Monday, February 28, 2011

life and death

At our Mennonite Ministries in South Africa retreat over the turn of the year, we were privileged to have several sessions with former general secretary of Mennonite Church Canada Jack Suderman. We spent mornings with Jack while he shared biblical insights for mission and discussed these insights in light of situations that we deal with.

Jack shared on the importance of good biblical interpretation. Looking at the story of the wise men who come to visit Jesus, we see the life and death consequences of incorrect biblical interpretation. The wisemen came to Jerusalem following a star that signaled to them the birth of the "King of the Jews". Based on their study they believe that the king of the Jews has to be born in Jerusalem. And so they come to Herod to inquire about the new king. Herod is afraid and threatened and summonses his wise people. His scholars read prophecies of a king to be born and see that such a king must be born in Bethlehem--"geographically close but theologically very far apart" says Jack.

As a result of this exegetical "mistake", King Herod has all the baby boys in Bethlehem killed. The task for us is to at least do no harm through our exegesis.

Over Christmas a woman from our church released her husband to go home to his family for part of the holidays. I don't know what their relationship was like or why she did not accompany him but I do know that when he did not reach home people began to look for him. He was found murdered in town. We attended his funeral several weeks later. Pastor Ntapo was to lead the service and Joe to preach. As is the custom, we gathered in the rondavel before the service for which a tent had been set up. The "mourners" sat on mats on the floor and everyone took turns speaking, singing, and praying. During this session, Joe had been mulling over various texts on which he could preach. As the time for the service to begin drew near, the coffin was brought out from the wall for everyone to see the deceased in flesh one last time. As the murdered man's sons of 12 and 10 circled the coffin it became clear that this was not a situation of comforting the bereaved. This had become a situation in which our primary task was to do what we could to prevent the sons of the murdered man from becoming murderers or being murdered themselves.

So Joe chose to preach on Cain and Abel and to relate the story of that death to Jesus' death as interpreted in Hebrews 12--the blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel. It was a strong message and was received with joy but we didn't know any more than that.

The next day at church we heard more of the story. Pastor Ntapo told us that during the early part of the funeral, which we had not understood, the friends of the deceased had stood to tell the story of the death. In their manner of telling they implicated the widow in his murder. One man had begun wondering aloud why he had been alone in town without his wife and had ended with: "I had better stop there." Malice and ill-will were running high when Joe got up to preach. Pastor Ntapo said: "but that word silenced them. It was a miracle since you didn't even know."

When we arrived in the US for three months in 2008, I was amazed by the quiet peace of Newton and Goshen. Everything looked clean and in order and everyone looked healthy and happy. As we traveled and met old friends and new, we found out how much pain lay behind some of those closed doors, how much had happened internally for people even as their lawns continued to look unharmed.

I am grateful to pastors and others who speak a prophetic word into the lives of people suffering--whether that suffering is upfront and known as it often is here in Mthatha or whether it is hidden and deep as it often is in North America. The word that comes from the Word can reverse the drive toward death and harm, it has the power to heal and bring newness of life.


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