We live in a small town in a quiet little road with few cars and even less pedestrians moving around on our street. Whether this is the reason, I don’t know, but the Jehovah’s Witnesses seem to target our area for their visits. When I was still at school, our pastor told us that you never allow a Jehovah’s Witness to enter your home, you never give them money and you try and get as much literature from them that you can, which you burn as soon as they had left. Among my friends there are only a few that would get into a conversation with a Jehovah’s Witness. We, on the other hand, have made a decision many years ago that we will invite them into our home and allow them to speak to us and that we will try and keep the conversation as civil as possible. What’s the use of saying that we are Christians, only to be known as someone who sets their dogs on the Jehovah’s Witnesses?
On Tuesday I had a visit from two Jehovah’s Witnesses again. Having trained a great number of people in personal evangelism, it was interesting to me to see these two men doing virtually every mistake in the book in their approach. I opened the door and greeted them (they were standing outside the security gate) and even before I could open the gate, the one man, who was obviously the leader, started speaking. I invited them in and he went on speaking. One thing I try not to reveal when speaking to them, is that I’m a pastor, because then they will definitely not be willing to speak to me if they knew that. I felt a bit trapped when the man mentioned that he was surprised that I was at home. Before I had time to think of a reason why I could be at home without telling a lie and without saying that I’m a pastor, he went on with the conversation, hardly ever allowing me to interrupt him.
His approach, as many before him, was to prove to me that we are living in the end times – something which they seem to be amazed at when I agree. The only difference is that I have good reason to believe that we had been living in the end times since the birth of Christ and not only since 1914, as the Jehovah’s Witnesses believe.
They base their argument on the following: The last king of Judah was dethroned in 607 BC (according to them). This happened at the start of the Babylonian exile. What I’m still wondering about is how they came to choose that date as the start of the exile, as all history sources show that it happened in 586 BC and not 607 BC. Dan 4:10-16 speaks of seven times. Revelation speaks of “a time, times and half a time” (12:14) which is equal to 1260 days (12:6). Seven times should therefore by 2 times 1260 which equals 2520. According to Num 14:34 the Israelites were punished one year for every day that they used to explore the promised land. So now the 2520 days becomes 2520 years!
607 + 1914 = 2520 – that is, if you believe, as they do, that the exile started in 607 BC and that there never was a year 0. And therefore, with the start of the First World War, the end times began. Thus saith the Jehovah’s Witnesses!
What does the Bible actually say about the end times: It tells us that Jesus had come in the end times (Heb 1:2; 1 Pet 1:20), that the Holy Spirit was given in the end times (Acts 2:16-17), that the apostles lived in the end times (1 Cor 10:11) and that Timothy also lived in the end times (2 Tim 3:1-5).
If I had to believe this guy, then we don’t have to worry that Jesus would come unexpectedly. According to him, the United Nations still have to collapse before Jesus can come again. Surprisingly, I had asked him a few minutes earlier whether he believed that Jesus could actually come today, to which he agreed. But then he later contradicted himself by saying that Jesus actually could not come before the United Nations had not collapsed.
Perhaps we should be thankful that their arguments are so totally illogical and that they do not have the faintest idea of how to approach someone whom they want to convince. No wonder people are chasing them away from their homes. But next time, when they come knocking at my door, I’ll invite them in once again. Perhaps the day will come when I will have the chance to share with them the gospel of God’s grace.
One of my favourite authors is Philip Yancey. He recently wrote an article in Christianity Today with the title: On the Grand Canyon Bus. In this article he says that Christians in general “find it difficult to maintain a commitment to both this world and the next, to this life and the next.” He then uses the analogy (which he borrowed from a friend of his) of a bus en route to the Grand Canyon. Although the people on the bus may be travelling through some of the most glorious parts of America, they often keep the shades down, making it impossible for them to see and appreciate the landscape they’re travelling through, being content only to focus on the final destination. And he then makes the remark: “We should remember that the Bible has far more to say about how to live during the journey than about the ultimate destination.”
I like this! Except that I want to go one step further. Keeping to the analogy of the bus trip, you would also find people appreciating the scenery as they drive along, without in the least anticipating the final destination. And ultimately you would find these two groups arguing whether the bus trip or the final destination is the best. In Christian history we have found this in the tension between evangelicals and ecumenicals, between pre-millennialists and post-millennialists, between those who are mission-minded and those who are more focussed on unity and today you would find it between evangelicals and those who oppose the evangelicals.
But the fact is that both are correct. It’s not the one or the other. We are en route to a glorious destination. Just take the time, once again, to read Revelations 21 & 22 and try to picture the beauty of the destination. But Philip Yancey is also correct when he says that the Bible has more to say about the journey than the final destination.
As I read this, I was wondering whether this analogy could not be applied to evangelism in a post-modern world. When I read books by authors such as Brian McLaren (A New Kind of Christian and The Story we find Ourselves in) and many others, they seem to be inviting people along for the ride, without really focussing so much on the destination. And I believe that there is something to say for this. “We’re busy with a trip through some of the most beautiful parts of the country. Care to join us?” And as the trip continues and the scenery is appreciated, the time will come when the traveller will learn more about the destination.
But then, once again, there isn’t a hard and fast rule about this. Because many people (and I’m probably one of them) will want to know what the final destination is before getting on the bus. That’s how people differ and that’s how personalities differ. Those people need to be approached with the invitation: “We’re on our way to the Grand Canyon. Care to join us?” And as the trip continues the new traveller will have to be taught how to appreciate the scenery through which they are travelling.
It’s not one or the other. It’s one and the other.
Those who have been reading my blog regularly will know that I grew up in Apartheid South Africa. As was the case with most Afrikaans-speaking people of my parents’ age, they also supported the policy of Apartheid, not because they were intentionally racist, but because they believed, as so many others, that Apartheid was the only workable solution in a multi-racist country like South Africa. Although I never considered myself to be racist, it was only while busy with my PhD that I really looked at the system in a critical way and realised how absolutely bad and sinful this policy was. My PhD promoter and I spent hours in discussing these issues. He was a supporter of the African National Congress (ANC) while the party was still banned and Nelson Mandela was still in prison.
One of the issues we often discussed was the role of the church in an unjust society. Was the church allowed to support an armed struggle? (We differed on that issue.) Was the church supposed to speak prophetically against injustice? (We agreed on this.)
One of the people he often referred to was Dietrich Bonhoeffer who was imprisoned during the Second World War and accused of being part of a plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler. And the question was raised: If a person or system is so corrupt that millions are suffering or dying because of one person or one system, does the church have the right to keep quiet? Many clergy, including such prominent people as Bishop Desmond Tutu and Dr Beyers Naudé put their lives and their occupations on the line because they believed that they could not refrain from doing something to change the situation in South Africa.
Yesterday I received an email from a friend in Florida, FL, in which he asked, on the grounds of the atrocities taking place in Zimbabwe at the moment – of which you can read more on http://www.sokwanele.com – “It’s such a shame. Why can’t anyone just take Mugabe out? I guess they said the same about Hitler.” This morning I received a message on my mobile phone from a Christian: “Robert Mugabe has challenged God by saying that only God can take him out of office. Please pray that God will do this.”
There is, of course, another side to the argument. In my research on the book of Revelation, it is accepted by most New Testament scholars that John, the author of the book, wrote the book in the time when Domitianus was the emperor of Rome. He not only challenged God. He openly declared that he is God! Although Revelation is full of promises that the Roman government will eventually come to a fall, the church is nowhere called to bring about this fall.
The specific task of the church within an unjust society is still not quite clear to me. Perhaps someone would like to add to this discussion. What is the task of the church when confronted with injustice, such as that experienced by the people in Zimbabwe? What can we do to bring about change?
Within 24 hours, if everything goes according to plan, I’ll be on my way to Russia again. Since 2001 I’ve had the opportunity, once a year, to visit Samara, a city about 600 miles south-east from Moscow. After the Iron Curtain fell in Russia, many church organisations from various places in the world flocked to this country to preach the gospel. In 1999 God also called a young, unmarried, female science teacher from South Africa to start a Bible School. In 2001, after she visited South Africa, I received an invitation to go to Samara, at that time to assist in training people in evangelism and then, since 2003, to teach on the topics of eschatology as well as the book of Revelations. And now this will be the eighth time that I go to Samara.
Despite Russia being open to religion, Protestant Christians are not always popular. During that first year, while we were busy spending time in the parks (it was during summer), speaking to people about the Christian faith, one old woman made the remark that, when she was a little girl of about five, a soldier ripped a crucifix from her neck, threw it on the ground and stamped on it with his heave boot, telling her that God was dead. For more than seventy years she believed what he had said. Suddenly we appear on the scene telling her that God is not dead! One can understand how difficult it is to believe this.
Many missionaries in Russia are making serious mistakes, being focussed more on their own ideals of rapid church growth rather than being there to serve the people. In many ways mission in Russia is the same as in Africa. It takes a long time for people to really trust the missionary and this trust will have to be deserved, not through money or good sermons, but by the way in which the local people are respected and served.
I will be spending two days in Cairo with some local Christians and then on Saturday I will be flying to Moscow and then to Samara.
For those who diligently follow this blog. I will be posting the next few days. This is the miracle of blogging sites where posts can even be scheduled for the future. Tomorrow I will be posting something on A Multifaceted Gospel and on Thursday I will post something on the “Sinner’s Prayer”. If time allows, I still want to write something on tithing which I will post on Friday. I will hopefully be “on the air” again on Sunday and will probably share something of my experiences in Russia this year.
The past two days I had been plucked entirely out of my comfort zone. I have so often spoken about the importance of leaving your comfort zone in order to become more useful to God and certainly I have been in situations which other people would just turn around and walk away from. But I still have a lot to learn.
In 2006 I attended the graduation of some students at the Africa School of Missions in South Africa. Among the students was a Russian girl, Svetlana Kutusheva, whom I had met in Samara in Russia on previous visits to this country and who had also been in my class while I was teaching there on the topic of eschatology. She then decided to go to South Africa for two years to further her studies in theology, obtain a degree and then to become a missionary in Cambodia. During this graduation function I witnessed a remarkable ceremony. After their degrees had been handed out, each of the potential missionaries lined up before the audience and each then received a towel, symbolic of the fact that they had been called to wash other people’s feet. Seldom in my life had I seen anything which spoke so strongly to me and I made the decision that I was going to duplicate this ceremony in Swaziland with the one home-based caring group which we had at that time at Dwaleni. It was close to Christmas and we were already planning something for around 250 orphans living around our church in the area. I decided to combine the two functions and when we handed the orphans a small gift I called all the care-givers forward and presented each one with a towel, explaining to them the symbolic meaning of the towel.
As we trained five extra groups of care-givers during 2007 this became part of the final day of training where I stressed the fact that the greatest leaders in God’s eyes are not those who can manage millions or who make decisions about a country’s future, but that Jesus considered those who serve the most to be the greatest leaders. This has always been a very special occasion for me. But during the last week or two I felt that God was trying to convince me of something more. I became increasingly convinced that God was expecting me to set an example. Now, I fully realise that the washing of other people’s feet had become something of a custom amongst certain Christians. But as I thought about this issue (not without some fear) I also realised that, in our case, this would be much more than a mere symbol. This would mean that I, as a white man, the pastor of the church (held in high esteem in Swaziland), the project manager of the Shiselweni Reformed Home-Based Care Project, would have to go on my knees before a Swazi woman to wash her feet. I was not comfortable with this idea. Not at all! I’m not a very “touching” person. A bear-hug is fine (male or female – as long as it’s not too long or too close) and a hand on the shoulder or the upper arm is also acceptable. But washing another person’s feet was just way out of my comfort zone. That’s not me! And yet, I felt convinced that I had to do it.
Then on Wednesday I received a phone call from a recently married woman living in our town. She had been praying to God about greater unity amongst Christians and churches in the town where we live and she felt that God was telling her to visit each of the pastors in the town and to wash their and their wives’ feet. So she called on Wednesday, told me what she believed God wanted her to do and made an appointment to visit us in Thursday evening. And I didn’t look forward to this. (Refer to my previous paragraph!) The only reason why I consented was because I felt that it would be wrong of me to discourage this woman from doing what she felt God was telling her to do. But I wouldn’t even be comfortable if my wife was bowing down before me to wash my feet – let alone another woman!
Well, she came. She went down on her knees before me, washed my feet and prayed for me, then washed my wife’s feet and prayed for her and then I also prayed for her. After this she left. This was a first for me. I survived! But the big test would be the next day when I had to wash other people’s feet. So yesterday I drove through to Nsalitje, encouraged the people, handed out the customary towels and explained to them the symbolic meaning of the towels. And then I called the newly chosen chairperson and coordinator to come forward, asked them to sit on a bench and, after explaining to them what I had in mind, I started washing their feet with soap and water, afterwards drying their feet with a towel.
As I was doing this, the craziest thought came into my mind. In Biblical times people were mostly expected to wash their own feet. In extreme circumstances a slave could be used for this purpose but there was an explicit law that prevented Jewish slaves from doing this. Slaves could be asked to do anything, but washing another’s feet was considered to be so degrading, that there was a specific law against Jewish slaves doing this. (Only heathen slaves could be forced to do this.) And this was the thought that came into my mind while washing their feet – that I had probably never been in such a degrading position in my life.
I survived! I’m glad I did it. I think that I will do something similar in the future when we train new groups, as the symbolic meaning of the washing of feet was emphasised in a way that the mere handing out of a towel could never accomplish.
Never again will I speak lightly of people having to leave their comfort zones. But then again, if I could survive this uncomfortable situation then others can also survive getting out of their own comfort zones.