On my way back from Israel to Johannesburg, this past Wednesday, I had an extremely interesting time. I had a window seat (fortunately, because that is the only place where I have a slight possibility of sleeping on an aircraft). The aisle seat was already taken when I arrived and after sitting down we greeted each other. I assumed that the passenger was Jewish (we were flying with El AL from Tel Aviv to Johannesburg, so this was a fairly easy deduction to make). Nevertheless, I asked him whether he was living in Israel and visiting South Africa or living in South Africa and returning from a visit to Israel. He then told me that he had been to Israel for his father’s funeral. His father had died the previous Sunday and the funeral was held on the following Tuesday. What then happened was a conversation out of the book, so to speak. Hebrew had been one of my two main subjects at university and I have had an interest in the Jewish religion and customs for many years.
I started asking questions about their customs during funerals which then developed into a time of him sharing a lot from his experience of his religion, how he felt about the synagogue services, how he felt about keeping to the Shabbat, how he felt about always eating kosher food, even sharing with me one of his most intimate moments when he had circumcised his own son. His wife was five months pregnant before they realised it (they did not think that she would be able to become pregnant again) and the baby was born two months prematurely, which meant that they were only aware of two months that she was pregnant (what a bonus!) I never realised that circumcision was done only when the baby boy weighs three kilograms. I always thought that a baby had to be circumcised at 8 days.
He shared a lot about fighting with God about his father’s death (almost like Job) and struggling to come to terms with it. At one point I asked him whether the Jewish religion had an expectation of life after death, which he then rephrased to: We believe in life after life! After dinner (at 3 in the morning) he wanted to sleep and for myself it was also a memorable occasion as I slept from 3 up to about 7.30 (a record for me, admittedly with the help of a sleeping tablet – the only time I ever use it.)
After breakfast he started questioning me: How do we as Christians feel about death? When a Christian dies, will that person be with God immediately? What about suffering? Learning that my father died about seven years ago he wanted to know from me how I had handled it and if it will ever become easier to think of his father. And then an amazing question: Who killed Jesus? When I answered him that Jesus had been killed by the Jews, he looked at me in total disbelief. He had never realised this! I don’t know what he thought, but he knows nothing about the New Testament. I shared with him in short the story of Jesus and how he was crucified. And I asked him to get a New Testament and to read the four gospels and Acts in order to understand how Jesus fits in with the Jewish people of His time.
We had become friends during the nine hour flight to South Africa and he made me promise that, if I ever visit Cape Town in the future, that I will call him so that he can take me to the synagogue with him on a Saturday morning, which is the main Shabbat service. I have attended the Friday evening service in a synagogue on two occasions, but never the Saturday service.
Why was this so special to me? Mainly because I have said over and over again that evangelism can mostly only be done effectively within a relationship. There are exceptions to the rule. But the greatest compliment I received was just before I disembarked, when he gave me his business card and told me that he would be making contact with me to ask more questions about Christianity, because, as he said, most Christians don’t want to answer questions and he appreciated that I was willing to explain things to him which he didn’t understand.
What will come from this, I don’t know. It’s not that I have this strong belief that he is going to convert to Christianity. But at the very least I trust that he will feel that Christians have love for people, regardless of their faith or background and that we don’t see the rest of the world as us against them, a host of people who have to be converted as quickly as possible. Obviously I pray that he will come to true saving faith in the real Messhiach, but this will have to happen as God provides opportunities for greater interaction to take place.
I’ve just returned from a quick visit to Israel. This was the first time that I’ve had the opportunity to be there and when I returned, I said to my wife that to a certain extent I had prepared myself for a number of disappointments and possibly those were even worse than I anticipated. But it was also a privilege to have been there. We saw much more than is shown to normal tours, as this was actually a promotion for potential tour leaders (and I was invited to go because someone who would have gone withdrew at the last moment and the place was already booked and they were just looking for someone to fill the space.)
Having spoken to other people who had been to Israel before, most of them emphasise the amazing spiritual experience they had. As for myself, I had very little of this. The climax of a trip to Israel, walking the Via Dolorosa, the road which Jesus followed according to tradition to be crucified, left me more frustrated than excited. Obviously I realise that many of the so-called stations en route to the cross can never be proven to be the historical places where the things happened of which we read in the Bible. Furthermore, there are so many churches built along this route where people kneel and kiss stones and other things which are claimed to be historical, that it really becomes impossible (at least for me) to experience what really happened to Jesus.
But it was great to stand on truly historical places. One of the extras we had was a tour deep down under the city of Jerusalem where excavations are taking place to expose the original temple walls which existed in the times of Jesus (definitely not recommended for anyone suffering from claustrophobia) and this was an amazing experience. The highlight for myself was the visit to Masada where the Jews held out against a Roman siege for three years and then eventually killed each other rather than allowing them to fall into the hands of the Romans. Another great experience was being on Mount Carmel where Elijah won the match against the Ba’al prophets. The greatest irritation there was that an air force landing strip had been built at the foot of the mountain and every minute or so an F-16 (or something similar) zipped across the sky making it nearly impossible to become quiet in the presence of the Lord.
On Monday we were specially blessed when we stayed over on the banks of the Sea of Galilee at Tiberias and it was full moon. As the moon came up over the mountains surrounding the Sea of Galilee, I could really imagine Jesus sitting there with his disciples, watching the moon rise. And at least no church was built on the water!
It was good to be there. It was a privilege which I had never granted myself and probably would not have done, had it not been for this special offer that came my way. I would hardly be able to preach in the future without seeing in my mind the lay of the country. But I would never claim that this had been the climax of my spiritual road with God.
I did however have a great experience – not while in Israel, but on my way back. But I’ll write about that tomorrow.
On Sunday I went to preach at one of the branches of our church, approximately 120 km (75 miles) from where we live. This is a place known as Matsanjeni. In SiSwati, the language used in Swaziland, the name Matsanjeni literally means the place of the dry bones, such as when animals die and their bones are thrown in a heap. This specific church has some history behind it, because we used to worship in a round clay hut (commonly known as a Rondavel) which was at most 5 metres (about 16 feet) in diameter. On one Sunday morning we squashed 115 people into that church! First the adults had to enter and then the children had to find space between their feet and lastly I entered and came no further than the door. A makeshift pulpit in the form of a small table was put down on the doorstep from where I had to preach (and even served communion that day!)
Then in the year 2000, after heavy rains and floods (which also did great damage in the bordering Mocambique) the church was destroyed. After that we had to worship under a tree, but that place is hot – very hot! Fortunately, a church in South Africa partnered with us and helped us to build a new church. On the day when the church was officially opened, I preached from Ezekiel 37:1-5: The hand of the LORD was upon me, and he brought me out by the Spirit of the LORD and set me in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me to and fro among them, and I saw a great many bones on the floor of the valley, bones that were very dry. He asked me, “Son of man, can these bones live?” I said, “O Sovereign LORD, you alone know. Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones and say to them, ‘Dry bones, hear the word of the LORD! This is what the Sovereign LORD says to these bones: I will make breath enter you, and you will come to life. If you want to have a look at some photos of this area and the church, click here.
Partially we have seen these words come true. Because our church buildings are mostly in rural areas, we seldom have more than 50 or 60 people attending church on a Sunday. At Matsanjeni however, we regularly have 100 or sometimes more people attending.
But I’m getting sidetracked. On Sunday I went to visit this branch. Upon entering the building, I immediately noticed that something was different – it was as if there was more light in church. And then I realised: The church had been plastered on the inside. I indicated to the man responsible for the people at this church that I wanted to speak to him outside. There he told me that someone had given them 20 bags of cement. The church members then started collecting money and soon had enough that they could employ a builder to do the work for them. What was really wonderful for me was that they did not see it necessary to ask my permission to do this (which was the normal way of doing such things). They did not go around begging for money. They took initiative, collected money and started getting the work done. What a pleasant surprise for me. Their next step will be to smoothen the floor (which is still rough concrete) and then they will plaster the outside of the church.
Perhaps I’m reading too much into this, but I believe that I’m witnessing some dry bones coming to life through the way in which people start taking responsibility. And that’s great news!
I will only be able to blog again on 28 November. I recently received a surprise invitation to visit Israel. I will be leaving South Africa on Wednesday morning and return the following Wednesday. I’ve never had an urge to visit Israel, being well aware that things are extremely commercialised and also realising that many things are dished up to unsuspecting tourists which is just not the truth. But I believe that God has now brought this opportunity in my life and I will make the most of it. So most probably, on my return, I will write something about my impressions of this visit.
I didn’t have the time to spend on blogging yesterday. But actually this is what I want to write about today. About three weeks ago I visited the coordinator of one of our Home-Based Care projects in the south-eastern part of Swaziland. She informed me that there was some problems within the group which was making it very difficult for her to do her work. However, she did not want to tell me what it was, only that it concerned money. This was a bit upsetting to hear, because I know how easily money can become an issue and I was really afraid that an issue about money could drive these volunteers apart. I therefore made an appointment to see them last week, which was cancelled because the location which they use for weekly meetings was unavailable and eventually I went to see them yesterday.
We spent some time discussing issues about their work amongst the HIV/AIDS patients but then I informed them that I had actually also come for another reason, which was to help facilitate a discussion about the problem which had cropped up amongst them. And then a strange thing happened – I was asked to leave the room as they needed to discuss some things in private. I was slightly worried wondering if the problem had anything to do with something I had done wrong and which had upset them. Unable to think of something, I left the room and spent the next 30 minutes or so speaking to my American friend, Tim, who was very curious about the Swazi custom of having to leave a discussion.
After some time the coordinator came out. Although the door of the room was closed and I couldn’t make out what was being said, it was clear that it was quite a heated discussion taking place inside. She sat down with us and told us what had happened. Someone had given her a donation of 500 emalangeni (the Swazi currency) which is about $70. One of the caregivers had developed a serious personal problem and she then decided to give this person 100 emalangeni ($14) to try and help her. However, she had made this decision on her own and failed to inform the rest of the group beforehand about her plan. And this then led to some tension as they felt that she did not have the authority to make this decision without consulting them first.
But the thing which amazed me was when she said to me that the group felt that there was no need for me to facilitate the meeting to solve the problem. They had chosen a committee before to lead them and they felt that the committee was totally capable of handling the situation correctly. This, to them, wasn’t such a serious problem, as to make it necessary for myself to help them to solve it. Someone said to me afterwards: You mean to say that you drove 270 kilometres (170 miles) only to hear that it wasn’t really necessary! To which I answered that this was truly exciting, because it proved to me that this group of people had reached a stage of maturity which I had not given them enough credit for.
As Westerners it is often difficult for us to recognise maturity amongst non-Western people (specifically amongst Christians, in our case). Yet, the aim which Paul had in Colossians 1:28 was to preach Christ in order to present every man perfect in Christ Jesus or as it is alternately translated in the RSV, that we may present every man mature in Christ. If spiritual maturity is one of our aims in the church, why are we afraid to admit that young Christians have come to maturity?
This isn’t the first time I’ve seen things like this happening in Swaziland. But it sure was gladdening to realise that this group had already proven that they are able to solve problems, even though they were a bit reluctant at first to address the situation. I went in afterwards and complimented them on their attitude, not because I wanted to flatter them but because I truly believe that their conduct had revealed a sense of maturity which I hadn’t quite been prepared for.
Seeing that I did a PhD on Mission and Eschatology (available on the internet but unfortunately – or fortunately, depending on how interested you are in reading a thesis – only available in Afrikaans except for a summary included which was written in English), I thought that it would be good to share something of my ideas about these two topics. I’m not intending to write only about this one topic in the next few weeks, because I still want to write about other matters as well, but in between I am going to write about this.
For those who may not be familiar with the term eschatology, this concerns the teachings about the end times, but, as I continue with these posts, it will become clear that not all of us understand the same thing when we speak about eschatology. Many people, probably most “evangelical” people, consider eschatology to be the things of the future, those things which we read about in the books of Daniel and Revelations. Furthermore, most people run away from this topic because it is so difficult to speak about the things of the future. I have found very few people, other than pastors and theologians, who have the ability to speak in an understandable way about the message of Revelations, not because they are not capable of doing so, but because they consider the eschatology as something of a taboo subject. And to be quite honest, those Christians who do dare to speak about the topic, usually interpret it only, as stated above, as the things which have to do with the future – in other words they regard both Daniel and Revelation as prophesies, waiting to be fulfilled.
David Bosch was the one who really made me understand to what an extent one’s eschatological understanding influences one’s thoughts on a variety of topics, including one’s understanding of missions. In an article which he wrote in 1982 he said:
I wonder whether the real difference between “ecumenicals” and “evangelicals” (and, may I add, between different brands of “evangelicals”), does not lie in the area of eschatology… Until we clarify our convictions on eschatology, we will continue to talk at cross purposes.
When I read this paragraph and did further research on the topic, I realised that this may be the very reason why we don’t make much progress when speaking about missions in churches: our understanding of eschatology have still not been sorted out. For the past few years that I had gone to Samara in Russia, I have been teaching students at the Bible Institute there about Biblical eschatology, and it has been amazing to see, once we agree upon our understanding of eschatology, how easy it becomes to speak of missions and how alike our understanding of missions become.
In a next post on this topic, I will try to explain a number of eschatological models commonly found amongst Christians. If you are interested in the topic, you may want to evaluate yourself beforehand by answering the question how you personally understand the end times: near, far, real, symbolic, catastrophic, gradual, spiritual, social? Or perhaps something entirely different to this.