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."


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