We just buried a good friend. Caunia had been sick off and on for the last couple years, but his death still came as a shock. Rachel and I were on our way to Pemba when we heard the news that he had passed, so we turned around and headed back home. Then the following day, a bunch of us crammed in the truck and bumped down the wet road to the village of Nkunama.
Death is personal.
Death is messy.
Participating in funerals in this part of the world is not antiseptic and clean. There are no funeral homes or morticians to prep the body. So, about twelve men (church members, family, and friends and I) crammed into a small room of the grass-thatched mud hut and washed and wrapped the body for burial. Let me tell you, nothing can confront illusions of strength and self-sufficiency than helping dress the deceased. At one point, I had to grab hold of Caunia's hand, once so warm with life and friendship and now limp and lifeless, to pull his arm through the shirt sleeve.
I'm not sharing this to be gross or creepy, I just think it is important to remember that at some point all of us will lose our power to do even simple things we take for granted - like dress ourselves.
At some point you and I will lose our lives.
Anyways, before we prepped the body, a larger group of us filled the house to sing and pray. It was emotional. We had lost a friend, a father, a husband. One of the songs we sang is a newer one to me. I've only heard it a few times and had actually videoed of a number of these same church members singing it the previous week. I'll put that clip here:
It is a simple song. It repeats this phrase:
"Yesu phi nttontto; onirwa wa Wirimu."
"Jesus is the crutch, going with us to Heaven."
I don't know how to explain it, but it felt both shockingly vulnerable and incredibly hopeful to sing this song at that moment. Confronted with death (with death literally in the room) the gathering of believers in Caunia's house proudly sang, "Jesus is our crutch."
Jesus is our crutch.
Jesse Ventura, former professional wrestler and governor of Minnesota, once said, "Organized religion is a sham and a crutch for weak-minded people who need strength in numbers."
I don't consider Jesse Ventura much of a prophet or a philosopher. My guess is that his gift is simply naming what many in the West believe but are too polite to actually say: 'Religion is nothing but a crutch.'
In American culture, calling something a crutch demeans it. So, to my ears, it is a surprising reversal to hear this oft-despised title being claimed proudly by a collection of Jesus-followers. It was beautiful to hear the church unashamedly say, "Yep, Jesus is my crutch."
"Yesu phi nttontto; onirwa wa Wirimu."
In Makua-Metto, the most common usage of 'nttontto' refers to a crutch/walking stick. A popular blessing is 'may you grow old enough to walk with an nttontto.' But, this word has a second meaning. Nttontto is also the word for a scepter that a king would carry.
As Rachel and I talked about this song and the joy that our friends had in singing proudly that Jesus is our nttontto, we realized that this crutch/staff/scepter is both a sign of old age/weakness/need of support as well as a sign of authority/power.
Nttontto is actually a symbol of both weakness and strength.
The link between these two meanings of nttontto is found in the Scriptures. Paul certainly understood the connection between personal weakness and real strength. In 2 Cor. 12:10, he says, "For when I'm weak, that's when I'm strong."
But, it takes a level of humility to embrace this truth.
There's a scene from the second 'Lord of the Rings' movie, when they go to meet the King of Rohan who has been possessed by an evil spirit. They are told that to enter his presence they must be unarmed. So, the band of warriors remove their swords, daggers, bows and arrows. Then one of the guards turns to Gandalf and points to his staff. In humility, Gandalf replies, 'Oh, you wouldn't deprive an old man of his walking sticking, would you?' The soldier agrees and Gandalf leans on his staff as he crosses the threshold. As the wizard approaches the king, though, it becomes clear that this is no mere crutch, it is a 'scepter' that serves to concentrate his power. Gandalf uses that 'crutch' to heal and save the one who was possessed.
I was reading something (a book or a blog post, I can't remember) and the writer was commenting on how when she meets someone who says they have no need of God, her reply is basically, "Wow, good for you, you know, not needing religion and all. That's amazing that you've got it all together on your own. I hope that works out for you... I, on the other hand, do not have it all together... I need all the help I can get."
Confessing our weakness and owning up to the fact that "actually, yes, we will be needing that walking stick after all, thank you very much" to make the journey to God, avails us of a strength far greater than ourselves.
One day all of us will die.
Even people like Mr. Ventura, people who've had power in the physical or the political arena, all of us will one day come to the point of powerlessness.
Death is a good reminder that at some point we will all be weak, at some point all of us will need a crutch. So, yeah, Jesus is our crutch...but he's also something much more. There is power in knowing and claiming our dependence on that staff.
May we be a people who face our own weakness and proudly claim our need to lean on Jesus to help us make it home. May Jesus be our nttontto - our staff and scepter.
Grace and Peace,