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Thirty years ago on April 11, I became a father. Needless to say—as anyone who is a parent can attest—this changed my life in profound ways. Is anyone ever ready to be a parent? To love is to risk, and that is the essence of parenting.

This month my blogs reflect on thirty years of parenting by paying tribute to my four children. Each one of my children has their own story and it is not my place to tell it in a public forum. One of the things all our kids have in common is their creativity and so this month I will post a link for something they have done that is available online. I will then write something about that particular form of creativity as a way of giving tribute to my kids and their creative talents and as a way to reflect on thirty years of parenting.

My oldest son, Joel, has recorded a number of folk music albums, some with only a nylon string guitar and voice. It is plaintive, sometimes soothing, sometimes haunting, always pure and true as folk music is.

https://joelbrandt.bandcamp.com/

The first form of popular music I was exposed to was folk/country/gospel music: the Carter Family, Johnny Cash, and Bob Dylan. Folk music—the music of the people, with acoustic instruments and sparse production, lyrics about every-day pain and pleasure—is still close to my heart. I particularly like the simplicity and honesty of it; its unpretentiousness, earthiness, and authenticity.

The first thing we have to do when talking folk music is to recognize the recent passing of folk music legend, John Prine. My list of favourite folk artists is long and includes all of the above, along with the following in no particular order: Blue Rodeo, Gordon Lightfoot, Steve Bell, Emmy Lou Harris, the Byrds, Great Big Sea, and the late Mark Heard; super-groups such as Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, the Traveling Wilburys, and the Lost Dogs. And to bring it back to my kids; they have introduced me to a number of great young artists such as the Great Lake Swimmers, First Aid Kit, the Strumbellas, and the Avett Brothers.

But my favourite folk artist of all is Bruce Cockburn. The combination of his guitar virtuoso and the most insightful lyrics of any songwriter I know is what vault him to this position—and he is Canadian! It is hard to decide my favourite Cockburn album. I really like “Dancing in the Dragon’s Jaws” and “Humans” from his early era and the unique production of T-Bone Burnett on “Nothing but a Burning Light” and “Dart to the Heart” and the maturity, variety, and creativity of later releases “Life Short Call Now” and “Bone on Bone”. Although I appreciate Cockburn’s creativity in branching out into blues, jazz, gospel, pop and rock, he has always stayed true to his folk roots in his social protest lyrics and raw musicianship. Joel and I went to see his “Bone on Bone” concert for Joel’s 29th birthday last year; and, although aging was evident in his posture and movements, the man can still sing and play as well as ever. What a treat!

Fifteen years of teaching about Anabaptism has generated many great discussions about how to address the issues in our time that the Anabaptists faced in the 16th century. These discussions are the ultimate way to practice the Anabaptist value of communal discernment. Unfortunately, this year we have to do a very “un-Anabaptist” thing and isolate from each other! But ironically, this is for the purpose of protecting the health of our most vulnerable which is for the good of our community.

In the 16th century baptism was the outward act that gave this radical group a nickname and symbolized the break from the powers of the establishment. Numerous other groups (Baptists, Pentecostals, Brethren, Alliance, Evangelical Free, etc.) have also embraced this practice. Perhaps one of the things that sets Anabaptist groups apart most visibly of late is the commitment to pacifism (peaceful actions toward peace). This continues to be a break from the establishment which relies on violence to gain and maintain power. Pacifists claim that the greatest power in the universe is not lethal violence but love, as demonstrated by Jesus in his life, teachings, death, and resurrection. There are lots of Gospel texts that demonstrate this but let’s start with the most unlikely ones.

LUKE 22:35-38 “BUY SOME SWORDS”

Jesus tells the disciples to buy swords, which seems to contradict everything Jesus stood for, in fact contradicts his actions just a few verses later [49-51] where, when Peter cuts off the ear of a man, Jesus heals the ear and tells Peter to put the sword away.

This text must be taken in context of this later incident where Jesus clearly is not advocating the use of the sword [and in the context of his entire ministry].

So what does Jesus mean here when he tells them to “take a purse and a bag and sell your cloak so you can buy a sword”?

All of the commentaries I checked [none written by pacifist Mennonites] said that Jesus command here is figurative. Jesus refers back to earlier times where the disciples were sent out to minister [9:1-9; 10:1-12] and they were not to take any provisions but rely on the hospitality of their host towns. Here he is saying that times are changing. In the future they will be on their own and should not expect to receive hospitality. They should take provisions and expect trouble and peril. The purse, bag and sword are figurative for preparedness and vigilance in the face of a difficult journey ahead.

The disciples misunderstand his metaphorical reference to the sword and show him two swords. Jesus dismisses them without any explanation. Some translations have, “That is enough” or similar renderings [NIV, NRSV] but the best renderings are “Enough! Enough!” [NEB] and “Enough of that!” [CEV]. It would be ludicrous for Jesus to say that two swords would be enough against an entire army legion; rather, what he is saying seems to be with a tone of exasperation that the disciples have misunderstood him [yet again!]. “Enough of this sword-talk. You just don’t get it. I have a mission to accomplish which involves yielding to the sword.”

These events begin to unfold shortly after this conversation [22:39-23:55]. His crucifixion is the beginning of the trouble for the disciples and subsequent persecution of the early church in the first few centuries bears out the accuracy of Jesus’ pronouncement. Trouble surely did come and the early church lived in obedience to Christ by not taking up the sword, but rather dying as martyrs.

LUKE 12:49-53 [Matthew 10:34-36] “I HAVE NOT COME TO BRING PEACE”

The statement here that Christ makes that he has “come to bring division and fire” again seems to contradict the essence of the Gospel, i.e. that he has come to bring life, healing, reconciliation and peace [Luke 4:18-19, 6:27-36, John 10:10, many healing miracles, Ephesians 2:11-22, etc.]. Unless Jesus is just blatantly contradicting his primary mission, how are we to understand this text?

[50] Fire refers to judgment. Judgment is about justice and setting things right, not so much about punishment.

[51] The baptism here refers to the cross which is a judgment, a scandal, an offense that caused and causes division. Jesus longs for it to be accomplished, not with glee but with a sense of inevitability. It is why he came, “let’s get on with it.”

[52ff] To enter into peace with God, people need to be roused out of their lost condition toward repentance. Since not all will choose to follow Christ, he will bring division with his call to repentance. It may divide families as some decide to follow and others do not. In this sense the consequences of following the call to peace brings division and strife. It does not change God’s desire “that all may come to repentance” but the reality is that the call for decision is strong and not all will greet it with enthusiasm.

An annotated paraphrase might get at the meaning best [based on Peterson’s Message]:

I’ve come to start a fire on this earth – how I wish it were blazing right now! I’ve come to change everything, to turn everything right-side up [i.e. to bring SHALOM or peace to all relationships] – how I long for it to be finished! Do you think I’ve come just to keep the old status quo and keep everything the way it always was?! Of course not! I’ve come to disrupt and confront the present order of things! [That’s the only way we will get peace on earth!] From now on…

That’s why there will be these divisions he describes.

Anabaptist literally means to re-baptize. This was a nickname given to a group of radical reformers in the 16th century. A number of denominations have sprung from this movement. Adult believers baptism was seen as the primary exterior sign of separation from the Christendom Empire of that time. Times are different now. Should churches that practice believers baptism [Mennonite, Baptist, Alliance, Pentecostal, etc.] still insist on re-baptism for Christians who come to our churches from pedo-baptist [Methodist, Presbyterian, Reformed, Anglican, Roman Catholic, etc.] traditions?

Within the Mennonite churches I’m familiar with there are a variety of perspectives. Consider the [edited and paraphrased] perspectives of two well-known scholars:

Newcomers who are attracted to [Mennonite] faith and practice should recognize that the community they are about to join has an identity rooted in the central symbol of believers baptism. Adult believers who were baptized as infants who have fellowshiped with Mennonites and want to formally join a congregation might think of their baptism as something analogous to a naturalization ceremony that foreigners undergo to become a citizen of a country. Even though they may have been living in that new country for many years, the naturalization ceremony marks a clear, public statement about the seriousness of their commitment. Even though it seems as if not much has changed in the basic character of the person, the event carries with it a new set of privileges and responsibilities that do indeed have meaning. In a similar way, believers baptism fixes our commitments to God, the church, and daily discipleship in a moment of time that is accessible to public memory. It celebrates and anchors a pattern of life already long in formation. [John Roth]

Consider the case of one who has been baptized as an infant and has been nurtured in the faith by church and family. At the age of fifteen, after studying the church’s catechism for a year, this person makes a personal confession of faith affirming the earlier baptism done in their name at birth and commits themselves publically to Christ and to their church through a confirmation ceremony. This person moves to a new community, choosing to affiliate with the local [Mennonite] church, and makes the case that the act of the mother [pedobaptist] church was a legitimate baptism affirmed by the present confession of faith. By accepting this person, we are making an exception regarding one detail—the order in which the water is applied to the body. We are encouraging greater unity in the body and emphasis on major issues, not details. This is not to deny the significance of the historical Anabaptist rejection of the state church filled with reprobates, since both churches in our hypothetical case are “believers churches” for all practical purposes. [Lynn Jost]

What do you think?

Although both are good arguments, I have changed my position and have come to embrace the latter practice, along with my present congregation. In our text, Denny Weaver said that “baptism was not the defining issue [even] at the beginning of the radical movement… it was a symbol of discipleship or the following of Jesus [which] became the normative way to discuss the nature of the Christian life, which [in turn] made rejection of the sword a central focus in Anabaptist identity.”

The town clerk: “The hangman shall convince you; he shall dispute with you, arch-heretic.”

Michael Sattler: “I appeal to the Scriptures.”

So ends the dramatic dialogue between the town clerk and Michael Sattler at his trial as recorded in Martyr’s Mirror. Along with other reformers of the sixteenth century, the Anabaptists saw the Bible as the primary authority for their life of faith and way of being church. However, the Anabaptists had their own unique way of reading and using Scripture that continues to this day. What is this unique perspective on reading and using Scripture?

For me, the 2006 Mennonite World Conference statement about Scripture not only states this view for the global Mennonite church of today but also captures the essence of the way sixteenth century Anabaptists viewed Scripture. “As a faith community, we accept the Bible as our authority for faith and life, interpreting it together under Holy Spirit guidance, in light of Jesus Christ to discern God’s will for our obedience.” I see four themes in this statement; let’s examine them one at a time.

 “As a faith community… interpreting it together”

In the sixteenth century the Roman Catholics relied on the church hierarchy consisting of popes and bishops to provide the authoritative reading of Scripture and Reformers looked to pastors and theologians. For the Anabaptists it was important that all members of the community were involved in reading and discerning the Bible. The Bible was best read and interpreted by ordinary people rather than by leaders and learned powerful people. Women as well as men gathered around tables to study the Bible and thus Anabaptists were sometimes falsely accused of having their women in common because they so freely gathered with the men around the Bible study table!

The Bible is read by and for the faith community. The primary use of Scripture was to guide the faith and life of the church. Conrad Grebel writes in his letter to Thomas Muntzer that “we took the Scripture in hand and consulted it on all kinds of issues.” It was a communal project to consult the Bible on whatever they were struggling with in their life together. The Bible was a primary source of guidance for the church but Hans Denck adds a warning: “Let him who honors Scripture but is cold in divine love beware lest he make Scripture an idol.” The loving community was the context for proper interpretation. John Howard Yoder states it even more strongly when he says that “the text can be properly understood only when disciples are gathered together to discover what the Word has to say to their needs and concerns.”

This is communal interpretation of the Bible is not unlike the Bereans we read about in Acts 17:11-12 who studied the Scriptures to see if what Paul was preaching was actually true. Do church groups still gather around the Bible to see if what their pastors are preaching has integrity? Too often in the modern era we rely on professionals to interpret the Bible for us rather than gathering together as faith communities around a table. Then we dismiss them if the interpretations do not please us! Although pastors and professors have a role to play as members of the community, it is everyone’s responsibility to participate in reading and interpreting Scripture for our life together. This is why Mennonites sometimes take so long to reach a resolution on issues! Let us be patient and humble as we read and study the Bible together on the issues we face in our time.

 Under Holy Spirit guidance

A few generations ago much was made of the authority of Scripture based on elusive concepts such as inerrancy and infallibility. For Anabaptists “the authority is found not so much in the text of the Bible as in the Spirit of God that initially inspired the text and is given to the church to guide it in understanding and use of the text,” writes C. Norman Kraus. The south German strain of Anabaptists emphasized what they called the “inner word” of the Spirit over the “outer word” of the Bible. They noted the danger of relying on the “dead letter” instead of the “living word.” Hans Denck warns us again that “whoever does not have the Spirit and presumes to find it in Scripture, looks for light and finds darkness.” After all, Jesus did not say, “I will send you the Bible to guide you into all truth;” rather, he said, “I will send you the Spirit to guide you into all truth.” (John 16:13; 14:26)

It is fine to say that the reading and interpretation of Scripture happens with the guidance of the Holy Spirit. How does this look? The guidance of the Spirit is an intangible—like the wind. How can two groups of people both gather in community listening to the Spirit yet come up with variant readings? How do we recognize the voice of the Spirit if the Spirit speaks in unconventional or non-traditional terms? There is no formula for these dilemmas, although Hans Hut has some good advice. “The Word must be received with a true heart through the Holy Spirit and become flesh in us. This happens through great terror and trembling.” Again, some humility and patience are in order. The third statement may also help us out.

Sometimes we deal with the elusiveness of the Spirit’s guidance by saying that the Spirit will never reveal anything to anyone that is contrary to Scripture. We can also affirm that the Spirit will never reveal anything in Scripture that is contrary to the person of Jesus Christ.

 In light of Jesus Christ

Pilgram Marpeck agrees. “Only that which Christ spoke before and taught, and no other word does the Spirit recall or instruct by way of wisdom to His own.” Menno Simons’ motto verse was 1 Corinthians 3:11. “Other foundation can no one lay than what is laid, which is Jesus Christ.”

This third emphasis adds another unique element to the Anabaptist way of reading Scripture—it is sometimes called a Christo-centric hermeneutic wherein all Scripture is interpreted through the lens of Christ.

The sixteenth century Anabaptists emphasized nachfolge Christi or “following Jesus” as their central motif. Jesus is the climax of the redemption story and the ultimate revelation of what God is like. While the Old Testament looks forward to Jesus and the letters look back to expound on the significance of Jesus, the stories of Jesus in the Gospels are the center and pinnacle of the Bible. Therefore Anabaptists have sometimes been said to have a “canon within a canon” because they highlight the Gospels. The centrality of the person of Jesus then influences how we read and interpret all other sections of the Bible. For example, the war texts in the Old Testament narratives and Paul’s commands for women to be silent in the church must be read in light of Jesus’s reconciling and liberating work and teaching. This does not make our interpretive work any easier but it does give us a good lens through which to read the Bible.

Our authority for faith and life… To discern God’s will for our obedience

As a professor in a Bible college I have to remind myself and my students that the goal of biblical study is not theoretical knowledge but practical behavior. James exhorts believers that “even the demons believe;” thus, true “faith must be accompanied by deeds.” (James 2:14-24) While biblical literacy is a worthy pursuit, the purpose for knowing the Bible is that its message might transform our lifestyle and perspective. Hans Denck’s famous quote from the sixteenth century highlights this goal. “No one can know Christ except they follow him in life.”

There was a controversy among sixteenth century Anabaptists regarding the nature of the incarnation of Jesus. The Dutch had this peculiar belief that the flesh of Christ had a special “celestial” quality coming directly from heaven and only passed through Mary like water through a pipe. The German and Swiss Anabaptists held the more orthodox view and won the debate at a conference in 1555 but what is telling is their conclusion. The most important thing agreed upon was that obedience to Christ in every-day life and deed was more important than confessing Christ correctly in word.

With the heavy emphasis on community, Holy Spirit, and practical obedience to the way of Jesus, what about truth, what about the authority of Scripture? Scriptural authority among Mennonites is not so much a doctrine of what comes before Scripture—inspiration, but what comes after—obedience and transformation. While the Bible is important for developing our doctrinal statements, its primary authority is for how we live our lives. The best apologetic for the power of Scripture is lives that are transformed by the message it proclaims.

 

Social isolation is good for grading papers. I am reading the personal reflections of college graduates today. One of the questions they reflect on is: What is the central or core motif of my present theology? Although this month’s blogs are about my teaching of Anabaptist theology, my core theological conviction is taught more directly in my spiritual formation courses. My core motif is love, that God is Love; God created people in love, redeems people in love, and sustains people in love. All people are beloved children of God and God invites us to respond to that love by loving God and our neighbour. This is the foundation of spiritual formation. This is the Gospel—good news!

This core theological motif is especially significant in the midst of a time of fear that we live in today. “Perfect love casts out all fear.” (1 John 4:18) There are some excellent Anabaptist writings on love from the 16th century: “Concerning True Love” by Hans Denck and “Love is Like Fire” by Peter Riedemann but in the spirit of 21st century love I’m re-posting a wonderful piece written a few days ago by Fr. Richard Hendrick, OFM, translated from Spanish.

Yes, there is fear…
Yes, there is isolation…
Yes, there’s panic shopping…
Yes, there is sickness…
Yes, there is even death…
But, they say in Wuhan after so many years of noise, you can hear the birds again…
They say after a few weeks of silence, the sky is no longer full of smoke, but blue, grey and clear…
They say in the empty streets of Assisi, people are singing from their homes and balconies keeping their windows open, so that those alone can hear the voices of families around them…
They say a hotel in western Ireland, free meals are offered and delivered at home…
Today a young lady is busy handing out flyers with her number around the neighborhood so the elderly can have someone to call…
Today churches, synagogues, mosques and temples are preparing to welcome and protect the helpless, the sick, the weary…
Around the world people are slowing down and reflecting…
Around the world, people look at their neighbors in a new way…
Around the world people are waking up to a new reality, to the greatness we really are, how little control we really have, to what really matters. LOVE!
Then we pray and remember: Yes, there is fear, but there must be no hate…
Yes, there is isolation, but there doesn’t have to be loneliness…
Yes, there is panic shopping, but there doesn’t have to be selfishness…
Yes, there is sickness, but there doesn’t have to be soul disease…
Yes, there is even death, but there can always be a rebirth of love…
Wake up choosing how you should live today…
Today breathe, pause and listen, behind the torments of your fear the birds sing again…
The sky is clearing…
Spring is coming…
And we are always surrounded by love…

One of my milestones this year is that I have been teaching Anabaptist History and Theology for 15 years. To celebrate International Women’s Day today I celebrate that the Anabaptist movement was more open to involvement by women than many other traditions were and are today.

“The concept of the priesthood of believers among the Anabaptists elevated women to a role of partnership in the congregation of believers. In the state churches, Catholic and Protestant, the attitude toward women was as yet quite medieval and remained so for many years. However, in Anabaptist circles women were referred to as sisters, and were held in the highest respect.” (Myron Augsburger)

“The calling of the Spirit which provided the foundation for the Anabaptist movement was radically egalitarian and personal, even though it led individuals into a commitment to a community.” (Linda H. Hecht)

For Anabaptists, women received the same call to salvation, baptism, and discipleship that men did. Some Anabaptist women also had leadership roles in the church and many were imprisoned, tortured, and killed for their faith. Martyrs Mirror includes many testimonies of faithful women. Check out Profiles of Anabaptist Women: Sixteenth-Century Reforming Pioneers, edited by Linda A. Huebert Hecht and Arnold Snyder.

The nature of Anabaptist communities involved economic sharing and recognized the prophetic gifts of all people, not just ordained leaders. All people were involved in Bible study and spiritual discernment. In fact because the women lived and associated so freely with the men in the work of the church, the Anabaptists were often slanderously accused by their opponents for having their women in common!

It is ironic then that a number of denominations rooted in the Anabaptist movement have been so slow in welcoming women into leadership roles. Leadership roles should be determined by spiritual gifting not by genitalia!

I just got back from Manitoba where we celebrated my mom’s 80th birthday with over 80 guests at her party! Here are 10 reasons why my mom is amazing:

  1. She reads, and not just romance novels but serious literature, science, and theology!
  2. She was a leader in church and community when it was not acceptable for women to be leaders.
  3. She pursued an education and a career in psychiatric care in mid-life.
  4. She has stayed with my Dad on the farm even though it was not her ideal choice of lifestyle.
  5. She stuck with her kids when they went through stuff that may have reflected badly on her parenting but it had nothing to do with that.
  6. She lives more with less. She never had a lot of money, never spent it on herself, and always set some aside for special occasions and family trips.
  7. She listened to me rant when I was a teenager. Hmm maybe she still does.
  8. She gave me freedom to be who I was even if it was not always what she was hoping for.
  9. She named me Gareth [sword bearer] and predicted I would be a preacher [sword of the Spirit]. She was right.
  10. She loves me.

Happy birthday, Mom!