So your family is hard-headed when it comes to Yeshua? Listen, I’ll tell you about hard-headed. Once when Papa (that’s what we called my mother’s father) was visiting us, he fell in the bathtub and his head hit the porcelain soap holder—you know, the thing that sticks out of the wall? You’d think the impact would’ve cracked his skull. Well, as it turned out, his kepeleh was just fine but the soap holder did not fare as well. It broke right off the wall and fell with a crash and a clatter into the bathtub.
Grandpa Elfbaum had a hard head all right, and he figured he knew just about all he needed to know about religion.” He wasn’t volatile when we talked to him about Yeshua. He was very pleasant about it, as was his nature, but his spirit was condescending. He’d smile and he’d nod, but he wouldn’t believe a word we said. Then he’d explain “His Own Philosophy”: a mixture of what you might find in the Talmud, the Torah, Shirley MacLaine’s latest book on reincarnation (but this was before movie stars had popularized that old schtick)…plus a few other ideas which were all his own.
So it may come as a surprise to you that years after demonstrating the thickness of his skull in our bathtub, my Grandpa Elfbaum demonstrated his faith in Yeshua in his own bathtub—where he was baptized by Al Brickner, another Jewish believer in Jesus!
How did it happen? Who knows? Only God! But I can tell you one of the tools God used to make it happen: an eleven-year-old Jewish kid whose head was just as hard as her grandfather’s—that’s me.
You see, I was too young and naive to realize how inadequate I was. It didn’t occur to me that I didn’t know enough to witness to my grandfather. I wasn’t adult enough to weigh all the consequences of my actions and I certainly wasn’t sophisticated enough to consider how unlikely it was for a child to succeed in such an impossible venture. In other words, I was just a little kid and I plunged straight ahead.
I was visiting for a week or so with my grandparents who lived in Boston, and I don’t really remember how the subject of Jesus came up. I do remember watching and waiting for an opportunity. We had been praying for my grandparents to know Jesus ever since I could remember. Somewhere in the middle of my visit, I managed to bring Grandpa Elfbaum’s attention to Isaiah 53. My grandfather looked at me and said,
“So you believe Jesus is the Messiah. That’s what your Mama and Daddy taught you. You’re a good girl. It won’t hurt you to believe that. But when you get to be my age, you’ll know better.”
I shook my head. “How can you be so sure that it’s not true?”
“Sweetheart,” he answered, “do you know how old your Papa is?” He always spoke softly; I don’t remember ever hearing him raise his voice. But now he spoke in extra hushed tones, as though he were about to reveal a very precious secret.
“No Papa,” I admitted. “I don’t know how old you are.”
“How old do you think I am?” he prodded.
“You’re, ah, well I guess you’re probably about, um…oh Papa, I’m not much good at this. How old are you?”
“Seventy. I am seventy-years-old. And you are how old?”
“Eleven. I’ll be twelve in June.”
“So,” my Papa said. “So you are eleven-years-old and I am seventy-years-old. Do you think it is possible that I might know a little more than you?” He smiled and added, “When you’re seventy-years-old, then you come tell me about Jesus.”
“Okay Papa,” I sighed. “I know I don’t know everything. You know more than I do about a lot of things. But does being seventy-years-old mean you know everything? Is it possible for a seventy-year-old person to make a mistake?”
“Is it?” My grandfather stroked his chin as he mused philosophically. “Yes, it is. It is possible for a person who is seventy-years-old to make a mistake. But this I know, I have not made a mistake about Jesus. The Messiah will come, and things will be different when he comes. That much you can be sure of.”
Not a very promising conversation, was it? Perhaps you’ve bad similar discussions with your family. The patronizing response is worse than anger because it shows they don’t take it seriously. I know that now, but I didn’t know it at the time. So I just kept nagging.
“Why? Why are you so sure?”
“I’m an old man,” he answered, “and I’ve studied these things.” There was a pregnant pause to make sure I was ready for his next disclosure. Then he announced what he regarded as being a startling fact. “I’ve even read the New Testament.”
“But when you studied these things,” I pressed, “were you already sure he wasn’t the Messiah? Or did you study because you were trying to find out?”
“Trust me,” an exasperated Papa said. “Jesus is not the Messiah.”
My head was as hard as his! “But what if he was? Wouldn’t you want to know?” I insisted. Papa paused, but this time it was not for effect. He was making a very important decision. Finally he said, “Yes, I would want to know.” It was then that I made him promise that he would ask God to show him the truth. He did. And God did. A year, maybe two later, Grandpa Elfbaum accepted Jesus as his Messiah.
I wish I could say the same about my Zayde Rosen, but things were different with him. We had a “rule” to obey; we were not allowed to talk about religion when we visited with my dad’s family. I remember worrying that I had broken the rule when I was seven or eight. We were visiting at my grandparents’ house in Denver for a few days. I was proud of a new nightie and matching dressing gown my mother bad bought for me. Both were white with little red rosebud appliqués. I ran up and down the hall, the white dressing gown streaming behind me, I imagined, like a pair of wings. Being somewhat vain even at that age, I thought I must be rather a beautiful sight, “flying” up and down the hall with white wings and red rosebuds. I ran up to my grandmother and said, “Gram, Gram, look, I’m an angel!”
Well, Gram shook her head and said, “I don’t know about an angel. I’d say you look more like a little fairy.” It didn’t occur to me that she might be commenting on my rather un-angelic behavior. Instead, I figured I had accidentally broken the taboo. I went to my mother, eyes downcast, the white nightie with rosebud appliqués forgotten. “Mom,” I said, “I hope Gram’s not mad at me.”
“Why would she be mad at you?” my mother asked.
“Well, I was pretending to be an angel and she said I looked more like a fairy than an angel and I guess that’s because angels are in the Bible and fairies aren’t—and we’re not supposed to tell Grandma and Zayde about stuff in the Bible. Should I tell Gram I’m sorry?” It took a while for her to convince me I hadn’t said anything to make my grandmother upset, but I remember very clearly the feelings of dread at having said something which ought not be said.
Now this Mishpochah Message is not meant to be a trip down memory lane, so I hope I haven’t indulged in too much reminiscing. The point is this: many of you have sent in letters asking about witnessing to your family. Maybe the contrast between the two different sides of my family can be of some help as you consider what to do.
On the one hand, take heart! A hard-headed Harry Elfbaum met his Messiah—and so can your grandfather, grandmother, mom, dad, son, daughter, spouse or whoever! It happens more often than you know, so rejoice and don’t give up hope. Don’t be afraid to speak up, and, if you’ve got ’em, allow your children to share what they know about Yeshua with the other relatives.
On the other band, take a lesson from the little girl in the white nightie. She was so worried about what could and couldn’t be said in her grandparents’ house that she thought she had to apologize for saying the word “angel.” Don’t agree to restrict yourself in ways you will later regret.
That’s what my believing parents did with my dad’s unbelieving parents. Here’s how it happened. When my parents became believers, my dad’s father disowned him. A year or so later, they were on speaking terms again, but my zayde had two conditions. First, he insisted my father see a psychiatrist, which he did, and was given a clean bill of mental health. (Though Mitch Glaser says some of us who know him still wonder.…) Second, Zayde Rosen wanted my dad to promise not ever to say anything about religion unless he (my zayde) brought it up first.
Well-meaning Christians counseled my dad (who was then a new believer) to agree to his father’s terms. They said that the main thing was to repair the relationship, and the rest would work itself out later. My dad’s life would be a witness, they assured him, and through prayer, his father would eventually open up and begin asking questions. My dad was a very young man, twenty, I think, and he naturally missed his parents. Between his desire to make peace and the advice he received, he accepted his father’s terms.
He looks back on it now as a painful mistake, a compromise he should not have made. The relationship was never the same anyhow, because after talking about the weather and how business was going, my dad was always dismally aware that he had agreed not to say anything about that which was most important…and oh, how he wanted to talk to his dad about Yeshua! What could he have done, what could he have said to avoid this? Maybe something like, “Dad, I’m not going to preach at you or knock you over the head with my Bible. There are plenty of things we can talk about besides religion. But you’re asking me to leave my real self outside the door every time I come to visit you and I can’t do that. I wouldn’t try to tell you about Jesus every time we talk, but don’t ask me to act like the most important thing in my life doesn’t exist.” Well, I’m sure he would have worded it differently, and so can you, but you get the idea.
There is a time to take a stand…even when we “stand” to lose a lot by doing so. We cannot promise to disobey Jesus who told us to preach the gospel to the world…and that certainly includes our family. (Matthew 28:19, 20)
We can learn from each other’s joys and sorrows. I know that doesn’t tell you exactly how to witness to your families, but there is no one way of doing it. You’ll find a few tips on witnessing to your family on page eight, but since each family is different, there’s no “formula” for successful evangelism. The main thing is to leave the door open—don’t box yourself into a compromise. Be alert for opportunities to speak up…and use them! On the other hand, some of you need to know when not to speak up. God hasn’t asked us to repeat the entire plan of salvation whenever we can to whomever will leave enough space in the conversation for us to do so.
I’ll never forget the look of shock and disbelief on the face of one man who was trying to harass me because I believe in Jesus. I was handing out broadsides, and he came up and said, rather smugly, “Okay, convince me.” He wasn’t prepared for my answer…
“Why should I?”
“Well, isn’t that what you’re out here for?”
“No. What ever gave you that idea?”
He began to get angry. “Well you’re standing out here with that Jews for Jesus tee-shirt like some kind of a billboard. You ought to be prepared to answer some questions.” You know what I told him?
“I’m standing here with what I consider valuable information on a subject which is important to me. I want to offer it to people who might be interested, which I don’t believe you are. Besides, it’s not my job to convince anyone. That’s God’s job.”
The man then tried to convince me that he really was interested, but his manner was still belligerent and, at the same time, probingly manipulative.
I told him, “I’m sorry, I don’t believe you. You don’t impress me as being a very sincere person and what I have to say is just too personal to tell someone who’s only looking for an argument. I hope you’ll forgive me if I’ve misjudged you, but if you’re truly interested, I’m not the only person who can tell you about Jesus.”
This man needed to see that the gospel was more valuable than something to be spouted off at the drop of a hat. He also needed to know that believers in Jesus are not robots whose buttons can be pushed. But he was right about one thing. Believers in Yeshua should be prepared to answer questions…to people who are interested in the answers! This man, like so many of our people, was under the false impression that I would do everything possible to “convert” him.
Sometimes standing up for what you believe means showing that you refuse to treat it lightly by discussing it with a hostile person—yes, even a family member—who isn’t interested. Most of you are not “professional missionaries.” Still, once you try telling your family and friends about Yeshua, you are likely to be classified as a compulsive religion-pusher. No matter how gentle or tactful your approach, they might well think you have no choice but to try and cajole everyone you meet into believing in Jesus. So be prayerfully selective about when you will or won’t discuss your beliefs.
Being selective doesn’t mean losing true opportunities. We have to be sensitive to the leading of the Holy Spirit—after all, we do have a responsibility and, I hope, a desire to tell people about Yeshua. And it’s not an easy responsibility to fulfill. But to some people, “witnessing” seems far more difficult than it needs to be. It looms up as the most ominous and difficult of Christian responsibilities. “I don’t have the gift of evangelism,” some will say, with a sigh of resignation. And they’ll relegate the witnessing to someone else, feeling guilty all the while. Sometimes they find fault with those who are “witnessing” to relieve some of that guilt.
But telling about Jesus doesn’t have to be like that: not when we realize what our responsibilities are…and what they aren’t.
We talk about “witnessing,” but I’m not sure if we really understand what it means. Actually, we are witnesses, because we’ve seen what God has done. What witnesses do is testify: tell what we’ve seen, i.e. evidence of Jesus’ messiahship.
Re-read the first chapter of the Gospel of John. What did Andrew do as soon as Jesus called him? “He found first his own brother, Simon, and said to him, ‘We have found the Messiah.'” (verse 41) After he said that, Andrew brought his brother to Jesus. In John, chapter 4, after Jesus met with the woman at the well, she went into the city and said, “Come see a man who told me all the things I have done.” (John 4:29) And the people she told went to find Jesus so they could see for themselves. Likewise, our story should make people want to see for themselves.
When you “testify” before your family (or anyone else), remember, you may or may not be the “key witness” for that person as they make their decision. Instead, your story may be one piece that fits into a case that many people are making to show a particular person that Jesus is the Messiah. We are witnesses and our only responsibility as such is to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth!
What we say can be heard with the ear, what we do can be seen with the eye, but only the Holy Spirit can bring it all together where it really counts: a person’s heart. We don’t have to plead God’s case for him. We just have to tell what we know. Of course, it helps if we know a lot, through our daily experience with God, and through the study of his Word.
We sometimes become discouraged when our “witnessing” fails to produce visible results. But when did God ever tell us we would have the power to convince? It’s the Holy Spirit who does that. I’ve heard people say, “I used to witness a lot but I never saw any fruit, so I gave up.” Fruit? What fruit?! The fruit of the Spirit is love, which can be tasted in a variety of satisfying flavors: joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness and self-control. That’s the fruit we’re supposed to bear. So why should we be guilt-bearing trees, offering excuses and the ishy-squishy fruit of self-condemnation and pity? God wants better for us! Like that we should do what he asks and leave the rest to him. We have to be available and ready to be his instrument, whatever way he chooses to use us.
It may be frustrating when our best efforts and most erudite arguments seem to leave family and friends completely unconvinced. But it is liberating to realize that God does not require us to convict people of the truth. Again, that is the work of the Holy Spirit. (John 16:8-11) So whether it’s witnessing to your zayde, your Aunt Tillie or Cousin Harold, be encouraged. When put on trial, God simply wants his witnesses to take the stand! He is perfectly able to win his case!