I wrestled my old bones out of a cozy bed on a farmer’s early morning in order to encounter a rural group of faraway disciples. They had regularly corralled themselves together on Sunday morning on a distant farm two towns away from where Martha and I had homesteaded. Once my bones had reconnected, and my mind recovered to some sense just past dreams, I was on my way to a land just beyond the rising sun. It was going to be a great day.
A warm invitation had initially and telephonically arrived at my ear a month before from a Christian game reserve and farm manager on the West Coast of South Africa. As soon as Stefan, the manager, released the words “game farm” into the telephone, there was no hesitation in my reply. How could I, as a relic of old farming days, deny such an alluring invitation to my distant past.
For a long month that surely passed beyond the allotted limit of thirty days, I eagerly awaited in anticipation to ignite the diesel cylinders of our White Rhino in order to press the throttle toward a return to a familiar culture of yesteryear. Being burdened with the urban, I was ambitious to awaken suppressed sentiments of foregone days on a farm in central Kansas.
After bypassing two towns on my exciting adventure to an exciting destination, the comfort of smoothly paved passage ways turned into the challenge of dusty dirt and sandy roads. As the dust crept through every minute crevice in the cocoon of my transport, the smell of choking dust restored my long-forgotten memories. I was at last on my way to my almost forgotten rural roots. I recalled from memory what my father over a half century ago always said: “Boys, you can take the boy off the farm, but you can never take the farm out of the farm boy.” It was going to be a great day of giving freedom to this farm boy that had laid in solitary confinement in the bondage of my present.
And how do you supposed an eagerly expectant visitor is greeted at the entrance gate into a farming kingdom? The inviting warm smile of Stefan was there as he swung his farm heart and gate wide open for my arrival. From that entrance moment that was just short of the Pearly Gates to come, myself and others enjoyed the sweet hospitality that only isolated farmers can offer. We all basked ourselves in the loving arms of the Stefan Steencamps and one another. Throughout the encounter of those of a kindred spirit, love blossomed as the daisies in a near pasture.
Novels are written of surreal rural encounters as these. I was given birth by a farmers wife who was a host and teacher for farmers in rural Kansas. My past finally caught up with me, and that past was sweet. The experiential fellowship of such farm gatherings are difficult to generate in urban centers with those, who during the gatherings, often have somewhere else on their minds to go. Before urbanites get over their weekly re-acquaintance with one another as disconnected disciples of the city, their encounter in assembly is often shut down with a “closing prayer.” Before they realize it, their “appointed hour” is over and they find themselves in making formal “good byes” in order to escape to another appointment. What sometimes becomes habitual formalities in assembly often makes the participants emotionally distant from one another. But farm house assemblies are often very different. In such reunions, one finds himself or herself forcing departure from one another, even though in a few days all the participants will encounter one another again in loving fellowship the following Sunday.
It seems that exhilarant communication springs into life when Christian farmers come together. It is as if their assembly encounter with one another only seven days before never came to an end. They simply pick up the conversation from where they left off, focusing on a common cultural connection with Christ and farming. It’s just not like urban encounters where each participant of the group has been in a different business adventure and culture throughout the week. Too few attendees have a common vocational background upon which communication can be continued indefinitely. Christ is in common, but there is no platform of life-style culture that bonds them together. Farmers speak a language that is a strange tongue to urbanites.
And then there is the matter of one’s taste buds. On this occasion, my taste buds were driven into a surreal experience around a luscious love feast. On the farm, “home grown” is light years away from “shop bought.” There is a freshness about the farm table. It overflows with the succulence that stimulates salivation long before the first bite is ushered into one’s entrance to the stomach. “Oh my!” are the only words that are fit to describe fruits and vegetables that have been freshly freed from a garden just outside a farm house. Their new residence was on top of my taste buds, and then into a stomach that could be revived only by lounging for some time on a sofa. In definition of rural culture, the love feast reaches a zenith of expression by the participants, who conclude, “Where have we been all our lives?” The table of a farm assembly declares throughout the meal experience that we have all finally come home.
Because I had another encounter that day “in the city” at 5:00, I slipped up for a moment by regressing back into my city culture. Since I wear no watch, I had to ask someone, “What time is it?” I had to instantly become apologetic for having to depart from such a spiritual gathering when someone said, “It’s about 5:00.” That information set in motion my hasty departure, wondering at the time, how much better can a Sunday get. It was a great day.
So I tore myself away from the arms of love, and was back in the White Rhino. As I throttled speedily down that country road, I was again reminded that dust smells good. So I darted through the first small village, and then made my way on to the next. As I meandered through town two, I made a wrong turn, corrected, and then was back on the main way through congestion. As I passed through the squatter camp on the south side of town, I hunkered down behind the controls of the vehicle. When in such areas one’s mind often envisions a thrown rock or something worse.
As I began to breathe some relief on the way out of town, I passed through a taxi (bus) depot. In the midst of a Sunday evening crowd of hopefuls who were on their way back home as I, taxis and buses surrounded the intersection. A hoard of humanity populated the area as passengers waited patiently for some bus to carry them home from the city, many going to places from which I had just come … the farm. I came to a stop at the intersection in the midst of the masses. I glanced both ways, and then anxiously pressed on. Out of the corner of my eye, and in the midst of bodies between two buses, I thought I saw Felix.
Brother Felix is a Malawian immigrant who lives in my home village. He has worked my garden every two weeks for over a year. He is married, with a wife and two children back in Rumphi, Malawi. I think I may have taught seminars at the Rumphi Mission in Malawi during the 90s long before he was born.
I said to myself, “Surely not. How could my eye in a glance pick Felix out of a mass of humanity, and then disappear behind a bus as I traveled on?” So I carried on for about a city block. But then I pulled over to the side of the road. I just sat there thinking that I had only experienced seeing someone who only looked like Felix. I made every argument to myself not to go back to that mass of humanity and vehicles. After all, I almost convincingly rationalized, I had the 5:00 meeting that I was rushing on to attend.
So while I sat there and pondered the possibility that I had only experienced some vision of Felix, I glanced in my rear view mirror. And in a distance I could see this man running furiously toward me with bags in both hands—maybe bags of rocks. As he neared the door of the White Rhino, he swung the door open with a smile that went from one ear to another. It was indeed brother Felix who was returning home after a Sunday assembly in that town.
Both of us just sat there, being overwhelmed with the surrealism of the encounter. We just absorbed the moment. He had been waiting for a bus for over three hours. We just could not get over such a chance encounter of two brothers discovering one another in the midst of a mass of people in another town. He said that out of the corner of his eye he also saw the White Rhino—which he had washed many times at the house—before I passed beyond the buses. It seems that visionary moments as these are locked in one’s memory forever. He said he peered around the buses and saw my tail lights come on, and that I had pulled over. So he said, “I picked up my bags and started running as fast as I could.” A great day had now turned in a magnificent day!
We were exhilarated by the “chance” encounter we had with one another in another town. We could not get over the ordeal, as we now traveled on to our home village where both of us lived. I told Felix that I was going home to pick up Martha, and then go on to the 5:00 meeting in the city.
After about fifteen minutes down the road, Felix started to vigorously look through his bags and check his pockets. Both of our hearts just sank deep into despair when he announced, “I can’t find my cellphone!” We drove on. All the communication numbers of those with whom he worked, as well as his wife and two children in Malawi, were on that phone. He transferred his money to his wife and children to Malawi through an account that was linked to that phone. I thought to myself, “What a terrible ordeal to end such a surreal day. Satan has done his best to dash the joy of both of us.” Satan made a good day turn bad.
I became desperate in despair as I empathized so much with him. But I could not overcome the shocking disappointment that he was experiencing. I thought that I could just buy him a new phone, as someone had bought for him the phone that was now lost. That might soothe his pain. But this would not replace all the information on the phone.
I could not bear the disappointment any longer. Empathy conquered hopelessness. So I just stopped in the middle of traffic on a busy main road, and turned back. With all hope against hope, we would return to the scene where Satan had ruined both of our good days. Felix explained that he had put the phone in his shirt pocket. We both concluded that it must have bounced out of his pocket when he ran so vigorously for me at the bus stop.
We eventually arrived at the scene of discouragement. I stopped about a city block before the bus stop and let Felix out to start a futile search by walking back to where he commenced his vigorous jog to catch me. We both knew that this was a hopeless effort because there were people milling around everywhere. Someone had surely looked down, saw the phone, and then went away with a newly acquired gift. Nevertheless, we were both trying to do everything possible to relieve ourselves of despondency.
I then drove up to the intersection of the bus stop. I casually glanced across the road and saw on the ground a faint sparkle gleaming from under the dust of the walkway along the road. “That can’t be,” I thought to myself. With a hopeful thrill, I knew I had to check the source of the sparkle. I crammed on the brakes in the middle of the intersection with people and cars dodging around me. I threw open the door of the White Rhino, jumped out in the traffic and ran to the sparkle. I ran as if in a 100-meter scramble to beat others who likewise may have noticed the sparkle.
And looking down, I saw through the dust that had been thrown over the object that was emitting the sparkle. It was Felix’s cellphone almost completely covered in dust. In all my exhilaration I just could not believe what I had just discovered. Only that sparkle off the corner of the phone was exposed, and subsequently had caught my eye from the far side of the road as the evening sun notified me that all would be well.
You can only imagine the exuberance of both Felix and myself as we carried on. We just went on and on with joy over the experience. It was simply a surreal discovery, so surreal that one’s faith moves him to conclude that more was at work than fate. Who would ever have believed that a cellphone that was lost in the middle of the masses at a bus stop would ever be found. I said to Felix, “Satan tried to spoil our day, but God had our backs. It’s going to be a fabulous day!”
(I missed that 5:00. But I was so high on thanksgiving, that I never thought about it again. Sometimes in our lives, something happens that just cannot be explained by either fate or coincidence. If you have read this editorial, we both know who to thank.)