Mandy Baker Johnson

Living without Shadows

Month: June 2011

Growing Up Amish

Ira Wagler‘s memories of Growing up Amish provide a fascinating insight into Amish life and culture.  At times he comes across as slightly cynical, but he also writes with warmth and wit.  Ira has a very easy reading style, a little unpolished perhaps, but he keeps the reader’s interest effortlessly.  The book opens with Ira sneaking through the night, running away from home, his community and whole way of life at the age of seventeen.  From those opening words, he draws you in as he shares matter-of-factly about his birth.  As child number nine, his birth was apparently not a great event in the Wagler family.

Horses and buggies, bearded men (but not moustached because that would be unbiblical), and flowing homemade dresses provide an apparently idyllic setting.  As Ira’s account of his childhood and adolescence progresses, he gradually builds up suspense.  You know that he’s going to leave the community, but when?  And why?  What will tip him over the edge and force him to go?  The first time he leaves, sneaking away into the night with just a note for his parents, he is naive.  It’s not a well-planned move.  And before too long, he is forced to return home.  This happens another couple of times over the next nine or ten years, sometimes with his closest childhood friends, sometimes alone.  He shares honestly his struggle with trying to heed the constant advice to ‘just decide to do what’s right and then do it’, as one-by-one his friends have done.  Ira longed for true freedom.  He sought it in the Amish community, going through the arduous processes of baptism and church membership in a desperate bid for inner peace.  He didn’t find it.  He sought it by running away into the ‘world’ and living a relatively wild and rebellious life.  But that also produced more problems than it solved.

Ira seemed doomed to repeat the pattern of running away, feeling the need to return, screwing up his determination and returning.  Only to be overcome by oppression and and the need to run away again.  Eventually, heartsick and depressed, Ira cried out to God.  Not in the written, stilted prayers of his fathers, but in a desperate cry for help.  God answered his prayer by bringing Sam into his life.  Sam was not born Amish, but immersed himself into the community as an adult.  Ira and Sam developed a deep friendship.  Sam quietly showed Ira Christ’s love, and in doing so, lead him to the Source of love.  Ira finally realised that Jesus had died for him.  As he puts it:  ‘He who gives life to the lifeless gave life to me’.  From the moment he accepted Jesus as his saviour, he knew immediate, lasting peace and joy.  He gradually came to realise that the Amish way of life was not for him, but this time he was completely open about leaving.  No more sneaking away.

As I read this book, several words came to my mind about the Amish:  romantic, oppressive, community-minded, austere, simple, hospitable, welcoming, gracious.  At times I laughed over Ira’s funny insights and the crazy antics he and his friends got up to; at times I read of the heartbreak and tragedy through tears in my eyes.  I even put a hand over my mouth in horror a couple of times.  I appreciate Ira’s honesty in opening up this rather closed community through his story.  And for showing that only with Christ is it possible to live life to the full.

Reviewed for Tyndale House through NetGalley.

‘My Nursery, 1852’ by Elizabeth Prentiss

While reading Feminine Threads by Diana Lynn Severance I came across the story of Elizabeth Prentiss.  She was a Victorian Christian lady who cared for the sick and provided pastoral support within her husband’s church, in addition to looking after her family.  Then deep sorrow struck.  In 1852, her four-year-old son Eddy died, followed a few months later by her tiny baby girl.  This is a poem Elizabeth wrote out of her grief:

I thought that prattling boys and girls
Would fill this empty room;
That my rich heart would gather flowers
From childhood’s opening bloom.
One child and two green graves are mine,
That is God’s gift to me:
A bleeding, fainting, broken heart –
That is
my gift to Thee.

Are you broken-hearted because of losing a precious little treasure?  Or grieving because you long for ‘prattling boys and girls to fill [an] empty room’?  Do what Elizabeth did, and what I have done:  give your broken heart to God.  He specialises in mending what is broken and is deeply compassionate.  Even if you’re angry with Him, tell Him.  He is big enough to take your anger and grief, giving you peace instead.  He will give you beauty for ashes, and joy instead of mourning. 

Poem used by kind permission of Christian Focus Publications.

Feminine Threads

Feminine Threads: Women in the Tapestry of Christian History by Diana Lynn Severance is a brand-new release by Christian Focus Publications.  It looks at women from the time of Jesus through to the present day.  All kinds are mentioned, from queens and noblewomen to commoners and slaves.  Women from different denominations with varying views of the Bible all play their part.  There are 12 chapters covering 2,000 years of Church history.  Pace is good, the style is very readable, and the layout is clear with intriguing text boxes here and there with extra information and little titbits complementing the main text.  Each chapter heading shows the era being covered along with a relevant Bible verse.

The early chapters reveal the high opinion Jesus had of women.  They are mentioned many times (about one third) in the Gospels and New Testament.  With the birth of the Early Church, the status of women rose.  Often when a new region was being evangelised, it was the women who first embraced the good news of Jesus, becoming ‘the gateway [for the Gospel] into pagan families’.  They lived out the apostles’ teachings, and many pagan husbands – even kings and rulers – were won to Christ through the faithful prayers and godly example of their wives.  Women were no longer forced into marriage, becoming the property of their husbands.  They were allowed to serve God by remaining single if they wished, and widows (instead of being disgraced by their widowhood) were frequently encouraged to remain single.  Single women, and widows in particular, were given responsibilities within the Church of caring for the poor and sick, and sharing the Gospel with and discipling other women.

The Church suffered severe persecution in the early centuries, and a surprising number of its martyrs was female.  Some endured horrific deaths for the sake of Christ, and one can only admire these brave, faithful women.

Diana Lynn Severance covers how the Canon of Scripture was put together, also dealing with later books claiming apostolic authority that were actually written in the second century and, therefore, not included in the Bible.  Traditions crept into the Church that are not biblical.  For example, the Gospels teach that Mary Magdalene was healed of seven demons; they say nothing of the tradition of her having been a prostitute.  Mary, Jesus’ mother, came to be exalted and eventually worshipped.  Every time the Church drifted into extremes and error, it was because it stopped following the Bible.

It was refreshing to read about the women, as well as the men, of the Reformation who were used in getting the Church back on track with Bible truths.

Throughout history, the pendulum has swung back and forth between truth and error, between Bible and tradition.  Whenever the Bible has been upheld, women have had God-given fulfilling roles, family life has been honoured and social injustices such as abortion and slavery have been stopped.  Whenever humans think they know best, women are very often downtrodden or frustrated, family life has broken down and social injustices have increased.

Feminine Threads is inspiring; I am part of a wonderful sisterhood that is driven by love for God, has been greatly used in building up the Church, has won husbands to Christ, and, often, just quietly gets on with whatever God has called us to.  I can’t recommend this book highly enough.

(And I am so much looking forward to one day having a good natter with the women mentioned in the pages of Feminine Threads!)

Christian Focus Publications provided me with a complimentary copy of this book for the purposes of review. 

Is The Unborn Really A Human Being?

I have recently read Why Pro-Life? by Randy Alcorn.  It is a very well-written book explaining clearly and logically that unborn babies – from conception to birth – are human beings who must be protected, nurtured and respected.  And, therefore, abortion and even taking the ‘morning after pill’ is wrong.  In one of the chapters, Randy Alcorn quotes pro-lifer Scott Klusendorf who points out that there are only four differences between a pre-born and a newborn.  These differences may easily be remembered using the acronym SLED:

Size:  Are big people more human than small people?

Level of Development:  Are 25-year-olds more human than 8-year-olds, since they are cleverer and stronger?

Environment:  Does being inside a house make you more human than being outside it?  Does being located inside your mother’s womb make you less human than being outside it?

Degree of Dependency:  Are people dependent on kidney dialysis or pacemakers less human than those who have no need of such dependence?  If people are less human because they are dependent, does that make it okay to kill them? 

7 Reasons I Love My Church

Last weekend Grace Church went away together.  We had a wonderful time, Stuart Bell (New Life Church, Lincoln) and our pastor Nick Sharp spoke, there were great times of ministry, and, best of all, God was with us.  It was also a special anniversary for Adrian and me; on the weekend away last year in Newark, we were welcomed as members into the Grace family.  One year on, I’ve been pondering on why I love my church so much, and why I look forward to being with them every Sunday and mid-week.

1)  God-centered:  Jesus is genuinely loved and honoured.  At every meeting we celebrate His majesty, authority, grace and compassion.  We remember with thankful hearts what He did for us at the cross:  defeating Satan and the curse of sin, sickness and death, and providing a way for us to have an intimate friendship with God.  We welcome God’s presence among us by His Holy Spirit.  I love seeing God visibly at work in people’s lives. 

2)  Word-centered:  We love the Bible; it is taught faithfully every Sunday and in our mid-week Community Groups.  We are encouraged to read it, study it, memorise it, meditate on it and obey it.  It’s a key way of getting to know God, and our desire is to know Him more and more deeply.

3)  Great Worship:  The worship is real and from the heart.  There’s an intimacy about it that I love.  We don’t just sing cold truths about God; we sing to Him, passionately declaring our love for Him and dependence on Him, acknowledging His power and authority in and over our lives.  The spiritual gifts are practiced.  I admit that this took a little bit of getting used to, coming from a reformed, non-charismatic background.  On our first Sunday at Grace Church, someone brought a prophetic picture of a sweetshop crammed with all manner of delicious sweets, chocolates, lollipops, etc.  In the picture, people pressed their noses up against the window, longing to enjoy the sweets and candies inside but not taking the plunge of stepping through the open door.  That picture spoke clearly to me:  I could see these people at Grace Church had a dimension in their Christian lives that I didn’t have.  Jesus told a woman He met by a well in Samaria that one day His followers would worship Him in spirit and in truth.  Worshipping God with the aid of His Holy Spirit, using spiritual gifts (especially tongues and prophecy) and the wonderful truths of His Word is an incredibly uplifting, instructive, edifying experience.  It’s alive and real; it’s about a Person that we truly adore and are in awe of.

4)  Growing Together:  The expectation is that we grow together in God.  We expect to see God at work in our lives.  I love the fact that not only do we pray for one another during ministry times in meetings, but it is a common sight to see twos and threes sat praying together after the meeting.  And it’s not just physical needs we pray for, like provision of jobs, help during exams, etc.  But we pray for inner needs, for deliverance from fear or habitual sin, for a more intimate walk with God.  In general conversation, it’s completely natural to share what God is doing in your life, and normal to look for Him doing more.

5)  Expectantly Prayerful:  It is great to be part of a church that asks God to do things and then looks for Him to answer.  A big thing I’ve learned in the last eighteen months is that God delights to bless us, He wants to do far more for us than we desire or are willing to ask Him.  It’s a joy to be part of a church that asks and sees God drawing people to Jesus.  It’s great to be part of a church that believes God heals today, not only by using doctors and medicine, but miraculously.  Through prayer alone we have seen limbs grown to normal length, backs healed, paralysis completely lifted, and (in my own case) healing from cerebellar ataxia.  It is exciting to go on adventures of faith as a church family and as individuals. 

6)  No Gossip:  In the two years I’ve been there, I’ve not heard any gossip.  This is a great blessing.  It means that people can sing out prophetically and in tongues in our meetings without fear of being laughed at or belittled (who cares if they don’t always hit the high notes or go flat?).  It means that you can share a personal need during the ministry time and be lovingly prayed for and supported, not judged or have your problem gossiped about to others.  It means church is a safe environment, where you can be yourself, practice the gifts, and grow in God.  Believe me, this is invaluable and, sadly, highly unusual.

7)  Love Nottingham, Love the Nations:  There is a real desire to actively share the amazing God we know with those around us.  We want to see Him move in our city, to save people out of sin and addiction, and to bring healing to broken relationships, hearts, minds and bodies.  We pray and we act.  Doubtless we could do more, but we try to use the resources we have.  We also have a heart for the nations.  One of the things that drew Adrian and me to Grace Church is the fact that mission is not just talked about and prayed for, but it is done.  Our friend Ruth was sent out to Central Asia last October, and our friends James and Ruth are beginning training in Bible translation next month.  People are encouraged to go, as well as give and pray.

Grace Church is not perfect; it’s made up of imperfect and unlikely people brought together simply because we love God and want to see Jesus honoured and famous in our city, our nation and our world.

Two Wars

When Tyndale House offered Two Wars by Nate Self as a free ebook recently, I very nearly did not bother to download it.  While vaguely grateful for the men and women of the Armed Forces in Afghanistan, I assumed Two Wars would be full of fighting, army jargon and just not my cup of tea.  But it kept playing on my mind until in the end I went to Tyndale’s website and downloaded it.  I am so glad I did.  Far from being boring and ‘jargony’, it gives a fascinating insight into the life of a soldier – Nate Self is open and honest, writing in a very descriptive, easy-to-read style.  Having begun to read, I found I could not put the book down.

In the first half of the book, Nate Self shares his growing passion for the army, in particular the US Rangers – a highly specialised unit and tight-knit team:

In our unit, we don’t wear markings or nametags.  We don’t need them, anyway, in such a tight team.  Despite our coverings of body armor, weapons, and gear, we recognize each other by the way we hold our rifles, by the way we dive for cover, by the way we move in the shadows.

Nate Self describes the unit’s excitement in being deployed to Afghanistan, a short time after the 9/11 attacks on the Twin Towers.  He shares openly about frustration with postponed missions, and his own struggle with wrong attitudes.  He hated Al-Quaeda and was eager to kill in this war on terror.  But his close friendship with the unit’s chaplain enabled him, before God, to get ‘a good grasp on where [his] attitude should be for the rest of [his] deployment’.  He was able to see himself more clearly, not ‘eager to kill in anger’ but as an ‘instrument of justice in the United States goverment’.

The unit was clear about why they were there:

Just in time for the mission, one of the Rangers received a package from his grandmother in Brooklyn that made us all feel like we were destined to make history.  He opened a large cardboard box to find fifty navy blue T-shirts, half of them displaying the New York Police Department logo and half displaying the Fire Department of New York emblem.  That’s why we’re here….  We decided right then that we’d wear the shirts under our uniforms on every mission.

Nate Self takes the reader in imagination in the helicopter sent out on a rescue mission; one that was doomed, although the soldiers had no idea of what they would face when they set out.  As I read, I leapt out of the crashed helicopter with the unit, crouched in the snow, and fought for my life and my colleagues on that freezing cold, inhospitable mountain.  I cried as I read of him seeing his colleagues die, his utter helplessness as he called again and again for back-up on the two-way radio, only to be told a rescue unit could not be sent until nightfall.  It is graphic, descriptive, real.  His faith shines through strongly, partly evidenced by his knee-jerk reaction of cyring out ‘Jesus Christ’ when under unrelenting gunfire.

Nate Self shows the sacrifice that soldiers make when they fight for freedom.  In the second half of the book, he shares the terrible psychological impact that war had on his life.  For me ‘post-traumatic stress disorder’ abruptly ceased to be words sometimes heard on the news.  It became real as I read of the terrible toll it takes on minds and lives.  As Stu Weber writes in the Afterword:  ‘The ‘journey back’ to life and living, after staring death and dying in the face, is a long one’.

This book is an eye-opener but, in a strange way, an intensely satisfying read.  It gave me a fresh respect for the men and women of the Armed Forces and the real – ongoing – sacrifice they make.  I am so glad that I chose to download it.

Painful Praise

I love to sing.  I look forward all week to meeting with my Grace family on a Sunday when we all sing out praises to God together.  I find it easy to wake up in the morning and immediately start warbling away, singing and humming my way through the day.  But what about when things are difficult?  

In the first century, the writer to a group of Jewish Christians exhorted his readers to ‘continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God’ (Hebrews 13:15).  They knew all about life being tough; they were being persecuted and hounded by the authorities.  Some were in prison for their faith and others had had their possessions vandalised.  The first century was a dangerous time to be a Christian, not unlike some places of the world today….  Sometimes it can feel like a sacrifice to offer up praise to God.  But if we’re in a dark place with no end in sight, it is vital that we still praise God.  Let me share why painful praise is so important.

When first century missionaries Paul and Silas went to Philippi (Acts 16) they taught good news about Jesus.  At first people listened quite happily.  But then God used Paul to heal a slave girl who was demon-possessed.  The girl’s owners were furious because the demon had enabled the girl to tell fortunes, which had made them a lot of money.  When this source of easy-income abruptly ceased, they caused trouble for Paul and Silas.  The two missionaries were unfairly accused, humiliated by having their clothes stripped off them in public, and then brutally beaten.  They were thrown into jail and had their feet fastened in stocks, which would have forced their legs apart, causing maximum discomfort and muscle cramps.  Incredibly, instead of blaming God for the mess they were in, or groaning over their painful bloody backs and cramping legs, Paul and Silas began to sing hymns and pray.  Amazing.

Praising God affected Paul and Silas:  fear and anger can’t dwell in the positive atmosphere of praising God.  As darkness flees when we open the curtains and let in the light, so darkness in our lives can’t remain when we are praising God.  Last year I was very ill with cerebellar ataxia and ME.  There were times when every ounce of concentration and energy went into simply breathing, and the darkness threatened to overwhelm me.  But every day I chose to praise God.  Often I could only sing slowly in a faint, shaky voice one verse of a hymn.  But because I chose to rejoice in God and to sincerely declare aloud:  ‘Your lovingkindness is better than life’, I experienced impossible joy and peace and God’s loving presence.  Painful praise made a huge difference to Paul and Silas.  And it made a huge difference to me, too.

Praising God affected the other prisoners:  as Paul and Silas encouraged each other in the Lord, their hearts were filled with supernatural courage.  The other prisoners were so impacted by this – after all they were in the same situation but hadn’t acted as Paul and Silas did – that even when an earthquake struck that night, breaking open the jail, no one tried to escape.  Paul was able to reassure the despairing jailor that all the prisoners were safe.  This had a huge impact on the jailor; he had a revelation that night of God’s power and grace on his life.  If we will praise God through painful circumstances, it will impact those around us.  It’s in the times of pain that our faith is seen to be authentic.

Praising God affected God:  Paul and Silas’ praises and prayers brought a response from God – an earthquake.  God delights in our audible joy in Him, and praising Him brings forth His mighty power from heaven to break into impossible situations and set people free.  As I praised God through last year’s illness, I experienced a gradual healing until I was finally free of it.  God lavishes grace and blessings on us when we pour out our praise to Him, especially when praising Him costs us.

This post is based on a sermon preached on 17th April 2011 by a friend of mine, Jon Mead.  Listen here.

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