Faithful Houses

Posted by Melvin Bray on May 27th, 2007 filed in Village Half-Wit

Written for and cross-posted on Faith House Manhattan.

“He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”
Revelation 2:7

God’s hopes, dreams and desires for the world are like unto a South African Dutch missionary who went deep into the bush and served God faithfully for 20 years. He was fed up with the apartheid of his homeland, saw little hope of bringing it to an end, and refused to be in collusion with it any longer. So he went to share Good News with Africans outside of his country, determined to treat them as his brothers and sisters.

The missionary achieved notable success in his endeavors, so much so that he was asked to write a memoir as a teaching tool for other missionaries. Because of the remoteness of his location, mail only came and went every 6 months. Notwithstanding, he faithfully wrote everyday.

When the next mail arrived after he had sent his initial submission, he was eager to hear what his supervisor thought. Exchanging mail with the courier, he immediately spotted the package from his supervisor. It was large. Opening it with sweaty hands, he saw that she had read his draft with eagerness and she praised his courage living amongst the bush people. Two incidents in particular stood out to her. One was the missionary’s “need” (she wrote, quoting him) to expel the local “witch-doctor” before the message of Christ could really take root in the hearts of the tribe’s people.” The second was the “showdown” the missionary had with a Muslim tradesman who had begun to make converts to Islam on his regular visits to the village.

The South African Dutchman’s supervisor then made what she called “a strange request.” She wanted him to read up on certain major world events that had taken place since the beginning of his missionary endeavors. She listed the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the end of Apartheid in South Africa, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the war in Rwanda, the end of terrorism in Northern Ireland, the Serb-Croatian Genocide, 9-11 in the US, the great Pacific Ocean tsunami, the rise of Venezuela and China on the world stage, the Sudan conflict and Hurricane Katrina. To this end she enclosed a gift, “probably the most significant change that had taken place in the industrialized world since his departure: a laptop computer with a mobile broadband card and satellite signal booster.” He didn’t know what any of those words meant, but her instructions were clear enough that he eventually got the equipment to work, and he began his research on what his supervisor called “the Internet.”

The missionary did not write much during the next six months because of his research. Much more had taken place during the previous 20 years than his supervisor’s list suggested, but her list was a great start. Many nights he read and read. His little generator required increasing fuel to serve his growing appetite for world events. The world had evolved in dramatic ways since he had come to the bush where time can seem to stand still.

By the time his supervisor’s next letter arrived six months later, he was a changed man, though he did not know how. Thus, her next request did not come as much of a shock as it would have, had it been written a year earlier. She gave the South African Dutch missionary an assignment. She wanted him to track down the medicine man he had ostracized 19 years earlier to seek his forgiveness for the way he had been treated and to ask permission to spend a month learning from him. Under no circumstances was he to attempt to convert or teach the medicine man religion or anything else. He could participate in conversation if questions were asked of him, but not as one self-assured. His task was primarily to observe and to listen. After that he was to seek the Muslim merchant he had interdicted from trading with his parishioners, and do the same. Then write about it.

It was not as difficult as he had imagined. Many in his parish knew exactly how to find both men. In fact, some in his congregation had been quietly practicing the devotions of Islam while learning to walk in the way of Jesus, and some had sought out the medicine man when they were sick. Through these parishioners, the missionary visited each man.The missionary was surprised at the grace and generosity each man extended to him.

He had not expected to be welcomed. He spent some 30 days with each and joined in celebrations and holy days as they came, listening and laughing, sharing meals and dreams. They spoke about the African continent and its challenges and exchanged many hopes. It was an intimacy he had thought impossible between those of such drastically different beliefs.

Upon his return to his African parishioners, the missionary began to share anew the story of the gospel in light of the things he had learned. When he spoke of the way of Jesus as “unavoidable forgiveness,” the people of his community saw this forgiveness being extended to the missionary by Nikondeha, the medicine man. When he spoke of being a peacemaker, the face of Abijar the trader, and the quarrel he had with the missionary which he had abandoned became their frame of reference. And the oft-forgotten sacraments of confession and humility became far more tangible in the life of the missionary himself, as he realized that there was no virtue in feigning certainty in his choices or long-held beliefs.

Notwithstanding, this was no longer enough for the South African Dutch missionary. He wanted more than just to better understand the things of God, like repentance, peacemaking, confession and humility. He wanted to live these truths the way Jesus had. He wanted, as he would later speak of it, to walk “in the way of Jesus”—a way of “others-interestedness”—to “seek first the kingdom of God and God’s justice” in the earth, beginning with his beloved Africa. Yet he had no idea of how to make this happen.

He decided to share his questions with his two new friends. Trader Abijar immediately voiced his growing concern for orphans in territories in which he and his fellow merchants traveled. Many of them were compelled to run for their lives to avoid conscription and sexual assault. This prompted medicine man Nikondeha—whom the missionary learned to refer to by his appropriate title, “laibon,” meaning “spiritual leader”—to propose that his people were known for their generous hearts. Why couldn’t they be inspired to give these wandering orphans refuge? The missionary noted that if Abijar and his colleagues could smuggle the children into Maasai territory, with Nikondeha’s people’s nomadic tendencies, the children would be difficult to track. With Nikondeha and Abijar’s help the missionary thought that they might even be able to convince the elders to modify the community’s seasonal travel path in order to intersect more frequently with smuggling merchants. The wandering orphans that they would take in would be Enkai’s (God’s) new “cattle” that she had charged them to shepherd and keep.

And they did this and many other things together. Not the least of which involved the Maasai parish sending a delegation of Il-murran (warriors) to a neighboring territory to create protected space for peace talks between warring factions that Abijar, as a trusted third-party, was able to bring together. Creating such space for Africans to dream their way forward was something the missionary had been touting as the Western world’s continuing responsibility to a formerly colonized Africa. It was Nikondeha’s suggestion that, as followers of Enkai in the way of Jesus, his people had no excuse to wait for the West while more died. Thus, in this spirit, more and more people in and around Maasai ancestral territory journeyed with God: more orphans were given homes, more hungry were fed, more wells dug, more sick healed, more injustice removed, more peace waged and all the Christians in the South African Dutch missionary’s small nomadic parish grew more committed and more in love with the way of Jesus.

In the mist of his many new endeavors, the missionary wrote to his supervisor:

I am beginning to believe that those who promote life and live goodness are all striving to get to the same place, we’ve just been given different paths to take (with varying nomenclature, understandings and sensibilities), but we’re all headed the same “way.” Once we get there, I imagine that whatever misunderstandings, errors, oughts and hurts that remain will be satisfied, and the Truth will be unmistakable and irresistible. Thus, I was able to appreciate the faith walks of these two men as not in the least bit threatening to my own or threatening to the God who initiates all walks of faith. Plus, I now suspect that should we learn to walk in love for one another, there shall be far fewer confusions and misunderstandings for God to satisfy than there are now.

Nonetheless, I am pleased to announce that this past Sabbath I baptized the first ten people who are dedicating their lives to “the way of Jesus” as practiced by our new kind of Christian community. Nikondeha and Abijar came as well, to celebrate and bless us all.

And in revising his memoir he included this passage that would have seemed so foreign and heretical to him just a few short years before:

People of faith change the world, and it is, I believe, for the good of the world that we discover the commonality inherent in our hopes, instead of living out of the disparity between them. If our religions remain sets of exclusive, immutable propositions, then of course they will exist in contradiction and conflict with one another. In such a climate, war seems inevitable. However, if religion is seen as our best attempts to embody God’s dreams for humanity as partially as we may understand them, then it becomes easy to seek peace and justice for one another—together.

The church is like unto a South African Dutch missionary who went deep into the bush not only to reveal, but to find God.

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