“Our Father, who art in heaven….”
Ba kelen, fa kelen”
Fill in the blank: I first began to understand, or accept, that I was an adult when….”
Let me tell you about when Sibiri first knew and embraced his adulthood. Sibiri is a common male name in much of Burkina Faso. Up to the age of twelve, the most stressful things in his life had been going to school in French, and spending the rainy seasons with his siblings and cousins out in the fields, protecting the crops from birds, monkeys and other varmints.
But one morning, to Sibiri’s surprise, an uncle and two other adult male relatives came and took Sibiri forcibly and led him to the center of town, under the big baobab tree, where about a dozen other young men of about 12 to 14 years of age from his village were gathered. Then they were marched a long way down the road and off on a side trail to a secret place deep within a grove of mango trees, where stands a cluster of mud huts with thatched roofs. There they would spend the better part of the next week having their courage, their stamina and their self-control tested and formed by things like fasting and spending a night alone in the woods. They would also hear lessons from their elders about the virtues and responsibilities expected of them as adults in their village, plus teachings about other traditions and secrets unique to their tribe and village. They may also undergo some physical trials, like circumcision, maybe even the carving of scars on their faces that will tell the rest of the world which tribe they belong to.
Something similar, at the same age, happens there for young women. For both genders, this experience is called, “initiation.” After the week of initiation is up, those who left their village and family as boys or girls return as men and women, to start taking on the adult tasks, roles and responsibilities in their family, their village and their tribe that were not expected of them before their initiation. That first day back from that week of initiation was when Sibiri first knew and embraced the fact that he was an adult, at the ripe old age of 13.
Sibiri and the others who went together out to that grove in the bush also have responsibilities and expectations to each other, for they are “age-mates.” Even if they are not related by family, they will call each other, in the Jula language, “balimaw,” or “people of the same mother.” As age mates they may do their farm labor together. If Sibiri should later take a job in the city and one of his age-mates wants to come look for a job there, Sibiri will host him and feed him until he succeeds. Sibiri could ask the same of any other age mates who went through initiation with him. Through the rest of their adult lives they will bear each other’s burdens and share each other’s joys. They’ll be at each other’s weddings, bereavements, the births of children, family funerals and more. A phrase they will use of each other is “ba kelen, fa kelen,” or “same mother, same father,” whether they are related, or not. For the initiation experience they came through together is like a second birth, but into adulthood, and into a new and bigger family: their age mates and their tribe. Their initiation teaches two basic lessons vital to responsible adulthood: who we are and whose we are. Get those down, and we’ll better understand how to live accordingly.
In many big cities of Africa, this practice of initiation is going by the wayside. And many Muslim and Christian families have mixed feelings about the secret initiation rites Sibiri would have undergone. In addition to wisdom well-tested through the ages, some of what he learned may also have to do with sorcery, spirits and spells. Still, our friends in Burkina Faso would say that both youth and the community need some way for people to learn, to practice and to take on adult responsibilities and restraints, as well as rights, probably as soon as their bodies move toward adulthood, like the beginnings of puberty. The community also needs to know, When can we start expecting adult and mature participation from them?
Now, what do we have in this culture to mark such a transition from childhood to the rights and responsibilities of adulthood? High School graduation, perhaps? I think our friends in Burkina Faso would also say that if your community and your family do nothing serious, positive or intentional to guide and to mark our movement into adulthood, some kind of initiation will still happen. But the people and things you least want to have initiate your children into adulthood will be glad to do it for you, and in ways that will hurt them and the community, more than help. Like Madison Avenue marketeers and advertising. Like Hollywood, the media and the music world. Like pornography, or your friendly neighborhood drug dealers, big corporate tobacco and alcohol. Like military recruiters, or the rabid political partisans and culture warriors of the far left and the far right. Or white nationalists and racial supremacists. The bullies on social media or talk radio. And more. They’ll eagerly offer identity, community, guidance and a worldview if the family and church won’t.
So, let’s not look down our noses and call Sibiri’s initiation experience and his age group as “primitive,” “barbaric” nor “tribalistic.” Did we not just go through something of a tribalistic ritual complete with barbaric threats, magical incantations, painful trials and secret code messages, called an “election?” Are not our supposedly “advanced” Western civilizations devolving into hyper-tribalism with our tribal identities strengthened and provoked into conflict by social media, marketing and political parties? Our tribes are just bigger; they have more money and deadlier weapons. At least Sibiri’s tribal rites aim to make him more adult, more responsible, courageous and conscientious. Our tribalistic rites tend to make us more childish, dependent and fearful. We in America increasingly have what some psychologists and sociologists call “an extended adolescence,” from around age 13 to 30 and beyond.
So, one way or another, we have this in common with Sibiri and our friends and family in much of West Africa: some sort of initiation into adulthood. Will we let the markets and the media do it by default, or will we do so intentionally, to help Christ to be formed in us, or not? Remember how, in 2015, our Vacation Bible School raised money for three years’ worth of week-long young women’s Christian life seminars in Burkina Faso? That was a specifically Christian form of youth-to-young adult initiation, without anything occult, secretive, physically dangerous or abusive. Siaka Traore, the church leader there who serves on the Deacons’ Commission of the Mennonite World Conference, also makes apprentices of high school and college age youth in his business of selling paper goods and school supplies around the country, to teach them leadership, initiative and responsibility. The first, last and most important business lesson he teaches these young and emerging adult leaders and entrepreneurs is integrity.
Our brothers and sisters in the churches of Burkina Faso, would say that we do indeed share with them an initiation rite into the global village, family and tribe of Jesus: baptism. Everything we teach in preparation for baptism is to guide us toward responsible Christian maturity. Baptism marks the moment when we promise mature Christian relations with each other, and can expect it of each other. With our Burkinabe friends we remember and renew the lessons and the meaning of that baptismal initiation regularly through communion, the Lord’s Supper. Because of those initiation rites that we share, the Christians in Burkina Faso would look at us and call us “balimaw,” or “our mother’s people,” our mother being the church. We and they, then, can expect the same sense of solidarity and identification with each other that they did as initiation age mates.
By the way, this coming year, Zion’s Pastoral Leadership Team wants to help us all focus more intentionally on the meaning and practice of church membership and baptism, and not just for children and youth.
Every time that we and they say the Lord’s prayer, we are confessing that, together, with brothers and sisters of Christ around the world, we are “ba kelen, fa kelen,” with them. That’s why our age mates in Burkina Faso have invited fellow Mennonites from around the world to come celebrate their forty years of existence and growth. Growth in numbers of members, churches and Bible translations into their different tribal languages, yes. But also growth in their own leadership, in their power and gifting for ministry, and growth in their impact on their part of the world. In the short time of 40 years, they have gone from being a mission work of French and North American Mennonite churches to a missionary church themselves, and a member of equal standing with other age-mates in the Mennonite World Conference.
That most important less of adulthood—who we are and whose we are–is all there in the opening words of Jesus’ signature prayer. It starts with “Our Father.” So, who are we? Children of Jesus’ Heavenly Father, whom he called “Abba,” Aramaic for “Daddy.” We are “Abba’s” children with Jesus. And we are “Abba’s” children with our baptismal initiation age-mates anywhere else in the world, for that matter.
Confessing the same “Father,” as, Our Father, all across the world, means a great deal to Christians in Burkina Faso, because many of them have lost family ties, their tribal connections, and their initiation age mates because of their faith and their baptism. Some Muslim and traditionalist families have disowned their family members who became Christian. It’s amazing how their non-Christian relatives understand baptism with the same seriousness that I hope we do. They sometimes say to their Christians friends and family members, “Believe whatever you like about Jesus, I don’t care and I don’t need to know, just keep it to yourself; but if you should publicly identify with Jesus and the church through baptism, you’re no longer any child of ours, or you’re no child of this village, or even, you’re no longer a member of our tribe, or you’re no age mate of mine anymore.”
Sometimes, though, their families take them back, after they see the positive change that Christ makes in their lives. Remember the pastor, Samuel, for whom our VBS got a motorcycle this year? He grew up in a Muslim home which rejected him at first, for his Christian faith. But a few years later, seeing his son’s character and conduct, his father told other family members, “I’m not disowning my son anymore, nor am I going to try to force him back into the mosque. He’s now a better Muslim than when he was a Muslim.”
Don and Kelly and I will visit one church in the bush where the new Christians faced persecution because they wouldn’t offer the sacrifices of chickens to the spirits of the land before planting began. Don’t call that primitive either, by the way. In the Western World, we think that the sacrifice of thousands of young men and women in industrial-scale warfare guarantees our prosperity and security. So, the village chief did everything he could to impede them from plowing and planting their fields. But after some friendly, respectful visits and negotiations with the help of some church leaders from around the country, the Christians were allowed to plant their crops in peace. As good harvests came in, other people began to tolerate them, and then to respect them, a few, even to join them.
If that story sounds vaguely familiar, you may remember it from the prayer section in our bulletins a few years ago. Word about their plight went out through Mennonite publications and the Mennonite World Conference. Fellow Mennonites all over the world prayed for them. When people of their own tribe and village were rejecting and resisting them, we did what their age mates were supposed to do: we supported them in prayer and advocacy.
What a contrast that is to the intensifying fear, hostility and tribalism we see all here and around the world. Tribalistic conflicts have now driven 65 million people from their homes as refugees, and resurgent tribalism is keeping or driving them out of countries and places of refuge and asylum.
There is, by contrast, one tribe, one family, one nation in this world whose borders are open to people of every tribe, tongue and nation, whose very vision is to be a people, a tribe and a nation among whom all peoples, tribes and nations can live in peace and equal dignity. Whatever their customs, their clothing, or their cultures, people enter into adulthood in this tribe through the same initiation: baptism. That baptism marks them before all the powers of heaven and earth as members of this inter-tribal tribe, just as surely as do the distinctive tribal scars on Sibiri’s face. On any given Sunday, and at many other times, people of this inter-tribal tribe identify themselves and declare their identity and their common loyalty to their God and to each other by praying the same prayer as did Jesus, and with Jesus, beginning with two words: “Our Father…”
And they show up for each other.
While Becky and I lived in Burkina Faso some years back, we heard a story about how not to be a good age mate in your tribe and community. It was about a very wealthy man who always and only sent money to others whenever there was a birth, a wedding, a funeral or some other major life event. Giving money is a good thing in such times, or anything else, like food. But you’d better have a good excuse if you can’t show up yourself, personally, to greet and to give something. Expect as well to be given something. At the very least, tea or water to drink, more likely food. Certainly, thanks and blessings. But you have to show up personally to receive those. The man in our host’s story only sent gifts of money, with other people. When he died, his body lay unattended in his courtyard, and people only threw money over the wall, because he had all his life violated the first rule of being age mates, of being “same mother, same father,” in his community: if you care, you’ll be there.
That’s what you’re sending Don and Kelly and me to do and to be in Burkina Faso this week: to show up at their invitation in this their time of celebration, and thus show that all of us are same father, same mother with Jesus and everyone who prays, in whatever language, “Our Father….”