Saturday, 26 October 2013


It’s been awhile. So you’ll forgive me if I’m a bit rusty. But no, you don’t need to forgive me a typo. What I meant to write was milacle, not miracle. Somehow, that´s what more than a few Beninese make of the word, even if they speak quite reasonable French. Dieu a fait ses milacles, God has wrought his miracles.
Last Saturday night, for instance. Excitement all over. There was a miracle in Dogbo last night! A burning tree in the schoolyard, which wasn´t consumed! In the telling, the miracle grew. The fire was like that of a Roman candle, but it wasn´t hot! One could put one´s hand right into the flames and not be harmed! It started spontaneously, and no-one was able to put it out! Look at this photo which I made with my portable: do you see what I see?
Well, putting aside all scepticism for a moment, and rorschaching furiously: there seems to be what could be a human figure just above and to the right of centre. And is that a crown he’s wearing? A second milacle: the figure wasn’t to be seen in the light of the burning tree, but everyone I showed the photo to sees the same figure!
No, this is not me talking; this is the witness to the miracle of Dogbo. Convinced beyond doubt, reasonable or otherwise. It’s Jesus, King of kings, come to remind Dogbo that he is really there, and that he isn’t going to take backseat to a charlatan.
And for that, we have to go back a few days. Since the Thursday before, Dogbo has been in the spell of a ressuscitée. As it happens, she has taken up residence in the house across the street from ours. We didn’t notice her arrival, since we were in Cotonou, arranging for the removal of our goods at the end of November. (Yes, it’s true: just a month from today, our time here will be up, and we’ll be returning home!) But when we got here on Friday, her vehicle was parked behind the gate, and there comings and goings, which continued all hours of the day and night. The vehicle was unusually luxurious for Benin: a gold-coloured Rav 4, with custom wheels and in mint condition. The ressuscitée herself was like her vehicle: in good shape, elegantly coiffured, robed in the best Vlisco Holland Wax, and garlanded with expensive rings and colliers and bangles. She can’t have been more than in her late twenties, but the way her entourage genuflected, you’d think she was three times that. Imperiously she received the flow of visitors at the gate, allowed someone behind her to take the offerings in hand, and led the way into the house, from which loud song and prayers then issued. Whatever it was the people came for, she apparently had the gift of making them feel they had received it; I saw no disappointment on the faces of any of the supplicants as they left.
Who is she? Said Francois, our guardian for the night: she died, and after six days came back from heaven with messages from God. And now she’s touring around West Africa organising meetings for the faithful. He was a bit ambivalent about the truth of these things, it seemed. Yes, she had really died. Everybody said so. But no, he didn’t really think she had divine messages for mankind. One thing was sure: her mission to the world was making her prosper. From Thursday to Saturday night, twice a day, she packed them in under the huge tents at the arrondissement: up to a thousand people at a time, all more than willing to offer generously when time came for the collection. No doubts about how she managed to afford the shining Rav 4, between the proceeds of the meetings and the steady flow of visitors who came to be prayed for in the house across the street.
Not everyone was as credulous. Joseph said: prayer is supposed to be free. Mariette argued with one of the pasteurs in the ressuscitée’s train: have you ever been near someone who has been dead for more than a couple of days, here in Africa’s tropical heat? If she was really dead, the smell would have driven everyone mad. And in the end, Francois dismissed the claims as well. But something had been loosed in Dogbo. For or against this charlatan: everyone was talking, everyone was alert for signs of the supernatural.
And then, Saturday night, the milacle. Like Moses and the burning bush. Fire and smoke and a tree which stood untouched. Or so the story went, for a while. In the end, the fire died down. And the tree with it. We drive by the schoolyard and there it lies on the ground. Well and truly consumed.
What was the case? This tree had been worrying the principal at the school for some time now. Hollow, it had started rotting as it stood, and branches were in danger of breaking off, to the peril of children playing in the schoolyard. Said he to the caretaker: at the close of school on Friday, set fire to the tree, so that we can get rid of it. Which the caretaker did. But this is the rainy season in Dogbo. The fire had gone out. However, by some fluke, some coals had apparently continued to smoulder in the hollow interior. And early Saturday evening some children had discovered that. They had started playing, as children will do. Poking into the coals with straws and sticks and palm fronds, blowing the embers into flame. The hollow in the tree had acted as a natural chimney, drawing the flames upwards and out through the openings at the top. A spectacular sight, of course, and the hotter the fire inside became, the harder the draft carried the sparks upwards. But on the outside, the trunk remained barely warm to the touch. And so it was: the milacle of Dogbo, fuelled by the hysteria caused by our lady across the street.
Sunday morning I preached on eternal life, based on John 3.12-21. No-one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven - the Son of man. He alone has messages from God. He alone is our Ressuscité, with words about eternity worth believing. And everyone who believes in Him may have eternal life. Call that a milacle. Beats a Rav 4 any day.