Stepping Between Cultures

On April 29, Bonaventure Akowanou, administrator of the Benin Bible Institute, and I (Nancy) left Toronto at a chilly 6 degrees (42 F) and landed in Cotonou at 9:30 the following evening where it was a balmy 29 degrees (88 F). Traveling between Benin and North America, one is aware of constant contrasts. Aside from the hot/cold divide, there are so many differences between the two places. The longer I live in Benin, the more I find myself feeling out of sync in North America.
The differences really hit me again on this last trip to Canada during the month of April! Perhaps traveling with an African colleague made those differences more apparent. Or perhaps spending a few days in Montreal before landing in my own backyard, Waterloo County, highlighted aspects of Canadian life that I had previously ignored. Whatever the reason, I felt a heavy ache as I noted the incredible neediness of Canadians. Yes, you read that word correctly! Yet my last few days in Ontario filled me with hope.
Now of course I realize that in many ways Benin is the needy place: people in Benin suffer from lack of adequate health care, educational opportunities, sufficient income, and so on. So of course, Benin is a very needy place. In spite of those obvious challenges, however, the Beninese by and large seem to be a very hopeful people, filled with optimism, and strongly attached to life. They appear to have resources to face the challenges of life, resources that we North Americans do not understand. That is why when people from North America visit Benin they are often most struck by the joy and happiness of the people they meet. This joy becomes especially pronounced in the exuberant forms of worship that are characteristic of Beninese churches. We wonder how they can be so happy in spite of what we would consider great suffering.
It strikes me that in contrast many North Americans are unhappy. Perhaps before I go any further I should carefully state that I am not sitting in judgment here. I am not suggesting that the Beninese are perfect (for they are far from that) or that I prefer living in Benin to living in North America because I can’t say I prefer one place to the other. My remarks are meant to show that there are problems in North America that need to be addressed and that perhaps the strengths of the Beninese can help us to address that suffering.
Some of our greatest needs cannot be met by material resources: the need to belong, to be loved, to feel hope, to feel secure. These needs are met in the Beninese context by their communal and spiritual resources. When we try to meet these needs with only material and physical resources, we fail. Our best efforts at eating right and getting exercise do not keep us from falling ill. Our attempts to create community where none existed before are often unable to provide solid connections with others. Our attempts to make meaning out of our existence, if left only to what we can achieve in this world by our own efforts, often leave us feeling hopeless and dissatisfied.
A long time ago, I read an African myth (I think possibly from Uganda). I forget some of the details, but I will try to relay the underlying lesson it contained. The myth in question explained that when the world was created, the Creator made the rain and the sun, the earth and a human being. Inside the human being, the Creator placed a heart. After finishing the work of creation, the Creator went away. The rest of creation carried on, happy in simply being, but the human being’s heart went crying in search of the Creator. Ever since, humans have been on a quest to satisfy their heart’s true desire. As someone, (St Augustine maybe?) put it, “our hearts are restless until we rest in you.” Or as St Paul wrote, “[God is the one] in whom we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17: 28, but actually Paul was quoting a Greek poet!)
This need to be at peace with our Creator is at the heart of our search for all the rest: love, security, meaning, truth, etc. When this need remains unfulfilled, we try to fill it with all sorts of other things. Yet none of these other things can satisfy our deep longing for oneness with God. So we live broken lives with emptiness at our core. We live lives of constant getting that never seems satisfied. I was struck by how many people in North America are searching for something more: a quest for a genuine spirituality and a real community. Yet I was also struck by how many people are looking everywhere except the Christian faith.
Christianity teaches that Christ has reconciled us to God, 2 Cor 5:18, we can live in peaceful communion with God – and Christ has reconciled us with one another (Eph 2:14) – so that we can live peacefully together. Yet this teaching has not been faithfully lived out and in some cases the church has been more interested in preserving itself and its traditions than in living out the good news. So in North America, where the message has become worn-out, people are ready to look for God every where BUT in the church. In Africa, where the old forms of spirituality are breaking down in the face of modernism, Christianity seems to bring helpful answers to their spiritual questions. This makes it very exciting to work at Bible teaching here. In West Africa, people ardently desire to know what the biblical text says. But when I return to Canada, I find another language is needed.
I was delighted, therefore, to attend the MCEC sessions at the end of April. (MCEC is the eastern district of the Mennonite Church of Canada, covering the provinces of Ontario, Quebec and New Brunswick.) MCEC has planned for 8 new church plants, some already begun, others about to begin, all of them finding new ways of being God’s people. These attempts at using a new language and of finding new forms for sharing the good news are very encouraging to me. I am not ready to do away with church as I have known it, nor are many other people who still find the church a good place to meet God. (Church being the people of God or the community of faith and not the building in which they meet!) However, I am so glad that there are people stepping out of the familiar ways of doing things in order to encounter people who need to hear about God’s love in a new language. I went away from those meetings with the heaviness gone and a renewed hope.
It is hard to reduce my thoughts and feelings to a page and a half. It is difficult to put into words what came as waves of impressions as often very different encounters shaped my thinking. I do not presume to have summed it all up adequately, but I share it in the hopes that others may be inspired to pursue their reflections on what it means to be human and how to live lives of wholeness.


International Day

Here in Cotonou Jeremiah and Deborah are blessed to attend “International” schools. That is they go to school with children from all over the world and hence interact regularly with customs and traditions of many different cultures. In Jeremiah’s class there are students from the U.S., Canada, Benin, Cameroon, Germany, England, India, Nigeria, Palestine, Peru, Liberia, Togo, Mexico and Holland. Deborah has friends from Benin, the U.S., Canada, France, China, Thailand, Lebanon, Switzerland, Spain Burkina Faso, Italy and Togo.

At the International English School, where Jeremiah attends, they had their annual “International Day” celebration yesterday. The students dressed in traditional garb from their home countries and parents brought typical dishes to share for lunch. Students performed songs, skits and other entertainment for parents and friends. We heard and saw everything from North American hip hop to African dances.

Just one of the many advantages to living in Cotonou!

Flags from all over!

Flags from all over!

Jeremiah\'s class sharing a song.

Now just what is typical garb from North America!?!

Pastor Houngbedji’s Funeral Sermon

On May 24 a former BBI student and pastor of the Assemblies Disciples of Christ church was buried. He was a youngish man, in his 40th year, with a young family. His oldest of three sons is ten and his youngest looks to be not more than three. How do we make sense of such sadness: a father, husband, pastor in his prime who dies suddenly and unexpectedly (in this case of an asthma attack!)? The national pastor of the ADC church, Pastor Theodore Houngbedji, preached the eulogy. I was impressed with his attempt to make sense of something so tragic and to comfort those of us present. I thought maybe some of the rest of you would enjoy reading a summary of this sermon as well. It may given you an idea of how an African, Beninese, Christian approaches the age-old question: Why do bad things happen to good people?

Perhaps it would be helpful for you to know that in the Beninese context an untimely death is usually attributed to sorcery. That means that a person who possesses witchcraft powers has chosen to attack and kill the pastor through supernatural means in order to increase his or her own power. This explanation is troublesome for Christians who believe that in Jesus they are liberated from the oppression of witchcraft and sorcery. Another explanation is that the pastor sinned and is being punished for his sins. Of course, this is more familiar to those of us raised in the “Christian” west, but it has its troubling aspects as well. How bad were his sins? Were they worse then mine? And what about all those other evil persons who live to a ripe old age? A third explanation is that it was simply the pastor’s fate. The problem with fatalism is that it encourages lethargy and an unhealthy acceptance of circumstances instead of encouraging people to improve their lives by making changes for the better.

Pastor Houngbedji read two passages from the Bible. The first is in Luke 12:16-21, the parable of the rich fool. This is the story of a rich man who seeing his storehouses are too small tears them down to build bigger ones. Having done this, he determines to “eat, drink and be merry”. However, God has a different plan. “But God said to him,’You fool! This very night your life (soul) is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” Then Pastor Houngbedji read Ecclesiastes 8:8a “No one has power over one’s breath to retain it, or power over the day of death,” (according to the French version).

From these two readings, the pastor drew three conclusions:

1) The life of a man does not depend on his possessions. A person can be the owner of everything except his/her life. The Bible tells us that our life does not depend on what we own. (Here he told a story about a rich, Beninese man who became ill and, money being no object, spent enormous sums traveling even to France to seek treatment. In France, the doctors told him to go back home; all his money would not be able to buy him the good health he was seeking.)

2) A man is not master of this breath. (Keep in mind that the deceased died of an asthma attack!) When someone dies, we can say things like: “He is no longer breathing.” Or “She has stopped breathing.” When the pastor was a young boy, he heard that said about his own father. He resolved to never, never stop breathing and even took to practicing breathing. From time to time as a boy he would take deep breaths. However, when the time comes and our breathing stops, we have no power to keep on breathing. A man cannot retain his breath nor put off death.

3) Your soul will be demanded of you. (You will be asked to return your soul.) There is One who has all the power; this is the One who created us and put our soul within. We cannot resist this One who will one day ask for our soul again. Our soul does not belong to us, but does belong to God.

The pastor, having made these three points, then suggested three ways to live as a consequence.

1) Do not fear those who can kill the body, but fear the One who has power over our soul and who can reclaim it at any time. (Read Luke 12: 4-5) Return to God for fear that God reclaim your soul in order to cast it into the fire. If you belong to God, God will keep you.

2) Psalm 90:12 So teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart. Pray this prayer: “Lord teach me to count my days and to seek wisdom.” Proverbs teaches us that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. Pray for the grace to please and honor God.

3) James warns us not to make bold claims about what we will do tomorrow. 4:13 Come now, you who say, “Tomorrow we will go to such and such a town and spend a year there, doing business and making money.” 4:14 Yet you do not even know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. 4:15 Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wishes, we will live and do this or that.”

We should put our trust in the Lord and acknowledge God’s sovereign claim on our lives, saying “If it pleases God, tomorrow I will do such and such.” We should entrust our plans to God and seek God’s direction in all our decisions.