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Excerpts from Sojourn on the Veld

The Beyond

. . . As I groped for answers, I found problems with my assumptions about life. I had long since adopted a god-free origin of the universe and the theory of evolution for the origin of man. 

      A favorite book was the play Inherit the Wind, a fictionalization of the 1925 Scopes “Monkey” Trial. The defendant in the trial is accused of teaching evolution which was illegal in the state of Tennessee at the time. The defense attorney in the play stereotypes religion and deifies science when he argues:  

 

In a child’s power to master the multiplication table is more sanctity than in all your shouted “Amens!”, “Holy, Holies!” and “Hosannahs!”

 

     However, my belief in the supremacy of science was challenged by the very laws of science that I was studying. How could a god-free universe, created by random chance, have such orderly laws? Randomness and predictability are incompatible. One of my textbooks even asserted that the engineering law stating the universe is decaying implies that a “supreme being” arranged the universe in its original, non-decayed condition. 

     Further, the brilliant spread of stars in the night sky of the rural South fascinated me. As I hiked the Appalachian Mountains, I marveled at the misty, forested ridges stretching to the horizon. Why did nature produce this incomparable beauty?  

      And last, I was confused about man. If he arose from random mutations as evolution theorized, why was consciousness produced? Why was that necessary for survival? Why did man wonder about anything beyond eating and drinking? Why did he wonder at all? 

     This line of reasoning kept prodding me. It whispered: There must be something Beyond nature, and something Beyond science.

      . . .  

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Calling: The motivation to pursue a specific task or vocation arising from an inner sense of divine direction.

 

Ring, ring. 

      “Hello?”

      “This is Angel Gabriel. God wants you to go to Madagascar. Tomorrow.”

      “What, really? This is laundry week. Who’ll keep the dog? This is really not a good time.”

      “No excuses. Your ticket is on the refrigerator under the “I Love My Labradoodle” magnet.”

      “But, but, but . . .”

      Click.

      How do you discover your calling—that’s a key question, isn’t it? Did I receive an angelic phone call? Nah. There were no choirs or clouds, visions or voices. However, from my experience, a calling can be discerned without angelic intervention. Professor and widely-known speaker Howard Hendricks once said that it’s hard to miss the will of God, if that’s where you want to be, because God wants you there, even more than you do.

      . . . 

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Walking in His Shoes

We occasionally discarded old clothing or household items, but we did not need to look for a charity: Dorcas [our Tswana housekeeper] took all of our old belongings as if they were some sort of treasure. She even took my worn-out pair of brown men’s shoes with the right sole flapping at the toe.

      Over time, we learned that Dorcas had a son. 

    It was sometime later, on a Saturday morning, that a young Tswana man knocked on our front door. We opened the door, and the young man stepped in and immediately took a seat in one of our living room chairs. We sat down as well, smiled, and patiently waited. We had learned that this no-introduction-make-yourself-at-home behavior was a perfectly acceptable African entrance. The best thing to do was to take a seat and nod pleasantly, knowing an explanation would come with time, and then to prepare tea. The young man was dressed in a buttoned coat and a tie, which were old but obviously his best clothes. After some minutes the silence was broken.

      “I am Dorcas’s son, Joseph.”  

    “Oh!” we exclaimed in unison, and then we exchanged greetings in Setswana, and English too, since it was obvious that Dorcas’s son had a considerably better grasp of English than Dorcas. We proceeded to heat the teapot and explore conversation. He was in high school and hoped to matriculate (graduate) soon. We talked about soccer, church choirs, and other topics that were interesting to a Tswana youth of his age. 

      It was during Joseph’s explanation to Joe of which soccer team was the best that I happened to look down at his feet. I noticed that he was wearing a well-worn pair of brown men’s shoes with the right sole flapping at the toe.

      I’ve heard it said that all Americans are rich in the eyes of the world because even our poorest live better than the vast majority of the world. I’ve also heard it said that an American that makes $35,000 per year is in the top one percent of the world population in terms of wealth. But cold statistics can never humble as much as meeting a young man in his best clothes who is proudly wearing the shoes you discarded as worn out.  

   On one occasion, we went to see where Dorcas lived. It was a traditional red mud house with a thatched roof in one of the outlying villages from Montshiwa. I recorded in my journal:

 

She was excited to see us but embarrassed that she wasn’t dressed well . . . Seeing her place helped us understand a little better why she is sometimes so defensive & so prideful of our place. Makes me appreciate the way God has blessed us too.

 

   Our concrete-block government house was humble by Western standards, but a few miles away, our hardworking housekeeper lived in the third world. And even Dorcas in her thatched-roof house with a mielie plot as a front yard was better off than the destitute in the shanty-filled barrio we had visited in Mexico and the squatter camps that existed in other parts of South Africa. I mused in my journal:

 

In the states, poverty was in pockets and not so untreatable. Here poverty is the norm and is so vast that it can only be dealt with in pockets . . .

            

     When one sees such poor standards of living, and if you know the character of the people living there, one can only conclude that we Americans have scarcely a hint, only a faint conception, of how richly God has blessed our land.

      . . . 

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A Third Ministry

 

With my work colleagues—both black and white—we traveled the long flat highways of the veld together and wiped away the dust of Bophu’s back roads. Together, we tolerated the acrid fumes of diesel engines and the nauseating stench of sewage. We left work stained yellow with stencil paint. We argued into agreement about how to keep the machines running. We discussed career hopes and fears. They took me into their homes and served mielie pap and savory boerewors sausage. We laughed together. These shared experiences washed into oblivion any ethnic or racial rejection I might have felt.

      In our Bophu ministry with pastors and laymen, we worked as a team to accomplish a spiritual vision. I saw their dedication to God as they prayed fervently, sang powerfully, and taught the Bible ardently. I saw them stressed and frustrated and also excited and full of joy, just as I was. We worked side-by-side in the heat and dust to witness for Jesus Christ. Even now, I admire their faith, and I hope to emulate their love of God. 

      One of my most fundamental lessons from living and working in these cross-ethnic, cross-cultural, and cross-racial situations was about personalities. We all have the same things driving us. We all have laughs and loves, fears and faults, angst and aspirations. We all love our families, crave respect, and yearn for a better life. I learned that cultural differences can mask these commonalities. But inside, beyond culture, beyond skin color, we are all the same. 

      From these conclusions, we can extrapolate to a too-often overlooked reality: No explanation of the common traits in our personalities makes sense without a common source. We are all created by one and the same God. How can there be racial discrimination amid this supernatural and undeniable truth?

      I can’t say what would have bridged the divides created by apartheid. I only know any walls I had were demolished by up-close interactions and by overcoming hardships together. And any doubt of reciprocal affection was erased by the hospitality I so often received.

      In some of his last words, Jesus prayed to his heavenly father for those “you gave me out of the world,” that is, all Jesus followers. He prayed that the father would protect them “so that they may be one as we are one” (John 17:6,11). Jesus expects all believers to have the same closeness with each other that Jesus has with the Father. 

      With a shared love of Jesus at the center, our relationships do not need to bridge a divide; there ought to be no divide at all, only brotherhood or sisterhood. The apostle Paul wrote, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).

      I can affirm Paul’s declaration because I experienced it.

      . . . 

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Sojourn on the Veld: A Call to Ministry, Machines, and Brotherhood in South Africa's Age of Apartheid by William Boehms Norton is available online through Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Cokesbury, or InsightPress.net.

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Published by Insight Press, Inc., August 16, 2022