When Jesus wants us to prick up our ears, he prefaces his surround-sound-truth by declaring: “Truly I tell you.” Matthew records Jesus using that attention-provoking phrase 31 times!
Let’s feature one: “I tell you the truth… the kingdom of heaven has been forcefully advancing, and forceful men lay hold of it” (Mt 11:11,12, NIV, 1984). The kingdom of heaven acts powerfully and requires a powerful response. Jesus: "No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God" (Lk 9:62). As we begin a new year, we persist in “cultivating” -- trusting God will bring a harvest.
What follows is one story of that forceful advance, that persistent cultivation, that grasping the plow, that awaiting the harvest.
Palpants among the Kabyle
The Kabyle people, conquered by the Muslims about 700 AD, live in the coastal mountain regions of northern Algeria,
French citizens, Henri Palpant (1879-1956) and his wife, Amelie (1875-1936), married March 27, 1903. Sent to serve among the Kabyle under the American Methodist Mission, they buried two of their eight children in Algeria. What sorrow.
Still, year after year, decade after decade, the Palpants kept their hands on the plow – being accountable to their Mission board while planting the seed of the good news of Jesus. They learned the language. Henri taught young men new woodworking skills, furniture making, and built mission buildings. According to a Kabyle Christian presently partnering with Alongside Ministries, Henri and Amelie must not have seen much fruit in terms of conversions -- maybe none. But, they loved these people and prayed for them -- for Christ’s sake.
After being away for over three decades, Henri and Amelie resumed life in France. All they could afford for a home was a “hovel” in Poet Celard. Then, Amelie died -- only 61-- leaving Henri a widower for 20 years. Relatives speculate that Amelie’s demanding life in France did not differ much from her arduous Algerian years.
As the next generation unfolded, two sons went to war, and, afterward, migrated to Michigan where their cultivation as farmers flourished. When a third son, Charles, departed for the U.S., Henri traveled to America to bring him back. Eventually, Charles became a Salvation Army missionary off the coast of France on Devil's Island -- site of one of the most notorious prisons in history. Of the 80,000 hardened prisoners sent there between 1852 and 1953, a majority never left.
What a contrast -- two brothers cultivated flourishing farms while, on two other continents, their father and brother persistently cultivated Gospel seed with little “results.”
Skip forward to Henri’s great-grandson, Sam Palpant, husband to my sister, Judy. Years ago, Sam and Judy visited Poet Celard. The former hovel, now a chalet, still owned by the family, overlooks the French Alps. My well-traveled sister calls it: “one of the most beautiful places on the planet.” Henri and Amelie’s physical investment -- and that of some descendants -- has been rewarded.
Is Poet Celard also an encouragement for us also to look for a reward from the spiritual labor Henri and Amelie invested in Algeria?
A partial evaluation
After Algeria's independence from France in 1962, history bleakly tells us that Christian missionaries were expelled in waves. The remaining missionary efforts in Algeria deteriorated. Hard soil.
Contemporary reports about Algeria’s 41 million citizens from The Joshua Project (TJP) give some hope. TJP provides information about the 7,000-plus “unreached (by the Gospel) people groups” -- including the Kabyle. According to TJP, among the Kabyle some are searching for answers beyond Muslim fundamentalism. And Trans World Radio broadcasts to that region have brought inquiring letters.
A number has responded to Christian programs produced by Ali Arhab in France. Although not allowed in Algeria, Ali lives in France with his wife and three children. When Sam Palpant met Ali and told him about Henri, Ali teared up: “I owe your great-grandfather a debt of love.” Later, Ali found records of Henri in the missionary archives and emailed them to Sam. In that email Ali also included information about the present impact of the gospel among some Algerians.
And more: searchforjesus.net/how-it-works/ is linked with a world-wide on-line evangelism outreach, www.peacewithgod.net. From January 2017--September 2017, that Billy Graham Evangelistic Association site shows 247,721 searches made by Algerians! Algerians!
Side note: from April 2011--Jan. 21, 2019, searchforjesus.net/how-it-works/ shows that, world-wide, 12,678,104 indicated online decisions for Christ.
Adding prayer and God to our criteria
Back to Henri and Amelie -- their prayers and the prayers and those who supported them have an ongoing impact and are being answered. Jesus told us the kingdom of God forcefully advances.
So, we pray and work for God’s kingdom to come where we are. And, we look to Henri and Amelie as those who remind us of God’s timing in his kingdom.
Still, Henri and Amelie are awkward for us. When hard “soils” resist our systems and even our prayers, we may look for someone to blame -- like Henri and Amelie. Further, we may hunker down with our own standards of “good stewardship” -- demanding a substantial return on our investment. Behind those “policies,” there may be a desire to see that “we” have invested well. Hear our pride? As we see how we are influenced by our own pride -- even by the idolatry of “good business practices” -- may our awkwardness lead us not to denial but to repentance.
Mercy, mercy. Mystery, mystery. God’s ways are beyond our ways. God will bring a crop in his time. We live with the promise that the “leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations” (Rev. 22:2). Nations. Whole cultures. The seed is good. Let’s keep cultivating. The crop is coming.
Jesus told us to take the Gospel to the nations. That going, that movement, is itself lovely. "Sometimes it is necessary to reteach a thing its loveliness” (Galway Kinnell). The Greeks call “sent ones,” “apostles,” and “messengers,” “angels.” Let’s call Henri and Amelie by their proper name, “apostolic angels.” Aha.