In the “Principal’s Report” that I presented to our Annual General Meeting of Bethany Bible School (BBS) on Friday night, I concluded by describing 2010 as a "good and stable" year at BBS. The flip-side of stability in 2010, of course, was the upheaval of 2009—a year in which a conflict arose among members of our Committee and opened up fault lines in our student body as well. Nevertheless, we entered 2010 having restored a measure of peace—the product of a special gathering last December to honor the lifetime service of the particular Committee member who had been offended by the rest of the Committee. Although, in spite of our efforts, that member and those who followed him did not attend in 2010, we remained in friendly contact with him and he continued, in some form, to honor the work of the school; as a sign of his goodwill, he continued to refer students to our office for study materials or collect them himself. This arrangement indeed seemed “good and stable” and we were not holding our breath for anything more.
Something more, however, came last weekend. On the night before the closing conference weekend for the year was to begin, our vice-chairman received a call from a woman, one of the members who had stayed away in protest (or while wounds healed) at the perceived slight of her leader. Her call, however, was not a call to arms; rather, it was a simple notification that she would be attending the conference. That in itself was enough to stir our Committee, fearful of her reasons for choosing to attend after a long absence. The woman made good on her word, arriving on Friday afternoon.
As the Committee gathered for a short meeting following our oral exams over the year’s lessons, we decided to call the woman to the office in order to hear her intentions. She said that she had none—other than simply to return to the school. Although this was great news, it presented us with a new dilemma.
Every year, BBS lends its own graduation ceremony to two sister Bible Schools from Cape Town who share a common constituency (independent churches, least formally-educated church leaders) and mission (to educate such leaders). These sister schools offer their lessons in correspondence; as a result, they have students in our area—some of whom are also BBS students—who come to our site as the nearest place where they might receive recognition for their studies upon completion of them. Three of the last four years (including this one), we have also had at least one official representative of these schools at our graduation. Because this is a significant event in the life of those who graduate, they are often accompanied by guests who wish to share the party with them—a party for which BBS foots the bill. As a result, the Committee has had to establish registration costs for our graduation conference appropriate to the level of participation in our school throughout the year. Students who were on our roll in 2010 would pay the normal fee of R70 for the weekend; guests would pay an amount more reflective (yet still a good deal) of the cost it actually takes to sleep and feed a person for an entire weekend.
The problem, of course, in the situation of the woman who came back, was that she was once among us but then estranged; were we—to employ the biblical categories—to treat her as a Jew or as a Gentile? As a Committee, we were, in our hearts, inclined to treat her as one of us; we desired her return, and the return of all our brothers and sisters who left us in 2009. Even so, we had grown in our understanding as a Committee to be seen as a people who “stick by our word” for the overall health and functioning of the school. Too often in the past, we had made decisions in meetings only to set them aside under pressure from certain individuals who liked to complain. Yet it is the very “rule of law” which guards against individuals taking advantage of the whole and establishes trust in the whole. That trust, in turn, leads to growth. To summarize, on the one hand we were keen to uphold our commitment to love/grace/mercy; on the other hand, we were committed to justice, to respect for the honor/dignity of every human being which is commensurate with a sense of fairness—that one is being treated as the other. Thus, if we could not be seen in the eyes of others to make an exception for our sister, neither could we be seen by our sister and our God to withhold our grace. And if we could not deny her grace, neither could we deny the honor we were trying to uphold in the whole and, in effect, in every part as well.
Still, the decision of whether or not to treat our sister as an outsider was an easy enough one on the basis of the clear communication of our principles; if we simply explained to her that we were treating her the same as every other person who had not attended in 2010, she might understand and gladly pay the required fee. The problem, however, was that the woman had left home having budgeted for only the members’ fee of R70 plus her transport to and from. If she was going to sleep over and pay for meals, she would need to come up with more.
Initially, the Committee decided to do justice to their sense of honor rather than to their sense of mercy. We explained to the woman that she could pay the night’s fee but would be on her own for meals. She sighed heavily under her burden and minutes of silence ensued.
After she had left, one of the women on the Committee spoke up.
“Why did we not ask her to leave and then make a decision and call her back? Did you hear what she said? She said, ‘I didn’t know we were still fighting.’ We must not be seen to be fighting with anyone. We must be God’s messengers. We must only do righteousness.”
The same thought had dawned on me while our sister had still been with us in the room. Confirmed now by one of our Committee members, it was as the voice of God.
“What if we the Committee paid the rest of her fees out of our own pockets?”
“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy,” we all said together, remembering Jesus’ words which were one of the answers from the oral exams earlier that day (Mt 5:7).
We called her back and told her of our new decision—which she embraced.
But whereas our first decision had been weighted toward upholding a sense of honor, our second decision was neither honor over mercy, nor mercy over honor. Rather, honor and mercy, dignity and love, justice and grace, embraced as one, indivisible unity. The Committee neither lowered its standard of justice for all, serving the cause of love, nor denied its desire for mercy, serving the same. The Committee both set and fulfilled its own standards for the sake of the other. It both set and paid the price on behalf of the woman. In doing so, the woman was restored to our fellowship. So perhaps will others be who hear her report of righteousness.
In fact, the old man, her leader, for the first time in more than a year, was back at BBS the next day—seated in a place of honor on graduation day.