I walked quickly to catch up with the group and, coming alongside Joshua, I matched my pace to his. The low, late afternoon sun brought a reprieve from the awful heat of the day, and we made our way down a sandy road toward a village. Joshua busily pointed out some of the work he had done to protect the road from erosion by the unpredictable rains. Here he planted some tenacious shrub, and there placed markers for an unsuspecting driver who might otherwise veer off an embankment. We passed a field on our left and he waved a hand in passing as he said, “there used to be a garden here.” It was hardly even a field – a patch of barren ground with neat rows of withered stalks. The words worked into my consciousness as we walked and I pulled my cap low over my brow to cut out the setting sun and signal my introspection. Looking down, admiring my boots and kicking up dust, I imagined myself on a tour of the newly fallen world; As if Adam himself were showing us the creation he had just yesterday ruined. “There used to be a garden here, but now.” Dry, hard, dead earth; toil, shame, and pain. It was all here in eastern Kenya, in unmistakable detail.
I stopped at a small tree, nearly leafless, but bursting with rigid two-inch thorns. Cupping a hand around a bunch, I squeezed gently until one pricked my finger. Startled by how much it hurt, I pulled away sharply and stood there sucking my wound while looking around with squinted eyes. Most of the trees in sight appeared as hostile as this one. Carrying on we came to a place where the river should have been. The deep sandy cut was filled with cattle, camels, goats, and men. Here they were arduously digging ten feet down to reach water and raise it up to their animals. Up the eroded banks of the riverbed and less than a kilometer away was the village; Houses made of grass and tree branches; Children in bare feet running around with runny noses. We greeted several “Mamas” along the way who were tending to their little plots, and offering us a simple, kind smile as we passed. But their faces reveled a deeper complexity – of the cosmic imbalance between life’s few pleasures and its overarching hardships. Any one of them could have been Eve, with faces bearing the remnants of some indistinct regret and resignation, proponents and descendants of “the Fall,” that famous rupture between God and mankind. Standing there with them I remembered how deep have been its consequences; From the curse on the land, to the toil of men… and the thorns, a fitting symbol of our rebellion – the pinprick in my own hand reminding me that I was no mere tourist here. Somehow it was easier to understand in that un-gardenlike place, away from my manufactured environment of comfort, and the illusions of control stripped away. I sat on a bucket outside of a thatch hut and lamented the loss. Perhaps for the first time ever.
Rose was inside visiting an old man who was dying. I had flown with Rose several times over the years but not recently. She was retired now. Seventy-something, a cancer survivor, back to visit one of the communities she had served over the years as a nurse. She was a minister to many parts of Kenya, but this one was especially difficult. A strongly Muslim community steeped in fear and mixed with tradition, they were (and still are) stoutly resistant to the Gospel. Rose told me, “Some sow and some reap, but some don’t even get to sow. They do the troublesome work of turning the soil.” She described her ministry here as one of “love and compassion.” And when she first arrived in 1981, the people were unyielding, “We don’t want your religion, we want your medicine.” Some twenty years later, after so many acts of kindness and thousands of vaccinations, the soil here showed some signs of being turned. “We know you love us,” the Chief told her, “you saved our children.” Those children are adults now, and many ran up to greet her as we walked along. They recalled the prick of her needle as a terrified little kid, victims of the stubborn love of a proper German nurse, unyielding in her own way, but marked with tenderness. I stood from my bucket and noticed that her heart had not changed in two decades. She emerged from the thatch hut wiping away a tear. The dying man had been clinging to her arm for more than twenty minutes, welcoming her prayers and making his petition, “I want to go home with you.”
Home for Rose today is an apartment complex in Germany where she feigns retirement. She has been there for several years turning a different kind of soil with the same persistent love and compassion – working to reach her elderly neighbors with the Hope she knows so well. The desolation of the Fall looks dissimilar there in modern Europe (and modern America.) One might even fail to notice it. Toil is manageable, suffering is dignified, and thorns are not as prominent in these blessed lands. But the lost Garden is just as far from reach. The rift between God and man is equally evident in peoples’ faces, if we dare look close enough. We are all, at times, pictures of regret and resignation – sons of Adam, and daughters of Eve. We are meant to remember that that this whole earth is caught up in a curse, and that we ourselves are dust. But out of that state we are bid to be like Rose, an anomaly in a fallen world, actively knowing and sharing a hope that is not of this world – drawn to engage the chaos but spared from the error of thinking the answer lies within us. For me a sore finger on the flight home was all the reminder I needed. In the thorns and thistles of East Africa I find perspective – about what I am, and what I am not. And they help me to understand a God who, in Africa, grows more and more mysterious to me, but also more real. Because there used to be a garden here, and now there are a million reminders of a different history; one both terrible and wonderful. And in a single thorn the whole story can be told:
He took a symbol of our rebellion, wove it into a crown, and made it a symbol of our redemption.