Yesterday we said good-bye to my parents after a wonderful two-week visit to South Africa, their first-ever overseas trip.
At church on the 6th, Pastor Ntapo asked me to introduce my parents with “that song which you love”—Besuka Bamlandela. Translated, it says that certain people “left to follow him/they left their homes to follow him/they carried the cross, going to Golgotha/they left their homes to follow him.”
I do indeed love that song. Early on, I had singled out its melody from a range of choruses and Xhosa hymns. When I learned its meaning, it impressed me even more. The song encapsulates for me both my calling and what I perceive myself to be calling others to: a faith in Jesus that leads even to dying for enemies (the cross), a passion to please God more than human beings, an obedience to an Authority higher than the authorities of “home”—of nation and yes, parents. In other words, the song acknowledges the conflict that often arises between loyalty to God and loyalty to parents, one’s earthly elders.
For that reason, I have sometimes fancied that my missionary identity has much gospel integrity—that because I have so obviously left the home of my birth I have the power to preach to others the allegiance to God over humans; no one can deny that my simple being in a foreign land is a demonstration of that commitment. It also seems true, however, that such a commitment can seem so strange to others—perhaps so distasteful—so as to be scarcely human. Upon seeing my parents, the one “old woman” of the church proclaimed, “Now we know that Joseph is not a street kid”.
The comment was partly tongue-in-cheek, yet it revealed the strong African characteristic of fidelity to one’s elders. The woman was glad to see that I had a living relationship with my parents. For if I did not, was I fully a person?
The comment was also a check on my perception of how others perceive me. Is that which we perceive to be our most faithful witness sometimes an impediment to gaining a hearing for our message? A certain logic, for example, has sometimes told me, along related lines of forsaking family for the gospel, that one could be a more effective missionary freed from the responsibilities of family. Some of the words of the Apostle Paul appear to give credence to such logic (see 1 Cor 7:32ff.) Yet Anna and I have found that our greatest asset in this work has been our marriage and family. In a culture that both values families but suffers much brokenness within them, the greatest witness is a man and woman who go through life together, publicly tend their children, and even sometimes say “no” to ministry opportunities for the sake of family. On occasion the latter example, initially feeling like a failure of ministry, has been received as a witness of faithful love, as an opportunity for the one watching and listening to be convinced of the importance of primary relationships.
For in the end, tending family and following Jesus are not inherently opposed. Marital love can be the source of strength for other relationships. And parental love—that which embraces—can be, ironically, that which sets one on his course away from home—that which releases—to follow Jesus. So it has been for me.
As I interpreted the words of that song to my parents, I realized that it was not simply I who, for love of God, had left home and parents. They, for the same love, had given me up.