It is Wednesday at the Third Congress on World Evangelization at Cape Town. Euphoria over world-wide reports of the growth of the Kingdom of God mixes with security issues about cyber attacks and the African Anglican majority that seems to be leading the rest of the 200 countries and countless denominational groups quite well. But sometimes things are not as simple as they seem. Isn’t this what Jesus taught us?
He told them another parable. “The kingdom of heaven is like leaven that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, till it was all leavened.” Matthew 13.33
I was getting cabin fever at Cape Town. I kept hearing that this was the “most beautiful city in the world.” I had to take their word for it! All I could see of it was from my hotel room and the convention center! So two days ago, during lunch, I took a twenty-minute stroll that turned into a two-hour stroll. While downtown Cape Town was replete with fine old buildings, monuments, and an impressive 17th century fort, with the barracks serving a unit of the South African army, I must admit that the phrase “most beautiful city on earth” was not my first thought. In fact, I summed up what I saw in a letter to my wife as “a grand old house deeded to poor relatives who are unable to keep it up, and even uninterested in doing so. Thus the grand old dame is going to pot while the relatives pitch tents outside.” That may not be the best way to put it, but it is what I thought (and maybe one doesn’t always write what one thinks). What I mean is that the city is primarily, now, an African city with African ways. It is a city filled with endless lines of outdoor markets and street vendors under tent after tent, selling everything from, obviously ripped-off CDs and DVDs, to cigarettes, to flowers (actually the flower market is quite an old location, with vendor spots passed down from generation to generation). I walked by parliament and ran into a young government worker. “How is the country doing?” I asked. He was quite pleasant, and spoke flawless English (few that I met on the streets spoke English, but spoke one of the nine or so official tribal language now recognized in South Africa). He told me, simply, “It’s not very good at all.” Indeed, the local papers are filled with charges of corruption and the level of discourse has become vulgar, with the president living in open polygamy, and bragging about his conquests. The most cynical reader might be tempted to say, “Well, what is new in politics?” But I assure you, the state of affairs here is not known anywhere in the West, except perhaps in recent days of the Italian president and his affairs. Even in such cases as that, the immorality in the leader’s life is not combined with the unprecedented corruption that is being reported here.
But then yesterday, Don Sweeting and I took a tour bus. Sitting atop the London-like double-decker, my opinion changed. We ventured outside the area where I had previously been, the urban downtown, and went to the dramatic shorelines around the Cape. We got off at a station in a posh area to walk along the white sandy beaches, and we walked out to the ocean and touched it just to say that we had touched the ocean in South Africa. We strolled alongside the expensive shops, still a bit run down and not really like Beverly Hills, though it had been built up to that standard, but nevertheless very upscale compared to the grand old British architecture in decline that I had observed downtown. As we made our way up Table Mountain, we observed the “Twelve Apostles,” the name given to the ridges that jut out from the mountain, creating a phenomenon of cold wind channeling down to the ocean that keeps it quite cold even in summer. And we looked out over the panoramic scene below the Cape, and the harbor, the city and an ocean, reminiscent in my mind of Malibu and Monterey, California mixed together. I could honestly say it was a remarkably beautiful scene.
My trip to Cape Good Hope, where the streams of the Indian Ocean meet the Atlantic Ocean, confirmed my new opinion: this is some of the most magnificent coastline I have ever seen. My new conclusion? The natural beauty of South Africa is unsurpassed. The young African led democracy is not working well. There are major problems. People are suffering because of it and the country is being weakened by its lack of leadership.
Things are not always that simple.
Yesterday morning, at Lausanne 2010 we heard reports about the Middle East. In one case, an Anglican bishop told of how he was threatened by angry Islamic mobs, and finally his house was broken into. The thugs forced him to the floor, did unspeakable things to his wife, and then prepared to shoot him. He asked to pray and they made one mistake: they let him. He began to pray to God out loud, expecting at any moment to come into the presence of His Savior. All of a sudden, his rapturous prayer time was interrupted by the hand of his son on his shoulder. “Dad, get up. They are gone.” The bishop was stunned. “What? What are you doing here son, get out!” The boy replied, “No, Dad, they are gone.” The prayers had frightened the fundamentalist criminals and they ran away. Their attack left his wife blinded and broken, but the bishop escaped with his life and declared to 4,000 people that he has continued to preach the Gospel. Many of the Islamic fundamentalist are coming to Christ as he preaches the love and reconciliation of Jesus. Then an Assembly of God evangelist, a very poised and confident middle-aged Arabic woman, told us of how she was converted to Christ and how her husband and whole family came to the Lord out of Islam. “Why would Jesus do this? She asked. “Because God so love the world…” and that “world includes Muslims.” She told of how she lived next to a mosque but could never enter the place of prayer reserved for men, yet she has told her story of Christ to more pulpits than she can count. She told of how in her Middle Eastern country thousands are coming to Christ. The applause and enthusiasm were at such a pitch that we felt the Kingdom would surely overtake Islam within days!
After that, immediately after that, a young man came to the podium. He began by saying that his message would not be as exciting. In fact, he said “I have had no visions or dreams. I came to Christ when I was invited by a friend to come to an Anglican congregation while in college. I heard the Gospel, repented and believed in Jesus.” Since then, he told us with quiet honesty, a meekness and a humility that could not be feigned, “Out of ten prayers, one is of thanksgiving, the other nine are of crying out, sometimes in anger, and sometimes in frustration.” He told of how hard his work was. Yet he asked for our prayers for the Church in Islamic fundamentalist strongholds. He told us that it was the love of Jesus Christ that will ultimately turn many of his people to the Lord.
Things are not always the way that they appear.
The Church is growing in Islamic fundamentalist areas. The Church is being persecuted in Islamic fundamentalist regions. The Church is struggling in Islamic fundamentalist strongholds. Some former Muslims are encouraged. Others feel isolated and helpless. But this is always the way of the Kingdom. John was in prison, about to lose his head, yet the Kingdom of Jesus was coming and being demonstrated with power. The Kingdom of Jesus Christ will go forward at the rate and in the way that our sovereign God wants it to, leaven being kneaded into the lump of bread. We must simply yield our lives to that truth and live with the tension of the mysteries around us. Faith sees through the mystery. It is that way in ministry to Islam. It is that way in the West. It is the mysterious, subversive ways of the Gospel, imperceptibly, publicly, privately and enigmatically moving through the hearts of men and women of this world and building a kingdom that will last forever, though it sometimes looked defeated, in a kingdom of man which appears to be winning, but is perishing.
It’s just that simple.