Wednesday, September 29, 2004

The Chameleon and the Toad

One of our French instructors is a lovely man named Maurice. Maurice comes from the English-speaking Southwest Province, in a village near Bafoussam. He has figured out that we are not only interested in learning French, but also in understanding Cameroonian society. And so he often slips in short cultural lessons and insights.

Today, he told us a few Cameroonian legends about the origin of death. One story goes like this: In the beginning, God created the world and humanity. But man was very full of pride. This bothered God, and He wanted to put man in his place, so He gave man Fatigue. This slowed down humanity for a while, but man rested and regained his strength and became prideful again.

This bothered God even more, so He gave man Sickness. The man was humbled, but he discovered medicine and recovered, and became even more prideful. This made God so mad, that He decided to check man’s pride once and for all. And that is the origin of Death.

Maurice then told us a different version of the story. According to this myth, when God created the world, He called in two of his assistants, a Chameleon and a Toad. When they had gathered before Him, God asked, “What shall I do with the man I have created? When man dies, does he stay dead? Or shall I allow him to be resurrected the next morning?”

God had already decided that the first assistant to answer Him would be the assistant whose advice He would take. The Toad opened his mouth to say that he favored allowing man to die and rise every morning, but stammered and stuttered, giving the Chameleon the chance to answer first. The Chameleon said, “When a man dies, he should stay in the grave!”

Even though God was unhappy with the answer, He stuck with His original plan. Ever since, Cameroonian children have feared and hated the chameleon, a symbol of death. On the other hand, the toad is revered as a symbol of life. Apparently, finding a toad in one’s house is a sign of fertility!

Leah and I listened to these stories with great enjoyment, while also musing about their significance for our ministry and the future of the Methodist Church here. We had already been told that much of Cameroon culture is influenced by fatalism, meaning that many people tend to believe that what happens is what is meant to happen, and there’s nothing you can do to change it. The myths of the origin of death tend to emphasize this strain of thinking.

Come to think of it, the Biblical story of the origin of death is quite similar – it’s a story with a fatalistic ending. One of the consequences of eating the fruit was … death! After Adam and Eve, every human died. That’s just the way things are.

But, of course, that’s not the end of the story.

And perhaps that’s where Christianity really begins to differ from other myths and philosophies. The Gospel holds out a different ending; it holds out the possibility that something new and wonderful can happen. What happens is not necessarily what is supposed to happen … and it doesn’t have to!

To put this in Cameroonian language, the Chameleon’s answer is not the final word in the world. Death is not the end, and death has been conquered already.

Through Jesus, God has decided to let the Toad speak. Yes, man can be resurrected from death, not only at the end of this mortal life, but every morning! Every day, the Christian rises to new life. Every morning is an opportunity for service, every possession is a gift to be shared, every relationship is a chance to encounter the Divine.

Which gives me an idea … next Easter, why not include a toad in your Easter basket alongside the eggs, bunnies, and bonnets?