Article 6 - Singing Sands
Thursday, 16 April 2009

Welcome to the Wild Sahara

The Sahara, the Arabic name for desert, is the earth's largest expanse of sand dune, stone plain and bare rock. It is both awe-inspiring and terrifying, a dry ocean whose yellow grey waves may take a hundred or thousand years to move.

I make my way to a low mound, uncovered by the outward march of the dunes. This is a site of an ancient settlement which, around nine thousand years ago, was overpowered by the desert's advance. Litter of village life lies scattered over the baked ground. If the wind continues to drift the sand, then their uncovered graves will no longer hide intimate secrets.

Heat reflects from everywhere; the air carries a musty smell. I choose the shade of a dune with the raging sun behind me and look more closely at the pieces of pottery, beads and delicately-worked arrow heads I have collected. They were crafted by men whose artistry and skill humble me.

I am camped at an oasis, a short distance from this dune valley. It is a gathering place for the proud Tuareg nomads, known as 'blue men' because of the way the dye in their turbans and robes colour their skin. In this culture it is the men who show their masculinity and respect for authority by wearing a veil. An elderly missionary, who had lived among them, thought that they were originally Canaanites displaced by Joshua's invasion. Linguist colleagues give more depth to this idea as they believe that they may have identified a separate tribe that live amongst the Tuaregs as Israelites, who were also displaced from their land.

At God's command, heaven and earth framed time, and all humanity continuously shares its common stage until the creation of the new heaven and earth. Calvary, the expression of God and man in perfect unity, divides time and these ancient people and I each belong to our own periods. I wonder if I would recognise faith and prayer as they expressed it, for I believe that, among all nations, there have always been men like Abram who found and cultivated personal faith.

On my pathway through history, I seem to have discovered key events already in place waiting for my arrival. My discovery of faith was one of these events, even though I did not know the name of God I had faith in. The discovery of prayer was another. The simple words of Jesus, 'If you ask you shall receive' seemed to invite me to cross out the word 'you' and to breath my name into the space. Words that were not meant as a guarantee to immediate success, but a goal of possibility to work towards.

Jesus also taught that not only should I remain in Him but that His words should remain in me. (John 15:7) So I grew to understand that prayer is first of all listening and overhearing the words that describe the answer already waiting for the prayer. His answers are the building blocks of the future as well as the milestones of history.

It is in the pure intonation of harmony between our prayer and His longings, that we hear the music of prayer. The point of truth at which prayer and answer meet has no discordant notes. It is the sound of intimate union between man and God and in the silence between its chords are windows into the privacy of heaven.

The sun is no longer burning overhead, but is sinking behind my tall dune. I love solitude, and do not want these moments of reflection to end, so I walk through the holy cloister of memory where my past days linger, waiting to be relived . . .

* * * * *

Memories from the Edge of the Sand

In the lands to the south of central Sahara, a dust cloud followed the wheels of our Landrover as it strained to reach the speed that would allow its tyres to fly along the corrugations of the dirt road. In a couple of days we hoped to reach our African and British team working among the villages on the southern fringe of the Sahara. The baked mud houses or brushwood huts were home to some of the one hundred and fifty ethnically different tribal groups in that region. Their lands, already awash with sand drifting on the breath of the Harmattan's blistering heat, are scarcely able to sustain life. The team of more than twenty was based in a large army truck, rebuilt and adapted at our mission base in Wales.

As we neared the Sahara, the dirt trails gave way to soft sand where the wheels, if they were not to sink, needed to travel faster than sand grains can move. Before nightfall, the black outline of the truck, standing against the sky, welcomed us. The team were preparing for a showing of the Jesus film. The generator was started, a hundred or more villagers emerged from the darkness into the flood lighting, melodious African singing began . . . The days were spent sharing in the community's family life and work. They were starting a small church to grow under African care.

I lay awake in my sleeping bag. The sand easily took the shape of my body, making a comfortable bed. Shooting stars played in the jewelled sky. In the morning there would be beetle, or even scorpion, trails around me. Once, a family of wild boars that had silently dug for roots, left their scars. Before the drifting sand of sleep had claimed me, an inner sense that I may have reached a crucial time urged me to pray a prayer of enquiry.

The days blurred into a flurry of the unpredictable. As passion for the people grew, so did the danger of making promises of help we could not hope to keep. Then, unwelcomed, our final evening arrived. We said goodbye and together sang a hymn to the night. The villagers melted into the dark, their singing voices and happy banter growing fainter . . . except for a young woman who stood silent and alone, both arms reaching out towards us. In a bundle of coloured cloth, she had a newborn baby. My medical doctor friend was in shock. “I could save the baby if I had my equipment here,” she said, “but if we do nothing it will die.” Silently we agreed that our hope lay in prayer. If a doctor could cure with treatment, God could cure without it . . . but would He? The realisation that I had reached that defining moment on my personal pathway began to grip me, as inside an emotion of human compassion and confusion exploded.

I searched among the words that streamed through my mind but none of them fitted the reality of the moment. To hide my embarrassment, I asked my friend to pray, and a number of Africans rushed to join her. Their voices soared, their faces looked up, their arms reached into the air. They danced and clapped. Finally, with cold formality, I prayed some meaningless words that satisfied the mind, but denied the heart. We handed the baby back, the mother looked down, her tear-wet eyes not meeting ours. She held her precious bundle close to her and turned away. Both she and I knew that prayer had not worked.

I woke early from a troubled sleep. The baby was dead and so was the child of the village chief. The chorus of sorrow grew as children continued to die nightly. I walked some distance from the village and lay in the sand, confused, ashamed and weeping. I could have performed my ritual prayer even if God had not existed. I had not heard His words, so my prayer had no basis in truth.

It was in this despair, rather than elation where I began to understand that the commitment to the suffering and the poor, God was asking from me, could not be discharged by a single prayer. The Father, who loves the world of people equally, hears the cries of their suffering and receives them as their prayers. So He directs the missionary to them to become part of His answer. Just as Moses' call as a missionary to his own people was in answer to the cries of their suffering, so his life and his prayer became one, and their great deliverance began.

It was as if I needed to know that God had heard the cries of the suffering of these people surviving on the edge of the desert and would allow me to be among them as part of His answer. I could share a dream to create a medical facility so that no mother would again need to suffer helplessly while watching her child die. From this time onward, with His words within me, my prayer and my life could be in one direction. As for the little babe, I felt assured he was already enjoying the love of the Father.

When I returned to camp, the very sick goat which the Africans kept tied to the back of the truck as a supply of fresh meat, was already boiling in the communal pot. It was to be a farewell meal from which I did not recover for many months. A parasite had survived the boiling water and had multiplied in my kidneys.

* * * * *

To Whom the Future Belongs

The red-tinged sky and deepening shadows among the dunes warn me that I have lived in my memories for long enough so I retrace my footprints in the direction of the Tuareg oasis. As I walk, a hazy recollection of a year-end report from the team leader comes to mind. It read something like this.

This year, among Islamic tribal peoples, we have seen:

about one thousand people find faith
four new churches established, each of about a hundred people
about six hundred people have been directed to existing churches

Could God, moved by the suffering of a nation like Africa, Tibet, Myanmar, Iran, Iraq or Afghanistan, be inviting you to become part of His answer . . . and so bring your prayer and calling into a single focus . . . the threshold of undreamed possibility?

Last Updated ( Friday, 25 May 2012 )