of families—if we put Him first.
Dr. Stephen Farris is a long-serving minister and professor (Knox College and Vancouver School of Theology) who served recently as moderator of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Canada. He currently lives in Ontario. This article first appeared in the Presbyterian Record (March 2016). It is used with his permission.
Most people either flat out avoid reading the genealogy of Matthew at the beginning of his gospel, or they approach it like they would cod liver oil—nose held and eyes half closed. Besides the many names that are difficult for most of us to pronounce, the long list of names seems boring and unrelated to the birth of Christ. “I’ll do anything, Lord, but please don’t make me read the genealogies!” most of us would say.
Yet as regularly as Christmas rolls around, I believe we should hear the voice of the Lord say to us, “If you want to follow me, you must read the genealogies.”
A genealogy tells us who we are. It tells us what kind of family we are considering getting ourselves involved with. A genealogy gives us our bearings.
In this season of Advent and Christmas, Matthew 1 challenges us: if you enter this Advent family, here is who you are, who you will be, and what you can expect. Christ’s genealogy can remind us of four truths that, if we take the time to discover them, can enrich our lives this season.
We need to remember that we are part of the Advent family line because of someone else. This family line goes all the way back to Abraham and Sarah, who courageously broke away from one family line (the Chaldean line of Ur) to start another line. Isaac then had the opportunity to enter because of Abraham and Sarah. Rebekah had the opportunity through Jacob, and Jacob and Rachel had it through them in turn.
I’m a part of this Advent line because a former house burglar named Greg shared the marvelous story of his new Advent family with me. Now a whole new branch of the Tices has become part of the Matthean genealogy, as my children have responded to Christ through my witness.
We need to remember that our lives will be full of the challenge to walk by faith into the unknown. Many of the members of this Advent family are like Abraham, the first name in the genealogy. Abraham was called out of Ur—our of his comfort zone, out of his family’s surroundings and culture. What was Abraham called to? “To a place I will show you,” says Gen. 12:1. In other words, not only were Abraham and Sarah called away from the familiar, but were given no highly detailed road map describing every twist and turn to their new destination.
Faith is the absolutely non-negotiable human action necessary for the divine action of God to be regularly at work within us and through us. Being in this Advent line means we will allow God to direct us, often through the unknown.
We need to remember to expect the unexpected. Four women are mentioned in Matthew’s genealogy. Listing women in a Jewish genealogy is not the usual practice. What women they are! They are not the great matriarchs of Israel’s history—like Sarah, or Rebekah, or Esther. Rather, they’re women like Rahab, who had been a prostitute of evil Jericho.
Out of the shame of Rahab’s past, God saw a woman who, unlike the others of Jericho, finally recognized the true God. Rahab was the only one who said, “For the Lord your God is he who is God in heaven above as on earth beneath” (Josh. 2:11). The red cord—a sign of her own sin and defilement (and, of course, of the seedy men who used to climb up it)—now became a sign of her salvation.
In addition, every one of the four women listed here in a Jewish line were Gentiles: Tamar and Rahab were Canaanites, Ruth was a Moabite, and Bathsheba a Hittite. This family line overcomes some of the great prejudices of Far Eastern history!
Joining this Advent family means expecting the unexpected and having the unexpected asked of you.
We need to remember that our lives are kept by a promise-keeping God. This family line—just from Abraham to Jesus alone—is some 2,000 years old.
Through tens of thousands of challenges, God fights to keep this family together and intact. By Matthew 1:12—just before Jeconiah, at the time of the Babylonian exile—there was just one surviving possibility to keep the Davidic line alive. The only possibility rested with Zedekiah (2 Kings 24) and he was in exile with his eyes put out. Yet God worked things out.
The genealogy that we often avoid reading can remind us of the family line God is creating. It can remind us of our place within it and our commitment to invite others to join the family.
Bob Tice, DMin, is pastor of RiverRock Church in “core-city” Buffalo, New York.He is also an adjunct professor with Northeastern Seminary (Rochester) teaching the course Theology of the City. This article, reprinted with permission, was first published in the Gospel Herald (Dec. 23, 1997) when he was Mennonite Board of Missions urban ministry director, pastor of Westward Church of the Living Word (Buffalo), and adjunct professor in Houghton College’s pastoral and church ministries program.
Our children are among the most important things given to us in our lives. With this gift comes the responsibility of passing on faith. This can be a daunting task in a cultural climate that isn’t always friendly to followers of Jesus.
The Desire of our Hearts
Maeyken van Deventers expresses the desire of our hearts when she writes to her children, “I seek the salvation of your souls; believe me, and no one else, that you may come to me and live forever.” Maeyken wrote this from a Rotterdam prison in 1572. She was one of the female Anabaptist martyrs whose final letters are preserved for us in Martyr’s Mirror.
These letters, written by imprisoned wives and mothers facing impending death, show us what they thought was most important—a primary commitment to God which led them to desire their children’s salvation, urge them to fear the Lord, and bequeath them with the true treasure of a mother’s testimony and faithful death.
Family is Secondary
These women viewed their families and life together as secondary to their life with God; they would sooner leave their family than leave their faith. Adriaenken Jans reminded her husband that they had built their house on the rock of Christ, and martyrdom was the cost they would pay for their house.
This was not a cold-hearted stoicism; great affection and longing was also conveyed. Janneken Muntsdorp, writing to her infant daughter, expressed how well suited she and her husband were and that nothing could have separated them except a desire to do the Lord’s will. Soetgen van den Houte’s letter to her children is filled with tearful prayer, loving admonishment, and terms of tender affection.
Choosing the narrow way of primary allegiance to Christ was not always easy. Maeyken Wens admitted in a letter to her husband that she was struggling with being thankful for all that was happening to her, and that parting was harder than she had imagined. “Oh, how easy it is to be a Christian, so long as the flesh is not put to the trial, or nothing has to be relinquished; then it is an easy thing to be a Christian.”
Entrusting Children to God
Working through this struggle, the women came to a place of entrusting their children to God. They did not blame him for what was happening to them, but in trusting that their persecution was part of his foreordained plan, they also trusted that he would care for their children.
Soetken, whose husband had already been martyred, wrote to her soon-to-be orphaned children, “When I thought that for Christ’s sake we must separate from all that we love in this world I committed all to the will of the Lord.” Maeyken’s final letter to her son, written just before her death, informs him that her struggle has been met with God’s grace: “The Lord takes away all fear; I did not know what to do for joy, when I was sentenced. . . I cannot fully thank my God for the great grace which He has shown me.”
Encouraging a Death-Defying Commitment
Out of their own death-defying commitment to God, these mothers urged their children to a similar decision. In their concern for the children’s salvation, they encouraged them to learn to read and write, because in this way they would gain understanding and wisdom. The importance of this for the Anabaptists is evident in their Scripture-filled letters; in reading you can know the Scriptures for yourself and come to an understanding of salvation.
Six months before her death, Maeyken Wens urged her oldest son, Adriaen, to begin to fear the Lord, being old enough to perceive good and evil. She pressed him to join himself to those that fear the Lord, and to write her with his decision. She wanted a better letter than the last two!
The Fear of the Lord
The fear of the Lord is a predominant theme in these final letters. Whether writing to believing children, or to those “of the flesh”, the mothers commended the narrow way. Anna warned Isaiah that this way is found by few and walked by even fewer, since some regard it as too severe, even though they see it is the way to life. “Where you hear of the cross, there is Christ; from there do not depart.”
To fear the Lord is to follow the example of Christ and others who have suffered. Persecution is to be expected. Do not for this reason fail to join the fellowship of true believers.
To fear the Lord is to obey. The children were to obey those who took care of them now, as long as it was not contrary to God. Their mothers instructed them in the specifics of speech, diligence, prayer, simplicity and generosity, among others. With their own lives as examples, the women encouraged their children to forsake pleasures of this world for eternal reward. Soetgen wrote, “We are of such good cheer to offer up our sacrifice that I cannot express it. I could leap for joy when I think of the eternal riches which are promised to us as our inheritance.”
Testaments Our Inheritance
And so, they wrote their final testaments, viewing the testimony of their word and death as the true treasure they left with their children. Soetgen recognized this was not a memorial of silver, gold, or jewels, but something more lasting; if her children paid heed to this testament they would gain more treasure by it than if she had left them perishable riches.
The letters of these martyrs are also our inheritance. They offer us wisdom for ordering our lives and passing on our faith. We are left with questions of priority, vision, and urgency.
Is our first priority God and his kingdom? In our desire to give our children every opportunity in this life, are we in danger of neglecting this first priority? What are we communicating to our children?
What is our vision for our children or those we influence? Recently I took some time to think about this vision, to write it out, and to begin praying it. The next step is to share it with the ones I carry in my heart.
Do We Sense the Urgency?
Do we sense the urgency of these life choices? These women viewed every choice through the lens of eternity, as life and death matters. Do we shy away from this “narrow way” talk, desiring a less demanding portrayal of faith? In emphasizing the love of God, has our pendulum swung too far?
What is the narrow way? For these women, one expression of it was choosing adult believer’s baptism as a sign of their loyalty to Jesus, knowing that this baptism marked them for a baptism in blood. They did not shy away from expressing the cost to their children, but fearlessly called them to follow in the same path. In our lives, what are the “narrow way” choices we are making and calling our children to?
Recent research encourages us with the fact that the spiritual vitality of parents contributes to “sticky faith” in their children. Let these women’s examples embolden you to speak your faith and live it before your children as the richest inheritance you can leave to them.
“Fear God; this is the conclusion” – Janneken Muntsdorp, 1573.
Professor Arlene Friesen, BRS, MTS, teaches courses on Bible and Ministry and serves as registrar at Steinbach Bible College. She is a part of Morrow Gospel Church (EMMC), Winnipeg, Man.
Who Were These Women?
Anna of Rotterdam (d. 1539) has a 15-month-old son Isaiah whom she entrusts to a baker on the way to her execution, along with a letter.
Lijsken Dircks, Antwerp (d. 1552), writes to her husband Jerome Segers, also in prison.
Soetken van den Houte, Ghent (d. 1560), writes to her three children, David, Betgen, and Tanneken. Her husband had previously given his life for the truth. Her lengthy letter is full of Scripture references and quotes.
Adriaenken Jans, Dordrecht (d. 1572), writes to her husband.
Maeyken van Deventers, Rotterdam (d. 1572), writes to her four children “in the flesh” with a concern for their salvation.
Maeyken Wens, Antwerp (d. 1573), writes to her oldest son Adriaen, as well as to her husband, a minister.
Janneken Muntsdorp, Antwerp (d. 1573, at the same time as Maeyken Wens), writes to her one-month old daughter Janneken, who was born in prison and is now being cared for by relatives.
Their letters can be found in Martyr’s Mirror (453-4; 504, 515-22; 646-51; 926-9; 977-9; 981-3; 984-6).
STEINBACH, Man.—On July 16 the group met at Dan and Helen Reimer’s for a pool party. There was the usual conversation and food and then one of the divers drew blood as a result of a dive. All turned out well, except for a bit of a headache for the diver. Just a small reminder of how potential accidents are around us and how easily one takes health and so many other things in life for granted.
A few weeks earlier Curt Reimer and his son Simeon spent four days hiking the Mantario trail with his brother-in-law and two nephews. They were out there in God’s country enjoying the woods and the lakes and so on, but his comment after the hike was, “I’ll never do that again.” (Seemingly there were flying insects and foot blisters present as well.) Apparently his older son, who was not on the hike, says he is interested in hiking the trail as well. Decision time, Curt.
In late April, at a brunch at Wally and Ruth Doerksen’s, Mark Reimer reported on his time in Puerto Lopez. He was with a work team that went to repair houses after the earthquake there last year. Mark retired from a lengthy teaching career at the end of January and is looking to spend a greater amount of his time in Puerto Lopez in the future. There will be another work team going out next February, which will include bricklayer Rob Wiebe from Kleefeld EMC and others.
Wally and Ruth Doerksen spent some time with a fellow cancer survivor and his family. He also has multiple myeloma and was going through the same procedures as Wally; and so we tried to be an encouragement to him and his family.
Ruth worked with them on some housing issues they had in May and in general we tried to be the neighbours that it is so important to be. The family has since moved to London, Ont., where they have family and the girls will go to university.
Also at the end of April, Dan Friesen spoke in the Mitchell Community Church as part of a group called Sharing Our Stories of Recovery sponsored by Manitoba Schizophrenia Society and Mood Disorders. Dan has lived with bipolar disorder since a teenager and knows well the efforts required to daily maintain mental balance.
Medication, counseling, mentors, and speaking on behalf of the society have led him to a useful and productive life. He is now in the process of a career change as he is attending the University of Winnipeg to obtain his Bachelor of Education with the goal of becoming a teacher.
The group was involved with a young couple where mental health issues led to a variety of crises. Mental health affects 20 to 25 percent of our society and should be taken as seriously as any other health issue. For too long it has not been spoken about except in hushed tones and that makes it difficult for those with mental health issues to talk about their situation to others, which, in turn, likely causes more potential issues.
I have lived with depression for over twenty years, and for me it is not something that “goes away.” Medication and counseling have also helped me, but daily and weekly I try to make decisions that will have a positive reaction for not only me, but the people around me.
Understanding family and friends are also helpful. There are so many varieties of mental illness that one should be careful not to lump people into a broad category. How we relate here as neighbours is as vital a part of what we do as Christians as anything else.
A publication of the Evangelical Mennonite Conference