Stephan’s story of being called to Japan – 11 July 2008


11 July 2008, Aliwal North


Dear Friends in Christ,                                        


I am writing this letter with a heart praying, hoping and trusting that reading this (very) personal testimony that I am about to share with you, you will do so with an open mind and an understanding heart. This/these portion/s of my life about which I‘m going to write will mean something unique to everyone, because I’m not equally close/distant to you to whom this is directed. Here I will be placing on the table my deepest struggles, convictions and experiences. I’ll start at the very beginning and will endeavour to link the dots in the narrative of God’s calling for my life as meaningfully (and chronologically) as possible …


The beginning of  God’s calling for my life


At my birth (as the last of 4 of my mother and father’s sons) – which was, due to various medical reasons, a very difficult and even life threatening experience for my mother – my mother committed me in an extra-special manner to the Lord. She – as far as I know – did this because God had been so faithful in giving me life. And my mother, receiving this gift in the midst of her crisis, wanted to honour the Lord with a “sacrifice”. Even then already she had suspected that I would become a minister, because she believed it was the Lord’s will for me and she wanted to obey Him in this.


I did not know anything about this. My mother shared it with me for the first time 18 years later somewhere around that day (early in September 1995) when I arrived home in tears with the news that at long last the Lord had given me peace … peace, after my struggle to get to grips with the question whether I should study Theology (and not Agricultural Economics or one of the many other things which I had been considering at the time).    


Let me take one small step back. In the more than 9 or 10 months before that day (in Sept 1995) I had begun considering the possibility of becoming a minister (in the Dutch Reformed Church). I remember the number of conversations I had had with my family and friends about his matter at that time – including the local pastor and especially the youth worker, Mariëtte Dreyer, who had had a very strong formative influence on my Christianity. They had been mostly conversations full of uncertainties and even resistance in my heart specifically because of my distorted and stereotype idea of the “narrowness” of being a pastor. Until, at the end of July 1995 (my final year at school), I realised most clearly: the Lord can really talk to human beings. The Lord can talk to me and you personally in different ways, and especially through His Word confirmed through His Holy Spirit.


Again a small step back: although I had not realized it fully at the time, I had already experienced that the Lord was busy with me in 1987 (when I had been in grade 4), when I had noted down the date 05/06/1987 at John 1:12 in my Bible… and replaced the “all”: “Yet to Stephan (all) who received Him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.”  God had chosen me (without my understanding this or being able to explain with my mind) and had given me the right to become – through faith in Him – his child. Obviously this was also the wonderful result of the Christian education given to me by my committed and believing parents.


Back to my last year at school. In July 1995, for various reasons I started thinking differently about conducting my quiet time and the possibility of “hearing” God personally. I remembered a pastor in my congregation who some time earlier had said, “prayer isn’t a one-way conversation”. We cannot just talk and talk, we should also listen to hear God speaking in prayer (through his Word and the Spirit). In my naivety I had thought I would really hear God’s voice after I had prayed my part. However, that “easy” and clear it was not to be…


But on two consecutive days at the end of July (having struggled for months with the foreign idea of myself as possible pastor), in my quiet time I received two very meaningful indicators on the matter. This is what they sounded like: “In the presence of God and of  Christ Jesus who will judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I give you this charge: Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage – with great patience and careful instruction.…but you, keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry.” (2 Tim. 4:1-5); and “because of the grace God gave me to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles with the priestly duty of proclaiming the gospel of God, so that the Gentiles might become an offering acceptable to God, sanctified by the Holy Spirit.” (Rom. 15:15b -16).


After I had received these texts, I started wondering even more seriously and asked the Lord, “Is this my calling?” (this was how I had written the question in my Bible at these texts at the time). The following month or two was again a time of severe fluctuation and uncertainty…searching for true peace. But eventually on Sunday evening, 3 September, it came unexpectedly. The aged minister Emile van Zyl of Patensie who preached to us few that evening in Humansdorp (and about which I had been rather sceptical as I had walked into the church), was sent by God. His message was from 1 Samuel 3; the crux: Samuel (1 Sam 3:7) who had not known the Lord yet, “the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him” realised God was real. Samuel who had been deaf to the word of the Lord twice because he had thought it was Eli calling, eventually realised: God is talking to me!


Needless te say, when the minister raised his hands symbolically and spread them in front of him with these words (more or less): “Brothers and sisters, I hope you realise that tonight I’m not speaking to you, but it is God speaking to you through me”, the “penny dropped” for me. God had been involved with me for a long time, and now He gave me his peace (that surpassed all understanding).  That evening I went home – as I had explained earlier – in tears of joy and peace. And as always, my parents understood and supported me and loved me unconditionally. The scope of the calling that had started at my birth would now spread in ever widening circles and acquire fuller meaning. In the weeks to follow I (more sensitive than ever before to listen to God’s voice from his Word and through his Spirit) received repeated confirmations, also via other friends and family that had joined in prayer during the previous months, too many to mention here. (i.a. Proverbs 2:1-6 and 16:1; Isaiah. 58:8-9).


Stellenbosch years of study and work


The following 8 or 9 years also gave further meaning to the substance of my calling. My dad’s last words on the day they dropped me off at Eendrag Residence in my first year at Stellenbosch University, were to the following effect: “My child, you’re going hear and learn a lot from now on, but stick to what the Holy Spirit convinces you of.” Even today I still endeavour to remain obedient to this vital principle.  But during my years of study I (like most other theology students) moved through many fluctuating seasons of lesser and greater clarity about the focus of my calling – especially questions about specifically the Dutch Reformed Church. Some days right at the beginning I would take on life with fiery, charismatic freedom (or was it recklessness?), other days with a new appreciation for the God who in solitary silences in an inexplicable manner moved and lived in and through my life (Acts 17:28)…no matter how faithless and disobedient I was. The faithful Lord who had initially called me, always remained faithful, as the Psalmist testifies, “When I said, ‘My foot is slipping,’ your love, O Lord, supported me.  When anxiety was great within me, your consolation brought joy to my soul. (Ps. 94:18-19).


The Lord allowed me many privileges (too many to mention here) during my time at Stellenbosch, and again and again He confirmed His calling for my life – in conversations, in worship services and actions at the student church and in the residence where I stayed, through the spectacular Boland creation, also through sport and in many plain ordinary ways. All of which, in conversation with the Word and the Spirit of God, attained fresh meaning in my understanding of life.


Most theology lecturers were excellent mentors from whom I learnt a great deal, but  Prof. Daniël Louw, who had a profound influence, especially during my post-graduate studies and focus on pastoral care, merits special mention. The longer stay at University and especially at BUVTON (now Communitas), the research bureau at which I was able to act as Project Manager for congregations country wide, equipped and prepared me most effectively for my full-time service in the Dutch Reformed Church Family.


I experienced that the Lord blessed me with gifts to take the initiative in pastoral and family-directed ministries and I hoped that one day I would be able to serve and equip the wider church in this particular manner. My involvement with the Partnership of Mission Congregations also reinforced my awareness that congregations were (and ought to be)  essentially faith communities with awareness of their mission, which should change their local environment by being “salt and light”. The focus was actually not ‘far away” but “close by”. In other words my understanding (at that stage) of the heart of the active church did not keep the important assignment of world evangelism strongly enough in focus. Later I would realize anew how important our mission work is, close by, AND far away.


The questions about my calling in specifically the Dutch Reformed Church kept on haunting me, such things as: “Does the Lord want me to spend my whole life serving a congregation, or is there something else He (also) wants me to do? Should I proceed on the road of academic work and perhaps become a lecturer one day? Should I move into synod structures and be somewhat outside the arena of the official ministry? Should I perhaps become a full-time pastoral therapist or be a hospital chaplain (at that time it was even more likely)? Is there something else, something more extraordinary, outside being ‘just’ minister until I retire one day?” There were many such questions that I mulled over in the years I spent in Stellenbosch. 


At the same time whilst these questions about my calling were occupying me, I revisited the pieces of Scripture that I had been given in 1995. Or rather: the Lord revisited me through these time and again. One thing that had me puzzled, but to which I did not pay much attention, merely because I didn’t know how and whether I should, was the excerpt from Romans 15, that refers to Paul’s calling to work among heathen nations in particular. When now, I try to establish why I kept on “missing” this in my reading, I honestly don’t know…perhaps I didn’t, for convenience’ sake, wish to make it applicable to me.  “After all, I’m no missionary, I’m a rather a pastor!” I thought.


Meanwhile in June 2004 I was re-introduced to Carina (after she left Stellenbosch to work in Japan etc.), and a year later we were married. I remember so well that when I got to know her better (when I heard her parents were missionaries in Japan and that she had just spent 2 and a half years with them), I pretended that I knew exactly where it was. But, in fact, I needed to consult an atlas of the world afterwards, and for the first time realized that Japan consists of (a) big island(s)!


In the 5 months from May-Sept 2005 I was technically unemployed, except for an occasional turn to preach and an opportunity to lecture every now and then. Mercifully we could survive on the money Carina had earned in Japan, and on wonderful wedding gifts and help from our families …the Lord provided in all respects – as always!


The Move to Aliwal North


At the end of September the Lord opened the door for us to Aliwal North, and with great peace and excitement, and of course, uncertainty and anxiety, we made the move away from the Boland, a wonderful home for almost 10 years. The extent of the calling on my life was rippling outwards into a new circle once again. Adjusting in Aliwal was hard in many practical respects but, at the same time we learned and grew a great deal: in our relationships with new people, with each other and with God. Right from the start my ministry as pastor brought ample fulfilment and many challenges, but only at the end of the first year could Carina fulfil her passion and calling to a certain extent.


In December 2006 we were privileged to pay my parents-in-law a visit in Japan. This was a great experience: Japan was fascinatingly different and unique. I thoroughly enjoyed experiencing it all, from the food to the environment and the impressive culture of its people etc. But I also remember well that I often thought (and said it spontaneously to Carina and  my in-laws): “I would never be able to live or work here!”


In the course of the following year we would sometimes think back nostalgically to the lovely visit and food, and all the interesting things that we (especially I for the first time) had seen there. But that was it. We never talked about ourselves as missionaries sent to Japan, and my parents-in-law never conducted any conversation in this regard with us. They were far too sensitive and wise. What I did become aware of was a (self-evident) new appreciation and respect that I developed for missionaries such as my parents-in-law’s calling, and for the specific challenges of mission work in Japan. Their long period of deputation in 2007 and all the effort of introducing mission in Japan to congregations throughout South Africa, made me more sensitive to the call of need from the Japanese church (Reformed Church of Japan) of Shikoku Island. It is a call for help from their Christian brothers and sisters in the South African Dutch Reformed Church Family, also to the value of the partnerships among churches for Mission Japan. But again, that was it. It was “there”. It was “their work”. And I would try to support them emotionally and would pray for them.


A most unexpected bend in the road


On Sunday afternoon 23 December 2007, two days before we would be leaving on our end-of-year holiday, I was looking for a specific text which I knew was somewhere in the Old Testament. I wanted to quote the text in my Christmas sermon. I also knew that I would more likely find it in one of my old Bibles (which I had used at school and university), as I had probably underlined it there. I had spent several hours searching fruitlessly for that verse (Proverbs 25:2,“It is the glory of God to conceal a matter”). Meanwhile I came across a lot of other texts that I had marked through the years and which immediately caused me to think deeply.


There were amongst others the two texts I had received in 1995 (Rom. 15 and 2 Tim. 4), and also Isaiah 49:5-7, “And now the Lord says – he who formed me in the womb to be his servant… I am honoured in the eyes of the Lord and my God has been my strength – he says: ‘It is too small a thing for you to be my servant to restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back those of Israel I have kept.  I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth.’ At the last excerpt I had written two dates previously: 1 November 1995 (with Mariëtte, the youth worker at Humansdorp who had played an important role in my calling at that time’s name; and 29 January 2002 (with the Rev. Callie Retief’s name next to it. During a house call on that day in 2002 at Stellenberg, he had unexpectedly given me this text as reassurance and comfort.).


What happened to me then while I was contemplating the meaning of these texts is hard to explain. How does one explain with one’s mind the logic of the work of the Holy Spirit? One cannot! As it had happened that evening of 3 September 1995 in Humansdorp, I just had an overpowering awareness within: the Lord was talking to me (again) about His calling for my life. It was an awareness that shocked me to a certain extent. I started reading the chapter from the beginning. It starts as follows (Isaiah 49:1): “Listen to me, you islands; hear this you distant nations: Before I was born the Lord called me, from my birth he has made mention of my name. …”   


In the light of all these texts and particularly because they had been of significance to me earlier in my life, different questions and thoughts arose in my mind, e.g.: “Was I to understand them literally…could the islands refer to a particular place in my world today: Japan (distant nations, the ends of the earth, in contrast to where I was in SA)? Was I the one that was called before my birth to fulfil the wider scope of this calling, rather than only ‘restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back those of Israel that (the Lord) has kept’? In other words here in SA in the Dutch Reformed Church I was mostly involved with bringing back converted people (those already ‘saved’) into the inner circle, people that had heard the gospel countless times’…while there were nations still at the ends of the earth that had never really seen the Light yet (in terms of a 99% non-Christian country Japan).  


Had the time now come (as I had actually been given the assignment more than 12 years before from Romans 15:16) ‘to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles’ because it was  ‘my priestly duty to proclaim the gospel of God, so that the Gentiles might become an offering acceptable to God, sanctified by the Holy Spirit’ and to (according to 2 Tim 4:5), be more in actual fact that for which I had been called long ago: “But you, keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry?


The more I thought of this kind of understanding of these paragraphs, the more questions, more than answers, arose in my mind. As a theologian I am, especially when preparing a sermon, “supposed” to consider the context of every piece of Scripture thoroughly before applying it to the lives of people here and now. And I always endeavour to do this as well as I can, because it is important to deal responsibly with the Bible. That’s all very well. But then again, when, in my quiet time,I reflect how the Word of God brings sense and meaning to my daily life, I am more deeply aware of how it directly affects my own life – in my relationships, my decisions, my body (without explanatory techniques etc.)


                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       And It is this creative tension between “reading to convey a message” (information) and “reading to be the message yourself” (formation) … two aspects between which I have to distinguish in faith daily, that is of prime importance. For me – like for most ministers I suspect – it is mostly (unfortunately!) both at the same time. It remains a complicated matter. In the second half of 2007 I started reading a book (entitled Eat this book, written by Eugene Peterson), which impressed me anew and urged me to realize: reading my Bible (whether in my own personal quiet time or when I needed to convey a focused message), should/could never be a mere “exercise” to find a way to persuade God to become more actively involved in life (or the lives of the people to whom I need to deliver a message).


No, when I open the Bible I find – or I should rather find – that page after page it catches me unaware, it surprises me and involves me in the reality it represents, it draws me closer to become involved where God is already involved, on HIS conditions! Peterson bases the book on Revelations 10:9-10 where the angel gives John the little scroll, not to read, but to eat and to digest (“Take it and eat it. It will turn your stomach sour, but in your mouth it will be as sweet as honey”). I understand it like this: it will sound good, and I’ll enjoy reading it, but it will be hard to execute it in everyday life!


Peterson wrote: “He (John) eats the book – not just reads it – he got it into his nerve endings, his reflexes, his imagination…”, and then he also refers to the words of Jesus in John 6:48-50, “I am the bread of life. Your forefathers ate the manna in the desert, yet they died. But there’s the bread that comes down from heaven, which a man may eat and not die.” A simple insight: losing yourself wholly in the Word of God (Jesus Himself, according to John 1:1-5), results in discovering true life. I realized anew (and more profoundly than ever before): God doesn’t just talk vaguely or aimlessly for all times, but He talks to specific people in specific places at specific times (and for each of us at a different place and time)…but enough of this, before I can’t stop preaching!


In short: at the end of December 2007 for the first time I (quite shocked) asked myself: was the Lord now talking to me about world evangelism? Was I to go to the nations (in darkness), the distant islands, to be a light for God? Was I being sent to Japan (the only nation of Gentiles I knew something about), where God was actively involved already through my family-in-law, whose presence in my life during the last 4 years was no coincidence. These kinds of questions I also shared with Carina for the first time during the next day or two, when we were leaving on holiday…she was, to say the least, totally dumbfounded! At first she thought I was joking, but that was not the case!


Waiting for confirmation


What has followed, is waiting for the Lord these last 4 months: waiting for clarity and definite confirmation of the question whether I (and Carina) am connecting in a meaningful way the dots in God’s calling for my life (our lives). Naturally we have talked a great deal (and are still talking) about all the practical implications and about the enormous demands which a move to Japan would imply for us. But our most profound conversations are about God and how we understand the road on which God has led us all our lives up to now. And even more importantly, we have prayed individually and together and battled with God about this.


It is impossible to relate the contents of all the insights we have been given at this time (and it would make an already long letter hopelessly too long). In short: Carina and I experience in many unique ways that God is involved with us about our calling to Japan. We haven’t chosen it, but time and again it appears on our individual and joint journey of faith – especially in and through our quiet times and various portions from Scripture, but also in our hearts and thoughts and consistently in our conversations – even through other people (unsuspecting and meaning nothing in particular) who would raise the matter in all sorts of “strange” ways. In order to explain this I’ll supply a few examples.


On 11 January 2008 through my quiet time diary I came across Abram’s calling in Genesis 12. God had called him to leave behind his family and fatherland and everything known and familiar to him to follow God, so that he would be a blessing to all peoples on earth (Gen. 12:1-3). Again I felt profoundly affected when I appreciated the radical implications for Abram (personally) anew. He had to pay the full price for following God. A few days later (19 January) Carina arrived at the same message in her quiet time in a completely different manner. She was reading a book by Ferdinand Deist (Nagdissipels) at that time.  In this book he said the following: “Abraham actually had to leave his country, about which he knew everything, to move away without knowing where he was going to arrive…” We realised that with this God was confirming something for us by drawing our attention to the sacrifice we would have to make to follow Him (to Japan).


Three days later (on 22 January) an old man, Mike la Grange (a member of our congregation who died shortly afterwards) arrived unexpectedly at my front door (as was his habit sometimes). He came to talk to me about a question on the tribe of Benjaminites in the Bible, whose existence he discovered from his research on excavations done in the Middle East. I couldn’t answer his question properly, and our conversation veered completely.  He spoke repeatedly and enthusiastically about Abram’s calling. Uncle Mike had read that (i.a. based on recent excavations) Abram had had to give up his familiar and comfortable life style – large houses with many rooms in Ur, where he had probably lived at first, as well as slaves and property etc. – for the sake of his calling to a foreign land, a land where he became a wanderer who lived in tents and had to make do with so much less. Out of the blue (without my having said anything about it), he added: “Isn’t that exactly what people such as your parents-in-law also had to do when they moved to Japan from South Africa?” My jaw dropped to the ground! God was clearly asking us to take note!




On our arrival home a few days earlier in that third week of January, I (unsuspecting) had checked the lectionary in order to find out which Bible text was prescribed for me to use for the next Sunday’s sermon. Imagine my surprise that it was Isaiah 49:1-7! It was certainly a tremendous challenge preaching on this text (obviously without mentioning a word of what was growing in my heart concerning Japan at the time)…




On Friday morning 29 February I awoke shortly after 03:00. I just couldn’t fall asleep again and just after 04:00 it came very clearly to me that I should get up and read and my Bible (this  – getting up and reading the Bible in the small hours of the morning – is something I  don’t normally do, in fact, I rarely do so, because I rarely lie awake in bed. My quiet time is usually observed when I get up at about 05:30 or 06:00…but that morning I experienced clearly the insistence of the Holy Spirit that I should get up.) In my quiet time at that time I was immersed in an intensive study of Acts, and I was finding it most enriching and interesting working through it slowly from the first chapter. Thus that morning I resumed my reading. In the Bible Commentary I was using I read about a reference Paul had made to the Old Testament in Acts 13:47. To my astonishment it was (once again) Isaiah 49:6!


On 18 March I attended one of the silent worship services during Holy Week. Again I was astounded when one of the texts read aloud was Isaiah 49:1-7. It was really like a chorus being “sung” all around me, and to me it was no coincidence! Through this the Lord was merely confirming (and in many other ways too numerous to mention in this limited space) what He had been laying on my heart about Mission Japan since the end of December. My calling was not primarily to “restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back those of Israel I have kept”…it was “not good enough”. God was now calling me (us) clearly to be a light for the Gentiles so that the salvation brought about by Him  “would reach the ends of the earth”. I am convinced in faith, the substance of this calling had actually started before my birth, but only recently have I clearly and completely understood it.  All of it is the fruit of God’s work, especially the commitment and sacrifice of my parents.


As a result of her own quiet time, meditation and prayers on the matter, Carina time and again has come to the same conviction. She would also be able to tell and write much about this. The background of her entire life (including almost 8 years of her life spent in Japan, and therefore having a basic understanding of the language and culture) is a meaningful factor which we cannot ignore while considering the questions on our calling. Her parents’ guidance and commitment are also crucial in all this.


The most profound insights which Carina and I have rediscovered together (struggling in prayer and in conversation) have focused on two themes during the past 4 months.


1.     Following God truly, requires total sacrifice. Following Christ means complete commitment to God’s command (calling), no matter what it implies. We (as Christians) are supposed to live as “aliens and strangers”  in the world, and we are “chosen” to “declare the praises of Him who called you (us) out of  darkness into his wonderful light” (1 Peter 2:10-11). In this  process, we are not spared suffering, in fact, “it is commendable if a man bears up under the pain of unjust suffering because he is conscious of God … To this you (we) were called, because Christ suffered for you (us), leaving you (us )an example, that you (we) should follow in his steps.” (1 Peter 2:19, 21).


2.     God’s heart beats for the whole world. His great command in the Bible is clear and unequivocal: bring the Light to all nations, beyond all borders! (Acts 1:8; Matt 28:19; Mark 13:10 etc.). We as Christians share in this process each in his/her own unique way. Carina and I are convinced that the Lord is calling us to become part of his ministry to a so-called “heathen” nation beyond borders.


The probable road ahead


On 22 April Mission Japan – an official commission of the Dutch Reformed Church Family – gathered with 17 representatives from congregations from all over the country outside Bloemfontein,  to take important decisions concerning the future of mission work in Japan. At this meeting it was decided that if the funds could be raised, new missionaries would be sent to Japan, but that it would be officially advertised first. Carina and I applied – the advertisement had been published at the end of May – and made ourselves available.  Meanwhile we have been selected as suitable candidates, but now only after a considerable period of time (perhaps 6 months or longer, nobody really knows), can the move to Japan occur.


All is dependent on the Lord’s provision regarding finance etc. (and how He will use people to help make this possible). Therefore in the time ahead we will co-operate diligently in establishing a sustainable support base.


 We realize that at this time we cannot comprehend the full picture of Mission Japan and the possibilities regarding it. There are many potholes and blind spots of which we are ignorant. But we are realistic about the situation, and realize how difficult the road might be for us. That is why we believe that we can share our convictions honestly with everyone that is involved or would like to become involved.


Our prayer is that, with this letter, a little will become clear of the fact that in this matter the deciding factor was not our human convictions, but God’s work in our lives, without our trying to sound  “super-spiritual” or “melodramatic” about it. We also pray that everyone will share in our experience that God provides and gives peace that passes all understanding, and that everybody can say with us: “Lord, thank you for allowing us to share in your work!”


Therefore we invite you to cooperate with us to make the possibility a reality, and to pray that God’s Will will be done, that if it His will, our awareness of our calling will be realized. We would like to hear from you if there is anything that you would like to discuss with us. It would be wonderful to enter into further conversations about this.


Thank you for supporting us in your prayers.


In peace and with love,


Stéphan en Carina.


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