Tuesday, June 24, 2008

A Story from the Nigerian Mission Field

Desmond Bittinger served as a missionary in Nigeria from 1930-1939. He shared the following story as part of his 1958 address to the 1958 Annual Conference, "And How Shall The Brethren Be Recognized?"

One day in an aboriginal Nigerian setting there came rushing up the hill to our house, which was located on a shelf of the hill, twenty or more panting young men. They were not members of the tribe among whom we lived, but had crossed the tribal boundary and come hurrying to call upon us, from a neighboring tribe.

..."Teacher, get your horse with three legs and quickly follow us! We have a great surprise for you." As we turned to comply, they added with just as much excitement, "And don't forget to bring the Book that has in it the mind of God."

We got the horse with three legs - a motorcycle with a sidecar - and they ran before us, showing us the way. When we came to the end of the existing road, part of their surprise for us became apparent. With their own hands they had extended the road for many miles .... at the end of some bouncing and wearisome miles, we drove into the center of the village. The second part of the surprise now became evident. At the one side of their spreading council tree, with much labor they had built a church.

Their chief was waiting. Many of the villagers had gathered. They said with dignity and pride, "We have dug this house of God from the earth; we have laid it up handful by handful of adobe construction; we have crowned it with a roof of grass. We have invited you to come to place within it the Book which has in it the mind of God. Now together we shall present the house to God, for it is God's house. It is the biggest and best house in the village; that is the kind of house God should have."

But before we turned to go into the house, we looked across the open space to the other side of the spreading council tree where we saw in operation an ancient aboriginal practice.... A young girl, comely and beautiful, approaching the age for marriage, was kneeling in the sand. Crouching above her was a priestess, so intent upon her responsibility that she had not stopped, even amidst all the excitement of the coming of the motorcycle and the shouting of the multitude.

Before this young woman could be married it was necessary that the marks which distinguished her tribe be carefully cut into her body. With a knife shaped like a fishhook, the inside of it sharpened as a cutting edge, this priestess was digging into the body of the girl, cutting from side to side and from shoulder to hip, making forever sharp and clear the marks which would reveal the tribe to which she belonged. Blood from the cutting stained the ground. The priestess rubbed ashes into the cuts so that they would heal in a raised condition. Henceforth, anyone seeing this woman even at a long distance could know her tribe by the marks which she bore cut into her body. The young girl accepted this as necessary. It was important that all people know the group to which she belonged.

We looked with increased interest upon the multitudes of people who surrounded us. All, without exception, who had reached the age of puberty, boys or girls, men or women, bore upon their bodies the marks of their tribe ... which distinguished them.

Silently, we turned and went toward the church. The thing about which I should speak as we dedicated the church was changing and forming in my mind. On one side of the tree was in operation the ceremony of cutting the marks of the tribe into the very body of a tribal member; on the other side of the tree stood the church. These people wanted to become members of the church and to have in their place of worship "the Book which has in it the mind of God."

What are the markings on this side of the tree which should always distinguish all Christians? What are the burned-in, inerasable marks of the follower of Christ?

Paul said, "I bear on my body the marks of Jesus."

... When Alexander Mack was asked the question, "And how shall your members be recognized?" his answer was clear. He said, "They shall be recognized by the manner of their living."

An aboriginal girl knelt on one side of the council tree, while the marks of her tribe were being cut in. As long as she lived the marks would remain. We knelt in the church on the other side a few minutes later and prayed that the marks of Christians, the marks of Brethren, might similarly be cut into our very lives so that they would forever remain a part of us.

Source: The Adventurous Future, chapter 15