hen David tells me that he took his two master’s degrees — one in theology and one in organizational leadership and management — and went straight back to the desert, I could have sworn that the camel sitting next to him smirked.
I ignore the camel.
And ask David why he did it.
He only gives me a one word answer, an answer that isn’t popular but is anointed.
“Obedience.” He flashes a grin likes he’s oil drenched and ignited.
He lets me just sit with that, eyes locked with mine and all my neat North American ways. What do I know of obedience that requires forsaking? What do I know of leaving comfortableness for the wilderness?
The real leaders lead the way away from the 99 ways to scale a ladder — and lead into the forgotten backside of the desert to find the one whom God has not, will not, and cannot ever forget.
David’s eyes don’t leave mine. I nod slow.
Friendship with the forgotten is actual leadership.
“The Lord called me back to my own people,” David looks across the desert to his nomadic Rendille tribespeople, their twig huts gathered in circles across the Kenyan sands.
“You can’t reach nomads in a modern setting,” David’s English is nearly perfectly annunciated. “You have to go to them, be with them, stay with them.”
Sweat beads across David’s forehead, the merciless Kenyan sun feeling hot enough to fry an egg still hiding out in its shell. I reach for the bottle of water in my backpack and swig down all the relief, the truth of it: You have to go to the hurting, be with the breaking, stay with the broken, if you’re ever ever going to be part of His Kingdom come.
His Kingdom doesn’t come where there’s no leaving comfortable couches to go across the street, the world, the desert.
Unless someone goes to them, chooses to be with them, stays with them, they won’t know God is with them.
“I’m a nomad serving nomads.” There’s something in David’s voice that rings loud in me and I feel found: I’m the busted serving the broken free.
When David was six, he stood in the flap doorway of his nomadic family’s stick and watched his mother whip stones at the first white man they had ever seen, Wycliffe Bible translator, Nick Swanepoel. It was the early 1980’s.
“She yelled at him, tried to call him off, drive him away. Chase him away.”
Sticks and stones may break your bones but words can bust open your hemorrhaging heart.
But the Wycliffe Bible translator knew: When you’re most wounded by words, run to the only Word that brings healing.
David points toward the church and the hand-built A-frame rising up from the desert floor, the home where Nick, his wife, and four children, ended up living for the next 30 years in the shifting sands.
“Before Nick had to leave the desert because of failing health, he saw my very own mother come to the Lord, and he baptized her, and she kept growing in the Lord and when my mother died, Nick was there,” David’s eyes glisten.
“He said she went home.” His mother went Home — because one faithful man didn’t stay at home.
“I’m proud to call myself Nick Swanepoel’s son,” David straightens his full 6 foot 2 stature.
When Nick Swanepoel’s health began to fail more than 10 years ago, David brought those two masters degrees back to the desert, became Pastor of the Rendille people, pressed on with the Bible translation with a team, became headmaster of the various nomadic schools throughout the region, and the growing faith community of believers gathering in a building they named, “Waakh Disse” — ‘God Built It’ church.
“David,” I lean forward, “what would you say to people who think Bible translation, missionary work — is colonialism?” There. I sit back. The question’s out there. David picks it up with urgency.
“There are good parts of my culture but there is also very detrimental. Like in Mzungu — white culture — there is both good and bad. And we don’t need to do lose any of the good of our culture when we gain Christ. The good of our Rendille — is the older you become, the more we show respect. And we’re very hospitable — we always really want to share more though we have little.” David turns, looks toward one of the village school rising from dunes.
“Listen. There is a girl at our school going into grade 5.” Then David lets it drop:
“And her daughter is going into grade one.”
Who — has framework — for the frame of a child — birthing a child?
“She was married when she was less than 10 years old to — to a man of 60 years,” David’s eyes tell this story. I try not to wince, just simply receive.
“But we had to stand as a church and, as the Pastor, as the headmaster at the school, as believers — and say this will not happen.” David watches Rendille families pass by us, on their way to wells, to homes. Everyone waves, reaches out to slap his hand. He reaches out for hands, reaches to touch cheeks, rub little one’s heads, always reaching.
“It’s because of the Gospel that we faced the wrong in our culture, gave back the dowry of animals that were exchanged for the child marriage, involved the government, two chiefs, both who attend our church, spoke to the families.” David turns back to me. “Because how is it right, in any culture, to have a 60-year- old-man marrying a Sunday School girl of less than 10-years-old?”
“So we’ve brought this young girl, grade 5 — and her own child, who will be entering grade 1 at our school — brought them both back to her parents, back to school, back to an education. I always say it in Rendille, and I say it at the top of my lungs: Helping a boy is helping an individual. Help a girl — and you help the whole community.” David nods again in the direction of his school with this mission— his vision — blazoned on the wall: Excellent Biblical education. Producing leaders. To build self-sufficient communities where Christ is preeminent in every aspect of life.
Any desert can flourish if Christ is not deserted. Any girl can flourish where her dreams can unfurl.
“We give girls every chance,” David smiles like a man who has slayed giants, led flocks to quieter waters, like a man after God’s own heart. “No matter, early marriages, pregnancies — and we are using our school as a haven to provide girls equal opportunity. But when I was small boy? Rare for any girl in a class.” David holds up both index fingers.
“Now? One to one.” David is smiling a whole world of change wide.
“Now boys walk to our wells for water — not just girls. And I am in the kitchen fixing breakfast for my family every morning. I wash dishes with my wife.”
I can’t help but ask, “But —- is that common?” David doesn’t miss a beat:
“It’s not common — but it’s not sin.” I drop my head, smiling. No, it’s never sin to do what’s not common. It’s not common to go lower instead of higher, to serve instead of self-serve — but it’s Christ-like.
Leadership is always servantship.
“If I can’t be a servant to my wife and my kids everyday — what am I preaching in the church? I don’t encourage people to just come to church to be changed — they need to be touched and changed in their own homes.” The nomadic man’s uncommonly rooted:
Sundays does not a believer make.
What Pastor David says next, it reframes the urgency of Biblical literacy:
There is no cultural transformation — until you realize that “the Bible is the foundation…” His voice is earnest.
“How can we give a Christian education, if we don’t have a Bible available? How can we only give physical water — and not give the spiritual water of Scripture? How can we go forward if no one supports Bible translation?”
Who can trivialize the actual Word of God because it actually empowers the dehumanized?
Pastor David itemizes the transformation on his hands, the work of Bible translators who brought robust holistic community development, that equipped the Rendille community to fully own, direct, execute and grow:
“Adult literacy programs for the entire community — initially offered primarily to women and has grown to serve men…” How could I forget hearing Ndubaayo fluently reading from the Word she slept with under her pillow?
“A first-rate elementary and secondary education for generations of nomadic children… “ David reams off the hope, like he’s unfurling decades of undeniable evidence.
“Wells and water boreholes for every community household and all livestock herds…” Next finger.
“Indigenous leaders who rose through our literacy program to lead 6 mobile churches to reach the nomadic herdsmen — SIX!” He flashes 6 fingers so I don’t miss the chance to visualize half a dozen mobile churches gathering across the desert sands.
“And an emergency response system to meet medical, community and natural crisis….”
Now Pastor David leans forward so I can’t miss the paradigm shift catalyzed by the Gospel:
“And no more unchallenged child marriages.” He punctuates the air with his finger.
“No more unchallenged female circumcisions. Now? Give every child equal rights. Now? Give a girl equal rights with boys.”
David points to toward the herd of camels clustered around the wells.
“I was just in the village with my people telling them not to water the livestock first, but water first to our families, because there’s not enough, and they understand, they agree. I am their son telling them this. And I know the value of animals, and I know what it means to grow up in a village without water.” Pastor David reaches for his Bible, holds it up in the blazing heat, igniting:
“Before the Rendille heard the Gospel, camels were more valued than children. Camels drank the limited well water —- before women and children.”
“Now the priority goes to children.”
I feel the heat: The power of the Gospel is actual good news to those who have no power.
Because of the Good News, the dehumanized are recognized, legitimized, prized and rehumanized.
It’s the Word that writes hope all across the lives of the marginalized.
“Look at Rendille houses,” David looks straight into sun, straight toward this ring of bent twig-frame huts, the manyatta — the circular village of 70-100 huts. Hides of camels and cows are woven through each frame, along with tarp and cardboard, a cow hide or a piece of salvaged tin swinging for doors. Each house can be readily disassembled and tied to the hump of a camel when the Rendille move on across the desert.
“In every Rendille house, there is a king post,” David points.
A king post?
“A king post — is the post that holds up the whole house, all the other bent sticks and posts.” David turns to me, gripping the Word of God in his hand.
“The Word of the King — is our king post.”
And it’s like the spin of all the things slows — and I’m jarred awake — and there is the linchpin of everything:
Unless the Word of the King is a life’s king post — that life will eventually not stand.
If a life is built on hustling work instead of the Holy Word,
built on social media instead of Scripture meditation,
built on the pursuit of comfort instead of prayer and the comfort of the Holy Spirit,
there is no king post —
and eventually nothing of any eternal good will be left standing.
The Word of the King of Kings and Lord of Lords is meant to be the supporting King Post that holds up an entire life — and not meant to merely be a supporting role holding a bit part in your life.
Wherever the primacy and the priority of the King Post collapses — the life shall soon follow.
I notice it on David’s wrist, his hand gripping his worn King Post — a bracelet on the desert man, engraved with two words: “Live Grateful.” I don’t know if I can find words?
“What does it mean — to live grateful — here, in the desert — held up by your King Post?”
David searches my eyes — brims. Us both, these streams in the desert.
“It means — with less resources, with less of everything — it’s good to be grateful for the life that the Lord has given.”
The King Post holds.
Less is more
Give up the lesser to gain the Greater.
Give up and go to the desert — and taste the grace of the King’s rivers through wildernesses.
Let go of what won’t stand — and all you don’t understand — and let the King Post hold.
David grins, like the pastor who swallowed a camel: “Actually — I have a matching T-shirt. Actually — two. Both my wife and I: Live grateful.”
And I laugh this kind of happiest awe with the nomad who helps the wandering find their way Home again — and everything else can collapse and fail and fall, but the King Post holds — and we are held, and what could we ever want to hold on to more than the King Himself? I try to memorize David just like this, living grateful, hands, life, holding His King just like this.
And I don’t brush it away from wet cheeks, but let it come, feel it, all this gratefulness for streams in the desert.
Read Part 1 of this ongoing Lent series & Meet Nbubaayo: Want a Lent of More? How to have a Lent of Abundantly More God (Part 1)
This Lent: Be a Bible Translator Partner with the Seed Company, to bring the Old Testament to the Rendille People
Speak Words of Life Over Your Home
Apply practical steps to bring God’s presence, God’s Word into your home. Reflect through guided questions, and involve your people in creative ways.
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