In the final phase of the Weimar Republic the minister of foreign affairs had a fully equipped telegraph office installed in one of the toilets in the palace that at one time had been used by the German emperors as their residence. From this toilet the minister sent his messages to all important government leaders in Europe. However, nobody had told him that the cables had long ago been cut, and that, therefore, his messages did not go beyond the walls of the toilet.
I read this story in a beautiful book that I received as a Christmas gift a few years ago: Ett Annat Liv, written by the famous Swedish author Olov Enquist. Several of his books have also been translated into Dutch. But my knowledge of Swedish is good enough to read the original Swedish edition. Olov Enquist’s mention of the imperial toilet was just a side remark, but it was a striking comment on how useless communication attempts may be.
I have searched the Internet for more details of this story. There is plenty of information about the Weimar Republic and how it came to an end when Hitler ascended to power. But I was unable to find a more detailed version of this story about the imperial toilet. I assume it is historical, but even if it is not, it still is a marvelous illustration. We might even, with a biblical term, call it a ‘parable.’ For, unfortunately, a lot of communication finds its origin in a telegraph office in an imperial toilet, but, in spite of impressive technology, the message does not arrive anywhere.
Perhaps it is a bit risky to compare the church with an imperial toilet, but, I believe, in a parable that would be permissible. I cannot escape the impression that, in spite of impressive technology, a lot of our church communication does not reach the people for whom it is intended–even though the senders are firmly convinced that they are reaching the world around them very effectively.
Not long ago someone handed me a flyer (illustrated with colorful pictures of a few hideous monsters) in which a ‘SDA Bible Study Group’ announced a series of meetings about the judgment that is coming upon the world, about Babylon that is ‘fallen’, and the role of the USA in biblical prophecy. When I saw the flyer my thoughts went to the story of the telegraph office in the imperial toilet. Similar thoughts tend to emerge when I see all kinds of booklets and magazines that are published in the periphery of the church. The people behind these publications want to send a ‘clear’ message. Their products are often made and distributed with the best of intentions. But, I would like to tell them, dear people: the cables that carry this type of communication have long since been cut. You may be reaching a few people around you who have their ear to the door of the toilet, in an attempt to catch something of what you are saying–but that is it.
However, this does not mean that the official church is so much more succesful. Communication with the secular people of our time, who often no longer have any idea of a personal God and have no inkling of what the Bible says, presents an enormous dilemma. The solution is not just to arrange for a telegraph office with all the advanced technology money can buy. The most important thing is that we have something to say that touches upon the interests and emotions of the people we want to reach. And, then, it must be worded and packaged in such a way that it will ‘arrive’ and will be understood. We will not achieve anything when we use communication methods that, like the cables in the Weimar toilet, are no longer functional. We will constantly have to search for new ways to ensure that the message actually reaches our target audience.
It seems a hopeless situation that is doomed to fail. True enough, as long it remains just our human endeavor.
Human endeavors remain a condition for success. God wants to inspire people to translate and transmit his message as best as they can. In every age. But the miracle that the message does actually reach its destination will only happen when our hard work and God-given creativity receives wings through the power of the Spirit.
(This blog was published earlier on Janury 4, 2009).