About half a century ago Christians from the Maasai tribes of East Africa decided that, after having expressed their faith using Western formulae for half a century already, they needed to rearticulate the gospel for themselves, to put it in their own idiom, to retell the good news as they understood it and in their own terms. Thus a number of the tribe’s Christian leaders collaborated with western missionaries to hammer out what is now known as the Maasai Creed. It is a beautiful statement of faith from start to finish, but one line in particular from the creed’s article on Jesus has been ringing in my ears for the past month or so. The article reads as follows:
We believe that God made good His promise by sending His Son, Jesus Christ, a man in the flesh, a Jew by tribe, born poor in a little village, who left His home and was always on safari doing good, curing people by the power of God, teaching about God and man, showing the meaning of religion is love. He was rejected by his people, tortured and nailed hands and feet to a cross, and died. He lay buried in the grave, but the hyenas did not touch him, and on the third day, He rose from the grave. He ascended to the skies. He is the Lord.
He “was always on safari doing good.” I never thought of it like that. At least not before hearing Jaroslav Pelikan commend this creed on NPR. But ever since hearing it, that line has stuck with me.
Here I am in my new apartment, in a new city (Raleigh), starting my new job, and entering a new stage of life. It is a new beginning. It is not an altogether new beginning, of course. I still come as someone formed by my past, both distant and recent. I come with a certain upbringing and education; a certain set of habits, both good and bad; a certain history. I come with established (and broken) relationships, longstanding aspirations, phobias, and memories. I come with baggage. The current stage is not, per impossibile, completely discontinuous with the last and all the stages preceding it. But it is, nevertheless, a new beginning, bristling with new possibilities, opportunities, realities, and challenges.
It is a new beginning in that whenever one enters a new stage of life, one is faced with a lot of choices as to how to live in this new space-time one has been given. And it is as I am making those choices that that line from the Maasai Creed keeps coming back to me again and again, like the beat of a djembe: Jesus “was always on safari doing good.”
“Are we in a forest?” I was driving four new Indian graduate students to a dinner with the International Bible Study and Bridges International in Cary, when one of the students, Altaf, asked me that question. I was caught off guard. Were we in a forest? We were in Cary, my hometown, driving down what I had only ever thought of as Cary Parkway. But were we in a forest? I had never really thought of it that way. The dense, ever-present woods that I had always taken for granted, had long become blind to, having grown up here, was strange and remarkable to them. For them it was hard to tell where the wild ended and where suburbia began. It was all thrown in together such that for them driving down Cary Parkway was much more like being on safari than like the straightforward commute that I had always (naively) taken it to be.
“I am no scientist,” writes Annie Dillard. “I explore the neighborhood.” Her Pulitzer Prize winning book Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is, if nothing else, a penetrating exploration of her neighborhood, a few square miles in the mountains of Virginia. It is stationary travel literature, a profound meditation on seeing all that is there to be seen. But seeing doesn’t come easy.
An infant who has just learned to hold his head up has a frank and forthright way of of gazing about him in bewilderment. He hasn’t the faintest clue where he is, and he aims to learn. In a couple of years, what he will have learned instead is how to fake it: he’ll have the cocksure air of a squatter who has come to feel he owns the place. Some unwonted, taught pride diverts us from our original intent, which is to explore the neighborhood, view the landscape, to discover at least where it is that we have been so startlingly set down, if we can’t learn why.
“Truly, I say to you, unless you become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Was Jesus childlike? He seemed to always be on the lookout, always aware, always aiming to learn and to explore the neighborhood. I bet He never faked it, and I bet He never would have mistaken a jungle road for Cary Parkway, no matter how many times He had driven down it. No. He was always on safari doing good.
At times I’ve been, like Dillard’s infant, lulled into a drowsy familiarity with my surroundings. My prayer for this new stage is that I might launch into this new place with eyes wide open, exploring the neighborhood, always on safari doing good. Such is the way of the Savior. I hope you’ll come with me. In nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritūs Sancti. Amen.