Friday, September 02, 2005

On Despising Birthrights

While John Thornburg was here last month, he took notice of an odd remark that he heard often. When he spoke with Cameroonian Methodists about the content and shape of a future hymnal, the response was usually, “Oh, you tell us what ought to be in it!” As if John, the educated, white American, would obviously know best.

I’ve experienced the same thing, over and over again. How many times have I heard that Cameroonians will listen to a white preacher over one of their own? How many times have I heard the expression that American missionaries are more “serious” than African preachers? My pastors desperately want me to be seen in their towns and villages; my mere presence causes a jump in church attendance. And I guarantee you it’s not because of my superior preaching skills!

Sadly, many people who work and worship in the Mission treasure and value Western ideas, notions and theology above their own. There is an unconscious assumption that all things from the West (especially America) are automatically better, more intelligent, of more intrinsic value, than things from their own soil.

This is so common that it’s heartbreaking. But it’s also a trap. It tempts the benevolent Westerner with a kind of innocent flattery. After all, the philanthropic American wants to help, wants to serve. But often our gifts end up reinforcing the idea that what we have to give is more important than what Cameroonians already possess.

Believe me, what Cameroonians have to offer is something we in the West desperately need to receive, hear, soak in. For one thing, while Thornburg was here, we were reminded that the church in Cameroon could teach the church in America a thing or two about singing and what it really means to praise God!

I have recently been preaching a sermon on the story of Jacob and Esau. Remember when Esau came in from the hunt famished? He saw Jacob cooking up a mess of beans and asked for a plate. He ended up trading away his birthright for the food, and the Scriptures note that “Esau despised his birthright.” This is the most damning charge that the Scripture writer seems to be able to bring against him – not that he was foolish enough to trade it away, but that he despised it.

And so I have been reminding the people of the Methodist church here that they also have a birthright, given to them by God alone, which they must not despise. They must not let the Two-Thirds World tell them – implicitly or explicitly – that they are worth something less than they are. They must stand up straight, with the gifts that God has given them by virtue of their birth on African soil, and be the people they were created to be.

I think this is basically what is meant by salvation – becoming the people whom God intended us to be.

All I can bring to the Cameroon church is my own God-drenched presence; I can’t despise my own birthright, either! There are things I can do to help, to empower, to encourage, but in the end, it will not be my efforts that will plant a Wesleyan church in Cameroon.

I know that only what emerges from Cameroonian blood and sweat, from the Spirit’s own stirrings in the hearts of pastors and laypersons here, can take root and grow. A spirituality rooted in a white missionary cannot last; a form of godliness fashioned after American Methodism will not work here.

The seeds are already here, within the red dirt and inside the hearts and minds of God’s beloved Cameroonians.