Wednesday, July 29, 2009

a pastoral concern

This morning at the office we got a visit from one of our old Bible School leaders. Up to this point in our time in Mthatha, we've worked more closely with this man than any other individual in the Bible School. Recently, however, he resigned from our Committee citing age and fatigue. According to newer members of our Committee, however, the real reason is that he is finally being called to account on some advantages that he has taken over the years at others' expense and has no answer for the allegations.

We have been happy to see new faces on our Committee in leadership positions. At the same time, we have built up relationships with older members such as this man and care for them a great deal. By the end of our first year here, in 2006, it was already becoming clear to us that we did not agree with the spiritual orientation of this leader; his life was still ordered around appeasing his ancestors when they made demands upon him through his dreams.

Today he shared with us the latest occurrence of this reality in his life. His daughter, a professional young woman in Johannesburg, has fallen gravely ill. She has come home to the Transkei in order to rest and deal with the sickness. We suspect, because it is so common, that his daughter has HIV. However, the daughter has also received visitations from her deceased grandmother and grandfather. The family response, then, is this: slaughter an animal for the ancestor and serve its meat as a feast in his or her honor. The logic is that the woman has fallen ill because someone in the family has violated the moral order for which the ancestor, as guardian of the family, is responsible. The ancestor's visit then is interpreted as a warning to put things right with him or her in order to stave off even greater calamity. The usual prescribed method for making right is via sacrifice. So the family will spend a lot of money to pull off this feast. This is why, the old man was telling us, he was still unable to give us the money for the Bibles he took from the school's office last year; he was here to assure us that he had not forgotten. Coincidentally, this taking of Bibles from the office, which was known by another member of our Committee, was one of the grievances the new leadership had recently levied against this man.

This old man has been on my heart all week. I know that there is a conflict underway between him and the current Committee. I believe in the vision of our current Committee; I am also fond of the old man for the relationship we have forged over three years. My prayer has been that the new Committee could clear up past confusion in the school caused by the old man's leadership without humiliating him publicly before the student body. The Committee is planning something of a reckoning in less than two weeks on the Friday of the next Mthatha Bible conference. Today, the old man was all but telling us he would not be present then, citing the family issue named above.

I was relieved to have this exchange today. It was warm. We listened sympathetically to his stories. We prayed together for him, his daughter, his family. So far, our commitment to support the current Committee has not soured our relationship with this old man.

Still, I am grieved for my friend as a friend. I wish for him the courage to trust fully in Christ, our human brother, the Ancestor of us all, the one who asks nothing more of us than that we follow him. I wish for him to know that the blood of bulls and goats cannot cleanse the moral impurities of this world. I wish him to know that the sacrifice of Christ, the way of the cross, is the way of confronting directly the pain of this world, the courage to face the hard facts of his daughter's illness and seek the things that truly heal and make for peace.

-Joe

Saturday, July 25, 2009

a weekend Bible conference

Lots of warm greetings are shared on Friday evening.
A program of introductions and exhortations of one kind or another takes place on Friday night after supper.
Our boys play with their friend Siyanda, who lives on the grounds at the venue, at every Mthatha conference.
Dancing while singing, a favorite activity
An impromptu meeting of the BBS Committee on Friday night. We all squeezed into one member's room.
Almost ready to begin teaching on Saturday morning.
Nomantombi with Saturday lunch: samp and beans, rice, cooked cabbage, potatoes, and stewing beef.
a view on the proceedings
small group Bible study and discussion. This day's text was Revelation 5.
synchronized interpretation
more dancing in thankfulness for what God has done on this day

Thanks to Ryan Miller of Mennonite Mission Network for capturing these great images from Bethany Bible School last May!

Monday, July 13, 2009

natural miracles


We just returned from ten days traveling with our guests, Anna's parents, in the next province over, KwaZulu-Natal. We stayed in St. Lucia, a lovely little village set on a lake which features over 1,000 hippos and 3,000 crocodiles. Just minutes outside the town is Isimangaliso Wetland Park.

Isimangaliso is a Zulu word meaning wonders or miracles (the same word exists in Xhosa with only the minor difference of a prefix, imi- instead of isi-). In English, we often speak of natural "wonders". Natural "miracles", however, is an oxymoron; "miracles" is something that has been relegated to the supernatural realm.

As the indigenous southern African languages point out, that separation in common English usage is artificial. The natural world is both "wonderful" and "miraculous". It also is God's world. God is not confined to a separate "supernatural" world, something humans have constructed in order to shut out the everyday "interference" of God in their lives. The "natural" and the "supernatural" are the same world.

The relevant distinction is not between "natural" and supernatural", but between Creator and created. God interacts with the world God has created--sometimes in ways beyond our expectations, sometimes in line with them. We may call this unexpected goodness "supernatural", but really it is simply "wonderful". We may call expected goodness "natural"; it too is simply "wonderful."

In Christian perspective, the event of unexpected goodness is the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. To us it seems truly out-of-the-ordinary, extraordinary; we do not know humans to rise from the dead. On the other hand, the resurrection, that end-of-life event, is no more miraculous than conception/pregnancy/birth, that beginning-of-life event. Justin Martyr, the great Christian apologist of the second century, explicitly made the comparison. Reflecting the ancient view that the human being to be was contained in the sperm or "seed", he argued for the reality of the resurrection on the basis of the reality of life's beginnings.

"And then they who observe things can see how men are generated one by another, and can marvel in a still greater degree that from a little drop of moisture so grand a living creature is formed. And certainly if this were only recorded in a promise, and not seen accomplished, this too would be much more incredible than the other; but it is rendered more credible by accomplishment."

Indeed, the difference in "credibility" according to human wisdom between the miracle of birth and the miracle of resurrection consists in frequency of occurrence; we are accustomed to birth, not to resurrection. The scriptures too admit this. Jesus is the "firstborn from the dead" (note the confluence of birth and resurrection in the title), the "first fruits" of a harvest still to come (Col. 1:18; Rev. 1:5; 1 Cor. 15:23).

As Paul said, "we do not hope for what is seen, but for what is unseen" (Rom. 8:24-25). But true hope in things unseen should produce delight in things seen.

-Joe