Monday, May 28, 2012

wired for heaven

Seeing that we don't really have a Sunday School option for our children right now, we've taken to reading and discussing a Bible story with them on Sunday evenings before bedtime preparations.  This week, Moses--whose insights we've chronicled before--had some things to share about "heaven."  

We were reading the short parables of Jesus in Matthew 13:44-46, which I have taught in other settings.  Both illustrations begin with the line, "The kingdom of heaven is like . . .."  Fixing on the word, "heaven", Moses inquired how it is that a person goes to heaven after they're buried.  That isn't really where we had intended to go with the parables, seeking rather to see "the kingdom of heaven" in its broadest terms as that which Jesus inaugurated already in his earthly ministry and which will extend for eternity.  We did indeed talk about the present reality of the kingdom, but Moses' interest demanded attention to the kingdom's future and personal dimensions as well.

I said that, because none of us have yet died, we don't really know what life is like beyond death.  Moses countered with stories we ourselves had told him--stories we didn't know he remembered.  "Some people have died and come back to life," he said.

"Yes", said Anna, "you mean like Jesus?"

"And [one friend who had had a near death experience].  And Tata Gumenke."

Indeed he was right.  Both of Moses's examples were of people who had ceased breathing for a period and come back to life.  And both persons had visions of God in their respective times of dying.

I don't recall ever teaching Moses about heaven as the abode of the righteous dead.  Yet he has absorbed that understanding of the word; it is the first meaning that comes to his mind when he hears "heaven."

For many Christians, post-death life is the goal of the gospel and itself the good news.  For Christians who have reacted against that understanding because it seems to ignore quality-of-life and justice issues from birth to death, the afterlife has perhaps virtually disappeared from Christian proclamation.  Moses's innocent curiosity and right remembering reminded me that the good news is for this life and the next.


Friday, May 18, 2012

be the tree

In our experience, South African church occasions usually feature a "vote of thanks", often delivered by some notable elder.  At funerals, for example, this might fall to an elder in the family of the deceased.  At our Bethany Bible School gatherings, the chairperson typically asks an older man from among the student body to fill this role.  As teacher, I have had the privilege of being the recipient of many votes of thanks, as I was again last Saturday.

Perhaps the most oft-used line in my hearing is something about either the message or the messenger being "new".  "We think we know the Bible," an old man named Victor Mcotheli said last week, "but today it is brand new to us."

Victor Mcotheli 

Also typical has been some form of encouragement to the teacher to press on with the work, to ascend to greater heights.  In the case of last Saturday's speech, Tata Mcotheli drew upon several points of imagery from the weekend's lessons to make this plea.  His use of imagery was quite inventive, indeed imaginative, for it transformed the images in the context in which they were taught into something new.

My lessons on Friday and Saturday had included many images.  On Friday, teaching on worship, I began with several prints of paintings of Jesus which illustrated examples of worship.  One of those--in my mind intended to show "offering"--was the scene of the widow putting in her mite alongside the offering of a wealthy man.  In the artist's depiction, a beggar could be seen in the distance, in the entrance to the temple, asking alms of passersby.  Because of that, some students did not instantly recognize the story as that of Mark 12 (the story of the widow's mite), but of Acts 3--Peter giving the beggar "not silver or gold" but "the name of Jesus" (3:6).  Though this whole exercise was intended as something of a foil for the lesson, it was to figure in Tata Mcotheli's speech.

On Saturday, teaching on apocalyptic literature in the Bible, I sketched on the whiteboard the dreams of Nebuchadnezzar in Daniel 2 and 4.  The second of these, the great tree with its top in the heavens and visible from the ends of the earth, was also to figure in the vote of thanks--but not with the same meaning as I had applied to the tree.

So how did Tata Mcotheli urge me on to new heights?

"Just like that tree," he said, "you must grow so that you can continue to give us new things."  In its original context, of course, one could not say that the stature of the tree was entirely positive, for its top in the heavens bespoke Nebuchadnezzar's presumption to be "like God"--an arrogance for which he, like the tree in his dream, is "cut down."  In its biblical context, therefore, becoming "like the tree" is probably not something for which I should aspire, but neither is that what Tata Mcotheli meant by his reference to it.  On the contrary, as the speech continued, it became clear that his primary learning for the day was precisely in accord with the call to humility in Daniel 4.

"We used to think that we pastors were the big men in our churches, and we would be scared of anyone who had talent.  But now we know that we must humble ourselves."

Concluding, he drew us back to where the weekend had started and to a story which I had never intended to teach.  Though Acts 3 had come up by accident, as a student contribution to the lesson and not from the mind of the one who had prepared the lesson, it was the last word on this day.

"We were like the people who begged for alms every day, but now we have something better--the name of Jesus.  It is this Jesus who we will take back to our churches."


Tuesday, May 15, 2012

endings and beginnings

As of last Saturday, we have completed one cycle in the 24-topic curriculum we introduced at Bethany Bible School in 2008.  In November, BBS will have its first “graduates”—though I doubt that any of our regulars will cease attending our conferences and workshops.

We ended, as does the Bible, with the book of Revelation.  My selection of which courses to teach when was somewhat random, but to end on Revelation was appropriate indeed.  The book brings to the fore the main themes, symbols, and images of the Bible as a whole, and therefore served as a summary of what this curriculum was designed to teach.

Our next gathering is a workshop slated for 1-2 June.  A guest instructor will teach on composting, gardening, and small business creation through food production. 

The next curriculum cycle starts in August, followed by a workshop in October on youth.  And then the big graduation in November.

Our committee has been anticipating BBS graduation for so long already.  Completion of the certificate comes with a BBS sash this year—and the students can hardly contain their excitement.  If there’s one thing we’ve learned from our years in this place, it’s that the people love their celebrations, their pomp and circumstance, their flowing robes, their flowery decorations.

For those who will be graduating such celebration will be well-earned.


Thursday, May 10, 2012

a brief history of South Africa

The following is a piece that I wrote for a chapel service that we led at Hesston College.  It was my attempt to tell a vast sweep of history in a few paragraphs and to give significance to the daily challenges of overcoming South Africa's history of racial injustice and separateness.  

 South Africa has long been home to diverse peoples. First occupied by Khoi and San or bush people, and joined by Bantu people from the north who migrated to South Africa’s fertile plains giving birth to the Zulu, Xhosa, and Sotho nations. Later, Vasco DaGama stopped on his way east, naming the southern peninsula, the Cape of Good Hope. Europeans, both Dutch and English, followed him, moving inland and coming into contact with earlier occupants. As Europeans began to carve out large farms and require more land, they began to exercise more violence and proprietary behaviour. Battles and wars ensued, most often won by those with guns and the Africans got pushed into smaller and smaller areas. Indians joined the mix, being recruited to cut sugar cane. As the various groups met, children of mixed race were born who would eventually be put into their own racial category and called coloured.

In 1948 the minority Afrikaners or those of Dutch origin, fully believing in their relationship to South Africa as that of the Israelites’ to Canaan, began to systematize the separateness they desired. The people of South Africa were divided into White, Indian, Coloured, and African. Over time, Africans were limited to substandard housing and education and excluded from all but the most menial labour. Claiming their desire for “separate but equal development” the Afrikans government held court, assessing a person’s ethnic group based on a series of tests such as whether or not they had freckles and whether a comb would stick in their hair. Those deemed to be African were then sent to live in the “homeland” of "their people", a somewhat arbitrary dividing of the land into Xhosa, Zulu, Sotho, etc… areas. They were then allowed to travel only with special permission and proof of work in the other place. The system of oppression and privilege was so exactly ranked and proportioned that Nelson Mandela recounts in his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom that in prison whites were given white bread and white sugar, Indians and Coloureds were given brown bread and brown sugar, and Africans were given neither, supposedly lacking the “sophisticated European taste for them.”

The system of apartheid, meaning separateness, finally came to an end in 1994 when the first free and fair elections were held, following a concerted campaign which included an armed struggle and eventual peaceful negotiations.

While the system has formally ended, the struggle to relate to each other in new ways continues. People who have been systematically separated do not readily find themselves in the same social circles, bosses do not naturally learn to treat their employees with more respect, and economic power is not automatically redistributed. And on a day to day basis, each person must choose how to respond to another, whether to stay in their own racial group or take initiative to move outside.

We followed this overview with retellings of experiences previously recorded as stumbling blocks to transformation a beautiful moment, and morning at supa quick, attempting to show the challenges and joys of moving across boundaries.  It continues to be our challenge and our great joy.